Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. And if you want to listen to Douglas read this week’s work, a stanza from John Donne’s “The Anniversary,” click below.
The three most important questions that great poets, like great philosophers, must address are how to live, how to love, and how to die. There are other questions worth pondering, of course, but these are the themes that great poets have come back to for centuries. Auden applied himself principally to the second. Tichborne devoted himself to the last. Shakespeare did all three, and then some. But there is another poet who worked around the same time as Shakespeare who accomplished almost as much.
Today, John Donne is best known for a couple of oft-quoted lines. “No man is an island” is such a common phrase that it was recently abused in an HSBC advertising campaign. The same poem also includes the line “Never send to know for whom / the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Perhaps these lines are Donne’s most famous because they are not that difficult to understand, even though Donne, as a general matter, is a difficult poet. His poems are exceptionally tightly packed, and while he doesn’t waste a word, his stanzas and clauses often curl around, baroque-like—one cause of him being grouped in the “metaphysical” school of poets. A title for a school of poetry that must be among the most off-putting.
Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and he knew how to make a point at its clearest and most memorable. Though Donne’s sermons are read less today than his poetry, I would urge anyone who is interested to read his sermon on the wedding of Lady Mary, daughter of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, which was preached at the earl’s house in 1627. There, Donne gave his account of what will happen at the resurrection. It was a question people worried about at the time. If a body rots and falls apart after death, or bits of it are left in different places, how can God possibly call these fragments of bodies together as the last trumpet sounds?
According to Donne, “Still God knows in what cabinet every seed-pearl lies, in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies; and sibilat populum suum, (as his prophet speaks in another case) he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his saints.” This is prose of high brilliance. God “hisses”? I recently discovered that the great crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was also a fan of this passage, which lent me a certain feeling of vindication.
In any case, Donne’s poetry is denser than his prose, as poetry must be. But it is the denseness and sometimes trickiness that allows him to throw in lines that can knock you flat. Some of them are in the famous poems like “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” “Death be not proud,” or (a personal favorite) “Since she whom I loved.”
But two portions of Donne are in my head the most.