‘This is my play’s last scene’ by John Donne is number VI of his Holy Sonnets. These works were written from the perspective of a man who is continually growing closer to God. This piece in particular draws the man’s narrative close to the end. He is about to reach an inevitable death.
The poem conforms to the pattern of a traditional, fourteen-line, Petrarchan sonnet. The text is contained within one block, but can be separated into two sections. One containing eight lines, also known as an octave, and one with six known as a sestet. The rhyme scheme follows a pattern of ABBAABBACDCDEE, also characteristically Petrarchan.
An important feature of Petrarchan sonnets which occurs within Donne’s ‘This is my play’s last scene’ is a turn between the first eight lines and the following six. In the octave, the speaker discusses the remainder of his life on earth and how “gluttonous death” is going to come for him. After his soul and his body are separated, the second half of the poem begins. The sestet is dedicated to what happens to his soul immediately after death. It will rise away from the earth, and his sins will fall back to hell. They are going to remain there, with the devil, no longer able to tempt him.
The clearest and most prominent theme in the text is that of death. At this point in the speaker’s life death has become an ever-present companion. It is something he is always having to deal with. But, as the poem make clear, he has found a way to manage his journey towards the end. His religious faith has allowed him to take an optimistic perspective on what is going to happen to his body and his soul.
Summary of This is my play’s last scene
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is in the last mile of his life He knows that God has declared the beginning and end of his life and he’s happy to accept those limitations. He speaks on how death is going to come for him and separate his “earth-born” body from his soul. After this happens, his sins will fall back to the earth and he will be made clean. In this new version of himself, he knows he’ll ask that God make him “righteous.” He will have been purged of everything bad and be on his way to Heaven.
Analysis of This is my play’s last scene
This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by utilizing the line for which the sonnet would later become known. He states that this is the “last scene” of his play, or his life. It becomes clear immediately that this last leg of his journey is not something he is dreading. He knows that Heaven appointed it as his “last mile.”
The speaker describes his life as a “pilgrimage” from birth to death. At this point, he has reached his “minute’s vastest point.” Throughout his days, he has run “Idly” and “yet quickly.” There were times in his life that he idled, and perhaps wasted but, all in all, it went by fast. Time has passed, he has moved forward, and now all that’s left is his “span’s last inch.” The speaker knows, and takes comfort from the fact, that he doesn’t have any control over his life. He lives and dies by God’s hand and that’s okay with him.
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
In the second quatrain, or set of four lines that make up the octave, the speaker refers to death as “gluttonous.” This suggests that death has an agency all its own. It can choose, via God’s direction, when to consume him. It is “gluttonous” meaning that it will never get enough and after the speaker is consumed it will move on to the next meal.
Death is going to separate the speaker’s body from his soul and then send him into a sleep for a time. This is a kind liminal space that happens before his soul enters into Heaven. Even while he is in the process of moving away from his physical form, his soul will be able to “see that face,” meaning God. Additionally, he will still feel the “fear,” (meaning awe or dedication), that he always felt. God’s presence, even now that he has separated from his body will still have power.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.
In the sestet of ‘This is my play’s last scene’ the speaker begins by describing how his body is going to remain on earth after his soul departs. It is “earth-born” and must stay there. This process will also force out his sins, from both his soul and his physical body. The sins will continue to have power, just not over the speaker. They are no longer going to be able to “press [him], to hell.”
Th last two lines are directed at God. He asks that God “Impute” or assign him a new righteousness. He is now “purg’d,” or purged, “of evil.” It is in this new, clean, sinless state that he leaves the earth behind. At the same time, he throws off all temptation fuelled by the devil and the “flesh” he spent his “earth-born” life in.