“Death and love are real. That’s all I know on earth, and I need to know.” – from So Shelly
In English Literature this week, I reminded my students of my longstanding belief that there are really only two themes worth writing about: Love and Death. For my money, the best works of literature are those that intertwine these two themes. This assertion was reinforced as we examined the poetry of John Donne, the 17th century poet-turned-preacher. As a young man of the late Renaissance, Donne’s poetry focuses primarily on love: falling in love, being in love, and nurturing love. He professes that for love to last and to be of any real value, it must quickly move beyond mere physical attraction; otherwise, as one’s lover’s youthful beauty diminishes, so must one’s love. In other words, infatuated love must undergo a sort of death itself that brings forth a new and better love. The secret to maintaining a successful love relationship is to take it to a metaphysical level, a transcendent reality not physical but spiritual and even intellectual. Should you doubt Donne’s qualifications for making such an assertion, know that he took a great risk by eloping with Anne More, a woman high above his station. Her father had Donne temporarily imprisoned for his audacious stealing of his daughter’s hand. He and Anne, cut off from her father’s beneficence, lived in poverty for much of their lives while having twelve children together and remaining married and in love until Death did them part.
After Anne’s death, older and often in ill-health himself, Donne shifted his thematic focus to Death, which we are all wont to do as we draw ever closer to our biblically-promised three score and ten years. In “Holy Sonnet 10″, Donne boldly challenges Death’s claim to mastery over us mortals by suggesting that Death is merely a liberator of the soul not the destroyer of life; therefore, Death should be welcomed not feared. Donne’s tough talk, however, is undermined by his tone that suggests that he is less sure of a heavenly reward than one would think an ordained minister would be. Like most, he hopes and he has a measure of faith in a life after death, but he also has fears and doubts.
What’s all this worth? Not much, but in conclusion, I’ll refer to So Shelly once more:”Unless you learn to wrap your brain around the fact that you are eventually going to die, you’ll never wrap your arms around the less certain fact that you are already living.”