What is holy attention? Does its holiness have to do with the manner with which one attends, the object of attention, some combination of the two, or something else entirely? David Marno takes the term from the early modern cartographer and devotional writer John Norden and uses it as the central analytic devise in his reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, particularly “Death Be Not Proud.” Marno is certainly right that attention is fundamental to Donne in this poem, throughout the Holy Sonnets, and in his sermons. I also think it is right to think of poetry, in many of its forms, as an exercise in attention. Yet again, is the holiness or the purity, as Marno elsewhere puts it, a function of the kind of attention or its object? And are holy and pure, as modifiers of attention, the same thing?

For Marno, as for many of the theologians or theorists of Christian prayer about whom he writes, attention is most importantly distinguished from distraction. As Marno shows, Donne writes in both thoroughly traditional and wonderfully engaging ways about the problem of distraction. In a funeral sermon, he describes inviting God and God’s angels into his chamber for prayer, only then, “when they are there,”

to neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore: I talke on, in the same posture of praying . . . Sometimes I find that I forget what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterdays pleasure, a feare of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world.

Marno takes this mordantly funny account of distraction as carrying within it the assumption that the goal of Christian prayer, for Donne, is what Marno calls pure prayer—a prayer without images and without content that he associates rightly with Evagrius of Pontus and, somewhat more oddly, with John Cassian and Augustine.

While the goal might be pure prayer (Evagrius) or fiery prayer (Cassian), all of these early Christian writers insist that one only gets to the heights of prayer through prayerful attention to the images and words given to them by God, in scripture and in the world that is God’s creation. Central to the practice of prayer for Evagrius, Cassian, and Augustine, as Marno notes, is the prayerful recitation and meditation on the Psalms. Yet Marno attends less carefully, perhaps, to why the Psalms were so central to the early and medieval Christian tradition; the Psalms were understood, since at least Athanasius’s Letter to Marcarius, as containing within them the entire range of human emotions (affectus), and crucially these emotions as they are properly directed toward God. Marno worries that this attention to affect is at odds with intellectual inquiry, but for early Christian and medieval authors, the two go ineluctably together.

Marno’s real worry may be that it is hard to know how we can get to affectus as an interpreter of poetry. This is suggested by his comments toward the end of the book about the dangers of psychologism. In this, he shows how the intellectualist Donne he and others put forward—and who is clearly real!—is a perfect candidate for the New Criticism, the new new formalism, and Marno’s own interest in phenomenology. Admittedly I have never been clear how phenomenology can make good on its claims to be neither metaphysical, sociological, or psychologistic. There is an entirely different response embedded here, one that asks about the modernity of these concerns.

But back to the early Christian theologians with whose work Marno frames his reading of Donne. For them, the goal of the religious life is to always have a prayer on one’s lips (Ps 34: 1); the means to that end is the recitation of the psalter, whether it be entire Psalms or a single line from one of them. Through this daily recitation one might reshape one’s own experience, redirecting it toward God. The Psalms are crucial to understanding Christian practices of prayer because they are full of images, rich with detail about the relationship between the speaker and the persons, animals, and objects around her, including, of course, God. God is named, praised, and thanked, worshiped, feared, and railed against, not without images, but through and in them. Although Cassian and Augustine certainly agreed with the Origenist tradition of Evagrius that no word or image could fully capture God, they also both insist that God as the source of scripture and of creation can and must be named and praised and thanked through the words given to humans by God. This involves, moreover, not simply the recitation of the words of scripture in the exact order and form provided there, but also attention to the books of nature and of experience, however fallen they might be, and the elaboration of all of this language, an endless play of inventio in which the prayerful person stands with and as the Psalmist, singing ever new songs to the Lord. Protestant Biblism might have tempered this practice of inventio for some during the early modern period, yet others certainly engage in it, through sermons, hymns, and poetry. (The worry that doctrine impedes inventio, a worry to which Marno periodically returns in Death Be Not Proud, is most certainly a modern invention.)

Because of this tradition, I read Donne’s “This Is My Play’s Last Scene” differently than does Marno. Or perhaps, as a non-specialist, far from the world of Donne studies, I can see the possibility of another reading more in line with the early Christian and medieval traditions of meditation of which Donne was certainly aware. Whether this yields too Catholic a Donne is less interesting to me than whether it suggests different ways of understanding what attention, and poetry as attention, might mean. (Although as I will show, the poem is both a powerful meditation and intensely Protestant in its theological vision.)

For Marno, the poem begins with a meditation on death:

This is my Plays last Scene, here heavens appoint
             My Pilgrimages last Mile, and my race,
             Idely, yet quickly run, hath this last pace
My Spannes last inche; my Minutes last pointe.

In a very smart reading of these lines, Marno argues that the way in which Donne moves rapidly through a series of images associated with death works to “deconstruct the very images they initially build” in what might be seen as “an iconoclastic Protestant response to the emphasis on images in Jesuit devotion.” Yet, Marno goes on to claim, “the iconoclastic motive is here also in the service of a seemingly rather un-Protestant search for pure attention.”           

The claim to pure attention depends, however, on reading the next two quatrains of the poem as distractions from the meditation on death with which the poem begins rather than further elaborations of the meditation itself.

And gluttonous death will instantly unioynt
            My body and Soule, and I shall sleepe a space,
            Or presently, I know not, see that face
Whose feare allredy shakes my every joynt.
Then as my Soul, to’ heaven her first Seate takes flight,
            And earthborne body in the earth shall dwell,
            So fall my Sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would presse me, to hell.

Marno reads the sundering of body and soul, the scattering of soul, body, and sins, with the “I”’s position amongst them at best uncertain, at worst in hell, as distractions from his meditation on death. Yet I am very unclear as to why, for everything that occurs in these lines can be understood as further elaborations on what happens to the human being in and after death. Rather than distracting the speaker from his meditation on death, these images are the substance of that meditation.

Prayer, for Marno, only occurs with the volta that follows:

Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evill,
For thus I leave the world, the fleshe, and deville.

“Impute me righteous” is the first direct address to what we assume is God or Christ, “that face/Whose fear allredy shakes my every joint.” Yet within Christian practice, prayer is twofold: it is the overarching state in which all engagement with the divine and divine things occurs, but it is also a state of entreaty—or praise, thanksgiving, lament—that is the result of and comes out of lectio (reading) and meditatio (meditation.) Surely Donne’s volta is a prayer reached through the movement of the meditation as a whole. We know that the face is that of the divine and not of death, for it is the face of the being who renders judgment. Death only sunders body and soul; then the body sleeps—how long the speaker professes not to know—until it awakens to judgment, a judgment in which the speaker of the poem fears, despite a broadly Platonic hope that the soul will return to heaven and the body to the earth, that he will be dragged to hell by the weight of his sins.

Sin, first introduced only late in the poem, interrupts the dualism on which the second quatrain seems to depend. Sin attaches to the “I,” to the “me” who is pressed by these sins into hell. This final moment of Donne’s meditation on death—here not just the moment of the body’s death, but the life of the body and soul after death—leads to the volta and the intensity of its desire. Death is only completed—and defeated—by Christ’s imputation of righteousness, through which the speaker can finally “leave the world, the fleshe, and deville.” Precisely the thought of that which he fears—the judgment that leads to hell—is the necessary means to the naked assertion of his need, the necessity that Christ impute righteousness to the speaker. The prayer does not entail its fulfillment, but one only comes to the right prayer through the active meditation on death and its consequences.

I dwell on this poem because it demonstrates how the operation of imagination is itself, or at least can be, a mark of attention. My worry is that Marno’s emphasis on what he often calls “pure attention,” drawing on the Evagrian tradition of pure prayer, posits the imagination as itself distracting. Yet a quick comparison of the Donne sermon and poem cited here shows that it is the attitude toward and end of the imagination that matters: distractions pull us constantly from one thing to another with no order and aim; holy attention focuses us and draws us in and up toward God. Poetry in the secular realm is unlikely to have the divine as its object—although it may; it might even dwell happily in distraction—but the focusing of attention does seem important to much modern poetry in English. In that, I think, we are heirs of the Christian tradition of meditative and prayerful engagement with the Psalms, as it runs through, repeats, re-crafts, reimagines, and unsays the images, relations, words, concepts, and things found within the Psalms, and other sacred songs and realities, in order to transform the speaker and the reader so that they might better understand themselves, their worlds, and the relationships that hold them together and tear them apart.

And yet another kind of modern poetry takes delight in Donne’s account of his own distraction and might happily dwell within it. My affect and my intellect stray, and there is pleasure to be found in that wandering. I want to read those poems too; I want to think about how they also are poems; I want to be freed from the strictures of a world in which only one thing can be enjoyed (God, all things insofar as they are God’s creation, or simply attention itself) so that I might enter into another world, one in which the thing itself, as itself and as always also moving us on to the next thing, is a source of joy.