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Resurrecting John Donne

John Donne preached his final sermon as dean of St. Paul’s in London on February 25, 1631, the first Friday of Lent. “And, when,” his early biographer Izaak Walton records in his Life,

to the amazement of some beholders he appeared in the Pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice: but, mortality by a decayed body and a dying face. And doubtless, many did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel; Do these bones live?

Donne’s text was taken from Psalms, “And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death,” and the sermon, published the following year as Deaths Duell, delivered a sustained and harrowing meditation on mortality. Our time in the womb, and birth itself, are vividly interpreted in terms of death:

Wee have a winding sheete in our Mothers wombe, which growes with us from our conception, and wee come into the world, wound up in that winding sheet, for wee come to seeke a grave.

Nor does Donne flinch from describing the physical decay of a corpse, its “putrefaction and vermiculation” (i.e., its being eaten by worms). Even “the children of royall parents, and the parents of royall children,” he reminds King Charles I, who was in the congregation in the chapel at Whitehall that day, must suffer the indignities of having their flesh promiscuously, indeed incestuously, intermingled with that of other corpses, until all traces of individual identity are dissolved:

Miserable riddle, when the same worme must bee my mother, and my sister, and my selfe. Miserable incest, when I must bee maried to my mother and my sister, and bee both father and mother to my owne mother and sister, beget, and beare that worm which is all that miserable penury; when my mouth shall be filled with dust, and the worme shall feed, and feed sweetely upon me….

According to Walton, “many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice” expounding these elaborately gruesome arguments, decided that “Dr. Donne had preach’t his own Funeral Sermon.”

In a letter of the previous month to his friend George Garrard, Donne had confessed it was his “desire (and God may be pleased to grant it me) that I might die in the pulpit.” Though “much wasted” by his exertions on that Friday, Donne did not die mid-sermon. He retired to the deanery, where, a couple of weeks later, he staged yet another tableau in his ongoing duel with death. He had a carpenter create a wooden platform carved in the shape of a funeral urn; behind this he had placed a wooden board about the height of his own body. A “choice Painter” was hired, and several charcoal fires made up in Donne’s study. The Dean appeared, winding sheet in hand:

and, having put off all his cloaths, had this sheet put on him, and so tyed with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrowded and put into their Coffin, or grave. Upon this Vrn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might shew his lean, pale, and death-like face, which was purposely turned toward the East, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.” In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the Picture was fully finished, he caused it to be set by his bed-side, where it continued, and became his hourly object till his death.

This life-size picture of his own body arrayed in the winding sheet that he would shortly be needing not only served Donne as a uniquely personal memento mori, but as the model for the frontispiece that adorned Deaths Duell (by Martin Droeshout), and for the upright marble statue of the poet in his grave clothes that Henry King commissioned after his death. This extraordinary sculpture by Nicholas Stone lay forgotten in an obscure nook for 150 years after the Great Fire of London, but was recovered and reerected in 1818 in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where it can be viewed today (see illustration on p. 76).

Like his statue, Donne’s writings have disappeared from view for long periods of history. The eighteenth century had very little time for him. Samuel Johnson repudiated the far-fetched imagery of Donne and his followers as “violent and unnatural,” and even Pope’s mellifluous rewritings of a couple of Donne satires did little for his reputation. In the Romantic era he was admired, though with certain reservations, by Coleridge, who, like Pope, suggested ways in which the earlier poet’s rugged metrics and rebarbative diction might be smoothed and improved. But it was not until the young T.S. Eliot set about overhauling the canon of English poetry as established by Francis Palgrave (who included no poems at all by Donne in the first edition of his Golden Treasury1) that what Johnson had called “metaphysical” poetry suddenly became compulsory reading for the aspiring poet or critic: “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”

This famous though in many ways baffling dictum ushered in Eliot’s sweeping diagnosis of the “dissociation of sensibility” that “set in” in the latter half of the seventeenth century, like a new kind of disease, and “from which,” he laments, “we have never recovered.” In Eliot’s early quatrain poem “Whispers of Immortality,” Donne is figured as bracingly in touch with the fundamentals of life and death, a model of the undissociated sensibility:

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense;
To seize and clutch and penetrate,
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

Donne’s poems often set about conjugating the way we experience what Eliot calls “sense”: “Licence my roaving hands,” he exults in “To his Mistris Going to Bed,” “and let them go,/Before, behind, above, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land.” Even here though, the lover’s roving hands are part of a larger metaphor or conceit, one that equates permission to explore his mistress’s body with charters granted to companies to take possession of newly annexed territories in the New World. Indeed throughout his oeuvre Donne’s brilliant anatomies of desire rigorously resist the illusion that the body can be presented unmediated—as John Dryden, for one, complained:

He affects the Metaphysicks, not only in his Satires, but in his Amorous Verses, where Nature only shou’d reign; and perplexes the Minds of the Fair Sex with nice Speculations of Philosophy, when he shou’d ingage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of Love.

Nature, however, is never allowed to reign in Donne:

Full nakedness! All joyes are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joyes.

Unbodying the soul at death, unclothing the body for sex: this is what Eliot defined as “amalgamating disparate experience.”

Donne’s obsessive and lifelong interest in defining the precise nature of the relationship between the body and the soul, both during life and after death, is the focus of Ramie Targoff’s probing and illuminating study of his poetry, letters, sermons, and religious writings. Donne has not fared particularly well with literary critics over the last couple of decades. In his strongly argued and influential study of 1981, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art, John Carey portrayed Donne the man as a ruthlessly self-serving egotist: having betrayed his faith (he was born into a well- connected Catholic family) for the sake of worldly ambition, Donne, in Carey’s reading, found himself haunted by his apostasy; and while the self-division this caused played a significant role in fomenting his dazzling rhetorical ingenuity, Carey never allows us to forget for long the origins of the imaginative power of Donne’s writing in his mauvaise foi—rather as Satan can only make his great speeches in the opening books of Paradise Lost because he has betrayed God and been cast into hell.

The following decade Stanley Fish brought a more withering indictment still:

Donne is sick and his poetry is sick…. Donne is bulimic, someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up.

The poems are read by Fish as violent fantasies of “control and domination,” in particular of the hapless girl at whom Donne directs his barrage of arguments, leaving her “ploughed, appropriated, violated.” Like Carey, Fish concedes the unique intensity of the experience Donne’s work offers, the “masculine persuasive force” of his language, but suggests he is better approached diagnostically as a case history than as the author of poems that might move or amuse or stimulate the mind in rewarding ways.

Targoff is not particularly concerned to relate her own investigations into Donne’s theological beliefs to the history of Donne criticism.2 Her book is refreshingly free of point-scoring off other critics, and she wastes no time in the business of justifying her approach in relation to this or that strand of contemporary theory. Her introduction convincingly makes the case for the importance of the body–soul relationship to an understanding of Donne’s writings in all genres, and briskly outlines the various perspectives on this vital issue current in the period.

There were, she writes, mortalists who were convinced that the soul died with the body and that both were resurrected simultaneously at the Day of Judgment; and at the other extreme, there were believers in metempsychosis who thought souls were transferred on death into another being—an idea Donne has much fun with in his grotesque and hilarious unfinished long poem The Progresse of the Soule, which traces the migration of a “deathless soul” through a mandrake, a sparrow, a couple of fish, a whale, a mouse, two wolves, and a “gamesome” ape, who is about to consummate his love for one of the daughters of Adam, Siphatecia, when her brother surprises the unequal pair, and kills the unfortunate simian with a stone. The soul’s last recorded residence in the poem is in Themech, another daughter of Adam and Eve, whom the soul enters while she’s still in her mother’s womb.

The knockabout comedy of this wonderfully adept and vivacious piece suggests that Donne never took metempsychosis too seriously, but he did devote much thought to the puzzling dilemma of when exactly the soul entered the body, and how. There were two dominant schools of thought on this issue, Targoff explains: one known as traducianism, which held that the soul derived from one’s parents, like any other organ, and was somehow imparted in the act of propagation; the other, known as infusionism, which argued that God individually infused a soul into each fetus at some point before it was born.

  1. 1

    The volume does contain a lyric beginning “Absence, hear thou this protestation,” given as by Anon in 1861, but attributed to John Donne in the 1891 edition. The poem is probably, however, by John Hoskins.

  2. 2

    For an entertaining account of responses to Donne’s poetry from Walton to Fish, see Ben Saunders, Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation (Harvard University Press, 2006).

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