Monday, April 19, 2010

Death Be Not Proud by John Donne

After yesterday's poem, "Full Fathom Five" by William Shakespeare, I seriously considered posting about The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. I even spent hours reading and pondering yesterday, but it's a ridiculous notion - I could spend a week on that poem, and more than one post on any one section of it. My next thought was to post "I started Early - Took my Dog" by Emily Dickinson but I posted that one last year during National Poetry Month as part of this "Building a Poetry Collection" series.

Then I got to thinking about that bell in "Full Fathom Five", which led me to think of this passage from John Donne's Meditation XVII, presented here with modernized spellings:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Such a lovely snippet, though the entire Medititation is pretty great. The Meditation comes from Donne's religious persona. Donne lived in the late 16th and early 17th century, and wrote an interesting mix of work - some religious, some quite, um, not-religious.

About two hundred years after his birth, Dr. Samuel Johnson dubbed him a "Metaphysical Poet", part of (and in truth, founder of) a loosely associated group of poets who used art, history and religion as extended metaphor (known as a conceit, a word which here has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck-up. The Metaphysical Poets delighted in using what was considered unusual imagery and syntax in their poems. Expediency caused him to convert from Catholicism to the Anglican church; Donne was eventually forced by King James I to become an Anglican clergyman (by royal decree, preventing him from occupying any other job, no less).

Many of Donne's poems dwell on issues of death and mortality, including one of my favorites of his works, "Death Be Not Proud", which I've been remiss in not posting before. The poem is actually entitled "Holy Sonnet X" or "Divine Sonnet X", but is usually called by its first few words.

Death Be Not Proud
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are 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.

Form: It's a Petrarchan or Italianate sonnet written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) - that first line is written "death BE not PROUD though SOME have CALL-ed THEE" - when reading it aloud, however, I always go with modern pronunciations, which makes the line read as follows "DEATH BE not PROUD though SOME have CALLED thee". No sense torturing the language just to make the meter fit when the result sounds awkward to modern ears.

The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBACDDCEE (remembering that in Donne's day "eternally" rhymed with "die").

Discussion: The poem uses apostrophe, meaning that the poem is a poem of address directed to an imaginary figure or an abstract idea. Here, the poet speaks directly to death as if death were a person. (Rather like this Monty Python bit from The Meaning of Life, but I digress.)

Based in a Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, the poet chides death - heck, he practically taunts it - saying that death has nothing to be proud of, since it doesn't actually kill anyone.

Man, do I love this poem, which I memorized once upon a time after reading it in high school English class. These days, I only have the first full complete clause committed to memory: "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so."

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