‘To John Donne’ by Michael Symmons Roberts is a forty-five line poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. The lines do not follow one specific pattern of rhyme. Instead, there are moments of full and half, or slant rhyme scattered throughout the text that help to create individual moments of unity. For instance, lines eight, twelve, and sixteen all rhyme with the “-ope” sound. Half rhymes occur more often, and connect words such as “wire” and “TRESSPASSERS,” or “us” and “lips.” Roberts also chose not to give this piece one established pattern of rhythm.
One of the most important and striking features of this poem is the contrast that Roberts draws between the world of science and colonization and that of human love and nature. The majority of the first half of the poem is made of up images utilized to inform the reader that one’s body is not really theirs anymore. He comes to this conclusion after learning about the discovery of information regarding the human genome and how those mapping it (and buying the information) have acted as colonizers.
Towards the end of the poem, the speaker’s tone takes a turn from the disillusioned to the hopeful. He recognizes the inherent connection that humanity has within its species, but also to every other life on the planet. This is the human information that really matters in the end.
Summary of To John Donne
The poem begins with the speaker mimicking the lines of John Donne, to whom this poem is dedicated. Donne’s piece, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ is parodied as the speaker takes all the romance away from sexual encounters. He makes clear that this woman whose body was so well elevated and praised by Donne in a great number of his works has now been broken down and sold off to the highest bidder.
Roberts develops a metaphor comparing humanity to land that has been mapped and then sold. No one truly owns their body anymore. This depressing thought is finally alleviated towards the end of the poem when the speaker comes to the conclusion that humanity’s connection to one another and to nature is much more important than any scientific data.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of To John Donne
In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by referencing a line made famous within Donne’s elegy, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed.’ The phrase, “now, as your mistress strip for bed” mirrors Donne’s descriptions of a woman doing the same. But unlike Donne’s version of events, the woman’s body is “already mapped.” Initially, this seems like a further statement on sex, as if the speaker is surprised this woman has slept with another man. But as the poem develops it becomes clear that it is about something much more important.
The speaker continues on to describe a woman’s body as having already been “cracked.” There is a secret code that defines who every person is and someone, names are not named, has uncovered it. Now that the “code” of the body is known, bodies are being mapped and portioned out, just like land. They are labeled as “hope / or prophecy.” The last two lines bring the poem very much into the contemporary age and give the reader some needed information regarding the origins of this idea.
The woman’s “charts,” a reference again to maps and land, are held “on laptops” and controlled and perused by “medics.” As mentioned in the introduction, Roberts was deeply concerned with genome advances which made possible the sale of critical information about the human body. This is how the speaker is understanding the word “sale,” as a technological auctioning off bodily information.
In the next eight lines of ‘To John Donne’ the speaker mimics Donne’s language in describing the human body. In Roberts’ version though the lands of her body, the “peaks and gorges” are no “mystic book.” There is nothing romantic or awe-inspiring about the woman’s body in these lines. Any celebrated status that the literary and art world may have created for its form has fallen in the wake of this new way of categorization and sale.
The next lines present a moment of peace and beauty that is then (once again) disrupted by a reminder that the woman does not own her own flesh (nor of course does the speaker). She sits, and maybe she allows “you” to touch her. If she does, that still does not make her a “landowner.”
In the next set of lines, the speaker makes it very clear that the woman does not own her own body. The corporations who sell and pay for the information rights to the human genome do. Her “breast’s / curve has a patent.” Buying and selling human information has become the hobby of “bankers.” The speaker states that they got tired of dealing in gold.
The metaphor comparing a woman’s body (or as should be included, a man’s) to occupied land continues on. Roberts’ speaker acknowledges the fact that she is called “your America” by the unknown listener. This is “too right,” he states. She is very similar to the “wilderness” and “prairies” of the United States and how their once wild foundations have been “carved up into real estate.”
There is barbed wire, dogs, and other defenses around these plots of land. This represents the jealous and money-hungry way that corporations defend their knowledge of the human genome.
The speaker addresses the unknown listener in line twenty-seven, asking him if he cares about this development, or if the woman he has been discussing does. Roberts’ speaker is not sure if anyone cares that their bodies are not their own when they “seek each other out.” Her body has a “secret name” that is “like yours,” he tells the listener.
He continues on to state that their names resemble one another’s but also the “crab apple and silver birch.” These plants are filled with other life as well, like the “collar doves” and “green finches” which are “akin to grass.” All these forms of life live and die together. Perhaps this fact, something which corporations cannot buy and sell, is enough.
‘To John Donne’ ends on a more optimistic note with the speaker continuing his straight forward address to the listener. He tells this person to allow their “hands, and hers” to claim back their bodies. They should rediscover all the “co-ordinates of bodies.” The poem ends with what the speaker tries to confirm is a “litany” or tedious list of items. These items are groups of letters, such as “TTA” and “GAG.” They are the letters used to represent the nucleotide bases of a DNA strand.
The letters stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. In this case, the scientific designations of what makes a human are contrasted against what the speaker is making clear is the real heart of humanity. This is the ability to love, learn from, and better one another.