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Death Be Not Proud

The Art of Holy Attention

The seventeenth-century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche thought that philosophy could learn a valuable lesson from prayer, which teaches us how to attend, wait, and be open for what might happen next. Death Be Not Proud explores the precedents of Malebranche’s advice by reading John Donne’s poetic prayers in the context of what David Marno calls the “art of holy attention.”

If, in Malebranche’s view, attention is a hidden bond between religion and philosophy, devotional poetry is the area where this bond becomes visible. Marno shows that in works like “Death be not proud,” Donne’s most triumphant poem about the resurrection, the goal is to allow the poem’s speaker to experience a given doctrine as his own thought, as an idea occurring to him. But while the thought must feel like an unexpected event for the speaker, the poem itself is a careful preparation for it. And the key to this preparation is attention, the only state in which the speaker can perceive the doctrine as a cognitive gift. Along the way, Marno illuminates why attention is required in Christian devotion in the first place and uncovers a tradition of battling distraction that spans from ascetic thinkers and Church Fathers to Catholic spiritual exercises and Protestant prayer manuals.

384 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Class 200: New Studies in Religion

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, Romance Languages

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Religion: Religion and Literature


"This is an incredibly learned, subtle, and sophisticated book."

Church Times

"Marno’s habitual reflectiveness issues in a heightened awareness of the scholarly and critical traditions he inherits. One of the book’s strengths, in fact, is not only its judicious use of commentary from Aristotle through Augustine to present-day scholarship and criticism but seeing the largely Anglo-American practice of twentieth century close reading as a continuation of the theological practices he uncovers. . .learned, densely argued, and stimulating."

Essays in Criticism

"Whether analyzing the structure of the sonnets or the historical notion of sarcasm, Marno proceeds step-by-step in bringing new insights to a familiar poem."

Catholic Library Reader

"Presents an original, phenomenologically oriented approach to Donne’s devotional poetry. . . Marno’s sustained examination of the craft of devotional attention in Donne’s poetry brilliantly shows how what survives as textual tissue in the poems is a largely forgotten sense of attention as a philosophically attuned, passive disposition ‘necessary to start thinking,’ rather than a proactive psychological function. . . a beautifully shaped argument [and] magnificent study.”

Recent Studies in the English Renaissance

"With his formidable command of religion, philosophy, and literary history. . . the rewards of attending to [Marno's] arguments are significant, as he provides sensitive and nuanced readings of Donne's Holy Sonnets, traces the intersections of devotional practices, prayer, and poetry, and draws important conclusions between theology, philosophy. and religion. . . . Thoroughly and conscientiously argued, Marno's new book is a welcome contribution."

Sixteenth Century Journal

Death Be Not Proud is a beautifully written book with wide ramifications for the study of Donne and early modern poetry, of course, but also more broadly for the study of literature, theology, and philosophy. The link between attention as a form of devotional practice in Donne and as the root of thought for philosophers like Malebranche and Descartes is extremely fruitful and carries over to important insights about the very phenomenological method that Marno himself employs.”

Amy Hollywood, author of Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History

Death Be Not Proud is a major landmark in Donne studies. Subtly avoiding both hard-boiled historicism and reactionary formalism, Marno offers startlingly fresh readings of Donne’s work as part of a legacy of devotional strategies inherited from Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, and Petrarch. Much more than just a book on one of the greatest English poets, Death Be Not Proud should be read by anyone interested in the philosophy and form of devotional art from late antiquity to the dawn of Cartesianism.”

Peter McCullough, author of Sermons at Court: Politics and Religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean Preaching

“This will prove to be a signal book on Donne. Marno conducts a powerful critique of new historicist orthodoxy in favor of returning to a properly philosophical address to poetry, and to poetry that is itself philosophical in nature. His arguments and methods are original, his scholarship extensive and sound, and his aim—to delineate an emerging poetics of attention in Donne and the seventeenth century—is entirely successful.”

Gordon Teskey, author of The Poetry of John Milton

"This intellectually muscular, self-reflexive, documentarily intense mission suits the inspiration for this monograph: the English preacher and poet John Donne (1572–1631). It also suits the intentions of the author. David Marno takes up the Class 200 mission with authorial audacity and scholarly is exciting to imagine literary critics and scholars of religion captivated in equal measure by this challenging and thought-provoking tour de force of a first monograph."

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Table of Contents

1 The Pistis of the Poem
2 The Thanksgiving Machine
3 Distracted Prayers
4 Attention Exercises
5 Extentus
6 Sarcasmos
7 The Spiritual Body
Coda: The Extent of Attention


Conference on Christianity and Literature/MLA: CCL Book-of-the-Year Award

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