What John Donne Knew About Death Can Teach Us a Lot About Life

Katherine Rundell in The New York Times:

The power of John Donne’s words nearly killed a man.

It was the spring of 1623, on the morning of Ascension Day, and Donne, long a struggling poet, had finally secured for himself celebrity, fortune and a captive audience. He had been appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral two years before. He was 51, slim and amply bearded, and his preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation — merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole of the city’s elite — came to his sermons. Some carried paper and ink to write down his finest passages and take them home to relish and dissect them. Donne often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him.

That morning he was not preaching in his own church but 15 minutes’ easy walk across London at Lincoln’s Inn, in the center of town. Word went out: Wherever he was, people came flocking to hear him speak. But too many flocked, and as the crowd pushed closer to hear his words, some men were shoved to the ground, trampled and badly injured. A contemporary wrote in a letter, “Two or three were endangered, and taken up dead for the time.” There’s no record of Donne halting his sermon; so it’s not impossible that he kept going in his rich, authoritative voice as the bloodied men were carried off and out of sight.

More here.