John Donne died on this day in 1631, after a long illness. His literary life is marked by a circling back to the themes of death and decay, inspiration and resurrection, that seem vital to me in these strange times. Here is a small selection from his poems and sermons to give you hope in God’s neverending love for this fleeting world.
Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness
We do not know the date of this poem (as with most of Donne’s poems); it may have been written in any one of several serious bouts of illness.
Since I am coming to that Holy room,
Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy Musique; As I come
I tune the Instrument here at the dore,
And what I must do then, thinke here before.
Whilst my physicians by their love are growne
Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne
That this is my South-west discovery,
Per fretum febris*, by these streights to die,
I joy, that in these straits, I see my West;
For, though their currants yield returne to none,
What shall my West hurt me? As West and East
In all flatt Mapps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.
Is the Pacifique Sea my home? Or are
The Easterne riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltare,
All streights, and none but streights, are wayes to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place;
Looke Lord, and finde both Adams met in me;
As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adams blood my soule embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d receive mee Lord;
By these his thornes give me his other Crowne;
And as to others soules I preach’d thy word,
Be this my Text, my Sermon to mine owne:
‘Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.’
* Per fretum febris: Latin, ‘through the straits of fever’
Conclusion of ‘A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29. 1627.’
On 29 February 1625 Donne preached in his usual Lenten slot as a court preacher on the text ‘And when he had said this, he fell asleep’ (from the story of the martyrdom of St Stephen, Acts 7.60). The conclusion of this sermon has entered into our consciousness as the prayer and anthem text, ‘Bring us O Lord God, at our last awakening’, with its striking glimpse of the peace of heaven. Note the hope for ‘one equall communion and Identity’, a line omitted from the anthem but with such poignant resonance in our times.
So then this death is a sleepe, as it delivers us to a present Rest; And then, lastly, it is so also as it promises a future waking in a glorious Resurrection. To the wicked it is far from both: Of them God sayes, I will make them drunke, and they shall sleepe a perpetuall sleepe and not awake; They shall have no part in the Second Resurrection. But for them that have slept in Christ, as Christ sayd of Lazarus, Lazarus sleepeth, but I goe that I may wake him out of sleep, he shall say to his father; Let me goe that I may wake them who have slept so long in expectation of my coming: And Those that sleep in Jesus Christ (saith the Apostle) will God bring with him; not only fetch them out of the dust when he comes, but bring them with him, that is, declare that they have beene in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkenesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equall eternity. Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an Actuall and undeterminable possession of that Kingdome which thy Sonne our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood.
On 25 February 1631 Donne preached his final sermon, ‘Deaths Duell’, a moving meditation on the powerlessness of the human end and the paradoxical freedom of Christ’s death:
Many waters quench not loue, Christ tryed many; He was Baptized out of his loue, and his loue determined not there; He wept over Jerusalem out of his love, and his love
determined not there; He mingled blood with water in his agony and that determined not his loue, hee wept pure blood, all his blood at all his eyes, at all his pores, in his flagellation and thornes (to the Lord our God belong’d the issues of blood) and these expressed, but these did not quench his loue. Hee would not spare, nay he could not spare himselfe. There was nothing more free, more voluntary, more spontaneous then the death of Christ.