John Donne “Death’s Duel” (excerpts)

This is Donne’s last sermon, preached just a few days before his own death in presence of King Charles and justly considered to be his own funeral sermon. Our whole life is, Donne argues, a passage from death to death: in our mother’s womb we are like dead, because we have eyes that see not and ears that hear not. We are even worse than dead, because in our grave we breed the worms which eat us and then kill them (Donne like his contemporaries believed that worms were born out of putrid matter) but if the child dies in its mother’s womb, it kills its own mother, becoming a parricide. In the womb we live in darkness, which prepares us for the world of darkness, and are fed with blood, which teaches us cruelty. I wonder if Donne thought about his own wife, who seems to have been killed by being throughout their whole marriage constantly pregnant or nursing. Also, the passage is so shocking to modern sensibilities. We are so accustomed to sentimentalizing maternity in popular culture and of course we know more about fetal development and the whole anti-abortion propaganda (even if you are pro-choice) permeates the public discourse to a large degree. So the whole argument of Donne, presenting the child as blind-and-deaf potential killer really takes one aback.

From this death we proceed into another death, wrapped in our placenta like winding sheath. Only Christ’s body did not see corruption and so won’t the bodies of those who are going to be alive (lucky them!) at the day of the Last Judgement. But we are going to undergo the third death when we are going to be eaten by worms. Donne then paints some grisly scenes (using a lot of references to the Book of Job), when worms, which he calls our “mother and sister” are going to be joined in an incestuous marriage with us. Death, a great leveller, is going to treat the same both happy and unhappy ones, kings and poor people. The sermon ends with an exhortation to the listeners to contemplate Christ’s Passion and await the resurrection.

Since this is the last text of Donne in this selection, I can say now – I love him! Dare I say, as a poet I like him more than Shakespeare? He is my favourite writer from the NAEL so far – he has incredible range, writing both about sex and spiritual love, God’s love and his own feelings of worthlessness, sin and redemption. Of course like all writers he has his hang-ups, or shall we say, favourite motifs he returns to over and over again – man as microcosm, alchemy – but the scope of his interests is still dazzling. The language is fresh and direct, the poems, especially those with uneven lines, seem to be the exclamations coming right from the heart. Even when his syntax gets obscure, he richly repays the trouble of untangling it.

I am not quite done with Donne (to repeat his own joke), because the next excerpted text is Walton’s biography of him, so that is coming soon.

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