Death, be not proud

The poet behind “Death, Be Not Proud”

John Donne, 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. 

Image of the Grim Reaper

What else do we call him? The Grim Reaper, Thantos, Banshee, Hel, Santa Muerte, and so on. 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

Die not 

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?”

And why?

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. 

Death is not the end. Photograph of crosses on a hill at sunrise.
Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

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 Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is the fourth book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did Ivan Illyich encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?
Cover of The Death of Ivan Illyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia and his sufferings and death from a terminal illness. It was published in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy, written shortly after his religious conversion in the late 1870s.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

There is no question what this story is about. Tolstoy gives us the full portrait of the life Ivan Illych led and the world he left behind, connecting the dots of how he arrived at that point. 

Those he left behind feel entirely superficial feelings about the thing. 

Tolstoy shows us the trajectory of his life, spelling out the increasing superficiality in Ivan Illych’s relations with those around him, the superficial nature of all that he takes pleasure in. In fact, Ivan Illych’s goal in life before this point was a pleasant life, free from disruption or disquietude.

Literary commentary links his illness to this lifestyle and a symbolic demise. It is a reality he sees himself in his final weeks. “It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up,” he thinks.

Three Revelations Before Death

The first revelation

The first revelation is the realization that he is mortal and will die. This illness, though linked in Ivan Illyich’s mind to his fall, was most likely pancreatic cancer, and at the time, incurable and most often uncommunicated to patients by their doctors.

The second revelation

The second is that human connection alone brings some relief. Those in his life will not look at his suffering in the face. They look away. Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, “was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason, Ivan Illyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim.”

The third revelation

The third revelation is about his life, whether or not he lived well. “Perhaps I did not live as I should have, it suddenly occurred to him. But how could that be when I did everything one is supposed to do? He replied and immediately dismissed the one solution to the whole enigma of life and death, considering it utterly impossible.”

This question continues to present itself to him. Ivan Illyich defends himself against the accusation. “And there was nothing left to defend. But if that is the case, he asked himself, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?”

It acts as revelation, it comes to him as he wrestles with it. He approaches but does not grasp it.

He receives the Sacrament. 

Ivan Illyich pities those he leaves behind, finding peace and a willingness to accept death in the love of his son and sympathy for his family.

And he dies.

Much of the reflection on death itself, the superficiality of a life spent doing what one thought was expected of him socially, Tolstoy lays out for the reader. 

It’s clear that Ivan Illyich encounters something transcendent because he is facing the end of life as he has lived it. 

But does it change him? 

Does he respond to it? I do not know. I find the ending unsatisfying, but probably quite realistic.

Ivan Illyich can never answer this question, “what then?” 

The issue is one of facing reality. He could never go back to being the person he was, never enjoy the things he enjoyed as freely as he enjoyed them. He is now too aware of what is real. 

But alas, as Ivan Illyich discovers the truth he does not discover Him who is Truth. He does not begin to think about God. The Sacrament is just what one does. Rather than encounter the one presenting in the Sacrament, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he hopes again for physical recovery and falls back into the same despair.

The only plane then that God can reach him is through the natural, paternal love of the child who loves him, too, whose childlike honesty does not hide from suffering but instead would examine it dwell over it and remain so entirely present to it. Ivan Illyich’s last act is to feel a little love and a little pity for perhaps the first time since he was the age of the son before him. 

In this brief glimpse, he sees that he squandered what he had, including those chances at love, so he desires to say “forgive.”

Perhaps this is the moment of power, to look at another’s suffering and not look away. To experience one’s gaze, when one is suffering, and to feel seen.

The novella remains a personal and social commentary. Instead of “forgive,” Ivan Illyich says “forget.” Inwardly, he knows, and he knows that God knows. This is is what matters most now. In this he can rest.

Head of an Angel, after Rembrandt
Vincent van Gogh
Date: 1889; Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

Someone knows him and sees him. Someone understands.

Ivan Illyich dies with little more understanding of that Someone then he set out with, but he knows something, and with this knowledge, he can stop fighting.

Outwardly, his wife will forget, his children will forget. They may not dwell long enough on his life or actions to even consider the need to forgive. 

It was just what’s done.

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 poem, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne.
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: 

Love in The Gifts of the Christ Child

“The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald is the third book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

To chasten, according to Merriam-Webster, means to discipline, to correct by punishment or suffering; to purify, to prune of excess, pretense, or falsity, to refine; and to cause to be more humble or restrained. In “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald, this word become an important foundation to the entire story. Sophy, who calls herself Phosy, and the purity of her love will be the mechanisms on which the action pivots. 

In her childlike logic, she prayers that the Lord would chasten her, for whomever He loves, He chastens. MacDonald tells us right away her life has held suffering and lament, if she only knew how she had suffered. 

MacDonald steps back to tell us the story. 

Sophy is pure, innocent, and neglected. Her virtues and attributes go unseen. It is not she who will change in this story but those whose lives work around hers in the periphery. She is neglected and she sees them move in and out of view, but they never see her.

Her mother died, but her father did not grieve too terribly. He remarried an immature woman for the odd selfish end of forming her character to be as his , to make her in his own image. Augustus’ fall from an interesting man to a man who has given up on life is summed up thus,

“He had given up reading poetry.”

The man who once read poetry and stops has stopped living. The interest in business, the disbelief in an ideal, takes away his ability to be present and delight in the moment. This, of course, is exactly what we encounter in children. Good material and fortune, in the absence of delight, erodes the spiritual side of himself.

Then we have their servant, Alice, whose poetry is John, the man she loves. In the face of good fortune, she wholeheartedly embraces the pride of position and rejects John, who appears to us a good man, in all respects.

This is the story. 

George MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of modern fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. In addition to his fairy tales, MacDonald wrote several works of Christian theology, including several collections of sermons. He influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein for his ability to make real both the physical world and the spiritual or phantasmic world.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote,

“I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

It is on this plane that Macdonald brings us the transcendent. 

Rather than a goblin or a fairy, we enter into the imagination of a lonely child who longs for love.

Modern readers often shudder at reading stories that involve the death of an infant. They are indeed the most heartbreaking. I recognize that. It is a common theme for MacDonald. The infant is innocent, an undeveloped character in the story of life, and yet our complexities and stories swirl around the loss of life, our hopes and dreams, our past traumas, and for the mother, the most primitive, integral love she can offer is intimately bound up in that child. When a mother loses a baby, she loses part of herself. When a father loses a baby, he loses part of himself. And so there may be no clearer way to see who we are than to see ourselves as broken open as we are in the sight of an infant who has died.

Macdonald, who himself knew sorrow in fatherhood, explores the power of redemption not just through suffering, but grief. The utter purity of Sophy’s love is a revelation of the love of God. She is almost not a true character at all, but some incarnation of God to reveal himself to Augustus and Alice, according to Jessica W. H. Lim, who explores Sophy’s role in “Sacramental Grief: Embracing the dead infant in George MacDonald’s short stories.” 

The reader is carried along Sophy’s steps and actions. We know who she resembles as her halo and mantle are identified. We gasp with horror, the sobbing, revelatory horror of death when she cries, “Jesus is dead!” And if we have allowed our hearts this far into the story, we feel the light shine into the heart of Augustus as he folds Sophy into his arms. The moment of transcendence is neither remote, nor obscure, it comes brazenly into the lonely and longing hearts, hearts dulled by a life that seems to never change nor promise the ideals we once had, and a life of humility that idolizes prestige. 

Through this, on this vertical plane, God makes himself known. 

God is Love. Through this incarnate image of himself, this image of love in Sophy’s tender care and her unspeakable grief to discover the child is not alive, God reveals his father’s love for us. With a violent love, it breaks into the hearts of Augustus and Alice. Suffering and pain already exist in the world. The Lord need not send those. But it is through love itself, through the sight of love, the through love that burns in their hearts, that they know Him.

The scales drop from their eyes. They are transformed, loving and repentant. 

It is an act of God, a miracle; it is the answer to a prayer.

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 Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.
For explore reflections from the first and second week, clink the links below: 
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

Asbury in The Enduring Chill

The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor is the second book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, “How did the main character, Asbury, encounter transcendence?” and second, “How did he respond?”
For reflections on our first book, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, click here.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O'Connor.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O’Connor. (AP Photo)

Flannery O’Connor lived from March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964, dying from Lupus at the age of 39. She studied writing at Georgia State College, attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, lived with writers at Yaddo, an artists’ community after earning her MFA, and only left that way of life when her health needs demanded she return to live with her mother on her mother’s Georgian farm. 

The setting of “The Enduring Chill” presents us with a common theme in O’Connor’s work; the educated young adult returning to his backward home in the rural south.

Asbury is a college-educated intellectual with an “artistic temperament” who moved to the city to escape the stifling environment of his mother’s dairy farm. His mother labels him with this “artistic temperament” to explain away her inability to understand or reach him and to excuse his rudeness and emotional reactivity to all she says and does. 

His sister sees him as a failure, a child-man who tries at nothing and succeeds at nothing. 

How does Asbury see himself? 

Flannery O'Connor and her self-portrait.

He sees himself as in touch with something deeper than the reality before him. He knows more and can see more than others. This places him in the artistic or poetic class, a higher class of being than those around him. And so, he is disgusted with them for their obtuseness. They could not possibly understand.

When Asbury comes home, he comes home to die. He perceives his impending death, and so puts himself through the paces of existential death. 

What happens to Asbury? 

Asbury begins in the story with a sense of the transcendent. He wants to capture it after experiencing something bigger than himself in the “moment of communion” he recalls with the two dairy workers, a moment to meet spiritually and not just physically with another. Though not a Catholic, he asks for a priest.

If he is to die, let him meet with one in whom he can see himself. Let him meet with an intellectual, a Jesuit even, like the one he encountered early in the story. During a discussion, that priest says, calmly.

“There is…a real probability of the New Man, assisted, of course…by the Third Person of the Trinity”

The priest called for is not like that man. Fr. Finn does not concern himself with the death of Asbury’s body. He does not attempt to reflect the image Asbury would like to see. Rather, passing by Asbury’s conception himself, the priest cuts through the image and shows Asbury who he really is.

“The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are — a lazy ignorant conceited youth.” 

Asbury thinks his body will die. But in truth, it is his old nature that must die to grasp this divine thing. He must exchange the image of himself as superior, all-knowing, all-seeing for one that reflects the truth.

When one is saved, when one accepts Christ as Lord and God, one must change.

“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:22-24

As his body writhes under the agony of his illness, his soul struggles under this existential death. First, he blames his mother for his wasted life. Next, he pities himself for the loss of a young life. So much more might have been achieved. He changes from his petulance to regret. His life will end and he achieved nothing. He is a failure.

The poet or artist is nothing until he can touch the transcendent. Asbury has had only a poor taste of communion. The real thing would help him not only taste life but make his death a worthy one. That real thing is the Holy Spirit.

The priest lays it squarely on his shoulders. Asbury faces himself as he is. It isn’t his mother or his young life that prevented him from achieving something worth anything. It was only he himself.

Asbury anticipates a revelation, some terrible shock, will come with death. Transcendent communion not with human beings, but with the Reaper itself.

As Ashbury is ill, death takes on its own character.

The shock comes.

He is not dying.

Now, he must live with himself.

To live is more terrible than death because he saw what a pathetic death it would be. Knowing what it is to face death after a wasted life, with life in his hands he must make a choice. 

Asbury encounters the transcendent when he encounters the truth:

God is truth. Truth exists beyond our perception of the world. It is not true only because we think it is true. The truth of himself first presented is his encounter with the transcendent. 

Death is the vehicle that reveals this truth. Asbury looks around the corner to face death as if it were a character, more real to him than his mother’s employees. His conception of them exists on his mind and try as he might, he cannot make them what he would like. They disappoint him. 

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.”

John 14:26

Asbury is reduced in his estimation. Humbled by the revelation that all he thought true was false, he is broken and ready, though he does not yet understand it.

What is his response?

He puts away the key to the drawer holds the letter which was meant to change the life of his mother. His life must change instead. Though he does not know how.

And as he sees the bird descend, he knows that God, that hound of heaven, in the form of the dove, the Holy Spirit, will pursue him. 

Find Ashbury and "The Enduring Chill" in "Everything that Rises Must Converge"
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

The Old Man and the Sea

Book One of Our Literary Lenten Book Club

Cover of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is the first book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

A particular set of beliefs that embody the work of Ernest Hemingway, whose canon of works struggled with the pain of the lost generation, whose alcoholism, repeated marriages, and path of finding, losing and finding again the faith still ended in suicide. We may not hold the same beliefs or values as the author or the characters, but as the mature author struggle to reveal something true and good through his writing, we find a world we can understand.

The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. The Nobel Committee referenced it when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

It was the last major work of fiction written by Hemingway published during his lifetime. 

They described The Old Man and the Sea (1952) as

“the unforgettable story of an old Cuban fisherman’s duel with a huge swordfish in the Atlantic. Within the frame of a sporting tale, a moving perspective of man’s destiny is opened up; the story is a tribute to the fighting spirit, which does not give in even if the material gain is nil, a tribute to the moral victory in the midst of defeat. The drama is enacted before our eyes, hour by hour, allowing the robust details to accumulate and take on momentous significance. ‘But man is not made for defeat,’ the book says. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”

“But on the other hand, he also possesses a heroic pathos which forms the basic element in his awareness of life, a manly love of danger and adventure with a natural admiration for every individual who fights the good fight in a world of reality overshadowed by violence and death. ”

How will this old man encounter the transcendent?

the sea, or la mar as the old man sees her

The academic answer centers on Hemingway’s reverence for masculinity. For Hemingway, a fighting spirit, to never admit defeat, equals a moral victory. This is the religion of Hemingway’s work and it is in this moral code most easily considered in The Old Man and the Sea.

I do not doubt his. In a letter, Flannery O’Connor wrote in her comical way

“[Faulkner] says that Hemingway discovered God in the Creator in this one. What part I like in that was where the fish’s eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him.”

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, by Flannery O’Connor

The fish was dead, its eye no longer alert to the things below.

The reader can feel the unity of the Old Man with the created things around him. He is one with it. In it, he feels transcendence. It humbles him. The world is bigger than him. We will never respond well in the sight of the Divine if we do not realize how small we are.

Old man on a fishing boat waving to birds

He has a passing understanding of God, but he does not link God’s creation to the Creator. He expresses his sorrow to the fish or his mistake, not to the one who made the fish and made it to live so long. The action all happens within the horizontal realm. 

If we take O’Connor’s observation at face value, we could consider that the encounter with transcendence comes not from the unity with creation, overtaking nature, or victory despite destruction, but rather, in being defeated, and then being taken. The man feels his unity with the fish, he feels his own defeat. When he returns to the shore, feeling utterly beaten, he does not die. The sharks of the world do not consume him. He returns to the goodness of the boy who loves him, who now chooses, regardless of his parents wishes, to care for the man.

And the man lets him.

His humility comes to this. The defeat in this world on the horizontal plane comes to this. “I will not leave you orphans,” Christ says in John 14:18.

This was Hemingway’s final work. The author himself, by taking his life, assumes a sort of defeat like the old man. But instead of the isolating decision to take oneself away from this world, the old man gives himself. He will not give up. He surrenders himself not to death, to some desperate end, but to the arms of one who loves him. If this act, which redeems the apparent failures of old age, is not a sign of transcendence, I do not know what is.

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 Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.