The poet behind “Death, Be Not Proud”
John Donne, who wrote “Death, be not proud,” lived from January 22, 1572, to March 31, 1631. He was an English poet, scholar, soldier, and secretary whose life shifted dramatically over the years. According to Arthur Christopher Schaper writing for The Epoch Times, “The early Donne was the passionate lover and rebel of sense; the later Donne, a man consumed with his spiritual journey and search for truth.”
The emotional rapture of adventure, poverty to pay for it, then of love, then of a secret marriage, fatherhood, to the grief of a stillborn child, increasing financial security after the social and professional punishments following their elopement, to widowhood, and finally, to consistent financial security, Donne’s life mirror the epic wave of the greatest poems.
While manuscripts of his poetry circulated during his life, his poems, including Sonnet X of his Holy Sonnets, also called “Death, be not proud,” were not published until 1633. He composed the poem between February and August in 1609, 8 years after his marriage, but before he would undergo the greatest moments of suffering in his life.
It holds hope in its hand, and I imagine, becomes one of those treasures a soul returns to after suffering to think of how soothing a balm it is. Like the Transfiguration, this wisdom was revealed to him, perhaps to assist him in the days to come.
The poem speaks to Death personified.
What else do we call him? The Grim Reaper, Thantos, Banshee, Hel, Santa Muerte, and so on.
Encyclopedia.com dates this concept back to the ancient world coming emerging into the “mighty and dreadful” persona Donne confronts in the middle ages. “Death has been personified through the ages; in the ancient world as a feminine figure, and from classical Greek civilization to the present as a masculine figure. When the plague raged throughout Europe, death acquired a violent, frightening, and macabre image. The image of the “grim reaper” is preserved in art and literature, and in people’s minds, to the present day.”
In this understanding, Death acquires mysterious power, taking those we are powerless to save. It overthrows, as the poem says.
Yet, the poet, quietly so, challenges that idea.
for thou art not so
He not only fools those who fear him, but he is also fooled.
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Now Death itself is the powerless one
poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
The tone turns condescendingly, as Schaper puts it. Now, not only is the Reaper not destructive, but helpful, offering us peace and restoration.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
Taking the Upper Hand
First, Death is not so powerful, then he is helpful. Next, he is actually in the power of others. External forces, random effects, kings who condemn men and enemies to death, even desperate madmen who kill themselves or others take Death into their hands and inflict Him on others.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
If Death is sleep, well, some mechanisms work even better.
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than they stroke; why swell’st thou then?
All this reduces the estimation of death, reminiscent of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56 “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:56 and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
When one faces the suffering of life, what recourse is there in Christianity more powerful than the fierce belief that this is not all there is?
Where the power of Death inflicted fear, an unknown force bigger than ourselves, Donne shows in this poem that not only can Death be known, but Death does not loom so large. It cannot block out the light and all else. When the man lies dying he thinks, “This is it, I thought this would never happen to me, now is the end.”
But Donne illuminates what comes beyond that moment. Death is but a sleepful hour, a dark passageway one travels through. Something exists on the other side.
This is not the end.
Shraper describes this confrontation between the Poet and Death as a quiet battle. From whence does this silence come?
In The Eight Doors of the Kingdom, Fr. Jacques Phillipe meditates on what it means to be poor in spirit. To be emptied, to admit one’s powerlessness frees one to be clay in the hands of God, to be guided, to be filled up with his love and his grace.
The Poet’s revelation is transcendent, it goes beyond what we know from what little we witness with our eyes. It goes into the spiritual depths of our hearts where we sense, we believe, we hold against the logic of materialism that the one I loved who died still exists, this is not all there is. I need not be beaten with despair in the face of death. There is hope.
With this belief, the Poet vanquishes Death not by positioning himself as greater than the Reaper, but as one who quietly trusts in Christ who entered Death and emerged victorious, promising the same to those who follow in his way.
He empties himself by turning to the greater one.
Death, thou shalt die.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on the Last Supper Discourses in the Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
To explore reflections from the first and second week, click the links below:
- “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
- “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor
- “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald
- The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy