Monday, March 8, 2010

John Donne, shrouded

In a portrait and on his tomb, English poet John Donne (1572-1631) is shown wrapped in a burial shroud (also known as a winding sheet). The portrait was commissioned a few months before his death by Donne, who was also an Anglican priest. It was intended to show him as he would appear rising from his grave at the Apocalypse, and he hung it on his wall to serve as a memento mori. His biographer Isaak Walton (1593-1683) describes the sitting:
"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 fact, Donne's last sermon was a meditation about mortality, and has been described as his own funeral sermon.

The tomb sculpture is a 3-dimensional representation of that portrait carved by Nicholas Stone (1586-1647). When Donne died, he was interred in Old St. Paul's Cathedral, which was gutted by the Great Fire of London in 1666. The marble sculpture survived the blaze and was transferred to a rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral where it can still be seen. Unlike most transi tomb sculptures, which depict reclining bodies - either in repose or skeletonized, Donne's sculpture shows him upright, as if rising from the urn on which he stood for the portrait.

I never studied the poetry of Donne and didn't realize till now that he is the source of some of the most famous quotes about death:
  • "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind;/ And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
  • "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so./ For, those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow./ Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me."
  • "One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And Death shall be no more;/ Death, thou shalt die. "
I was also surprised that none of his poetry was published until 2 years after his death - and now it has immortalized him.

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