Death as friend or foe

John Donne:

George Herbert:

Henry King:

Henry Vaughan:

Andrew Marvell:

This theme can be studied in conjunction with that of separation and absence, since one of the causes of absence and separation is death (as in Donne's Nocturnall upon St. Lucies Day or King's The Exequy). However, the theme is wider than that, in that death exists as a force beyond personal loss.

The drama of death

Headstone by Trish Steel available through Creative CommonsDonne is the great seventeenth century poet of death. This is partly due to his method of Ignatian meditation, which focussed on the death of Christ; partly because of the death of his wife, and his own near death due to serious illness. Temperamentally, he was drawn into the drama of death, which sees it as part of some cosmic struggle being played out daily in the soul of human beings. Indeed, he uses the image of a play in This is my playes last scene.

Death the gateway to heaven

It must be said, too, that seventeenth century Christianity tended to emphasise death much more than happens to-day. This went hand in hand with preaching on human sin, God's mercy and the prospect of judgement. In reaction to this, there are poets such as Vaughan who welcome death as a friend. Death is the entry back into heaven, from which our souls have come in the first place, as in Ascension -Hymn. Herbert stands at a mid-point: Death has been an enemy but now Christ's death for humankind has changed the whole theological scenario. Death has lost its force. See Death and resurrection.

Death the end of vitality

However, thinking about death does not have to be in religious terms. Marvell's To his Coy Mistress shows us a secular version: death as the enemy of love and passion. Here, it is death and time that emphasise the shortness of love and the opportunities to love. We have to seize by force each moment. Marvell's urgency sounds like Donne's, though it does not feel the same, since Donne can see moments of victory through the threat, whilst Marvell cannot.

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