Death’s Death Part 2: John Donne and the End of Death

After looking at the portrayal of Jesus in “The Dream of the Rood” in the previous post, it is now time to look at John Donne’s “Death, be not proud.”

857px-john_donne_by_isaac_oliverIn this sonnet, Donne examines the Apostle Paul’s statement, “The last enemy to be defeated is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Paul is asserting that Jesus’ crucifixion confronts death and paves the way for victory in the resurrection. Through Adam all humans die, and, in a parallel way, through Jesus all humans will live. As king, Jesus subdues all of God’s enemies until they are made into a footstool for God’s feet, with death itself as the final enemy to be defeated. Once all enemies are defeated under Christ’s reign, his kingdom will be given to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:21-28). From there, Paul leaves the political language and to explore how Jesus’ victory as his resurrection will happen to all who believe in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). Donne stays focused on the death of Death to focus on the political matters, steering clear of Paul’s discussion of the physical body.

Donne combines formal features and theme to address Death. Like “The Dream of the Rood,” Donne engages in personification as the central element of the poem. But unlike “Rood,” where the personified object speaks to the poem’s speaker, and therefore audience, Donne speaks to a personified Death. His thesis is to tell death, “Death, be not proud…[for] thou shalt die” (1, 14). He argues this thesis in two ways. First, he likens Death to mere rest and sleep—temporary images that can be mimicked by drugs but are not true death (5, 11). Eventually, those who “sleep” will wake up and never go back to “sleep” (13). Rather than this mighty foe, Death is an instrument controlled by something else: fate, kings, poison, war and sickness (9-10). Secondly, Donne uses the Petrarchan sonnet form to emphasize the death of Death. The first eight lines rhyme in the following manner: a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a while the final six lines rhyme c-d-d-c-e-e. The e-e rhyme ends the poem as a couplet, something more common to Shakespearean sonnets, to drive home his thesis that Death is defeated.

resurrection-of-christ-1875“The Dream of the Rood” explicates two themes in Donne’s sonnet: the death of Jesus is the death of Death, and that the death of Death is a political claim as much as a spiritual claim. “The Dream of the Rood” ends the vision and the speech of the rood itself with Jesus judging all of the nations. He tasted death and then mightily rose from the dead, accomplishing redemption and granting life. Sin and death no longer hold claim on Jesus and his comitatus as they live forever in Paradise enjoying a feast together under Jesus’ rule. Death is no more. Donne speaks to Death dying and those who are dead waking “[f]rom rest and sleep.”

Despite being part of his Holy Sonnets, Donne never actually articulates how Death will die, only asserting that Death will cease to exist. “The Dream of the Rood” provides that answer in the warrior-hero of Jesus: Jesus has conquered Death and freed Donne from its power. While the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet still incorporates paganism into the vision not shared by Renaissance writers, the mechanic fits what Donne is saying in a way more visceral and more direct than the more popular Anselmian tradition offers.

Donne writes this sonnet in solidarity with the speaker from “The Dream of the Rood” as they wait for Jesus to “come again” (The Dream…Rood” 103-9). Donne personifies and speaks to death because even though the Rood declared the victory complete, death still operates. Just as the Anglo-Saxon speaker sees himself as a member of Jesus’ comitatus, Donne writes as a member too. They both wait for the final judgment and being granted their seats at the feast. While the climactic battle has been fought and won, Death has yet to surrender in Donne’s poem.

He is still active in as the political enforcer of men and women in the here and now on earth in a manner similar to Nazi Germany still struggling against the Allied forces despite its doom was made certain after the successful Normandy Invasion. “Death, be not proud” is Donne’s song for the commitatus to commemorate Jesus’ victory over the great enemy. Death has been neutered from the great terrifying enemy and turned into a temporary nap from which Jesus will wake his commitatus and give them their seat and spoils.

121726-004-c61c042cSecondly, the political language of Donne’s poetry is drawn up to the surface. “The Dream of the Rood” deliberately places Jesus, the Anglo-Saxon Warrior-King, over all of humanity. His death turns pagan symbols of pagan political power into symbols of Jesus’ power over death. The parade of criminals put on by the “enemies” is then turned into a parade where the victorious Jesus returns home with “a company of souls” (30-1, 150-3). Jesus then turns a form of punishment into the very path to life (87-9). Donne says the same thing when he says that Death is a tool of kings, desperate men and war (9-10). But when Jesus destroys Death via his death on the cross, this tool that kings and desperate men use through war and murder is now gone. The threat of violence and death is taken away and peace is achieved. When Death dies, the power of kings and desperate men over their people is stripped away because it is founded on the power of death.

“Death, be not proud” is a sonnet that moves beyond the more “spiritual” aspects of the Christian religion that dominates its popular conception. “The Dream of the Rood” argues through a vision of a pagan tree that Jesus’ actions were those of an Anglo-Saxon warrior-king and hero fighting his great battle and distributing his plunder to his commitatus. Reading Donne’s sonnet through this prism illuminates the raw, visceral language used to describe the end of Death. Death was confronted and defeated by a hero, and now Donne stands in the light of that victory, taunting and shaming Death as he waits for his seat at Jesus’ table. The political world around Donne has now been altered, the power of kings and war and chance are rendered useless. Donne’s song of the dark days of Death sings sweetly in the ear.

Donne, John. “Death, be not proud.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 1412. Print.

“The Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 33-6. Print.


~ by hankimler on June 26, 2016.

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