Artillery Row

A heavenly perspective

Thoughts on the plague with St Pauls’ greatest dean, John Donne

If you are ever in St Paul’s head down to south of the choir and you’ll find a statue of the cathedral’s greatest dean, John Donne, poet and priest. It is unsettling, odd even. It is Donne in his funeral shroud, his face peeking out with the ghost of a smile. Like Donne, the statue is a bit of a survivor.

When the Norman cathedral became an inferno during the Great Fire of 1666 nothing remained. Well, nearly nothing. It is said that Donne’s statue pitched forward in the flames and with the floor gone slipped into the crypt and remained there unloved for many centuries. It is now restored to prominence.

But if you look carefully, you’ll notice the statue is damaged and peer closer and you’ll see that it has been licked by the flames. Like Dean Donne, his statue went through the fire and somehow survived.

Bizarrely, Donne modelled for the statue himself, dressed as a corpse so the sculptor could get a true likeness. He had become obsessed with death and life and wondered about suffering. Izaac Walton, author of The Compleat Angler and friend of Donne makes the extraordinary claim that the statue was meant to show the dean freshly resurrected, stepping out of death and into eternal life.

Donne was an unlikely figurehead of hope. He suffered from what today we call depression

But we get ahead of ourselves. We need to go back 7 years to a London in the grip of plague, with the streets empty and panic in the air. It felt like the end was nigh. London in the early 1620s was grim. Life expectancy was low, and the place was filthy and dangerous. Homespun prophets stalked the streets exclaiming that the end was nigh. You can’t really blame them. A third of Londoners died, another third moved out. Only the rats were thriving.

Donne, the Dean of St Paul’s, was a rare beacon of hope. His sermons drew large crowds of anxious people needing reassurance. Preaching was something he excelled at – but considering he had been a poet in his earlier years that was to be expected.

But Donne was an unlikely figurehead of hope. He was a melancholy man who suffered from what today we call depression. Five of his children had died as infants and his favourite daughter, a teenager, had died recently. His brother had died of plague in prison at the age of 20. And his beloved wife, Ann, had died in August 1617 leaving him to care for the rest of the children. It is hard to imagine carrying on with such loss, but that was the way it was.

And then there was the family shame. The Donne’s were Catholic in Protestant England and this had spelled trouble, not least for John whose career prospects had hit the rocks. Some say it was a matter of convenience that he became an Anglican, but it had at least rehabilitating him and he was now in high office.

London’s unlikely saviour was having a second wind. But it wasn’t to last. In the winter of 1623 Donne found the tell-tale marks of plague on his body. He suspected the worst. And yet it is from this experience that one of his finest works came – a series of meditations on suffering, illness and death that were published in 1624. 

Donne had a fever and his writing is odd, feverish and at turns supplicating, angry or bewildered. With God. They are also remarkably contemporary in feel and content, if not in language. They document his decent into what he thought was a life-threatening plague and produced some of the finest lines in English prose. Along the way, it shows us how we have much to learn from our forebears.

In the very first sentence of Devotions, Donne pithily summarises the experience of getting ill. ‘This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.’ We can all understand that.  He explains how he and others had tried everything to stay well – eating the right food, exercising and cleaning the tiles and floors.  He captures the sense of uncertainty just before we admit we are truly ill; ‘we are not sure we are ill; one hand askes the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our urine, how we do.’

Donne’s first response is self-pity and pity for the human condition. ‘O miserable condition of Man!’

There are 23 separate chapters in Devotions – each explaining different facets of the illness and his response to this. He is angry with God and wonders why he has been struck down – perhaps it was a divine punishment for the racy life he led as a younger man. He laments that his ability to ‘sleepe, has been taken away.’ He reflects that lying in his sickbed feels like ‘lying in the grave,’ but without the hope of resurrection.

Some of the most contemporary-sounding parts are his rye meditations on the doctors who come to treat him. To begin with he is no fan. ‘I see hee feares, and I feare with him.’ It doesn’t help that Donne is put though a series of painful and humiliating medical procedures – including vomiting and bleeding. But that fear and mistrust of doctors fades and he has a moment of lucidity. It is so profound that it echoes down the centuries to our own horror and pain in the face of our modern pandemic. It tackles some of those key questions – why does it matter if we die? What does it feel like to be mortal? What is the meaning of suffering?

Donne hears the church bells tolling near his isolation cell. At first, he thinks they are ringing out for his own death, but he realises that, at least for the moment, he is still alive.

In modern English his insight translates like this.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

One person’s loss is everyone’s loss. We can’t withdraw from the suffering of others, because as he says, ‘I am involved in mankind’.  As Donne hears the bells ringing for another plague victim, he pleads, ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’. We are all mortal. We are all just a second from the end of things and the permanence we have in earthly things will always be illusory. What we have, of course, is each other and the fact that while alive we are bound to each other.

Just seeing some of our greatest institutions and businesses threaten to crumble after 2 or 3 tumultuous months with our own plague makes us realise that our societies are less robust than we think. But what is not flimsy, of course, is love and altruism.

Death hurts and it hurts at the very deepest level for those left behind. When we lose someone we lose that which is precious. Or to put it another way, the world will never be the same again with that person no longer in it. All of us is a part of something greater than ourselves – whether we know it or not. Donne has moved beyond pity for his own terrible suffering to see a broader perspective. We are finite being, beings with a beginning, middle and end. But there is an odd mystery at the heart of things – when we experience or confront suffering it can help us to appreciate what we have and to have a more heavenly perspective on things.

Our lives are authored as part of a much greater story. As Donne says; ‘All mankind is of one Author and is one volume.’

For John Donne, there was a twist in the tale – he recovered. He survived another 7 years, but then began to succumb to cancer. The dashing dilettante became skin and bones, but he was determined to keep going in the face of adversity. He dragged himself to preach one last sermon at St Paul’s just days before his death. That sermon was hopeful which isn’t bad in a man who had at times contemplated suicide. He reminded people of a more heavenly perspective:

Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday…There I shall be all light, no shadow upon me.

I wonder what Donne would have made of our modern world and predicament. I think he would have understood much about it and us. He would have understood our feeling of powerlessness and our feelings of anxiety at getting ill and being ill. He would have marvelled at our world and the science and care of doctors. He would probably have been relieved that we no longer required purging and bleeding. But even if much would be unfamiliar, he would understand that we wrestle with big subjects in times of plague. I think, despite all the suffering, he would still be a voice of hope.

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