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Living on the Dash

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Living on the Dash
Will the life you’ve lived on your short “-“(dash) speak for itself when the sun sets? In John Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness, the poet speaks to both the Lord and the reader as he lies on his death bed. Donne has been fine tuning himself for the triumph in Heaven. He admits that he has had both good and bad in his life, but asks the Lord to seek the good in him and embrace his soul. There is a direct correlation with the life you live here on Earth and with the next (afterlife). Donne is both the narrator and the character of this poem. He speaks of his experiences as he nears death. He realizes death is eminent, and he will soon rejoice with the “choirs of saints” (Donne line 2) in Heaven, but wonders what would he do when he reaches Heaven. Donne’s writing style of metaphysics is used in this poem and in several others. The narrator has an extensive interest in religion, cartography and geography. It is no wonder he shows interest in these areas as it was during this time in European civilization that they experienced the “New Age of Discovery”. There were explorations of new land; the replacing of the Ptolemaic model of an Earth-centered universe with Copernicus’s heliocentric (Sun-centered) model; the invention of Mariner’s compass; and various other developments and reformations. He writes,
“...Whilst my physicians by their love are grown/ Cosmographers and I their map” (7)
He equates his body to a map and his physicians to cosmographers. His physicians have studied the “map” and have pointed him in a south-westerly position. The Sun rising in the east denotes birth and resurrection, and death as the Sun’s setting in the west. His illness has positioned him in direction facing the sunset. Donne references a Latin phrase: “Per fretum febris” (10) which is defined as the straits of fever. He is suffering from fever and he sees as his cause of death and his passage to the Lord. “Christians need no physical map, as they will not chart the journey; Christ has done that for them through his self-sacrifice.” (Brackett) As unwelcoming as it may be for many, we all would are going to find ourselves meeting death face-to-face. Questions of when, where, and how often run through our minds. The present physical state of a living being has much influence on the supposed answer. Not only is the person faced with a physical strain of the body, there also is a mental strain as one seeks to become closer or maybe even began to establish a relationship with the Lord. However, this doesn’t so much seem to be an issue for Donne. Donne is not afraid of approaching death and takes joy in his passage along the way. He believes that the Lord will welcome him as he has led a life of service.
The Renaissance was a period of rebirth and reformation. Humanism was also at the forefront. This was a movement that took a different approach to learning. It allowed people to sort out for themselves the truth from the falsehoods. (Goodling) This eventually led to the reformation of the Catholic Church as people began to question the Church’s rituals. The Catholic Church would soon be replaced by the Anglican Church in Elizabethan England.
At an early age, Donne learned about the Catholic faith, but quickly realized the adversities of being Catholic in an Anglican Elizabethan England. He attended several universities but could not earn a degree because he was a practicing Catholic. In 1590, Donne converted to Anglicanism in hopes of attaining a political position. He also started writing poetry that same year after having ventured in other areas. In his poetry, he writes about his dissatisfaction with the Elizabethan literary tradition, religious authority, and the ideas of the Golden Age. Donne began to explore his personal and spiritual being. Upon arriving to his spiritual beliefs, he became a rector and later, a preacher in the Anglican Church. In fact, he became known to be the most influential preacher of his time. He credited his ministry as "contributing something to the sustentation of the whole" which to him was a necessity of life.” (Roberts) In Donne’s third stanza, he sees and takes joy in his westward direction. He eagerly approaches the west as he feels it is better than his current position. Also, he relates his life to the relation of east and west. “In all flat maps---and I am one---are one” (14). Just as a map’s east and west will eventually connect, there is a connection with “death and the rising from the dead to embrace everlasting spiritual life”. (Brackett) Donne poses to the reader a question that has passed through the minds of many. Where exactly is Heaven located? Is in located in the Pacific, the eastern riches, Jerusalem, Anyan, Magellan, or Gibraltar? What about the locations where Noah’s sons settled after the great flood: Europe, Africa, or Asia? He acknowledges that his home has no Earthly location, and that these places are merely the passages that will lead him to Heaven. Perhaps Paradise or Calvary? “Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;” (22) The Garden of Eden (Paradise) is where Adam and Eve were expelled after eating from the forbidden tree. This signifies the fall of man. Where Christ’s cross stood is where he died on Calvary. Donne asks the Lord to “look and find both Adams” (23) -- “man and Christ” in him. As the first Adam (a man) he had to sweat to find his own way. As the Second Adam (Christ) he was the Lord’s servant who embarked on a savior-like journey of spreading the word and bringing comfortable to the people that he touched. Ultimately, his rendering gave him inner peace looking forward to deliverance. “The extraordinary pulpit oratory of Donne owes much to lives that at times meshed, at times ground the gears of health with the sick, the aesthetic with the practical, the contemplative with the active, the Scholastic with the New Scientific, the sacred with the profane, the free with the enslaved, the Church with the State.” (Dean) The last stanza of “Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness” Donne confirms his service here on Earth and asks the Lord to allow it to speak for itself as he enters the kingdom Heaven. He states:
So, in His purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
By these His thorns, give me His other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.” From the onset of Donne’s spiritual faith until his passing, he led a virtuous life coupled with divine service. Despite his early challenges with the Church, his career, and secretive marriage, he was able to elevate himself to an extraordinary state. It appears that Donne was assured he would enter the kingdom of Heaven.

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