Among all of John Donne's major poems, "The Lamentations of Jeremy" has been almost completely ignored. Critics have found little to write about it except as it seems to depend on other versions of the biblical text --primarily on the Vulgate, the Geneva, the Tremellius (with which it accords "for the most part" according to phrases in its subtitle), and the Authorized--or as it relates to some contemporary calamity. The trouble with the latter is the wide scope it permits--calamities have happened all too frequently--although Protestant defeats associated with the Thirty Years War in the early 1620s have been most popular. Efforts to determine when the poem was written have not bettered our understanding of it. If Donne did indeed rely on the Authorized Version, then the poem originated after 1611, but recently Graham Roebuck has argued convincingly that all of the poem's language can derive from an earlier version of the Bible and, thus, the work need not postdate 1611.(n1)
There is, of course, a possibility that Donne was simply exercising his poetic muscles with such an effort and was taking part in a trend that translated the Lamentations into English, in one form or another, during this period. I have identified eight such publications, listed here in chronological order:
Joye, G. Jeremy the Prophete [and] Lamentations. Antwerp, 1534.
Drant, Thomas. A Medicinable Morall, that is, the Two Bookes of Horace His Satires [and] The Wailynge of Hieremiah. London, 1566.
Fetherstone, C. The Lamentations of Jeremie, in Prose and Meter, with Apt Notes . . . Togither with Tremellius His Annotations. London, 1587.
Stocker, T. The Lamentations . . . with a Paraphrase, trans, out of French. London, 1587.
Drayton, Michael. In The Harmonie of the Church. London, 1591, 1610, and in collections of his poetry.
Udall, John. A Commentarie upon the Lamentations of Jeremy. London, 1593, 1595, 1599, 1608.
Broughton, H. The Lamentations of Jeremy . . . with Annotations. Amsterdam?, 1606, 1608.
Jenkinson, Anne. Lamentations of Jeremy, trans, out of French. London, 1609.
Verbal or idiosyncratic religious parallels between Donne's version and any of the above are not as clearly evident as, for example, are parallels between Milton's versions of Psalms 80-88 with contemporaneous metrical psalters. But because it is difficult to conceive of the "Lamentations" as a kind of a practice exercise that could be done at any time, I return, as others have, to considering it a response to a depressive crisis in Donne's life.
I have already suggested the value of the church calendar of the Book of Common Prayer to explain the failure of Donne's sun to "renew" in line 37 of "The Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day" (17). Some evidence hitherto overlooked also exists for Donne's use of Lamentations from these daily liturgical readings. Reference to the calendar shows that on the morning of August 12, the Old Testament lesson was chapter 1 of Lamentations, and in the evening, chapter 2. On August 13, it was 3 and 4; the series ends at the morning service on August 14 with chapter 5. These mournful Lamentations lead directly to August 15; on that date in 1617, Donne's wife Anne died following the birth of their twelfth child a week earlier. No great religious sophistication is required to see the applicability of the text to the tragedy; a priest himself, Donne certainly would have read these chapters in services he led. A verse translation might suitably memorialize the tragedy. Accordingly, I propose that the poem can be profitably read as a powerful work of Jeremiah/Donne's lament for the destruction/death of Jerusalem/Anne. Some external evidence comes from John Shawcross's dating of the work, which, on the basis of its position in the early manuscripts, "would . . . seem to lie after April 1613 . . . and before May 1619," though this is as narrow a window as the locations in the manuscripts and the early editions support (131,132-34).
Much of the poem's content is of such a general nature as to apply to any bereavement, not specifically Donne's, though he would have found it expressive of his feelings. For example,
All this concernes not you, who passe by mee,
O see, and mark if any sorrow bee
Like to my sorrow, which Jehova hath
Done to mee in the day of his fierce wrath?
That fire, which by himselfe is governed
He hath cast from heaven on my bones, and spred
A net before my feet, and mee o'rthrowne
And made me languish all the day alone. (1.12-13)
He goes on to weep:
mine eye, mine eye
Casts water out; For he which should be nigh
To comfort mee, is now departed farre.
The foe prevailes, forlorne my children are. (1.16)
This last line can be matched in the other versions and so is not specific to Donne's circumstances, yet must have been true for the couple's several surviving children in 1617.
Other sections of the poem are also subject to application to general suffering, though they equally well suit his situation. For example, the prophet/poet asserts that "I am the man which have affliction seen" and that God has been punishing him and has turned away from him: "When I crie out, he'out shuts my prayer" (3.1, 8). Yet he realizes, when he reflects upon such "mournings," that it is only by "Gods great mercy" that "we'are not utterly/Consum'd" (3.19-22). That all his sufferings ultimately derive from God is a fact that he must try to understand: "Who then will say, that ought doth come to passe, / But that which by the Lord commanded was?" (3.37).
Again, Jeremiah's mourning for Jerusalem exactly matches Donne's for Anne:
With watry rivers doth mine eye oreflow
For ruine of my peoples daughter so;
Mine eye doth drop downe teares incessantly,
Untill the Lord looke downe from heaven to see.
And for my city daughters sake, mine eye
Doth break mine heart. (3.48-51)
As the poem nears its end, Jeremiah/Donne feels
Now is the crowne falne from our head; and woe
Be unto us, because we'have sinned so.
For this our hearts do languish, and for this
Over our eyes a cloudy dimnesse is.
Why should'st thou forget us eternally?
Or leave us thus long in this misery?
Restore us Lord to thee, that so we may
Returne, and as of old, renew our day. (5.16-17, 20-21)
In a few instances, Donne seems to have modified the biblical text to match his own condition, a fact that lends even greater credence to this dating of the work. Such passages vary in fundamental ways from any of the other versions that have been thought to have influenced him. Consider first his version of 1.7:
Now in her daies of Teares, Jerusalem [Anne]
(Her men slaine by the foe, none succouring them)
Remembers what of old, shee esteem'd most,
Whiles her foes laugh at her, for what she'hath lost.
We do not know for certain what in 1617 the relationship of John and Anne was with her parents. In view of their earlier bitterness, their relationship might well have been distant at best and so they ("her foes") still are jeering at her for "what she'hath lost" in marrying him. The other pertinent versions are quite different:
Recordata est Ierusalem dierum afflictionis suae et praevaricationis omnium desiderabilium suorum quae habuerat a diebus antiquis, cum caeret populus eius in manu hostile; et non esset auxiliator; viderunt eam hostis, et deriserunt sabbata eius.
--Biblia Sacra Vulgatae Editionis
Ierusalem remembred the daies of her affliction, and of her rebellion, and all her pleasant things, that she had in times past, when her people fell into the hand of the enemie, & none did helpe her: the adversaries saw her, & did mocke at her Sabbaths.
Recordatur urbs Jeruschalaimorum diebus affiictionis suae & ploratuum suorum, omnes res suas desiderabiles, quae adfuerunt a diebus priscis; cadente populo suo manu hostis, & nemine auxilium ferente sibi, quum videntes eam hostes irrident cessationes ejus.
Jerusalem remembreth in the dayes of her affliction, and of her miseries, all her pleasant things that shee had in the dayes of olde, when her people fell into the hand of the enemie, and none did helpe her, the adversaries saw her, and did mocke at her Sabbaths.
--Authorized Version 1621
Besides the replacement of "Sabbath" by "what she hath lost," Donne's preferential use here of the present tense may also be significant. He writes "uncleannesse" in the next verse, with its overtones of ceremonial association with childbirth, where Geneva uses "filthiness" and the Authorized Version, "nakedness." Perhaps also referring to his current financial circumstances, Donne writes "penury" in 4.9, where, as Roebuck points out, "there is no warrant in his sources, each of which gives the sense of lack of food" (42). In a textual note (2.246), Grierson also observed that at 2.19, the words "poure, for my sinnes" have no counterpart in the Tremellius or the Vulgate; he could have added the Geneva and the Authorized. In this addition, as in the previous stanza, Donne suffers with Anne and recognizes his responsibility for her pregnancy and its outcome in her death.
One may also note the different emphasis of 3.37: "Who then will say, that ought doth come to passe, / But that which by the Lord commanded was?" Geneva can represent all the other versions: "Who is he then that saith, and it commeth to passe, & the Lord commandeth it not." Finally, the poem closes (5.22) by asking why God should treat him and his wife so harshly: "For oughtest thou, O Lord, despise us thus / And to be utterly enrag'd at us?" The other versions except for Tremellius are instructively different, asserting rather than questioning God's actions:
Visitavit iniquitatem tuam filia Edom; discooperuit peccata tua.
But thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art exceedingly angrie against us.
Nam an omnino sperneres nos, effervesceres contra nos admodum?
But thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us.
Such specific applications as these, plus the prevalent tone of mourning already noted, seem sufficient evidence to warrant associating the poem with Anne's death in August 1617. Grierson also suggested this date, but without any evidence, and so it was rejected by Bald (327n.). Dayton Haskins has brought to my attention a final piece of evidence provided by Isaac Walton in his biography of his friend Donne: The widower's "first motion [after her death] was to preach where his beloved wife lay buried (in St Clements Church, near Temple-Bar London) and his first text was a part of the Prophet Jeremy's Lamentation: "Lo, I am the man that have seen affliction" (42), cited from the opening of the third chapter and quoted earlier.
It is true, however, that the match of Lamentations with the death is not exact: The former ends a day too early on the morning of August 14 (though it was clear she was dying). The lectionary then moves, on the evening of the fourteenth, to Ezekiel 2. It is a dire chapter in which the Lord speaks to the prophet to direct him to "be not rebellious" but to take and eat "a roll of a book" in which were written "lamentations and mourning, and woe." This evening reading, that is, provides a bitter summary of the cries of Lamentations that had begun on the twelfth. But the reading for the next morning, the day Anne died, was Ezekiel 3. It directed that the prophet "eat this roll" of the overwhelming sadness. When he did so, he found to his surprise that "it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness." Here the newly bereaved husband could find consolation that out of such "lamentation, mourning, and woe" he would now know that with death his beloved wife would suffer no more but would find a place in heaven among the blessed.
Such parallels, I think, are sufficient to show how apt the Old Testament readings were to Donne's circumstances in mid-August 1617--readings that certainly came to his attention. We can look at the hitherto ignored "Lamentations" and recognize in it an unexpected and affecting statement of Donne's bereavement.
Without insisting on a specific date, Roebuck suggests the plague years (1592 and 1593) and Donne's penury then.
Bald, R. C. John Donne, A Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.
Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John Shawcross. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
-----. The Poems of John Donne. Ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912.
Hunter, William B. Milton's Comus: Family Piece. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1983.
Roebuck, Graham. "Donne's Lamentations of Jeremy Reconsidered." John Donne Journal 10 (1991), 37-44.
Shawcross, John. "The Arrangement and Order of John Donne's Poems." The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections. Ed. Neil Fraistat. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
Walton, Isaac. The Life of Dr. John Donne. London, 1670.
By William B. Hunter, Greensboro, North Carolina