Theresa M. DiPasquale – Ways of Reading Donne’s St. Paul’s Epitaph: Close, Comparative, Contextu[r]al, Concrete


Ways of Reading Donne’s St. Paul’s Epitaph: Close, Comparative, Contextu[r]al, Concrete

Theresa M. DiPasquale

Published in Connotations Vol. 27 (2018)

Abstract

How does close reading work within particular spaces and places? How does one carry out a close reading within particular historical, economic, and textual circumstances? John Donne’s Latin epitaph, engraved on a plaque above his effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, poses particularly complex challenges. According to a landmark 2001 John Donne Journal article by Richard S. Peterson, the text inscribed on the current plaque—installed in the nineteenth-century—is an inaccurate facsimile of the original plaque installed in late 1632 or early 1633 and destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Taking into account the epitaph as it appears in the twenty-first-century cathedral and as it appears in seventeenth-century illustrations of the original plaque, this essay explicates both texts in some detail while also confronting issues of material culture raised in the work of Walter Benjamin and borne out in the author’s experience of St. Paul’s. The essay concludes with a blend of close-reading and affective response to the epitaph, to the famous marble statue that stands beneath it, and to Donne’s monument as a whole within its current architectural context.


The close reading practices of the New Criticism helped to secure Donne’s place in the canon of English poetry; but a range of other theoretical frames and methodologies, along with the labors of the Donne Variorum and Oxford Sermons editors, have strongly influenced applications of practical criticism in contemporary Donne studies.1) Most Donne scholars continue to close read, though we do so with heightened awareness of how both we and the poems are—as Judith Anderson puts it—“situated.” We keep in mind that the texts are products of a manuscript culture, that Donne’s writings are embedded in vast intertextual networks, and that every reader (or auditor) reads (or listens) at a particular time and in a particular place. A scholar intent upon acknowledging such issues of textual provenance and reception can, in the case of Donne’s poetry, usually begin the work of interpretation by focusing on the Variorum text. When that is not yet available, one can work with the text and textual apparatus supplied in editions of Donne’s poetry by Shawcross, Dickson, or Robbins. Or one may study a digital facsimile of a seventeenth-century print edition (now readily available via Early English Books Online) and seek what Neil Fraistat calls “contexure”: the “texture of resonance and meanings” generated by the “qualities of the poetic collection as an organized book: the contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, [and] the intertextuality among poems so placed” (3).

But in approaching Donne’s St. Paul’s epitaph, one finds oneself between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the nineteenth-century marble slab that one sees above Donne’s seventeenth-century statue when one visits the south quire aisle of Saint Paul’s Cathedral; Volume 8 of the Variorum, published in 1995, takes as its copy-text the inscription upon this slab. The hard place is a landmark 2001 John Donne Journal article by Richard S. Peterson, which argues that the text inscribed on the nineteenth-century plaque inaccurately reproduces that of the original seventeenth-century plaque. The Variorum’s schema of textual relationships (8: 198) conjectures that the current plaque’s inscription derives from a lost holograph manuscript; this conjecture is plausible, for the wording of the current plaque does match exactly that of the text as it appears in the earliest print transcription of the original plaque (Holland [E2v-E3]). Peterson, however, presents compelling evidence that Donne’s epitaph is most accurately represented in a 1641 drawing by William Sedgewick and a 1658 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar. If Peterson is correct, the wording and layout shown in these illustrations represent the original plaque and the lost holograph more accurately than do either the nineteenth-century plaque currently positioned above Donne’s statue or the various seventeenth-century print transcriptions cited by the Variorum editors, any of which could have served as the Victorian engravers’ copy-text.2)

My essay arises from the tight spot between the Variorum’s rock and Peterson’s hard place.3) I carry out a situated close reading of the plaque as it appears in the twenty-first-century Saint Paul’s while acknowledging that—if Peterson is right, as I believe that he is—today’s plaque is an inaccurate facsimile of the one installed in late 1632 or early 1633 and destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. My double-framed response to the epitaph as it appears in St. Paul’s today and as it appears in Hollar’s engraving and Sedgwick’s drawing remains based in the practice of close reading but not limited to it. I explicate portions of the epitaph’s text(s) in some detail, building upon earlier commentary. But I also take into account the poetics of affect addressed by Matthew Zarnowiecki, recounting my own response to the epitaph as defined in part by its location in a particular architectural space, and not shying away from concerns about whether and how readers may be restricted from access to that space.

My first and only visit to Donne’s monument took place in July 2017. I had been to St. Paul’s before and had seen the fine bust of Donne by contemporary sculptor Nigel Boonham in the south churchyard. But I had never been to the south quire aisle inside the Cathedral to view the seventeenth-century effigy. Why? Because it costs £18 to get into that part of the cathedral, and I am notoriously parsimonious. The Cathedral has good reason to charge; if one visits the sightseeing page of the St. Paul’s website and clicks on “Why do I have to pay to enter St. Paul’s?” one receives a reasonable answer having to do with the expense of maintaining a popular tourist destination and explaining that there is no charge to attend religious services. It is an excellent rationale. Still, when I visited London in 2014, I told myself that I wanted to see the monument, not as a tourist or “sightseer,” but as a Christian and a Donne devotee. I thought that a visit to the monument ought to be a pilgrimage both religious and literary. I thus decided that I would attend Evening Prayer—a service that would not highlight the divide that prevents the intercommunion of Roman Catholics such as I and members of the Anglican Church. I would worship in a context made richer by the history of Donne’s ministry as Dean; then, before leaving the building, I would go to the south quire aisle to see the monument. My scholarly and liturgical experiences would overlap, and both would thus be all the more meaningful. So I told myself. But I was spared the rationalization; for as soon as the service was over, everyone was hustled out with an efficiency rarely seen in ecclesiastical settings. When I asked if I might please linger, I was told to return the next day and buy a ticket.

I did not. Instead, I brooded on the experience and read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” Benjamin says, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (220). How far was I, then, from experiencing Donne’s epitaph, when all I had to go on were photographs of the current monument and Peterson’s images of the seventeenth-century drawings and engravings, all of them grainy-looking in print reproduction. In online digital photographs, I found better resolution and color, especially in images with copyright watermarks. But the distance between these images and the thing itself remained insurmountable. I wanted what Benjamin calls “the aura of the work of art” (221), and I saw how right he was to say that “reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye” (223). At the same time, I began to realize, with a sinking heart, that paying for a ticket would not give me access to the “aura” of the monument as it was experienced by those who viewed it in 1633; not only would I be viewing a nineteenth-century facsimile of the inscription, but I would be encountering both the inscription and the statue in a space long since transformed by fire, by the mind of Christopher Wren, by later architects and artists, and by the economics of late capitalism. Even the position of the statue has changed: while it was located along the north side of the south choir aisle in “Old St. Paul’s,” it is to be found on the south wall of that aisle in Wren’s structure.4)

Figure 1. Location of Donne’s monument in Old St. Paul’s; location in to-day’s Cathedral.5)

Was there something to be gained in the loss of the previously-existing text and context? One might, I thought, discover something important by viewing the work as it now exists rather than as it did in mid-seventeenth-century England, when Donne’s statue and epitaph—like “the earliest art works” as Benjamin describes them—“originated in the service of a ritual” (223). In 1633, the monument spoke to visitors with the spiritual authority and religious gravitas of the building’s recently deceased Dean. But to whom, and with what kind of authority, does it speak now? Benjamin says: “Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work” (224). The monument is now very much an exhibit, part of what tourists pay to see.

Approaching Donne’s monument via the St. Paul’s website underscores its exhibition value. The site takes advantage of digital technology to move beyond what Benjamin knew as mechanical reproduction, inviting virtual “visitors” to “Walk the Cathedral Floor” via an interactive map of its floor plan. If one clicks on the green ⊕ marking “The South Quire Aisle,” up pops a photo of the Donne statue’s head and upper torso. The accompanying text attempts to serve multiple audiences, touching with awkward poignancy upon church history, art history, literary history, and liturgical function: “The south quire aisle,” one learns, houses “effigies of two Bishops of London” and “a marble effigy of John Donne [...] a Dean of the Cathedral and one of Britain’s finest poets, who died in 1631. It is one of the few monuments to have survived the Great Fire of London—scorch marks can be seen on its base.” Then, almost as an afterthought: “This aisle is where the clergy and choir gather before services.” But the text worked on me—in the wake of my failed attempt to see the monument within a liturgical context—as it was no doubt intended to work. It reinforced my sense that I needed to view the monument in person. In particular, it made me long to see those scorch marks, those residues of the occasion when some of the metaphors inscribed upon the seventeenth-century plaque above Donne’s statue were suddenly literalized: “HIC IACET IN OCCIDVO CINERE / ASPICIT EVM / CVIVS NOMEN EST ORIENS.”

With some license, and in light of earlier translations, I would translate these words (which appear in Hollar’s engraving and in Sedgwick’s drawing) so as to juxtapose the extinguished fire of Donne’s earthly life with his hope in the name of the risen Son of God: “He lies here, in fallen (or ‘western’) dust (or ‘ashes’); he looks toward Him whose Name is the East (or ‘the Rising’).” I am particularly indebted to Foxell’s rendering of “ASPICIT” as “looks towards,” though I find that he protests too much in objecting to Francis Wrangham’s translation (printed in Gosse 2: 282). Wrangham’s “beholdeth,” Foxell argues, implies “that the eyes of Donne’s as yet unrisen body can already see Christ.” But as Foxell himself goes on to concede, the object of the verb “ASPICIT”—“EVM CVIVS NOMEN EST ORIENS”—implies “‘he sees the light,’ hence, ‘he lives,’ thus emphasizing the antithesis of life and death: the essence of the sentence is ‘Though his body is dead, it is (in potentia) alive’” (7). Given Donne’s near obsession with bodily resurrection (which Foxell himself acknowledges [1], and which Ramie Targoff strongly underscores in her study of Donne), the ambiguity is almost certainly intentional. Even more to the point, however, is that the meaning of “ASPICIT”—and of the epitaph as a whole—is not perfectly fixed or determined. Indeed, as Helen J. Swift points out in exploring the “monumental writing” of medieval French epitaphs:

The epitaph is a site of tension between fixity and fluidity. On the one hand, it performs a memorialising function: representation of someone at the last, and intended to last; [...]. On the other, it is inherently open to interpretation and response by dint of its audience-oriented nature [...]. Its deictic markers become those of the individual positioned in front of it. (6-7)

No wonder that Donne was so drawn to epitaph; no wonder he wrote his wife’s, his own, and those of Elizabeth, Robert, and Anne Drury. No wonder that several of his epigrams are epitaphs or that he incorporated epitaph into a number of his secular lyrics and one of his verse epistles. It is the ideal genre to accommodate both his reader-oriented poetics and his proclivity to ambiguity.6)

The phrase “IN OCCIDVO CINERE” and the deictic marker “HIC” are at least as interesting as the verb “ASPICIT.” Donne’s remains were not literally “ashes” or “dust” when the statue was erected, as the dean had been buried, not cremated. Nor was his place of burial precisely “here” in the south quire aisle of St. Paul’s; his unmarked grave lay somewhere in the cathedral crypt.7) Yet the inscription seventeenth-century viewers saw when they went to see the newly-installed effigy encouraged them to imagine Donne’s remains “HIC”: the most immediate point of reference for that deixis being the urn that forms the base of the marble effigy.8) In the seventeenth-century illustrations discussed by Peterson, the layout of the text doubles down upon the claim implicit in the phrase “HIC IACET”; for as Peterson points out (21), the epitaph as it appears in Sedgewick’s 1641 drawing and Hollar’s 1658 engraving is centered, its lines of various lengths thus constituting a concrete poem, urn-like in shape.9)

 

IOHANNI DONNE.
SAC: THEOL: PROFESS:
POST  VARIA  STVDIA  QVIBVS
AB ANNIS TENERIBVS FIDELI=
TER, NEC INFŒLICITER INCVBVIT
INSTINCTV ET IMPVLSV SPIR: SCTI:
MONITV ET HORTATV REGIS IACOBI
ORDINES  SACROS  AMPLEXVS
ANNO SVI IESV 1614 ET SVAE ÆTAT. 42.
DECANATVS   HVIVS   ECCLES:  INDVTVS
27°   NOVEMB:      1621.
EXVTVS MORTE VLTIMO DIE
MARTII   A.   1631.
HIC  IACET  IN  OCCIDVO  CINERE
ASPICIT   EVM
CVIVS  NOMEN  EST  ORIENS.

As Heather Dubrow explains, deictics do not function in isolation; on the contrary, they are positioned within what she calls “deictic chains” (37) that consist of “a prolonged series of linguistic, cognitive, and possibly even physical events” (2) that work together. In the case of Donne’s epitaph, the visual impact of the layout is one link in the deictic chain that creates multiple implications for “HIC.” Within its urn-like context, the word elides the distinction between text itself and the urn that forms the base of the effigy, as well as the distinction between the monument and Donne’s actual gravesite.10) It also resonates with the rest of the epitaph to blend spatial and temporal deixis in ways that reflect Donne’s faith and that of the English Church as a whole.11) “HIC” as it functioned for a Christian reader standing before the inscription in Old St. Paul’s meant not only “here upon the grounds of this church” (“HVIVS ECCLES[IAE]”) with the deanship of which the deceased was invested on a particular day of a particular year). It also meant “here in England” (which is “IN OCCIDVO,” in the west, on the occidental fringe of the Old World); and, in its broadest spatial and temporal senses, it meant “here in the saeculum, in this mortal life and in the temporal realm where calendrical dates have meaning.” The epitaph’s “HIC,” its here, thus stands in implicit contrast with an understood ibi—a there located somewhere spatially to the east and temporally in the future—a timeless realm into which the late Dean will enter at the coming of the divine “ORIENS” he awaits.12)

Though the ibi of the life-to-come is not explicit in the epitaph, no Christian reader can fail to acknowledge it as implicit. As Swift notes, both historical epitaphs—those engraved upon tombs—and literary compositions in the epitaph genre prompt readers to appreciate “their active role in constructing an identity for the deceased” (3). Donne’s epitaph does just this, both providing the reader with biographical information about the late Dean’s life and career, and pointing to his status as a redeemed Christian: a man who, though he lies “here,” set like the sun into western dust, nevertheless looks forward to the reunion of his body and soul in the coming of the risen sun/Son whose name is “The East.” The phrase “CVIVS NOMEN EST ORIENS” is an allusion to the Vulgate’s rendering of Zechariah 6:12 (“Ecce vir, Oriens nomen ejus”; see Scodel 127n36; and Foxell 8). As such, it encourages the reader to recall that the deceased was not only a Christian who believed in the Resurrection of the Body, but also—conversion and English priesthood notwithstanding—the scion of a venerable Recusant family. For only the Vulgate and its Roman Catholic translation, the Douay Rheims Bible, translate the Hebrew צמח (ema) into the Latin “Oriens” and the English “Orient.” All early sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant translations render that word as “Branch” or “braunch.”13) Thus, the epitaph is—to quote Rachel Eisendrath’s excellent description of art in general—“sedimented with the conflicts that society repressed” (56). It declares Donne very much indebted to King James for his place here in this life and in the English Church as a priest of that communion, and for his body’s burial here within the Cathedral; but it makes clear that the deceased Dean of St. Paul’s entrusts to a greater King, whose name the Roman Catholic Church translates as “Oriens,” his hope in the dawning light of an Easter[n] realm that is, by definition, neither “HIC” nor “IN OCCIDVO.”14)

The “HIC” of Donne’s epitaph remains multivalent on the restored plaque, which was created and installed in late 1872 or early 1873 when Nicholas Stone’s effigy of Donne in his shroud was finally moved back into the south quire aisle after over two centuries of storage in the cathedral crypt (for the date, see Peterson 19). But the effect of the deixis is undercut somewhat because the text has been reformatted, the lines being justified into a rectangle rather than centered, and the urn shape thus lost.15)

                IOHANNES     DONNE.
            SAC   :   THEOL   :   PROFESS
POST      VARIA      STVDIA      QVIBVS    AB
ANNIS      TENERRIMIS      FIDELITER  NEC
INFELICITER        INCVBVIT       INSTINCTV
ET       IMPVLSV     SPIR:        SC̃TI        MONI-
-TV       ET        HORTATV       REGIS       IAC-
-OBI      ORDINES       SACROS       AMPLEX-
-VS      ANNO         SVI        IESV        1614
ET      SVÆ       ÆTAT      42      DECANATV
HVIVS         ECCLESÆ         INDVTVS        27°
NOVEMB   :     1621       EXVTVS       MORTE
VLTIMO     DIE         MARTII      A°    1631.
HIC     LICET     IN       OCCIDVO     CINERE
ASPICIT         EVM         CVIVS        NOMEN
EST    ORIENS

As this transcription shows, the text of the restored plaque is not only reformatted, but partially reworded; the most startling difference is that the concluding assertion reads not “HIC IACET,” “he lies here,” but “HIC LICET,” “here it is permitted.” In an effort to make sense of what would otherwise be a nonsensical construction, Nigel Foxell and others before him (see Variorum 8: 439, 443) translate the phrase, “here, though,” or “although here”; but as Peterson argues, the “concessive sense” of the verb “licet” meaning “although” is indicated only “when the subjunctive follows,” which “is not the case” in the epitaph (22n47). Given the consistent use of “IACET” in the seventeenth-century illustrations of the monument, it seems to me most likely that the epitaph in its original form—and Donne himself in the holograph that was its source—featured the standard epitaphic deixis “HIC IACET”: “here lies.” As Scott L. Newstok points out, this “locative declaration [...] entails the core statement of all epitaphs” (34), even those that do not explicitly employ the phrase.16) That said, the “HIC LICET” of the restored plaque creates an interesting effect; the Latin word “LICET” both looks and sounds more like the English word “LIES” than does the word “IACET.” It thus entails a kind of bilingual visual pun, implicitly Anglicizing a Latin epitaphic formula in a way that reflects Donne’s own self-translation from the Roman Ecclesia to the English Church.

Even when combined with “LICET,” however, the “HIC” implies that Donne’s remains are somewhere in close proximity to the text. And that implication is, as it turns out, even more misleading today than it was when “HIC” was inscribed upon the original plaque. An 1872 drawing by St. Paul’s surveyor Francis Cranmer Penrose shows the floor plan of the Wren cathedral superimposed upon that of the old building: the axis of Wren’s structure is skewed south vis-à-vis the axis of the previous structure in such a way that the current south quire aisle and all of the statuary along its south wall are located outside the space occupied by the building as it existed in 1633. The current monument is thus located not above the crypt of the old cathedral where Donne is buried, but above an area outside of the old cathedral’s walls.

Analyzing the language of Donne’s epitaph as I do above does not require setting foot in St. Paul’s. And close reading of this kind can be further enhanced by intertextual approaches such as those of Joshua Scodel and Anita Gilman Sherman. Both read the epitaph within the context of Donne’s other epitaphic works: the other Latin tomb inscriptions he composed, lyric poems such as “The Paradox” and “A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucie’s Day,” and a fascinating “Epitaph on Himself” that is appended to one of Donne’s verse epistles (“To the Countess of Bedford”: “That I might make your cabinet my tomb”) (see Scodel 113-29; Sherman 153-68). In addition, Scodel puts Donne’s epitaphic writing into conversation with Thomas Carew’s well-known elegy on Donne (129-39); and Sherman—who follows Peterson’s lead in taking the Hollar and Sedgwick illustrations as her sources for the text of the epigraph—compares and contrasts Donne’s and Shakespeare’s approaches to epitaph (168-89). Each of these approaches yields rich insights. But something is inevitably missing. Such readings do not grapple with how a reader’s response to the epitaph is shaped by her experience of being in St. Paul’s south quire aisle, nor can they account for the affective impact of the Nicholas Stone statue that stands in a niche beneath the epitaph. Whether one is attempting to reconstruct the effect that the epitaph would have had upon readers who encountered it within its original position in Old St. Paul’s or monitoring one’s own response to the restored epitaph, one must consider the statue’s un-reproducible Benjaminian “aura”—the impression made upon the viewer (and toucher) by that hauntingly material shrouded form and that coolly enduring grey-white marble, now partially ochre-colored after its passage through the Great Fire.17)

But reading with a feel for the poetics of place in turn leaves unresolved the conundrum posed by the textual variants in the restored plaque above Donne’s statue. If an epitaph is a concrete poem inseparable from its medium, then its words—graven in stone—ought to be read in person, without the mediating force of mechanical or digital reproduction. What is the good of analyzing a restoration containing dubious variants? One answer, I think, lies in Fraistat’s concept of “contexture”; the restored plaque is now the only concrete (as opposed to printed, drawn, or engraved) instantiation of the text that one can experience, and today’s cathedral is the contextural frame within which that experience takes place. Only within that frame can one be in the presence of the monument as one reads the epitaph.18) It was with this notion of place-based contexture in mind, then, that I decided—three years after my initial failure to view Donne’s memorial—to return to St. Paul’s and pay for entry to the areas not used for public worship.

I planned that, in viewing the plaque, I would construct what I thought of as an eclectic edition of the mind. I would collate in my head the text inscribed in the stone and the one I had read in Peterson’s article, and I would close read this collation. It seemed a reasonable plan. But I forgot it altogether as soon as I entered the south quire aisle and caught sight of Donne’s statue. Tears sprang into my eyes without warning; I felt them and noticed the blurring of my vision even before I was able to detect the heart-swell of which they were the outward sign. Aura, indeed. I lack the poetry to articulate what I felt. After musing for a time on the marble figure and gently touching the scorch marks I had so longed to see, I sat down on the wooden steps opposite the statue and sketched it.

Donne’s monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral, present day

Figure 2. Donne’s monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral, present day.19)

Instead of meditating on the Latin inscription above the statue (or collating it with the text of the Hollar engraving), I found myself watching tourists’ responses to the effigy; no one, it seemed, was looking at the plaque above the statue. The shrouded figure is, after all, the main attraction; it is the part of the monument that dates from the seventeenth century, and responding to it does not require a person to know Latin or to have studied a translation.

Many of the visitors were listening, as I also did before leaving the south quire aisle, to the audio commentary provided by the mobile multimedia guide issued along with our tickets. In the English recording, that commentary is made by the current Dean of the cathedral, the Very Reverend David Ison; and what he says resonates with my experience as a reluctant consumer of the Cathedral-as-Museum.20) Introducing the Donne monument, Ison explains that, in Donne’s time, the Cathedral was funded by the government; he also notes that Donne’s principal role as Dean was to preach, defending the English Church against the Roman Church. His own role, Ison says, is to manage the Cathedral as a business and to keep the toilets running. These remarks underscore the relevance of Benjamin’s remarks on exhibition value versus cult value. Ison assumed his post in 2012, following the October 2011 resignation of his predecessor, whose stern handling of Occupy London protesters provoked controversy (see “Dean”) and “New dean”). In the face of the Occupy Movement, it was no doubt impossible for either man to draw a clean line between the Cathedral as sacred space and the structure as art-space, between its religious function as a place of worship and its socio-economic significance as an iconic building under siege.

Not surprisingly, then, the current environment of Donne’s monument encourages the viewer not to attempt any such sharp distinctions. Particularly compelling is the relationship between Donne’s epitaph and a work of visual art that one encounters when one continues eastward past Donne’s statue. Mounted on the west-facing wall at the extreme east end of the south choir is the permanent video installation Martyrs by American artist Bill Viola.21) On the “Martyrs page of the website Bill Viola at St. Paul’s, scrolling down past the description of Viola’s work, one encounters a photograph by Peter Mallet that shows how Viola’s installation is positioned vis-à-vis Donne’s effigy. One can see the Donne statue, mounted on its urn, in the extreme foreground along the right edge of the photograph, providing part of the frame for the four plasma screens of Martyrs. The photograph brilliantly captures the way the Donne monument appears as one approaches the installation moving through the south quire aisle from west to east.

Figure 3. Position of Donne’s monument vis-à-vis Viola’s Martyrs

Viola’s video meditation, which the artist describes as a glimpse of martyrs’ inner lives, invites the Donnean viewer to discover new and spiritually challenging ways of understanding the language of Donne’s epitaph. First, one is reminded by the title of Viola’s piece that Donne was the author of Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and that his reflections on the sacrifices of martyrs demonstrate a range of emotions from survivor’s guilt to envy and from skepticism to reverence. In addition, Viola’s representation of martyrs buffeted by the four elements resonates deeply for a viewer familiar with Donne’s divine poems, which are replete with images of earth, air, fire, and water. Finally, reading the words “IN OCCIDVO CINERE” and “EVM / CVIVS NOMEN EST ORIENS” in juxtaposition with Viola’s images re-ignites the words’ elemental associations.

In the first image of Viola’s work, the earth22) that rises around the body of the human figure is as dry as ash; and though the actor was filmed under a cascade of falling dust, gradually crumpling over to be buried beneath the accumulated grains, the film runs this action in reverse, showing his gradual rise out of the dust. In the next panel, the winds pounding the roped body of the female air-martyr vividly illustrate “the inspiration and shocking impact of the Holy Spirit”—“INSTINCTV ET IMPVLSV SPIR: SCTI:”—to which Donne’s priestly vocation is attributed in the epitaph.

Even more relevant to Donne’s epitaph are Viola’s last two frames: one in which flames descend upon and eventually engulf a seated man and another in which a man is hanged head down, inundated by water, and then slowly pulled up and out of the frame. For a Donne scholar, these two sequences evoke Donne’s “litle World, made cunningly / Of Elements” (HSWorld 1-2; Variorum 7.1: 14) in which the soul is burnt by apocalyptic fire and the body drowned in baptismal waters. But the video images also challenge key words in Donne’s epitaph: in the third frame of Viola’s piece, a body that has been enveloped and purged by descending flames remains intact, not “IN OCCIDVO CINERE.” And in the fourth, the martyr’s rising motion is an “ORIENS” that does not distinguish neatly between dying and rising. At the beginning of this sequence, the man lies on the ground in a fetal position; he is slowly drawn upward by a rope tied to his feet, then washed over by a shimmering cascade of falling water. Next, as an unearthly white light illuminates each of the four figures from above and as the first three look upward toward it, the fourth—hanging head down—flexes the muscles of his chest and spreads his arms wide like St. Peter on an inverted crucifix. Finally, he ascends, pulled upward and out of the frame.

Together, the four videos, executed in a medium composed of light, using light symbolically, and positioned to the east of Donne’s monument, speak of the luminous hope inhering in the epitaph’s word “ORIENS.” Viola’s work thus re-defines the space in which Donne’s epitaph is housed and, with it, the experience of the reader who encounters Donne’s concrete poem within that space. The light it casts upon the epitaph fruitfully blurs such binaries as cult value and exhibition value, sacred and secular, original and facsimile, text and intertext, close reading and visceral response.

Whitman College,
Walla Walla, Washington



Works Cited

Anderson, Judith H. “Literature, Culture, and Other Redundancies.” Connotations 27 (2018): 155-66.

Bauer, Matthias and Angelika Zirker. “Sites of Death as Sites of Interaction in Donne and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare and Donne: Generic Hybrids and the Cultural Imaginary. Ed. Judith H. Anderson and Jennifer C. Vaught. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. 17-37.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn; ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Translation available online in a transcription by Andy Blunden, 1998. Proofed and corrected 2005. Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

Boonham, Nigel. “Memorial to John Donne.” Portrait Bust. St. Paul’s Churchyard, London. Bronze. 2012.

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