“this crown of prayer”

Or, The day of a Donne scholar in the age of corona: a university lecturer applying 21st-century methods of distance learning to early modern poetry


In the mornings, my worries are technical: will the program work, will the video contact and sound work, can I hear the students, can they hear me? We gather around our computers, with a variety of domestic scenes in the background, sometimes a family member, or a pet, passing through the room. The students tend to be more computer savvy than me, but then that is hardly surprising; I try to create an atmosphere of inquisitiveness and learning with text, in a situation where I cannot meet my students in class. Four-hundred years ago, John Donne (1572–1631) asked, in one of his Holy Sonnets: “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

During my coffee break, my mind is concerned with first-world problems: the trips I had planned to take, the concerts I had wanted to attend, an exhibition I really had wanted to see. I am annoyed by the inconvenience to my every-day life, and to my selective life-style. What if the world changes for good now? What if I can never again travel and move freely, like I am used to. Donne envisions his world that has expanded considerably just recently: “West and East / In all flatt Maps… are one”.  Yet, what if this is the end of life as we know it? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the twilight, I think of family and friends: the luncheons and coffees planned, the book waiting to be returned, and the one I had promised to lend. Now, we are asked not to touch, not to shake hands, only to meet through the safety of windows, and the telephone. Donne writes: “But glasse, and lines must bee / No meanes our firme substantiall love to keepe…” Yet, we are forced to social distancing that challenges our social needs. — I also think of academic conferences: grateful for the ones that I attended, sorry for those now cancelled. After all the digital prowess I have developed recently (and much faster than I would ever have believed), these encounters really require face-to-face presence. Only in a random conversation during the lull in a busy conference-schedule did that project come about, was that book planned, did those great minds think alike. “Learning were safe; in this our Universe…” But what about now? “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

In the darkness of the night, I fear for the health and life of loved ones, and of myself: we have not experienced this kind of a world-wide plague in our life-time. I think of the sweating sickness of the Tudor era, of the relapsing fever endured by John Donne, of the Spanish flu that killed my great-grandmother and the twins she was carrying. “Tis the yeares midnight…” They, too, were filled with fear, and for all our health insurance and western medicine, so are we. While the vernal equinox has passed, dawn is still hours away. “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

Westminster Abbey, London; at night

*All references to Donne’s poetry are from the John T. Shawcross edition (1967).


Six months ago I visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. I had been to Scotland before, and I am especially familiar with its regal history. But it was only on this latest visit to the royal Scottish residence, at a time of looming Brexit, that the historical heritage involved in present-day politics struck me the hardest.

As a Tudor scholar, I am greatly invested in the history of the marriage of the first Tudor Princess, Margaret (1489–1541), to King James Stewart IV of Scotland (1473–1513). The purpose of the union was to create perpetual peace on the isles, and although this peace was hard to attain at first, it was nevertheless a powerful move toward the union of the crowns.

The story of Margaret’s granddaughter, Mary Stuart (1542–67), and Elizabeth Tudor (1533–1603) (rekindled again last year in a spectacular albeit not quite historically accurate film), is often portrayed merely as a tragic history of two monarchs fighting for power. Yet, it is much due to the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots (and once also Queen of France) and Queen Elizabeth I of England that events eventually led to the Stuart succession on the English throne in 1603. A century later, this resulted in uniting the two countries into one kingdom, making Britain truly great.

Unions are formed and resolved with time, that is a historical reality. However, change is never easy, and it is always both an uncertainty and a challenge. Without any reference to modern-day politics as such, on the eve of possible Brexit, this change will affect the union which was the ancient Arthurian dream of the Tudors and which cost the Stuarts so much bloodshed before their final peaceful accession. If Brexit breaks that union, it is this late-Medieval dream of a shared future that is breaking. And my heart.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, March 2019