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Shakespeare’s great contemporary

“No man is an island.” Getty

“The three most important questions” that great poets must address, says Douglas Murray in The Free Press, are “how to live, how to love, and how to die”. WH Auden applied himself “principally to the second”; Shakespeare did all three, “and then some”. But another of Shakespeare’s less-celebrated contemporaries achieved the same feat: John Donne. Today, he’s known for a couple of oft-quoted lines: “No man is an island”, for example, was “recently abused in an HSBC advertising campaign”.

This vastly undersells his work. Donne’s poems are “exceptionally tightly packed”, with stanzas and clauses that “curl around, baroque-like”, and then “bang – straight to the point”. His great talent was for striking the reader with “a line that knocks you flat”. One of my favourites is The Anniversary, “I would like to have in its entirety in my head”, but the first stanza is perhaps the best:

“All Kings, and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
The sun itself, which makes times, as they pass,
Is elder by a year now than it was
When thou and I first one another saw:
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.”