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John Donne, Dean of St Paul's
In his lifetime, John Donne was mainly known as a preacher who published occasional verse, rather than the great poetic innovator he is thought of today. He began his preaching career as Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court. In 1615 he was ordained Deacon and Priest at St Paul's Cathedral, and in 1621 he was appointed Dean.
Originally, Donne had no interest in a career in the Church of England. He was born a Catholic, and in spite of the savagely anti-Catholic polemic of his treatise, Pseudo-Martyr (1610) he maintained a life-long anxiety about his faith, one which can be traced in much of his poetry. Instead, he hoped to gain patronage and ultimately a position in the court of James I, but it was James who steered Donne into the church, refusing to offer him a post in any other capacity. The King's decision may have halted Donne's poetic ambitions, but it made him one of the most renowned orators of his age, as well as bringing Donne into the establishment. When in 1622 James issued his directions to preachers, Donne responded with a sermon which was such a model of orderly preaching that the King ordered it to be published.
Of course, Donne's St. Paul's is not the cathedral which currently stands at the north end of the Millennium Bridge. "Old St Paul's" was built in a grand Norman style and took over two centuries to complete. It had one of the tallest spires in Europe, and was a site of much contention. Open air preaching was possible at St Paul's cross in the Northeastern corner (where Donne gave his sermon that so impressed the Kind), and this often led to public controversy. The cathedral suffered greatly from vandalism particularly during the Tudor period and England's Reformation.
Donne didn't live to see Old St Paul's gutted by the Great Fire of London, or Christopher Wren's masterpiece which occupies the same site. It's defining feature - the dome that crowns the intersection of the Cathedral's cross structure - marks a great advancement in scientific learning and architectural technique from the St Paul's of Donne's day. The new St Paul's signified a change in the Cathedral from a church that was bruised and battered by centuries of religious, political, and military controversy to one whose engineering represented the very pinnacle of human achievement.
There is a marble effigy of Donne in the South Quire aisle - one of a very few statues to survive the fire.
© David Thorley, 2007
St Paul's Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD, United Kingdom
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