Collected Poems by John Donne, book of a lifetime: The "greatest poet" still takes Paddy Ashdown's breath away


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The Independent Culture

Since the age of 16, I have had a copy of the complete poems of John Donne somewhere close at hand. For me, that was a watershed year. I had not been a good student – at best strugglingly average, to the despair of my father. In truth the classroom interested me far less at this age than the rugby pitch, the athletics field and the girls at the local Bedford high school.

One evening a friend I admired but thought quite weird persuaded me, against my strong inclination, to go with him to the school poetry society run by one of the masters, whom I regarded as equally weird, John Eyre. The evening changed my life – quite literally. For that night I walked through a door opened by Donne into a world of poetry and literature I had never even known existed and have spent a lifetime joyously exploring ever since. The moment may have been life changing for me.

But it was not for Mr Eyre. I know this, because many years later, with others among his more distinguished students, we gave him lunch at the Reform Club. He had, in one way or another, changed all our lives and we wanted to tell him so. Among those present were Michael Brunson, the political journalist, Professor Quentin Skinner, the historian, and many others ranging from ambassadors and captains of industry to senior civil servants.

He had words for them all, reminding them of the parts they had played under his direction in the school play (I had only been a wordless monk in Auden's The Ascent of F6 and a soldier in Macbeth entrusted with the line "Sound the alarums without"). Finally he came to me (I was then leader of the Lib Dems). He said simply "Ashdown – ah yes. You surprised me."

After school, as a young Royal Marines officer involved in the war in Borneo, I took a leather-bound copy of Donne's poems which my wife had given me everywhere I went, until the ravages of jungle damp and termites dismantled it into a collection of mouldy pages. It has been replaced many times since.

My current copy – the Penguin edition edited by AJ Smith – is on my iPhone and iPad. Of course Donne, though the greatest poet, is not the only one. But he is the one who opened the pages for me to all the others – and can still take my breath away when I least expect it.

Paddy Ashdown's 'The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance, D-Day and the Battle for the Vercors 1944' is published by William Collins (£25)