Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Close Reading: Death, be not proud

Donne, John. "Death, be not proud." The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Ed. J. Paul Hunter, Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2007. 533.
Find it here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/death-be-not-proud/

“Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, Kings, and desperate men,
And doest with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charm 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” (lines 9-14)

The speaker of Donne’s poem is mocking death from the first line to the last, thus working to diminish its power and grip over human life. In this particular part of the poem, the speaker denounces death by saying that it is the one that has to associate with “poison, war, and sickness” and really all that it does is make us sleep, and, eventually, that sleep leads to eternal life. Donne turns the sting of death on its head as he gives it no credit and, instead, says it does him good, as it is death that leads him to the ultimate pleasure of the afterlife. The line, " Death, though shalt die"( 14) is powerful because it uses the concept of death against itself ( which humbles and belittles its power)
The fact that Donne has personified death makes it easier for him to critique death and stand up to it. I enjoy this poem because I can so clearly see the speaker laughing in the face of death- the speaker of this poem comes across, to me, as incredibly witty.

It is important to note that in this Italian sonnet there is a steady rhyming scheme throughout (a, b, b, a, a, b, b, a, c, d, d, c) the whole poem. However, the last two lines ( which, I suppose, would be ‘e’ and ‘f’) do not follow this rhyming scheme, they stand alone as independent lines, not even rhyming with each other. It is interesting to note that these lines end with the two most important and crucial words in the poem, and the fact that they do not rhyme suggests the significance of the last two lines and the last words of the lines, “ eternally” and “die”, in particular- these words are meant to stand alone and stand out. These two words which do not rhyme with any other words, or with each other, infer two completely opposite happenings; one refers to the end of a life, and one refers to a life that never ends. Death is usually credited with being our worst enemy and bringing about our ultimat finish, however, Donne plays with this idea as he claims that death actually leads to a world where death is never a fear again.


AmyD. said...

I strongly agree with your analysis of this poem. I would only like to add one thought. The part in the poem where Donne says, And doest with poison, war, and sickness dwell," I feel that there is a lot to be said for the situations he chooses. Poison, war and sickness are all things that, to the human, seem to be eternal. Poision and sickness seem to determine the length of someone's life, and war the outcome of a nation. While both may seem eternal, they are not. They each (of the effects of each) come to an end. By saying that death dwells among these things really denounces the power humans have placed in death's hands. Donne is saying that just as these things seem to be something so much stronger than they are, so is death.

Kelly Flannery said...

I've read a few poems by John Donne and they are always powerful. You did a great analysis of this poem and i like how you pointed out how Donne personifies death and that you can see the speaker laughing in the face of death.

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