Analysis of John Donne’s Poems Death Be Not Proud, The Flea and The Sun Rising
John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” explores an argument about the power of death while addressing “Death” as a person. The speaker talks to Death about how Death’s power is only an illusion and is a slace to other forces such as chance, fate, kings, and desperate men. According to the speaker, Death does not possess control over humanity because there is a variety of more powerful forces that control human matters. This sonnet follows the Shakespearean form in that it is made up of 3 quatrains and a final couplet; however, Donne uses the Italian sonnet rhyme scheme of ABBA for the first two quatrains, and he groups them into an octet. In the third quatrain he switches his rhyme scheme to CDDC, and then the final couplet rhymes EE.
In the first quatrain, Donne introduces the topic by personifying Death in order to compare its abilities and powers to other forces. He warns Death to “be not proud” (line 1) and not mistake its position as a “mighty and dreadful” force (line 2). The poet later suggests that Death cannot kill him, as it is not as powerful as other forces such as “fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” (line 9). I found this kind of interesting as the speaker “talks” to Death (which is usually seen as a scary force in nature) as if he is unafraid of it. There could be implications behind this viewpoint as the speaker may have gone through certain experience(s) which led him to be unaffected by the idea of death.
In the second quatrain, the speaker talks about Death’s good qualities: it releases beings from the suffering they experience on Earth. In the author’s perspective, Death brings “Much pleasures” (line 5) as it cures souls of the negativity of life. This seems like a very pessimistic view of life, which I believe could also correlate with Donne’s personal situation at the time of writing this poem. Donne then goes back to criticizing Death for thinking so highly of itself. Even though a man can choose Death as an escape from the shackles of societal life, the other forces of nature can offer the same or even more; therefore, Death has no superiority. This development made me think about the other forces of nature Donne writes about and their magnitude and effect on humanity. To me, the main force of nature that leads to major changes is fate; a lot of the reasoning behind my mindset is my religious beliefs, because among Hindus a common belief is the idea of fate and its influence in our day to day lives.
Donne ends by stating that Death has no power and will cease to exist one day, which is odd because death will never end as we know it; it is a natural, fundamental process and allows for life to continue. When the author ironically states “death shalt die” (line 14), he means that the idea of Death overpowering humanity will end; however death itself as a natural process will continue as humanity cannot stop that.
When we think about romance in literature, we usually would not think of insects as our primary piece of argumentation. As opposed to “weird and creepy”, I feel that the use of an insect to suggest intimacy in this poem is a creative idea that catches the audience’s attention. In John Donne’s “The Flea”, the speaker explores the idea that a flea, having sucked his and his lover’s blood, can mix the two, which apparently shows their marriage. At the beginning, the speaker tells his love (who he is trying to have sex with) to look at a flea that’s in front of them. He argues that since it bit himself and her, their blood is joined in the flea’s body; he compares this with being joined in a sexual way. He then compares himself to a flea stating that nobody calls it sinful that a flea can go host to host, sucking blood; it is just completing its natural processes. The purpose of these arguments is mainly to get the speaker’s love to have sex with him, which seems like a pretty odd way of asking for sex compared to the scenes in most modern novels or Hollywood films, which is much more smooth and suave. In modern times, the speaker seems extremely weird, and I would assume this was seen as creepy back in the 18th century as well.
The speaker goes on to convince the woman to go to bed with him as he compares the flea to a marriage bed. Even though the woman doesn’t speak, the speaker suggests that the woman wants to squash the flea. When Donne writes “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare” he suggests that he wishes the woman to “spare” the flea’s life so as not to kill him, herself, and the flea; the speaker believes that his and his lover’s lives are joined by the flea. The speaker argues that a sexual relationship among them would be less sinful because they would only commit to each other, whereas the flea never stays with only one host. This logic makes sense in a literal sense but not in a moral or practical sense. Logically, being with the same love is not a sin and switching your feelings among multiple people is a sin. In this case, the flea is considered the one who sins because it goes from person to person sucking their blood.
The speaker concludes by stating that the woman has sacrificed her “honor” (aka virginity) by squashing the flea that held both of their bloods. This could imply that she is pregnant as the author speaks of her loss of honor. His overall message at the end is “You have nothing to fear from having sex with me”, which seems odd as he is basically begging this woman for sex. The speaker’s response to the woman killing the flea seems like it was a planned comeback, because it only seemed to strengthen his point even more.
In the poem “The Sun Rising”, John Donne starts out with anger toward the Sun as he feels he is too great to be affected by it. He tells the Sun to get lost and bother others besides himself.
“Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?” (line 1-3).
The poet asks the Sun why it is disturbing him and his woman in bed. The speaker talks about how the Sun should just go do other things such as wake up ants or “chide / Late school boys and sour prentices” (line 5-6). The power of love is compared to the Sun as an overpowering force, and the speaker claims that everything the sun “touches” around the world is absolutely nothing compared to the beauty of his love; moreover, the speaker suggests that he himself is better than the Sun because of the fact that he can close his eyes and make the Sun disappear. This seems like a stretch, because the Sun is proven by scientific laws and theories to hold the greatest energy in our entire solar system, but Donne speaks as though he is more powerful than the Sun. This comes across to me as cocky, as Donne implies that he’s such a big deal that the Sun conforms to his needs.
He continues with this idea as he states that everyone else in the world just pretends to be him and his lady; this is so bizarre to think about, and his comments show his confidence and boosted ego. He finishes by “feeling bad” for the Sun and lets it know that its job got easier. Donne’s perspective is full of confidence and is extremely self-centered; however, in a way, this shows Donne’s appreciation for his lady. Donne implies that the only two people that matter in this world are himself and his lady, so the Sun should be centered on them. Donne may have even implied a metaphorical spotlight on himself and his lady when he stated that the Sun only needs to shine on them in the room.
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