John Donne (1572-1631), among the greatest of English lyric poets, is the Saint Augustine of British literature. T. S. Eliot both admired and was profoundly influenced by his poetry. Eliot, in his essays exploring seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, drew him to the attention of a twentieth-century world still immersed in Victorian-era literature.
Eliot knew as well as anyone how Donne, an Anglican priest – truly eloquent in sermons and almost mystically spiritual in his poetry – in his early years had written lusty, seductive verse. (Any young Victorian woman caught reading it would have been chastised and defenestrated from a Christian private school.)
All this has survived – sermons and poetry alike – from Donne’s ‘rite of passage’ life. Thus, we have a tangible record of his transformation, Augustine-like, from youthful libertine to a man of astounding spiritual depth. His sonnet, Death, Be Not Proud says all that need be said.
His sermons, read today, have an unfamiliar, early seventeenth-century style, but their spiritual intensity gleams through. He is every bit the master of pulpit oratory that a young Newman was two centuries later when his own eloquence rang out, drawing crowds to Oxford’s Anglican St. Mary’s Church, simply for the sake of hearing him.
We know little of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s public life, except from what might be gleaned from his Confessions, contemporary reports, and his classic The City of God (De Civitate Dei). And yet one cannot doubt that in youth, he and Donne, a millennium apart, would have palled around in turbulent exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins. Indeed, Saint Ignatius, from what he tells us of his early years, would have joined them.
Theirs are all conversion stories of iconic Christian leaders, at their beginnings gathered into obscure corners. They no doubt caroused, while always knowing, as they whispered in the byways and highways of their emergence, that they saw a destination setting them apart from their boon companions loitering about neighborhood brothels and bragging about their prodigious hangovers.
Thanks to what Donne among them left behind for T. S. Eliot to ponder, we know the truth that the ways to God are many, sometimes along dark roads where ‘Dead Ends’ abound and confusing mazes must be crossed in darkness and blinding light.
Sometimes this journey leads to Donne’s poetry, a kind of prayer; to Augustine’s argument that fallen, corrupted Rome was not a Christian destiny; and to the founding of a Jesuit order, at times banned and damned in its amazing history; and finally onward to Jesuit Pope Francis who for all we know this very moment is reading Donne’s Death, be not proud.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so…
Image (in the public domain in the United States) from Wikimedia