Laughing in the face of death



Look at this:
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 picture[s] 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’rt 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.

Well- what do you think ?

Let’s get the technical details out of the way first. It’s a sonnet- with an eight line section ( octet) a quatrain (four lines) and a final couplet to round it off. Did you notice that ? Maybe not, because Donne doesn’t draw attention to the structure of the poem- in fact he almost tries to hide it.

You know how bad poetry rumbles along like a train over a bumpy track…the diddley dee rhythm, the regular thumps as it goes over the points? Donne is brighter than that. He writes a steady, five beat line, but both the rhythm and the rhyme are undermined by the sense. Look at the number of commas he uses- they’re the pauses of ordinary day to day speech.What gives life to the poem is the conflict between the way it’s written ( the structure) and the meaning. Clever, isn’t he ?

Donne is talking ( and I mean- talking) to Death. Death is not the end point, the bringer of oblivion. He ( now why did I write ‘he’ I wonder) is not ‘mighty and dreadful’ as some people think. He is not The Master, but a slave to ‘Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,”
Death is nothing more than an inconvenience- an extended sleep. “ Why swell’st thou, then ?” taunts Donne, and then finishes with the ringing paradox : “ Death shalt be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”

It’s a resounding declaration of faith. There is a life after death, says Donne. But when you look at it again, you start to wonder. Donne has faith, yes- but he doesn’t have certainty. He doesn’t know there’s an afterlife- he has faith that there is. And is there a certain whistling in the dark in those last two lines ? A hint of fear perhaps ?

I don’t know. This is a wonderfully complex and teasing poem. It’s full of resonances and implications. “ Holy Sonnet X” does what all good poetry should do- it engages your mind and it reaches down into your heart.

Let me know what you think. Oh…by the way…can I put MP3’s onto WordPress, and if so ?

John Donne 1572-1631


Look at this man. Face like an axe blade, a sensualists’s mouth. What is he looking at, out of the frame ? A pretty woman ? Probably.

This is John Donne .
The shape-shifter. Born a Catholic in a time of persecution, he knew family members who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Around the time this portrait was painted, he was toying with aetheism- which was also punishable by death. Later in his life he became an Anglican and ended up Dean of St Paul’s. He was The Man Who Loved Women ( “a great frequenter of plays..and ladies” said a contemporary.) His erotic poetry is so powerful, you have the feeling he’s just jumped out of bed to write it down, leaving the girl asleep under the covers.

When he did marry, he made an unfortunate choice- the niece of his master, Sir Thomas Egerton, who did not approve. Donne was put in prison until the marriage was proved valid. They were banished to to a village in Surrey, where he scratched a living as a lawyer, working at the kitchen table as a pack of children played around his feet.

Then he began a second career….this time as an Anglican priest. In 1615 he was made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and by 1621, he was Dean of St Paul’s.

By this time, the libertine had turned into … a kind of mystic. The erotic passion of his early years had turned into something deeper. You could say that he began a love affair with God- full of joy and doubt, pleadings and exulations. His religious poetry still has the same passion and drive, intellectual toughness and theatricality- but he’s talking to, shouting at…God.

Remember that I said the two main subjects of poetry are sex and death ?

He did both, often at the same time.

Next time we’ll look at one of his sonnets. It’s tricky, contradictory, and hard to understand.

So be there.

Right ?