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I dug out my commonplace book that I started when I was a senior in high school, knowing full well that I'd copied in a lot of favorite poems as we got to them in English class - and I was fortunate, because Mrs. Zyga covered A LOT of poetry in CP Senior English. The earliest sonnet I copied into my book was this one - "Death be not proud", by John Donne. I didn't learn much about Donne's life at the time, but he turns out to be a pretty interesting guy, with something a bit like a split personality, at least when it comes to what he wrote.

Before getting to today's selection, I thought I'd share a bit of John Donne's Meditation XVII, presented here with modernized spellings. I'm pretty sure you'll recognize quotes at the beginning and end of this paragraph.

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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Such a lovely snippet, though the entire Medititation is pretty great. The Meditation comes from Donne's religious persona. Donne lived in the late 16th and early 17th century, and wrote an interesting mix of work - some religious, some quite, um, not-religious. (See The Sun Rising, for instance, or Break of Day, which are sexual and personal in nature.)

About two hundred years after his birth, Dr. Samuel Johnson dubbed him a "Metaphysical Poet", part of (and in truth, founder of) a loosely associated group of poets who used art, history and religion as extended metaphor (known as a conceit, a word which here has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck-up). The Metaphysical Poets delighted in using what was considered unusual imagery and syntax in their poems. Expediency caused him to convert from Catholicism to the Anglican church; Donne was eventually forced by King James I to become an Anglican clergyman (by royal decree, preventing him from occupying any other job, no less).

Many of Donne's poems dwell on issues of death and mortality, including one of my favorites of his works, "Death Be Not Proud". The poem is actually entitled "Holy Sonnet X" or "Divine Sonnet X", but is usually called by its first few words.

Death Be Not Proud
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are 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.

Form: It's a Petrarchan or Italianate sonnet written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) - that first line is written "death BE not PROUD though SOME have CALL-ed THEE" - when reading it aloud, however, I always go with modern pronunciations, which makes the line read as follows "DEATH BE not PROUD though SOME have CALLED thee". No sense torturing the language just to make the meter fit when the result sounds awkward to modern ears.

The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBACDDCEE (remembering that in Donne's day "eternally" rhymed with "die").

Discussion: The poem uses apostrophe, meaning that the poem is a poem of address directed to an imaginary figure or an abstract idea. Here, the poet speaks directly to death as if death were a person. (Rather like this Monty Python bit from The Meaning of Life, but I digress.)

Based in a Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, the poet chides death - heck, he practically taunts it - saying that death has nothing to be proud of, since it doesn't actually kill anyone.

Man, do I love this poem, which I memorized once upon a time after reading it in high school English class. These days, I only have the first full complete clause committed to memory: "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so." It flows very naturally, and apart from the thee and thou sounds extremely modern.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 8th, 2013 04:25 pm (UTC)

I hope you've read Terry Pratchett's "Reaper Man", too. I cannot picture the persona of death any other way now.
Apr. 8th, 2013 06:16 pm (UTC)
I haven't read "Reaper Man", but will look for it.
Apr. 8th, 2013 06:19 pm (UTC)
You'll *love* it. And Death always speaks in capital letters. One of my three favorite Pratchett characters.
Apr. 8th, 2013 10:04 pm (UTC)
Is one of the other two Granny Weatherwax?
Apr. 8th, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
and Sam Vimes to round it out. :D
Apr. 9th, 2013 12:50 am (UTC)
I figured Granny Weatherwax had to be up there - she's brilliant.
Apr. 9th, 2013 01:35 am (UTC)
Yessss. Love her.
Andi Sibley
Apr. 9th, 2013 03:48 pm (UTC)
I love this poem too! I fell for it in college I believe, and have kept after Donne ever since.
Apr. 9th, 2013 04:19 pm (UTC)
He's really marvelous. He must have been a very interesting curmudgeon!

Love that userpic of you!!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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