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Plague poems, defiant wit and ***** puns: why John Donne is a poet for our times

Master of the Revels at a time of persecution, Donne broke new ground with poems that burst with sexual desire and intellectual curiosity It was 1593 and John Donne was 21: tall, dark and exquisitely moustached. He was studying law at the Inns of Court in central London, and was living high. He excelled at the business of frivolity and was elected Master of the Revels, in charge of putting on pageantry and wild parties for his fellow scholars, with raucous singing and drunken dancing of the galliard. (The dance, which involved great leaps and kicks and spins, was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: she was said, even in her 50s, to dance “six or seven galliards in a morning”.) He was writing, for a group of male friends, rakish poetry that was beginning to make him known. But as the year went on, the plague was spreading: the theatres were ordered to close, the bear-baiting to cease. In the streets officials wielded 3ft-long marshal wands, to swat at people who weren’t social distancing. Donne wrote to a friend a lament for the city’s swagger: Continue reading...

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