Gosse's Gossip - DEATH'S DUEL

DEATH'S DUEL

 

 

DEATH'S DUELL; or, A Consolation to the Soule, against the dying Life, and living Death of the Body. Delivered in a Sermon at White Hall, before the King's Maiesty, in the beginning of Lent, 1630. By that late learned and Reverend Divine, John Donne, Dr. in Divinity, & Deane of S. Pauls, London. Being his last Sermon, and called by his Maiesties houshold The Doctor's owne Funerall Sermon. London, Printed by Thomas Harper, for Richard Redmer and Benjamin Fisher, and are to be sold at the signe of the Talbot in Alders-gate street. MDCXXXII.

 

            The value of this tiny quarto with the enormous title depends entirely, so far as the collector is concerned, on whether or no it possesses the frontispiece. So many people, not having the fear of books before their eyes, have divorced the latter from the former, that a perfect copy of Death's Duel is quite a capture over which the young bibliophile may venture to glory; but let him not fancy that he has a prize if his copy does not possess the portrait-plate. One has but to glance for a moment at this frontispiece to see that there is here something very much out of the common. It is engraved in the best seventeenth-century style, and represents, apparently, the head and bust of a dead man wrapped in a winding-sheet. The eyes are shut, the mouth is drawn, and nothing was ever seen more ghastly.

            Yet it is not really the picture of a dead man: it represents the result of one of the grimmest freaks that ever entered into a pious mind. In the early part of March 1630 (1631), the great Dr. Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, being desperately ill, and not likely to recover, called a wood-carver in to the Deanery, and ordered a small urn, just large enough to hold his feet, and a board as long as his body, to be produced. When these articles were ready, they were brought into his study, which was first warmed, and then the old man stripped off his clothes, wrapped himself in a winding-sheet which was open only so far as to reveal the face and beard, and then stood upright in the little wooden urn, supported by leaning against the board. His limbs were arranged like those of dead persons, and when his eyes had been closed, a painter was introduced into the room and desired to make a full-length and full-size picture of this terrific object, this solemn theatrical presentment of life in death. The frontispiece of Death's Duel gives a reproduction of the upper part of this picture. It was said to be a remarkably truthful portrait of the great poet and divine, and it certainly agrees in all its proportions with the accredited portrait of Donne as a young man.

            It appears (for Walton's account is not precise) that it was after standing for this grim picture, but before its being finished, that the Dean preached his last sermon, that which is here printed. He had come up from Essex in great physical weakness in order not to miss his appointment to preach in his cathedral before the King on the first Friday in Lent. He entered the pulpit with so emaciated a frame and a face so pale and haggard, and spoke with a voice so faint and hollow, that at the end the King himself turned to one of his suite, and whispered, "The Dean has preached his own funeral sermon!" So, indeed, it proved to be; for he presently withdrew to his bed, and summoned his friends around to take a solemn farewell. He died very gradually after about a fortnight, his last words being, not in distress or anguish, but as it would seem in visionary rapture: "I were miserable if I might not die." All this fortnight and to the moment of his death, the terrible life-sized portrait of himself in his winding-sheet stood near his bedside, where it could be the "hourly object" of his attention. So one of the greatest Churchmen of the seventeenth century, and one of the greatest, if the most eccentric, of its lyrical poets passed away in the very pomp of death, on the 31st of March, 1631.

            There was something eminently calculated to arrest and move the imagination in such an end as this, and people were eager to read the discourse which the "sacred authority" of his Majesty himself had styled the Dean's funeral sermon. It was therefore printed in 1632. As sermons of the period go it is not long, yet it takes a full hour to read it slowly aloud, and we may thus estimate the strain which it must have given to the worn-out voice and body of the Dean to deliver it. The present writer once heard a very eminent Churchman, who was also a great poet, preach his last sermon, at the age of ninety. This was the Danish bishop Grundtvig. In that case the effort of speaking, the extraction, as it seemed, of the sepulchral voice from the shrunken and ashen face, did not last more than ten minutes. But the English divines of the Jacobean age, like their Scottish brethren of to-day, were accustomed to stupendous efforts of endurance from their very diaconate.

            The sermon is one of the most "creepy" fragments of theological literature it would be easy to find. It takes as its text the words from the sixty-eighth Psalm: "And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death." In long, stern sentences of sonorous magnificence, adorned with fine similes and gorgeous words, as the funeral trappings of a king might be with gold lace, the dying poet shrinks from no physical horror and no ghostly terror of the great crisis which he was himself to be the first to pass through. "That which we call life," he says, and our blood seems to turn chilly in our veins as we listen, "is but Hebdomada mortium, a week of death, seven days, seven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seven times over, and there is an end. Our birth dies in infancy, and our infancy dies in youth, and youth and rest die in age, and age also dies and determines all. Nor do all these, youth out of infancy, or age out of youth, arise so as a Phoenix out of the ashes of another Phoenix formerly dead, but as a wasp or a serpent out of a carrion or as a snake out of dung." We can comprehend how an audience composed of men and women whose ne'er-do-weel relatives went to the theatre to be stirred by such tragedies as those of Marston and Cyril Tourneur would themselves snatch a sacred pleasure from awful language of this kind in the pulpit. There is not much that we should call doctrine, no pensive or consolatory teaching, no appeal to souls in the modern sense. The effect aimed at is that of horror, of solemn preparation for the advent of death, as by one who fears, in the flutter of mortality, to lose some peculiarity of the skeleton, some jag of the vast crooked scythe of the spectre. The most ingenious of poets, the most subtle of divines, whose life had been spent in examining Man in the crucible of his own alchemist fancy, seems anxious to preserve to the very last his powers of unflinching spiritual observation. The Dean of St. Paul's, whose reputation for learned sanctity had scarcely sufficed to shelter him from scandal on the ground of his fantastic defence of suicide, was familiar with the idea of Death, and greeted him as a welcome old friend whose face he was glad to look on long and closely.

            The leaves at the end of this little book are filled up with two copies of funeral verses on Dean Donne. These are unsigned, but we know from other sources to whom to attribute them. Each is by an eminent man. The first was written by Dr. Henry King, then the royal chaplain, and afterward Bishop of Chichester, to whom the Dean had left, besides a model in gold of the Synod of Dort, that painting of himself in the winding-sheet of which we have already spoken. This portrait Dr. King put into the hands of Nicholas Stone, the sculptor, who made a reproduction of it in white marble, with the little urn concealing the feet. This was placed in St. Paul's Cathedral, of which King was chief residentiary, and may still be seen in the present Cathedral King's elegy is very prosy in starting, but improves as it goes along, and is most ingenious throughout. These are the words in which he refers to the appearance of the dying preacher in the pulpit:

 

Thou (like the dying Swan) didst lately sing
Thy mournful dirge in audience of the King;
When pale looks, and weak accents of thy breath
Presented so to life that piece of death,
That it was feared and prophesied by all
Thou thither cam'st to preach thy funeral.

            The other elegy is believed to have been written by a young man of twenty-one, who was modestly and enthusiastically seeking the company of the most famous London wits. This was Edward Hyde, thirty years later to become Earl of Clarendon, and finally to leave behind him manuscripts which should prove him the first great English historian. His verses here bespeak his good intention, but no facility in rhyming.

            It was left for the riper disciples of the great divine to sing his funerals in more effective numbers. Of the crowd of poets who attended him with music to the grave, none expressed his merits in such excellent verses or with so much critical judgment as Thomas Carew, the king's sewer in ordinary. It is not so well known but that we quote some lines from it:

The fire
That fills with spirit and heat the Delphic choir,
Which, kindled first by thy Promethean breath,
Glow'd here awhile, lies quench'd now in thy death.
The Muses' garden, with pedantic weeds
O'erspread, was purg'd by thee, the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou disdt pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age.

* * * * *

Whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tongue,
Thou hast redeem'd, and opened us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy, drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which, had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood
Our superstitious fools admire, and hold
Their lead more precious than thy burnish'd gold,
Thou hadst been their exchequer….
Let others carve the rest; it will suffice
I on thy grave this epitaph incise:—
Here lies a King, that ruled as he thought fit
The universal monarchy of wit;
Here lies two Flamens, and both these the best,—
Apollo's first, at last the True God's priest
.

            There was no full memoir of Dr. Donne until it was the privilege of the present writer, in 1900, to publish his Life and Letters in two substantial volumes. Since then, in 1912, his Poetical Works have been edited and sifted, with remarkable delicacy and judgment, by Professor Grierson. It is now, therefore, as easy as it can be expected ever to be to follow the career of this extraordinary man, with all its cold and hot fits, its rage of lyrical amativeness, its Roman passion, and the high and clouded austerity of its final Anglicanism. Donne is one of the most fascinating, in some ways one of the most inscrutable, figures in our literature, and we may contemplate him with instruction from his first wild escapade into the Azores down to his voluntary penitence in the pulpit and the winding-sheet.

 

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