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Izaak Walton (1593–1683). The Lives of John Donne and George Herbert.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Paras. 100–143

The Life of Dr. Donne

Nor were these only found in his study, but all businesses that passed of any public consequence, either in this or any of our neighbour nations, he abbreviated either in Latin, or in the language of that nation, and kept them by him for useful memorials. So he did the copies of divers letters and cases of conscience that had concerned his friends, with his observations and solutions of them; and divers other businesses of importance, all particularly and methodically digested by himself.

He did prepare to leave the world before life left him, making his will when no faculty of his soul was damped or made defective by pain or sickness, or he surprised by a sudden apprehension of death: but it was made with mature deliberation, expressing himself an impartial father, by making his children’s portions equal; and a lover of his friends, whom he remembered with legacies fitly and discreetly chosen and bequeathed. I cannot forbear a nomination of some of them; for methinks they be persons that seem to challenge a recordation in this place; as namely, to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Grimes, he gave that striking clock, which he had long worn in his pocket; to his dear friend and executor, Dr. King,—late Bishop of Chichester—that model of gold of the Synod of Dort, with which the States presented him at his last being at the Hague; and the two pictures of Padre Paolo and Fulgentio, men of his acquaintance when he travelled Italy, and of great note in that nation for their remarkable learning.—To his ancient friend Dr. Brook,—that married him—Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, he gave the picture of the Blessed Virgin and Joseph.—To Dr. Winniff, who succeeded him in the Deanery, he gave a picture called the Skeleton.—To the succeeding Dean, who was not then known, he gave many necessaries of worth, and useful for his house; and also several pictures and ornaments for the chapel, with a desire that they might be registered, and remain as a legacy to his successors.—To the Earls of Dorset and Carlisle he gave several pictures; and so he did to many other friends; legacies, given rather to express his affection, than to make any addition to their estates: but unto the poor he was full of charity, and unto many others, who, by his constant and long-continued bounty, might entitle themselves to be his alms-people: for all these he made provision, and so largely, as, having then six children living, might to some appear more than proportionable to his estate. I forbear to mention any more, lest the reader may think I trespass upon his patience: but I will beg his favour, to present him with the beginning and end of his will.

“In the name of the blessed and glorious Trinity, Amen, I, John Donne, by the mercy of Christ Jesus, and by the calling of the Church of England, priest, being at this time in good health and perfect understanding,—praised be God therefore—do hereby make my last will and testament in manner and form following.

“First, I give my gracious God an entire sacrifice of body and soul, with my most humble thanks for that assurance which his blessed Spirit imprints in me now of the salvation of the one, and the resurrection of the other; and for that constant and cheerful resolution, which the same Spirit hath established in me, to live and die in the religion now professed in the Church of England. In expectation of that resurrection, I desire my body may be buried—in the most private manner that may be—in that place of St. Paul’s Church, London, that the now residentiaries have at my request designed for that purpose, etc.—And this my last will and testament, made in the fear of God,—whose mercy I humbly beg, and constantly rely upon in Jesus Christ—and in perfect love and charity with all the world—whose pardon I ask, from the lowest of my servants, to the highest of my superiors—written all with my own hand, and my name subscribed to every page, of which there are five in number.

“Sealed December 13, 1630.”

Nor was this blessed sacrifice of charity expressed only at his death, but in his life also, by a cheerful and frequent visitation of any friend whose mind was dejected, or his fortune necessitous; he was inquisitive after the wants of prisoners, and redeemed many from prison that lay for their fees or small debts: he was a continual giver to poor scholars, both of this and foreign nations. Besides what he gave with his own hand, he usually sent a servant, or a discreet and trusty friend, to distribute his charity to all the prisons in London, at all the festival times of the year, especially at the birth and resurrection of our Saviour. He gave an hundred pounds at one time to an old friend, whom he had known live plentifully, and by a too liberal heart and carelessness became decayed in his estate; and when the receiving of it was denied by the gentleman’s saying, “He wanted not;” for the reader may note, that as there be some spirits so generous as to labour to conceal and endure a sad poverty, rather than expose themselves to those blushes that attend the confession of it; so there be others, to whom nature and grace have afforded such sweet and compassionate souls, as to pity and prevent the distresses of mankind;—which I have mentioned because of Dr. Donne’s reply, whose answer was: “I know you want not what will sustain nature; for a little will do that; but my desire is, that you, who in the days of your plenty have cheered and raised the hearts of so many of your dejected friends, would now receive from me, and use it as a cordial for the cheering of your own:” and upon these terms it was received. He was an happy reconciler of many differences in the families of his friends and kindred,—which he never undertook faintly; for such undertakings have usually faint effects—and they had such a faith in his judgment and impartiality, that he never advised them to any thing in vain. He was, even to her death, a most dutiful son to his mother, careful to provide for her supportation, of which she had been destitute, but that God raised him up to prevent her necessities; who having sucked in the religion of the Roman Church with the mother’s milk, spent her estate in foreign countries, to enjoy a liberty in it, and died in his house but three months before him.

And to the end it may appear how just a steward he was of his lord and master’s revenue, I have thought fit to let the reader know, that after his entrance into his Deanery, as he numbered his years, he at the foot of a private account, to which God and his angels were only witnesses with him,—computed first his revenue, then what was given to the poor, and other piousnesses; and lastly, what rested for him and his; and having done that, he then blessed each year’s poor remainder with a thankful prayer; which, for that they discover a more than common devotion, the reader shall partake some of them in his own words:

  • So all is that remains this year—[1624–5].
  • Deo Opt. Max. benigno largitori, à me, et ab iis quibus hæc à me reservantur, Gloria et gratia in æternum. Amen.


  • To God all Good, all Great, the benevolent Bestower, by me and by them, for whom by me these sums are laid up, be glory and grace ascribed for ever. Amen.

    So that this year [1626] God hath blessed me and mine with:—

    Multiplicatæ sunt super nos misericordiæ tuæ, Domine.


  • Thy mercies, O Lord! are multiplied upon us.

    Da, Domine, ut quæ ex immensâ bonitate tuâ nobis elargiri dignatus sis, in quorumcunque manus devenerint, in tuam semper cedant gloriam. Amen.


  • Grant, O Lord! that what out of thine infinite bounty thou hast vouchsafed to lavish upon us, into whosoever hands it may devolve, may always be improved to thy glory. Amen.

    In fine horum sex annorum manet:—[1628–9].

    Quid habeo quod non accepi à Domino? Largitur etiam ut quæ largitus est sua iterum fiant, bono eorum usu; ut quemadmodum nec officiis hujus mundi, nec loci in quo me posuit dignitati, nec servis, nec egenis, in toto hujus anni curriculo mihi conscius sum me defuisse: ita et liberi, quibus quæ supersunt, supersunt, grato animo ea accipiant, et beneficum, authorem recognoscant. Amen.


  • At the end of these six years remains:—

    What have I, which I have not received from the Lord? He bestows, also, to the intent that what he hath bestowed may revert to him by the proper use of it: that, as I have not consciously been wanting to myself during the whole course of the past year, either in discharging my secular duties, in retaining the dignity of my station, or in my conduct towards my servants and the poor,—so my children for whom remains whatever is remaining, may receive it with gratitude, and acknowledge the beneficent Giver. Amen.

    But I return from my long digression.

    We left the author sick in Essex, where he was forced to spend much of that winter, by reason of his disability to remove from that place; and having never, for almost twenty years, omitted his personal attendance on his Majesty in that month, in which he was to attend and preach to him; nor having ever been left out of the roll and number of Lent preachers, and there being then—in January 1630—a report brought to London, or raised there, that Dr. Donne was dead; that report gave him occasion to write the following letter to a dear friend:

  • “Sir,—This advantage you and my other friends have by my frequent fevers, that I am so much the oftener at the gates of heaven; and this advantage by the solitude and close imprisonment that they reduce me to after, that I am so much the oftener at my prayers, in which I shall never leave out your happiness; and I doubt not, among his other blessings, God will add some one to you for my prayers. A man would almost be content to die,—if there were no other benefit in death,—to hear of so much sorrow, and so much good testimony from good men, as I—God be blessed for it—did upon the report of my death: yet I perceive it went not through all; for one writ to me, that some—and he said of my friends—conceived that I was not so ill as I pretended, but withdrew myself to live at ease, discharged of preaching. It is an unfriendly, and, God knows, an ill-grounded interpretation; for I have always been sorrier when I could not preach than any could be they could not hear me. It hath been my desire, and God may be pleased to grant it, that I might die in the pulpit; if not that, yet that I might take my death in the pulpit; that is, die the sooner by occasion of those labours. Sir, I hope to see you presently after Candlemas; about which time will fall my Lent sermon at court, except my Lord Chamberlain believe me to be dead, and so leave me out of the roll: but as long as I live, and am not speechless, I would not willingly decline that service. I have better leisure to write, than you to read; yet I would not willingly oppress you with too much letter. God so bless you and your son, as I wish to
  • Your poor friend and servant
  • in Christ Jesus,
  • J. DONNE.”
  • Before that month ended, he was appointed to preach upon his old constant day, the first Friday in Lent: he had notice of it, and had in his sickness so prepared for that employment, that as he had long thirsted for it, so he resolved his weakness should not hinder his journey; he came therefore to London some few days before his appointed day of preaching. At his coming thither, many of his friends—who with sorrow saw his sickness had left him but so much flesh as did only cover his bones—doubted his strength to perform that task, and did thereof persuade him from undertaking it, assuring him however, it was like to shorten his life: but he passionately denied their requests, saying “he would not doubt that that God, who in so many weaknesses had assisted him with an unexpected strength, would now withdraw it in his last employment; professing an holy ambition to perform that sacred work.” And when, to the amazement of some of the beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face. And doubtless many did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel,—“Do these bones live? or, can that soul organise that tongue, to speak so long time as the sand in that glass will move towards its centre, and measure out an hour of this dying man’s unspent life? Doubtless it cannot.” And yet, after some faint pauses in his zealous prayer, his strong desires enabled his weak body to discharge his memory of his preconceived meditations, which were of dying; the text being, “To God the Lord belong the issues from death.” Many that then saw his tears, and heard his faint and hollow voice, professing they thought the text prophetically chosen, and that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon.

    Being full of joy that God had enabled him to perform this desired duty, he hastened to his house; out of which he never moved, till, like St. Stephen, “he was carried by devout men to his grave.”

    The next day after his sermon, his strength being much wasted, and his spirits so spent as indisposed him to business or to talk, a friend that had often been a witness of his free and facetious discourse asked him, “Why are you sad?” To whom he replied, with a countenance so full of cheerful gravity, as gave testimony of an inward tranquillity of mind, and of a soul willing to take a farewell of this world; and said,—

    “I am not sad; but most of the night past I have entertained myself with many thoughts of several friends that have left me here, and are gone to that place from which they shall not return; and that within a few days I also shall go hence, and be no more seen. And my preparation for this change is become my nightly meditation upon my bed, which my infirmities have now made restless to me. But at this present time, I was in a serious contemplation of the providence and goodness of God to me; to me, who am less than the least of his mercies: and looking back upon my life past, I now plainly see it was his hand that prevented me from all temporal employment; and that it was his will I should never settle nor thrive till I entered into the ministry; in which I have now lived almost twenty years—I hope to his glory,—and by which, I most humbly thank him, I have been enabled to requite most of those friends which showed me kindness when my fortune was very low, as God knows it was: and—as it hath occasioned the expression of my gratitude I thank God most of them have stood in need of my requital. I have lived to be useful and comfortable to my good father-in-law, Sir George More, whose patience God hath been pleased to exercise with many temporal crosses; I have maintained my own mother, whom it hath pleased God, after a plentiful fortune in her younger days, to bring to great decay in her very old age. I have quieted the consciences of many that have groaned under the burthen of a wounded spirit, whose prayers I hope are available for me. I cannot plead innocency of life, especially of my youth; but I am to be judged by a merciful God, who is not willing to see what I have done amiss. And though of myself I have nothing to present to him but sins and misery, yet I know he looks not upon me now as I am of myself, but as I am in my Saviour, and hath given me, even at this present time, some testimonies by his Holy Spirit, that I am of the number of his elect: I am therefore full of inexpressible joy, and shall die in peace.”

    I must here look so far back, as to tell the reader that at his first return out of Essex, to preach his last sermon, his old friend and physician, Dr. Fox—a man of great worth—came to him to consult his health; and that after a sight of him, and some queries concerning his distempers, he told him, “That by cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health;” but he passionately denied to drink it. Nevertheless, Dr. Fox, who loved him most entirely, wearied him with solicitations, till he yielded to take it for ten days; at the end of which time he told Dr. Fox, “He had drunk it more to satisfy him, than to recover his health; and that he would not drink it ten days longer, upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life; for he loved it not; and was so far from fearing death, which to others is the King of Terrors, that he longed for the day of dissolution.”

    It is observed that a desire of glory or commendation is rooted in the very nature of man; and that those of the severest and most mortified lives, though they may become so humble as to banish self-flattery, and such weeds as naturally grow there; yet they have not been able to kill this desire of glory, but that like our radical heat, it will both live and die with us; and many think it should do so; and we want not sacred examples to justify the desire of having our memory to outlive our lives; which I mention, because Dr. Donne, by the persuasion of Dr. Fox, easily yielded at this very time to have a monument made for him; but Dr. Fox undertook not to persuade him now, or what monument it should be; that was left to Dr. Donne himself.

    A monument being resolved upon, Dr. Donne sent for a Carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board, of just the height of his body. “These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first made in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed as dead bodies are usually fitted, to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave. Upon this urn he thus stood, with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale, and deathlike face, which was purposely turned towards the east, from whence he expected the second coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.” In this posture he was drawn at his just height; and when the picture was fully finished, he caused it to be set by his bed-side, where it continued and became his hourly object till his death, and was then given to his dearest friend and executor Dr. Henry King, then chief residentiary of St. Paul’s, who caused him to be thus carved in one entire piece of white marble, as it now stands in that church; and by Dr. Donne’s own appointment, these words were to be affixed to it as an epitaph:

  • And now, having brought him through the many labyrinths and perplexities of a various life, even to the gates of death and the grave; my desire is, he may rest till I have told my reader that I have seen many pictures of him, in several habits, and at several ages, and in several postures: and I now mention this, because I have seen one picture of him, drawn by a curious hand, at his age of eighteen, with his sword, and what other adornments might then suit with the present fashions of youth and the giddy gaieties of that age; and his motto then was—

  • How much shall I be changed,
  • Before I am changed!
  • And if that young and his now dying picture were at this time set together every beholder might say, Lord! how much is Dr. Donne already changed, before he is changed! And the view of them might give my reader occasion to ask himself with some amazement, “Lord! how much may I also, that am now in health, be changed before I am changed; before this vile, this changeable body shall put off mortality!” and therefore to prepare for it.—But this is not writ so much for my reader’s memento, as to tell him that Dr. Donne would often in his private discourses, and often publicly in his sermons, mention the many changes both of his body and mind; especially of his mind from a vertiginous giddiness; and would as often say, “His great and most blessed change was from a temporal to a spiritual employment;” in which he was so happy, that he accounted the former part of his life to be lost; and the beginning of it to be from his first entering into sacred orders, and serving his most merciful god at his altar.

    Upon Monday, after the drawing this picture, he took his last leave of his beloved study; and, being sensible of his hourly decay, retired himself to his bed-chamber; and that week sent at several times for many of his most considerable friends, with whom he took a solemn and deliberate farewell, commending to their considerations some sentences useful for the regulation of their lives; and then dismissed them, as good Jacob did his sons, with a spiritual benediction. The Sunday following, he appointed his servants, that if there were any business yet undone that concerned him or themselves, it should be prepared against Saturday next; for after that day he would not mix his thoughts with anything that concerned this world; nor ever did; but, as Job, so he “waited for the appointed day of his dissolution.”

    And now he was so happy as to have nothing to do but to die, to do which, he stood in need of no longer time for he had studied it long, and to so happy a perfection, that in a former sickness he called God to witness “He was that minute ready to deliver his soul into his hands if that minute God would determine his dissolution.” In that sickness he begged of God the constancy to be preserved in that estate for ever; and his patient expectation to have his immortal soul disrobed from her garment of mortality, makes me confident that he now had a modest assurance that his prayers were then heard, and his petition granted. He lay fifteen days earnestly expecting his hourly change; and in the last hour of his last day, as his body melted away, and vapoured into spirit, his soul having, I verily believe some revelation of the beatifical vision, he said, “I were miserable if I might not die;” and after those words, closed many periods of his faint breath by saying often, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” His speech, which had long been his ready and faithful servant, left him not till the last minute of his life, and then forsook him, not to serve another master—for who speaks like him,—but died before him; for that it was then become useless to him, that now conversed with God on earth, as angels are said to do in heaven, only by thoughts and looks. Being speechless, and seeing heaven by that illumination by which he saw it, he did, as St. Stephen, “look stead-fastly into it, till he saw the son of Man standing at the right hand of God his Father;” and being satisfied with this blessed sight, as his soul ascended, and his last breath departed from him, he closed his own eyes, and then disposed his hands and body into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those that came to shroud him.

    Thus variable, thus virtuous was the life: thus excellent, thus exemplary was the death of this memorable man.

    He was buried in that place of St. Paul’s Church, which he had appointed for that use some years before his death; and by which he passed daily to pay his public devotions to Almighty God—who was then served twice a day by a public form of prayer and praises in that place:—but he was not buried privately, though he desired it; for, beside an unnumbered numbers of others, many persons of nobility, and of eminence for learning, who did love and honour him in his life, did show it at his death, by a voluntary and sad attendance of his body to the grave. Where nothing was so remarkable as a public sorrow.

    To which place of his burial some mournful friends repaired, and, as Alexander the Great did to the grave of the famous Achilles, so they strewed his with an abundance of curious and costly flowers; which course, they—who were never yet known—continued morning and evening for many days, not ceasing, till the stones, that were taken up in that church, to give his body admission into the cold earth—now his bed of rest,—were again by the mason’s art so levelled and firmed as they had been formerly, and his place of burial undistinguishable to common view.

    The next day after his burial, some unknown friend, some one of the many lovers and admirers of his virtue and learning, writ this epitaph with a coal on the wall over his grave:—

  • Reader! I am to let thee know.
  • Donne’s Body only lies below;
  • For, could the grave his Soul comprise,
  • Earth would be richer than the Skies!
  • Nor was this all the honour done to his reverend ashes; for, as there be some persons that will not receive a reward for that for which God accounts himself a debtor; persons that dare trust God with their charity, and without a witness; so there was by some grateful unknown friend, that thought Dr. Donne’s memory ought to be perpetuated, an hundred marks sent to his faithful friends and executors, towards the making of his monument. It was not for many years known by whom; but, after the death of Dr. Fox, it was known that it was he that sent it; and he lived to see as lively a representation of his dead friend as marble can express: a statue indeed so like Dr. Donne, that—as his friend Sir Henry Wotton hath expressed himself—“It seems to breath faintly, and posterity shall look upon it as a kind of artificial miracle.”

    He was of stature moderately tall; of a straight and equally—proportioned body, to which all his words and actions gave an unexpressible addition of comeliness.

    The melancholy and pleasant humour were in him so contempered, that each gave advantage to the other, and made his company one of the delights of mankind.

    His fancy was unimitably high, equalled only by his great wit; both being made useful by a commanding judgment.

    His aspect was cheerful, and such as gave a silent testimony of a clear knowing soul, and of a conscience at peace with itself.

    His melting eye showed that he had a soft heart, full of noble compassion; of too brave a soul to offer injuries, and too much a Christian not to pardon them in others.

    He did much contemplate—especially after he entered into his sacred calling—the mercies of Almighty God, the immortality of the soul, and the joys of heaven: and would often say in a kind of sacred ecstasy,—“Blessed be God that he is God, only and divinely like himself.”

    He was by nature highly passionate, but more apt to reluct at the excesses of it. A great lover of the offices of humanity, and of so merciful a spirit, that he never beheld the miseries of mankind without pity and relief.

    He was earnest and unwearied in the search of knowledge, with which his vigorous soul is now satisfied, and employed in a continual praise of that God that first breathed it into his active body: that body, which once was a temple of the Holy Ghost, and is now become a small quantity of Christian dust:—

    But I shall see it re-animated.
    Feb. 15, 1639.

    I. W.