Death's Duell Critical Essays

John Donne

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

About a year prior to his death John Donne preached his last sermon before the king at Whitehall on February 12, 1630. His publisher, Richard Redmer, who printed the first edition in 1632 of “Death’s Duell, or, A Consolation to the Soule, Against the Dying Life, and Living Death of the Body,” said that it was called “The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.” The text is from Psalm 68, the twentieth verse: And unto God the Lord belong the issues from death.

The language of the sermon is as imaginative, musical, and perverse as that of Donne’s poetry in which he suggests, “Go and catch a falling star,” or observes with interest that in the body of a flea his blood mingles with that of his beloved. Like the poetry, the sermon stretches the mind that would follow its eloquent, shocking, and neatly ordered expression. The Trinity probably inspires the division into three parts. Donne begins with the image of a building with a firm foundation, buttresses, and an unarchitectural “knitting” of the materials. These three particulars he compares to the actions of the Persons of the Trinity. God the Father lays the foundation for man’s life: he leads us from death into life. The Holy Ghost, like the buttresses which hold up the building, supports us at the hour of death when we shall enter eternal life. The God of Mercy, the Son, like the knitting together of the building, took upon himself flesh, knitting the divine and the human natures into one and delivering us by his death. The images are startling: the winding sheet which we bring with us into the world, the dust with which our mouths are filled after death, the worm that incestuously unites son, mother, and sister in its body. The figure of Christ on the cross “rebaptized in his owne teares and sweat, and enbalmed in his own blood alive” is almost as uncomfortably vivid as the last sentence of the sermon. In the concluding portion of “Death’s Duell,” Donne, with revival preacher fervor, calls his hearers to repentance, prayer, and dependence upon Christ.

The significance of the title seems to lie in the double aspect in the subtitle, the dying life and the living death. For Donne, the phrase “the issues of death” has three interpretations: deliverance from death by God; the manner and disposition of death by the Holy Ghost; and the deliverance from this life by death which Jesus Christ experienced because he had taken on human flesh and could have no other exit. The sermon is built around these three points.

In the first section, Donne says that throughout life we...

(The entire section is 1052 words.)