I mentioned Shakespeare’s sonnets last time, but it’s impossible to discuss Renaissance poetry without touching on the Metaphysical Poets, chief of whom was John Donne. Enlightenment figures like Samuel Johnson disdained Donne’s tendency to bring philosophical topics into love poetry, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb revived his reputation among the Romantics. Contemporary Thomas Carew went so far as to claim in an elegy that English poetry had died with Donne because no other poet would dare achieve the same level of originality and creativity. Nor was Donne renowned only for his poetry. After he was named a Royal Chaplain and later Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, he became known as one of the greatest preachers of his day. And Meditation 17 from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (“No man is an island, entire of itself”) has inspired writers from Ernest Hemingway to Brad Bird.
No, really. Watch The Incredibles with the subtitles on and pay attention to the name of Syndrome’s hideout. You’ll laugh.
What’s startling about Donne, however, is sometimes where his works don’t show up when they are expected. Take, for example, one of the best character introductions in television history, from the fifth season of Supernatural:
I cannot speak highly enough of Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death. He’s regal. He’s powerful. He’s old. He’s composed. He doesn’t get angry, though he will get snarky. He’s seen it all and has a taste for Chicago-style pizza and fried pickles.
And yet I keep waiting for someone like Sam Winchester to look him in the eye and say:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
For Death is proud in Supernatural. He claims that neither he nor God can remember which of them is older and that, once all other life has reached its natural end, he will eventually reap God. Gnostic as it sounds, that may be true in that universe, given the number of other heresies that have made their way into the show’s underlying theology. But so far, the viewer has only Death’s word for it—and in a universe as riddled with unreliable narrators as Supernatural’s is, one character’s word counts for very little. Yet to date, not even Sam and Bobby, the show’s most scholarly characters, have thrown Holy Sonnet X at Death, and I’m not sure why.
Even so, whether a Donne quote turns up where you least expect it or doesn’t where you most expect it, his poetry and prose alike give us important ideas to ponder as well as examples of what a skilled author can do with the English language. And whatever you think of Donne’s philosophy and theology, his writings may inspire you to try to prove Carew wrong. English poetry was not done for with Donne’s death, any more than his soul was.