Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/11/2010

John Donne, St. Paul’s London, Ingrid Bergman, and Religious Artifacts (or personal memories)

Ask not

Ask not

In a fascinating, if obscure, book he wrote in 1960, Patrick Cruttwell says about the poetry of John Donne,

For Donne, the writing of verse was not his career. . . . Donne was therefore free to change his verse, in subject or manner, or to give it up entirely, just as suited the requirements of his mind and emotions; he could make it express exactly what ideas, and in exactly what tones, he personally wished to express (1).

For those of us who do not (could not) make our living at writing that’s an exciting idea. We can “change our [words] in subject or manner. . . as suits the requirements of our minds and emotions on any given day.” Unlike Shakespeare who, Cruttwell says, had to maintain a certain relationship with his public—consistent—that is, always comprehensible and fitting the “subject and manner” the public had come to expect, Donne was free to be exasperated today and depressed tomorrow, and blissful next Tuesday; a religious skeptic one day and a firm Anglo-Catholic believer the next; but always a lover with the ability to write intensely sensuous erotic poetry. In high school English class we were assigned Donne’s deeply religious works, but I found his “Elegy XIX,” and as an eighteen-year-old gay boy thinking about not much else other than sex, “standing” and “upright” flesh were no mystery to me.

The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing. . . .
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright. . .(

Most people who know of Donne at all, know him not for his poetry, but for his decidedly more entangled and reasoned works, the Meditations, dense prose that always seems to be about death no matter what Donne’s topic du jour. People my age or older (or those who watch late-night black-and-white movies on TV) know “Meditation XVII.”

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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee (3).

That is to say, those of us who know late-night movies know Ingrid Bergman’s erotic, impassioned, lines to Gary Cooper,

In spite of all the things that were done to me…I never kissed a man until you…and now there are only three days and three nights!

in the Sam Wood film adaptation of Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (4). Some are familiar with Thomas Merton’s book of meditations, No Man Is an Island.

In spite of my pubescent delight in the naughtiness of Donne’s love poetry, I became fascinated simply by the rhetorical means of his writing—both poetry and prose. Puns, metaphors, similes, ubiquitous personification, and strangely effective word repetitions for which I had no name until forty years later:

the anadiplosis (the same words in different order) in “Holy Sonnet X,” for example:

. . . .but first he, and he first enters the way. . .

or the anaphora immediately following (three succeeding clauses beginning with the same word—in this case each one the modifier for a different metaphorical name for Jesus) :

. . . .O strong Ram which hast battered heaven for me,
Mild lamb, which with thy blood, hast marked the path;
Bright Torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see. . .

As a student I read Donne’s poetry and marveled at the constructions—not necessarily at the meanings which, at least in the “holy” sonnets, were too Catholic for my understanding until I became an Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) musician. By then it was too late because I had stopped reading (or writing—at which I was untalented) poetry, and the fascination with Donne’s way with words lay dormant.

No man is an island

No man is an island

In 1979 my partner sang in the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, MA. The choir made a singing tour of churches in England, and I made my first trip to Europe because they needed extra bodies to fill up a charter flight. The choir ended its tour singing Evensong at St. Paul’s London. They rehearsed the day before in the cathedral after it had closed, after the hundreds of tourists had been sent away and the doors locked. I was free to roam the cathedral alone—an experience few Londoners have, I expect. My most vivid memory is that the electric lights were turned off. It was early evening, mid-summer. The sun was still bright, and I saw St. Paul’s bathed in light as Christopher Wren designed it. This massive building is designed with windows all around—not stained glass—lit completely by the sun. An almost ineffable sight. I walked behind the high altar and stumbled upon the American Chapel—the only moment of anything other than joy, for one reason only. Only five years earlier Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace, but a picture of him helping dedicate the chapel as Vice-President in 1959 was prominently featured.

My disappointment was short lived because I continued around the apse and came upon another memorial.  John Donne is buried in St. Paul’s.

Yesterday I wrote about religious artifacts, specifically a gospel hymn as a religious artifact for one of the mainly-gay churches in Dallas. It may be blasphemy or sacrilege (or at least bad form) to write about the poetry of John Donne as a religious artifact commemorating personal relationships, particularly when I question the very meaning of Donne’s religious beliefs.

I began this writing because, in the process of sorting books recently, I came upon the Cruttwell book with which I began. I know the book because my late partner (not the partner with whom I was in London—we won’t begin that story) showed it to me when I was writing about writing in the 1990s. He had used it as a source for his MA thesis on the novels of John William DeForest.

What makes an object a religious artifact, and what do I mean by that formulation? I haven’t thought that through. Is it the religious content of the object? Is it the personal meaning attached to the object? These are questions to answer in the future. For now, this writing will have to end with a whimper rather than a bang, a whimper pondering how the poetry that is most memorable and fascinating to me, and references to the poet who made it, continue to appear in the life of my imagination unexpectedly in the context of my most cherished relationships. How does simple personal meaning relate to “religious” import? Or does it? It’s important that I sort all of that out for myself some day.

The Inn at Hill Farm "...his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another..."

The Inn at Hill Farm "...his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another..."

A section of “Mediation XVII” that neither Hemingway nor Merton made famous:

. . . .all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
(1) Cruttwell, Patrick. The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1960 (94).
(2) Donne, John. “Elegy XX.” The Works of John Donne, Ed. Anniina Jokinen. May 5, 2007. Web. 10 Aug 2010.
(3) Ibid. “Meditation XVII.”
(4) Wood, Sam, dir. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Perfs. Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman. Paramount Studios, 1943.
(5) Donne. “Holy Sonnet X.”


%d bloggers like this: