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Donne’s extravagant grace of a feast-fast

by
24 March 2016

Mary Ann Lund traces John Donne’s intermingling of the Annunciation and the Passion

NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

Ordained: John Donne (1572-1631), after a painting by Isaac Oliver, 1616

Ordained: John Donne (1572-1631), after a painting by Isaac Oliver, 1616

IT HAPPENS only a few times every century that Good Friday falls on the same day as the Annunciation, 25 March. This is one of those years. If, as the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests, all Churches agree to fix the date of Easter within the next ten years, it will never happen again.

It might seem unlikely that an oddity in the church calendar should prompt a poem, but, just over four centuries ago, on 25 March 1608, it did exactly that. For John Donne, the coincidence of the two holy days provided a fertile opportunity for literary reflection.

Whereas we might think about the liturgical practicalities of transferring the Principal Feast away from Good Friday, Donne’s “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon one Day” asks us to pause, and to see what happens when we keep the two days together in our minds.

Donne had been born and brought up a Roman Catholic, and perhaps that inheritance attuned him to Mary’s perspective. He pictures her vividly, alone at home, receiving the Angel Gabriel’s greeting, “Ave”, and in the crowd at Golgotha, where she hears her son’s final words from the cross, “Consummatum est.

The Church of England that he entered as a young man — and in which he would later be ordained (Feature, 9 January 2015) — gave him another important prompt. The Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the Annunciation asks God to “pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection.”

 

DONNE begins his poem tenderly, telling his own “frail body” to fast because his soul has a double feast today, celebrating Christ both here and gone again (“hither and away”). It is a running theme, that God is always slipping out of the poet’s reach. Christ is not yet born in the flesh, yet he is already dead on the cross.

A symbolic circle represents the multiple images of Christ. As fully God, he is eternal, just as in a circle the “first and last concur”, or meet; and, as fully human, his physical presence mirrors that shape, because the extremities of the human body — head, outstretched arms, feet — touch a circle’s circumference (as the Vitruvian Man figure drawn by Leonardo da Vinci so memorably shows).

And there is a third emblematic circle that hovers behind these two: the communion wafer. Donne was aware of the centuries-old debate over whether it was right to celebrate the eucharistic feast on Good Friday, the most solemn of fasts; so the eucharist is elusive in this poem.

The poet’s soul “eats twice” by meditating on the Annunciation and Passion, but does he also take the bread and wine of the communion table? Perhaps the poem itself provides the eucharistic moment, intensely concentrating the whole gospel story, and sharing it.

 

DONNE presents us with a dizzying succession of images and ideas — sometimes even verging on the absurd. Christ, the bridegroom of the Song of Songs (5.15), who is “excellent as the cedars”, becomes a tree that grows itself, then falls, in a kind of surreal time-lapse photography. The creator becomes the subject of his own creating (“put to making”).

Mary ages rapidly within a single moment. Like the other “she” in the poem — the poet’s soul — the virgin mother carries her own contradictions. Christ is just beyond her grasp: “promised her, and gone”. Simultaneously expectant and bereaved of her child (the meaning of being “in orbity”), a sword has pierced her soul, even as she conceives.

“All this and all between this day has shown”: it is not just those two moments that the day marks. What seems like a linear story from birth to death becomes twisted round itself through the mysterious workings of the incarnation and atonement. In his sermons and poems, Donne loved the mental contortions of seeing a flat (“plain”) map of the world, and imagining that the furthest right side of the sheet joined up with the left, as it does on the globe.

Here, the map symbolises the way devotion works as “the abridgement of Christ’s story”. Reading the Bible, public worship during the cycle of the church year, and private moments of reflection: all these bring the events of the gospel into a single place and time.

 

IN THE second half of the poem, Donne widens his gaze to the place of the Church. Unable to resist reminding us that he had a good legal education, he treats the Church as “God’s Court of Faculties” (the ecclesiastical court responsible for legal dispensations such as special marriage licences). So he praises it for “joining these” two days in a less-than-typical union.

There was an ancient church tradition that the annunciation and crucifixion happened on the same day of the year, but Donne prefers the idea that the Church deliberately wedded the days to give them a new sacred dimension.

The Church is a guide — but not a perfect one, Donne hints. Shakespeare, his contemporary, had described love as “an ever-fixed mark” and a “star to every wandering bark”. But Donne had been to sea, and knew that the Pole Star was not fixed at all, but shifted its position ever so little in the night sky.

So he leaves open an acknowledgement that the Church may stray, too, even while he suggests that, like the Pole Star, it is still the most dependable way of navigating. As it steers, so it illuminates.

Donne’s powerful conclusion is that the Church offers this cosmic coincidence of days to imitate a God who stands outside time, who sees all the world’s history — from the creation to the Last Judgement — at once. This double feast-fast is the Church’s reflection of extravagant grace.

But is it for one day only? The poet insists that it is not. The treasure that he gathers wholesale (“in gross”) on 25 March can be spent over the course of his life. And it becomes a treasure to be distributed, too. The first half of the poem is between the poet, his “frail body”, and his soul; but, in the second half, he starts speaking about “us”.

What the poem invites us to do is to participate in this rare, ancient conjunction of days, where the Church “join[s] in one Manhood’s extremes”.

 

Dr Mary Ann Lund is Lecturer in Renaissance English Literature at the University of Leicester, and is editor of Volumes 12 and 13 of The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

 

 

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon one Day

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today

My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.

She sees him man, so like God made in this,

That of them both a circle emblem is,

Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day

Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.

She sees him nothing, twice at once, who is all;

She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall,

Her Maker put to making, and the head

Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead.

She sees at once the virgin mother stay

Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;

Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen

At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen.

At once a son is promised her, and gone;

Gabriel gives Christ to her, he her to John;

Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,

At once receiver and the legacy.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,

The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one

(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)

Of the angels’ Ave, and Consummatum est.

How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,

Deals, in some times, and seldom joining these!

As by the self-fixed Pole we never do

Direct our course, but the next star thereto,

Which shows where the other is, and which we say

(Because it strays not far) doth never stray;

So God by his Church, nearest to him, we know,

And stand firm, if we by her motion go;

His Spirit, as his fiery pillar, doth

Lead, and his Church, as cloud; to one end both.

This Church, by letting those days join, hath shown

Death and conception in mankind is one;

Or ’twas in him the same humility,

That he would be a man, and leave to be;

Or as creation he hath made, as God,

With the last judgement, but one period,

His imitating spouse would join in one

Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, he is gone:

Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,

Accepted, would have served, he yet shed all;

So, though the least of his pains, deeds, or words,

Would busy a life, she all this day affords;

This treasure then, in gross, my Soul, uplay,

And in my life retail it every day.

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