The Storm by John Donne

Following his participation in the Islands Voyage, an unsuccessful 1597 naval campaign also known as the Essex-Raleigh Expedition, poet John Donne wrote “The Storm,” memorializing a storm at sea.

Monamy, Peter; Ships in Distress in a Storm; Tate; Public Domain.

The Storme

To Mr. Christopher Brooke
From the Island Voyage with the Earl of Essex
By John Donne

Thou which art I, (’tis nothing to be soe)
Thou which art still thy selfe, by these shalt know
Part of our passage; and, a hand, or eye
By Hilliard drawne, is worth a history,
By a worse painter made; and (without pride)
When by thy judgment they are dignifi’d,
My lines are such. ‘Tis the preheminence
Of friendship onely to’impute excellence.

England, to whom we’owe, what we be, and have,
Said that her sonnes did seeke a forraine grave
(For, Fate’s, or Fortune’s drifts none can soothsay,
Honour and misery have one face, and way)

From out her pregnant intrailes sigh’d a winde,
Which at th’ayres middle marble roome did finde
Such strong resistance, that it selfe it threw
Downeward againe ; and so when it did view

How in the port, our fleet deare time did leese,
Withering like prisoners, which lye but for fees,
Mildly it kist our sailes, and, fresh and sweet
As, to a stomach sterv’d, whose insides meete,

Meate comes, it came; and swole our sailes, when wee
So joyd, as Sara’her swelling joy’d to see.

But ’twas but so kinde, as our countrimen,
Which bring friends one dayes way, and leave them then.

Then like two mighty Kings, which dwelling farre
Asunder, meet against a third to warre,
The South and West winds joyn’d, and, as they blew,
Waves like a rolling trench before them threw.

Sooner than you read this line, did the gale,
Like shot, not fear’d, till felt, our sails assaile;
And what at first was call’d a gust, the same
Hath now a stormes, anon a tempests name.

Jonas, I pitty thee, and curse those men
Who, when the storm rage’d most, did wake thee then.

Sleepe is paines easiest salve, and doth fulfill
All offices of death, except to kill.
But when I wakt, I saw, that I saw not.

I, and the Sunne, which should teach mee’had forgot

East, West, day, night, and I could onely say,
If’the world had lasted, now it had been day.

Thousands our noyses were, yet wee’mongst all
Could none by his right name, but thunder, call:
Lightning was all our light, and it rain’d more
Than if the Sunne had drunke the sea before;
Some coffin’d in their cabins lye, ‘equally
Griev’d that they are not dead, and yet must die.

And as sin-burd’ned soules from grave will creepe,
At the last day, some forth their cabins peepe:
And tremblingly’aske what newes, and doe heare so,
Like jealous husbands, what they would not know.

Some sitting on the hatches, would seeme there,
With hideous gazing to feare away feare.

Then note they the ship’s sicknesses, the Mast
Shak’d with an ague, and the Hold and Wast
With a salt dropsie clog’d, and all our tacklings
Snapping, like too- high-stretched treble strings.

And from our totterd sailes, ragges drop downe so,
As from one hang’d in chaines a year agoe.
Even our Ordnance plac’d for our defence,
Strive to breake loose, and scape away from thence.

Pumping hath tir’d our men, and what’s the gaine?
Seas into seas throwne, we suck in againe;

Hearing hath deaf’d our saylers: and if they
Knew how to heare, there’s none knowes what to say.

Compar’d to these stormes, death is but a qualme,
Hell somewhat lightsome, and the’Bermuda calme.
Darknesse, lights elder brother, his birth-right
Claims o’er this world, and to heaven hath chas’d light.

All things are one, and that one none can be,
Since all formes uniforme deformity
Doth cover, so that wee, except God say
Another Fiat, shall have no more day.
So violent, yet long these furies bee,
That though thine absence starve me,‘I wish not thee.

John Donne

Notes regarding “The Storm”

The notes below are excerpted and adapted from The Poems of John Donne, Volume II, published in 1896.

Christopher Brooke was a son of Robert Brooke, of York, and brother of Dr. Samuel Brooke. He married Maria Jacobs in 1619, and died Feb. 7, 1628. Together with his brother he was imprisoned for his share in abetting Donne’s marriage, of which he was a witness. In his will, where he is described as “of Lincoln’s Inn,” he bequeathed to Donne his “picture of the Lady Elizabeth, her grace the Countess of Southampton, my lady Anne Wallop, and my Lady Isabella Smith.” His few surviving Poems have been edited by the Rev. A. B. Grosart in the Miscellanies of the Fuller Worthies Library (vol. iv. 1872).

The Island Voyage. Donne accompanied Essex on his two expeditions of 1596 and 1597. In the first the English fleet under Essex and Lord Admiral Howard took Cadiz. The second, that known as the Island Voyage, was to the Azores, with the intent of capturing the Spanish Plate fleet, on its return from the West Indies. It was unsuccessful, chiefly owing to dissensions between Essex and Raleigh.

Nicholas Hilliard Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, Queen of England by Nicholas Hilliard

Line 4. Hilyard. Nicholas Hilyard or Hilliard, born at Exeter in 1547, was a disciple of Holbein, and famous as a miniature painter. He was a favourite at court, both under Elizabeth and James I. There is a miniature of Elizabeth by him in the National Portrait Gallery. He engraved the Great Seal of England in 1587, and also wrote a treatise on miniature painting. He died in 1619.
This passage is quoted in the Printer’s preface to the Poems of 1633 (vol. i, p. xlvi).

Line 24. Cf. Richard II., Act 1. Scenes iii., iv., where Gaunt, Surrey, and Aumerle accompany the banished Bolingbroke a short distance on his journey.

Line 66. the Bermudas calm. In May 1609, a fleet of nine ships bound, under Sir George Somers, for Virginia was wrecked, and one of the ships driven on to the Bermudas, known from this event as the Somers or Summer Islands. An account of the misfortune was published by Sylvester Jourdan in 1610, and impressed the English literary imagination. Cf. the “still-vexed Bermoothes” of the Tempest, and Marvell’s poem on the Bermudas exiles. But this allusion of Donne’s shows that the unenviable reputation of these islands was of earlier date.

Line 72. another fiat. Cf. Genesis i. 3, “And God said, Let there be light (in the Vulgate, Fiat lux), and there was light.”

%d bloggers like this: