Notes on John Donne, IV
Donne and Death
"Death is finished. It is no more" - Last words of Ivan Ilych*
Holy Sonnet 6
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms 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.
What is death? In Donne's sonnet it is a person to whom the poet speaks directly, "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so." Note the comma which segregates death from the characteristics which the poet attributes to death. He follows these words in lines 9-10 with a seemingly audacious claim about death, "Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell." So be it, yes Donne was obsessed with death. However this was limited to certain types of death. His view minimizing the power of death went against the more popular view of death as espoused by Sir Walter Raliegh and others of the just and might of death. Donne's arguments in this famous sonnet are not very strong, however, and seem to lack a recognizable logical order. He is even confused as to whether sleep is better than death or the reverse. The apparent self-assurance of the poem collapses with the final two lines:
"One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."
Elsewhere (in "A Hymn to God the Father") he has shared his anxiety regarding death more directly,
"I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore."
We also see in the Holy Sonnet an attempt to minimize death through a reassurance that sleep achieved through drugs or magic is better than the "stroke" of death.
My own fascination with the poet and his poem reminds me of the attempts by others to reassure their friends and family. Socrates did so in the Phaedo by describing his life as one long attempt to prepare for death. His view was echoed and enhanced by Montaigne who, In his essay titled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” turns to mortality and points to the understanding of death as a prerequisite for the understanding of life, for the very art of living.
"[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. "(Montaigne, Essays)
This is different than the words of Ivan Ilych quoted above that instead seem to echo Donne.
But one more example from my reading can be found in Rainier Maria Rilke's beautiful novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Through Rilke's fascination with faces and appearances the importance of constructing an authentic life is emphasized. This becomes a prerequisite for the prospect of a unique personal death. Death itself is a character in the novel, a "terrible rival", which may seem stronger than the living in its tolling.
The tolling of the bell in Rilke's novel signalling death brings us back to Donne who penned these famous lines:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 17)