(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!