Watching St. Paul’s cathedral fill up with an estimated one thousand five hundred people for John Donne was a very special moment indeed!
Last night was Poet in the City’s biggest event to date, and it couldn’t have been in a more spectacular surrounding than under the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral, in the presence of John Donne’s effigy: the only item to survive the great fire of London in 1666.
With beautiful readings of John Donne’s poetry and sermons by actors Rosalie Jorda and Tom Deveson; illuminating talks from poet Jo Shapcott, Canon Treasurer Mark Oakley, and professors Peter McCullough and Mary Morrissey; and Benjamin Britten’s settings of Donne’s sonnets performed by world-class singer and Director of Music at St. Paul’s, Andrew Carwood, we were truly immersed into the life and work of this great poet.
In all of their talks, the speakers refuted the clear division that is often made between ‘Jack Donne’, young author of erotic and sensual poetry, and ‘Dr. Donne’, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and writer of sermons and spiritual poems. In both his earlier and later writings you encounter the same fierce intellect and passion for language. Mark Oakley also gave a very honest talk on what John Donne means to him as a fellow clergy member at St. Paul’s, drawing on Donne’s own admissions of the inner conflicts and uncertainties of being a priest, including being easily distracted from prayer: “I neglect God for the buzzing of a fly, for the creaking of a door, for the rattle of a coach in the street”.
The whole evening was made extra special by the setting itself: watching the light gradually change as the sun set outside, in one of London’s most magnificent buildings, and looking up at the spectacular dome.
The writer Arnold Bennet once claimed that poetry could “empty buildings that had been full”. With around 1,500 people turning up to St. Paul’s for a poetry event last night, I think we proved him wrong!