I wrote this book in rather difficult times. Donne himself had some difficult times, and as a result he had a certain edge to him. This changed between the days of his rakish youth, in the 1590s, and the day that he stood up, in February 1631, and more or less delivered his own funeral sermon. But it never quite went away. One of the many things I like about Donne is that distinctive restlessness, a persistent hunger for something new. So if the book has an edge derived from the dark time in which it was written, that edge suits Donne quite well. Here below is a glimpse of the opening paragraph.
A young man is leaning out of a window. It is a warm night in late summer 1588, loud with bells, and made still warmer by the bonfires crackling up and down the length of every street, as far as his eyes can see. His expression, to any who can read it under the wavering light and shadow of the fires, or the torches brandished by streams of drunken revellers, is ambivalent. The Spanish Armada has just been defeated. A massive navy, the pride of by far the most powerful nation in the world, lies broken on the coasts of the small island nation which routed it, or is limping back to Spain. The terror of invasion which had haunted England – perhaps as intensely as it would later in the years of Napoleon or Hitler – has been at least temporarily banished. But not only that. While the Spanish might tell themselves that their military power and valour had merely been frustrated by bad weather, the Englishmen who sang and shouted beneath John Donne’s window had very different feelings. Probably more important than the bare thrill of victory or liberation from fear was the sense that they – only quite recently confirmed among the few nations adhering to the new, reformed Protestant religion – had been undeniably marked as God’s chosen people. Like so many events we would now understand as accidental, the storm that dashed the enemy fleet was no ordinary one for Donne’s English contemporaries. As the commemorative medals stated, ‘God blew and they were scattered.’ The feelings that stirred the heart and mind of the sixteen-year old Cambridge student at this moment are hard to precisely imagine. We can reasonably guess, however, that they were as complex and disturbing as the poetry that now survives him. Donne’s country was England, his religion Catholicism. He might live for forty, for ten, for two more years in England: he would certainly spend eternity in heaven or hell.