(John Donne Effigy by Nicholas Stone, 1631, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London)
Valentine’s Day once again turns our thoughts to romantic love. Interestingly, one of the UK Telegraph’s “10 Best Love Poems” was penned by a man of seeming contradictions: A man who could capture erotic impulses in words that resound in elegance, he also embraced the Christian faith, becoming a priest and one of his era’s best spokesmen for the faith.
John Donne (1573-1631) was born in the Elizabethan era, a time of prosperity and of the flowering of literature in England. Donne’s writings shine along with those of his contemporaries William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Sir Francis Bacon.
The poem selected by the Telegraph for special honor is “The Good Morrow” published in his 1633 collection Songs and Sonnets. I love the second stanza:
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
For Donne it was a deep and abiding love that altered the course of his life. While working for Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he fell in love with Anne More, Egerton’s niece. They secretly married without the approval of her father, for which Donne was fired and prevented from obtaining a government position. He lived in poverty, struggling to provide for a rapidly growing family (Anne bore him 12 children). In 1614, formally blocked by King James I from any employment outside of the Church, John Donne took on holy orders.
By all accounts, Donne was a very devoted husband. James Kiefer, in his online sketch of the life of Donne, has opined: From the above information, the reader might conclude that Donne’s professed religious belief was mere opportunism. But the evidence of his poetry is that, long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, his thoughts were turned toward holiness, and he saw in his wife Anne (as Dante had earlier seen in Beatrice) a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of the nature of Divine Love.
Donne was devastated by Anne’s death in 1617. He vowed never to marry again, despite the troubles that would cause in raising his children. He threw his energies fully into his priestly work, rising quickly to the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He gained fame for his sermons, and was regarded in his day as the best preacher in England. Phrases from his writings remain familiar to us today, such as “death be not proud”, “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island”. Here is an excerpt:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne–meditation 17)
He fell ill of stomach cancer, but managed to rise from his death bed on Feb 25, 1631, to deliver a final sermon entitled “Death’s Duell,” to a stunned audience at Whitehall Palace. Izaak Walton, in his The Life of Dr. John Donne, wrote: “When to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face.” His publisher called it “The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.” Donne exhorted his hearers with these final words:
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.
A marble effigy of Donne made soon after his death can be viewed at St Paul’s cathedral, where it survived the 1666 Great Fire of London. He is remembered with a feast day in the Anglican Church calendar, on March 31.