Wednesday, January 24

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Elizabethan age produced a number of the greatest stylists of the English language including of William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and of course, John Donne. When the venerable poet was born in London on this day in 1573, Queen Elizabeth was in the middle of her long and glorious reign and Donne was able to partake of all the benefits the age afforded. Indeed, as a young man John Donne was quite attracted to the extravagance of English Renaissance life.

During England's war with Spain in the 1590's, Donne sailed as a gentleman adventurer. He took a government position as secretary to the Keeper of the Great Seal—a position he ultimately lost when he secretly married his employer's daughter. In 1609 he applied for the secretaryship of the new colony of Virginia, but he failed to get the job.

It was Donne's marriage that brought about in him a dramatic transformation. The deepening love of his faithful wife provoked him to grow in the love of God. Eventually, his piety entirely replaced his earlier flamboyance--and it was evident to everyone who knew him. King James encouraged Donne to enter the ministry, and though he felt very unworthy, Donne consented. With a great sense of his own sinfulness and God's forgiveness, Donne was eager to preach God's forgiveness to others. In 1621 he was appointed dean of St. Paul's in London and became one of the most prominent and eloquent preachers of his day--or of any day, for that matter.

Donne was a man of immense scholarship and learning, yet he preached that "all knowledge that begins not with His glory is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance."

The death of his wife in 1617 brought about another profound change in Donne. She was 33 and died of exhaustion one week after giving birth to her twelfth child. Her death brought home to Donne the fleeting nature of earthly happiness, and he saw his whole life as God's wooing of him. He gained strong convictions about the providence and goodness of God and the coming resurrection in the face of certain death.

In his many poems and sermons Donne often challenged his people to ready themselves for death, "All our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death. Now was there ever any man sent to sleep in the cart?" His famous lines "No man is an Island, entire in itself" and "For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee," have become almost commonplaces in the English language. When the death-bell tolled for Donne in 1631, his trust in God enabled him to tell a friend, "I am full of inexpressible joy and I shall die in peace."


Unknown said...

Did I read somewhere that John Donne was present at the Synod of Dordt and that he presented a sermon there?


gileskirk said...

Ben: Yes, in fact, Donne did visit the assembly for a single address. But he was not an official delegate because he was still grieving the recent loss of his wife and did not want a long separation from his children.

The English Puritans in attendance were George Carleton (1559–1628), Joseph Hall (1574–1657), Thomas Goad (1576–1638), John Davenant (1576–1641), and Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626). From the Scottish Presbyterian Church, Walter Balcanqual (1586–1645), Samuel Ward (1572-1643), and William Ames (1576–1633) were all in attendance. There were also visiting delegates from the city churches of Heidelberg, Hessen, Zurich, Geneva, Bremen, Nassau, and Emden.

Interestingly, there were no Huguenot delegates because the French government prohibited their attendance--so, a set of empty chairs was set up in the assembly in their honor.

The whole synod makes for a very fascinating study. Not many of the really good histories have ever been translated from the Dutch. So, there is yet another reason to learn Dutch besides Groote, Kuyper, de Prinsterer, and Bavinck!

MH said...

Donne is easily one of my favorite poets. My only regret is that I haven't had the opportunity to study his work more at school.

bonnie said...

What has always stayed me from a L'Abri conference on Literature years ago, was hearing Jerram Barrs answer the question on a panel ( Edith Schaeffer and Susan included) WHAT PIECE of literature brought him to the love of literature. His answer was reading John Donne's poems so he would love his wife well! That was a powerful statement still with me today.

Edith answered Pilgrims' Progress and Susan Macaulay answered a children's poem
"Over in the Meadow"...and Donald Drew , for those in the L'Abri community, answered Lewis. He was speaking on him at that 1995 conference!


BriannaB said...

"He must pull out his own eyes, and see no creature, before he can say, he sees no God; He must be no man, and quench his reasonable soul, before he can say to himself, there is no God."
-John Donne

just to add to the collection. :)