On this day in 1631 John Donne died, aged fifty-eight or possibly fifty-nine. Much of Donne's most often-quoted writing is on the topic of death - the "for whom the bell tolls" Meditation, the "Death be not proud" sonnet - and his biographers note that his last ten or twelve years reveal an enthusiasm for the memento mori theme. This preoccupation with death is especially striking given that Donne's earlier years reveal the opposite enthusiasm - a joie de vivre and, in verse at least, a carnality that might not be expected from a future Dean of St. Paul's. These lines, almost as famous as any on death, are from "To His Mistress Going to Bed":
...Licence my roving hands, and let them goe
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree,
How blest am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be....
Supported by an inheritance, Donne spent his twenties on theater, travel, books and youth. He joined several naval expeditions, and he was close to the most famous carpe diem group in London, the Sons of Ben Jonson. Very few of the poems he wrote during this period were published in his lifetime, and many of them were so vigorous that, when published after his death, one son declared them a fake and a libel upon his father's name.
The turning point in Donne's promising social and political fortunes seems to have been his secret and unpopular marriage to Anne More, the seventeen-year-old niece of his employer, and daughter of an influential man. A few weeks of prison and years of penury followed. By his mid-forties, Donne was returning to favor at the court of James I, but only after agreeing to join the ministry. At about the same time his wife died, a week after giving birth to their twelfth child. Thereafter he felt "crucified to the world", as his friend and biographer Izaak Walton put it.
Donne was made Dean of St. Paul's in 1621, and his last decade was spent with more than an eye on the grave. Described by some who heard it as his own funeral oration, Donne's final sermon was on "Death's Duel," and it declared a clear winner: "We have a winding sheet in our mother's womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave." Afterward, Donne posed for a portrait in his funeral shroud, and placed the shroud by his bed so he might meditate upon it until his death. After summoning friends and bidding them farewell with solemn, specific counsel about each one's spiritual life, Donne lay down to wait for death. Just before it arrived, fifteen days later, he closed his eyes and crossed his hands over his chest in a way requiring no change when the bell tolled and the shroud was placed.
On this day in 1621, the year that Donne became Dean of St. Paul's, Andrew Marvell was born. "To His Coy Mistress", his most famous poem, also casts an eye, and a wink, at the memento mori theme:
...But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace....
And to bring the tradition up to date, here's a poem by Walter McDonald in which eros and thanatos seem almost happy together:
I'm always home by four,
hoping she's here.
Let bankers work till six,
adding their cash. Her lips
put money in my purse,
wet kisses in my ear.
What's love apart,
Rocking on our ark
I watch her every night
and fill my eyes like vaults,
and keep on dying.
McDonald's 18th collection of poems is called All Occasions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000). The title and the book's epigraph come from Donne's Christmas night sermon in St. Paul's Cathedral in 1624: "All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons."