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Poets of the Four Last Things: Donne and Death

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Poets of the Four Last Things: Donne and Death

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Location: Heythrop College

With Professor Robert Fraser


It has been traditional during the four weeks of Advent to concentrate on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This habit may appear paradoxical at best, since we are supposed to be preparing for a birth: the beginning of life rather than the end of mortal existence. None of the four poets we will be looking at in this series, however, would have found the tradition in the least inappropriate or odd. The official explanation is that we are anticipating both the first and the second coming. Since, in the northern hemisphere at least, we celebrate the nativity shortly after the winter solstice, the darkest moment of the year, there is also a recurrent, metaphorical logic to all of this. By looking at the work of four religiously inspired poets – two from the seventeenth and one each from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – we will attend to the ways in which this custom, and the insights stemming from it, have fertilized literature and art.

John Donne and Death

From his early poems of valediction until his very last sermon called ‘Death’s Duel’ when issued posthumously, John Donne, poet and latterly Dean of Saint Paul’s, was preoccupied with the imagery and fact of death. By the time of his own demise in 1631, he had buried his wife, five of his twelve children and most recently his stoutly Roman Catholic mother. He had witnessed executions, including at least one hanging, drawing and quartering, and had lived through several public outbreaks of the plague. His poems, essays and sermons wrestle with the facts of mortality, and worry out the complications attendant on Christian teaching about immortality. Today we hide from death; in his last few weeks Donne almost embraced it. Can we learn from his candour?

Robert Fraser is the author of widely reviewed biographies of the poets George Barker and David Gascoyne. Among his other books are studies of Marcel Proust and the anthropologist Sir James Frazer. He has translated for Buxton Opera, and “God’s Good Englishman”, his bicentennial play about Samuel Johnson, toured Britain with Timothy West in the title role. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London and Leeds, and at the Open University, where he is Emeritus Professor.

Robert Fraser poems.jpg

The talk will end with the launch of Robert Fraser’s book of poems 'Fox Hill in the Snow'.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Other talks in this series with Professor Robert Fraser include:

Contact Name: Dr Francesca Knox
Contact Email: f.knox@heythrop.ac.uk