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 promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne. January 22 1572–March 31 1631).
Some years ago, while visiting my sister, then living in London, the family decided a tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral was in order. I was wandering down the aisle of this stately edifice, when I stopped suddenly, startled by the apparition in my path. I could barely make out in the gloom of the huge cathedral what appeared to be a statue of a mummy, a figure wrapped in burial shrouds and almost completely covered except for the face. I turned to the guide and said, “Who or what is that?” He chuckled, “Oh, that’s John Donne. He had himself sculpted in his burial wrappings a few days before he died to remind himself of his impending death and to be prepared for it. He kept it near his bed as a memento mori.” I remember, down the years, the long pause that followed as the information sunk in, and as I recalled reading Donne as an undergraduate. I smiled, for Donne was an extraordinary man, poet, lawyer, and Anglican priest– just some of the many roles he played in his turbulent lifetime.
I fell in love with Donne’s early poetry as an English major undergraduate. For some reason (tongue in cheek), the professor preferred the erotic early pieces to the later, which tended towards more somber religious themes. In keeping with his many incarnations, Donne’s impulses seemed to work in ingenious ways so that his poems were more like puzzles. They were based on the extended metaphor, called a “conceit,” wherein two unlike things are combined in one with the use of imagery. For example, in his “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” he compares two lovers to the two legs of a compass and how these are always joined at the head though the legs move apart. In “The Flea,” he uses an insect to represent lovers, for in biting them both, the flea carries their “child.”
Because Donne’s works are also witty and intellectually oriented, particularly in his use of paradox and analogy, he is often thought to represent the group of like-minded bards known as the “metaphysical poets.” His works are often shot through with cynicism and irony, particularly when it comes to love (Read “Go and Catch a Falling Star”). These characteristics also shape the syntax and lexicon of his poetry. For Donne diverged from the prevailing forms and conventions of Elizabethan poetry, preferring atypical subject matter and delivery.
Donne’s themes included the nature of love, death, and other orthodox subjects, but most particularly, the concept of “true” or authentic religion. He argued that it was necessary to construct one’s own religious principles so as not to appear at the Final Judgment with vague notions of their origins. In his satires, Donne also targeted English society for criticism, alert to corruption he saw in all its variations. Perhaps connected with this vision are the many images of disease and illness that populate his writings. Apparently, he was frequently ill and at the end of his life may have had typhus and other serious illnesses which compromised his health. Besides these, he was often beset by financial worries in his efforts to provide for his family of thirteen, which included his wife Anne and twelve children (his wife died giving birth to the last). Some critics say that the increasing bleakness of his poetic tone may be the result of these losses. Others point to his conversion to Anglicanism and his ascendency to the deanship of St. Paul’s in 1621 where he remained until the end of his life as religious influences on his work.
John Donne’s poetic legacy is manifold. First, regarding its influence on the poetry of the day, his work represents a change from an imitation of the classical forms to more intimate, ego-centered poetry. In this respect, Donne is celebrated for his meter, which was distinguished by shifting and uneven rhythms that closely parallel informal speech (“it was for this that the more classical-minded Ben Jonson commented that ‘Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging’”). (Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition. W. W. Norton, 2006. pp. 600–602). Donne’s work is also an impetus in countless films, books, and other media, the most well-known being Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island.
Those are the basic facts about John Donne. But for me, he was a model for how to endure change and the suffering which often followed. With each fluctuation, it seems his outlook on life shifted accordingly as he struggled to adapt. Donne, ever attuned to every aspect of life, endured sorrow and pain, disappointment, and dashed hopes. He went from youthful rake to somber cleric, eventually, after his beloved wife’s death, immersing himself in the faith. He was alert to life’s discrepancies and ambiguities, which he celebrated rather than shunned. Fortunately for his admirers, he saw the holy in everything, in ordinary human actions and ordinary events. For from them, the human heart, its thoughts and beliefs, evolve to make us what we become. In this Lent, then, I offer some of his work for your consideration and urge you to explore the rest. You are bound to find inspiration for any phase of life, and words which will linger in your heart, mind, and soul for as long as you have life.