by Stephen Wigley.
It’s now 400 years since John Donne, the celebrated poet and preacher was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. Not long after this appointment, and shortly after the death of his daughter Lucy, Donne himself was taken seriously ill, quite possibly from typhus. For many days in late 1623 he was perilously close to death, before recovering to serve as Dean until his death in 1631.
Throughout this time Donne was determined to reflect and write about his illness, a task undertaken with such commitment that his book was actually registered for publication on 9th January 1624 and published later that year as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and several steps in my Sickness.
The book itself is structured in 23 chronological sections, one for each day of Donne’s illness, with in turn a ‘meditation’ describing a stage in his illness, an ‘expostulation’ containing his reaction to that stage, and a prayer for that day. But while much of it is not widely known, the Meditation for Day 17 includes one of the most famous passages in English, albeit in the gendered language of his time.
‘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…’
Why come back to this piece, some 400 years after it was written? It seems to me that Donne’s words, and particular his reflections in this Meditation, resonate with so many of the concerns with which we have been wrestling with over the last 18 months of coronavirus and restrictions.
Donne is careful to observe the spread of the illness across his body, not as a disinterested observer but as someone assessing how serious the situation is. In the same way, we have been watching and waiting on news, first of infection rates, then more hopefully of vaccinations, and in recent months once more with nervousness about rates of new variants.
Donne is properly interested in his own situation, but he knows himself dependent on the care and attention of others. Given his own crisis, he knows that he cannot ignore the bell which tolls for him, but equally he recognises that it may call on others, differently; ‘as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all.’
Donne sees in this mutual need and interdependence upon others as a sign of the ‘catholicity’ of the Church, a recognition that in each individual action the fullness of the sacrament can be observed.
‘The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me… And when she buries a man, that action concerns me.’
All this speaks to us in a world where we recognise that the virus knows no boundaries and safe zones, and we reflect that no-one can feel secure in the vaccine until everyone has the vaccine available.
Finally, throughout his illness, Donne is concerned to find out what God may be saying in this crisis, what there is of purpose to be found in all this suffering. His conclusion is that God’s hand can be found in every page if we are willing to look; ‘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.’
Across the centuries scholars have wondered why Donne rushed to get these devotions out so soon after his illness. Was it to challenge the dominant Puritanism of his time and reassert a more open, Arminian, welcoming theology? Or was it a coded message to a new King not to isolate himself from the wider body, both politic and religious? We cannot know – but in this time of uncertainty, when we have been challenged by our mutual vulnerability and interdependence in ways we could not have imagined, there is something about Donne’s words that commands us, above all, to listen.
‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’