Monday, September 29, 2008

Last Days and Last Words

Nicholas Stone the Elder (1586-1647)
Monument to the Poet John Donne (1631)
St Paul`s Cathedral, London

The Dean of St Paul`s, London and poet, Dr John Donne (1572-1631), poet had a presentiment of his death. He started making preparations.

He announced the last sermon at St Paul`s. He preached his last sermon - Death's Duel - on the 1st Friday of Lent 1631 in the presence of King Charles I He drew up his own Will.

The closing words of the peroration were:

"Towards noon Pilate gave judgment, and they made such haste to execution as that by noon he was upon the cross. There now hangs that sacred body upon the cross, rebaptized in his own tears, and sweat, and embalmed in his own blood alive. There are those bowels of compassion which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds. There those glorious eyes grew faint in their sight, so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too.

And then that Son of God, who was never from us, and yet had now come a new way unto us in assuming our nature, delivers that soul (which was never out of his Father's hands) by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his Father's hands; for though to this God our Lord belonged these issues of death, so that considered in his own contract, he must necessarily die, yet at no breach or battery which they had made upon his sacred body issued his soul; but emisit, he gave up the ghost; and as God breathed a soul into the first Adam, so this second Adam breathed his soul into God, into the hands of God.

There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen."

He went home and prepared for death.

In his biography, Izaak Walton, one of his parishoners wrote and described some more of his preparations:

"Dr. Donne sent for a Carver to make for him in wood the figure of an Vrn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it.; and to bring with it a board of the just height of his body.

These being got: then without delay a choice Painter was got to be in a readiness to draw his Picture, which was taken as followeth. Several Charcole 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 of his cloths, had this sheet put on him, and so tyed with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrowded and put into their Coffin, or grave.

Upon this Vrn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might shew his lean, pale, and death-like face, which was purposely turned toward 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 given to his dearest friend and Executor Doctor 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."

The painting no longer survives although engravings of it do.