The Ghastly Whim of John Donne

March 31, 2020

John Donne

Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
Vol. 15, pp. 364-369 of The Harvard Classics

Monuments are usually made from death masks, but John Donne took pleasure in posing for his, wrapped from head to foot in a shroud. Isaak Walton tells of this in his fascinating biography of the eccentric poet.
(John Donne died March 31, 1631.)

The Life of Dr. Donne

  I must here look so far back, as to tell the reader that at his first return out of Essex, to preach his last sermon, his old friend and physician, Dr. Fox—a man of great worth—came to him to consult his health; and that after a sight of him, and some queries concerning his distempers, he told him, “That by cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health;” but he passionately denied to drink it. Nevertheless, Dr. Fox, who loved him most entirely, wearied him with solicitations, till he yielded to take it for ten days; at the end of which time he told Dr. Fox, “He had drunk it more to satisfy him, than to recover his health; and that he would not drink it ten days longer, upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life; for he loved it not; and was so far from fearing death, which to others is the King of Terrors, that he longed for the day of dissolution.”

  It is observed that a desire of glory or commendation is rooted in the very nature of man; and that those of the severest and most mortified lives, though they may become so humble as to banish self-flattery, and such weeds as naturally grow there; yet they have not been able to kill this desire of glory, but that like our radical heat, it will both live and die with us; and many think it should do so; and we want not sacred examples to justify the desire of having our memory to outlive our lives; which I mention, because Dr. Donne, by the persuasion of Dr. Fox, easily yielded at this very time to have a monument made for him; but Dr. Fox undertook not to persuade him now, or what monument it should be; that was left to Dr. Donne himself.

  A monument being resolved upon, Dr. Donne sent for a Carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board, of just the height of his body. “These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, 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 are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave. Upon this urn he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and deathlike face, which was purposely turned towards the east, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.” In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the picture was fully finished, he caused it to be set by his bed-side, where it continued and became his hourly object till his death, and was then given to his dearest friend and executor Dr. Henry King, then chief residentiary of St. Paul’s, who caused him to be thus carved in one entire piece of white marble, as it now stands in that church; and by Dr. Donne’s own appointment, these words were to be affixed to it as an epitaph:




  And now, having brought him through the many labyrinths and perplexities of a various life, even to the gates of death and the grave; my desire is, he may rest till I have told my reader that I have seen many pictures of him, in several habits, and at several ages, and in several postures: and I now mention this, because I have seen one picture of him, drawn by a curious hand, at his age of eighteen, with his sword, and what other adornments might then suit with the present fashions of youth and the giddy gaieties of that age; and his motto then was—

How much shall I be changed,
Before I am changed!

  And if that young and his now dying picture were at this time set together every beholder might say, Lord! how much is Dr. Donne already changed, before he is changed! And the view of them might give my reader occasion to ask himself with some amazement, “Lord! how much may I also, that am now in health, be changed before I am changed; before this vile, this changeable body shall put off mortality!” and therefore to prepare for it.—But this is not writ so much for my reader’s memento, as to tell him that Dr. Donne would often in his private discourses, and often publicly in his sermons, mention the many changes both of his body and mind; especially of his mind from a vertiginous giddiness; and would as often say, “His great and most blessed change was from a temporal to a spiritual employment;” in which he was so happy, that he accounted the former part of his life to be lost; and the beginning of it to be from his first entering into sacred orders, and serving his most merciful god at his altar.

  Upon Monday, after the drawing this picture, he took his last leave of his beloved study; and, being sensible of his hourly decay, retired himself to his bed-chamber; and that week sent at several times for many of his most considerable friends, with whom he took a solemn and deliberate farewell, commending to their considerations some sentences useful for the regulation of their lives; and then dismissed them, as good Jacob did his sons, with a spiritual benediction. The Sunday following, he appointed his servants, that if there were any business yet undone that concerned him or themselves, it should be prepared against Saturday next; for after that day he would not mix his thoughts with anything that concerned this world; nor ever did; but, as Job, so he “waited for the appointed day of his dissolution.”

  And now he was so happy as to have nothing to do but to die, to do which, he stood in need of no longer time for he had studied it long, and to so happy a perfection, that in a former sickness he called God to witness 1 “He was that minute ready to deliver his soul into his hands if that minute God would determine his dissolution.” In that sickness he begged of God the constancy to be preserved in that estate for ever; and his patient expectation to have his immortal soul disrobed from her garment of mortality, makes me confident that he now had a modest assurance that his prayers were then heard, and his petition granted. He lay fifteen days earnestly expecting his hourly change; and in the last hour of his last day, as his body melted away, and vapoured into spirit, his soul having, I verily believe some revelation of the beatifical vision, he said, “I were miserable if I might not die;” and after those words, closed many periods of his faint breath by saying often, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” His speech, which had long been his ready and faithful servant, left him not till the last minute of his life, and then forsook him, not to serve another master—for who speaks like him,—but died before him; for that it was then become useless to him, that now conversed with God on earth, as angels are said to do in heaven, only by thoughts and looks. Being speechless, and seeing heaven by that illumination by which he saw it, he did, as St. Stephen, “look stead-fastly into it, till he saw the son of Man standing at the right hand of God his Father;” and being satisfied with this blessed sight, as his soul ascended, and his last breath departed from him, he closed his own eyes, and then disposed his hands and body into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those that came to shroud him.

  Thus variable, thus virtuous was the life: thus excellent, thus exemplary was the death of this memorable man.

  He was buried in that place of St. Paul’s Church, which he had appointed for that use some years before his death; and by which he passed daily to pay his public devotions to Almighty God—who was then served twice a day by a public form of prayer and praises in that place:—but he was not buried privately, though he desired it; for, beside an unnumbered numbers of others, many persons of nobility, and of eminence for learning, who did love and honour him in his life, did show it at his death, by a voluntary and sad attendance of his body to the grave. Where nothing was so remarkable as a public sorrow.

  To which place of his burial some mournful friends repaired, and, as Alexander the Great did to the grave of the famous Achilles, so they strewed his with an abundance of curious and costly flowers; which course, they—who were never yet known—continued morning and evening for many days, not ceasing, till the stones, that were taken up in that church, to give his body admission into the cold earth—now his bed of rest,—were again by the mason’s art so levelled and firmed as they had been formerly, and his place of burial undistinguishable to common view.

  The next day after his burial, some unknown friend, some one of the many lovers and admirers of his virtue and learning, writ this epitaph with a coal on the wall over his grave:—

Reader! I am to let thee know.
Donne’s Body only lies below;
For, could the grave his Soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the Skies!

Nor was this all the honour done to his reverend ashes; for, as there be some persons that will not receive a reward for that for which God accounts himself a debtor; persons that dare trust God with their charity, and without a witness; so there was by some grateful unknown friend, that thought Dr. Donne’s memory ought to be perpetuated, an hundred marks sent to his faithful friends 2 and executors, towards the making of his monument. It was not for many years known by whom; but, after the death of Dr. Fox, it was known that it was he that sent it; and he lived to see as lively a representation of his dead friend as marble can express: a statue indeed so like Dr. Donne, that—as his friend Sir Henry Wotton hath expressed himself—“It seems to breath faintly, and posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial miracle.”

  He was of stature moderately tall; of a straight and equally—proportioned body, to which all his words and actions gave an unexpressible addition of comeliness.

  The melancholy and pleasant humour were in him so contempered, that each gave advantage to the other, and made his company one of the delights of mankind.

  His fancy was unimitably high, equalled only by his great wit; both being made useful by a commanding judgment.

  His aspect was cheerful, and such as gave a silent testimony of a clear knowing soul, and of a conscience at peace with itself.

  His melting eye showed that he had a soft heart, full of noble compassion; of too brave a soul to offer injuries, and too much a Christian not to pardon them in others.

  He did much contemplate—especially after he entered into his sacred calling—the mercies of Almighty God, the immortality of the soul, and the joys of heaven: and would often say in a kind of sacred ecstasy,—“Blessed be God that he is God, only and divinely like himself.”

  He was by nature highly passionate, but more apt to reluct at the excesses of it. A great lover of the offices of humanity, and of so merciful a spirit, that he never beheld the miseries of mankind without pity and relief.

  He was earnest and unwearied in the search of knowledge, with which his vigorous soul is now satisfied, and employed in a continual praise of that God that first breathed it into his active body: that body, which once was a temple of the Holy Ghost, and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust:—

  But I shall see it re-animated.
  Feb. 15, 1639.
I. W.

Note 1. In his Book of Devotions written then.
Note 2. Dr. King and Dr. Montford.

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