Johne Donne: "Plants, cattell, men, dishes for Death to eate"
John Milton's taste in "eating Death" seems to have been rather common fare in the seventeenth century. The metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote an poem, "Elegie on Mris Boulstred," depicting Death as an all-devouring monster. I borrow this 1609 elegy by John Donne from the University of Virginia Library:
Some think that Donne went too far in emphasizing the power of death. Margaret Downs-Gamble, in "New Pleasures Prove: Evidence of Dialectical Disputatio in Early Modern Manuscript Culture" (Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 2.1-33), cites Donne's patron, Lucy Russell, the Countess of Bedford, as objecting to Donne's depiction of Death, as does also Ms. Downs-Gamble herself:Elegie on Mris BoulstredDeath I recant, and say, unsaid by mee
What ere hath slip'd, that might diminish thee.
Spirituall treason, atheisme 'tis, to say,
That any can thy Summons disobey.
Th'earths face is but thy Table; there are set
Plants, cattell, men, dishes for Death to eate.
In a rude hunger now hee millions drawes
Into his bloody, or plaguy, or sterv'd jawes.
Now hee will seeme to spare, and doth more wast,
Eating the best first, well preserv'd to last.
Now wantonly he spoiles, and eates us not,
But breakes off friends, and lets us peecemeale rot.
Nor will this earth serve him; he sinkes the deepe
Where harmelesse fish monastique silence keepe.
Who (were Death dead) by Roes of living sand,
Might spunge that element, and make it land.
He rounds the aire, and breakes the hymnique notes
In birds, Heavens choristers, organique throats,
Which (if they did not dye) might seeme to bee
A tenth ranke in the heavenly hierarchie.
O strong and long-liv'd death, how cam'st thou in?
And how without Creation didst begin?
Thou hast, and shalt see dead, before thou dyest,
All the foure Monarchies, and Antichrist.
How could I thinke thee nothing, that see now
In all this All, nothing else is, but thou.
Our births and life, vices, and vertues, bee
Wastfull consumptions, and degrees of thee.
For, wee to live, our bellowes weare, and breath,
Nor are wee mortall, dying, dead, but death.
And though thou beest, O mighty bird of prey,
So much reclaim'd by God, that thou must lay
All that thou kill'st at his feet, yet doth hee
Reserve but few, and leaves the most to thee.
And of those few, now thou hast overthrowne
One whom thy blow, makes, not ours, nor thine own.
She was more stories high: hopelesse to come
To her Soule, thou'hast offer'd at her lower roome.
Her Soule and body was a King and Court:
But thou hast both of Captaine mist and fort.
As houses fall not, though the King remove,
Bodies of Saints rest for their soules above.
Death gets 'twixt soules and bodies such a place
As sinne insinuates 'twixt just men and grace,
Both worke a separation, no divorce.
Her Soule is gone to usher up her corse,
Which shall be'almost another soule, for there
Bodies are purer, then best Soules are here.
Because in her, her virtues did outgoe
Her yeares, would'st thou, O emulous death, do so?
And kill her young to thy losse? must the cost
Of beauty, 'and wit, apt to doe harme, be lost?
What though thou found'st her proofe 'gainst sins of youth?
Oh, every age a diverse sinne pursueth.
Thou should'st have stay'd, and taken better hold,
Shortly ambitious, covetous, when old,
She might have prov'd: and such devotion
Might once have stray'd to superstition.
If all her vertues must have growne, yet might
Abundant virtue'have bred a proud delight.
Had she persever'd just, there would have bin
Some that would sinne, mis-thinking she did sinne.
Such as would call her friendship, love, and faine
To sociablenesse, a name profane.
Or sinne, by tempting, or, not daring that,
By wishing, though they never told her what.
Thus might'st thou' have slain more soules, had'st thou not crost
Thy selfe, and to triumph, thine army lost.
Yet though these wayes be lost, thou hast left one,
Which is, immoderate griefe that she is gone.
But we may scape that sinne, yet weepe as much,
Our teares are due, because we are not such.
Some teares, that knot of friends, her death must cost,
Because the chaine is broke, but no linke lost.
Donne's "Death I recant . . ." quite simply dwelled too long--for the first 36 lines--on the ultimate power of a personified Death. No one can Death's "Summons disobey." All are but a "dish . . . for Death to eate," and "In a rude hunger now he millions drawes / Into his bloody, or plaguy, or starv'd jawes." Bedford's corrective response . . . disputes Donne's construction of a ravenous, all-powerful Death gobbling up his victims.The objection here seems as much an aesthetic as a theological one -- that the poem is not theologically, but rhetorically unbalanced -- for Donne is careful and theologically orthodox in limiting Death's power, telling Death that all those whom he kills will be "reclaim'd by God": "thou must lay / All that thou kill'st at his feet." And he reminds Death: "thou dyest." Milton does much the same with Death personified in Paradise Lost, so Donne's prior use of the image of an all-devouring Death that ultimately submits to God and dies prepares the way for Milton's use of this already familiar image.
Both, of course, are drawing upon scripture for inspiration, as I'll explore tomorrow . . .