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Poet John Donne, Live at the Hunt Library … Almost

John Wall demonstrated the digital humanities project during the November 5 opening.
John Wall demonstrated the digital humanities project during the November 5 opening at the Hunt Library.

John Donne, one of England’s most famous poets and priests, delivered his “Gunpowder Day” sermon on November 5, 1622, at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Exactly 391 years later, he delivered it again on November 5, 2013, at the Hunt Library at NC State. Well, virtually speaking.

A virtual recreation of the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral as it stood in 1622 has opened at NC State’s Hunt Library’s state-of-the-art teaching theater that offers 270-degree views of the space. It also features high-fidelity acoustics and a rendering of the historic sermon delivered by Donne that day.

It took a village to recreate the 17th century space, sights and sounds. Led by John Wall, a professor of English at NC State and a Donne scholar, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project involved English scholars, historians, archaeologists, architects, actors, audio and IT experts. The project is serving as a significant research tool for history, literature and religion scholars.

“This is as close as you can come to visiting 17th century London and hearing John Donne speak without a time machine,” says Wall.  The Teaching and Visualization Lab was designed for just such high-definition visualizations and simulations.

The project is already helping to answer longstanding and fundamental questions about religion and literature in 17th century London. “We know that large crowds showed up to hear Donne’s sermons, but it was unclear whether they could even hear what was being said,” Wall says. “By using the models we created for this project, we learned that the courtyard space allowed sound to reverberate, amplifying the voice of the speaker. This also means the sermon had to be delivered at a measured pace to keep the speech from being garbled as the reverberating sounds overlapped. Those are insights we wouldn’t have without this project.”

The researchers focused on John Donne, best known as a poet, because he was also an important religious and political figure in 17th century London. Due to the Reformation and its aftermath, religion and politics were inextricably linked in England during this period. As dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a focal point of social, political and religious life in the largest city in England, Donne was a prominent man – and his sermons were often made in defense of royal policies, to the most influential crowds in the country.

Wall launched the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to find out what it would have been like to be there for one of those sermons.

Paul’s Cross was a freestanding outdoor pulpit where crowds would gather to hear sermons on Sundays and special religious days. Wall worked with David Hill, an associate professor of architecture at NC State, to recreate the part of St. Paul’s churchyard where Paul’s Cross was located, and where John Donne often preached. The team had to rely on historic documents and images, since the cathedral burned to the ground in 1666.

Wall and Hill also worked with linguistics and acoustics experts to create a script and acoustic model able to simulate the way the sermon would sound depending on where you are in the churchyard – or under different conditions, such as standing in a small crowd or a large one.

“We actually constructed two separate models: one for visual representations and one for audio representations,” Hill says. “The visual model shows a greater amount of the architectural detail that is common to Gothic cathedrals. The sound model has acoustical properties like reflectance and absorption assigned to the various materials, such as stone, glass or brick. These are things that may not be visually apparent in the model, but they contribute to an accurate portrayal of sounds within the space.”

Explore the visual and acoustic models at the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project online or in person at the Teaching and Visualization Lab. Wall will also give demonstrations at these times:

  • Monday November 25, 9-10 a.m.
  • Tuesday November 26, 4-5 p.m.
  • Wednesday December 4, 9-10 a.m.
  • Wednesday December 11, 9-10 a.m.

To schedule a different time to view the installation, please contact at the Hunt Library.

By Lauren Kirkpatrick and Matt Shipman