Words can make a difference in our lives. However, as I listen to the commentary near election time, I admit I am tired of the controversy. My mind is already made up -- that is I am pretty sure it is. Unless other words pop out of the blue and influence me, but I do not think that will happen.
With the problems throughout the world, I am thankful in our country, we are reasonably sheltered from the onslaught and horror that is happening in Libya and other foreign countries. This does not mean we can sit back comfortably and self-righteously, for the winds of change can come even to our shores if we choose to ignore the troubles of the other parts of our world. The rhetoric from spokesmen of our global neighbors (and of our own country) brings about varied responses. Yes, the power of the spoken and the written word must never be underestimated. This is certainly evident at this pre-election time.
But enough of that, for I want to read and think of other interests at this time, such as a particular poem, which always has been among my favorites.
Throughout history, times have been difficult but have brought forth interesting people and accomplishments. For example, in 1572 in London, turmoil reigned. Theological and political upheaval was occurring in both England and France. Protestant massacres were occurring in France, while in England, Catholics were being persecuted. During those difficulties, John Donne was born in England to a prominent Catholic family. Donne was only 4 years old when his father died suddenly, leaving his mother with three children to raise.
Donne studied at both Oxford and Cambridge universities at an early age, but never received a degree because he did not want to deny his beliefs as a Catholic. Later, after his younger brother Henry died in prison for his Catholic loyalties, Donne became an Anglican, which permitted him to study law. His expertise pointed toward a prominent legal or diplomatic career, which would not have been possible had he been Catholic.
By the time he was 18, Donne had written two major volumes of lyrics, verse and some sacred poems. He was known for his use of imagery and unusual perspectives. He wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse and some sacred poems in the 1590s and created two major volumes of work: Satires and Songs and Sonnets. Donne would become known as the founder of the metaphysical poets, and as an eminent poet, writer, and preacher.
In 1596, when Donne was 24, he spent two years in the naval fight against Spain. When he returned, he became the private secretary for the Solicitor General of Queen Elizabeth. Five years later, in 1601, Donne was in Queen Elizabeth's Parliament. His career was in jeopardy when he secretly married the niece of his employer who disapproved of the marriage. As a result, he was refused the dowery and also was briefly imprisoned. This caused social and financial hardship as Donne's family increased, and they had to depend on assistance from other family and friends.
In 1607, Donne was requested by the reigning King James I to take Anglican orders, which he refused to do. This resulted in his being banned from any work other than in the church. Under this pressure, Donne reluctantly entered the Anglican ministry in 1615. He was appointed Royal Chaplain later that same year. Two years later in 1617, his 33-year-old wife died after giving birth to their 12th child who was stillborn. Seven children remained as Donne continued to write and publish; his writing often demonstrated his fear of inevitable death. Later, when he was acutely ill, he wrote his prayers, which he published in 1624. At that time he also wrote the following, which originally was written as prose, not a poem:
"No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee."
From "Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions."
Donne died in London at the age of 59. He left behind a treasure of words, many written in days of sorrow and hardship, yet still are quoted 500 years later. Yes, some of the most stirring words ever written have come from troubled times.
Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.