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 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.


St. Paul's Cathedral, London/Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS

John Donne in his grave clothes; statue by Nicholas Stone, 1631, now in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

In a letter of 1607 to his close friend Sir Henry Goodyer, Donne minutely rehearsed the flaws inherent in both hypotheses: traducianism, he points out, makes it hard to see how the soul might have any “naturall immortality,” whereas the infusion theory leads one to question the beneficence of God, who is pictured as endlessly forcing, against their will, sinless souls into corrupt, fallen bodies—“the soul is forced to take this infection, and comes not into the body of her own disposition.” Traducianism leaves the supposedly divine soul dangerously undifferentiated from the “matter” of the rest of our flesh, while infusionism involves God in the dubious practice of contaminating pure souls by stuffing them into inherently sinful bodies.

Still more dizzying are Donne’s attempts to envisage the task awaiting the Creator when the last trumpet eventually blows. For Donne fervently believed that he, and all the saved, would be reunited on resurrection day with their earthly bodies, down to the very last particle. His disquisitions on this theme have an especially personal charge:

Ego, I, I the same body, and the same soul, shall be recompact again, and be identically, numerically, individually the same man. The same integrity of body, and soul, and the same integrity in the organs of my body, and in the faculties of my soul too; I shall be all there, my body, and my soul, and all my body, and all my soul.

The ardent literalism of such a passage points up an anxiety about fragmentation and separation that runs like a leitmotif through Donne’s writings. How, he wonders again and again, will God reassemble all the different bits of all the different people who have died over the centuries?

Where be all the splinters of that Bone, which a shot hath shivered and scattered in the Ayre? Where be all the Atoms of that flesh, which a Corrasive hath eat away, or a Consumption hath breath’d, and exhal’d away from our arms, and other Limbs? In what wrinkle, in what furrow, in what bowel of the earth, ly all the graines of the ashes of a body burnt a thousand years since? In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a Body drowned in the generall flood? What cohaerence, what sympathy, what dependence maintaines any relation, any correspondence, between that arm that was lost in Europe, and that legge that was lost in Afrique or Asia, scores of yeers between?

This is from a sermon that Donne preached, with ghoulish inappropriateness, at the wedding of the Earl of Bridgewater’s daughter in 1627. Our decaying corpses produce worms, he goes on, and these worms eat us and then die, dry out, molder into dust, and this dust is blown into a river, and that river water enters the sea, where it “ebbs and flows in infinite revolutions, and still, still God knows in what Cabinet every seed-Pearle lies, in what part of the world every graine of every mans dust lies.” The great day come, nothing daunted by the dispersals Donne has itemized in such unnerving detail, God

beckens for the bodies of his Saints, and in the twinckling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sate down at the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection.

Atop his urn then, swathed in his winding sheet, Donne was rehearsing not his fast-approaching earthly demise—he died some two weeks later—but the moment of his resurrection, or more precisely, Targoff suggests, the moment just before his resurrection. For unlike the figures in all other resurrection monuments of the period, Donne has his eyes closed, as he does in the frontispiece to Deaths Duell, and as he did while posing for the “choice Painter”: the moment is at hand, but has not quite arrived, body and soul have been reunited, but he has not yet ascended, and Targoff compares his savoring of this moment, just before the grand climax, to his savoring at the end of “To his Mistris Going to Bed” the moment just before his lover discards a different kind of “white lynnen” shift:

As liberally, as to a Midwife shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white lynnen hence,
There is no pennance, much less innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Critics have long pointed out the continuities between the imaginative patterns developed in Donne’s religious and his secular poetry. Theological issues recur regularly in the Songs and Sonnets,3 while the Divine Poems often make disconcerting use of sexual imagery: at the end of “Show me deare Christ,” for example, he figures the Church as at its best when it’s like an all-accommodating prostitute and open to all comers (“Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then/When she’is embrac’d and open to most men”); and the plowing, appropriating, and violating that Fish discerns in the love poems turn from active to passive in a Holy Sonnet like “Batter my heart, three person’d God”:

for I
Except you’enthrall mee,
never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except
you ravish mee.

Targoff is particularly interested in the way the separation at death between body and soul that Donne so dreaded relates to his many poems about the separation of lovers; it was Donne who coined the word “valediction” for saying farewell, and his various “Valediction” poems, but many others also, make copious use of the soul/body distinction as a way of insisting on the superlative nature of the bond between the lovers, as a consolation for a forthcoming departure. The opening stanzas of “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” directly compare the approaching separation of the speaker and his beloved to the moment the soul leaves the body:

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
The breath goes now, and some say, no.

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No teare-floods, nor sigh- tempests move….

The word “melt” may contain a reference to alchemy, in which Donne was much interested, for alchemy was also a means of inquiring into the way the physical and the spiritual could be first sifted apart and then reunified in a rarefied form. The lovers, Targoff argues, are being asked to behave like gold in an alchemical experiment that would have involved separating elements, refining them, and then recombining them; and, at the level of poetic alchemy, the word may have served as the catalyst for Donne’s vision of the lovers’ souls as still joined, despite his departure:

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

The frequency with which Donne stages scenes of separation suggests that the drama of leave-taking had a particular fascination for him: “So, so, breake off this last lamenting kisse,/Which sucks two soules, and vapors Both away…”; “Since she must go, and I must mourn, come night,/Environ me with darkness, whilst I write…”; “Sweetest love, I do not goe,/For wearinesse of thee….” It was a conventional enough topos for a lyric poet, but Donne’s farewell scenes are invested with an ingenuity and urgency unmatched in the work of other poets of his time. Their power and resonance are related by Targoff to a deep-seated worry about “securing future continuity in the face of present rupture.” The challenges to that “future continuity,” however, derive not so much from the fact that he must go on a trip somewhere as from a pervasive sense of the instability and fickleness not only of his lover—Donne’s poetry is full of abrasive denunciations of unfaithful women—but of himself too.

It’s partly because his poems are so self-consciously making statements that function as actions that it’s futile to try to derive from them a stable set of beliefs; Donne makes use of ideas and images rather as the soul in The Progresse of the Soule migrates through its various incumbents. At times his jousting about constancy turns nasty, as at the end of “Communitie,” where he declares:

Chang’d loves are but chang’d sorts of meat,
And when hee hath the kernell eate,
Who doth not fling away the shell?

Change is the prevailing condition that Donne’s poems both enact and anatomize. Yet it’s also in response to the constantly looming threat of dispersal and dissipation that he occasionally fashions static tableaux, such as that of the entranced lovers of “The Extasie,” who are presented as an unmoving icon of constancy, their hands “firmely cimented/With a fast balme,” their “eye-beames twisted” as if their eyes were threaded “upon one double string.” While their bodies “like sepulchrall statues” lie on the violet-strewn bank, their souls engage in a series of dense and abstruse metaphysical arguments about souls and bodies, though these eventually result in a decision to return to the realm of the physical:

So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turne wee then….

Many of Donne’s most arresting lines are those presenting an image or moment frozen in defiance of the “generall flood” of time and change:

When my grave is broke up againe
Some second ghest to entertaine,
(For graves have learn’d that woman-head
To be to more then one a Bed) And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright haire about the bone….

The lovers of “The Relique,” we learn, have come up with this “device” as a way of enjoying a short reunion on resurrection day; the woman will have to visit his grave to retrieve the strands of her hair that he wears as a bracelet, so she can be physically “recompact” before her ascension into heaven. The poet’s hope is that the gravedigger who had been about to bury another corpse on top of his will take pity, and leave him to await the day of judgment undisturbed. As so often in Donne, it is the weird fusion of a complex, indeed outlandish train of reasoning with a jaggedly particular concrete image that delivers such an unexpected shock to the nervous system. Bony arm and still-shining hair are somehow both dead and alive at once. And it is the same distinctively Donnean mixture of the animate and the inanimate, of the physical and the conceptual, of the implausible and the rational, of self and other, of the intimate and the cosmic, that drives his most famous image of lovers united, in fantasy at least, in body and soul:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
And growes erect, as that comes home.

This Issue

December 17, 2009