Play-In: John Donne vs. T.S. Eliot

February 2, 2013
Tim Schenck

Welcome to the fourth and final Play-In match of Lent Madness 2013. In the previous Play-Ins, Gregory the Great defeated Gregory of Nyssa; Thomas Tallis beat John Merbecke; and Samuel Seabury sent George Berkeley to the showers.

Today we have the Great Poetry Slam between John Donne and T.S. Eliot with the winner heading to the official bracket to face Agnes of Rome in the First Round. The loser will, presumably, sit in solitude and write self-loathing verses of poetry.

With the conclusion of today's match-up, the 32-saint 2013 Lent Madness bracket will be complete. On Monday morning, we'll return to Celebrity Blogger Week (which is rapidly turning into Celebrity Blogger Week-and-a-Half).

Don't forget Lent Madness 2013 officially kicks off on "Ash Thursday," February 14th, with a First Round match-up between Jonathan Daniels and Macrina the Younger. If you're looking to organize Lent Madness at your parish, click here for tips on how to do so. If you'd like to know when your favorite saint is set to do battle make sure to check out the Calendar of Match-Ups. And, finally, don't forget to "like" us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See you in Lent!

donne 3John Donne

10. Was the first Anglican hipster. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge and the Lincoln Inn (where lawyers trained in Elizabethan England), and managed not to get any academic degrees. He traveled to Europe, especially Spain, and partied and wrote poetry.  He womanized, danced with ladies in courts all over Europe, lived off the wealth of patrons, and wrote poetry. He became spiritual but not religious...and wrote poetry. His poetry was ground-breaking to literature of the day with its twisted and distorted images and ideas that connected seemingly unrelated things together like a flea and sex. Without Donne, T.S. Eliot would have had no foundation to begin writing his poetry.

9. He eventually fell backwards into a real job by landing a gig as the private secretary to one of the highest officials in the queen’s court. His intelligence and charm opened doors, and he even scored a seat in Elizabeth’s last Parliament. Then he ruined it all for love. Yes, ladies, swoon-like-a-Jane-Austen-novel love. He secretly married Ann More, and her father and John’s employer totally opposed the match (I mean, Donne wasn’t exactly Mr. Elizabethan England Bachelor of the Year). Yet they married. Donne got sacked and landed in prison...along with the priest who married them (for LOVE - remember this!). He was eventually released from prison, and he and Ann had twelve children and were by all accounts happily married until her death.

8. He wrote - let’s just say it - sleazy, erotic, classy poetry that we read in English classed to this day. His poems covered topics like trying to have sex with every girl in sight to exploring his lover’s body as an explorer discovers part of America. And don’t forget The Flea, where he tries to convince his girlfriend to have sex with him. He rarely had these poems published, but allowed them to be widely circulated among his friends and patrons of his poetry. And, we assume, some of his lady friends.

7. And he wrote poems that spoke to the complexities of human nature and faith...that we read in English classes and hear in church sermons to this day. He gave English language the phrase, “No man is an island,”  Hemingway is eternally grateful for Donne’s, “For whom the bell tolls” line, and “Death be not proud,” with its in-your-face elegance, gives fullness to the lines of the Burial Rite: "And even at the grave, we make our song. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!"

6. He was a satirist, which means he was really snarky, but had huge audiences. In his satirical essays, he called out corrupt government and church practices, absurdities in certain faith beliefs (he was one of the early people to argue suicide was not a mortal sin), bad poets, and pompous courtiers. He blasted those who blindly followed established religious tradition without carefully examining one’s beliefs and questioning. He writes (translated into modern English), “You won’t be saved on the Day of Judgement by saying Harry or Martin told  you to believe this. God wants to know what YOU thought and believed.”

5. King James wanted him to become a priest so badly that he declared to all of England that Donne could not be hired except in the church. Seriously. So he was ordained in 1615 and soon became known as a great preacher in an age of great preachers, in an era of the Anglican church when preaching was a form of spiritual devotion, an intellectual exercise, and dramatic entertainment. I bet no one looked at his iPhone to check the time when Donne was throwing down the Gospel at St. Paul’s Cross.

4. He was eventually named Dean of St. Paul’s, the big time of the big time. He preached his own funeral sermon right before he died. Funeral. Preaching. Owned.

3. Just in case anyone had any ideas about how he should be remembered, he arranged a final portrait of himself not in pompous glory, but in his burial shroud.  Yes, a bit creepy, but he walked the walk and saw the beauty in death. Because guess what? Donne believed with every bit of his soul that the Resurrection wasn’t just a story, but it was Truth. His statue survived the 1666 fire at St. Paul’s and still watches over the place. Just in case any subsequent Deans think they are all that.

2. He wrote this:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’s thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

1. And this

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this fela our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which is sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self nor me the weaker now;
‘Tis true; then learn how false fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

John Donne was the first Rev. Dirty Sexy Ministry, and Dean of St. Paul’s. And he lived it loud and proud.

-- Laurie Brock

144px-T_S_Eliot_Simon_FieldhouseT. S. Eliot

10. T.S. Eliot (9/26/1888 - 1/4/1965) was a poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor. Like many of his generation, he was profoundly affected by World War I but he also became a convert to Anglicanism, to the surprise of literary friends and colleagues, resulting in his writing poetry and plays featuring distinctly Christian ideas set alongside themes of desolation and disconnection. He sought to explore traditional Christian themes while using modern forms and rhythms, speaking to and for a generation that had seen devastation like no other before it. The traditional meets the modern in Eliot’s works in which he models the maxim that the church must reinterpret scripture and doctrine for every generation.

9.  Among his poems are "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock," "The Waste Land," "The Hollow Men," "Ash Wednesday," "Four Quartets," and "The Journey of the Magi;" most famous among his plays is "Murder in the Cathedral" (the story of the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury written entirely in verse).

8.  He won the Nobel Price in Literature in 1948 for his “outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” Prior to Eliot’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Gustaf Hellstrom of the Swedish Academy said of him, “As a poet you have, Mr. Eliot, for decades, exercised a greater influence on your contemporaries and younger fellow writers than perhaps anyone else of our time.”

7.  Eliot’s collection of poems about the psychology and social habits of kitties - Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats -  was the basis for the long running Broadway musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber featuring Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, and (Aspara)Gus the Theater Cat, et al. Sadly, the SEC says there are no cat videos at Lent Madness, or I’d link to one.

6. For all you coffee lovers out there, he included this famous line in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons....” No doubt into his Lent Madness coffee mug, had he owned one.

5. More seriously, Eliot is considered a “supreme interpreter of mediated experience.” He himself said, “A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him.” A fine example comes from The Wasteland (Part I. Burial of the Dead): “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

4. And who among us does not love the ending of the The Journey of the Magi:

“We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.”

3.  Eliot considered The Four Quartets to be his best work, and each of the quartets to be better than the one before. Ponder these lines from Four Quartets 4: Little Gidding 

“We only live, only suspire
     Consumed by either fire or fire.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

2.  Read again Eliot’s brilliant, sexy, and oft-quoted ending from The Hollow Men:

“Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

1.  And finally, heed Eliot’s words from his play Murder in the Cathedral that explain why Sir Anthony Strallan should not marry Lady Edith - I mean, that explain why you should vote for Eliot to join the 2013 Lent Madness bracket of saints:

“Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”


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92 comments on “Play-In: John Donne vs. T.S. Eliot”

  1. This is tough because I love and feel connection to them both. However, I fear Laurie more than I fear Penny (actually I don’t fear Penny at all because I don’t know her). Eliot will get over it. Donne – well the first Anglican service I ever attended was at St. Paul’s. I liked it. I led me to the Epis church. So ... Donne it is.

      1. Fear you? No not really. But I liked the connection to:
        " I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
        My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
        But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
        Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore:
        And, having done that, Thou hast done:
        I fear no more." JD (not Jack Daniels)

        1. Nice. While I prepared for this, I remember thinking how much more I would have appreciated Donne (and a slew of other Anglican poets and writers) had my college professors talked about Anglicanism!

    1. I can't make a choice! I love them both.....struggled through writing a major paper on "The Wasteland" in college, had to read Donne aloud to a class in grad school...can NOT chose!

  2. This was absolutely not fair. John Donne is one of my favorites, but I'm pretty partial to Eliot as well. I can see why they're tied.

  3. Woo hoo! A dead heat - my vote brought them up to exactly 18 votes each, so I'm really interested to see how this one turns out.

  4. This was a very difficult choice. I read both. I like both. After a coin toss, Donne won, so all done. (pun intended)

  5. Magnificent write-ups! Well done CB's. I'm for Eliot as I believe he faced a sterner (yes that's a pun) test of his faith, being all modern and everything.

  6. Not fair! As a writers of verses myself, I owe both a great debt...but I guess I'll have to vote for JD, as it was the metaphyscial poets (and the early leader) that captured my heart and imagination...and never let go. Blessings on them both...

  7. I was not happy with this round at all. I could not decide. This one was tough. I finally went with my first choice John Donne but it was a near thing. Both of these men are great poets. Grrrrr . . . The madness has begun. No fair!!!!

  8. Not to be catty or anything, but John Donne just seems to be too flashy and full of himself to be in the running. T. S., on the other hand, seems to possess some true humility and besides, anyone whose poetry gets turned into a musical by Sir Andrew definitely deserved to win a place on the Big Bracket!

    1. Yes! Donne was a trouble-maker because he thought everyone had a right to question doctrine. And party.

  9. Really, Eliot had me at the Magi, and then today when Penny referenced poor old peach-declining Sir Anthony Strallan, that clinched it for T.S. Marguerite and Millie make excellent points about the tougher row hoed by a modern poet in a shell-shocked age. Today's contest presents a tough choice, which in the end I have left un-Donne.

  10. Tough choice; great write-ups. Had to go with T.S. Not with a bang but a whimper one of my favorite lines.

    1. Gotta work on those accents, guys! It's too early in the am...not even noon yet! Had I not enjoyed some real coffee, it would have been a bit much. Well, tallyho and whatever.

  11. The program for a concert held last night at our parish mentioned that Donne's poetry has been set to music by countless composers. (E.g. Hymns 140-141, which Sheldon quoted above, and 322). The concert program also stated that, except for "Cats", Eliot's poetry may NOT be set to music because his estate forbids it. So, for this chorister, the vote was obvious.

    1. I admit that Eliot’s estate’s decision was a wise one. Donne’s oeuvre can survive bad music; in Eliot’s case it would be criminal. Imagine folks getting up to sing “A cold coming we had of it - tra la la, tra-la” and ... "re-fraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaac-to-ry”.

  12. Regardless of today's results, my Lenten reading is going to be Eliot. He passes the Emily Dickinson test "if it takes the top of my head off, it's poetry".

  13. Anyone who encourages snark and questioning has my vote. I have always wondered, did King James identify Donne as a potential troublemaker who needed watching when he basically forced Donne into the Church? Regardless Donne has my vote--fini.

  14. Powerful write-up from Laurie in Donne's corner but really -- this IS Lent Madness after all, not Party Hearty Hook-up Madness. This should ultimately be about a different sort of Passion. Also I'm completely biased - Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" is my 23rd psalm. If you don't know the poem I urge you to find a copy of it online and read the whole thing. Wrestle with its uneasiness, what it understands and what it doesn't understand, with its rich imagery and the stories and echoes of stories it conjures....
    '...three trees on the low sky.'
    El-i-ot! El-i-ot!

  15. How can we forget Donne's snarky double-pun found in the words of Hymn 140, working in his wife and himself:

    "When thou hast done, thou hast not done for I have more."

    However, I had to go with T. S. Elliot. You see, Elliot's and my birth certificate (that is, assuming he had one) would share a common trait: "none" for county. Yes, Mr. Elliot and I are originally from St. Louis, Missouri. (St. Louis seperated from St. Louis County in about 1875 and hasn't been able to hold an honest election since.)

    "It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London." (T. S. Elliot, quoted in the St. Louis Post Dispatch)

    Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis remodelled in the 1960s (+5 for the organ, -10 for the very uncomfortable movable seating in the nave). One of the purposes of the remodel was to allow for things like stage productions. The first stage production was "Murder in the Cathedral." How appropriate!

    I'm voted for my fellow St. Louis Homeboy.

    1. Argh. Writing at this time on a Saturday morning is full of danger. Why can't I edit that for the two obvious mistakes. Eliot and the last sentence (which I mis-recast just before posting).

    2. Bob,

      Having recently retired to Appalachia from Ohio I have discovered that honest elections here rarely if ever happen. A friend of mine who is with the West Virginia State Police told me recently that the most recent election in his county was the cleanest in history, only 6 dead people voted. Since I am about to go 0 for 4 in the play in rounds I am thinking about improving my odds in the future rounds by checking with the locals and seeing if "Appalachian Voting" will escape the ever vigilant SEC and improve my winning percentages.

  16. I vote for John Donne because there is a reference to him in a pop song by "The Captain Howdy." Anytime popular music recognizes one of 'us', it is a special moment in cultural time. Of course, I'll give you three guesses as to which aspecty of Donn'es writings caught The Captain Howdy's attention....

  17. Overly pious folk are just too too-too and that's why Donne was so much more fun having lived a quite riotous life full of fun and debauchery galore. Repentance is good and it helps to have something about which one is repenting.

  18. I had never focused much on Donne's contributions to capturing the essence of the human spirit. Indeed, given the spice injected in his writings, I'm impressed that he found his way into the play-in round at all! Eliot has had his share of plaudits thorugh the years. It's time for Donne to bask in the glow of an admiring literate constituency. A tough call, but I thought it OVER and went with DONNE.

  19. I had never focused much on Donne's contributions to capturing the essence of the human spirit. Indeed, given the spice injected in his writings, I'm impressed that he found his way into the play-in round at all! Eliot has had his share of plaudits thr0ugh the years. It's time for Donne to bask in the glow of an admiring literate constituency. A tough call, but I thought it OVER and went with DONNE.