Resurrecting John Donne

National Portrait Gallery, London/Bridgeman Art Library
The Lothian portrait of John Donne, circa 1595

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…

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