On first reading, John Donne poems often seem to be intellectual exercises, intricately crafted but yielding little emotion. It is only when we examine the imagery closely that we realise that behind the confident doctrine lies a soul that feels fear and doubt intensely, using the subtleties of his extended conceits to delineate his inner struggles. Such is the case in this poem, where an overt resolute confrontation with death masks a desperate fear and self-doubt. Donne grapples with his image of heaven, and questions implicitly his fate in the afterlife. The end of the poem offers the tone of resolution but gives us to believe that this inner struggle will continue.
The poem opens with an understanding of life and poetry as a rehearsal for the worship of God in heaven, but by the end of the poem we wonder how attractive Donne finds his own vision of the afterlife. He sees himself being God’s ‘Musique’, suggesting the immaterial nature of the soul after death, transformed into pure aural ecstasy with perhaps an implicit assertion of the divine inspiration behind his poetry. In the ‘febris’, ‘sweat’ and ”blood’ of his illness, we can well understand this plea for immateriality. But at line three the heavenly poet has become matter one again, an ‘instrument’ tuning up at the door of the concert hall, ready for its great performance before the King. Whether or not we feel that to be the ‘instrument’ is a climb-down from being the ‘Musique’ itself, we can certainly sense this questioning of the nature of eternal worship in the phrase ‘holy room’. An illuminating characterization of heaven, suggesting the court of a monarch in which the heavenly poet is entertainer. One needn’t agree with me that Donne feels some kind of apprehension about living the life of an eternal courtier to see that there is a striking and unfavourable contrast between this ‘room’ and the vast ‘map‘ if the following stanzas. The ‘map’ is Donne’s own body, ‘Flat on this bed‘, and while it acts symbolically on a number of levels it remains an image of Donne’s great attachment to and fear of leaving life and the world.
The ‘body as a map’ conceit, expanded through the middle of the poem, is set to work in a vast number of ways. As I have described, it suggests, with its eternity between East and West and its distant and exotic ‘Anyan, Magellan and Gibraltere’, a vastness and excitement that makes eternity spent in a ‘room’ feel suffocating. At the same time the body is desperately sick, crisscrossed with ‘straights’ where Donne puns on straits as painful situations and straits as great sea channels. ‘All are straits, and none but straits, are ways to them’ suggests a grim vision of the life Donne is leaving behind, where pain leads only to more pain. Mingled in with this doubt are moments of hope, the reflection that @West and East.. are one’ implies a circularity that returns at the end of the poem, the way that death is really a return to where we’ve come from rather than an ‘undiscovered country’. This precipitates a series of allusions to the debate about the location of Eden, a controversy that can be seen as an emblem for the whole poem’s struggle: where is our true home? The fact that the only answer we get is framed with ‘We think’ suggests a deep ambivalence about abandoning the living world despite all its pains.
Perhaps some of the anxiety about the afterlife has its root in the poet’s own self-doubt about the security of his redemption. The painfully moving likening of the sufferer to both Adam, who suffered for his sin, and Christ, who suffered guiltlessly, perfectly encapsulates this fear. The request ‘Look Lord’ can be read as a cry for mercy or as a curiously detached fascination with his own suffering body, as if it were the body of Christ on the cross. Cries for mercy return in ‘receive me’, ‘give me his other crown’, their insistence implies a lack of security with the state of his salvation. The reason for this doubt might lie in the final lines, ‘to other souls I preach’d thy word’ reminds us not only that Donne was a clergyman, but that this entailed a direct responsibility for the salvation of the ‘souls’ of others – an anxiety therefore that he preached the wrong thing. The poem is seen as ‘My sermon to mine own’, which reawakens the idea of the East and West meeting earlier in the poem with its symbolic circularity. In the idea of the sermon proceeding from and returning to Donne there is surely the possibility acknowledged of a self-deception on Donne’s part – where is God in this circular sermon? The final line offers a partial retraction of this statement of self-doubt – the self-sermonizing becomes a movingly intimate picture of the dying man repeating that final line to himself. The line itself retains the memory of this circular movement in its antithesis, which returns us to the unanswered question of whether heaven or earth is man’s true home.
This poem’s disparate collection of images all speak into the poet’s anxieties and hopes about the afterlife. They give a profound and moving voice to the soul that feels an incredible amount of pain in life and yet clings to it in the fear that the alternative isn’t the vast and homely earth. Donne draws on Christian doctrine to frame his fears but also affirm his faith in the justness of divine purpose.