Posted by Orla Shanaghy
Now it’s not too often that 400-year-old poets crop up on Twitter, let alone one who has been a favourite of mine since secondary school, so to celebrate both that and the anniversary, I hunted out a gift from a long-time friend:
Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s No Man is an Island, a selection of Donne’s prose printed by The Folio Society of London. As the picture shows, it comes in its own lovely box, and the cover features those lines of Donne that have become part of the English language (and, curiously, Metallica songs):
Bizarrely (to me at any rate), when my friend gave me the book, and I thanked her for remembering that Donne was a favourite of mine, she replied, “I didn’t know that – I just thought it’d be your kind of thing”. Ever since then I have fantasised that Donne and I have some kind of connection across the centuries. (You have to be a bit deluded to be a writer.)
As favourite artists tend to do, Donne seems to have been there at other key stages throughout my life, too. I first discovered him thanks to the Leaving Certificate English syllabus in school. All the talk of “metaphysical poets” (a much-disputed label, incidentally) and “conceits” could have put anyone off Donne for life. Thankfully, the work shone through and made a lasting impression.
Later, it seemed to our teenage selves an epic meeting of minds when my boyfriend and I discovered a shared love of Donne’s The Good-Morrow:“If ever any beauty I did see, Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.”
(You may be feeling faintly queasy now, but this is powerful stuff when you’re 17.)
In terms of popularity, Donne’s work seems to have come full circle. King James I was just one of Donne’s contemporaries who admired the writer’s work, describing his sermons as like “ye peace of God, they passed all understanding”. After falling out of favour for a while, Donne experienced a resurgence in the twentieth century, and has become an established presence in English Literature syllabi the world over.
John Donne was a highly capable, ambitious man who understood how to create and manage his own reputation. I wonder what he would have thought if he had known that 400 years later, people who had never heard of him (and angry, long-haired heavy metal types) would still be quoting his lines.