|Antonio S. Oliver
Views of Death in Donne’s Poetry
John Donne’s complex personality plays an important role in his poetry. His intellect, and as a result his work, demonstrates various opinions that at times conflict or agree with each other. These opposing views represent one of the most fascinating aspects of his poetry. Seldom is this divergence presented as clearly and frequently as in the theme of death, as will be illustrated by the following essay.
As with most poets of his time, Donne was obsessed with death. Mesmerized by its mysteries, charmed by its allure, and convinced of the existence of an afterlife (as a result of Christian theology), he finds himself at times unable to settle on a particular view of the subject. While a considerable portion of Donne’s opus deals with death either directly or indirectly, some poems depict death as insignificant while others present it as something he, and therefore humans, should fear. As a Christian, Donne believed (although perhaps did not understand) the concept of an afterlife. This conviction is shown by his understanding of death as a necessary stage before reaching the glory of heaven, the promised life with God. His contradictory behavior is demonstrated by a fear of death, sometimes expressed in his search for ways in which he could triumph over it instead of becoming its victim, which fueled his interest in the practice of suicide.
One of the Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud, presents the contradictory views of Donne. The opening lines, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so“ demonstrate his own uncertainty on the issue, since that “some” he mentions includes him at times. However, he denies the power of death in the very next line, and proceeds to list several reasons why. The people whom death believes it kills do not “cease to live” (in order to avoid the use of the word ‘death’); death does not have such powers. Death is not all-powerful, since it is part of God’s creation. Furthermore, death is not an end to life. Rather, it is a kind of “sleep,” a middle stage to cross before being reunited with the creator.
The final part of the fourth line presents a familiar trait of Donne’s poetry: its theme shifts from death to Donne himself. Although it is not an extreme example, for he focuses on death and himself, it demonstrates his conviction that a poem is worth writing if it regards him in some way. “Nor yet canst thou kill me/From rest and sleep” serves to reinforce the idea of death as a mere transitory stage between the earthly and the after-lives. “Soonest our best men with thee do go” is used by Donne to remind the reader that death is not a punishment only a few people receive, but an occurrence everyone will and must endure. The fact that the even “our best men” will embark on death’s journey reinforces the previous argument, possibly targeted at those who fear death as the final chapter of their existence. The subsequent line explains both the physical and spiritual need for death, since it provides “rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.” Not only will it rejuvenate the body, but also the spirit, readying it for the glorious return of Christ and the afterlife.
The poem’s next two lines wound death’s pride and diminish its power, since Donne argues death cannot act alone. An accomplice is needed to complete its mischievous deeds. A rather comprehensive list of partners is presented: fate, chance, kings, and desperate men. Death’s might must bow down to mere chance at times, and humans of such different ranks as kings and desperate beggars can obligate death to act. Thus, death is nothing special, if it can be ordered by men of such different walks of life. While poison, war, and sickness may result in death, its actual effect is as insignificant as the one resulting from mere exhaustion or drunkenness. Donne is convinced both death and sleep are the same type of action, and as result, he makes no distinction between them. The poem ends by remarking that after the resting period that death constitutes, humans will enter the afterlife, a period in which death itself will cease to exist. The poem ends in a paradox, as Donne concludes: “and death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.“
Donne’s wife’s death in 1617 was a prolific source of inspiration for Donne’s poetry. Another Holy Sonnet, XVII, is entirely dedicated to her loving memory. Once again he presents his belief of death as a mere transitory stage between the earthly and eternal life, and appears to be resigned to his fate. According to him, Anne has “paid her last debt” on earth. Her absence is not a cause for concern or pain, for “her soul early into heaven ravished/Wholly in heavenly is my mind set.” That is, her death has been beneficial, since it has allowed her to join God in the afterlife while freeing him from earthly concerns. Therefore, Donne profits from her death since he is able to concentrate his thoughts and love on God. By ascending to the skies, Anne ceases to be competition against the higher being for Donne’s affection, although, as the end will prove, this does not assure his or her wellbeing.
Donne’s effort to downplay the death of his wife fails, however, when he exclaims “though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed/A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.” Scholars have debated the meaning behind these lines, but they seem to express Donne’s discontent with relinquishing his wife to God in order to love him more. By being unable to transfer all this love to God, the poem turns into a bitter series of complaints to the deity.
The sonnets discussed above share the common bond of death as a theme, but differ in their representation of the subject. Although the topic of death is the main focus of both, one need only read a few lines in order to comprehend the difference between the content of the poems. In Death Be Not Proud, Donne mounts an impressive tirade against death, culminating in a celebration of its lack of power. In Holy Sonnet XVII, his visions of death are not identical since an attempt to come to terms with his wife’s absence forces yet another search of death’s significance. One would be justified in thinking that his original idea about death is greatly influenced by his wife’s decease, and Donne, unable to decide on a new opinion, embarks on a journey to find his true feelings, although sonnet XVII gives the impression he has yet to find them.
Although the main focus of both poems is death, Donne’s ego manages to steal the spotlight. In Death Be Not Proud, he manages to defend humankind against death, possibly because he feels he cannot be defeated by God. This claim is more explicitly shown in sonnet XVII, which commences as another attack on death but concludes as a protest against God for the taking of his wife. While he is indeed objecting to this action by God, the pain of loss of his wife overshadows his earlier beliefs and declarations against death. Carey writes that Donne’s “feeling of loss is self-centered,” (44) questioning the real motives behind the poem. This trait, however, is not exclusive to these sonnets, since it can be found in most of Donne’s work.
In closing, Donne’s concerns about death are well documented, as a considerable amount of his work presents references to the subject. As with most themes in his work, however, he often changes his opinion, leaving a perplexed reader to attempt to find his real belief on the subject. It is safe to assume he did not fear death in the conventional manner, for he believed in the concept of an afterlife. His faith in Christian theology calmed those fears and doubts, but at times he searched for answers to questions about death, answers that had no explanation. For this reason, his poetry is highly paradoxical, a quality that only adds to its richness and attractiveness, much to the delight of its readers.
Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Carey, John, Ed. John Donne: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.