In late November 1623, John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, fell ill, probably of typhus, or ‘spotted fever’, as it was called in his day. He was in his early 50s, a widower since the death of his beloved wife Anne in 1617, and the father of four daughters and a son, who carried his father’s name.
Donne had taken Holy Orders in the Church of England in 1615. He had done so reluctantly, and only after exhausting every other career path. As a young man, he had gained a reputation among a small circle of university graduates, fellow-poets, and would-be courtiers for his witty and erotic love poetry. Like dozens of other young men, he hung around the Royal Court in the hopes of coming to the attention of some ‘great man’ and so gaining a position that would lead to social and financial advancement.
In 1598 Donne appeared to have set his foot on the first rung of a ladder that would bring him everything he wanted. He had been appointed chief secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, one of the most important officials in the realm, whose London home, York House, was close the Palace of Whitehall, the centre of political life in England.
Egerton’s niece Anne More, whose father Sir George More, was Lieutenant of the Tower of London, was staying with her uncle, and being groomed for an advantageous marriage. Instead, she and Donne fell in love, and, just before Christmas 1601, they were secretly married. Sir George exploded with rage. Donne was at that stage a nobody. He was also a Roman Catholic, another strike against him.
This wedding ruined Donne’s career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison, and he was only released when the marriage was proved valid. Isaac Walton, Donne’s first biographer, tells us that when Donne wrote to his wife to tell her about losing his post, he wrote after his name: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife’s dowry.
In 1615, after conforming to the Church of England, Donne took Holy Orders, and in 1621, he was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral where he soon became one of the most popular preachers of the day. Sermons in the 16th and 17th centuries were a form of street theatre, and huge crowds would assemble at the outdoor pulpit outside St Paul’s to listen to lengthy sermons. Most of Donne’s have been preserved and they show him as much a master of prose as of poetry, which he continued to write, though his themes were now religious.
During and after his serious illness, his “sickness unto death”, Donne wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a literary masterpiece of self-examination under the shadow of death. It consists of 23 devotions, each in three parts - a meditation, an expostulation, and a prayer - recording and exploring Donne’s experience of illness, tracing the disease’s course and treatment, beginning with the first signs of illness, moving through the patient’s taking to bed, sending for doctors (King James sent his personal physician ), the course of various treatments, the worsening of symptoms followed by the crisis where Donne prepares himself for death. The crisis passes, and slowly he begins to recover, and, like Lazarus, he at last rises from his bed.
As soon as he was able, he set about publishing Devotions, dedicating it to Prince Charles, the eldest son of King James. In the dedication, Donne writes: “I have had three births; one, natural, when I came into the world; one, supernatural, when I entered into the ministry; and now, a preternatural birth, in returning to life, from this sickness.”
Around this time, Donne also wrote one of his finest poems, ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ (He later set it to music ) in the form of a prayer:
“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, thou still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A Year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou has done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, Thou has Donne,
I fear no more.”
Next Week: A Discourse of Bells