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John Donne, Heaven or Hell?

I must admit I’m not strong on the Metaphysical poets, but when I came across the statue of John Donne on the south side of St Paul’s Cathedral I thought I’d better take a look at some of his poetry. Not really my cup of tea on examination, however I did take a look at his life, which I found much more interesting.

John Donne 1572-1631

Donne was a Londoner born in Bread Street in 1572 and this is where the enigma of his life starts. His family were what was known at the time as recusant, that is that they did not recognise the Anglican Church and refused to attend church services, worshiping as Catholics in all probability in secret. This must have been a difficult upbringing for Donne and surprisingly he goes on to be a cleric in the Church of England later in life.

Donne’s brother Henry was arrested in 1593 for harbouring a Catholic priest, William Harrington, and died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague, leading Donne to begin questioning his Catholic faith.

For a man of the church his life was at times far from pious. After his fathers death he inherited a large amount of money, but seems to have spent it all on whoring, drinking and various other pastimes.Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He died on 31 March 1631 and was buried in the old St Paul’s Cathedral. It seems that on balance his path along the ecclesiastical road was more financially pragmatic than some inner calling, as it secured him a guaranteed living. At the time he was Dean of the cathedral and was buried with the reverence the position afforded. A statue which sat inside the cathedral was commissioned and survives to this day, although it was caught in the Great Fire of 1666. At the base of the statue can be seen scorch marks from the conflagration and I wonder if this was some sort of sign as to where the slightly dodgy cleric ended up?

John Donne Memorial, St Paul’s Cathedral

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