By Canon James Mustard
It must be the mark of a misspent youth that when I think of John Donne (1572-1631), the preeminent metaphysical poet, preacher, and sometime Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral come to mind. Whereas, for others, he is known as the author of perhaps the most ardent and highly-charged poetry of romantic and erotic passion in the modern English language. That paradox is at the heart of Katherine Rundell’s fine biography (more of a love letter) to Donne, “Super-Infinite”, (Faber and Faber 2022).
She picks up on one of Donne’s consistent themes: his pushing of language with the creation of new words, and in so doing, the holding in tension of seeming opposites:
“Language, his poetry tells us, is a set, not of rules, but of possibilities.” He invented new words by breaking apart and recombining the old ones. “Donne loved the trans-prefix” she observes, and “he loved to coin formations with the super-prefix.”
Donne’s life and personality, too, is one of extremes and opposites: Catholic and protestant, Lawyer and Priest, bohemian poet and pillar of the Establishment, herald of erotic possibility and doting family man, a man of light and faith, of darkness and despair.
Generally speaking, I hold the Church of England in our time in fairly low esteem. Not because I don’t love it, or God, but it seems unlikely that someone like Donne will ever again be made a dean or bishop. Can you imagine? “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, “Appalled of Exeter” or “Outraged of Kensington” would have a field day at the news of such an appointment. The Sun and Daily Mail would publish lines of his erotic verse alongside photographs of intentionally scandalised churchwardens. The General Synod would grind to a halt, while Archbishops would wring their hands. It’s all too predictable.
Yet, of course, Donne deserves our attention, because he points to the paradox not just within us – that being human is simultaneously both unimaginably wonderful, and at times grindingly awful – but within Christ himself. For just as we contain within ourselves a whole host of opposites and attractions, so Jesus is the apotheosis of tensions and unresolvables. The eternal Word made frail flesh; The Christ Child: dependent babe and king of the universe; the Cross: abject failure and super-triumph; the empty tomb: deepest darkness and brightest light. In church, we trot off learned words and phrases: “begotten, not made”, “incarnation”, “transubstantiation”, “Holy Trinity”, forgetting that they, too, are made-up. They were words and phrases created by the Church in order to express the inexpressible. They are, objectively, meaningless, applicable only to the description of God.
Yet, in our time, we exist in a church that has become captivated, not by God or the transcendent, but by marketing strategies of the 1960s: a church of Taglines, mission statements, management speak, spreadsheets and so on, desperate to “sell” a “product”. Is it any wonder that the Church is in decline, when all it churns out are the same, drab tropes that we see in the high street and online?
In order to get anywhere near God, we need language that transcends our norms. We need poets. We need poets to give voice, as Donne did, to the unresolvables within us and the universe, and not to run from them, or from ourselves. We need poets to help us realise that, if God can dwell in Jesus, human and divine, then it must be possible for us to live in darkness and dazzling, in noise and silence, with fears and hopes, ends and beginnings. To live, as Donne did, in both in love, and faith.