The concept for the monument is derived from Donne’s poetry, in which there is an underlying thread: a search for spiritual direction. East and West, maps, circles, compasses are mentioned in a number of poems, but Donne uses the east-west direction specifically in three main poems as a metaphysical expression: east is the Rising Sun, the Holy Land and Christ, west is the place of decline, of death.

In Hymn To God, My God, In My Sickness Donne describes himself as a map:
‘What shall my west hurt me?  As west and east
In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.’

The main inscription around the top edge of the plinth is from Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, lines 9-10. The inscription uses four of the letters within the text to mark the points of the compass around the circumference:

‘Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West,
This day, when my Soul’s form bends to the East.’

In The Annunciation and Passion, Donne again connects east and west like a circle:

‘As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.’

In his last days, wrapped in a shroud, posing for a planned monument in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, Donne deliberately turned his face to the east for the artist to draw him in that position.  The proposed monument faces almost due west, however the bronze bust of Donne shows him turning his head over his left shoulder following the direction of the inscription. He is turning, towards his birthplace in Bread Street, to look east, echoing the last lines of Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward:

‘Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.’
Places significant to Donne are inscribed on the pavement under the names of the four cardinal directions: North – St Paul’s Cathedral, South – Lincoln’s Inn, East – Bread Street, his birthplace and West – Anne More, his wife.

The plinth is based on the gothic moulding and proportions of a pillar from the crypt of Old St Paul’s, as seen in Wenceslas Hollar’s engraving, c.1657, before it’s destruction in the Great Fire of London. It links the new monument to the old cathedral that Donne knew well and where he was Dean for ten years.

The design of the monument is a sculptural conceit, much like Donne used metaphysical conceits in his poetry. In the bust Donne is covered on the right hand shoulder and nude on the left. Within the bronze drapery of the right shoulder a visible relief diagram of a flea will be modelled, and on the back of the left shoulder, in Donne’s handwriting, an inscription from the Verse Letter To Lady Cary And Mistress Essex Rich: ‘True vertue is ys Soule, always in all deeds all’.

These illustrate the paradox of Donne’s life, a synthesis of apparent contraries: The sensual Lover, the draped, veiled side, (inverse of the traditional nude) – and the Divine, the naked side, the essential man seen without covering by God. Both made the man and were expressions of Donne’s nature and both were important parts of his journey. A relief of a flea appears somewhere on the bust alluding to The Flea and the lines from his last poem A Hymn to God the Father: ‘Wilt thou forgive that sinne; through which I runne, And do run still: though still I do deplore?’

Lettering on plinth by Andrew Whittle