The Poetry Kit
- Gary Lehman
Sex, Death, and Salvation
I monitor a computer bulletin board on the poet John Donne and sometimes get interesting queries about his poems.
To: Gary Lehmann
Subject: RE: John Donne
I am writing a paper on John Donne for my Sex, Death, and Salvation class. I need to compare Donne’s “A Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness” to a non-seventeenth work. I was wondering if you had any ideas. This class is the straw that is breaking this mother of three’s back. I work and am in college full-time. Any direction would help my much-overcharged mind. Thanks for your time.
Subject: RE: John Donne
As a teacher myself, I am reluctant to write any answer that might inadvertently write the paper for you. So I won't give you poems for comparison. That’s your job. What I can do is give you some context for this poem itself which might suggest fruitful comparisons.
It is quite natural to include the poetry of John Donne in a class on Sex, Death, and Salvation since these were Donne's life-long poetic concerns. As a courtier in Queen Elizabeth's retinue, he sought promotion by writing witty metaphorical verses on love and sex, later called metaphysical poetry. Yes, even in the sixteenth century, sex was the subject of verse, and Donne wrote scandalously frank representations of the permutations of lovers in their agonies and ecstasies.
Donne had a loving marriage with his wife Anne. Not enough is really known of the details of Donne's life to tell if he was writing his love verses to her or to mistresses he had while she tended their brood of children at home. From a purely poetic perspective, it doesn't really matter. Donne reaches deeply into the heart of love and draws forth its spiritual qualities for examination in an almost clinical, or at least philosophical, way. He reminds us repeatedly that the heights of love are only to be achieved if we are both willing to let go and willing to assert our selfhood.
Death and salvation occupied Donne's time a great deal after his wife's untimely death in childbirth. He took up holy orders and became a rising star in the Church of England's burgeoning bureaucracy. He rose to become the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, and, at the end of his life, focused a good deal of attention on the act of dying. You perhaps might find my essay on the web somewhere entitled "Death's Duel." John Donne really obsessed about the act of dying, the decay of the body, and the emergence of the soul into a world beyond this world with all of its beauty and joy.
It is not absolutely possible to tell when "Hymne to God My God, in My Sicknesse" was written, but his first biographer, Isaac Walton, famous author of The Compleat Angler, claims that the "Hymne to God My God, in My Sicknesse" was written just eight days before his death. Donne went to extreme lengths to prepare for his death and by any normal standard might be seen as somewhat over-eager for a true Christian. He wrote and delivered a last sermon, hand printed a fair copy to facilitate the printer, had a statue of himself made in his shroud, settled all his debts, wrote last letters to his friends, invited his servants to wish him adieu, and then, with a sigh, lay down on his cold slab to die. Unfortunately death did not overtake him for almost a month, during which time he became something of a London laughing stock, lying there waiting to die. "Death's Duel" turned out to be more cruel than he could have ever imagined.
So we have to see the poem "Hymne to God My God, in My Sicknesse" both as a sincere effort to face death bravely, and a somewhat vainglorious effort to immortalize himself. This tension between Donne as man of immense ego and Donne as contrite sinner is very real in all of his verse.
The poem itself has a number of remarkable metaphors. He opens the poem with a flourish, a sort of trumpet voluntary, announcing his impending death. If he is to make holy music in the quire, surely he has to tune his instrument and wonder what is best to do while waiting. Next we have a classic metaphysical comparison. The love my physicians show me in my sickness makes them into map readers who read my physical complaints like a chart of the world. Flat on this bed, I lie while they expostulate on my continents and my straits. “Do you think he will shipwreck here or here?” The use of the word "Cosmographers" is interesting since they examine maps in general, like God who examines souls in general. While they read him, he sees "my West" the direction traditionally associated with death, where the sun sets. When his west and east touch, his map gets folded up, he will be done. Looking over his body chart, he realizes that his parts have served him well. His "Pacifique Sea," "his Eastern riches" have tendered jewels beyond compare. Adam and Christ are compared in the Garden of Paradise and the Garden before Calvary. As he has sinned like the first Adam, hopefully he will be resurrected like the Christ.
In the last stanza, Donne wraps himself in his purple shroud and hopes for a crown in heaven as he has acknowledged his crown of thorns [his sins] in this world. And then in a sort of postscript, Donne says that he has preached "thy word" to many who were dying, and now he finds himself faced with the same sermon himself. In his earlier love poems, he observes somewhere that in order to achieve the ultimate in sexual bliss one must first humble one's self and seek to rise higher in the ecstasy of love by being willing to be cast down in service to the beloved. Death is no different. In order to reach a higher place in heaven, the dying must first accept the will of God and be humbled before a Lord who will be merciful and just. "That he may raise the Lord throws down." So, the poem moves from the metaphor of the map to the realization of eternal life. The soul is flat, like a map, until the eternal map reader, raises up his features and makes him complete in death.
I suppose it could be argued that Donne would never have achieved such splendid images of salvation, if he had not had such a galloping ego. In the days before Freud and all the other modern psychotherapists, who have made us all super-aware of the wily nature of the human ego, the poet John Donne explores the dimensions of the ego's ability to use us both for secular and profane purposes, and no where more directly than in "Hymne to God My God, in My Sicknesse."