December 15, 2017

More's Last Letter, Last Kiss

On this day in 1535, Sir Thomas More was beheaded, his punishment for refusing to swear an oath making Henry VIII head of the Church of England, and husband of as many as he pleased. For his learning, wit and good government, More has become the portrait of Humanism; the actual Holbein portrait of him, now part of the Frick Collection in New York, is one of the most famous images of the English Renaissance, as his Utopia is one of its essential texts. Although More's last days are known to many through Robert Bolt's 1960 play, A Man For All Seasons -- the title comes from a description of More by his friend, and another giant of the era, Erasmus -- there are a number of more or less contemporary accounts of his imprisonment, trial and execution, and many of More's own letters have survived. These documents are compelling reading, though most scholars warn of apocrypha or bias in the historical accounts, and caution that More's own writing must allow for his tendency to be an ironist, and a cheek. Many have pointed out the hint of a Mona Lisa smile in the Holbein portrait, and many have glossed the double turns of phrase in More's famous texts.

More's last letter, written in charcoal from the Tower on the eve of his execution, is to his daughter Margaret Roper, and has little irony.
    . . . I cumber you, good Margaret, much, but I would be sorry if it should be any longer than to-morrow, for it is St. Thomas's even, and the utas of St. Peter; and therefore, to-morrow long I to go to God. It were a day very meet and convenient for me.

    I never liked your manner towards me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven. I thank you for your great cost. . . .
The occasion "when you kissed me last" was four days previous, as More was being transported back to the Tower after his conviction and sentencing. Margaret had pushed through the onlookers and through the pikes and halberds of the encircling guards to hug him, and then after leaving had rushed back to kiss again, before being separated. Such defiance of authority and convention won the daughter the father's highest and last praise. Margaret got More's hair shirt with the letter; on her own she managed to retrieve his head from its pole on London Bridge.

John Donne was great-great-nephew to More, and one also familiar with religious-political conflicts. He may also have inherited More's love of the pun. Because he secretly married Anne More, Donne was dismissed from his political appointment and for a time imprisoned, occasioning this ditty: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone." Below is one of the poems in his Holy Sonnet sequence, "This is my play's last scene":
    This is my play's last scene; here heavens appoint
    My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race,
    Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
    My span's last inch, my minute's latest point;
    And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
    My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
    But my'ever-waking part shall see that face
    Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
    Then, as my soul to'heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
    And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
    So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
    To where they'are bred, and would press me, to hell.
    Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evil,
    For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble