Simon Schama and John Donne

PD*10873767I was about to entitle this piece ‘in praise of Simon Schama’ but decided against doing so for two main reasons. Firstly, that would sound like something out of the Guardian, and secondly I was reading an (otherwise intelligent) interview with him in which he described himself as a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, ‘probably to my death’. However, it isn’t Schama’s politics which I’m here to applaud, but his interest in John Donne. I attended an interesting and well-constructed talk by him and the actress Fiona Shaw last night at the Portrait Gallery, which was, brilliantly, held just by the recently (and happily) acquired Donne portrait, and acted as a kind of follow-up to his recent TV documentary about the poet.

I can honestly say that Donne was the first ‘difficult’ poet that I ever really engaged with. I studied him for A-level, and although I’d been exposed to the likes of Auden, Milton and Hardy before, Donne was the first poet who, after the initial incomprehension gradually wore off, it became clear that underneath all the ‘by my troths’ and archaic misspellings of ‘mee’ and so forth, Donne was a strikingly modern poet, establishing a persona that was equal parts wry, eyebrow-raising libertine, passionate, committed lover and, finally, shameless self-promoter as the Dean of St Paul’s. My interest in Donne coincided with my (then) fanatical obsession with the band The Divine Comedy, whose wry, witty lyrics of solipsistic excess appeared to tally beautifully with Donne’s more knowing poems. Somewhat to my shame, this obsession with personae and image persisted onto university (David Bowie phase now) and I ended up writing an essay on Donne in my finals in which I half-seriously put the case for Jack Donne, privateer and lover, as being a diabolic figure. Excess, excess, but it saved my degree. I later read a John Stubbs biography of Donne which I had to give up on because I grew so weary of the methodical, reductive way it turned virtually every poem into a piece of biographical comment; apparently the idea of Donne not writing a poem from straight personal experience was impossible.

I haven’t actually seen the Schama documentary yet but am looking forward to it. Interestingly, last night, Schama began by asking who’d studied The ‘Flea’ at A-level, which of course I had – but it transpired that it was fairly commonplace these days for that (apparently an ‘easier’ Donne poem than the rest) to be studied in isolation, rather in the same way that someone who has never read any Wordsworth might well know ‘Daffodils’. Yet it seems a shame that such a remarkably rich and interesting body of work might be left off the syllabus for fear it’s too ‘difficult’. Schama might have been occasionally criticised for being a populist and a media don, but frankly if he managed to get a few more people reading Donne I applaud his efforts entirely.

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