St. Paul’s Cathedral and John Donne’s Memorial:
I was eager to visit this magnificent cathedral not only for the architecture, but to see the memorial statue of John Donne, who famously penned the words, “No man is an island.” An Elizabethan poet known for his metaphysical style and erotic sonnets, he was dubbed “The Rake.” Later in life he turned to religion and started writing his passionate sonnets to God instead of mistresses. He was ordered by King James I to become an Anglican priest, and in 1621 he was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s. He posed for his own memorial statue, wrapped in a burial shroud, and was later buried in the older cathedral, which burned in the great London fire of 1666. (That wooden cathedral itself replaced original churches on the site, the first recorded as built in AD 604.) His memorial statute was the only one that survived the fire to be installed in the existing cathedral, built in the late 17th century by Christopher Wren.
I’ve been fascinated for most of my life by the Elizabethan writers, including Shakespeare and Marlowe, and Donne’s writing inspired my novel Islands, set in the Caribbean islands “discovered” by Europeans during that period of exploration. Thematic resonances kept sounding during the writing of the novel, along with equally thematic echoes of “Dr. Faustus” by Marlowe.
I’m just geeky enough to have included a scene with my troubled heroine mourning her brother John Dunne, thumbing through his collection of the poet’s writing. Also trying to distract herself from an unwelcome attraction to the man who might have murdered her brother, she reads lines that begin, “Batter my heart, three person’d God”:
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.
Caught in a confusing erotic dilemma, she slams down the book.
Leaving John Donne’s presence behind, I moved on to the memorials of the Duke of Wellington, Lord Horatio Nelson, and Florence Nightingale, then climbed into the dome to the “whispering gallery” where mysterious voices—from the past, or present?—haunt visitors who make the pilgrimage.
A last note before leaving: If you’re fondly recalling Mary Poppins singing, “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,” it will cost considerably more than tuppence if you emulate her. There’s a stiff fine for feeding the pigeons outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, despite all those saints and apostles watching over them.