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Celebrating a New Dean and Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’

A performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Holy Sonnets of John Donne culminated celebrations of the Aug. 31 installation of Richard B. Hays as the Divinity School’s 12th dean.

Begbie and LinnartzSoprano Elizabeth Byrum Linnartz, a lecturing fellow in Duke’s Department of Music, accompanied by pianist Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology, opened the 2010-11 season for Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, which Begbie directs.

Britten composed the song cycle just months after he and Yehudi Menuhin performed for prisoners of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had been liberated by English troops in April 1945. Britten  chose nine of the 19 poems in Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” and rearranged their order, ending with “Death be not proud.”

In introductory remarks titled “Not a Breach, but an Expansion,” Hays began by quoting lines from Donne’s love poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”: “Our two soules therefore, which are one, / though I must goe, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.”

“[Donne’s] progression from earthly passion to the passion for God was ‘not a breach, but an expansion,’ a beating and stretching that led to an elegant refinement,” said Hays.

In “Death Be Not Proud,” Hays said that Donne depended on “Paul’s similar trash talking towards Death in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. / Where, O death, is your victory / Where, O death, is your sting?’

“The final line of the sonnet—‘And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die,’ is an exact echo of Revelation 21:4, which declares that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, for ‘Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 

“That is the hope to which Donne’s poems repeatedly and confidently point,” said Hays. He urged the audience in Goodson Chapel to listen “in the midst of the sufferings of the present age, for the scriptural hope of resurrection echoed and sung in John Donne’s passionate voice.”

See videos of the introductory lectures and performance »