I keep a collection of buildings that I have cherished over time, from St. Mathew’s Cathedral in Laramie that my grandmother thought I must know when I was maybe five, because even as an immigrant Swedish Covenanter, she loved this fine Anglican pile out on the high plains of Wyoming.
And, there’s Macky auditorium, splendid on the Hill here in Boulder-- in its gold to amber Tiffany light-- where as a kid I began performing.
But my no.3 is the burden of this essay: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christopher Wren’s masterwork of classical architecture.
Architecture! Buildings! Where do they come from? How do they become a St. Paul’s? Perhaps, if we take two tallish stones, stand them on end a space apart and cap that space between them with a flattish stone, we may have a dolmen, one of those strangely beautiful Paleolithic relics that grace the Irish countryside. In any event we may have the fundamental of all architecture: two stiles and a rail, posts and a lintel.
Try, if you will, to resist the urge to crawl in and down under that covering stone for protection from the elements, perhaps from an enemy-- the immemorial urge to be snug and safe.
Then, imagine the multiplication of dolmens up and down, joining sides, at angles and into curves, reaching up, beyond the need for mere shelter, to feel something of no practical value-- like exaltation-- and a good place to store the dead with ceremony. With genius and tradition those stones might become St. Paul’s.
Many years ago, and home from the wars, a very great teacher at CU told me of how the burning of the Gothic cathedral of St. Paul’s in 1666 left only one of its sculptures surviving: of the Dean of the Chapter of Paul’s, John Donne, initially a libertine, ruined by the father of the girl he lured into elopement, only to be rescued by King James I who put him in the deanship where he became a profoundly spiritual leader, thought to be the greatest preacher of the age, major poet, and intellectual beacon—who had to have known Shakespeare.
The thing is, that teacher and famed Shakespearean George F. Reynolds, knew, from long before the War, precisely of that surviving sculpture and where it was relocated in Wren’s “new” St. Paul’s. (A Blue Guide will tell you this now.) He urged me to go find it, see it, and pay our respects.
And so, when I first landed in London in 1957, I began going to Paul’s as often as possible just to be in that wondrous building that I came to love so much. On the first such occasion, I buttonholed the first official I could find, this one a priest, and told him I would like to see the statue of Dean Donne. Not easy, as the entire east end, chancel and ambulatories, was closed off and still in the state of bombed-out destruction of WW II. The chancel behind the choir screen and pulpit was closed off with a gigantic red drape and doors to the ambulatories locked tight.
Not to be put off, I told the suspicious priest that I knew that the statue was in the outer wall of the south ambulatory or aisle and that I was a quite safe and responsible thirty- year old researcher and would behave myself.
The priest felt he could not act on his own and sent for help. Eventually it took three of four of the clergy in ever-ascending rank of authority to decide that I could be accompanied into the ruined precincts and allowed to view the Dean in stone. I was even allowed to photograph it, as it turned out.
My point, beyond my love of the building, thrill of the search, and interest in Donne as poet, is that the statue of him is a memento mori. He is depicted as dead, wrapped in his burial shroud, standing upon a burial urn. The statue is undistinguished as sculpture, being in shallow relief and of indifferent stone.
It is said that as Donne lay dying painfully and slowly in his chamber in 1631, he called for a painter and a board on which the painter was charged to depict the Dean, full scale, as in death. In this way the Dean could study himself in his dying and in his death.
Studying one’s self in one’s death! That struck me as a compelling idea then, as it continues to do now. One wonders what else there is to think about compared with it.
There appears to be nothing morbid or unbalanced in Donne’s last inquiry. His death would be the last and biggest action of his life. He must entertain in his flesh and his mind that great unknowable and inconceivable.
Then, what was to become of the painting on that board? It is said that upon Donne’s death that image was used as the model for the larger-than- life stone carving, the image of which I had just transferred into my camera.
Today, like the good dean, I, too, can know the “how” of my death and, roughly, the “when”. “What” it is, who can tell? Only that it is a pilgrim’s progress to that monstrous Singularity that baffles us. But who can imagine that! Not I. In any case, death surely must be Life’s Big Event.
So, like Donne, I must study my dying—if not to know what it is, at least not to be caught up short with left-over, exhausted ideas about it to spoil the goodness of life leading me to it.
The dean had his painted board: I have my mirror… mise en abyme.
At this special moment of my life when I so appreciate the thoughtful care of my physicians, I value even more highly the assurance that it is possible for the human person to be a Doctor John Donne and take to the pulpit of Paul’s as its dean, to preach from the glories of our language.
If Shakespeare was Nature’s Complete Man, Donne was the divine in the close of St. Paul’s Cathedral, forcing theology into great poetry, bending nature to the precisions of the New Philosophy—that we call ‘science’-- all the while working his love songs on the razor’ edge of his desire, sacred and profane.
Batter my heart, three-personed God.
Allowed to choose a fourth building to cherish, it would have to be Ryssby Church and
its yard, built by pioneering Swedes in 1878 in the farm land north-east of Boulder.