“Making Sense of John Donne’s Death”
by Angela Hadley
Death. The topic provokes anxiety in most human beings. Fomeshi states, “Death is an inevitable destiny for humans, and for this reason it has always permeated his/her thoughts at all levels” (77). It is in response to this fear that humans find ways to calm themselves with the reality of this inevitable fate: all things must die. Perhaps this preoccupation with death is why literature has manifested so many pieces about the subject. John Donne is among the authors who have developed such a fascination, some suggest an obsession, with death. “Death Be Not Proud” is a prime example of his obsession. Putting on the lens of a deconstructive critic, one can discover the instability of Donne’s ranting about and to Death. Nance explains, “Deconstruction is interested in the idea that meaning breaks apart; if you look too closely at any text it no longer holds meaning, it falls apart.” Through this method of criticism, a reader can deconstruct the poem and analyze how Donne’s meaning cannot hold. Furthermore, a more psychological battle becomes apparent when reading “Death Be Not Proud,” as the speaker is trying to convince himself that he will reach eternal life and escape Death. An analysis of “Death Be Not Proud” illustrates the instability of Donne’s poem with a narrator who speaks to Death as an entity of consciousness, who tries to compare death to going to sleep, and who unsuccessfully states that Death will die.
As a devout Catholic, John Donne lived in a Protestant, Anglican Britain that was hostile to his faith. This political environment and his early introduction to death, his father dying when he was only four years old, sparked his interest in death (Greenblatt 1371). Donne also lost his brother, his young wife, and five of his children during the early part of his lifespan. Perhaps these losses and the repression of his religious freedom created an increasing uncertainty around his place in the world. According to Greenblatt, “Donne came increasingly to be engaged in anxious contemplating of his own morality” (1371). During his youth, he wrote pieces of literature that were reflective of the promiscuous courtier that he had once been, but he matured into an author who created some of the most beautiful religious verses in English. His journey through life progressed from the Catholic family that became conforming Protestants, “to the military adventurer who raided Cadiz with the Earl of Essex, to the rising civil servant who wrecked his career for love, to the harassed father scrabbling to support an every-increasing brood” (Smith). Greenblatt suggests that Donne’s writings demand that readers use an exceptional degree of mental attention and participation, whether they are his sonnets or his sermons.
An analysis of “Death Be Not Proud” illustrates the instability of Donne’s poem by revealing a narrator who speaks to Death as an entity of consciousness: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee” (1). The speaker fluctuates between talking to Death, about death itself, then back again to talking at Death. The narrator of Donne’s poem addresses Death as if speaking to another person. The narrator is not talking about death or dying, but talking to a conscious self. The speaker goes on to admonish Death to not be full of pride or arrogance as he walks around the realm of mortal man, even though humans might treat this entity like one who deserves reverence, “mighty and dreadful” (2). How is Death an individual who can be spoken to? The speaker almost comes off as one who is standing there talking to the air, no one truly listening. The speaker is voicing his opinion of Death like he is one who does not fear it at all, yet he truly sounds as though his ranting is an attempt to convince himself that he is not afraid. One can deconstruct this approach to reflect that Donne is the one speaking to Death and trying to convince himself that he is not afraid of dying. Fomeshi states “his preoccupation with the instability of life and the ruthless perpetuity of death makes him a death-poet” (77).
Donne suffered many personal tragedies in his life and appears to channel his distaste for death all through this poem. Personifying death, instead of discussing the basic biological function of how it is the end of the journey, shows the internal struggle to accept that all things that live must, at some point, die. If indeed Death were a conscious self, then pride would be an expected reaction to doing his job well. Any person who accomplishes a task or duty given to them should feel pride in themselves; it is basic human nature. But to preach to Death to not be proud is like undermining the importance of his duty. He is supposed to bring humans from the mortal realm to the afterlife. So, for the speaker to tell Death to not be proud of a job well done is like treating him as an individual of less value. Furthermore, Death is a bully, “mighty and dreadful,” going around scaring people, and the speaker is not one of those scared people.
Another illustration of the instability of this sonnet appears when the speaker compares Death to sleep. For starters, sleep is something that one will eventually wake up from, whereas death is not. How can the pleasures of sleeping be similar to the pain of dying? Unless the speaker is hinting at hidden thoughts of suicide, why would death be considered pleasurable? The speaker is convincing himself that, if he dies, that it will be just like going to sleep, including the painless and pleasurable feelings that accompany it: “From rest and sleep, which by thy pictures be,/ Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow” (5-6). The speaker asserts that sleep and rest are lighter images of death; Death is the real deal, instead of just the portraits that rest and sleep are. If the most pleasure one can endure is that of Death, sleep and rest are just glimpses of the magnitude of pleasure that Death can bring. This outlook makes the narrator sound like he cannot wait until he can die and feel these pleasures. McCabe suggests that critiquing literature is more than just interpreting what the author is trying to say in the text, but reinterpreting that meaning to reflect his own principles (82). So, is the speaker not scared of Death and happily waiting for it to come for him?
Just a few lines earlier this was not the case: “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow/ Die not, poor Death, not yet canst thou kill me” (3-4). Donne’s speaker in these lines tells of how Death is all high and mighty, like a king who can be “overthrown,” and that Death cannot kill him. But if Death is supposed to be the most pleasurable experience, then why is the speaker addressing Death as if he cannot be killed by Death? If Donne was such a devout Catholic, then how can he write about going against Death? In the Christian faith, Death is considered the gateway or transition to everlasting life in heaven. Perhaps if this speaker is reflecting his Creator, then the contradictions present in this piece so far show the conflicting reality of how Death is perceived by Donne. The sonnet does an about-face from a narrator standing up to Death and trying to put Death’s arrogance and ego in check, to one who embraces the great pleasures that Death will bring.
A further reading of “Death Be Not Proud” addresses the reality that the good die young: “And soonest our best men with thee do go” (7). Line seven speaks of how only the “best men” die, insinuating that the average men and any women continue living a mundane existence of life. Instead of stating that some die young because of the circumstances of their lives, there is just the generalized opinion that the best men die young. There is almost the hint that those who die young, the “best men,” are so brave and courageous that they volunteer to die before the rest: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.” This makes Death sound like one who will carry those who die young into a comfortable place where they can forever relax and be at peace (8). So why again shouldn’t Death be proud of himself? If Death can carry souls into a peaceful place where rest and relaxation begin, then he is one who would be revered and looked up to. The presence of Death brings on pleasurable thoughts and feelings, just like one might view sleep. Even though the sonnet begins with a calling out of Death’s pride, the flow of the piece enlightens one to the good Death accomplishes. Yes, Death might be a proud individual, and rightfully so with what peace he brings to humanity.
Yet another contradiction occurs in the sonnet. The speaker goes from ranting at Death, to discussing the positives Death brings, to again taunting Death with ill comments: “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” (9). So now the narrator is ugly towards Death, again taunting him calling him a slave. Death is at the service of things like fate and chance. This indicates that Death has no power at all, and is just the cleanup crew for the two. Now Death is portrayed more like a person, at the will of others and not free to act on his own, helplessly controlled by others and only existing to do their bidding. Deconstruction emphasizes the importance of the power of language and how readers interpret that language to make sense of what they are reading (Rollins 14). Nealon states, “Deconstruction involves a double reading, a neutralization, and a reinscription” (1269). From this theoretical perspective, the speaker seems to have shifted to a more hostile attitude towards Death now. The narrator even goes in for a deeper blow to the pride of Death by stating “And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (10). Earlier, Death is compared to the greatest pleasure life can offer; now he is compared to the most painful and hurtful things in life. Poison, war, and sickness are bedfellows with Death, things that are not associated with pleasure. Most of the time, the death that results from one of these things is not a pleasurable one, but one of great pain and suffering. But if Death is the same as the most pleasurable sleep, as the speaker pointed out in earlier lines, then how can it be in league with such horrors?
Another twist in the discussion shows that one might not even need Death to feel this pleasurable sleep that Death can bring: “And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/ And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou them?” (11-12). So now we have gone from Death being the most pleasurable sleep, to acknowledging that drugs and magic charms can replicate this event even better. The speaker baits Death, suggesting that one doesn’t even need Death to feel these things. The use of the word “stroke” can have multiple meanings in this poem. It can refer to Death “stroking” one’s head as he lulls one into the “deep sleep” of Death, as a mother might her child. The speaker has now brought Death down a notch and reminds him not to “swell” like one would with pride in a job well done.
Additionally, the next illustration of the instability of this poem is in the final two lines: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (13-14). The speaker has come back to the comparison of Death to sleep. Now we have a time distinction: the sleep of death is short, and one will awaken in the afterlife quickly. The speaker now brings back the religious context of his respect for Death, or the lack thereof. Christian belief dictates that when one dies in their earthly life, they are reawakened into heaven where paradise is found. This suggests that Death again is the most pleasurable sleep one can have. A person gets to wake up and not be dead, but can live on. This is where the realization of the internal struggle of the speaker becomes apparent. This isn’t someone standing up to something he is afraid of, but a narrator attempting to convince himself that, since just a short sleep will occur which will result in eternal life, there is no reason to fear Death.
The final line of this piece really illustrates the speaker’s fluctuations: “And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (14). Now we have the nail in the coffin of Death. This eternal life that exists after a short sleep removes the necessity for Death at all. The final contradictory line of the whole sonnet truly shows the lack of stability in Donne’s poem. How can Death die? If “Death shall be no more,” who is to carry out the duties when something dies? The speaker seems to have reached a complete lack of reality and cannot conduct simple statements. If Death ceases to exist and, according to the Christian faith, has no place in the afterlife where the world has ended and there is no more Death, then the fear of Death ceases to exist. Meaning that there is nothing left to be afraid of anymore. Perhaps what seems to be the last dig at the pride of Death turns the speaker into an unstable, unreliable narrator. Instead of getting the better of Death and putting him in his place, the speaker now is portrayed as a coward who stammers gibberish in the face of the big and scary antagonist.
In conclusion, the ranting speaker in Donne’s sonnet comes across as one who is trying to convince himself not to fear death by personifying Death as a conscious entity. Sadly, he goes on to stammer about how Death is just the fullest version of sleep from which one will eventually awaken. Yet that sleep can also be induced through drugs and magic charms to achieve a better experience than Death can even produce. After a long and conflicting argument with “Death,” the speaker comes back to the opinion that Death is nothing to fear since one does not really cease to exist, and it is Death who shall be extinguished from the world. The poem heavily reflects Donne’s own internal struggle to accept the death and tragedy so present in his own life. The romanticized idea of death that Donne develops shines through in his sonnet as he attacks Death’s pride and emphasizes the lack of power that Death holds over humans; Death is not something to be feared, but a pleasant experience (Fomeshi 78). Deconstructing this sonnet shows that the message alters from start to finish, and that the argument the speaker presents seems to shift from one belief to its opposite. Whether Donne himself was portraying his internal conflict about the realities of death, or if he was just portraying the consensus of those around him, is unclear. But what is clear, is that the instability of the poem’s meaning reflects an unstable, unreliable speaker who has yet to resolve his own internal conflicts about the nature of death.
Angela Hadley is just shy of her Bachelor’s degree in Education Studies and plans to continue on to get her Master’s degree in Teaching and Learning with Technology. She is a single mother of four, working full-time at the middle school her youngest attends as the attendance clerk. She is an avid reader and thoroughly enjoys literature and all of the history it has to teach us.