I’ve just finished reading John Stubbs’ excellent biography of John Donne ‘A Reformed Soul’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Donne-Reformed-Soul-John-Stubbs/dp/0141017171/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296751730&sr=1-3.
Donne lived a couple of centuries after my period but Stubbs is so good at portraying London in what Ackroyd calls its ‘raddled and ribald glamour’ I thought it was worth reading anyway. Donne, who was born in Bread Street in the City and died in the Deanery of St Paul’s, was a total Londoner and what came through to me very strongly was how much the conditions of London life affected his poetry and philosophy.
His most famous piece of writing centers around the church bells for which London was famous. “Who bends not his eare to any bell” but it has more meaning when we learn that it was written by a very ill man in a dense, crowded and filthy city that yearly suffered from the ravages of plague. And that it was also written when James I’s reign had joined Scotland to England just as the country was coming to terms with its wrenching split from Europe and Roman Catholicism.
“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe: every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
It is a shining human vision growing straight from Donne’s life and the conditions and politics of the time and yet it still teaches us about kindness and connectedness. Nearly four centuries later when a bell’s tolls have been replaced by Twitter and the internet we can learn of a man’s death in Cairo before his mother does but we are still diminished by that death because we are ‘involved in Mankinde’.