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Wed 17 Apr 2019 @ 21:38
RT @CanonOakleyIn the Wilderness by Robert Graves. I love the idea of the scapegoat keeping Christ company. #APoemADay https://t.co/19UPaXXUfZ
Author(s): John Donne, John Moses, Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury)
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John Moses is the present Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and is increasingly in demand as a lecturer on his famous predecessor. He is the author of numerous books published by the Canterbury Press including The Desert, a book of readings for Lent from the Desert Fathers, and The Sacrifice of God.
What is it like to follow in the footsteps of someone like John Donne?
It is very humbling, but then everything about St Paul’s – its architecture, its story over 1400 years, and so many of the illustrious personalities that have been part of the place over the centuries – do give you a marvellous sense of perspective and cut you down to size.
Are you aware of his presence about the place?
No, but we must remember that within thirty-five years of his death there was the Great Fire of London and the destruction of that great mediaeval cathedral that Donne knew and loved. I suppose the one visible sign of his presence today is his effigy in the South Quire Aisle.
Was the job of Dean pretty much the same in his day as it is now?
No, I don’t think so. I suppose there are two important differences. First, it’s probably true to say that Deans of St Paul’s in Donne’s day – and over many generations before and after – were significant figures in the life of the nation and the court and not merely in the life of the church. Secondly, we now have tourism as one of the great facts of life which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Cathedral in the course of every year. St Paul’s was always a place of public assembly but it would have been for the people of London and not for people from literally every part of the world.
Was he likeable and popular - or a bit temperamental?
I don’t think we have enough evidence to go on. The limited evidence is that he was a respected and effective Dean. He was certainly respected by the court and by a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. There was clearly a dark side to Donne and his obsession with illness and death must have come out in different ways but we have no evidence of temperamental behaviour.
Are there any stories that are told about him still?
No, I’m not aware of any stories. It is certainly the case that his poetry is widely known and greatly loved both in the United Kingdom and perhaps even more especially in the United States. I don’t think the stories that might be told – and here I think of his marriage – are ones with which most people are familiar.
How would he get on in the Church of England today, do you think?
Let’s just say that life moves on and the Church moves on and I don’t suppose he would find the Church of England terribly familiar if he were to come back any more than I would expect to find it very familiar if I were to come back in the middle of the twenty-fifth century.
Was it as a result of coming to St Paul's that you took an interest in John Donne or was it always there?
I have to admit that it was as a result of my coming to St Paul’s. I knew a little of his poetry but not a great deal. I knew very little about his life. I knew nothing whatsoever about his sermons. The starting point for me was the fascination that Donne undoubtedly has for large numbers of our visitors. The anthology came out of my desire to address the question, Why is this man still so fascinating to so many people?
How has your appreciation of him and his writing changed since you've been at St Paul's?
I think the years at St Paul’s – and not least of all the study I was able to do during a period of sabbatical leave eighteen months ago – have greatly enlarged my knowledge of Donne and my appreciation of his writing. There is much in his sermons that is not easy to read, but there is great humanity, great passion, great earthiness, great vitality. Donne knew the human scene and he was a marvellous exponent of that tug of war between the sacred and the secular, the flesh and the spirit.
Why does Donne appeal so widely do you think?
I suppose there are many things that might be said. There is a refreshing quality about his poetry. He really is able to put in a few words and in an entirely new way some reflection or observation. But I am personally persuaded that it is the man rather than his writings which fascinates. He really is a man who had shared in life’s ambitions and worldliness and sexual desire and professional frustration. And yet there is a genuine feeling after God. I think it is in the working out of this inner turmoil that we can sometimes see something of our struggle with the idea and the ideal of the holy.
There are a number of John Donne anthologies available - why create another one?
Because there is not an easily accessible anthology which embraces all his writings and which concentrates so heavily upon his sermons. I hope that this anthology, which brings before the reader a thousand quotations, will provide a unique insight into the mind of the man.
For those who are familiar with his poetry, what is waiting to be discovered in his prose?
His prose writings are not easy to understand. There are long and dense sentences, numerous biblical and classical quotations, countless references to the Fathers of the early church and the mediaeval Schoolmen. What I have therefore tried to do is to arrange the quotations from all his writings – and especially his prose works – thematically around the twin themes of Humanity and Divinity. What will therefore be seen is the extent to which Donne stands absolutely four square within the mainstream Christian and Anglican tradition of faith which is rooted in scripture, tradition and reason.
In his foreword to your book, the Archbishop of Canterbury mentions Donne's 'wholly extravagant and often dark imagination' - that's not the way many religious writers get described. What is it about John Donne that makes him different?
I think Donne’s extravagant imagination is to be seen most clearly in his poetry but also in the wealth of imagery that he used in his poetry and in his sermons. He really was a man who took his illustrations from every day life. He would speak about grace and sin and the hope of heaven by drawing upon people’s experience of the market place, the sea shore, the voyages of the discoverers, the coinage of the realm, the striking of the clock. I suppose the dark imagination is to be found in the extent to which he was obsessed with his own failure in achieving his professional ambitions before ordination and in his apparent obsession with our mortality and with the fact and fear of dying. It’s this mix – this marvellous mix – of the grit of earth and the glory of heaven that makes Donne so special.
You read extensively to create your selection - if you could only take one John Donne piece to a desert island, what would it be?
I wonder if I’m allowed to take two quotations. The first would be the one from which the title of the book is taken:
And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darknesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equall possession, no foes nor friends, but one equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equall eternity.
And a second far shorter one on the love of God:
Whom God loves, hee loves to the end: and not onely to their own end, to their death, but to his end, and his end is, that he might love them still.
"The present Dean of St Paul's London has listened closely to a former one. The resulting extracts from Donne's vast output make up the best systematic collection one could hope for. (...) Credal cogency meets imaginative daring, with results that are striking when they are not stunning. As a means of discovering the John Donne you only half knew, this collection is ideal." Philip Harvey, The Melbourne Anglican, July 2004.