Busy Dying

 He [who's] not busy being born is busy dying.
                    -- Bob Dylan

 “Death shall have its way,” John Donne solemnly intoned on his death bed.  The words, evidently well-rehearsed, were intended to be his last.  They were not, as it turns out, and therein lies a tale.  Donne, who was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, was reckoned something of an expert on weighty matters of life and death, especially the latter.  Certainly no mortal had prepared as assiduously for his own demise.  He had anticipated it for decades, even longed for it.  As a poet, he had penned some of the most memorable lines in the English language on the subject.  “Death be not proud” was his, as was “The bell tolls for thee” – the latter written as a meditation during an earlier period when he believed he was dying.  As the end neared this time, he prepared a will and wrote letters to friends.  He posed in a shroud for a life-sized image that would later serve as the model for a marble effigy that now stands in St. Paul’s.  On the first Friday in Lent in 1631, Donne mounted the pulpit to deliver a farewell sermon entitled “Death’s Duel.”  He preached as much to himself as to the congregation, which that day included King Charles I.  “We have a winding-sheet in our mother's womb which grows with us from our conception,” he told them, “and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”

Donne always viewed death more as a deliverance than a curse.  But then death didn’t deliver, at least not yet.  Having made his elaborate preparations, he lay down on a stone slab, uttered his final lines and awaited the end.  And waited, and waited some more.  At long last a servant came in and asked, “My lord, will you be taking breakfast then?”  Days passed.  Donne eventually rose from his death bed and went for a long walk.  Having trumpeted his imminent demise all over London, he now avoided his friends.  Oh, the ignominy of outliving himself!  The end, when it finally came weeks later, was something of an anticlimax, proving that in death, as well as in life, timing is everything.

Donne’s death worked a bit of a reversal on Somerset Maugham’s story, “The Appointment in Samarra.”  In the story, a servant is threatened by a female Death figure in a Baghdad marketplace and flees to Samarra to avoid his fate.  The servant’s master later encounters Death in the marketplace and asks why she has threatened him.  Death protests that she has not threatened the servant; she has only reacted in surprise at seeing him in Baghdad, since she has an appointment with him that night in Samarra.  The servant in the Maugham story was right about the time of his death but not about the place.  On a similar weighty matter of life and death, Donne was right about the where but not the when.  Which just goes show, whether you flee death or rush to embrace it, death always arrives in its own good time.    

Gary Lehmann, "'Death's Duel' John Donne Meets His Match"

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