Criticism by Terry G. Sherwood

Critic: Terry G. Sherwood
Source: in his Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought, University of Toronto Press, 1984, 231 p.
Criticism about: "To his Mistris Going to Bed"; "The Exstasie"; "To Sir Edward Herbert, at Julyers"; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; "The Canonization"; "The Relique"; "The First Anniversarie. An Anatomie of the World"; "The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progres of the Soule"; Deaths Duell; "Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward"; "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
Author Covered: John Donne (1572-1631)

Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[Sherwood is a Canadian educator and literary essayist. In his Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought (1984), he stressed that "there can be no absolute separation between the importance of epistemological and psychological principles for Donne and his personal consciousness that infuses his works. That these principles are manifested in writings clearly enlivened by Donne's own experience simply adds convincing evidence of their importance in his thought. And the fact that these writings define the experience of consciousness according to shaping metaphysical forces makes them characteristic of Donne's thought in general." In the following excerpt from this work, Sherwood examines Deaths Duell as "the final part added to a consistent whole": a work that completes a lifelong cycle involving "Donne's own person as a factor in his works."]

The event of Deaths Duell was remarkable even by the standards of Donne's day. He had been appointed to preach on `his old constant day, the first Friday in Lent, ' at Whitehall before the king. Though wasted by illness, Donne `passionately denied' the requests of concerned friends that he not preach. His text was Psalm 68:20: `And unto God the Lord belong the issues of death. i.e. from death.' Isaak Walton captures a very special drama: `Many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professing they thought Text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preach't his own funeral Sermon. ' But it is not just the drama of a wasted, dying man who embodies his own words about death that is remarkable. Even more so is that the event of Donne's delivery and the sermon itself, taken together, represent a coherent and fulfilling conclusion to his life and thought.

The vivid sight of the dying man could have made the sermon itself anticlimactic if not for its own powerful effects. A forceful statement of omnipresent mortality and vivid images of putrefaction and vermiculation relentlessly aggravate fear of death. Donne's dying body becomes only the most immediate example of the principle of mortality and of the inevitability of material decay and putrefaction.... And the portrayal of the crucified Christ that concludes the sermon remains amongst the most powerful statements in Donne's religious prose.

To say that the sermon itself was not anticlimactic is not to say that it can have the same power for us as for the actual audience. Both the dying man and the artifact would have been important. Even for a spellbinder like Donne, his presence in the pulpit then would have been a rare moment; and in his very self-conscious staging of it can be found much of the intended effect on his audience. Walton's account of Donne's final days--his return from Essex to deliver the sermon, the delivery itself before the king and the Whitehall audience, his order that a life-size burial effigy be drawn prematurely, his contemplation of that drawing as his `hourly object'--reveals parts of a whole. There is a consciousness of the interrelationship between his own person, the artifacts embodying or expressing it, and the communal Body including both person and artifacts. Familiar assumptions here reach back to Donne's beginnings. His abiding sense of the body as a legitimate medium of truth and of the human need to read it ... were revealed in the conception of the body as a `book' as early as the love poetry in `To his Mistris Going to Bed' and `The Exstasie' and later in the verse letter `To Sir Edward Herbert, at Julyers.' The body's experience must be understood and known by an attentive reason. Likewise, we find the assumption that artifacts are surrogate bodies necessary for expressing truth. Such diverse works as `The Canonization,' `The Relique,' The Anniversaries, the verse letters, and the Devotions reveal this assumption.

Walton's nervous estimate of Donne's order for the burial effigy as showing `a desire of glory or commendation ... rooted in the very nature of man' is not the only interpretation that can be given of Donne's motives. In the Devotions Donne assumes that his own diseased body has significance for other members of the participating Body. This significance is embodied in the literary artifact, which must be considered rationally by members of Donne's audience just as Donne must consider the events of his immediate experience. In Deaths Duell Donne's own person is not explicitly expressed in the artifact, but it would have been tangibly present. As members of the same Body as Donne, his auditors could have participated, in a very immediate way, in the significance of his dying body....

At bottom is operating the elemental bodily consciousness that ... [is] one key factor in Donne's epistemology and psychology and which, in Deaths Duell, provokes the fear of physical death and dissolution of bodily identity. The imminence of Donne's own death would exacerbate that fear in members of his audience. The fearful appeal to this bodily consciousness is answered by the climactic image of the crucified Christ, with its assurance that through identification with death itself, in the pattern of Christ's suffering death, fear can be transformed into hope. Only through conformity to Christ that bends man's will to God's through penitentially crucifying sin, in humility, obedience, and patience, can one escape the fear of death. Donne's assurance of his own resurrection from sin through conformity to Christ in the Devotions and Walton's account of his joyful assurance of salvation during the days before his death suggest that Donne would have viewed his own wasted body as an example of penitential conformity to Christ's suffering death. Thus, the vivid image of the dying man is fulfilled in the vivid depiction of the suffering God as its pattern. The audience is invited, implicitly, to participate in Donne as one exemplary member of the Body and, explicitly, to conform to the suffering and death of Christ the Head. In accordance with his Lenten purposes, `Crucifying of that sinne that governes thee' to achieve conformity, Donne pulls tight the strings of bodily consciousness with his image of the suffering incarnate Word: `There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes, and lye downe in peace in his grave, till hee vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that Kingdome, which hee hath purchas'd for you, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.' Only this palpable image of Christ can change bodily fears into hope through acceptance of the body's own necessary death and resurrection.

Donne keeps our attention on Christ's bodily suffering as, increasingly, the sermon, like the development of Donne's own thought, converges on the Cross. Divine love inspires Christ's freely given love:

Many waters quench not love, Christ's tryed many; He was Baptized out of his love, and his love determined not there; He wept over Jerusalem out his love, and his love determined not there; He mingled blood with water in his agony and that determined not his love; hee wept pure blood, all his blood at all his eyes, at all his pores, in his flagellation and thornes (to the Lord our God belong'd the issues of blood) and these expressed, but these did not quench his love.

Love of Christ, in return, inspires penintential conformity in body and tripartite soul, thereby converting the forces of annihilation and recreating man the damaged goal of Creation. In the suffering of the Cross that pays sin's debt, God shows to man the pattern in body and soul that mortifies sin. Donne's emphasis upon the humanity of the Word, his very palpable physical and psychological suffering, brings the specifically human together with the larger metaphysical power of the Word. In the explicit conformity built on love, humility, obedience, patience, and acceptance of suffering and death, being is recreated. And Donne, in offering his own accomplished suffering to the audience, exemplifies this recreation for others, thereby, like Paul, fulfilling the suffering of Christ in his own flesh for the Body's sake.

Consistent with his earlier works, Donne stresses that this meeting of the personal and metaphysical occurs in time. Donne ends Deaths Duell at the end of his own circle with yet another meditation on time that places importance on the given moment. In the sermon the movement from fear to conformity with Christ, from death of the body to the resurrection of hope, recreates time. The sermon's initial weight on the omnipresence of death points to the negativity of fallen time: `We celebrate our owne funeralls with cryes, even at our own birth, as though our threescore and ten years life were spent in our mothers labour, and our circle made up in the first point thereof.' Similarly, the progression of fallen time is crippled and reversed: `That which we call life, is but Hebdomada mortium, a week of deaths, seaven dayes, seaven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seaven times over, and there is an end. Our birth dyes in infancy, and our infancy dyes in youth, and youth, and the rest dye in age, and age also dyes, and determines all. '

Against the degeneration of time through death, Donne, fittingly himself a dying man nearing his own last day, offers the model of Christ's last day. Gradually, the sermon conforms time itself to Christ, thereby re-informing time according to the Incarnate Word:

Take in the whole day from the houre that Christ received the passeover upon Thursday, unto the houre in which hee dyed the next day. Make this present day in thy devotion, and consider what hee did, and remember what you have done. Before hee instituted and celebrated the Sacrament, (which was after the eating of the passeover) hee proceeded to that act of humility, to wash his disciples feete, even, Peters, who for a while resisted him; In thy preparation to the holy and blessed Sacrament, hast thou with a sincere humility sought a reconciliation with all the world, even with those that have been averse from it, and refused that reconciliation from thee? If so (and not else) thou hast spent that first part of this his last day in a conformity with him.

The day of Donne's sermon and the day before Christ's death are both special days. For Donne, it is his last sermon before an expected and welcome death, a point close to the Omega of his circle of time. For Christ, it is the period of a single day immediately before his Crucifixion, likewise a point close to the Omega of his exemplary circle. The auditors, like Donne and Christ, must face the continuing possibility that each day may end their circles. Each day is a `criticall day' that must be regarded as potentially man's last to be brought into conformity with Christ's last day. Donne's visible conformity to Christ's pattern will dilate this particular moment in the respective lives of his listeners. Thus, Deaths Duell speaks to the immediate moment, to both individuals and to the communal Body, applying these special days of Donne and Christ. As in the Devotions Donne is speaking to members of the Body, the Church, invoking the image of Christ the Head; and he is speaking to members of the Body, the Kingdom, here in the presence of its regal Heart. All members hear the same pattern for fulfilling time.

As elsewhere in Donne's works, time is fulfilled within the human soul. The reference points are psychological and epistemological; and the guiding conformity to Christ, which is so crucial in Donne's theology of participation, works within a larger conformity of the tripartite human soul to the tripartite God, In the divisio in preparation for `these three considerations' of the three meanings of exitus mortis that make up the sermon, Donne establishes parallels to the three Persons of the Trinity:

In all these three lines then, we shall looke upon these words; First, as the God of power, the Almighty Father rescues his servants from the jawes of death: And then, as the God of mercy, the glorious Sonne rescued us, by taking upon himselfe this issue of death: And then betweene these two, as the God of comfort, the Holy Ghost rescues us from all discomfort by his blessed impressions before hand, that what manner of death soever be ordeined for us, yet this exitus mortis shall be introitus in vitam our issue in death, shall be an entrance into everlasting life.

Similarly, the sermon works on all members of the tripartite Image in the human soul: on the reason in the frequent request that the auditors consider the matter of the sermon, especially the experience of Christ; on the will in the stimulation of love for Christ's loving sacrifice; and on the memory in the request that believers remember their own sinful actions in comparison with Christ's example. The recreation of time requires attentive efforts by the entire soul.

In the Devotions reason considers each moment in time according to the principles informing it. The same assumption in Deaths Duell makes conformity to Christ dependent on the soul's keen rational awareness. The audience is asked to consider the significance of moments in Christ's `day' ending with his death. `Make this present day that day in thy devotion, To consider what hee did, and remember what you have done. Donne repeatedly points to the importance of considering the matter of the sermon, 'to consider with mee how to this God the Lord belong'd the issues of death, explicity sharpening the audience's rational attention. Implicitly, the audience is also being asked to consider the dying preacher standing before them, just as they are asked to consider his diseased body in the Devotions. The dramatic force of the given moment in Donne's works develops in these later works into a full- blown sense of temporal events as a form of communication from God to man, to be understood and known. When Donne speaks of God as Logos, who necessarily proceeds logically, for whom a minute in time is a `syllogisme' he is emphasizing the rational dimension in that communication. The audience in Deaths Duell must consider not only Donne's spoken words, but also his presence in the pulpit as a form of temporal communication from God. This is necessarily the domain of reason's same bright attention emphasized throughout Donne's works as the condition for fulfilling temporal life. Reason must also attentively arbitrate the will's experience in love and examine anew what memory comprehends.

That Donne would expect the members of his audience to consider not only his words but also himself as part of the same event [brings us to a crucial matter in understanding Donne's works] namely, Donne's own person as a factor in his works. The complexities of Donne's nature have set off varied and, at times, conflicting responses. Clearly, Donne was unsettled as a young man; it is nonetheless possible to determine those elements which dominate his essential nature even at that time. Merritt Hughes's clear warning against `kidnapping' Donne in our own modern preconceptions still exhorts us to see Donne as he wished to be seen. Behind the restlessness and the chafing in Donne there was a yearning for constancy.... In Donne's restatement of Paul's joyous fulfilment of Christ suffering in his own flesh for the Body's sake, Donne expressed a Calling that, in the received forms of his Faith, fulfilled his yearning for constancy.

Walton's chronicle of Donne's final days, an account which his modern counterpart R. C. Bald regards as unexceptionable, suggests that Donne's faith was fulfilled in his death. But death does not compromise his abiding sense that the Body of Christ, the physical and spiritual community that contributes to the constancy of Donne's mature being, would continue to span heaven and earth after his death. Though Donne himself was spiralling closer to his circular God, whose mercy ever moved perpendicularly above the believer, he recognized even in his last acts the responsibility to other participating members. Donne's relationship to the community was not always so resolved, and his life on the circumference of his temporal circle was not always so fulfilled. In the third satire there is the incompleted search for a `true religion,' the injunction to `doubt wisely' in a progress spiralling upward (`about must goe') to Truth on a `huge' hill. In `A Valediction: forbidding Mourning,' its calmness a marked contrast to other love poems of Donne, is expressed the conviction that mutual love bonded by spiritual union can make an individual, private circle just. And in `Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward' he affirms the need for affliction to turn his sinful soul in its circular, westward movement back to its eastern origin, in conformity with the suffering Christ. However, in Donne's maturity, in his priestly Calling, he did achieve a personal assurance and constancy that fulfilled life along the circumference of his circle. In his assurance of his conformity with Christ, he offered his bodily presence to fulfil Christ's suffering for the sake of the communal Body. And in his literary works he embodied his sense of the epistemological and psychological immediacies that make up that confirmity.

To conclude, it is in the two major artifacts in his last remains, the sermon Deaths Duell and the death effigy in St Paul's, that we can find the final measure of the Calling that fulfilled his life. The sermon, although it now lacks the startling ambience centred in the dying man, still leaves its deep imprint on readers in the way it emboldens the problems of mortality and time. The death effigy likewise leaves its imprint, with its composed face accepting the inevitability of death. Donne would have appreciated time's witty justification of his personal value for the Body; the marble effigy remains, but the original building was destroyed by fire. Many modern readers would say that both the sermon and the effigy, like his other literary works, have outlasted the system of belief that inspired Donne. Yet it is not too fanciful to suggest--and we can perhaps appreciate this irony better than Donne--that his artifacts still inform a kind of Body in so far as they unite us in asking that we know and feel the large forces that shape us. That Donne's own works accomplish this successfully, often in the most immediate ways, make them a coherent and understandable achievement that can be said to help fulfill life on the circumference of time's circle.

Source Citation: Sherwood, Terry G., in his Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought, University of Toronto Press, 1984, 231 p.