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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

I. Modalities of Passing

"A Copy, to learne by": John Donne's "Writing Death"

Guillaume Fourcade

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1Death is everywhere in Donne's work and there is no need to demonstrate anew to what extent it haunts an outstanding number of his texts (Ellrodt, 1973, 1:146-52 and in particular n. 63, 146). Donne's deep fascination with death is indeed amply evidenced in his poetry as well as in his prose works amongst which was his brave treatise on suicide, Biathanatos (1608), although that particular work was never published in his lifetime. Donne, who was an expert in self-dramatization, loved to imagine himself dead, to contemplate his own corpse and to give pride of place in his poems to voices coming literally from the grave. Quite conspicuous too, was the pleasure he took in describing his own dissolving or putrefying flesh and in discussing the problematic recompaction of his scattered atoms at the Resurrection (Himy, 1995, 37-50). Such an overabundant display of death in Donne's writings is well nigh teratomorphic and certainly challenges interpretation. Should it be regarded as an attempt to conjure up the fear aroused by death (Carey, 1990, 184)? In such a case it would be necessary for Donne to voice such a fear repeatedly but from one text to the other and sometimes within one self-same text he deftly blurs his reader's perception. In the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624), perceiving his doctor's alarm in the face of his impending death, does he not assert "I see his fears, and I fear with him"... only to reassess his judgement shortly after, "and if I should say I feared death, I should belie God" (Donne, 1999, 32-3)? Such contradictions abound. One single permanent feature seems to crop up though, and it has often been underlined: the Donnean dead never keep still and nothing is more alien to Donne than a desire for absolute annihilation (Carey, 1990, 186-90 and Ellrodt, 1973, 1: 147). Fascination, real or counterfeit fear, but also a genuine desire to die in Christ in order to enjoy the endless sight of God are the jarring voices of Donnean death.

2But these may only be surface contradictions and may well disclose a far deeper unity. Constantly courting death, Donne considered it as he did women, with the eye of the enlightened connoisseur as he suggested himself in a letter he addressed to his friend Henry Goodyer, in September 1608. "I would not that death should take me asleep," he says. "I would not have him merely seize me, and only declare me to be dead, but win me and overcome me" (Gosse, 1899, 1:191). It would be in a way a real pity, Donne seems to say, to die without first having been seduced by one's own death and flirted with it in order to grasp its peculiar beauty. If such a struggle with death is to take place, it is tempting to think that for a writer like Donne, it was first and foremost to be a verbal one. Rather than the object of theoretical discourse or (Christian) philosophical inquiry death may have been primarily for Donne a question of writing. One is not to be seized by death, but to seize it by the book. Izaac Walton's depiction of the death-like pose Donne struck in his study as he had his full-length portrait painted a few days before dying, speaks volumes in that respect: "... he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies usually are fitted [...]" (Walton, 1999, 217).

  • 1 The concept of "thanatopraxie" is borrowed from the Derridean theory of writing. "Thanatopraxie" o (...)

3This man who is on the verge of death but wants himself pictured as though he really were dead stands "in a winding-sheet"; he is thus rolled up in a piece of cloth, but more literally still, in a "sheet", that is to say, in the sheets of paper, the pages of the texts that he never stopped writing. In so doing, Donne was translating into a pictorial representation the death in the sheets that he described in "Death's Duel", his ultimate sermon. "We have a winding-sheet in our mother's womb which grows with us from our conception," he says, "and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave." (Donne, 1999, 159) The winding-sheet that winds us round is also to some extent the page on which to print and write death. Far from being a pitfall for thought or a knot of contradictions, death may then well be above all closely linked to writing. The manifold representations of death in Donne's texts may thus lead to question to what extent they articulate what could be called a Donnean thanatopraxis of writing (Derrida, 1998, 9-73; Rapaport, 1983, 103-130).1 In other words does death not inform Donne's poetics and writing from within? Is it not to be viewed as the starting point and even as an act of writing? In such a perspective a close reading of Donne's poems may point to the unsettling presence of Donne's "writing death" as well as to its textual modes of composition.

4Many of Donne's love poems are imbued with flippant and outright eroticism, and as such, they are often at variance with the Petrarchan tradition of courtly love. However, Donne does not always totally disregard its influence, in particular when it comes to describing the pangs caused by unrequited or lost love. "Criminal love", the hyperbolic stock-in-trade of Petrarchan poetry then finds its way in his lines as in "The Canonization", where the resigned speaker declares, admittedly with some double-entendre, "We can die by it, if not live by love" (1.28). Yet in Donne's work the violent death triggered by love sometimes takes on an unexpected guise for it is as an engraved text that it appears in the very body of the poems.

  • 2 In "The Paradox" Donne also elaborates a self-reflexive metaphor which suggests that love-caused d (...)

5The loss of the beloved woman in "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day" brings in its wake a general mourning as the whole cosmos, attuned with the speaker, is deprived of its vital principle (ll. 1-8) and turned into a graveyard. Individual lyricism thus paves the way for universal lyricism. However, although the whole world is declared to be "dead and interred" (l. 8) its death still keeps some sparks of life and joy, while the speaker's is almost total, "... yet all these seem to laugh,/Compared with me, who am their epitaph." (ll. 8-9) The speaker thus presents himself as the scriptural form of death and his entire being as a funerary text to the memory of the world that passed away along with his mistress. Death is thus an act of writing that produces a text, namely an "epitaph".2 But this text being engraved in the body of the poem, it then seems that this death also generates in a second act of writing, the whole "Nocturnal" itself. Death thus appears as a verbal creation as evidenced even more sharply by the second stanza of the poem. If, after the loss of the beloved woman, love is so much like death that it leads straight to it, the latter, Donne suggests, leads straight to poetry or at any rate to writing:

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring :
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness,
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not. (ll. 10-18)

6The images of transmutation and extraction of a quintessence are explicitly borrowed from the alchemical lore and underpin death-love's truly demiurgic power. Yet, Donne is here combining two meanings at least for there also appears as a watermark the literary face of this transmutation. It aims indeed at saying something for it is said to be the art of expression, "for his art did express" (l. 14). Moreover, this love-caused death seems to be writing a new chapter from an alchemical work at the speaker's own expense as suggested by line 13, "In whom wrought new alchemy", for how could Donne have overlooked such a pun as the almost homophonous pararhyme wrote/wrought? Death is thus not akin to utter annihilation for it recreates its victim, "I am re-begot", under a new form and in a new language as evidenced by the strangely sounding "re-begot" itself. As the lover dies from the pangs of love his death-cum-rebirth appears as a literary work of inscription, engraving, metamorphosis and above all of invention of the unsaid, "things which are not" (l. 18). The act of writing that unfolds in death consists above all in creating such puzzling paradoxes as "A quintessence even from nothingness" (l. 15) that are then interspersed throughout the text, the speaker defining himself further down as "the grave/Of all that's nothing" (ll. 21-22) or insisting that he is "by her death (which word wrongs her)/Of the first nothing the elixir grown" (ll. 28-29). Death even appears as a text to read on the speaker's own body for he urges future lovers to scrutinise him, "Study me then" (l. 10), as one would make a textual commentary. More significantly still, death asserts itself as the very generating principle of the poem itself for it gives birth to the daring images the poet inscribes: it informs the text and carves it, as it were, from within. This dizzying two-fold perspective brings to the fore what could be termed the Donnean vis verborum of death: it is a writing, but also an act of writing and verbal elaboration.

7The text spawned by death is also sometimes self-reflexive and, from within a poem, questions its own literary features. In "A Valediction: of my Name in the Window", haunting death is once again Donne's acknowledged source of inspiration, especially as regards the very elaborate central conceit of the name engraved on a window pane:

Near death inflicts this lethargy,
And this I murmur in my sleep ;
Impute this idle talk, to that I go,
For dying men often talk so (ll. 63-66)

8Here as well death is the t/womb of literary creation but in this poem it is a self-preoccupied creation as it appears once more as a text. For the speaker of this poem, every new parting from his mistress boils down to a renewed death that he wishes to counter by engraving his name into the glass of a window. He thus hopes to be remembered for ever by the one he loves but suspects of being prone to unfaithfulness:

Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratched name to teach,
It, as a given death's head keep
Lovers'mortality to preach,
Or think this ragged bony name to be
My ruinous anatomy. (ll. 19-24)

  • 3 For David A. Hirsch, from whom I borrowed this phrase, the engraved name can be interpreted as a b (...)

9This glass engraving represents the lover's name, and from his strictly nominalist viewpoint it also encloses his very essence; it is, so to speak, his "flesh made word" (Hirsch, 1991, 78).3 This is why he may assert to his mistress that this name guarantees the permanence of his being and that in it she "shall at all times find me the same" (l. 16). Yet, by a visual and formal analogy, the thin white lines engraved in the glass to make up his name, also delineate the brittle outline of his skeleton, "My ruinous anatomy". These two representations are superimposed on the transparent glass which, in a way, is also itself a deftly coined metaphor of the imagination the poet requires from his reader.

10Such a literalization of death into a text is outstandingly intricate. Death is first of all turned into a name, the lover's, for every new separation being a new death, the lover engraves his name on the glass to commemorate it. But to a certain extent, it is a refashioned name for death is not written in its own name, "death", but in the speaker's. His name thus becomes death's pseudonym. If the lover's name is assumed to be Donne's (and the title which reads "A Valediction: of my name" does not go against such an interpretation), then death only shares its initial. Donne gives his name to death, and this don ("a given death's head" l. 21) is supported by the alliteration. Death thus undergoes a process of inscription (engraving), but also one of translation and recomposition. However, the engraved name is not only to be read by the book, or the letter: its typographical features also make it a metaphor of the skull that Renaissance artists used to engrave in glass as a memento mori ("It, as a given death's head keep/Lover's mortality to preach" ll. 21-22). Therefore the name, which is used as a metaphor of death, becomes itself a double pictorial metaphor (the skull and the "anatomy" or skeleton) which in turn refers back to death. Death is thus a twofold metaphor of itself. Its function in the text is then also a double one. It is both the womb producing puzzling and challenging images and a textual discourse on the metaphor and its mirror effects.

11Death appears in Donne's work as a literary issue for by engraving itself it also inscribes the poems. However, if death is an act of writing and composition, its modes of writing do require further analysis.

12Donne's violent fit of recurring fever of December 1623 made him come very close to his death and inspired a narrative of the various steps in his sickness and recovery, the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). He there gives the question of death a decisively textual status: "All mankind is of one author," he says,"and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be translated" (Donne, 1999, 102). In this theological perspective Donne conceives of God as of a writer and of every creature as of a chapter in the great book of the world. The death of an individual, therefore, does not simply consist in destroying the chapter and blotting it out of the general work but in rewriting it into a better, sinless language that draws the creature closer to its Creator. By definition a liminal phase and the turning point of life, death is thus viewed by Donne from a literary viewpoint as the process of transposition par excellence, translation. As far as death may be described in terms of verbal activity it is chiefly for Donne to be understood as a rewriting of the original text borne by every one of us.

13The "Elegy on the Lady Markham" brings to light the translation process carried out by death upon a living text. Through the extended metaphor of the sea, death's blows, that is its waves, are endowed with the power to fashion and refashion the beach of Lady Markham's life:

In her this sea of death hath made no breach,
But as the tide doth wash the slimy beach,
And leaves embroidered works upon the sand.
So is her flesh refined by death's cold hand. (ll. 17-20)

14The sea-death metamorphoses the muddy beach into a finely embroidered work of art. It reshuffles the seascape and the woman's features to enhance their beauty and improve them. Yet the metaphor of embroidery ("embroidered works", l. 19) which is evocative of the beautifully rearranged lay-out of the sand also discloses death's literary activity. First, the polysemous noun "works" can read as a synonym for "texts". Moreover if a text is viewed as the intertwining of sundry threads, as a texture, then any alteration made to the text is akin to an act of sewing, to an embellishment of the stitches that made up the original weft. The sea-death of the poem reorders the text of the life-beach and translates it into the better language that Donne described in the Devotions. The terms "Wash" (l. 18) and "works" (l. 19), which refer respectively to this process and its result, are furthermore closely linked as they are both stressed and share the same central position (second syllable of the third foot) in successive lines as well as the initial w. If not phonetically, at least graphically, the latter also calls to mind the verb write. Death's cold hand thus appears here a writer's hand that would touch up an imperfect text; thanks to it Lady Markham's body and soul (see further down, "her soul shall inspire/Flesh of such stuff", ll. 25-26) are translated and made more beautiful still, "refined" (l. 20). As a rewriting, death transforms this "anagram of a good face" ("The Anagram", l. 16) and translates it into another text written in a better language.

15In one of his sermons Donne also reassesses Christ's death and ours from a textual viewpoint and highlights its foremost mode of writing.

Beloved, the death of Christ is given to us, as a Hand-writing; for, when Christ nailed that Chirographum, that first hand-writing, that had passed between the Devill and us, to his Crosse, he did not leave us out of debt, nor absolutely discharged, but he laid another Chirographum upon us, another Obligation arising out of death. His death is delivered to us, as a writing, but not a writing onely in the nature of a peece of Evidence, to plead our inheritance by, but a writing in the nature of a Copy, to learne by; It is not onely given us to reade, but to write over, and practise; Not onely to tell us what he did, but how we should do so too. (Donne, 1953-1962, 9:196)

16The core of Donne's demonstration in this sermon is that God's punishments are so many correctives evidencing His mercy and that our death, His ultimate punishment, should be considered a renewed opportunity for improvement. As such, once viewed in the light of Christ's redemptive sacrifice, our death is none other than a work in progress. Original sin is indeed a chirographic work, a hand-written note but also our own deathwarrant signed jointly with evil. Such a compact which writes out in full our betrayal of God is thus a collective work. It is also the banking sheet or transaction act that testifies to our debt toward God ("he did not leave us out of debt, nor absolutely discharged"). In an amazingly concentrated image, Donne rolls into one Christ's crucifixion and the crucifixion of this metaphorical hand-written text. Because it aimed at redeeming mankind, Christ's sacrifice was then both the publication and the destruction of this illaiming and ill-written text. Except for its corrective ends, Donne's image of textual crucifixion incidentally calls to mind the destruction of effigies by black magic mentioned in "Witchcraft by a Picture":

Hadst thou the wicked skill
By pictures made and marred, to kill,
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will? (ll. 5-7)

17Christ is thus to some extent a Mar-text. In fact, such a crucifixion of the text into the wood of the Cross is also reminiscent, although its perspective is Christian, of the love letters carved and hung in the trees of Arden (Shakespeare, 1994, III, 2, 5-10) by Orlando who believes in the power of the words written on their barks to seduce his beloved Rosalind (Iselin, 1998, 48-49). By inverting the perspective Donne also reverses the motif. The destruction of this love letter for evil, which is the analogy of Christ's sacrifice, aims at suppressing the power of the evil words that make up this text and at putting an end to mankind's erring ways. However, the crucifixion of the record of our betrayal in no way implies that our account with God is closed. Once destroyed, this text calls for a follow-up, for a more Christian rewriting.

18Indeed, Christ's death itself is another text, but not one that has been rounded off once and for all or that we could give as a token of our purity ("a peece of Evidence") to go to heaven. If Christ's sacrifice for mankind is an edifying text "a Copy, to learne by" that we ought to read carefully, it also calls for an active participation on our part. After Christ's fashion, we should learn to die by relinquishing sin. Dying in Christ means that we should make ours the original text of his death so as to produce a new draft of it. If Christ's death is a text, learning to die amounts to a literary activity consisting in rewriting this text ("write over and practise"), in translating it, in other words, in making its palimpsest. Once the evil hypotext is destroyed, a hypertext must be composed by the rewriting of Christ's death through our daily sufferings. We should no longer be mere readers of the text of Christ's death, "God would have us write it, and we doe onely read it" (Donne, 1953-1962, 9:196), Donne says further down, nor simply its copyists, but its second-hand authors, every step of our way. Such a concept of death seems to be at work in Donne's description of Elizabeth Drury in "A Funeral Elegy", the companion piece to the "First Anniversary".

19The death of such a much-praised virtuous young woman might at first sight seem to be a major loss, a considerable "blank" in God's book. The glorious pages that she had written in spite of her youth were promising and foreshadowed even better ones with the years. It might thus be tempting to think at first that they have been prematurely torn out of God's book. But it is not so:

He which not knowing her sad history,
Should come to read the book of destiny,
How fair and chaste, humble and high she had been,
Much promised, much performed, at not fifteen,
And measuring future things by things before,
Should turn the leaf to read, and read no more,
Would think that either destiny mistook,
Or that some leaves were torn out of the book.
But'tis not so; [...] (ll. 83-91)

20As clearly asserted in the Devotions, for Donne death may never simply amount to a mere erasing of each chapter but is to be regarded as its translation. This refashioning of the original text is meant to improve its language and style. Yet Donne depicts the young woman as a model of virtue in her lifetime ("How fair and chaste, humble and high she had been", l. 85). However by renouncing life at the moment when she has become mature enough to take her destiny into her own hands, she does improve her text. By dying she indeed also renounces committing the sin of pride that would have led her to be on an equal footing with fate in the carrying out of the divine scheme:

Fate did but usher her
To years of reason's use, and then infer
Her destiny to herself; which liberty
She took but for thus much, thus much to die.
Her modesty not suffering her to be
Fellow-commissioner with Destiny,
She did no more but die; [...] (ll. 91-97)

  • 4 See in particular the last paragraph of "Death's Duel", Donne's so-called self-addressed funeral s (...)

21By dying to sin Elizabeth also makes herself fully Christ's heiress. Through her death she does in fact seem to conform to the rewriting process of the text of Christ's death defined by Donne in the sermon. Indeed, her death is not only a new virtuous chapter, it is also presented by Donne as the expression of her absolute willingness ("Which liberty/She took", ll. 93-94). As such, her death re-writes ("write over", says Donne in the sermon), translates for itself the text of Christ's death, for he too died willingly on the Cross to redeem mankind. Both an act of pure charity and the offspring of his willingness, Christ's death on the Cross is for Donne so praiseworthy that it even legitimates self-murder. In his works4 Donne comes back repeatedly to this idea that smacked of brimstone but he brings it home to his reader without the least ambiguity in his Biathanatos (1608). "It is an Heroique Act of Fortitude," he says, "if a man when an urgent occasion is presented, expose himselfe willingly to a certain and assured death, as he did" (Donne, 1930, Part III, Dist. 4, Sect. 5, 191). The "leaves" of God's book that one might first believe to have been torn out and to be missing because of the young woman's death, are in fact pages whose whiteness may be the corollary of the refinement of their text now translated into a new, more perfect, almost unspeakable and invisible language. Down here, they may be written over by all those who, if eager to prove as virtuous as Elizabeth, are willing to resume the earthly writing of her chapter and:

Τ’ accomplish that which should have been her fate.
They shall make up that book, and shall have thanks
Of Fate, and her, for filling up their blanks. (ll.100-102)

22This poem thus emphasises death's textual mode of composition as a double translation process: it is on the one hand the translation of the very text of one's life, but more importantly still in Donne's perspective the new translation of the seminal text of Christ's death.

23Death is hardly ever experienced in Donne's work as a single moment. It is quite literally a constant rehearsing. It pertains to repetition so that the transition it represents is generally the expression of an ever-renewed and multiplied transience. On several occasions Donne underlines that our life is but a race run across a series of deaths as in the following passage from "Death's Duel" in which our birth is represented as the transition from one death to many others in this life: "... this issue, this deliverance, from that death, the death of the womb, is an entrance, a delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world." (Donne, 1999, 159) We never really die, Donne seems to say, or, and that amounts to the same thing, we never really stop dying under the weight of sin and of the torments of this life. In the light of such a profusion of daily and intimate representations of death it is hardly surprising that Donne's work should appropriate death not so much as a theoretical object as as a model for its own genesis and (de/re) composition.


Works cited

Carey, John. 1990 [1981]. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber and Faber.

Derrida, Jacques. 1998 [1976]. "Fors", in Abraham, Nicolas et Maria Torok. Le Verbier de l'homme aux loups. Paris: Flammarion.

Donne, John. 1930 [1647], Biathanatos. New York: The Facsimile Text Society.

—. 1999. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel. Vintage Spiritual Classics. Ed. Andrew Motion. New York: Vintage Books.

—. 1986 [1971]. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. London: Penguin Books.

—. 1953-1962. The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. Eds. G. R. Potter and E. M. Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellrodt, Robert, 1973 [1960], Les Poètes métaphysiques anglais. 3 vols. Paris: José Corti.

Gosse, Edmund, 1899. The Life and Letters of John Donne. 2 vols. London: W. Heinemann.

Himy, Armand, 1995. "John Donne and the Question of Dualism". Confluences, n° 11, Université de Paris-X, 37-50.

Hirsch, David Α., 1991. "Donne's Atomies and Anatomies: Deconstructed Bodies and the Resurrection of the Atomic Theory". SEL, n ° 31, 69-93.

Iselin, Pierre, 1998. "'So quiet and so sweet a style' (2.1.20): The Style of the Eclogue and the Praise of Style", in Iselin, Pierre, François Laroque et Jean-Marie Maguin. William Shakespeare: As You Like It. Paris: Didier Erudition-CNED.

Rapaport, Herman, 1983. Milton and the Postmodern. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Shakespeare, William, 1994 [1600], As You Like It. World's Classics. Ed. Alan Brissenden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walton, Izaac, 1999 [1640], "The Life of Dr. John Donne", in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel. Vintage Spiritual Classics. Ed. Andrew Motion. New York: Vintage Books.


1 The concept of "thanatopraxie" is borrowed from the Derridean theory of writing. "Thanatopraxie" or the praxis of death is grounded in the idea that writing, or the blossoming out of "potent" words derives from a symbolic breach from pre-existing texts. Death, as the foremost form of breach opens up a (textual) space that allows to both depart from, and appropriate previous texts and thus paves the way for new verbal elaborations. Thus, the starting point of writing lies in a form of textual death which castrates seminal texts to re-appropriate them; the grave (or crypt) built in the process is itself the place of discourse.

2 In "The Paradox" Donne also elaborates a self-reflexive metaphor which suggests that love-caused death (in that case Donne points quite explicitly to excessive sexual indulgence) spawns itself a text of a funerary kind: "Once I loved and died; and am now become/Mine own epitaph and tomb." (ll. 17-18)

3 For David A. Hirsch, from whom I borrowed this phrase, the engraved name can be interpreted as a bundle of letters but also of atoms in the light of the Epicurean and Lucretian atomic theory.

4 See in particular the last paragraph of "Death's Duel", Donne's so-called self-addressed funeral sermon, preached in February 1631 shortly before he died: "And then that Son of God, who was never from us, and yet had now come to a new way unto us in assuming our nature, delivers that soul (which was never out of his Father's hands) by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his Father's hands..." (Donne, 1999, 176-7).


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