Come Sweet Death Summary
Bunyan Davie Napier, a minister, theologian, and seminary professor, published Old Testament theological research between 1955 and1964 and the later Rockwell Lecture, On New Creation (1971). Napier’s first single-volume poem, Come Sweet Death, appeared in 1967, followed by two additional poems, Time of Burning (1970) and Word of God, Word of Earth (1976). These three poems compose The Best of Davie Napier.
Napier values myths, especially theologically refined mythical stories found in Genesis, for what he terms their “isness” more than their “wasness.” Genesis was orally transmitted from the tenth century b.c.e. before it was recorded in the sixth century b.c.e., so it is both informed by and informing to the rest of the Old Testament. As such, Napier calls Genesis “a meditation on history” that reveals how Creation shaped the faith and life of first the Jews and then the nations. Like Genesis, Come Sweet Death may be viewed as an act of “prophetism,” which Napier defines in Prophets in Perspective (1963) as “a way of looking at, understanding, and interpreting history.”
Napier introduces Come Sweet Death as a colloquial retelling or “existential interpretation” of Genesis 2-12 in the present tense. He excerpts from Genesis 2-12, with additional verses from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, the Psalms, and Luke. The poem closes with John 1:1, returning to the creative word in the beginning. With its present-day “isness,” the quintet is suprahistorical, moving from Gilead to Geneva or from Noah to Unamuno in the same line. The omnipresent point of view is purposely disconcerting but nevertheless representative of the timeless audience for whom the Bible was intended.
Apart from the dated technology—Napier cites computers and rockets as the latest innovations—the 1967 poem still feels current with its Joycean compendium of both popular and literary allusions and its cynical, Nietzschean tone. Like the Lost Generation after World War I, Napier also writes in the shadow of nations at war, this time in Vietnam. His own intense frustration is evident in his persona’s assessment: “A lousy, lying land;/ a dirty, stinking, bleeding, schizoid land!” Napier’s speaker is a fugitive addressing an anguished Creator.
In the quintet’s five parts, the speaker is a symbolic Adam, Cain, Noah, architect, and, finally, Abraham. He is the disobedient, murderous, inebriated, self-sufficient god of his own life. However, like Abraham, the wanderer ultimately finds solace in God’s promise—a future event to be hoped for today. Because myth has meaning for all of history, the reader’s role in this existential trial is to reinvent the five major events from Genesis.
Suggestive of scriptural format, each of the five parts is subdivided into ten sections, each with a version of the phrase, “come sweet death,” emerging somewhere in the last three stanzas. The five chapters are variations on a theme that Napier refers to in The Song of the Vineyard (1962) as “the etiology of etologies”: alienation, which he offers as the explanation for distorted, aborted creation. Unlike the book of Job, “Come Sweet Death” is an antitheodicy. The anthropocentric poem allows an exile to justify his annoyance with “a godforsaken, catastrophic mess” he calls “Yahweh’s yo-yo,” begging God to cut the string for good.
All remorse, repentance, and humility is absent on the speaker’s part, as evident in a typically sarcastic remark: “Congratulations, God and Man. Well done.” However, the offensive position is only a mask for the speaker’s fear. He admits to being scared, armed with nothing more than “puny theological peashooters,” such as the claim that God is responsible because he started the whole thing by electing and creating a people and establishing a covenant.
The speaker can no longer accept the yet-to-be-fulfilled covenant: God promised to bless and multiply his people, and yet the world is broken and humanity is full of hate. Because this season of personal despair feels universal, the speaker assumes that the horrific present is the consummation of history, and as a universal finale, it has fallen flat.
Although he is accused of being an extremely harsh judge, Napier’s God is an active listener, incredibly tolerant and responsive to the accusations levied line after line by his accuser, of whom God says: “I hear the Adversary coming now./ A busy and ambitious Son of God.” The man asks for a word with God, adding, “Now hold your fire, let me finish—Sir,” and continues to enumerate God’s misdemeanors for several more stanzas without interruption.
The narrative free verse uses obvious end rhymes to accentuate the dark humor in the present absurdity: “remnant-maker” and “drown the taker”; “unsteady” with “too heady”; “weapon and palm” with “Vietnam.” Admittedly, the profound level of discourse found in Job is hard to equal. Napier’s quintet relies on clever connections and sarcasm for effect: “Eden schmeeden/ tillit schmillit.” “Suffering Lord and gentle Schemer,/ here’s the dream—you be the Dreamer.” The visual form is important in the fourth part on the tower; the initial quatrains are funneled into a V-shape as if descending toward or burrowing into earth, while the final quatrains are inverted, assuming the form of a tower rising toward heaven.
Sources for Further Study
“Napier, B(unyan) Davie.” Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research Group, 1981. A short biography of the author, listing his published works. Bibliography.
Napier, Bunyan Davie. From Faith to Faith: Essays on Old Testament Literature. New York: Harper, 1955. Five essays demonstrate the essential unity of the Old Testament; the first treats brokenness in Genesis 1-11, and the second considers Abraham’s faith as counterpart.
Napier, Bunyan Davie. “On Creation—Faith in the Old Testament: A Survey.” Interpretation 16, no. 1 (January, 1962): 21-42. God shaped preexistent chaos into Creation and formed slaves into his elect people, which, Napier argues, shows that Creation substantiates God’s saving power.
Napier, Bunyan Davie. Prophets in Perspective. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1963. Napier draws on Gerhard von Rad’s research in his 120-page study that examines the prophetic giants who proclaimed God’s plan to judge and then redeem Israel and the world.
Napier, Bunyan Davie. Song of the Vineyard: A Guide Through the Old Testament. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981. An inductive introduction to the Bible’s literary, historical, and theological meaning in the life and faith of ancient Israel and the present state. Brief bibliography, detailed indexes.