Oct 27 2011: After ‘The Flea’: John Donne Responds to the Present Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (October 27, 2011)
Reading today about the resignation, on a matter of Christian principle, of Canon Giles Fraser from his role at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the petulant responses of the present Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Right Rev Graeme Knowles, and other Church authorities over the past week to the presence of an encampment protesting the control of institutions and policy by the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else, is – not to put too fine a point on it – a strangely twisted situation that largely reinforces the point being made by the encampment itself about the toxic effect of finance on public and private life.
Here, after all, are the representatives of Christ’s message declaring themselves prepared to fight the poor in order to defend the cash registers inside their temple, while the moneychangers of the nearby City of London sit on their boards and managment committees. Here is the Occupy encampment, peacefully gathered on St Paul’s Cathedral steps, echoing Christ’s own words from The Beatitudes, and being threatened with removal for damaging the Cathedral’s interests. It’s a curiously poetic Russian Doll of ironies that the Cathedral’s most illustrious former Dean, the poet John Donne, might have wished to respond to.
Somehow it was Donne’s poem of erotic union, The Flea, which seemed to carry the ghost of an appropriate response to his slightly confused successors:
After The Flea by John Donne (1572 – 1631)
Mark but these fleas’ pitched tents, and mark in this,
how little that which thou deniest them is.
They clip the straws of their lips to thee
as thy lips draw juice from Christ’s own laws
and in those words know thy bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be seen
as sin, nor shame, nor loss of face,
as thou, pamper’d, swell with sponsors’ blood
and, alas!, to protect it, close thy doors.
O stay, fleas: know our lives are in thee spared,
where we almost, yea, more than gathered are.
These fleas’ encampments are you and I, and this
our pact, and this fight our marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
and cluster’d around these living steps of stone.
Though use make you apt to move them on
let not to that self-murder added be,
or sacrilege: ’tis sin to kill for an income stream.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou, considering losses, since
purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could these fleas guilty be
except in that small drop they suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
find’st not thyself (nor money) weaker now.
If ’tis true, then learn how false thy fears be;
such honour, if thou would yield’st to this,
such waste these fleas’ deaths would bring to thee.