Death Be Not Proud: The art of holy attention
University of Chicago £28
Church Times Bookshop £25.20
MOST of us are all too familiar with the problem of distraction, especially in prayer. We no sooner try to attend to what we are doing than the mind wanders off from one thing to another. We try again, and the same thing happens.
David Marno, an assistant professor of English at the University of Berkeley, California, reveals how this was an issue for Christian thinkers from the time of St Augustine onwards, and uses this tradition, especially as it was understood in the Renaissance, to illuminate the holy sonnet of Donne which begins “Death be not proud” and ends:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
The whole book hovers round and illuminates this one poem.
This is an incredibly learned, subtle, and sophisticated book, whose main readership will be scholars versed in the writers of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Peter McCulloch, a distinguished scholar of that period writes, it “is a major landmark in Donne studies”, which offers “startlingly fresh readings”.
It is not, therefore, an easy book, and it contains nearly 100 pages of footnotes. In two short sentences alone, I found four words whose meanings I did not know. But I did not get the impression that Marno was showing off — just that he is indeed subtle and learned, using writers from Aristotle to Petrach and Descartes, and especially those who wrote devotional literature at the time.
Marno’s starting-point is the contrast between thinking and thought. Thinking involves an act of attention: it is something we do. But thoughts come unbidden. He then considers the distinction made in the Renaissance between poetry, which is a human construction, and facts; and poses the question how it is possible to write religious poetry; for religion deals with what it claims to be given truths, and poetry is an artifice.
This leads us into his consideration of the poem itself and the discussion of distractions and holy attention. The poem has a given in it, namely what St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 about death. The poem itself, however, is a human construct, and one that takes us on a series of distractions on the theme of death.
Marno’s thesis, in so far as I have grasped it correctly, is that, by attending to these distracting descriptions of death, Donne comes in the last line face to face with death itself. There, he receives Paul’s line not as a quotation, but as a moment, a gift, in which his own belief is proclaimed: “death thou shalt die”. Through the attentiveness of the poem, in and through all its distractions, what is a given in Paul becomes, through grace, Donne’s own faith.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).