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Death be not Proud (Holy Sonnets: X) -- John Donne

       
(Poem #796) Death be not Proud (Holy Sonnets: X)
 Death be not proud, though some have called thee
 Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
 For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
 Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
 From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
 Much pleasure: then from thee much more must flow,
 And soonest our best men with thee do go,
 Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
 Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
 And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
 And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
 And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
 One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
 And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
-- John Donne
 Written circa 1610.
 Form: Petrarchan sonnet.
 Meter: Iambic pentameter with occasional trochaic feet (inversions).
 Rhyme scheme: abbaabba cddcee.

Dylan Thomas explores a very similar theme in his magnificent villanelle "Do
Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" [1]. But where Thomas is all defiance
and fire in the face of a higher power, Donne is cool and restrained and,
indeed, mocking; his icy logic seems almost contemptuous of Death [2].

The conceit of Death being like a rest or a sleep is, of course, not new to
Donne [3], but the twist he gives it:
        "From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
         Much pleasure: then from thee much more must flow"
certainly is. The idea that Death, far from being a dread tyrant, is
actually at the beck and call of "fate, chance, kings, and desperate men",
and indeed, of anyone who can wield a sword or a poisoned chalice, is
equally fresh. "Poppy [4] and charms" are just as efficacious as Death in
inducing sleep. And the sleep of Death is not even permanent; instead, the
pure of heart wake to eternal life, where Death is banished forever.

thomas.

[1] See Minstrels poem #38.
[2] "Fire and Ice"; see Minstrels poem #779.
[3] See, for instance, Minstrels poem #126, an extract from "The Tempest":
                "... We are such stuff
        As dreams are made on, and our little life
        Is rounded with a sleep."
                -- William Shakespeare
[4] That is, opium.

[Appraisal]

Because almost none of Donne's poetry was published during his lifetime, it
is difficult to date it accurately. Most of his poems were preserved in
manuscript copies made by and passed among a relatively small but admiring
coterie of poetry lovers. Most current scholars agree, however, that the
elegies (which in Donne's case are poems of love, not of mourning),
epigrams, verse letters, and satires were written in the 1590s, the Songs
and Sonnets from the 1590s until 1617, and the "Holy Sonnets" and other
religious lyrics from the time of Donne's marriage until his ordination in
1615. He composed the hymns late in his life, in the 1620s. Donne's
Anniversaries were published in 1611-12 and were the only important poetic
works by him published in his lifetime.

Donne's poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the
conventions of 16th-century English verse, particularly that of Sir Philip
Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Even his early satires and elegies, which derive
from classical Latin models, contain versions of his experiments with genre,
form, and imagery. His poems contain few descriptive passages like those in
Spenser, nor do his lines follow the smooth metrics and euphonious sounds of
his predecessors. Donne replaced their mellifluous lines with a speaking
voice whose vocabulary and syntax reflect the emotional intensity of a
confrontation and whose metrics and verbal music conform to the needs of a
particular dramatic situation. One consequence of this is a directness of
language that electrifies his mature poetry. "For Godsake hold your tongue,
and let me love", begins his love poem "The Canonization", plunging the
reader into the midst of an encounter between the speaker and an
unidentified listener. Holy Sonnet XI opens with an imaginative
confrontation wherein Donne, not Jesus, suffers indignities on the cross:
"Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side..."

From these explosive beginnings, the poems develop as closely reasoned
arguments or propositions that rely heavily on the use of the conceit --
i.e., an extended metaphor that draws an ingenious parallel between
apparently dissimilar situations or objects. Donne, however, transformed the
conceit into a vehicle for transmitting multiple, sometimes even
contradictory, feelings and ideas. And, changing again the practice of
earlier poets, he drew his imagery from such diverse fields as alchemy,
astronomy, medicine, politics, global exploration, and philosophical
disputation. Donne's famous analogy of parting lovers to a drawing compass
affords a prime example. The immediate shock of some of his conceits aroused
Samuel Johnson to call them "heterogeneous ideas ... yoked by violence
together". Upon reflection, however, these conceits offer brilliant and
multiple insights into the subject of the metaphor and help give rise to the
much-praised ambiguity of Donne's lyrics.

The presence of a listener is another of Donne's modifications of the
Renaissance love lyric, in which the lovers lament, hope, and dissect their
feelings without facing their ladies. Donne, by contrast, speaks directly to
the lady or some other listener. The latter may even determine the course of
the poem, as in "The Flea", in which the speaker changes his tack once the
woman crushes the insect on which he has built his argument about the
innocence of lovemaking. But for all their dramatic intensity, Donne's poems
still maintain the verbal music and introspective approach that define lyric
poetry. His speakers may fashion an imaginary figure to whom they utter
their lyric outburst, or, conversely, they may lapse into reflection in the
midst of an address to a listener. "But O, selfe traytor", the forlorn lover
cries in "Twickham Garden" as he transforms part of his own psyche into a
listener. Donne also departs from earlier lyrics by adapting the syntax and
rhythms of living speech to his poetry, as in "I wonder by my troth, what
thou, and I/Did, till we lov'd?". Taken together, these features of his
poetry provided an impetus for the works of such later poets as Robert
Browning, William Butler Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

Donne also radically adapted some of the standard materials of love lyrics.
For example, even though he continued to use such Petrarchan conceits as
"parting from one's beloved is death", a staple of Renaissance love poetry,
he either turned the comparisons into comedy, as when the man in "The
Apparition" envisions himself as a ghost haunting his unfaithful lady, or he
subsumed them into the texture of his poem, as the title "A Valediction:
forbidding Mourning" exemplifies. Donne's love lyrics provide keen
psychological insights about a broad range of lovers and a wide spectrum of
amorous feelings. His speakers range from lustful men so sated by their
numerous affairs that they denounce love as a fiction and women as objects
-- food, birds of prey, mummies -- to platonic lovers who celebrate both the
magnificence of their ladies and their own miraculous abstention from
consummating their love. Men whose love is unrequited feel victimized and
seek revenge on their ladies, only to realize the ineffectuality of their
retaliation. In the poems of mutual love, however, Donne's lovers rejoice in
the compatibility of their sexual and spiritual love and seek immortality
for an emotion that they elevate to an almost religious plane.

Donne's devotional lyrics, especially the "Holy Sonnets", "Good Friday 1613,
Riding Westward", and the hymns, passionately explore his love for God,
sometimes through sexual metaphors, and depict his doubts, fears, and sense
of spiritual unworthiness. None of them shows him spiritually at peace.

The most sustained of Donne's poems, the Anniversaries, were written to
commemorate the death of Elizabeth Drury, the 14-year-old daughter of his
patron, Sir Robert Drury. These poems subsume their ostensible subject into
a philosophical meditation on the decay of the world. Elizabeth Drury
becomes, as Donne noted, "the Idea of a woman", and a lost pattern of
virtue. Through this idealized feminine figure, Donne in The First
Anniversarie: An Anatomie of the World laments humanity's spiritual death,
beginning with the loss of Eden and continuing in the decay of the
contemporary world, in which men have lost the wisdom that connects them to
God. In The Second Anniversarie: Of the Progres of the Soule, Donne, partly
through a eulogy on Elizabeth Drury, ultimately regains the wisdom that
directs him toward eternal life.

        -- EB

[Minstrels Links]

Poems by John Donne:
Poem #330, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
Poem #384, "Song"
Poem #403, "A Lame Beggar"
Poem #465, "The Sun Rising"
The first of these has a generous EB article on the Metaphysical poets in
general, and Donne in particular. It also happens to be one of my favourite
poems of all time - read it!

49 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Kerry Marks said...

Can you please write to me the theme of the poem death be not proud and explain it to me very spucificly? Thank you,
A Fan

Martin DeMello said...

--- Gayle's New Account wrote:
> Could you please explain the line "For those whom thou think'st thou dost
> overthrow" in Death, be not proud." I am lost on this one.

It's a run-on line: "For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, Die
not", i.e., "you may think you have overthrown them, but they do not really
die". Donne goes on to say that he is one such - "nor yet canst thou kill me".

martin

Gayle's New Account said...

Could you please explain the line "For those whom thou think'st thou dost
overthrow" in Death, be not proud." I am lost on this one.

Thank you
Gayle

patrick okane said...

well i noticed someone said this has an abbaabba cddcee, its cddcae, and im not sure if its petrarchan as it also fits into an irregular shakespearean sonnet form, not only irregular petrarchan. any feedback i have an essay on this to do! for monday!

Rileybelt said...

when was john donnes' birthday anyone??

Asha Orie said...

Derek Parker beleives John Donne was born between Jan 24th and June 19th
1572, from his book John Donne and his world. This is all I have found on
his birthdate.
Warren.

Asha Orie said...

can you please tell me whom wrote this article and who might be " EB " at
the bottom the the last notes here

Thx Warren

writing a paper due wed Mar 12th
and want to give credit for wks cited

Martin DeMello said...

--- Asha Orie wrote:
> can you please tell me whom wrote this article and who might be " EB " at
> the bottom the the last notes here
>
> Thx Warren
>
> writing a paper due wed Mar 12th
> and want to give credit for wks cited

Thanks for taking the trouble. The article was written by Abraham Thomas,and EB
is the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

martin

Siu S Chan said...

This is a good poem. However I don't understand what "Death be not proud" is about.

Ratchadaporn Thanathavornlap said...

Could you please explain this poem to me?What is it about?I really don't understand it. Thank you so much...

JW Schultz said...

I think the first explanation on this page hit very close to home, but
sort of skirted around the real powerful meaning of the poem. It says
Death is not even permanent because "the pure of heart wake to eternal
life." This suggests Donne's intention without really revealing it fully;
Donne was a clergyman. This, like his other Holy Sonnets, and indeed,
like almost every sonnet ever written, is about love - in this case,
Donne's love for his God. The jubilant final lines are a clear reference
to Heaven, to blessed eternal life. The entire poem is an allusion to a
Bible passage - from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

"When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the
mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death
has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be
to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1
Corinthians 15:54-57, NIV)

Also - I love this site, and I think it's a wonderful idea.
John Schultz

LuVaOf1BsB said...

Hi...we are studying the works of donne in class and in "death be not proud",
we know that it has something to do with death being related to a mortal and
how death can die because the human soul lives an eternal life but could the
extended metaphor also be about sex since donne has written sonnets relating to
sex? They do discuss "pleasure" and also in line 7 they refer to "best men
with thee to go" can that represent sperm traveling inside a woman to impregnate
her? Please let me know if this is possible. Thank You.

Texasroots44 said...

As a class assignment, we were asked to research why John Donne wrote "Death
be not proud". Is there any information on this? I would appreciate any help
on this.

claude forton said...

"Death be not proud....' as a recurring theme in Emma Thompson's 2002 HBO
film "Wit',
reaches beyond those of us with stage 4 metastatic cancer ("there is no
stage 5," to quote the script)
and illustrates the feeling that the only uncertainty in Death's arrival is
the
way in which we prepare for the moment.
Those who study Donne might benefit from Ms Thompson's dramatization....
"death,..."

frederick white

Jilli752 said...

Excellent essay on Donne's "Death Be Not Proud". However, it is my
understanding that there is actually a comma rather than a semi-colon in the last
line: ...."And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." It is also my
understanding that the comma represents sybolism in the message such that
there is only a pause between Death and eternal Life.

Does anyone know if the original writing has a comma or a semi-colon or is
this just a grammatical and symbolic interpretation by certain scholars?

Thanks!
Jill Lindsey

Jilli752 said...

Excellent essay on Donne's "Death Be Not Proud". However, it is my
understanding that there is actually a comma rather than a semi-colon in the last
line: ...."And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." It is also my
understanding that the comma represents sybolism in the message such that
there is only a pause between Death and eternal Life.

Does anyone know if the original writing has a comma or a semi-colon or is
this just a grammatical and symbolic interpretation by certain scholars?

Thanks!
Jill Lindsey

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Abdullah Sujee said...

uEvery soul shall taste of death." - Al-Quran.
uThe Angel of Death is the agent of Allah to end the days of our lives.
uAll forms of calamities, 'fate, chance, kings and desperate men.' are the excuses for the Angel to do his task so that humankind will not blame him (Angel of Death).
uThe Angel of Death follows Allah's command.

Haydn2 said...

I do not understand the poem Death, be not proud. Can you explain?

Thanks
Tina

JoEmUneE said...

This title was used by Ernest Hemingway to show his emotions about his other
son John.
We studied this book in high school in 1964 and the teacher told us that
this information would not be available after the year 2000.

Anonymous said...

death is but present for a short while and it affects all of us but we should not fear death,death be not proud...........

Anonymous said...

great poem♥!!

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Anonymous said...

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SPEAKER AND ADRSESSE IN DEATH BE NOT PROUD

Anonymous said...

GUYZ IM ASKING

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