Death, Devotion and Deliverance – The Meditations and Sermons of John Donne

by Mary Crockford

While Renaissance poet John Donne’s foray into solemn religious writing had its beginnings during his years of law practice, during which time he was also “employed by religious pamphleteer Thomas Morton” (Jokinen par. 8), it was his ongoing battles with life-threatening illness that inspired him to pen his private meditations, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in 1624. Donne’s “preoccupation with the instability of life and the ruthless perpetuity of death” (Fomeshi 77) led him to write “a powerful psychological analysis” of his own mortality in which he “alternates descriptions of bodily decay and medicinal treatment with broader thoughts on the human condition and prayers for spiritual healing” (Fomeshi 79). In Meditation XVII of Devotions Donne penned one of his most famous phrases, which would later be adapted by Ernest Hemingway for his novel “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” in which Donne depicts death as a “bell tolling softly for another” (Death’s Duel) but which each hearer must also answer himself:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. (Donne, Meditation XVII par. 1).

As a man of sorrows “crucified to the world” (Jokinen 10) after the death of his wife and last child to childbirth, dual meanings and connotations such as this were prominent in Donne’s meditations and sermons, and lent emotional depth and multiplicity of meaning as they did in his poetry. While having renounced the Catholic faith of his upbringing many years before, in Meditation XVII Donne nonetheless acknowledges the Christian church as small-c “catholic” and “universal,” so that “all that she does belongs to all” (Donne par. 1). He portrays life as a book, connoting the opening of God’s Book of Life in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, in which Donne saw man’s life as a chapter. As Divine Translator, God not only reveals the meaning of man’s life through experiences of suffering, but does so for the purpose of uniting all members of the suffering church in identification with the crucified and risen Christ:

God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; (Donne par. 1)

Kelly describes Donne’s religious writing as “like the seasons…cyclical in nature, ending up where it began” (par. 2) so it is fitting to the subject of cycles of life and death, and human interconnectedness.  Meditation XVII also contains Donne’s other famous line, “No man is an island,” reflecting Donne’s belief in the church as a body united in suffering who “share in a common humanity” (Kelly par. 1).  While sick and dying in body, he viewed his own affliction as treasure to be valued as one being “matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction” (Donne par. 4).

Donne’s sermons, like his meditations, are rich in the poet’s metaphysical language and imagery. Fomeshi describes them as “intense explorations of the themes of divine love and of the decay and resurrection of the body” (79). In Death’s Duel, Donne’s last sermon presented during Lent in 1631, the metaphysical poet-preacher “effectively conducted his own funeral,” his own translation from physical to divine form, just weeks before his “death from stomach cancer” (79). In the sermon, Donne imagines himself locked in a duel with death, a violent predicament in which he “tries to find a solution to conquer and defeat” it (Zhang & Wang 861). Donne credits God with ultimate sovereignty over “all issues of death” (Death’s Duel, Introduction) and “sees hope in salvation and immortality” through “death’s eventual defeat through resurrection” (Targoff 156). For Donne the widower and father of numerous children who died young, dying — the process of freeing the temporal vessel from the bondage of a sin-sick world — is cruel and begins at birth:

Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and the rest die in age, and age also dies and determines all. Nor do all these, youth out of infancy, or age out of youth, arise so, as the phoenix out of the ashes of another phoenix formerly dead, but as a wasp or a serpent out of a carrion, or as a snake out of dung. Our youth is worse than our infancy, and our age worse than our youth. Our youth is hungry and thirsty after those sins which our infancy knew not; and our age is sorry and angry, that it cannot pursue those sins which our youth did; and besides, all the way, so many deaths, that is, so many deadly calamities accompany every condition and every period of this life, as that death itself would be an ease to them that suffer them. (Donne, Death’s Duel)

As preacher at St. Paul, Donne felt his calling was that of a prophet, who like St. Paul and St. Peter “preached Christ to have been risen without seeing corruption” thus bringing man’s only hope, deliverance to incorruptibility through death (Death’s Duel). Thus victory in the duel against “distempered and diffident death” was a metaphysical one, achieved by sublimation through the “dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave,” culminating  in “ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared…with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood” (Death’s Duel). Donne’s meditations and sermons offered to his parishioners , and for generations of readers since, an honest acknowledgement of the mortal’s duel with death – tempered by his own hope that through resurrection, its cruel sufferings hold no lasting power.

Works cited:

Donne, John. Death’s Duel or A Consolation of the Soul Against the Dying Life and Living Death of the Body. N.p.: n.p., n.d.University of Adelaide Library. University of Adelaide, 17 Dec. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII. N.p.:n.p., n.d. Luminarium. Aniina Jokinen. 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Fomeshi, Behnam Mirzababazadeh. “The Concept of Death in John Donne and Sohrab Sepehri: A Comparative Study.” K@ta 15.2 (2013): 77-83. Open Access K@ta. Shiraz University, 3013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Jokinen, Anniina. “The Life Of John Donne (1572-1631).” Luminarium. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Kelly, Liam. “‘Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span…'” The Furrow  57.5 (2006) 300-302. JSTOR.  St. Patricks’ College, 2006. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Targoff, R. (2008). John Donne, body and soul. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Zhang, D. & Wang, D. (2011). “Death image in divine meditations of John Donne.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 1, 861-864.




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