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John Donne And The Psychology Of Death

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Poetry & Poets

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The seventeenth-century poet John Donne has gone down in the history of popular culture for three lines: 'No man is an island,' 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls -- it tolls for thee', and the opening of a poem called 'Death be not proud'. This last came from a collection of Donne's poems which came to be called the 'Holy Sonnets.' The name is possibly misleading, for it leads people to suppose that he wrote them after he became an ordained preacher. However, he actually wrote these several years before, when he was going through a severe and almost incapacitating depression. During this time Donne seems to have been thinking a great deal about his own mortality, as well as the relationship between God and himself. This paper will take a look at two of Donne's 'Holy Sonnets' and determine how his emotional states affected his opinions about the nature of Death.
According to Ian Ousby, writing in the Wordsworth Companion to English Literature, 'Much of Donne's poetry confronted the theme of death. In his Holy Sonnets, mostly written before he was ordained, there is the memorable poem beginning 'Death be not proud' and he was also the author of two notable poems commemorating the death of Elizabeth Drury, the daughter of his friend and patron. . . . Generally regarded as the foremost of the metaphysical poets, Donne was always an uneven writer. His secular poems were original, energetic, and highly rhetorical, full of passionate thought and intellectual juggling. . . . His adroitness in argument and his skill at impersonating different states of mind make Donne's poetry intense and often riddling (Ousby, 266).
Holy Sonnet #10 is certainly Donne's most famous poem, and possibly one of the most famous in English literature. 'Death be not proud,' it begins: 'though some have called thee/ mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so' (Donne, 89). Here Donne is saying that Death, who thinks he is so tremendously powerful, is not, so he might as well stop preening himself. This is certainly a surprising opening to the poem, because we do think of Death as all-powerful, and in the end the one thing we life-loving beings most fear.
He goes on: For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.' As Elizabeth Garza points out, here 'Donne clearly starts off by ridiculing Death. He says that even though some have called upon him, that does not make him the "almighty' . . . . Donne is feeling pity for Death [because] Death will not be able to kill him' (Garza, online source).
In his second quatrain Donne calls our normal nightly slumbers Death's 'pictures' -- in other words, Death is no more harrowing than falling asleep as we all do every night, an activity that causes us 'much pleasure.' Death's sleep just lasts a little longer: 'from thee much more must flow'. Eventually, even the best men go with death, and it's a vacation for them -- 'rest of their bones and soul's delivery!'
The third quatrain of this poem tells Death that actually, he is slave to men rather than the other way around, because there are many people sent deathward before their time. 'Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, and dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell' (Donne, 89) As Elizabeth Garza points out, 'Death has no power [because] fate controls him. By 'chance' [Donne] is referring to accidents; kings can order death; and desperate men can commit suicide.' Moreover, she adds, 'Donne again simply tells Death that there are many other things that we can do in order to "sleep." (Garza, Online Source) -- in Donne's words, 'poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/ and better than thy stroke' (Donne, 89)
A proper English sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet, intended to wrap the entire sonnet up nicely and provide the punchline (Main and Seng, 247). And this sonnet is no exception. 'One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die' is a wonderful ending. Here Donne points out that according to the tenets of his Christian faith, his 'death' is not permanent extermination at all, but simply a sleep like the ones he has every night; he fully and confidently expects to be resurrected into a new life with God, and when he does, Death will have no power over him. When this happens, Death will have no function for him, and therefore Death will die.
In Garza's words, 'One is given a different perspective on Death while reading Sonnet 10. Donne taunts Death and makes himself (or ...

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