Rebecca Perry with John Donne
John Donne (1572-1631) by an unknown English artist, c.1596 © National Portrait Gallery, London
It’s almost impossible to know where to start comparing the life of a poet during the reign of Elizabeth I and the life of a poet now, for the very obvious reason that life itself is so fundamentally different. I suppose I wonder what Donne would find most surprising about England in 2013 . The fact that our monarch no longer has the power to decide if a subject’s head should remain attached to her/his shoulders would come as a bit of a shock. I imagine he’d also be surprised to find that his attempts to persuade a woman into bed by means of extended metaphor would likely be met with nothing short of derision and, even if it did take us almost 600 years to get there, a female poet laureate would be unbelievable. Mostly, though, for a writer whose poems were only circulated amongst a select group of admirers during his lifetime, the sheer volume of poetry now being published – not to mention the ability we have to share our thoughts, feelings and writing with people on the other side of the world in just a few clicks – would perhaps be the greatest shock of all.
But something that hasn’t changed is what poetry, generally speaking (or depending who you ask), is for. As with most arts, the styles and fashions of poetry change often, but we still write about life and love and death, about the world around us, about history and people. And poetry still has the ability to be romantic, or irreverent, or heartbreaking, or political, or shocking, or satirical, or funny, or depressing as hell, just as it was 400 years ago.
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