Death's Duel by John Donne


This text shows John Donne (1572–1631) contemplating and rehearsing the circumstances of his own death.

Deaths Duell is the last sermon preached by Donne in his role as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. The sermon was delivered at Whitehall in front of King Charles I on 25 February 1631. This was only a month before Donne died on 31 March.[1] It would later be described as his ‘owne funerall sermon’.

This edition of the sermon includes a portrait of Donne posing in a ‘winding sheet’ – a shroud for wrapping a corpse before burial.

What is the sermon about?

In Deaths Duell, Donne confronts physical death in all its stark reality, but ultimately returns to the idea of spiritual rebirth.

He starts with the bleak suggestion that, from its very start, life is a constant process of dying: ‘wee have a winding sheete in our Mothers wombe … for wee come to seeke a grave’ (p. 9). Donne dwells on the horror of being eaten by worms, which he calls ‘vermiculation’. At the sermon’s end, however, he offers us an image of Jesus dying on the Cross to grant us resurrection (pp. 42–43).

A preacher with a ‘decayed body, and a dying face’

There is a compelling description of how Donne prepared both the sermon and the portrait, in Izaac Walton’s Life of John Donne (second edition, 1658).

Walton tells how the Dean insisted on preaching in London, although he was fatally ill with ‘flesh’ just covering ‘his bones’. Those who saw Donne in the pulpit, with his ‘decayed body, and a dying face’, secretly wondered if he might be a corpse (pp. 103–04).

Walton further explains how Donne posed for a morbid sketch of himself as he would look after death. Wrapping his naked body in a ‘winding-sheet’, knotted at the ‘head and feet’, Donne stood on a wooden urn ‘with his eyes shut’ (Life of John Donne, pp. 112–13). He set the completed picture by his bedside, where it remained until his death.

The sketch was used as the basis for the engraving by Martin Droeshout at the start of Deaths Duell, and a marble statue carved by Nicholas Stone that was placed in St Paul’s Cathedral.

[1] On the title page of this book, the date is marked as 1630. This is because, according to the Julian calendar used at that time in England, the legal New Year did not begin until 25 March.

Full title:
Deaths Duell, or, A Consolation to the Soule, against the dying Life, and living Death of the Body. Deliuered in a Sermon at White Hall, before the Kings Maiesty, in the beginning of Lent, 1630. By ... Iohn Donne ... Being his last sermon, and called by his Maiesties houshold The Doctors Owne Funerall Sermon.
1632, London
Book / Quarto / Engraving / Illustration / Image
John Donne, Martin Droeshout [engraver]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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