Thou, whose diviner soule hath caus’d thee now
To put thy hand unto the holy Plough,
Making Lay-scornings of the Ministry,
Not an impediment, but victory;
What bringst thou home with thee? how is thy mind
Affected since the vintage? Dost thou finde
New thoughts and stirrings in thee? and as Steele
Toucht with a Loadstone, dost new motions feele?
Thou art the same materials, as before,
Onely the stampe is changed; but no more.
If then th’Astronomers, whereas they spie
A new-found Starre, their Opticks magnifie,
How brave are those, who with their Engine, can
Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man?
These are they titles and preheminences,
In whom must meet Gods graces, mens offences,
And so the heavens which beget all things here,
And the earth our mother, which these things doth beare,
Both these in thee, are in thy Calling knit,
And make thee now a blest Hermaphrodite.
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Dave Coates on ‘To Mr Tilman after he had taken orders’:
In the summer term of 2007 I started reading poems. I’d taken a module on Modern Irish Poetry – to no small extent because I assumed I’d have a head-start – and started reading Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon in earnest. It would be unwise to draw too confident a line between them and Donne, but there are traces of influence, explicitly so in Muldoon’s most recent collection Horse Latitudes.
So when the time came to chow down on Renaissance Literature (capital letters are vital to these things), Donne was a welcome main course. His early poems work with reflections and doublings and unexpected leaps, creating weird angles between his rigid rhyming couplets and his bravura metaphors in pieces like ‘Aire and Angels’, ‘The Good Morrow’ and ‘The Extasie’. Provided you can forgive Donne for fairly exhausting the scant few rhymes for ‘love’, these poems are provocative and sensuous.
By the time he wrote ‘To Mr Tilman’, Donne had become a priest, finally finding a way to support himself after years of mooching off wealthy friends and writing his sexy poems. The passion for his new calling matched that of his youth, and his verse retained its curiosity for the world both physical and otherwise. The line “Thou art the same materials, as before, / Onely the stampe is changed; but no more,” can be seen to carry much personal freight. His discourse through the poem on the similarities between the work of merchant seamen, astronomers and ambassadors and the corresponding duties of a priest push the reader to think on another, more immediate connection: Donne’s own continued status as poet and priest. The transcendence he explored in his early love poems has not changed substantially, “onely the stampe”.
The poem ends on an impressive balancing act: “And so the heavens which beget all things here, / And the earth our mother, which these things doth beare, / Both these in thee, are in the Calling knit, / And make thee now a blest Hermaphrodite.” Passing briefly over the typically Donne-ish wordplay on the priest’s potentially de-gendering vow of chastity, this is a return to his preoccupations with the complexity of self. His warning is addressed to a young priest who must not trade in his life as a layman for one in the clergy; he must carry the weight of both.
Donne’s love poems have aged well. For all their ephemeral beauty, they never spend too long in “extasie” (literally: ex stasis, standing outside). His categorisation, then, as a metaphysical poet is not wholly deserved: Donne performs the formidable task of having his head in the clouds with his feet on the ground.
Dave Coates was born in Belfast and studied English Literature at the University of York before moving to Edinburgh in September 2008 to take a Masters in Creative Writing. His chapbook, Cover Story, was published in 2009 by Forest Publications.