The power of John Donne’s words nearly killed a man.
It was the spring of 1623, on the morning of Ascension Day, and Donne, long a struggling poet, had finally secured for himself celebrity, fortune and a captive audience. He had been appointed dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral two years before. He was 51, slim and amply bearded, and his preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation — merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole of the city’s elite — came to his sermons. Some carried paper and ink to write down his finest passages and take them home to relish and dissect them. Donne often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him.
That morning he was not preaching in his own church but