09 February 2017

‘If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less’ – John Donne and Brexit

John Donne ... ‘If a clod be washed away by the sea, / Europe is the less.’

Patrick Comerford

During a lecture this morning in the module on Anglican Studies, I discussed the way Anglican spirituality and theology in the 16th and 17th centuries were shaped by and contributed to shaping the culture of the day.

The great Anglican priest-poets of the early 17th century include George Herbert and John Donne (1571-1631), who was Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

I was reminded forcefully this morning during the discussion that followed of how relevant John Donne is to the present debates in Britain.

Donne is a major representative of the metaphysical poets of the period, his works are notable for their realistic and sensual style, and they include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons.

His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of contemporary English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry was the idea of true religion, which he spent much time considering and theorising. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic poems and love poems, and is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.

Donne came from a Catholic family – his mother was a great-niece of Thomas More – and he was unable to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge because he could not take the Oath of Supremacy. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne Moore with whom he had 12 children. He was an MP in 1601 and in 1614, and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615, not because he wanted to but because King James I persistently ordered it. Eventually, the University of Cambridge made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1618, and he was appointed the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1621. He died 10 years later on 31 March 1631, and is buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

John Donne is best remembered today for lines that are worth re-reading in the light of the current ‘Brexit’ debate:

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.
— John Donne, Meditation XVII

John Donne’s monument in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London ... ‘... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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