A foundational aim of David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention is to present prayer not as an expression of religious feeling, but as a technē: an art, exercise, or process directed toward the cognitive end of “holy attention.” That end, Marno argues, is a state of receptivity to a given idea, one arriving in the mind of the thinker as though for the first time—a personal, “cognitive gift.” Thus, even in a religious context, prayer, and the poetry that performs it, is not only a technē but specifically one whose telos is intellection rather than emotion. Accordingly, in the book’s guiding case study, the titular sonnet “Death be not proud,” John Donne “represents the process of seeking faith” by affording the reader the intellectual experience of receiving a certain kind of thought; namely, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection. It is “through the cracks and crevices of language,” Marno explains, that the mind is prepared to receive personal knowledge of this doctrine, almost unpredictably, as if of its own accord.
This teleological and structural reframing afford us new ways to make sense of the poems known as Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” which can seem fundamentally unsure about what they truly believe or think.1 More broadly, Marno’s analysis proposes a bold intellectual history in which literary devotional practices foreshadow modes of attention in philosophical thought, like René Descartes’s method in the Meditations, which aims at an evident, first-person knowledge of what is.
Sightings of a bridge between philosophy and religion by way of cognitive technē are among this book’s most exciting contributions. At the same time, in the context of Donne’s work in particular, this emphasis on cognitive technē may too starkly delimit the boundaries between feeling and thinking, and between process and end, ultimately prioritizing the latter. To be sure, Marno qualifies his use of technē as unusual in the way it approaches devotion’s uncontrollable variables. Unlike a technology with a strictly defined, concrete end and means, prayer’s “end” can be obscure because it is numinous and shrouded in divinity. The means to secure it are intractable. (Perhaps for this reason, Marno also helpfully proposes we read prayer/poetry as “thought experiments,” which attempt to hit upon the means for their devotional end without always succeeding.)
Nonetheless, the unique nature of devotional technē is still defined in terms of the rift between cognitive ends and emotional means. This stands in some tension with Donne’s reputation as a consummate unifier of thinking and feeling. Indeed, arguing that “the affect [Donne’s] poems seek to produce has less to do with emotion and more with intellection,” strains against the ethos of the poet-preacher’s work at large; one that tends toward an intermixing of body, thought, and feeling, just as it intermingles life’s ongoing endings, middles, and beginnings.
Thus, reading prayer as technē risks undervaluing how, for Donne, feeling and knowing can be a singular, ongoing, and symbiotic devotional movement. This is a familiar idea about Donne, and T. S. Eliot says as much in that famous line quoted in Marno’s footnotes; “[a] thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” But Eliot precedes this comment with feeling, including Donne among those poets who “feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” In other words, “feeling” is not in the service of “knowing” something in a particular mode, toward a particular end. Feeling and knowing are one, and powerfully so. In the devotional realm, their unity is essential to the very experience of holiness.
Marno does attend to this unity in his book’s splendid final chapter on “The Spiritual Body,” elucidating its support of holy attention as a cognitive end. There, for instance, the point of a poem’s invoking literally unified, thinking-feeling “spiritual bodies”2 is that such images innovatively prepare the reader for the thought of, or faith in, the possibility of resurrection. That a poem’s descriptive contents build toward its narrative conclusion makes natural sense. But again, the treatment of thought-feeling fused here is weighted toward its cognitive value, rather than its integrated effect.
I continue to wonder, then, whether turning away from those unified, and yet-to-be unified bodies addressed in this chapter means looking past their emotional and sensory effects and, in some part, past the activities and devotional guts of the poems themselves. Doing so would lose touch with the intensity Donne might have his reader experience in relation to the image of the spiritual body. Rather than being a means to a future thought, it is an occasion for immersively feeling and thinking the resurrection in the present moment.
Donne’s obsession with rhetorically fixing his audience’s attention on their own decomposition similarly asserts this conflation of body and mind, thought and feeling. Take for instance, his repeated explorations of “posthume death,” in what was popularized as his own “funeral sermon”3—how those who die now, before the resurrection, “must pass this posthume death, this death after death . . . this dissolution after dissolution, this death of corruption and putrefaction, of vermiculation and incineration, of dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave.” Dissolution’s relentlessness collapses a range of distinctions. Even the “private and retired man, that thought himself his own for ever,” will be exhumed to make room for future corpses, and scattered, “mingled with the dust of every highway and of every dunghill, and swallowed in every puddle and pond.” “Such are the revolutions of the grave,” Donne writes.
As in Marno’s technē formulation, these meditations eventually build toward a revelation of the resurrection, indeed facilitated through an imagined “spiritual body”—Christ’s. “There is that sacred body on the cross,” Donne directs. But, what is more, “There are those bowels of compassion which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds.” Extending beyond technē, the “cracks and crevices” of language and flesh mediating soteriological cognition here are, literally, Christ’s wounds. They seem inseparable from their ends, such that to attend closely to the working unity of God’s body is to know, and viscerally feel, embodiment, resurrection, and compassion at once. This recognition of the resurrection presses future dissolution into the feeling present of the mind, rhetorically collapsing the temporal distance between life and death, means and ends.
By bringing the soul’s desiring to the fore, Donne unfolds a similar mixing of thought and feeling in the sermon on Job quoted at length in Marno’s penultimate chapter.4 There, the putrid lengths the soul must endure to collect the body’s far-flung parts at the resurrection are conveyed with a searching, feeling vitality that is inseparable from their resurrective aim. By the very instance of entertaining an image of scattering (“this scattered body; this eastern, and western, and northern, and southern body”), Donne suggests we think and feel how we are not only sought after against all odds, but ought after “desirously, ambitiously.” “This is the most inconsiderable consideration, and yet, ego, I, I . . . shall be recompact again,” Donne writes. The affective force of this “most inconsiderable consideration,” and its irresistible, factual persistence (“and yet, ego, I) even arrive in the same breath. Here and elsewhere, Donne is unafraid of presenting himself as dust and exposing his audience as a collection of specks of dust – over and over again – precisely because being dust, feeling himself as dust, is inseparable from being cognitively aware of his cyclical, bodily relation to God.
When it comes to Donne’s poetry, this is so often the case. Donne’s “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” sees the speaker cracking himself in two as he rides away from church on one of the holiest days of the year. Inwardly bending toward the site of the crucifixion, yet outwardly keeping his back turned to God, the speaker’s cloven attention splinters his vision of God’s suffering on the cross. It is in the tension and scatter of that split that the possibility of God’s direct, subjective intervention looms increasingly larger as the speaker continues riding the wrong way: the poem goes on, and the feeling of scatteredness becomes paradoxically and increasingly inseparable from the thought and feeling of God’s nearness. Hence the speaker’s eager final prayer:
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.
This prayer ends in a constellation of inseparable holy tensions; if the uncomfortable feeling of God’s eastward pull (a self-inflicted punishment) disappears, so does the knowing of God. Restore me, your image, painfully, punishingly, the speaker prays—so much that you will know me, and then I will turn my face to you. Rather than presenting thinking, feeling, and knowing as functions “yoked by violence together” (to borrow Samuel Johnson’s criticism of Donne) they are here interdependent. This fact is impressed upon the reader by the poem’s insistence on its own deferred ending.
These examples extend well beyond the formal limits of the death-dueling sonnet with which Marno’s book is mainly occupied. To be sure, the bounds of a sonnet’s fourteen lines afford a clearer sense of prayer as technē; their three quatrains carry neatly toward a volta built to turn and close in an ending couplet. They suit Donne’s own fascination with clocks and engines and the striking technological vision of Marno’s argument wherein the Christian is a clock-like “thanksgiving machine,” and the soul in a poem is a “salvation machine,” aiming toward a soteriological, cognitively contained end. And yet, taking a wider view of Donne’s conception of feeling and knowing, staged as it so often is in scenes of self-scattering, shows a poetic and devotional insistence upon feeling and knowing as one holistic and organic thing. Rather than a devotional technē that is occasional, geared toward a thought, the holiness conjured in these works is one that defeats a division between feeling and knowing, means and ends.
Of course, the very impulse to broaden this book’s focus is evidence of its concentrated force. It is precisely this fine-tuned logic that can sharpen our sense of how more sprawling, emotional prose texts function. (I am thinking especially of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, for instance, which narrates the course of Donne’s bout with yellow fever in twenty-three chapters of rapturous detail, each building from “Meditation,” to “Expostulation,” to “Prayer.”) As both a case study and a new practice of reading, Death Be Not Proud opens new ways to carefully behold the subtle inner-workings of devotional writing, as well as the devotions of philosophy and religion in conversation. This beginning Marno affords us is a gripping new means of attending to what poetic language can do in the early modern period and beyond.
Also entitled “Death’s Duell”↩
Preached at Lincoln’s Inn in 1620, on Job 19:26: “And though, after my skin, wormes destroy this bodie, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”↩