• Michael Martin

John Donne on Holy Dying


I am currently putting the finishing touches on my Metaphysical Poets course (should be available March 9th). Since I have these poets on my mind, and today being Ash Wednesday, it seems only fitting to consider the poet and preacher John Donne's thoughts on Holy Dying. What follows comes from my book, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014).


A significant aspect of both Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and the sermon known as Deaths Duell, taking into consideration his life as a pastor, is how Donne strives to model “holy dying” for his readers and congregation, but Deaths Duell is his final and most completely realized articulation of the idea.[1] Judith Anderson suggests that in his last sermon Donne figures the “culmination of his role as a preacher and a radically verbal gesture of self-characterization.”[2] Anderson, however, considers Donne’s rhetorical and psychological contexts at the expense of his pastoral concerns. In the sermon, though, Donne was clearly acting as a pastor fully aware of his role in the cura animarum. As he did in the Devotions, Donne here makes use of his current situation to open a way for his congregation to recognize God’s presence even in death.


Unlike Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying, which considers death from a comfortable distance and from the context of living a holy life,[3] Donne presents his congregation with a paradox: the picture of death as lived religious experience. Donne’s essential trust in God, to whom, as his text for the sermon professes, “belong the issues of death,”[4] demands that he trust God to the end: and he wants his congregation to adopt the same approach not only to his death, but, more importantly, to their own. Donne wants his hearers to leave St. Paul’s uplifted, not horrified. He does not hide his terminal illness, but embraces it as the vehicle bringing him to Christ. His sermon, rather than a morbid theatrical event, is emblematic of Paul in 1 Corinthians: “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Stanley Fish suggests that the sermon subverts not only its own pretensions, but also “the pretensions of those who are prepared (or so they think) to understand it and to exit from it with a portable truth.”[5] This is so, but it is better, I think, to consider Deaths Duell in the dark light of mystical theology, a theological aesthetic that recuses itself from religious absolutes and abides instead in mystery. Fish gets close to such an understanding, arguing that the “sermon does not inscribe that Word [in the heart of the believer] but merely reveals it; and it reveals it by removing from our line of vision the structures that obscure it and cause us to forget it.”[6] Donne uses the paradox of the living dead man to throw his hearers back into God, a paradox further complicated by the “conscious use of one’s own body as a religious symbol…both a vain and a pious thing.”[7] Though Donne has not given his life for his congregation, he can at least give them his death.

“Paradox” is certainly the key to the sermon, not only visually in Donne’s emblem of himself as the living dead man, but even more so rhetorically. Throughout the sermon, Donne piles paradox on top of paradox as he destabilizes his congregation, obliterating their trust in reason and logic and throwing them off their dependence on the pastor and onto reliance in the mystery of God. Paradoxes in mysticism, according to Steven Katz, as they “break accepted and logical rules…are seen as a fit vehicle for religious language insofar as such language relates to God, and other Ultimate Objects or Subjects…that by definition, cannot be captured in standard discourse or limited and explained according to laws of logic.”[8] Katz sees the language of mystical paradox as participating in “the hermeneutical premises of the via negativa,” in the ways both avoid absolute commitments about the nature of God or about how believers can have access to God.[9] Unlike Katz, McGinn refrains from too precise a definition of paradox, preferring instead to see it as arising out of the dialectic that exists between contemplation and ecstasy, presence and absence, transcendence and immanence.[10]


Some of the figures Donne employs are conventional Christian expressions of paradox. That “our issue in death, shall be an entrance into everlasting life” (10:231), of course, has roots in Christianity going back to apostolic times, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). In Stoicism, too, the notion is common, as we find in Heraclitus, “Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living their death and dying their life” (Fragment 62). Donne makes use of the traditional life-in-death/death-in-life paradox familiar to Christianity and Stoicism as well, employing it with pastoral intentions: “Wee have a winding sheet 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” (10:233).


Donne is his own winding sheet

Donne, however, complicates these conventional paradoxes by augmenting them in conceits familiar from the rhetorical fireworks of the metaphysical poetry at which he was so adept. He does this particularly in consideration of the dissolution of the body after death. His language sounds almost Derridean:


“But for us that dye now and sleepe in the state of the dead, we must all passe this posthume death, this death after death, nay this death after buriall, this dissolution after dissolution, this death of corruption and putrefaction, of vermiculation and incineration, of dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave.” (10:238)



Paradox and the grotesque engorge the conceit. But Donne pursues things further in what follows. Not content with corruption, rotting, worms, and burning, Donne then takes up language intended to unsettle his congregation to an even more extreme degree. “When those bodies that have beene the children of royall parents,” he writes,


“and the parents of royall children, must say with Iob, to corruption thou art my father, and to the Worme thou art my mother and my sister. Miserable riddle, when the same worme must bee my mother, and my sister, and my selfe. Miserable incest, when I must bee married to my mother and my sister, and bee both father and mother to my owne mother and sister, beget, and beare that worme which is all that miserable penury; when my mouth shall be filled with dust, and the worme shall feed, and feed sweetely upon me, when the ambitious man shall have no satisfaction, if the poorest alive tread upon him, nor the poorest receive any contentment in being made equall to Princes, for they shall bee equall but in dust.” (10:238)



In this passage, especially the third sentence of it, all coherence is surely gone: a sentence which begins with metaphors of incest devolves into a commonplace on death as the great equalizer.


After he unsettles his audience with convolutions of incest and death, Donne proceeds to unsettle them through temptations to blasphemy in yet another use of paradox. To do this, Donne extrapolates from Luke 10:28:


Fac hoc & vives, there’s my securitie, the mouth of the Lord hath sayd it, doe this and thou shalt live: But though I doe it, yet I shall dye too, dye a bodily, a naturall death. But God never mentions, never seems to consider that death, the bodily, the naturall death. God doth not say, Live well and thou shalt dye well, that is, an easie, a quiet death; But live well here, and thou shalt live well for ever.” (10:241)



Here, as he points to the scripture assuring believers that if they follow Christ’s words they will live, he also destabilizes them by raising the point that they will still die. When thrust into such an aporia, removed as it is from logic, believers have only faith in which to trust.


In addition to turning the biblical texts on their heads, Donne also guides his hearers through intrinsically paradoxical passages of scripture. First, pointing to Luke 12:50, (“But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!”), Donne opens up the connotation of “baptism”:


“Himselfe calls it but a Baptisme, as though he were to bee the better for it. I have a Baptisme to be Baptized with, and he was in paine till it was accomplished, and yet this Baptisme was his death. The holy Ghost calls it Ioy (for the Ioy which was set before him hee indured the Crosse) which was not a joy of his reward after his passion, but joy that filled him even in the middest of those torments, and arose from them.” (10:244)


Similarly, he directs his congregation’s attention to the Transfiguration of Christ as paradox. Donne reminds them that when Moses and Elijah conversed with Christ on Mount Tabor, “they talkt of his decease, of his death” (10:244). He adds an important perspective to this meditation, driving home his point: “And then they talkt with Christ of his death at that time, when he was in the greatest height of glory that ever he had admitted in this world” (10:245). Donne does not raise this issue as a way to display his cleverness. Rather, he emphasizes the conversation on Christ’s impending death as an insight into God’s cleverness and ability to subvert human expectations and preconceptions. Human delving into God’s mysteries without the intention to draw closer to God is simply vanity, as Donne says from the pulpit, “Discourses of Religion should not be out of curiosity, but to edification” (10:245). The answer, for Donne, is to be content with aporia: “As therefore if we understood all created Nature, nothing would be Mirum to us; so if we knew Gods purpose, nothing would be Miraculum.”[11]


Donne ends the sermon in language that has given rise to much commentary. In the last words he uttered from the pulpit, Donne, in his sermon’s envoi and his own, tells his congregation: "There wee leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes, and lye downe in peace in his grave, till hee vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that Kingdome, which hee hath purchas’d for you, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. AMEN" (10:248).


Debora Shuger has read these lines in a psychoanalytic-feminist light, arguing that the image Donne presents here (“suck at his woundes”) is emblematic of “the desires of the gendered anima and the infant…cravings for submission to power, for intimacy and union with the dread beloved.”[12] Shuger is surely aware of the long tradition in medieval mysticism that spoke of Christ in feminine terms (indeed, in her commentary on the figure, Shuger cites Carolyn Bynum Walker’s important study on the subject, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages),[13] yet she chooses to interpret Donne here as a man primarily motivated by subconscious urges rather than as a pastor drawing on traditions of medieval mysticism—as he does throughout the sermon—in the cura animarum. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of Donne’s favorite authorities, had preached on the wounds of Christ as an entrance into “the corpus mysticum of the church,”[14] and this is the tradition upon which Donne draws in the sermon. In sermon sixty-one on the Song of Songs, for instance, Bernard meditates on the wounds of Christ as source of mystical nourishment: “through these clefts I am permitted to ‘suck honey out of the Rock, and oil out of the hardest stone.’ That is to say, I am enabled to ‘taste and see that the Lord is sweet.’”[15] Likewise the English Benedictine, John of Farne (aka, John Whiterig, c. 1320 – 1371) employed the trope: “Christ our Lord…. stretches out his hands to embrace us, bows down his head to kiss us, and opens his side to give us suck; and though it is blood which he offers us to suck, we believe that it is health-giving and sweeter than honey.”[16] Ramie Targoff rightly identifies the image Donne uses as one that “would have been anathema to mainstream English Protestants, for whom the prospect of hanging on the cross and sucking Christ’s wounds was a grotesquely literal participation in the Passion.”[17] But the image is entirely consistent with the poetics of the medieval mystical tradition. The pastor and preacher John Donne clearly appropriates the rhetorical and religious ethos of this tradition in Deaths Duell, as he does in the poetry and in so many of his sermons.


Counter to the assertions of Michael Moloney,[18] Donne did not fly from medievalism. Rather, through his avowal of humility, his application of mystical and negative theologies, and his attention to the visio Dei, Donne was not flying from medievalism, but embracing and reimagining it. Donne’s primary task as a preacher was the cura animarum, just as the primary intention of the mystical tradition from which he drew was in guiding others to a deeper relationship with God. In the light of this tradition, Donne was content to let the vision wait until it would be a surety and not be so bold as to try and grasp it prior to death: an ethos he imparted to his flock. By its deferral, the vision becomes an icon, for Donne, and not a temptation to idolatry. As Jean-Luc Marion has said of the icon, that “which unbalances human sight in order to engulf it in infinite depth,”[19] for Donne the Vision of God recedes into the horizon, ever deferred, while simultaneously enfolding him in the mystery of God’s presence.



Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.

[1] The Ars moriendi tradition arose during the fifteenth century and went through several permutations in varying Catholic, Calvinist, humanist, and Anglican rhetorical contexts through the early modern period. See, in particular, Nancy Lee Beaty, The Craft of Dying: A Study in the Literary Tradition of the ‘Ars Moriendi’ in England, Yale Studies in English, 175 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).


[2] Judith H. Anderson, “Life Lived and Life Written: Donne’s Final Word of Last Character,” Huntington Library Quarterly 51, no. 4 (Autumn 1988): 247.


[3] Taylor “denies … that holy dying is a Christian duty distinguishable in essence from holy living.” Beaty, Craft of Dying, 215.


[4] Ps 68:20.


[5] Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 60.


[6] Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts, 69.


[7] Webber, Contrary Music, 117.


[8] Steven T. Katz, Mysticism and Sacred Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 41.


[9] Katz, Mysticism and Sacred Scripture, 41 – 42.


[10] McGinn, Foundations of Mysticism, 49 – 52; 178 – 80.


[11] Donne, Essayes, 89.


[12] Debora Kuller Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (1990; repr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press-Renaissance Society of America, 1997), 194.


[13] Carolyn Bynum Walker, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)


[14] Anselm Haverkamp, “Christ’s Case and John Donne, ‘Seeing through his wounds’: The Stigma of Martyrdom Transfigured,” in How the West Was Won: Essays on Literary Imagination, the Canon, and the Christian Middle Ages for Burcht Pranger, ed. Willemien Otten, Arjo Vanderjagt, and Hent De Vries (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2010), 58.


[15] St. Bernard’s Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, trans. A Priest of Mount Melleray, vol. 2 (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1920), 198.


[16] Quoted in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From the Earliest Times to 1700 (Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2001), 190.


[17] Ramie Targoff, Body and Soul, 179. The poet William Alabaster also explores the medieval notion of “sucking at Christ’s wounds” in the sonnet “Beehould a cluster to itt self a vine.” See The Sonnets of William Alabaster, ed. G. M. Story and Helen Gardner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).


[18] In John Donne: His Flight from Medievalism.


[19] Marion, God Without Being, 24.

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