Death Be Not Proud - John Donne
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
This is a playful detached contemplation of death exploring the Christian concept of life after death; we have been promised eternal life and death is but a transition from this brief world of sin and suffering into the kingdom of God - Heaven. Death is personified and addressed in a bold defiant logical attack questioning its importance and omnipotence over man as we can conquer death through eternal life.
This is an example of the idea of thanatopsis, a view or contemplation of death. Thanatopsis literally comes from the Greek thanatos- the god of death, and –opsis meaning likeness or idea.
Throughout history, our shifting attitudes toward death have become evident through literature. Death can be seen as our ultimate defeat in life.
DEATH is the final reality of human life, and not just for the banal reason that we are all destined to die in the end but, more importantly, because the finiteness and vulnerability of our existence in this world is what gives urgency, meaning and even nobility to human life.
Homer saw this, in The Iliad, with a burning clarity. Mortality is what lends poignancy to our experience, gravity to our moral choices. His heroes love life strength and beauty, but their duty, their noble rank, and the position in which fate has placed them leaves them no noble choice but to face death with the courage befitting a warrior. CHRISTOPHER ALLEN
Horace had given rise to the Carpe Diem philosophy, not reborn until 19th C. Europe. As capitalism distributed wealth more evenly, people began to demand not only more political power but a comfortable lifestyle putting more emphasis on heaven on earth than a delayed reward.
The poem begins with a defiant, combative, patronising and contemptuous tone modulating to a contemplative musing over an age old consideration of the end of life. It progresses through a sweep of subtle reasoned cogent arguments and ends with an emphatic self-assured note of triumph as we prevail over death.
Death had a more immediate presence in the past than in today’s sanitised sheltered times. With public executions - decapitation of traitors, heads spiked on London Bridge, burnings at the stakes, dismemberment of bodies, people were more exposed to the grim gruesome realities of prevalent death. Fifteen thousand people died in London during the plague while Donne lived there and each morning a mortuary cart would pass down the streets calling for people to bring out your dead to be flung and piled upon each other for mass immolations. No wonder they were inured and brutalised but also pre-occupied by death.
In contrast we are cushioned and protected from seeing dead bodies to preserve their dignity. Most people have rarely see a dead body as it is usually covered by a sheet or body bag, coffins draped with shrouds are seldom opened for viewings. George W Bush’s administration even banned the televising of coffins of returning dead from the Iraq war.
The theme is that death need not be feared since it is merely a transitional phase between the pain and suffering of this world and the glory and repose of the next one.
We have triumphed over death and have nothing to fear.
Here is an interesting comment about the times taken from an essay called ‘Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice’ by C J Sisson
For the Elizabethan, and for Shakespeare, the unseen other world of eternity was not only more certain in men’s belief, but it was closer to the world of human reality, ...... . A man prepared his baggage for his passage through death to that other world as he would prepare for a journey from Stratford to London, not booted and spurred, but shriven, anointed, having made his peace with God as well as his last will and testament, indeed as part of that peace. For so the Order for the Visitation of the Sick admonishes a man ‘to make his will for the better discharging of his conscience.’
The structure of the poem is similar to a lecturer chiding a miscreant student in an attempt to pull them into line. A direct address, called Apostrophe, to a personified Death, the poet uses strong cogent arguments to support his case.
Donne can also be compared to the tenacity of a sharp legal mind. Like a dogged prosecutor (sometimes defendant), he mounts a zealous case for or against death.
Structured as a sonnet, the Octave spells out the case while the sestet provides the conclusion.
The Major thesis:
Death does not deserve our respect. There are two arguments
(a) Sleep is a delightful rest although it is only a substitute for death A long sleep is therefore even more pleasant
(b) Many of our best men die young Therefore there must be something attractive about death.
These arguments are contained in the OCTAVE.
Now we come to the SESTET. In the third quatrain, we are given three more reasons:
(a) Death is a slave to “Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men”
(b) Death must associate with weakness and evil.
(c) Death s no more efficient than opium.
In the final COUPLET, we are told that Death has no reason to be proud, as it involves only a short sleep before we enter eternal life.
Margaret Edson in W;t makes the point that the punctuation in Gardiner’s edition suggests there is a smooth transition between life and death:
E.M. ASHFORD: ....Do you think the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail?
The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life.
In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation:
And Death — capital D — shall be no more — semi-colon!
Death — capital D — comma — thou shalt die —
Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript source of 1610 — not for sentimental reasons, I assure you, but because Helen
Gardner is a scholar. It reads:
And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.
As she recites this line, she makes a little gesture at the comma.
Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.
This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
1 Wit – Margaret Edson, Nick Hern Books Limited
Soe, poore, mee, sleepe, bee, doe, poyson, warre, sicknesse, stroake
The poet again uses short one syllable Anglo Saxon words effectively to get a direct message out.
The sonnet is compact, strictly ordered and intense, posing rhetorical questions: .....Why’ should we fear Death? Why should Death feel proud?
‘For thou art not so’ —
There is a strange mixture of the conversational and the emphatic, which produces something like contempt.
The run—on lines .build up an excited spiritual tension:
Die not / poor death / nor yet / canst thou I kill mee/
From rest / and sleep / which but / thy pictures bee,
The poet pities death its impotence.
“Only Shakespeare can parallel the variety and distinctiveness of the voices Donne created (something Browning admired and imitated). The relationship between Donne and the speakers of his poems is something like that which dramatists have with their characters," ... We should be wary about reading the poems as straightforward autobiography”.1
1. Donne's "dialogue of one" - Paul Dean
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