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The other week I read a profile of a senior Anglican clergyman, more about whom tomorrow.

At the weekend I read an article in The Telegraph about a long-deceased past Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne (1572-1631), whom his biographer Katherine Rundell describes as ‘the greatest writer of sex in the English language’.

The article was timely, as the Anglican Communion remembers the poet and preacher on March 31.

It is difficult to know where to begin and where to stop with John Donne (pron. ‘Dun’). One could easily write about him every day for a year. Many of us read at least one of his poems in English class many moons ago. However, he was more than a poet. He was also a womaniser, a scholar, a lawyer, and an adventurer. Later on, he was ordained and had a tremendous following in London for his powerful preaching.

Katherine Rundell’s article about her new book on Donne begins with this (emphases mine):

The power of John Donne’s words nearly killed a man. It was the late spring of 1623, on the morning of Ascension Day, and Donne had finally secured for himself celebrity, fortune and a captive audience.

He had been appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral two years before: he was 51, slim and amply bearded, and his preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation – merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole sweep of the city – came to his sermons carrying notebooks and ink, wrote down his finest passages and took them home to dissect and relish, pontificate and argue over. He often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him. His words, they said, could “charm the soul”.

That morning he was not preaching in his own church, but 15 minutes’ walk across London at Lincoln’s Inn, where a new chapel was being consecrated. Word went out: wherever he was, people came flocking, often in their thousands, to hear him speak. That morning, too many people flocked. “There was a great concourse of noblemen and gentlemen,” and in among “the extreme press and thronging”, as they pushed closer to hear his words, men in the crowd were shoved to the ground and trampled. “Two or three were endangered, and taken up dead for the time.”

There’s no record of Donne halting his sermon; so it’s likely that he kept going in his rich voice as the bruised men were carried off and out of sight.

That year, he had a serious illness inspiring him to write a poem about it, a way of self-treatment that he employed throughout his life.

The Poetry Foundation tells us more. Note the language Donne employed, recalling his time as an adventurer at sea during the era of the world’s great explorers:

A serious illness that Donne suffered in 1623 produced a still more startling poetic effect. In “Hymn to God, my God, in my Sickness” the poet presents his recumbent body as a flat map over which the doctors pore like navigators to discover some passage through present dangers to tranquil waters; and he ponders his own destination as if he himself is a vessel that may reach the desirable places of the world only by negotiating some painful straits:

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them.

By this self-questioning he brings himself to understand that his suffering may itself be a blessing, since he shares the condition of a world in which our ultimate bliss must be won through well-endured hardship. The physical symptoms of his illness become the signs of his salvation: “So, in his purple wrapped receive me Lord, / By these his thorns give me his other crown.” The images that make him one with Christ in his suffering transform those pangs into reassurance.

He was most conscious of his sin and the necessary repentance needed to reach union with Christ. He also used his surname as a pun with the word ‘done’ as we can see in this religious poem, again employing a maritime reference:

In Donne’s poetry, language may catch the presence of God in our human dealings. The pun on the poet’s name in “done“ registers the distance that the poet’s sins have put between himself and God, with new kinds of sin pressing forward as fast as God forgives those already confessed: “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For, I have more.” Then the puns on “sun” and “Donne” resolve these sinful anxieties themselves:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

For this poet such coincidences of words and ideas are not mere accidents to be juggled with in jest. They mark precisely the working of Providence within the order of nature.

Ten years earlier, in 1613, two years before he took Holy Orders, he wrote a meditation about Good Friday as he journeyed from one friend’s house to another for Easter. Again, repentance looms large:

A journey westward from one friend’s house to another over Easter 1613 brings home to Donne the general aberration of nature that prompts us to put pleasure before our due devotion to Christ. We ought to be heading east at Easter so as to contemplate and share Christ’s suffering; and in summoning up that event to his mind’s eye, he recognizes the shocking paradox of the ignominious death of God upon a Cross: “Could I behold those hands, which span the poles, / And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?” (“Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”). An image of Christ’s degradation is directly imposed upon an image of God’s omnipotence. We see that the event itself has a double force, being at once the catastrophic consequence of our sin and the ultimate assurance of God’s saving love. The poet’s very journey west may be providential if it brings him to a penitent recognition of his present unworthiness to gaze directly upon Christ:

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou mayest know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Now that we have the measure of the man in his later years, let us look at his life’s journey.

John Donne was born into a good family with good connections, even though, for many years, he and his wife lived in penury with a house full of children.

Donne was born on January 22, 1572, to John Donne and Elizabeth Heywood, both of Welsh descent.

Biography tells us:

His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the grand-niece of Catholic martyr Thomas More.

Donne was a middle child, the third of six children.

The Donnes were Catholic. During the Elizabethan era, it was dangerous to be anything but Anglican. Donne’s father was a wealthy merchant who was a warden of the Ironmongers Company, one of the Guilds in the City of London. He kept a low public profile because of his Catholicism. He died when young John was only four years old.

Approximately six months later, Elizabeth remarried. Her new husband, Dr. John Syminges, was a wealthy physician with three children of his own. He, too, had been widowed.

John was privately educated. At the age of 11, he went up to Oxford University, to Hart Hall, which is now Hertford College.

After spending three years at Oxford, he went up to Cambridge, where he studied for another three years.

He left both universities with no degree. This was because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, because of his Catholicism.

In 1591, he was accepted to the Thavies Inn law school, which was associated with Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court. He was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn the following year.

1593 proved to be an alarming and pivotal year for John Donne. Elizabeth I issued a statute against Catholics, ‘An Act for restraining Popish recusants’, for not participating in Anglican worship. It had a drastic effect on the Donne family. One of John’s brothers, Henry, who was a university student at the time, was arrested and imprisoned for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington.

Henry died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague. At that point, John began to question his Catholic faith. At the time, illness was still connected — as it had been for time immemorial — with a judgement from God.

Donne was known as Jack in those years. He began writing love poems, circulated to a small group of friends and never intended for widespread publication.

Biography says:

During the 1590s, he spent much of his inheritance on women, books and travel. He wrote most of his love lyrics and erotic poems during this time. His first books of poems, “Satires” and “Songs and Sonnets,” were highly prized among a small group of admirers.

375px-john_donne_bbc_newsKatherine Rundell’s article for The Telegraph features and discusses a portrait Donne had commissioned, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. (Image credit: Wikipedia/BBC News)

When Jack was 23, he:

sat for a portrait. The painting was of a figure who knew about fashion; he wore a hat big enough to sail a cat in, a big lace collar, an exquisite moustache. He positioned the 
pommel of his sword to be just visible, an accessory more than a weapon. Around the edge of the canvas was painted in Latin, “O Lady, lighten our darkness”; a not-quite-blasphemous misquotation of Psalm 17, his prayer addressed to a lover. And his beauty deserved walk-on music, rock-and-roll lute: all architectural jawline and hooked eyebrows

To call anyone the “best” of anything is a brittle kind of game – but if you wanted to play it, Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language. He wrote about sex in a way that nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life.

Here is one of his verses from that period, in which he compares a lover to the New World:

License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below!
O my America! My new-found land!
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned!

There is also ‘The Flea’:

The speaker watches a flea crawl over the body of the woman he desires:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.

The sort of love he wrote about was not merely about the union of a man and a woman, but of a transcendent relationship.

Here we encounter some very 21st century language, which I will highlight in bold below.

Rundell says:

There is the meat and madness of sex in his work – but, more: Donne’s poetry believed in finding eternity through the human body of one other person. It becomes akin to sacrament. Sacramentum is the translation in the Latin Bible for the Greek word for mystery: and Donne knew it when he wrote, “We die and rise the same, and prove/ Mysterious by this love.” He knew awe: “All measure, and all language, I should pass/ Should I tell what a miracle she was.” And in “The Ecstasy”, love is both a mystery and its solution. He needed to invent a word, “unperplex”, to explain:

“This ecstasy doth unperplex,”
We said, “and tell us what we love…”
But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mixed souls doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this and that.

“Each this and that”: his work suggests that we might voyage beyond the blunt realities of male and female.

In 1596, eight years after the sinking of the Spanish Armada, Donne began two years on the high seas. He fought alongside the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz that year, and, in 1597, the Azores, where he witnessed the sinking of the San Felipe.

Donne also went to Italy. He immersed himself in the culture of the countries he stayed in during those years.

His earliest biographer, Izaak Walton, wrote:

… he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.

In 1597, he returned to London, prepared for a diplomatic career.

Soon after that, Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, hired Donne to be his chief secretary. He was based at Egerton’s home, York House, close to the seat of power, the Palace of Whitehall, the main residence of the English monarchs.

Like Donne, Egerton had also been a Catholic. He became an Anglican in 1570 in order to continue his career.

Egerton was a widower. His second wife was Elizabeth Wolley, a widow. Her maiden name was More. I am intrigued to know if she was also related to Thomas More, as was Donne’s mother.

In any event, while Donne was working for Egerton, he met his employer’s niece, Anne More, who ended up being his grand passion.

Anne More was a teenager at the time she and Donne met. He was in his twenties.

Katherine Rundell provides us with the love poem Donne wrote for her, which says that if he loved her in wintertime, he loved her even more during Spring. I have excerpted it below:

You cannot claim a man is an alchemist and fail to lay out the gold. This, then, is an undated poem, probably written for the woman he married, Anne More, some time in his 20s, known as “Love’s Growth”:

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude and season as the grass;
Methinks I lied all Winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if Spring make’t more

If as in water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take;
Those, like to many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each Spring do add to love new heat
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace –
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Anne’s father, George More, was the Lieutenant of the Tower of London.

Both he and Egerton strongly disapproved of the love match.

Regardless, the couple decided to marry in secret in 1601. Anne would have been 16 or 17 at the time. An Anglican priest, Samuel Brooke, a contemporary of Donne’s, conducted the ceremony.

When Egerton and More found out about the wedding, Donne lost his job and was sent to Fleet Prison, along with Brooke. When Egerton and More satisfied themselves that the marriage was valid, they had Donne released from prison. Donne then had Brooke and another man involved released.

Donne’s earliest biographer, his contemporary Izaak Walton, tells us what the poet wrote to his wife upon his release:

John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.[14]

Indeed, he was undone, because the next several years were wintry for him and his young wife. They lived in penury while she bore him a child every year.

The Donnes were despatched to the Surrey countryside to a small house that Anne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wolley, owned. They lived there until 1604.

In 1605, they moved to Mitcham in South London. There they lived in another small house, unfit for a growing family.

In 1602, Donne was elected as an MP for a Northamptonshire constituency, Brackley. However, as MPs were not paid in that era, he had to search for whatever work he could get. He performed poorly paid law work and also wrote commissioned poems for wealthy patrons. Regardless, the family were only just getting by.

In 1603, Elizabeth I died. James I (James VI of Scotland) succeeded her.

It wasn’t until 1609 when George More reconciled with Donne and gave him Anne’s dowry.

In 1610, Donne met the man who would become his chief patron, Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted, who gave Donne and his family rooms in his house in Drury Lane, London.

That year, Donne wrote Pseudo-Martyr, a tract which encouraged Catholics to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King. Donne made his points about obedience reliant on Scripture and natural law.

Biography notes:

This won him the king’s favor and patronage from members of the House of Lords.

In 1614, Donne was elected as MP once more, this time for Taunton, in Somerset. Although he received five parliamentary appointments, he made no speeches that were recorded.

In 1615, James I encouraged Donne to take Holy Orders. Soon afterwards, he became Royal Chaplain.

The Poetry Foundation tells us that it was a difficult decision for Donne, who felt unworthy. Yet, once ordained, he became a true vicar of Christ:

Donne took holy orders in January 1615, having been persuaded by King James himself of his fitness for a ministry “to which he was, and appeared, very unwilling, apprehending it (such was his mistaking modesty) to be too weighty for his abilities.” So writes his first biographer, Izaak Walton, who had known him well and often heard him preach. Once committed to the Church, Donne devoted himself to it totally, and his life thereafter becomes a record of incumbencies held and sermons preached.

Sadly, in 1617, the love of Donne’s life, his dear wife Anne, died in childbirth. Wikipedia tells us about her married life. After her death, Donne, despite his post as Royal Chaplain, seriously contemplated suicide:

Anne gave birth to twelve children in sixteen years of marriage, (including two stillbirths—their eighth and then, in 1617, their last child); indeed, she spent most of her married life either pregnant or nursing. The ten surviving children were Constance, John, George, Francis, Lucy (named after Donne’s patron Lucy, Countess of Bedford, her godmother), Bridget, Mary, Nicholas, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Three (Francis, Nicholas, and Mary) died before they were ten. In a state of despair that almost drove him to kill himself, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one mouth fewer to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. During this time, Donne wrote but did not publish Biathanatos, his defense of suicide.[15] His wife died on 15 August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby.[2] Donne mourned her deeply, and wrote of his love and loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet.

Biathanatos is Greek for ‘life and death’.

However deeply Donne agonised over Anne’s death, God blessed him with the power of religious oratory and as the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of this period, Biography says:

His elaborate metaphors, religious symbolism and flair for drama soon established him as a great preacher

In 1621, Donne became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. During a period of severe illness, he wrote “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,” published in 1624. This work contains the immortal lines “No man is an island” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” That same year, Donne was appointed Vicar of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West and became known for his eloquent sermons.

The Poetry Foundation says that Donne’s sermons moved the hardest of hearts:

160 of his sermons have survived. The few religious poems he wrote after he became a priest show no falling off in imaginative power, yet the calling of his later years committed him to prose, and the artistry of his Devotions and sermons at least matches the artistry of his poems.

The publication in 1919 of Donne’s Sermons: Selected Passages, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith, came as a revelation to its readers, not least those who had little taste for sermons. John Bailey, writing in the Quarterly Review (April 1920), found in these extracts “the very genius of oratory … a masterpiece of English prose.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Studies in Literature (1920), judged the sermons to include “the most magnificent prose ever uttered from an English pulpit, if not the most magnificent prose ever spoken in our tongue.”

Over a literary career of some 40 years Donne moved from skeptical naturalism to a conviction of the shaping presence of the divine spirit in the natural creation. Yet his mature understanding did not contradict his earlier vision. He simply came to anticipate a Providential disposition in the restless whirl of the world. The amorous adventurer nurtured the dean of St. Paul’s.

Katherine Rundell tells us that Donne invented words for his sermons. These are very 21st century:

A few years before his own death, Donne preached a funeral sermon for the poet George Herbert’s mother Magdalen, who would “dwell bodily with that righteousness, in these new heavens and new earth, for ever and ever and ever, and infinite and super-infinite forevers”. In a different sermon, he wrote of how we would one day be with God in “an infinite, a super-infinite, an unimaginable space, millions of millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven”. He loved to coin formations with the super- prefix: super-edifications, super-exaltation, super-dying, super-universal, super-miraculous. It was part of his bid to invent a language that would reach beyond language, because infinite wasn’t enough.

John Donne died on March 31, 1631, hence the reason the Anglican Communion remembers him on that day. A large memorial stone statue of him was erected in the old St Paul’s Cathedral. Donne appears in his glorified body wearing the Crown of Life. His memorial started the trend for such church monuments during the 17th century.

He was buried in the old St Paul’s Cathedral, which the Great Fire of London destroyed in 1666. Incredibly, the stone statue of Donne survived the fire and is now displayed in the current St Paul’s Cathedral.

How can one summarise John Donne in one sentence? It would be impossible, for he was a man who was able to combine the earthy with the divine and make both sublime, as God intended them to be.

The Poetry Foundation says:

The transformation of Jack Donne the rake into the Reverend Dr. Donne, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, no longer seems bizarre. To impose such clear-cut categories upon a man’s career may be to take too rigid a view of human nature. That the poet of the Elegies and Songs and Sonnets is also the author of the Devotions and the sermons need not indicate some profound spiritual upheaval. One reason for the appeal of Donne in modern times is that he confronts us with the complexity of our own natures.

Katherine Rundell concludes:

Sometime religious outsider and social disaster, sometime celebrity preacher and establishment darling, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. He reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the King, dean of the finest cathedral in London. It’s traditional to imagine two Donnes – Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr Donne, the older, wiser priest, a split Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend – but he was infinitely more various and unpredictable than that

And then there was the transformation of himself: from failure and penury, to recognition within his lifetime as one of the finest minds of his age; one whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you. Because amid all Donne’s reinventions, there was a constant running through his lifeand work: he remained steadfast in his belief that we, humans, are at once a catastrophe and a miracle

He believed our minds could be forged into citadels against the world’s chaos: “be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail”. Tap a human, he believed, and they ring with the sound of infinity. Joy and squalor: both Donne’s life and work tell that it is fundamentally impossible to have one without taking up the other.

In the 21st century, Donne’s imagination offers us a form of body armour. His work is protection against the slipshod and the half-baked, against anti-intellectualism, against those who try to sell you their money-ridden vision of sex and love. He is protection against those who would tell you to narrow yourself, to follow fashion in your mode of thought.

It’s not that he was a rebel: it is that he was a pure original. They do us a service, the true uncompromising originals: they show us what is possible.

God broke the mould when he made John Donne. We are blessed to have his poems, essays and sermons as a legacy that withstands the test of time.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, we discover more about an Anglican clergyman who is quite the opposite.

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