Death & Poetry Part 4: Death Be Not Proud

(Note: this is the fourth and final post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

John Donne, in his poem “Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud” expresses explicit religious beliefs as the basis for his view of death. Where Dickinson hints at religious beliefs, Donne overtly states his beliefs and derives significant hope and courage from these views. In the past “people seemed to believe in God unquestionably; they believed in a hereafter, which was to relieve people of their suffering and their pain. There was a reward in heaven, and if we had suffered much here on earth we would be rewarded after death” (Kübler-Ross 13). Belief in God and an afterlife softens death’s blow and has the potential to give individuals like Donne significant confidence.

Donne portrays death as arrogant and argues for an attitude of confident hope in the face of death’s misguided pride. He seems to believe that if humans face death “with a kind of stoicism, death will meet with a natural death” (Patel 261). Donne does not fail to recognize death’s ferocious effect on many individuals, after all, “the very idea of death makes each and every creature of the world terror stricken. They try their best to escape death” (Patel 261). Yet, the poet’s prescribed remedy is to recognize God’s power over death, which renders death braggadocious but weak.

Beginning this poem, Donne writes, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so” (Lines 1-2). Determined to pull no punches, the speaker, from the start, states his intentions and challenges death’s sense of power. Continuing, the poet says, “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (Lines 3-4). Hinting at eternal life, Donne notes that those who die actually continue to exist. Accordingly, death cannot really kill anybody.

Donne makes an interesting argument in the following lines, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow” (Lines 5-6). Here he makes the claim that if rest and sleep are pictures of death and bring some level of enjoyment, then death cannot be too significantly terrible. Unpacking this argument, the speaker says, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery” (Lines 7-8). Death facilitates rest, the end of labor, and the transportation of the soul into eternal life.

Continuing his systematic dismantling of death’s sense of power, Donne argues that death serves others, meaning it has no reason for pride. He writes, “Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (Lines 9-10). In these lines the speaker points out that death’s achievements depend on these various agents. Further more death has to obey “the decree of these masters of death. Actually they summon death and order it to take away the life of the human beings” (Patel 263). To summarize these lines, Donne “boldly rejects the mightiness, powerfulness, and dreadfulness [of death]. He merely considers death a slave of destiny” (Patel 262).

In the next lines Donne compares death with drugs and argues that drugs do death’s job, only better. He says, “And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well / And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” (Lines 11-12). The poet thunderously concludes this poem by stating that everybody will wake from death eventually, rendering death dead. He writes, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (Lines 13-14).

As far as the structure of this poem goes, it reads much like a discourse or a challenge. Each attack builds on the previous one, with the apparent attempt to break death’s pride. Unlike the previous two poems that accentuated the disruptive nature of death and used disjointed rhyme and rhythm schemes, this poem comes across as controlled and calculated. Interestingly, Donne personifies death, similar to Dickinson’s method, but to a very different effect.

In summary Donne encourages his readers to have confidence in the face of death, for death’s power is an illusion. He goes on to methodically explain exactly why death has no power and ultimately, his basis for these statements is a belief in God and eternal life. If life continues after death, Donne asks us, why fear death?

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet X (Death Be Not Proud).” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Patel, Ramesh B. “Re-Critiquing/Redefining The Nature Of Death: A Study Of John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’.” International Journal Of Multidisciplinary Approach & Studies 2.2 (2015): 261-264. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

//

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something from it. I’d love to hear what you have to say, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 3: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

(Note: this is the third post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Rather than speaking as someone still alive, Emily Dickinson, in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” writes from the perspective of someone who already died. She highlights the complex nature and inevitability of death, and encourages her readers to accept it, but realize that it is not the end. After all, “death is normal [and] it is also the natural order of things” (Gawande 8). While she does not go so far as to say death is good or something worth looking forward to, Dickinson portrays death as moderately annoying but nothing extremely terrible. And because of the inevitability of death, we are better off accepting it than fighting it.

Similar to Thomas, Dickinson’s beginning lines bear significant weight and set the tone for the rest of the poem. She writes, “Because I could not stop for Death –  / He kindly stopped for me – ” (Lines 1-2). Dickinson implies that individuals are often too busy and preoccupied with life to die, yet death is merely an interruption, a “kind stop” of sorts. Further, “by anthropomorphizing Death as a kind and civil gentleman, the speaker particularizes Death’s characteristics with favorable connotations” (Shaw 20). Compared to commonly held negative views of death, Dickinson’s perspective is unique and potentially refreshing. However, one possible explanation for the speaker’s view of death is that we, as humans, “seem to fear and deny the reality of death. […] We use euphemisms, we make the dead look as if they were asleep, we ship the children off to protect them from the anxiety and turmoil” that surrounds the death process (Kübler-Ross 6). So while the speaker’s perspective might seem pleasingly positive, this euphemistic personification might be an attempt to deny the reality of death’s awfulness.

In another sense, however, these opening lines subtly acknowledge a component of death’s dreadfulness. Dickinson declares that individuals cannot decide when they die; therefore, this stopping is not discretionary. After all, “it is simply not her nature to stop for Death,” meaning that death is inevitable and quite deviant from human nature (Engle 74). Throughout this poem, Dickinson’s view of death comes across as multifaceted, which is admirable given death’s complex nature.

The next few lines highlight the complicated and intriguing view of death that Dickinson possesses. She implies that existence continues beyond death when she writes, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  / And Immortality” (Lines 3-4). Reiterating the inevitability and uncontrollability of death, she notes, “We slowly drove – / He knew no haste” (Line 5). Death operates at its own speed and does not change its course based on the whims of its victims. In the next lines the speaker discusses some of the multifaceted effects of death, saying, “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility – ” (Lines 6-8). Death marks the end of both work and leisure, which, if work is difficult and leisure is enjoyable, means death’s effects are net neutral.

Dickinson observes that death allows us to remember the past when she writes, “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess – in the Ring –” (Lines 9-10). She believes that death gives individuals an opportunity to consider the nature of life. She says, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  / We passed the Setting Sun –” (Lines 11-12). The phrase “fields of gazing grain” seems to symbolize the beginning of life, while the “setting sun” seems to symbolize the end of life. Therefore, it seems that death offers a comprehensive view of and appreciation for life and its brevity.

Continuing, Dickinson employs interesting imagery as she writes, “Or rather – He passed us – / The Dews drew quivering and chill – / For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle –” (Lines 13-16). These lines employ cryptic imagery, making their meaning difficult to determine. However, it is apparent that the speaker feels cold and potentially underprepared in the face of death. Dickinson, consequently, shows that by advocating acceptance, she does not assume the absence of fear or unpreparedness. By nature, death instigates some level of uneasiness. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s tone shifts slightly as she recommends acceptance in the following lines, “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground – / The Roof was scarcely visible – / The Cornice – in the Ground –” (Lines 17-20). This description spins death’s effects quite positively. If a grave is a home, then death marks a homecoming of sorts and should be welcomed.

Although the speaker’s situation was previously alluded to, it becomes apparent in the following lines when Dickinson writes, “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day” (Lines 21-22). These words make it clear that the speaker has already died and is commenting on the nature of life, death, and eternity. It seems that “viewing the progression of these stages – life, to death, to eternity – as a continuum invests these isolated incomprehensible events with meaning. From the eternal perspective, the speaker comprehends that life, like the ‘Horses Heads’ (23), leads ‘toward Eternity’ (24)” (Shaw 20). Undoubtedly, death has brought forth a greater meaning and significance to life, which can often feel brief or confusing. The final lines emphasize that death transports individuals to eternity, which is the final the destination, “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity – ” (Lines 23-24). Death and life are merely vehicles; eternity is the endpoint.

As far as the stylistic structure of this poem goes, Dickinson made a number of choices to accentuate the themes of the poem. The frequent dashes and unpredictable breaks in the lines highlight the interrupting and impulsive nature of death. Using a rhythm similar to a drumbeat, this poem emphasizes the systematic, indefatigable human march from life to death to eternity. Although this poem portrays the human experience of death, it employs a “nonlinear, dream-like progression,” which is fitting because humans may experience death or other traumatic situations in a nonlinear form (Engle 75).

To summarize this poem we must note that Dickinson’s complicated perspective describes death as a slight aggravation, but nothing close to an enemy. Because death interrupts life, individuals should acknowledge the brevity and value of life. Ultimately, death, as our benevolent chauffeur, transports us from life into eternity, which is where we belong. Thus, acceptance is the appropriate response to death. If there is an afterlife, then “death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss” (Hoepfner 96). Dickinson alludes to some sort of religious beliefs as she advocates for acceptance of death because it is not the end.

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Engle, Patricia. “Dickinson’s BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH.” Explicator 60.2 (2002): 72. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan , Henry Holt, 2014.

Hoepfner, Theodore C. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” American Literature 29.1 (1957): 96. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Shaw, M.N. “Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Explicator 50.1 (1991): 20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

//

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email with your reactions to this post. I’d love to hear what you have to say and thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 2: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

(Note: this is the second post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Thomas writes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” from the perspective of a son speaking to his dying father. He implores his father to vigorously fight despair at the end of life. In other words the speaker is “advocating active resistance to death immediately before death, not sad mourning after it” (Westphal 113). Thomas seems to believe that those who fail to resist death helplessly welcome despair and mourning. This poem describes death as an enemy and encourages a posture of animosity towards death.

The situation that Thomas speaks into is both serious and common. After all, “it is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if the life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age” (Kübler-Ross 2). Given the psychological struggle that mankind has with dying in this particular way, Thomas’ words bear even more weight.

Thomas begins this poem with the famous phrase, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Line 1). Through this line, Thomas urges his father (and his readers) to not bear of a posture of complacency and acceptance but to struggle in the face of death. He interestingly describes death as a “good night,” which stands paradoxically in contrast with his urges to “not go gentle.” Thomas continues, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 2-3). Just because an individual is old does not mean that person’s life should be any less passionate or vigorous than before, Thomas says. Life should always flourish, but death brings an end to this flourishing, and therefore, because it is unnatural in this sense, death should be resisted.

Further accentuating this unpleasantness, death in the modern era has characteristics that make it “more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely […] because the patient is often taken out of his familiar environment” (Kübler-Ross 7). Even surrounded by family death is inherently lonely because it cannot be experienced collectively. The brutality of death becomes exponentially more apparent once we realize that each of us must face death alone.

Based upon the reality of death’s ruthlessness, Thomas continues his exhortation of his father, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, / Because their words had forked no lightning they / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 4-6). These lines use some peculiar imagery and their meaning is by no means obvious. However, it appears that the speaker is noting that the wise acknowledge the imminence of death when he writes that they “at their end know dark is right.” Despite this knowledge, the wise still do not complacently go towards death; rather, their understanding enables them to resist death all the more.

Continuing with the descriptive imagery Thomas says, “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 7-9). The speaker singles out another group of people, “good men,” and say that they know that their lives could have been significant and beautiful if not cut short. For this reason he urges them to rage against the ending of life.

Life is short. Thomas notes, “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 10-12). Using the metaphor of the sun, the speaker describes how men, in the same instant that they celebrate life, also mourn death. Because of the natural brevity of life, death should be resisted.

As he continues, Thomas presents his father with an example of what life at the end could look like. He writes, “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 13-15). Even those with “blinding sight” (presumably the elderly) have the opportunity to “blaze like meteors and be gay.” Age is no excuse to give in to death and those who resist death have the opportunity to use their last moments productively.

Thomas follows up this example with a final exhortation to resist complacency at the end of life. He implores, “And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. / Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 16-19). In the face of death, the son begs his father for any sort of action. The giving of a blessing or even of a curse would be better than doing nothing. Thomas knows that all life deserves good stewardship and begs his father to seek to use his time well, even at the end of life.

Through the structure of this poem, Thomas further accentuates these themes. If one were to read this poem out loud, the listeners would likely notice the disjointed rhythm that these lines display. The pace of this poem does not resolve the way listeners might like, which mirrors the point that life rarely ends the way individuals would like. Considering that most of the lines are in groups of three, this poem’s rhyme is fairly unpredictable. This structural decision emphasizes that death is unpredictable and seldom behaves the way that we might like it to behave. These mechanical decisions highlight the ways that poetry can communicate uniquely and effectively, and the way that Thomas applied them to this subject matter.

In summary Thomas instructs his readers to deal with death by fighting it to the very end. In the face of death’s inevitability, Thomas commends attempting to make best possible use of every moment of life. A subtler theme in this poem is the idea that “death often brings with it a profound gratitude for life” (Burch 1896). Thomas emphasizes that, because it is the end of life, death often creates a sense of regret, or at least recognition of life’s true value and potential. It is also interesting to reemphasize that this poem is written from the perspective of a son to his father. This poem is not written by someone in the process of dying but rather by someone who is experience the secondary effects of death. But this fact serves as a reminder that death’s greatest negative effects are often on those left behind. As noted earlier, death creates isolation and “the real terror in death, for those dying as for those left behind, is the loneliness of it” (Burch 1896).

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Burch, Druin. “On Death.” Lancet 360.9348 (2002): 1896. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Westphal, Jonathan. “Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Explicator 52.2 (1994): 113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

//

I hope you found this post to be informative and relevant. Please leave your thoughts in a comment below or send them to me via email. And again, thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 1: Poetry as a Communication Medium

(Note: this is the first of four posts about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post outlines some unique characteristics of poetry as a method of communication, while the following posts will look at specific poems on the topic of Death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought-provoking.)

Assuming that writings that describe the human condition related to death bear importance, what makes poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death? Poetry stands as a distinctive form of communication for a number reasons, and these distinctions allow to poetry to aid individuals in inimitable ways.

First, poetry uses figurative language, which allows for the speaker to express ideas, which would be difficult to articulate via normal vocabulary. Barry Klassel in the article “The Two-Headed Calf: Poetry and the Experience of Being Human” writes, “Poetry is the art form that conveys aspects of human experience through a concentrated and precise use of language” (Klassel 2). Poetry utilizes many literary devices such as metaphors, similes, extended imagery, and rhymes, which set it apart from other types of communication. These characteristics allow poetry to express the human condition in figurative language, which is more effective in instances where literal explanations fall short. Poetry communicates “what is deeply felt and essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns. A poet uses language as a painter uses color, a primary material out of which to make art” (Alexander 18). Traumatic events like illness or death that might be difficult for the speaker to describe in normal terms can be retold through a medium such poetry, which allows for the manifestation of feelings and not just literal occurrences. Poetry provides the poet with a medium through which to manipulate language in unconventional ways.

Second, poetry allows the readers to experience what they would be unable to experience otherwise. Klassel again notes, “The power of poetry opens us to realms of experience we couldn’t visit otherwise (except, perhaps, through another art form such as film). And while good poetry has an immediate effect, it’s also multidimensional in its ability to evoke layers of meaning beyond first impressions” (Klassel 2). Poetry connects individuals to people and events, which they would be unable to experience, or even understand, otherwise. Events like traumatic illness and death can be described in understandable, relatable terms through poetry. Also, as this quote notes, the figurative language of poetry often leads to a multitude of potential meanings, indicating that poetry can instruct people in numerous ways. The same poem can impact the same individual in several ways over time, as these manifold meanings are uncovered. In a similar manner, “the poem in its act of meaning-making turns away from the literal, its truth bound to what can be evoked” (Alexander 18). For different listeners, different truths can be derived from poetry, giving this medium an extensive and diverse range of influence.

All of these characteristics make poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death.

 

For further reading, check out the following articles:

Alexander, Meena. “What Use Is Poetry?.” World Literature Today 87.5 (2013): 17-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

Klassel, Barry. “The Two-Headed Calf”: Poetry And The Experience Of Being Human.” Humanist 68.4 (2008): 30-33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

 

//

I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Also, stayed tuned for the next three post, which will expound on these ideas further.

Love and Faithfulness

Love is a challenging word to define. It doesn’t help that in the English language we use the same word to describe marital relationships (i.e. “I love my husband/wife”) that we use to describe feeling towards food (i.e. “I love bacon”). That being said, if I had to pick out one definitive characteristic of real love that I think sets it apart from “false love” (if that is even a term), I would choose faithfulness.

My favorite poem of all time, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, does an exemplary job of describing how love without faithfulness is not genuine.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

I really enjoy the powerful wording of this poem! Shakespeare argues that “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” (Lines 2-3). According to these lines, love does not change in the face of changing circumstances. Shakespeare calls love “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, ” meaning that real love faces difficulties without wavering (Lines 5-6). Shakespeare notes that genuine love does not give way as time goes by when he writes “love’s not time’s fool,” and “love alters not with his brief hours and weeks but bears it out even to the edge of doom” (Lines 9, 11-12).

This poem provides comfort and encouragement for married couples who undoubtedly  face obstacles in their love for one another. Personally, this poem encourages me through its message that real love is marked by faithfulness. If I say that I love my wife, I show my love for her by remaining faithful to her.

On a different, but related note, if love is marked by faithfulness, then I can have confidence in God’s love because of his faithfulness. The Old Testament, among other things, tells the story of God remaining faithful to his people despite their failure to reciprocate. When I am tempted to doubt God’s love for me, I can find great comfort in the fact that God has a spotless track record of remaining faithful to his people and to his promises (Deuteronomy 7:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:3). I can trust that he loves me and will do what he says he will do because he has proven himself to be faithful.

I realize that there’s undoubtedly a lot more that can be said about this topic. This post has really just scratched the surface of a very weighty and interesting subject. If you have thoughts that expound upon what I said or disagree with what I said, I’d love to hear them. These were just some ideas that I’d been mulling over for a while and thought might be helpful to some.

//

As stated above leave a comment or send me an email if you have a reaction to this post. Thanks for reading!