Simon Schama’s BBC Documentary on John Donne, a poet whose challenging output dazzled me as a young man, was screened just after I had finished reading John Stubbs’ excellent biography (See Levi Stahl for a balanced review), Donne: The Reformed Soul. These twin experiences set me thinking about him once more.
There is a lot we can learn from looking at the life and work of this man. He also lived as we do in a turbulent time, in his case on the run in to the English Civil War and Puritan Revolution. He was an indirect descendant of Thomas More, the man for all seasons who was executed on the orders of Henry VIII when he wouldn’t agree to Henry’s divorce, and who, while in prison himself, reputedly arranged for the death of William Tyndale, whose inspired translation of the Bible into English is the foundation of the King James version. It was not a time noted for its tolerance, while ours is seeing tolerance eroded on all sides.
Donne began life as a Catholic and ended it as an Anglican priest, Dean of St Paul’s. In between he was a reprobate and love poet before transforming into a great religious poet and one of the greatest sermon writers of any age in England or perhaps anywhere.
He is perhaps most famous for the quote ‘no man is an island, entire of itself’.
The context is:
Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? 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 bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The words ring down the centuries with absolute conviction:
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
Our need to understand them and act on that understanding has never been greater. And the advice he gave in one of his satires (Number Three) would help us broaden our sympathies and diminish our prejudices:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Both these sentiments are echoed in our own times by Bahá’u’lláh:
O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
(The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No. 68)
O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.
(Ibid: Arabic No. 2)
If only most of us could live according to those two principles the world would be transformed. How many times must they be repeated before we get the point?