I was very sad when John Donne died. This wasn’t recently (in fact, 1631), nor is it a plot spoiler, but is retold in the culmination of Katherine Rundell’s absorbing recent biography of the poet. Like so many in his generation Donne had a momento mori close by on his desk – a reminder of mortality present at all times. To modern sentiments this may seem mawkish, but in an era when sudden death was far from rare, it was wise to live with an active awareness that your current experience could came to an abrupt full stop.
The awareness of death is a characteristic consistent with Donne’s relentless attention to the material world, no matter how grim or gritty it got. There was nothing too impolite or unseemly to be dragged into the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral and shared with the multitudes. Life, Donne told his hearers, is like a journey between a goal and a place of execution. A short trip that ran from crime to punishment, darkness to death. Except that this wasn’t the lesson of his analogy. Donne was provoking the congregation to contrast our human inattention with the alertness of someone knowingly going to their death. As he put it, on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn, no one sleeps. Yet, Donne argues, we are heading towards the same certainty spending significant parts of the journey asleep. His call echoes the Biblical and Advent theme that ‘now it is time to wake out of sleep’. To be stirred up, ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’.
Donne is not a wholly attractive figure. As a financially challenged poet his obsequious letters to various grandees grate in a more egalitarian age. His rise to high office in the Church of England required careful nurturing of royal connections. Despite this, he brought to the Deanery a fierce intellect; an astonishing mastery of language; and a theological sensitivity to the complexity of the times. The combination of his gifts and experiences enabled Donne to further what we might now call ‘the Anglican Project’ – establishing the groundwork for an expression of Christianity shaped by the heritage and nuances of English experience. There was certainly an appetite for his approach, with large crowds flocking to hear him preach. A few years ago, an experiment took place to see how audible Donne’s sermons would have been from the outside pulpit at St Paul’s, surrounded by hundreds of people.
Perhaps the most curious, visceral and haunting detail in Rundell’s book describes Donne’s preparation for death. As the end approached Donne saw its prospect as one final dramatic moment. He ordered an urn and shroud to be made, then lay in the shroud so an artist could sketch his appearance at full scale. This became the image from which his statue was carved following his death – still in St Paul’s today, one of very few to survive the Great Fire of 1666.
“Donne made himself ready; part, perhaps, of a desire to have things done exactly as he had imagined them – an artist of ferocious precision, dying precisely. His last words – ‘I were miserable if I might not die.'”Rundell, K, ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’, Faber 2022 p. 290
It is fitting that Donne is most often remembered for his poem beginning ‘No man is an island’. Fitting because it addresses two themes which ran throughout Donne’s life: mortality and connectedness. He lived at a time when the fusion of the material and spiritual, the sensory and the abstract, was an acceptable way to write about the world. Given the ubiquity of death, including young family members, mortality made Donne’s life an ever changing landscape. Undoubtedly these losses were never welcome, but they contributed to a vivid celebration of life and determination to be awake and alert. Donne notices the world in a way that comes from an acute sense that each and every day is gift that will not be repeated.