For the duration

John McManners

  • The Oxford Book of Death edited by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 351 pp, £9.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 214129 5
  • Idéologies et Mentalités by Michel Vovelle
    Maspéro, 264 pp, £7.15, May 1982, ISBN 2 7071 1289 5

I must begin by declaring an interest. I am quoted twice in The Oxford Book of Death. This gives me a sort of literary immortality, like the poets I had to read – or, on occasion, copy for punishment – in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was a schoolboy. Now I am alongside Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and Dostoevsky. As a cleric of the established Church, I am ranking high. St Augustine, Bede, Jeremy Taylor, Parson Woodforde and Kierkegaard get only one mention each (and strictly speaking, the gloomy Dane was a frondeur on the fringes of establishment piety and ought not to count). Bossuet, Bunyan and George Herbert equal me, but again, only Herbert comes into precise comparison, Popish prelates and Dissenters not qualifying. Robert Herrick has three mentions, but his poetic genius is too lofty to arouse envy: one can but read with haunted admiration the deceptively innocent lyrical outpourings from his Devonshire vicarage. John Donne, the greatest of the deans of St Paul’s, inevitably ranks first in the list of Anglican clergy (he has seven mentions), but he was dedicated to the theme of death and slept in his coffin – besides, he wrote poetry, a genre which is given an unfair advantage in this Oxford collection.

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