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John Donne: War and misery are one thing

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

John Donne: The horror and ghastliness of war

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John Donne
From Sermon XII (1621)

1 Cor. xv. 26.

The last Enemy that shall be destroyed, is Death.

[E]nemy is the metaphor which the Holy Ghost hath taken here to express a want, a kind of imperfectness even in heaven itself. As peace is of all goodness, so war is an emblem, a hieroglyphic, of all misery…

If the feet of them that preach peace be beautiful, (and, 0 how beautiful are the feet of them that preach peace? The prophet Isaiah asks the question, Lii. 7.; and the prophet Nahum asks it, i. 15. and the apostle St. Paul asks it, Rom. x. 15. they all ask it, but none answers it) who shall answer us, if we ask, How beautiful is his face, who is the author of this peace, when we shall see that in the glory of heaven, the centre of all true peace? It was the inheritance of Christ Jesus upon the earth, he had it at his birth, he brought it with him, Glory be to God on high, peace upon earth. It was his purchase upon earth, He made peace (indeed he bought peace) through the blood of his cross. It was his testament, when he went from earth: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Divide with him in that blessed inheritance, partake with him in that blessed purchase, enrich thyself with that blessed legacy, his peace.

Let the whole world be in thy consideration as one house; and then consider in that, in the peaceful harmony of creatures, in the peaceful succession, and connexion of causes, and effects, the peace of nature.

[T]he Holy Ghost, to intimate to us that happy perfectness, which we shall have at last…chooses the metaphor of an enemy, an enmity, to avert us from looking for true peace from anything that presents itself in the way. Neither truly could the Holy Ghost imprint more horror by any word, than that which intimates war, as the word enemy does. It is but a little way that the poet hath got in the description of war, Jam seges est, that now that place is ploughed, where the great city stood…[W]hen the prophet Isaiah comes to the devastation, to the extermination of a war, he expresses it first thus; Where there were a thousand vineyards at a cheap rate, all the land become briars and thorns: that is much; but there is more, the earth shall be removed out of her place; that land, that nation, shall no more be called that nation, nor that land: but, yet more than that too; not only, not that people, but no other shall ever inhabit it. It shall never be inhabited from generation to generation, neither shall shepherds be there; not only no merchant, nor husbandmen

In a word, the horror of war is best discerned in the company he keeps, in his associates. And when the prophet Gad brought war into the presence of David, there came with him famine and pestilence. And when famine entered, we see the effects; it brought mothers to eat their children of a span long; that is, as some expositors take it, to take medicines to procure abortions, to cast their children, that they might have children to eat. And when war’s other companion, the pestilence entered, we see the effects of that too: In less than half the time that it was threatened for, it devoured three score and ten thousand of David’s men; and yet for all the vehemence, the violence, the impetuousness of this pestilence, David chose this pestilence rather than a war. Militia and malitia, are words of so near a sound, as that the vulgate edition takes them as one. For where the prophet speaking of the miseries that Jerusalem had suffered, says, Finita militia ejus, Let her warfare be an end, they read, Finita malitia ejus, Let her misery be at an end; war and misery is all one thing…

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