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This report is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

John Donne at Saint Nick's Neil Powell
Calling a television programme Simon Schama’s John Donne prompts a pantomime response: Oh no, he’s not. He isn’t, either: he offers, in enthusiastic dialogue with Fiona Shaw, some astute snatches of close reading, but he’s surprisingly hazy when it comes to the literary-historical context. Of course Donne is stunningly original; yet in Schama’s view this is because all preceding sixteenth-century English poetry had been about shepherds and fairies. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that anyone who plans to open his mouth on the subject would first read Yvor Winters and let himself be directed towards Wyatt and Gascoigne and Raleigh and Greville. Like almost all attempts to make television out of poetry, this one also had some wilfully silly aspects: Schama spent much of it mooching around snowy office-blocks whose only connections with Donne’s London were street names in the A-Z; a vox pop sample asked whether they’d heard of John Donne (they hadn’t) were almost certainly racking their brains in search of someone called John Dunn; and it was perverse to isolate lines and blur them with overlapping echo-chamber repetitions. You can trust great poetry: an hour mainly devoted to reading and discussion by Shaw, Schama and John Carey would have been far more engrossing.

Then there’s the matter of balance. As the minutes passed, I kept wondering how on earth there’d be time to deal properly with post-ordination Donne, the man who after his extraordinarily eventful earlier life ended up as an Anglican ...

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