Sonnet Interpretation: The Poetry of Death Explanation in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X
Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne conveys its speaker’s attitude towards death. This speaker believes that death should not hold its current place in the human imagination as something “mighty and dreadful” (line 2.) Not only does the speaker hold this belief, he believes it strongly and wants his audience to do so as well. Therefore, the poem serves not only to share the speaker’s views on death but to share his conviction for this belief. The best format with which to accomplish this goal is a well-organized sonnet.
The poem is in some ways set up like an argumentative essay; it has a clear introduction presenting his thesis, each individual step of that thesis is explained and given support one after the other and at the end is a conclusion driving home the overall message. This method makes the meaning of the poem very unambiguous. Such a methodical, concise means of presenting his argument also makes the speaker seem very direct and straightforward.
If the piece were a formal essay each step in the presentation of the speaker’s argument would be separated by a paragraph break; in other forms of poetry stanzas would fulfil the same function. In a sonnet there are no line breaks to delineate different steps in the speaker’s argument; instead, the speaker relies on the more subtle mechanics of the poem’s end rhyme structure. The rhyme scheme of a sonnet allows the speaker to pair the lines composing each section of his argument, while the breaks in rhyme delineate the introduction, his first premise, second premise, and finally the speaker’s conclusion. By indicating shifts from section to section with rhyme the speaker needs no line breaks. The lack of line breaks makes the piece look and sound more condensed, which further reinforces the emotions of the speaker.
The first two lines of the poem are an excellent introduction quickly stating the overall topic of the work as well as setting the tone for the work; succinct, and aggressive. The first statement made, “Death, be not proud,” perfectly characterizes one of the speaker’s primary vehicles for driving his aggressive conviction home to his audience. The statement is phrased as order and is blatantly insulting. To insult someone this baldly is rarely done in polite society because of the resentment it inspires yet despite this the speaker is absolutely willing to insult death and do it in front of others. By using personification to address death directly, as though it were a person, allows the speaker to easily communicate his feeling towards it. As social creatures, human communication is far more geared to convey people’s feelings about one another than about abstract concepts such as death. An abstract discussion of death will not carry the same emotional firepower as a man challenging another man. This firepower is exactly what the speaker wants.
Since the speaker set out to debunk both the sense of dreadfulness as well as the sense of mightiness they are best debunked one at a time. Lines three and four begin the speaker’s arguments to deny that death is dreadful. The lines state that those whose death has taken are not truly dead and can never truly be killed. If taken literally these lines would make little sense; if however Donne’s firm belief in the apocalypse, that when the world ends all souls will be brought back to life to live with God, is taken into account they make far more sense. To say someone has died implies permanence. Therefore, if everyone is destined to rise from the dead at some point in the future it could be implied that no one ever truly dies.
In addition to the development of the speaker’s argument line, four contributes to the sense of adversarial zeal possessed by the speaker. Rather than being content to say that those death thinks dead are not dead the speaker says, “nor yet canst thou kill me” challenging death directly. The urge to challenge death personally shows zeal and generates energy around the speaker.
In lines five and six the speaker first decides that if people can “wake up” from death then death is like any other kind of rest, like sleeping which “thy pictures be.” It seems that for the speaker if it looks like duck or kind of sleep and acts like one it is a kind of sleep. Once the speaker has established rest and death as being akin to one another he points out that rest causes people to feel better and that if death is simply a glorified kind of rest it would likely provide even greater comfort than sleep. Thus death would cause if anything, comfort rather than anything worthy of fear.
The nature of that comfort is quite obvious especially in light of the religious assumptions already made and is laid out in lines seven and eight. The only place where “our best men” go for their “soul’s delivery” is heaven. This is the speaker’s last blow to the idea of death as something dreadful, or bad and fear-inspiring. If death is how good men enter heaven it should seem about as threatening as the Easter bunny. Rather than some scary harmful thing the speaker concludes that death is healthy, even beneficial.
Line nine begins the second group of lines which could for convenience’s sake be referred to as body paragraphs. While the prospect of death as something dreadful was debunked the issue of death as something mighty remains, or in other words the commonly held belief that death has some sort of energy, authority, and power over the world. Unlike dreadfulness possessing might does not necessarily mean death is bad.
Lines nine and ten begin tearing at peoples vision of empowered death by pointing out that death does not cause itself, death is a side effect of the various things that may cause death such as war, cruel men, disease, and chance. Death is an effect rather than a cause. The power lies not with death but with the countless different things that can cause it. Whereas the common view of death at the beginning of the work was something to be afraid of death is now best compared to a slave. Rather than end his journey to defang the image of death the speaker presses harder.
Lines eleven and twelve point out that not only is a side effect, it isn’t even a unique effect. Drugs can put us to sleep in much better ways than death can. This is the last of the speaker’s points concerning the lack of might help by death. At the end of line twelve, the speaker asks, “why swell’st thou then?” as if to taunt death after its false power has been debunked.
The final two lines of the poem bring the line of thought present in the entire poem full circle both logically and emotionally into a kind of crescendo when the speaker points out that once the apocalypse occurs and man becomes immortal the only thing to die in the permanent sense of the word would be the very concept of death itself. The couplet possessing a different metric pattern than the rest of the poem clearly marks the end of the work.
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 behaviour 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” (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 types 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 mindset.” 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 can concentrate his thoughts and love on God. By ascending to the skies, Anne ceases to be competitive 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 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 to read a few lines 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-centred,” (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 conventionally fear death, 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.