“Spiritually speaking, many of us confronted with the thought of death perform the psychological equivalence of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin: Donne hunted death, battled it, killed it, saluted it, threw it parties,” writes Katherine Rundell in her new biography of the English poet, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne.
Read more in the excerpt below.
Did you know? The Folger Shakespeare Library collection includes about a third of John Donne’s surviving letters.
The world is made up entirely of things that can kill you. Scarcely anything exists, Donne wrote with relish in the Devotions, which has not caused the death of someone once: ‘a pin, a comb, a hair pulled, hath gangrened and killed.’ A grim truth, and one which makes our modern attempts to avoid the topic of death look malarially unhinged. Donne lived in a time more familiar with the details and look of death than we; almost every adult was likely to have seen a dead body. They prepared intensively for it, contemplated it; Donne discussed it in letters that were otherwise about horses and dentistry. Donne had a memento mori, lest he forget even briefly that we are born astride the grave – he left it to a friend in his will, ‘the picture called The Skeleton which hangs in the hall’.
Artists and writers especially were expected to contemplate death: there were rumours (probably mad and unfounded) that Michelangelo murdered a man and watched him die in order to be able to paint the agonies of Christ more accurately. Poets and playwrights, meanwhile, were killed and killing at a far greater rate of frequency than their percentage of the population seems to merit: Thomas Wyatt killed a man in an affray, Ben Jonson stabbed a man in a duel, Christopher Marlowe was murdered, probably in a tavern brawl, though possibly in an elaborate intrigue. When Donne wrote about suicide there was urgent pain: but when he wrote about death in itself, there is great serious joy, and occasional rampant glee. Spiritually speaking, many of us confronted with the thought of death perform the psychological equivalence of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin: Donne hunted death, battled it, killed it, saluted it, threw it parties. His poetry explicitly about death is rarely sad: it thrums with strange images of living.
Death! be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls’ delivery.
As a young man he had imagined his death in extravagantly sexual terms. ‘The Relic’ had imagined a gravedigger coming across the bodies of himself and his lover, buried together.
When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain . . .
And he that digs it spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone
He took tradition of the memento mori – a reminder of death – and injected hot desire into it. Donne’s imagination was fundamentally alive, and on the side of life, on both sides of the grave. ‘Death,’ he wrote, ‘thou shalt die.’
When Donne was talking about death he did not, unlike most of his contemporaries, yearn for the silence and stillness of the tomb. No: death was to be explosive, multicoloured, transmogrifying. He wanted ravishment: ‘I would not that death should take me asleep. I would not have him merely seize me, and only declare me to be dead, but win me, and overcome me.’ Donne wanted, ideally, to be struck down mid-sermon and topple down, an abrupt corpse, onto the congregation below: ‘it hath been my desire (and God may be pleased to grant it me) that I might die in the pulpit.’ It’s telling that none of the love poems are sonnets: he kept that form for death, his other, permanent love. In Holy Sonnet VIII, Donne dared to imagine the end of all time, loud and very much awake:
At the round Earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels! and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go!
All whom the Flood did and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
He loved death in theory, and for himself: less so for others. In the very early winter days of 1627, his Lucy, nineteen and just old enough to be beginning her life as a woman, was on a visit away, probably with her sister Constance who had been widowed the year before. Donne was at home for the new year, ploughing his way ruefully through the necessary entertaining, when the message came to his door. Lucy was dead. She died with no warning, like lightning out of a blue sky – just five days before, Donne’s letters had been full of amiable gripes about his social calendar. She was buried swiftly, in Camberwell on 9 January. If he wrote to tell Goodere and Wotton, the letters don’t survive, but the weight of her loss leaked into his work. That Easter, he preached, and it is clear that he is preaching about her: ‘If I had fixed a son in court, or married a daughter into a plentiful fortune, I were satisfied for that son and that daughter. Shall I not be so, when the King of Heaven hath taken that son to himself, and married himself to that daughter, forever?’ You can hear the fixed set of his jaw in his words: ‘I shall have my dead raised to life again.’ It reads like a man wringing consolation by force from beliefs that had been already agonisingly hard-wrung.
Excerpted from Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell. Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Katherine Rundell. All rights reserved.
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