St Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
On Sunday, 2 September 1666, a fire broke out that destroyed the City of London. The Great Fire reduced to ashes 13, 200 houses and 87 parish churches. And it all but consumed the great cathedral of Saint Paul. There’d been a cathedral on the site at the top of Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City, since the days of William the Conqueror. But now, under the instruction of architect Christopher Wren, the remains of the old cathedral were demolished to make way for a new one. What was left of it after the Great Fire wasn’t worth saving. Except for the memorial statue of one John Donne. The statue had been put up to mark the spot inside the cathedral where, after his death in 1631, John Donne had been buried. And somehow, it survived the Great Fire of London intact. It was reincorporated into the new interior once the cathedral had been rebuilt, where it can be seen to this day. But, since 2012, John Donne has been remembered outside St Paul’s Cathedral as well as inside it. This bust by Nigel Boonham was commissioned by the City of London and put up in the shadow of St Paul’s in June of that year. It shows John Donne with his head turned eastwards, looking towards nearby Bread Street, where he was born in 1572. At the age of 43, in 1615, John Donne took holy orders and soon after became the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Hence the prominence of his memorial and burial site within the cathedral. Towards the end of his life, when, possibly, he was suffering from the stomach cancer that would kill him, he wrote the famous poem, Holy Sonnet X. Also known, simply, as ‘Death’. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, the sonnet goes, before concluding, stridently, One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. But writing poetry wasn’t something John Donne took up later in life. He’d been writing since he was a young man. Poetry about love, sex, the sensual world. He also had a successful career as a soldier, a civil servant an MP for Brackley and as a secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Solicitor General. But Donne’s secretarial career stalled when he married Sir Thomas’s niece, Anne. John was imprisoned for a short time, and upon his release, found it difficult to get work anywhere. Blacklisted, perhaps. John and Anne Donne struggled to make ends meet. Over the next 16 years, the couple had 12 children. Two of those children were stillbirths, three died before they were ten-years-old. John felt the pain of those lossed sharply and wrote Bianthanatos, an essay defending suicide. Perhaps it was the experience of losing so many children that made John Donne turn towards the church in 1615. Sadly, in 1617, Anne died shortly after giving birth to another stillborn child. She whom I loved hath paid her last debt to nature, John would write in a poem about his wife’s passing. Now, as a man of the cloth, John wrote many sermons. Perhaps the most famous being his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in which he discusses man’s relationship with sin and includes the famous words, No man is an island. John’s poetry and sermons were highly praised in his own day. They were passed around his friends and colleagues in manuscript form, although not published formally during his lifetime. And then, in the nineteenth century, revival. Thanks to the interests of poets like Browning and Coleridge. John Donne is now one of the English language’s most read and most studied writers. The bust of him outside St Paul’s Cathedral shows his head turned to the east, to the place where he was born. But the East is where the Holy Lands are. They are a place of resurrection. And just as John Donne’s memorial statue rose from the ashes of St Paul’s Cathedral, burned in the Great Fire of 1666, so his poetry and sermons live again, four hundred years after his death.