The National Portrait Gallery in London has a wonderful portrait of John Donne, painted around 1595 when he was in his early twenties. I had always imagined Donne as someone without a sense of humor, but this image of him is almost Byronic, as romantic as an Elizabethan painting can get.
I was confronted by John Donne this morning, outside a grocery store. He shambled sideways across the road, calling to me.
“Excuse me, excuse me, can I talk to you?”
He wasn’t drunk … yet; it was only 10 in the morning.
“It’s just that I’m homeless, and somebody stole my backpack –”
“Are you asking me for money?”
He seemed surprised by my question. Perhaps I should have listened to his spiel — it was, after all, a game of sorts.
“Umm, yes,” he said, hesitantly.
In the silence, life continued: traffic, a bird twittering somewhere overhead, the rise and fall of voices around the corner.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
I reached into my purse.
“Is this OK with you? Is this OK?” He edged away from me, staring at the bill in his hand.
I heard John Donne this morning; was this what he meant?