Unless you’re currently living through one yourself – as the AIDS generation did, and as we have done with the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020 – it’s hard to truly believe in the plague. Petrarch knew it; he wrote in a letter to his brother during a plague epidemic in 1348, ‘Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables!’ After so much time and so many jokes, the idea of plague becomes exactly that: a fable, or a punchline – something that happens to people far away from us, with fewer teeth and less intricate souls. We are now a generation who knows a small something of its horror and fear: but Donne lived through a plague with mortality rates at sixty per cent and higher.
Because of this devil-may-care attitude to his own work, when you quote a Donne poem, you are in fact quoting an amalgamation, pieced together over four hundred years from an array of manuscripts of varying degrees of scrappiness. His poems were folded into small squares and passed from hand to hand, posted between friends of friends of friends: read it and pass it on. The only surviving holograph copy – which is to say, in Donne’s own handwriting – of an English poem written by him is a verse letter ‘To the honourable lady the Lady Carew’ (1612): his hand is beautiful, the italic hand of a Courts-trained man, with elaborately swooping ‘y’s. All the other poetry we have by him was copied out by other people: some written into large vellum-bound collections with great care, fine handwriting at its most looped and elaborate, Donne nestling against the compiler’s other favourites; others were scribbled into corners of a nearly-full page in a booklet, or carried in a single sheet amid bits of pocket debris until they were worn into almost nothing.
Perhaps to look for Anne in Donne’s verse is to misunderstand what the poems are doing: they’re not representations of her, but representations of him: him watching her, needing her, inventing for her. They are trumpet blasts across a hard land, more than they are portraits.
Donne’s fidelity may possibly have been absolute, but he certainly allowed himself space, in his relationship with his patronesses, for a certain linguistic leeway. What Anne thought, of his vaunting praise of other women, we can’t know; she would have been worldly enough to know that a great deal of Donne’s flourish was convention – but it can’t have been her most treasured thought, as she moved through the house, inevitably pregnant. Anne was pregnant twelve times in their sixteen years of marriage. She would have spent her entire adult life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth, and often both at once. Her physical pain must have been relentless.
Donne preached without a text in front of him; he would write the sermon out in full, take notes, and memorise it. He used the classical trick, employed by orators for thousands of years, of imagining a speech as a physical structure – a memory palace, a temple – through which he could move in his imagination. He was explicit about it: he compares the sermon to a ‘goodly palace’ through which he guides his audience. Partway through, they will ‘rest a little, in an outward Court, upon consideration of prayer in general; and then draw near the view of the palace, in a second court’.
Foxe told him ‘that by cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health’. Donne loathed milk ‘passionately’ – to humour Foxe, he drank it for ten days, but stopped in disgust, declaring ‘he would not drink it ten days longer upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.’ Donne had reached such an intimacy with death that milk held more terrors for him.
Donne, more than any other of his lifetime, understood that flair is its own kind of truth: if you want to make your point, make it so vivid and strange that it cuts straight through your interlocutor’s complacent inattention. To read his verse is to hear him insist, across the gap of hundreds of years: for God’s sake, will you listen.