In this sonnet Donne examines the transition from life to death with a heavily religious focus. Comparing life to a play, a race and a pilgrimage, he acknowledges the inevitability of death, but believes that his body will be consumed by the earth and with it his sins, while his soul will return to its heavenly origins.
impute – attribute something to someone (normally with negative connotations).
This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Donne was a poet,during the reign of Elizabeth I, and, in later life and during the reign of James I, a priest. His religious beliefs play a consistently important role in his work and this is undoubtedly related to the fact that he was born into the Catholic faith that was at the time illegal and underground in England – many of his family died as martyrs for their faith.
Although Donne began his life as a staunch Catholic and deprived himself of opportunity and advancement as a result, he would later convert to Anglicanism and became a cleric for the Church.
He has a pretty interesting personal life, with his sneaky marriage getting him arrested and thrown in prison, banging out 12 children and serving as an MP. It was only after Elizabeth I’s death that he started to make a name for himself as a poet. He made a name for himself as a harsh critic of the corruption of society and the Church in his poetry.
This sonnet comes from a series called The Holy Sonnets and is thought to have been written between 1607-9. These were a series of 19 sonnets where Donne explores his religious struggles, fears and doubts. Our poem is generally seen as being the sixth in the sequence.
It is believed that they were all written when Donne was having a hard time of things in his personal life whilst also converting from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Thus this may influence the fact he sounds a bit fed up with life on Earth.
It is important to note that this is a type of meditation on what death would bring rather than being Donne facing up to a soon impending end of his life, as he would live another 20 years. However, in other work he seems to have had a bit of an obsession with the idea that our judgement day could come at any time, so maybe it was in the back of his mind.
The poem revolves around death from a religious perspective. There is a confidence that as his life has been lived as a form of pilgrimage that whatever sin he has accumulated will be left behind as the sins of the flesh, while his soul will re-ascend to heaven, pure once more.
The first four lines are the same idea explored through four simple metaphors – namely that his time on Earth was coming to an end.
Once he has finished repeating himself, he describes a greedy death beginning to consume his flesh instantaneously, but causing a split between flesh and soul. While death chows down on the flesh, his eternal soul heads up to see the face of the big guy in the clouds and face a scary (only in the sense that God is so immense that we tremble in his presence) judgement day.
Donne describes the split in a bit more detail with flesh going back to the Earth and with it all the sin he has accumulated. His soul, freed now from sin, ascends to heaven.
In the final couplet he relates how this is possible. He is forgiven his sins and attributed righteousness as this was Christ’s gift to man – dying for our sins. He thus sheds his sin, which is clearly associated with the biblical notion of only existing and developing as a result of man being in the world, made of flesh and subject to the temptations of the devil.
Language and techniques
The opening line and metaphorical comparison between life and a play is important because it immediately connects us with the idea of judgement. A play is performed to an audience and therefore so is life – in the latter case the audience is rather more important and divine. The finality of death is thus compared to the audience’s reaction upon the completion of a play, whether they whoop and cheer or throw rotten veg.
Donne choses to use a number of additional metaphors to dramatically emphasise the finality of death and it being the end of a journey. The end of the journey is not seen as a random event, but is link to the concept of religiously controlled fate as the ‘heavens appoint [his] last mile’, suggesting a predetermination behind when our judgement will come. This fact links to Donne’s notions that our judgement can come at any stage and we should be ready for it.
Another notable thing to explore here is the description of his life as ‘my pilgrimage’. A pilgrimage is a religious journey where we devote time and efforts to faith. Thus he frames the whole of his life in these terms and therefore he is suggesting he has led his life in this way.
Moving onto the second quatrain, we have this monstrous vision of a personified death that is eagerly awaiting our deaths. ‘Gluttonous death’ connects the demise of our flesh with one of the seven deadly sins, which are ravenously consumed.
However, Donne’a death ‘instantly unjoint[s]’ the flesh from the soul or spirit. While our flesh will ‘sleep a space’ or in other words remain forever more in one spot (our grave), the soul will go on.
Our souls are presented as ‘ever-waking part[s]’ implying that they have and will exist for all eternity. After the judgement from an immense – 9 parts glorious, 1 part intimidating – God leaves his soul ‘shak[ing its] every joint’, which highlights that even those living righteous lives (as Donne establishes he has through his pilgrimage stick) need to worry about divine judgement and perhaps serves as a severe warning for the less than morally squeaky clean.
After getting the nod from the big cheese, the soul ascends to heaven. This is presented as returning to its ‘first seat’ suggesting that our souls originate from heaven and from God.
In contrast Donne’s flesh is presented as an ‘earth-born body’ and therefore it will remain there forever. Along with it, ‘So falls my sins’ who return to where ‘they’are bred’, namely earth again. This connects with the concept of all sin being sins of the flesh, created by the temptations available for mankind on the world, after their fall from the divine safety of the Garden of Eden, and as a result of the meddling of the devil.
In the final line this is made clear. The soul is freed from the triple threat sin creators ‘the world, the flesh, the devil’ and returns to the purity of its divine roots.
You should also deal with the second to last line as it is intriguingly poised. ‘Impute’ normally means to give negative attributions to something, but here we are imputing him ‘righteous’, which doesn’t seem like a terribly bad thing. Indeed it isn’t; this line is referring the sacrifice of Christ, who supposedly died for all human sin and thus through his sacrifice enabled us to be forgiven our earthly sins when it comes to our judgement day. His sacrifice thus enabled Donne (in his meditation) to be ‘purg’d of evil’.
For more good stuff, check out the excellent Cross-Ref analysis.
This sonnet follows a Petrarchan structure with an double ABBA rhyme scheme and two quatrains being followed by a sestet.
The sestet is used to demonstrate the divinity of our souls and the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in helping us get a ticket back to our heavenly origins.
You could comment on the use of enjambment in the opening quatrain, which slows the poem down to a contemplative state that reflects the fact that the end of our lives/a play becomes the time for final judgement and review of its worth.
There is a confidence in this poem that can only be expressed as immovable faith in the writer’s own morality and the certainty of his ascension. However, this confidence also has a sharper edge of judgement with some implied criticism of earthly society and warning for those who are maybe not quite so focused on leading their own lives as pilgrimages.