Some years ago I was invited to join a gathering at our church where we would seek to gain further understanding of our Christianity and renew our faith by reviewing the works of the metaphysical poets. I’m not sure whether the incumbent parson saw me as in need of spiritual revelation through poetry or perhaps viewed me as a potential source of conflict and therefore likely to encourage discussion.
Those of you who know me will appreciate that on the first poem – Milton’s Paradise Lost – I had little insight to provide. I have yet to get a grip on Milton… He’s not my style 🙂
Coleridge followed – The Rime of The Ancient Mariner and a poem for which I have much love. The tale of how a single bird’s death holds in its compass the fate of many sailors has a unique ability to chill the soul. I had a small input on this – did the Albatross symbolise the sins of the human race and a guardian that, like Pandora’s box, keeps us safe from our own errors? There were many other thoughts suggested by others present more scholarly than me.
Then, on the third evening, we met John Donne. I love the works of Donne – his poems challenge both the Human condition and what we believe in the spiritual sense. In his day his poetry must have been seen as both confrontational and, simultaneously, inspirational (at least for those who could read). But, and this was my input, it’s important to witness his poetry as that of one who is walking the fine line between belief and treason. It’s fair to say that this assessment of Donne’s work was definitely not what the scholarly souls wanted to hear at our ‘Faith Renewal’ meeting. Sorry all, I misunderstood what we were here for – Mea Culpa 🙂
I pointed out that John Donne was born a Catholic into Elizabethan England. A highly dangerous position to be in given the ongoing work of Lord Walsingham and his network of spies that sought to defend the protestant Queen Elizabeth against her Catholic foes, abroad and within the fabric of the English hierarchy, and that his poetry should always be treated with a cautious eye to that driving force. Donne’s poetry often seems, at least to my uneducated intellect, to push forward his ‘Church of England’ credentials in both obvious and subliminal statements. It seems to be a means of showing those who had imprisoned his brother for harbouring a Catholic Priest that he had reviewed his faith and concluded that the Roman Catholic Church was, after all, not the right path of Christian faith – and that he belonged within the English political establishment. He wouldn’t be the first and he certainly wasn’t the last to use a redirection of faith for political safety. After all, his Brother died in Newgate Prison of Bubonic Plague whilst awaiting trial and the Catholic priest he had harboured was hanged and disembowelled – something guaranteed to get Donne’s attention and encourage a swift change of religious conviction!
But who am I to judge? I can choose to be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim (or any other number of faiths) in the UK today. Perhaps John Donne’s legacy was to open this possibility to the many whilst providing some of the greatest poetry that an Englishman has ever written. Who can forget once read the words of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ or the divine meditation ‘Death be not Proud’.