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John Donne John Donne


Poet and Priest


Part 8: Ann's Death, The Dean of St. Paul's and For Whom the Bell Tolls

NARRATOR: On Good Friday 1613 he rode westward to visit Sir Edward Herbert in Wales.  The shadow of Christ on the cross, like a thundercloud, was behind him in the east.  He dared not turn to look.
DONNE: Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look'st towards me,
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 rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
NARRATOR: Could it be that this poem marked a turning point in his life?  He gave up his cottage at Mitcham and set up home with his family in Drury Lane, so named after his benefactor, Sir Robert Drury.  And in 1614 he received from the King:
DONNE: As good allowance and encouragement as I could desire.
NARRATOR: And he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of London on 23 January 1615.
DONNE: Thou hast set up many candlesticks, and kindled many lamps in me; but I have either blown them out, or carried them to guide me in forbidden ways.  Thou hast given me a desire for knowledge, and some possession of it, and I have armed myself with thy weapons against thee.  Yet, O God, have mercy upon me.
NARRATOR: In 1616 he returned to his old haunt as Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn.  For 60 a year he had to preach 50 sermons, no doubt he raising a wry smile when he preached:
DONNE: If any man will sue thee at law for thy coat, let him have thy cloak too, for if thine adversary have it not, thine advocate will.
NARRATOR: Just as Donne's fortunes seemed to be improving, Anne Donne died, on 15 August, 1617, aged thirty-three, after giving birth to their twelfth child, a stillborn.  Seven of their children survived their mother's death.  Struck by grief, Donne wrote his seventeenth Holy Sonnet.
DONNE: Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put thee out.
NARRATOR: His household, including six younger children, now had to be run by his fourteen year old daughter Constance.

In 1619 he was appointed chaplain on a large and expensive embassy to Germany.  King James was anxious to act as a peacemaker between Protestant Bohemia and the Catholic King Ferdinand during the 30 Years Wars.

Donne could rarely resist a perceptive witticism:
DONNE: An Ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.
NARRATOR: His poem about this voyage was also a preparation for the next life:
DONNE: In what torn ship so ever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of Thy ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of Thy blood;
Though Thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
Which, though they turn away sometimes,
They never will despise.

I sacrifice this island unto Thee,
And all whom I love there, and who loved me;
When I have put our seas 'twixt them and me,
Put thou Thy seas betwixt my sins and Thee.
As the tree's sap doth seek the root below
In winter, in my winter now I go,
Where none but Thee, the eternal root
Of true love, I may know.

Nor Thou nor Thy religion dost control
The amorousness of an harmonious soul;
But Thou wouldst have that love Thyself; as Thou
Art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now;
Thou lovest not, till from loving more Thou free
My soul ; Who ever gives, takes liberty;
Oh, if Thou carest not whom I love,
Alas ! Thou lovest not me.

Seal then this bill of my divorce to all,
On whom those fainter beams of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scatter'd be
On fame, wit, hopes - false mistresses - to Thee.
Churches are best for prayer, that have least light;
To see God only, I go out of sight;
And to escape stormy days, I choose
An everlasting night.
NARRATOR: On his return he continued to try and advance himself, by grovelling to the the King's favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.
DONNE: I wish that my Lord Keeper would have left a hole for so poor a worm as I to have crept in at.   I lie in a corner, as a clod of clay, attending what kind of vessel, ye shall please to make of your Lordship's humblest and thankfullest servant.
NARRATOR: The Medieval St Paul's Cathedral, 1600,  before the Fire of LondoneHis flattery paid off.   In 1621 King James had him installed as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Over the next ten years he was to become one of the country's most revered spiritual preachers, with a message akin to the most profound spiritual writing of the 21st Century.
DONNE: (CHURCH ACOUSTIC): Man is not a piece of the world, but the world itself; and next to the glory of God, the reason there is a world.
NARRATOR: However he was still a child of his times.   A highly personal holy Sonnet 18, written about this time, still asks whether he had made the right choice in leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a Protestant.
DONNE: Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.
NARRATOR: He was to choose what he saw as the moderate, middle way of Anglicanism, between the extremes of Calvinism and Rome.   He worked meticulously on his sermons.   Walton observed:
WALTON: His bed was not able to detain him beyond four in the morning.   The latter part of his life may be said to be a continual study.
NARRATOR: His reading was so intense that after his death papers were found in his Deanery, that were:
WALTON: The resultance of 1400 authors, most of them abridged and analysed in his own hand.
NARRATOR: In the winter of 1623 - 24 he suffered a 'relapsing fever' and doctors considered him near death; but he recovered, and then published his Devotions containing his famous No Man is an Island speech.   Shortly after he preached:
DONNE: (CHURCH ACOUSTIC) The love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; and that love can never end, for God is love.
NARRATOR: His old Catholic mother came to live him at the Deanery and in 1630, while Donne was preparing his lenten sermon, she died.
DONNE: We have a winding sheet in our mother's womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world, wound up in it, for we come to seek a grave.
NARRATOR: His last sermon at Whitehall Palace on 25th February 1631, when he was almost certainly suffering from cancer, was published as Death's Duel
DONNE: God doth not say live well and that thou shalt die an easy and a quiet death, but live well here and thou shalt live for ever.
NARRATOR: One remaining piece of business was to prepare a monument.   He threw himself into the project.   He had fires lit in his study, stripped naked, was clothed in a shroud as if for burial, left his emaciated face visible, and had a sketch made, which watched over his death bed.   You can see the resulting monument in St Paul's Cathedral today.

He died on 31 March 1631 and those near him reported that he died in peace, closing his eyes as he composed himself for the experience he had so often imagined.
DONNE: No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


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We recommend four biographies: the outstanding Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs.  Robert Nye writes: "It is the best life of Donne, which I for one have ever read.  If this marvellous book doesn't win one of the major literary prizes,then we have the wrong judges."  We also recommend Man of Flesh and Spirit by David L Edwards, former Speaker's Chaplain in the House of Commons, and John Donne, Life, Mind and Art by John Carey, former Chairman of the Manbooker Prize and very successful beekeeper, and of course the first biography by Izaak Walton, who also wrote the classic, The Compleat Angler.