Holy Ambition: Rhetoric, Courtship, and Devotion in the Sermons of John Donne

By Brent Nelson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Courting Death: Symbolic Purification
in Donne's Sermon “Preached to the
Lords upon Easter-day,” I6l9488

Psalm 89:48

WHAT MAN IS HE THAT LIVETH,
AND SHALL NOT SEE DEATH?

O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could
advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou
hast done.

— Sir Walter Ralegh489

DEATH IS ONE OF DONNE'S FAVOURITE THEMES in the sermons.490 In addition to several sermons which directly address this subject, many more on other subjects draw upon themes of death. My interest here, however, is not that of Donne's psychologizers who read the sermons for his views and attitudes toward death to explain this apparent obsession.491 I rather con-

488Sermons, 2:9.

489 From The History of the World (1614) in Brian Vickers, ed., Seventeenth-Century Prose (London:
Longman, 1969), 55.

490 Potter and Simpson express the conrrary view (Sermons, 2:27). Donne is by no means unique in
his concentration on death. In his advice to the preachers in his charge, Bishop Jeremy Taylor says
(quite traditionally), “In your sermons to the people, often speak of the four last things, of Death
and Judgement, Heaven and Hell”: Whole Works, ed. Heber, 1:109.

491 Most notoriously, Carey, John Donne, chap. 7. Also Mark Allinson, “Re-Visioning the Death Wish:
Donne and Suicide,” Mosaic 24 (1991): 31–46. The most recent disaster in this method of mining

-197-

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