Death and Life Thereafter
Few subjects are as common in poetry as death. The only real competition would be love and her cousin lust. Even these great muses would be hard-pressed to gather as many meditations on their nature as death can claim. Death is the most universal of human experiences. It is natural that poets seeking to illuminate the human condition would write most universally about death. Onto this blank (and black) slate they project their individual beliefs and desires. Among these are thoughts regarding the possibility and nature of life after death. This idea can range from the literal concept of a spiritual afterlife to the more abstract notion of enduring memory.
Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, Farewell Earth’s Bliss” is a contemplation of the grim certainty of death. None shall escape its grasp, the first stanza informs. From there, Nashe lists several worldly attributes to illustrate the futility of each in the face of mortality. The last stanza carries the weight of the poem. Here is Nashe’s statement on what this all means and what men should do as a result.
The first line is a goodbye to life; the majority of the poem is dedicated to the things mortals must say goodbye to. The second line is a statement of life’s uncertainty. There is irony here, as the poem is about death’s certainty, but there is also the clear statement that when death will come is uncertain. Lines three through five talk of how fleeting and foolish the joys of mortal life are placed against the power of death. Next are the crucial lines, six and seven. These will be repeated at the end of every stanza.
6) I am sick, I must die.
7) Lord, have mercy on us!
In line six, the poetic voice could not die from his sickness, nor will he die from it. Rather, he “must” die from it. There is no possibility of another outcome, nor is there any sense of choice implied by “will.” It is inevitable, leaving the poetic voice no option but to cry out to God for mercy. He does not cry out for mercy for himself, but for us. The “us” includes the both the poetic voice and all of humanity. God’s mercy is all that anyone can hope for in the face of death, Nashe says.
The next four stanzas follow a pattern. Each names a worldly virtue and proceeds to denote its transience before returning to the refrain of lines six and seven. The second stanza talks of riches. No matter how wealthy a man may be he reaches a point where he can no longer afford to buy himself cures. This point comes quicker in Nashe’s time than the modern day but it still holds true. As line eleven points out, nothing is made that will not eventually end. When the time does come that sickness over takes the rich man, line twelve says, it will come swiftly.
The next of life’s joys on the chopping block is beauty. Lines fifteen and sixteen draw a parallel with a flower that will be consumed by the ravages of time. The “brightness” that line seventeen refers to is likely a shooting star as it is compared to Queens who have died while still young and beautiful. There is the mention of “Helen” in line eighteen, the legendary beauty of The Iliad. This particular image carries over into the next stanza, which focuses on strength. Nashe equates the two as similar traits with respective female and male senses as represented by Homeric figures. In line 23 is the reference to Hector, mighty warrior of Troy who dies during the war.
The final attribute to be addressed is wit. Nashe refers to the “wantonness,” or arrogance, of this trait. A possible reason for wit’s position at the end of the list is that it is the trait that most readily convinces one that there may be some option other than appeal to God’s charity. Wit is the worldly virtue of philosophers and theoreticians, men who fill their lives with argument. All the logical arguments in the world amount to nothing when posed to “Hell’s executioner,” who “Hath no ears.” Their art is by nature vanity, the sin of Lucifer and therefore worst of all sins.
The last stanza contains the poem’s ultimate message. Lines 36 and 37 urge the reader to be quick to accept their destiny. Death is the entrance to that which man is truly destined for, Heaven, as line 38 says. The mortal world is a transitory thing, like a play, and not worthy of concern. Once more the poem returns to the refrain of the certainty of death and crying out for the mercy of the Lord.
John Donne offers a different perspective on that which comes after death. In the poem “The Relic,” Donne’s poetic voice speaks of his corpse in the grave. Someday this corpse will be reunited with that of the woman he loves. Donne draws this out into a musing on the potential immortality of love. It could be that the love endures in the departed souls of lovers, or it could be that it simply lives on in the minds of those who read Donne’s words. It is even possible that there is a link between the two concepts.
The first stanza sets up the situation. The poetic voice’s body has been rotting away in the grave, which is dug up again to place another body in it. Donne suggests the romantic link that once existed between the “second guest” and him by equating the sharing of the grave with that of a bed. The metaphor even equates the grave with the womanhood, or loss of virginity, of the bed. This may be a misinterpretation as it is hard to ascertain whether the grave is actually being dug up for the lover to be interred, or if the poetic voice and the lover are already in the ground together. Then the gravedigger would be seeking to reuse the grave and would be overwhelmed by the sight of two dead lovers in an embrace, one of whom still has a ring of bright hair. Whatever the case, lines nine through eleven ask if this gravedigger will think that perhaps these two lovers planned this so that as their souls rise on the last day, they will linger together at this site.
In the second stanza, Donne wonders about the spiritual state of the time when his body is exhumed. If it is a time when “mis-devotion,” or misplaced faith, is common in the land, then the voice thinks these lovers shall be regarded as saints. That is the literal meaning of the title, relics being artifacts or body parts that belonged to saints. Line nineteen speaks of the admiration and worship the couple would receive for their love. They would be patrons of the concept. Lines seventeen and eighteen are something of a puzzle. The equating of the lover to Mary Magdalen is another reference to sainthood. But Magdalen was closest to Jesus. So then in line eighteen, is the “something else thereby” that the poet would be a messiah? This would a sacrilegious thing for a minister to include in a poem. The actual intended meaning of the line is difficult to discern. It seems incongruous with the purpose of the poem. The voice goes on to assert that people in an age of misplaced faith would seek miracles. In lines 21 and 22, the poet sets out to inform the reader just how miraculous the love that these two shared was.
The third and last stanza is the real heart of this poem, similar to the last stanza of Nashe’s poem. Here Donne explains that the love was pure. In their “coming and going” the lovers may have kissed, “but never between those meals.” An image is evoked of quick kisses like small snacks. The “meals” that never happened between those kisses would be the act of sexual love. The lovers never consummated their relationship in the Biblical sense. Lines 29 and 30 communicate this. These are the “seals” that nature “sets free.” In fact, the voice says in the preceding lines that they did not even understand the differences of their gender; they never so much as touched each other in a sexual way. Far beyond the miracle of the purity of the love was, to the poetic voice, the very miracle of his love herself. So amazing was this woman in his eyes that no words exist in the language of man that will describe her, we are told in the next to last line. She truly deserves a place in the memory of women and men the world over.
Herein lays the life after death Donne is concerned with. The enduring memory of a person in the hearts and minds of those who come after is in a way a continuation of life. For Donne and his lover to be remembered as saints of love would be a fitting afterlife. It does not guarantee that there will be any sort of special place for them in heaven, nor does it say there won’t be. It is possible that this memory will create a way for the love itself to go on even after death. But that is not the primary concern. Those who continue to live and what they say about those who have departed is what is truly important.
Interesting that Donne, a religious man, would write this poem. Its outlook is squarely at odds with Nashe’s. The first poem invests all faith in the power of God to save mortal man from certain doom. The second invests faith in those very mortal men. Nashe refers to both Helen and Hector, great persons whose names are still known to educated people the world over. His references to them are in a context of their destruction despite their great worldly traits. Their great beauty and strength made them renowned throughout the world. It is because of theses things that they are still talked of to this day. By the logic of Donne’s poem it would be these very traits that assure them an afterlife. The great love that was shared between the voice and his lover would mean nothing in the context of the Nashe poem. Such feats are of the world and not concerned with the one route to salvation, the Lord God.
Different poets bring different perspectives to their work. Despite similar background beliefs, the mirror of death reflects very different faces. There is no doubt that every man, woman, and child on Earth grapples with the reality of death. Death gives no answers; it only poses more questions, not unlike love. It is only natural then that these two phenomena be favorites of poets throughout the ages. Sometimes the two even collide, as in Donne’s The Relic. But more frequently there is simply death with its morbid inevitability. It is that very certainty that leads everyone, poets especially, to ponder, “Is there anything after and if so, what?”