Independent 21 Apr 2014
“On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.”
John Donne Satire 3
Since the age of sixteen, I have always had a copy of the complete poems of John Donne’s, somewhere close at hand.
For me, sixteen was a watershed year. I had not been a good student – at best strugglingly average, to the despair of my father. In truth the class-room interested me far less than the rugby pitch, the athletics field and the girls at the local Bedford High School. One evening a friend I admired, but thought quite weird persuaded me, against my strong disinclination, to go with him the School poetry society run by one of the masters, who I regarded as equally weird, John Eyre. The evening changed my life. For that night I walked through a door, opened by Donne to a world of poetry and literature I had never even known existed and have spent a life-time joyously exploring ever since.
The moment may have been life changing for me. But it was not for John Eyre.
I know this for many years later, with others among his more distinguished students, we gave him lunch at the Reform Club. Among those present were contemporaries of mine – Michael Brunson the ITV political journalist, Professor Quentin Skinner the renowned intellectual historian and many others ranging from Ambassadors, to captains of industry, to senior civil servants. He had words for them all, reminding them of the successes and faults and the major parts they had played under his direction in the School play (I had only been a wordless monk in Auden’s “The Ascent of F6” and a soldier in Macbeth entrusted with the single line “Sound the alarums without”). Finally he came to me (I was at the time the Leader of the Lib Dems). He said simply “Ashdown – ah yes. You surprised me.”
Later, when as a young Royal Marines officer, I was involved in the little war in Borneo, I carried a leather bound copy of Donne’s poems which my wife gave me everywhere I went, until the ravages of jungle damp and termites dismantled it into a collection of mouldy pages I had to abandon. It has been replaced many times since. My current copy – The Penguin edition, edited by A.J Smith – is on my iPhone and I Pad.
Of course Donne, though the greatest poet, is not the only one. But he is the one who opened the pages for me to all the others – and can still take my breath away when I least expect it.