Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To look at the poetry and story of John Donne, an Anglican priest and poet, showing how he struggled to find out and live up to his situation and insights.
Preparation and materials
- Picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London. (NB The Cathedral of which John Donne was Dean was the old cathedral, destroyed by the Fire of London. This point could be made at some convenient stage.)
- Images of John Donne as a young man and in his shroud are available on the Internet. A good starting point is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Donne.
'Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands and crystal brooks
With silken lines, and silver hooks...'
'Twice or thrice had I loved thee, before I knew thy face or name,
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be...'
(Air and Angels)
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then,
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly...'?
Love poems. What can they have to do with one of London's most famous sites?
(Show picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London.)
More than you might think...
Some of the most beautiful, tender and tempestuous love poetry in the English language was written by a priest. Nearly three hundred and seventy years after his death, his works are still being read by students - and lovers - all over the English speaking world. The poet was John Donne, who eventually became ordained and rose to be Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.
But first he enjoyed a youth full of riotous living, first as a witty, reckless law student and then as a volunteer on an expedition against Spain with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex. In fact his wild life only came to an end when he made a secret marriage to his boss's niece - probably the lady to whom he wrote many of his poems. With that marriage he had to face disapproval from all the people who had previously supported him, and that meant no money either. Donne had to look at a serious life change.
In fact life had never been easy for John Donne. He had been born as a Catholic at a time when Catholics were being persecuted in England. At that time Catholics who refused to attend services at the Anglican Church had to pay a large fine - and if they didn't, their goods and most of their land were confiscated. His faith also meant that he couldn't get full professional qualifications, and his secret marriage put a stop to his career. Donne was poor and struggling to bring up a family. Where should he turn? Maybe the only way in which he could find employment was to become an Anglican, a member of the Church of England.
So what, you might say, what difference does it make? He was still a Christian. But in those days the rivalry between Protestant and Catholic in England was dangerous. And it wasn't just a political problem: most people believed in a physical heaven and hell and John Donne faced the prospect of punishment in hell for turning away from the Catholic faith. He was in turmoil. He was plagued by depression. Added to that, he was always haunted by a fear that he had betrayed his original faith.
'A man who changes his church... is like a coin from which the features are filed away. ...even though this might be done to stamp the coin with a better impression, it will always look 'awry and squint' afterwards.'
But one of the most interesting things about Donne is the way he stood up to his own fears, doubts and contradictions. He turned all the power that he had used in his love poems to his work as a preacher. Even his convincing words, though, could not overcome his fear of death; it was as if all his words were designed to reassure himself, to work out his own struggle. Already, before his death, he had preached his own funeral sermon and designed a statue of himself in his shroud. Today, in St Paul's, you can still see him, complete with worms. And some of his most famous lines - which were preached in a sermon - remind us that our fates, as humans, are all linked:
'No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... 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.'
Love, faith and death. Life's great themes. They affect us all. If you should find yourself in St Paul's Cathedral, remember John Donne, a priest and poet whose struggles with love, faith and death still speak from over three hundred years ago.
An extract from The Song of Solomon e.g. Chapter 2. 8-14 - an example of love poetry in the Bible.
Time for reflection
In a quiet moment, let us think about our own hopes and fears.
The joys that love inspires in us.
The sadness and fear that death sometimes threatens us with.
Let's remember that we all experience these feelings.
'No man is an island entire of itself...'
May this thought give us hope to face our lives as individuals, as part of humanity, as part of God's creation, sharing the promise of Jesus that death can be overcome by love.
Choral music by William Byrd (1543-1623), a near contemporary of Donne and one of the most famous composers of early Church music. Byrd, like Donne, underwent many of the same personal conflicts of loyalty to the Catholic Church.