Death Be Not Proud
Death be not Proud: Deconstruction of the Concept of Death
The critic Joe Nutt writes that ‘it takes a bold man to taunt death’. This observation was made in reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X, ‘Death be not proud’, and accurately portrays both the tone and subject of the poem. Throughout the sonnet, Donne consistently mocks, debilitates and deconstructs a personified Death, littering the poem with Christian theology and overtly combative rhetoric. Through the sonnet Donne leaves the reader with two conclusive ideas: firstly, that the individual can, and most likely should, face Death with a composed and confident character; and second, that this can be achieved by altering our definitive perception of death.
The persona that Donne adopts for the poem is one which clearly holds bold, confident and witty characteristics, maintaining both showmanship and stoicism to dissect the idea of death. Through ridiculing the apostrophized Death, Donne presents a state of mentality that can only be admired for its bravado and assertiveness. The first two lines of the poem, ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so’, provides the clear delivery of a taunting tone. The speaker challenges Death’s own perception of itself, connecting it to false pride and the misconceived idea that it is ‘Mighty and dreadful’. Donne thus shows an instinctive opposition to the idea that death is something to fear, presenting the basics of the argument that he will carry throughout the rest of the poem. Donne immediately makes a joke out of the figure of Death and thus is able to lay the foundations for his perception of this force.
Lines three and four continue this taunting of Death, ‘For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not, poor death’. (Lines 3-4) The use of the word ‘think’st’ throws doubt on the intelligence of Death and discards the idea that Death could be an omniscient power similar to God, while ‘overthrow’ is used instead of the more obvious kill. While kill suggests closure and the total ending of a life, ‘overthrow’ suggests something more temporary or reversible. The temporary insinuation of ‘overthrow’ is emphasized by ‘Die not’ in the following line, Donne thus presents an inability on Death’s part to adequately perform its role. This role is further mocked in lines five and six, ‘From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow’. (Lines 5-6) Donne suggests that the states of ‘rest and sleep’ from which pleasure flows are ‘pictures’, or imitations, of death. This suggests that if the imitation of death is pleasurable then the actual full experience of death must be even more fulfilling, thus further proving that death is nothing to be feared but rather something to be enjoyed. This pleasure found in death, however, can be elsewhere achieved as ‘poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well’, (Line 11) referencing to opiate drugs that can create a state equal to death. Death thus becomes obsolete and unnecessary, Donne having stripped it of its purpose, the persona that he embodies championing what most men fear and showing a bravery and strength that the reader should attempt to uphold.
The structure of the poem continues the taunting of Death, the use of iambic pentameter placing emphasis on certain words that mock it and its position in the universe. Line nine, the first line of the sonnets sestet, ‘Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men’ (Line 9) seems to hold twelve syllables, placing emphasis on ‘men’ with a stressed syllable and thus allows men to assert dominance over Death, humiliating him by reversing the power structure between the mortal and the forces which they abide by. However, if we read ‘Thou art’ as a single syllable, emphasis is placed on ‘slave’, ‘Fate’, kings’ and ‘desperate’, putting Death in a position of total ownership and submission to both a higher power and mortal men. Line five and six place emphasis on ‘rest’, ‘sleep’, ‘pictures’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘flow’, thus highlighting the elements of death that Donne believes the individual should really focus on. Structure becomes yet another component in Donne’s mission to reimagine death.
Donne’s interpretation of death as something that should be mocked and not feared stems from Christian theology concerning eternity and the immortality of the soul. Line thirteen, ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally’ (Line 13) summarizes the idea that death is nothing more than a temporary state. Linking to the notion of ‘rest and sleep’ being an imitation of death, Donne insinuates towards the Christian idea of judgment day, when Christ will come to the world again, separate the body and the soul of everyone on Earth, living or dead, and the soul shall move onto heaven where it will exist for eternity. Death thus should not only be approached with a sense of fearlessness for its pleasurable qualities but also because it is merely a transitional period between our mortal and eternal lives. Therefore, it is true ‘those, whom [Death] think’st, [it] dost overthrow, / Die not’, for if the soul is to later ‘wake eternally’ then death has no real power or purpose beyond acting as a middleman between our physical lives and our lives with God. Donne provides the reader with sound theological reasoning as to why death should be mocked and not feared; it holds no real power over us, death has no purpose other than to act as an usher into the next stage of our existence.
Nutt writes that in Holy Sonnet X Donne’s aim is to ‘establish an argument … which challenges our thinking, and then explain or elucidate it.’ [Pg. 161] This idea is illustrated by Donne presenting evidence based on Christin thought and mixing persuasive and insulting language in an attempt to assure the reader that the thing that nearly all people fear is nothing more than a joke. Death, for Donne, is powerless, unimportant and nothing more than a misunderstood idea. This sonnet, saturated with wit and humor, is ironic throughout, especially when it concludes that when we all live in eternity ‘death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.’ (Line 14) Death should not be feared, Donne states, because just like ourselves in our physical lives it exists on borrowed time.
 Joe Nutt, John Donne: The Poems, (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), pg. 161
 John Donne, ‘Holy Sonnet X’, in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose Volume 1: Verse, ed. by Alan Rudrum, Joseph Black & Holly Faith Nelson, (Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2001), pg. 58
Analyzing the Poetics of Death Be Not Proud
“Death Be Not Proud” – Poetic Devices Highlight Humanity’s Fright of Death
Within the “Death Be Not Proud” poem, John Donne employs the poetic devices of irony and personification to show that human beings are afraid of death. Concerning irony, the speaker claims dead people are not dead. Regarding personification, the speaker alleges that death dies. Given that these utterances do not make sense, they indicate that the speaker (who represents humanity) is afraid of death. Focusing on the poetic devices of irony and personification, this essay illustrates that “Death Be Not Proud” underscores humanity’s fear of death.
By claiming that dead people are not really dead, the speaker employs irony and in turn underlines that human beings are afraid of death. To this end, the speaker states that “those [whom death] overthrow[s do] / not die” (Donne 3, 4). Here, the speaker utters an ironical statement; while referring to the vagaries of death, the speaker claims that people do not die. A reader would find it hard to reconcile these two sets of ideas. To make meaning of this phrase, one would need to examine it for its thematic meaning. This line of thinking would cause a reader to understand that the speaker is so afraid of death that he utters ironical statements. In this way, irony helps to underline humanity’s fear of death.
The speaker further underscores humanity’s fear of death by ascribing human attributes to death and alleging that death dies. In this regard, the speaker declares that death shall “die” . To be able to die, an entity should have animate qualities. Here, the speaker claims that, like humans, death has the capacity to die. This claim entails the application of the poetic device of personification. Given that, the speaker’s utterances do not make sense, this personification serves a deeper thematic purpose. This purpose entails showing that the speaker is so afraid of death that he cannot think logically. Such instability causes the speaker to think that death has human qualities and can die. From this analysis, it is clear that personification helps to underscore humanity’s fear of death.
In conclusion, “Death Be Not Proud” applies the poetic devices of irony and personification to underline that human beings fear death. Using these poetic devices, the speaker utters statements that underline his/her fear of death. It would be prudent to investigate what could have caused Donne to focus on death in this poem. In this light, an investigator would explore whether Donne lost a close friend or family member.
John Donne’s View of Human Death: Death Be Not Proud
Death be Not Proud
In “Death be Not Proud” by John Donne, the author uses metaphysical and poetry techniques to convey the idea that Death should not be feared. In conjunction with the metaphysical elements, the poem also contains many poetic devices to personify Death and undermine his power and importance.
The speaker begins with a strong statement, explaining “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death”. Death is personified as a human that the speaker talks to in order to portray that Death is not as divine as once thought. This personification is also reflected in the style of the poem, a sonnet, as it is written in iambic pentameter. This meter effectively mimics conversation, and by using it, the author is showing that Death can be spoken to as if it were but a mere person, and not a divine power. The speaker explains to Death that he cannot really kill anyone, as he is but “one short sleep past, we wake eternally [from]”. This comparison of sleep to Death is used to prove that Death is not the end all be all, it is merely a short break from life. Again, it undercuts Death’s assumed power to show Death as something not to be feared.
The speaker continues with comparing sleep to Death, commenting “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be / much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow”. This irony conveys that the speaker finds sleep to be pleasurable, and because Death is only an extended sleep, it must also be pleasurable. This introspective meditation on the power of Death shows a new truth – Death is not something to be feared. The passage itself takes on a mocking tone as the speaker breaks down Death’s assumed power to portray it as a peaceful sleep, in doing so he shows Death is not as scary as originally thought. The speaker relents that “our best men with thee do go,” only to taunt “[but] rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” . Essentially he is saying that Death may take away the best men, but it does not have a lasting effect, as what is after death is pleasurable.
Next he directly attacks the dominant power of death, claiming “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. The diction of “slave” and “desperate” portray Death in an almost pathetic light, showing it is not nearly as omnipotent as one presumes. This realistic view of Death serves to knock down the feared pedestal upon which it sits, to show that Death is not the end all be all. Ironically, the speaker next compares Death to poppies and charms, as “[those] can make us sleep as well”. This ironic comparison also functions to belittle Death in a way to show one has nothing to fear from it.
Lastly, the author incorporates religious allusions as befitting a metaphysical poem. Upon comparing Death to sleep, the speaker relates “We wake eternally / and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”. The paradox delivers a profound statement, one last blow to the personified Death’s ego, to show that it is no more than a window to the next world. The last couplet in which the paradox resides aligns with the predetermined purpose of a sonnet, as it functions as a conclusion to the argument presented in the preceding lines.
Throughout the poem the speaker uses wit and irony, metaphysical poem components, to tear apart the presumed notion of Death as a destructive, divine power. In conjunction with these, the structure of the poem functions to undermine Death’s authority by using Iambic pentameter and couplets. Personification is used heavily throughout the work to show Death as being mortal and weak, much like humans, to align with the speaker’s realistic view that Death should not be feared. In all, the poem fits within the metaphysical boundary as it discusses Death and God in a philosophical way to expose a truth, whilst subscribing to the traditional components of a metaphysical poem, the use of wit, irony, and paradox.
Analysis of Death Be Not Proud: Issues of Religion and Death
“Death Be Not Proud” is a classic metaphysical poem composed by John Donne in 17th century England. This poem treats with eschatological themes since the perspective of the speaker is mainly religious. The biology of man dictates that he has to die. Man, only composed of flesh and blood, eventually disintegrates to dust. The physical decomposition of man emphasizes his frailty and fallen nature. In the many interpretations of death, Donne puts forward his beliefs on life, death and human suffering. Cognizant of his mortal constitution, Donne still rebuffs death as a being that is overcome by the bright prospects of the afterlife. The Reformation movement deeply casts an indelible mark upon the face of religious life and the belief system in England until Donne, formerly a Catholic, converts to Protestantism. In his poem , Donne casts down the pride of death and hopefully asserts that humans pass not only from one physical state to another, but also from one world to the next, leaning on Reformation teachings of the afterlife as a means of consolation and courage.
The English Reformation commenced in England since the 14th century with John Wycliffe. However it was not until three centuries later that the Reformation cemented in England. The conflicts between the Catholic kings and Pope and the Protestant movement headed by Henry VIII sparked much dissension. However, it is not until Queen Elizabeth I (1556-1603) that English Protestantism takes root. After she is deceased, she names another Protestant king, King James I (1603-1625) to succeed her. This king is the same monarch who authorizes the printing and publishing of the well-known King James Version of the Bible. Religion figures preponderantly in politics and wider society. As some believed in the divine right of rule that belonged to the monarchy, allegiance to God in some minds is equated to loyalty to the king. In the 17th century, England divorces itself from the Papacy, literally and figuratively through Henry VIII’s displeasure at being disallowed a divorce by the Pope. As a result, the State’s religion becomes English Catholic or Anglican. Different segments of Christians advocate widely different beliefs for they see the flaws in the Church thus urgently recognize the need to reform. The Puritans and the Quakers are some of these non-conformist churches. Certain laws come into force which give these sectarian non-conformist groups freedom to practice their religion unhindered such as The Corporation Act (1661), the Act of Uniformity (1662), the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Toleration Act (1689). As Reformation continues in England and the feeling of discontent with religion increases, more and more people leave the mainstream state religion in favor of others. This time marks the period when the English Church distances itself as far as possible from Catholicism to the point at times to hostility (Mullet 245-55).
Donne’s poetry cannot be understood apart from his reformation theology. The Reformation was founded on three principal tenets, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia or (by the Word alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone respectively) (O’Collins 2004). This movement inspires many radical changes to take place so that adherents turn to a Christocentric belief system. As an Anglican minister, Donne incorporated his reformed beliefs into his poetry, although he does not wholly divorce some Catholic teachings. Donne’s theological perceptions on death predominantly derive from the Reformers since it is so rooted in the Scriptures. Widely distinct from Catholicism, Protestantism is not considered compatible with Catholic dogma. On one hand, Catholicism embraces superstition and its worship was grounded on tradition, rather than on the Bible especially with such doctrines as the Eucharist, purgatory, the worship of relics, the worship of saints, indulgences sales and Latinized readings. On the other, the Reformers sought a closer relationship with God through Bible truth and a revived Church that lived up to higher standards. In this religious context, belief in the truth by faith would set the believer free.
Following the steps of Biblical authors, Donne portrays the transience of life, likening it to a sleep (Psalm 13:3; John 11:13; 1 Corinthians 15:52-58 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15). Donne depicts death as that “from rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee.” This metaphor, employed by David, Jesus and even the apostle Paul, demonstrates the brevity of life yet the hope of an eternal after-life. In this figure, death is compared to a night, whereas life or resurrection is symbolized by the morning. Morbid though the poem may seem, Donne exults over death’s power, for he asserts that it only has a fragile hold over the soul. Donne and many of the Protestant reformers believe that at man’s decease, he lapses into a state of unconsciousness or sleep until resurrection day when Jesus Christ returns again. Alluding to the scriptures of the Christian’s triumph over death through Jesus Christ, Donne refers to the oft-quoted Scripture in 1 Corinthians 15:54, 55. Here, Paul asserts that “death is swallowed up in victory/55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” The brevity of death’s hold is compared to “one short sleepe” and its defeat at the cross is the hope of the believing. Here, Donne rejects the view that death is a despairing, eternal finality; instead, he chooses to rejoice in what come after death.
The resurrection of the dead is the reason behind Donne’s boast and is central to his hopeful assurance in this poem. Serving as the poem’s punchline located at the last line of the last stanza, Donne urges the Protestant belief that subsequent to “one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally.” This line runs parallel to the Scripture that declares that “We shall not all sleep, … For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Donne’s faith is rooted in an everlasting life promised to Christian believers that God will awake those who fall asleep in death to arise to live in their heavenly home. He believes that whosever believes in Jesus would not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). The eternity before him transcends the short sleep of the dead in the grave.
To belittle the stature of death in the poem, one discerns Donne’s use of personification, irony and sarcasm to accomplish his taunt of death’s lack of power over him. Death is personified as unknown character; however, this being could be any of the members of the Greco-Roman pantheon including Hades, Proserpine, Ceres, Proserpine, Pluto or even Satan. The poem’s speaker addresses death as one that “think’st,” thus attributing to it one of the highest qualities of mankind: reason. Death blights the earth with a curse against the living as his boast goes unchallenged with no one escaping its grasp. Donne enumerates Death’s associates as “poyson” “sickness” “warre” “fate” and “chance.” Personifying death enables him to enter into discourse with death. Because of Death’s unwanted sinister and deathly influence, the speaker chooses to inculpate it, oppose it, mock it, and rebuke it. Death has committed many ravages against mankind by taking away “our best men.” He has deprived men from experiencing life to its fullest since death is used as punishment or as a threat in the hands of governors/government.
In terms of irony, the speaker realizes that death actually does not perform its duties efficiently with poppies and charmes outdoing it. For those who have passed under the hand of death, “die not… (neither), yet canst thou kill mee.” This irony impresses on the mind the speaker’s demeaning opinion of death. It fails to carry out its grave purpose although it thinks it does. Death is usually referred to as one that takes its victims captive instead, the speaker asserts that the reverse is true. Instead of being lauded as a majestic ruler or master, the speaker dethrones death, relegating it to the position of a “slave” that merely serves a duty to those who would use it. Again, the speaker deflates the pride of death, demanding that death “be not proud.” Although death truly claims all men and women under its authority, the speaker defiantly refuses to pay him homage. Rather, he gives death a warning of its impending demise for he knows in his heart that death… “shalt die.” This affirmation reflects Paul’s firm belief that “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Poppies and charm(e)s are soporific or sleep-inducing ingredients and to dwarf death’s accomplishments, likens death’s effect to that of drugs that bring on sleep. “Death Be Not Proud” of necessity includes “poppies” and “charmes” to maintain the death theme. Death is a compact of sleep and flowers, but of narcotic flowers especially – a revenant who […] bears always the secret of decay in her, of return to the grave (Gauding 308). According to The Signs and Symbols Bible, in Greco-Roman mythology, poppies were traditionally offered to the dead, signifying eternal sleep. The poppy is a wild flower which historically symbolizes sleep and death: sleep, because of its opium content and soporific effect; and death, because of its commonly blood-red color. Likewise just as there is blood in death, no one is born into this world without blood, therefore, there is the connotation of birth and rebirth.
Contrary to its presumed, baneful effect, death only ends up doing good. It lulls the dead into a comatose state, it separates the dead from the unfortunate vicissitudes of life such as adversity, war, sickness, socio-political unrest, the struggle to survive – from all of these he is shut out. Also death functions only to propel the dead to another higher level. A level that is enviable to the living, an experience that death itself cannot taste and enjoy. Donne affirms that death only causes the “soules deliverie”/soul’s delivery. In other words, it liberates the soul from the time; it emancipates the being from physical constraints and it unchains the soul from the body.
At the same time, Donne concedes that man has no control over death in and of himself as he is powerless to manipulate, refuse or defy death’s approach. Donne enumerates death’s enablers such as fate, poison, war, sickness and cruel, desperate men. He acknowledges that in the hands of these entities, death is utilized against man. He acknowledges that it is man’s lot to die since man is mortal and has to periodically succumb to it. Aware of man’s evil nature, Donne states that “desperate men” are the ones who sometimes instigate death by their own actions incurring and entering war. Poison and sickness are other means by which one may fall. Kings and tyrants who would have their own way have recourse to threaten their subjects with death, to strike fear in their hearts and coerce compliance. Men precipitate other men to death.
In sum, Donne’s Death Be Not Proud is a metaphysical poem because it treats with philosophical and theological themes for example death and religion. The poem reflects prevailing religious persuasion in 17th century England and demonstrates with ardent conviction the position of the Anglican believer in matters relating to life and death, heaven and hell. An intimate acquaintance with the Bible and the fundamental tenets of Protestantism enables the decoding of this poetry which is melancholy in its subject but strikes a note of hope in the end.
Concept of Facing Fear in Literature (the Tell-tale Heart, Trifles, Death Be not Proud)
Fearlessness in Literature
One lifelong lesson taught to every child at a young age is that the only way to get over a fear is to face it; however, some fears are more real than just a monster lurking in the closet. For example, the protagonists in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, John Donne, and Susan Glaspell are all faced with scary situations for which they attempt to find courageous solutions. In Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one narrator overcomes his own dark side by committing a well-planned murder. In Donne’s poem, “Death Be Not Proud,” one valiant man challenges death itself by justifying his religious belief about the afterlife. In Glaspell’s play, Trifles, two independent women decide to take the fate of a woman’s life into their own hands by concealing evidence at a crime scene. Fearlessness is a trait common to the protagonists in all three cases. On the other hand, the main characters in each literary work exemplify this quality from extremely different perspectives: the short story, poem, and play all recount a story from individual, religious, and female points of view respectively.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a gothic story that depicts one bold psychopath’s careful homicide of an old man, specifically to face his inner terrors and defeat a frightening evil eye. The narrator—who is also the murderer, attempts to justify his actions by telling the reader the thought processes behind them. This is significant because by listening to his reasoning, the reader is able to comprehend the narrator’s obsession; not only is the eye chilling to look at, but it also serves as a representation of his own inner “evil I.” In order to eliminate his menacing personal demons, the paranoid narrator becomes obsessed with committing this crime. “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (Poe 42). Although his actions are not morally sound, the narrator does demonstrate extreme bravery by confronting his apprehension towards the old man’s eye. Just minutes before committing the crime, the narrator states, “I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. An now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror” (Poe 44). Although he is terrified, he takes action anyway. This circumstance is highly distinctive and merely one individual account of defying a fear.
Similarly, the poem “Death Be Not Proud” features a brave religious soul’s confrontation with death itself. Because the narrator is so devout, he believes in the existence of an afterlife. He writes, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Donne 13). In other words, once a person dies, their spirit then lives infinitely. By this reasoning, death leads to everlasting life, so it ultimately is not such a bad thing after all. He goes on to say, “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die” (Donne 14). By asserting his beliefs, the narrator proudly stands up to death—a widely dreaded entity—and declares it should not be feared. By putting all of his faith in a holy body, Donne is able to overcome all uncertainty and live a courageous life. Overall, this poem represents facing a daunting fear from a religious point of view.
Finally, Trifles is a play in which two audacious women conceal murder evidence in order to take a stand against men, change the course of events, and save a friend’s life. When a wife murders her own husband, men are sent to uncover the crime. Ironically, it is their wives who not only solve the mystery, but also prevent them from finding any evidence at all. The ladies decide to do this because they feel blameworthy for leaving their friend alone in an abusive household.
MRS. HALE. I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful—and that’s why I ought to have come. (Glaspell 666)
Mrs. Hale’s guilt ultimately drives her decision to hide the evidence; she believes she could have prevented the murder if she would have visited her friend more often. Furthermore, women were not taken seriously during this time period. Therefore, the ladies were merely seen as a shadow of their husbands. By taking matters into their own hands, the wives claimed authority and took control of a situation in order to protect someone of their own gender. This decision is twice as dangerous and forbidding because it defies both their husbands and the law.
(The two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now it is in the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it.) (Glaspell 668)
Although they were frightened of the possible repercussions, the female characters of this play supported each other through an overwhelming situation.
True fearlessness is measured by the way someone undertakes a challenge when faced with uncertainty. However, it is important to note how an act of bravery is not necessarily a responsible act. Overall, this common theme is significant because it both unifies and differentiates all the works. The protagonists in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Death Be Not Proud,” and Trifles are similar because they all take risks in order to overcome their fears. On the other hand, each brave character can be used to embody a different classification of the human race; “The Tell-Tale Heart” represents the unique perspective of a single person, “Death Be Not Proud” represents faith in the religious population, and Trifles represents the role of women in 19th century society. While the motives and ethics of each character’s act are questionable, it is impossible to overlook the amount of boldness required to commit such behaviors.
Defining Characteristics of Sonnets on John Donne’s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, and Edmund Spenser’s Poetry
A sonnet is defined as a poem of fourteen lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes. They are typically written about love, but can be about a host of other topics as well. They are well known for the utilization of a strong rhythm, which is why sonnets can be quickly transcribed into music. Sonnet characteristics can be clearly seen in the poems Death, be not proud,” “One day I wrote her name upon the strand”, and “How I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
The first sonnet analyzed is “Death, be not proud” by John Donne. The format of the poem follows a Petrarchan format. This format has fourteen lines with a rhyme scheme of a/b/b/a/a/b/b/a/c/d/d/c/a/a. It functions within the normal iambic pentameter structure; each line has ten syllables, every second of which is accented. However, the beat is kept loosely. For example, the sonnet starts with the first word “death” accented. This is okay for him to do because once read out loud, the pauses that are generated are allowed to be counted as a syllable as well.
The speaker has a unique viewpoint of Death; instead of being scared of what death can bring, he taunts the concept, as his beliefs dictate he is going to Heaven. This thought allows him to remain confident throughout the entire sonnet. He keeps a sturdy demeanor while taunting and insulting Death as the sonnet continues. In doing so, he personifies the concept of death into an entity. By talking to the concept as though it is a conscious being, he is able to verbally challenge it. Without this personification, it would be hard to taunt death, as it would not be able to conceptualize anything that has been said.
The sonnet is also metaphysical, as it talks about reality beyond the physical world. The speaker in the sonnet is very aware of the idea of mortality; in fact, he is so aware that he even predicts Death will eventually die, stating that “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (14). The poem is so aware of death that it understands that all concepts, even the idea of dying, will eventually perish and fall into oblivion. This is also a paradox, another characteristic of a metaphysical poem. The narrator states that death will one day die, but in order for something to die, death must still be valid concept. The sonnet tops it off with a pun as well: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery” (8). Delivery can mean a liberation, such as the delivery of the Israelites after their enslavement, or it can mean birth in the sense of how babies are delivered into the world.
Another strong characteristic of a metaphysical poem is the reference to God. This is a recurring idea within the sonnet, as the idea of rest and sleep are contrasted against permanent death: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be” (5). The distinction between rest and death comes from the story of Christ. When Christ is killed on the Cross, he is depicted as “sleeping” before he wakes up and goes back to Heaven. Similarly, for Christians, the idea of death is a merely a sleep, as they will be resurrected for Heaven when the Rapture starts. This is another reason as to why the speaker is not afraid of Death, as he believes that he will only be asleep temporarily rather than dead permanently.
The volta, or shift in the argumentation, takes place at line 9 which is also when the rhyme scheme changes. He begins to insult death by stating that “Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell” (Donne 9-10). By changing the rhyme scheme, the poet indicates a change in his argumentation. His insults become sharper and more biting which eventually culminates to the idea of death dying.
The Petrarchan structure is just one way of constructing a sonnet. “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” by Edmund Spenser is written in the Spenserian format, meaning the rhyme scheme follows a/b/a/b/b/c/b/c/c/d/c/d/e/e. This is different from the more traditional structure a/b/b/a/a/b/b/a/c/d/e/c/d/e. A large difference between the two is the couplet at the end of the Spenserian format. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, and follows the meter meticulously.
Alliteration is used throughout the sonnet. For instance, in the line “But came the tide, and made my pains his prey,” (Spenser 4) pain and prey both have harsh sounding “p” pronunciations that give the overall sentence a gritty feeling. Spenser is utilizing alliteration as a way of emphasizing the tone of each line. Whereas the harsh “p”s are used in talking about pains, the sentence “My verse, your virtues rare shall eternize” has a softer sound, which is consistent with the content of the sentence. Furthermore, the last line uses alliteration to create a melodious sound: “Our love shall live, and later life renew” (14). The sound of the words emphasize how the reader should interpret the lines as they read them.
The poem takes place on the beach, with the waves continually moving in close to where the speaker is sitting. This allows the poet to use the waves as a metaphor for life; the speaker has no control over the waves of ocean coming in and out, just as nobody has control over how their lives turn out. He is writing his beloved’s name on the beach constantly, only to have it washed away by a tide: “One day I wrote her name upon the strand, / But came the waves and washed it away” (1-2). No matter how much he tries to keep his lover’s name written in the sand, the continual waves destroy the name, which allows him to understand that he cannot create immortality in the physical world. He instead defaults to immortalizing their love through poem, as he states that “Where whenas death shall all the world subdue, / Our love shall live, and later life renew” (13-14).
The volta can be found in the last two lines of the sonnet. It represents a shift from the discussion of slipping into oblivion to one that talks about being immortalized in verse. Before these lines, the speaker’s lover states that there is no point in trying to her name in the sand, as they will all die and everything will be forgotten eventually: “A mortal thing so to immortalize;/ For I myself shall like to this decay” (6-7). However, the last two lines clarifies that not only will she be immortalized, but their love will become eternal through verse. It is not just his lover he wants to immortalize, but it is their love.
The theme of the poem is that something true can be immortalized in some way. Even though physical eternality is impossible, because of the devotion the speaker has to his lover, he makes sure that they are remembered for their love. This is a unique immortality, as they are not truly immortal. When one reads the poem, they do not know the identity of the two individuals in the poem. However, the reader does know what kind of love the speaker wanted to express. This way, the individuals themselves are not immortal, but their abstract feelings are continued through the generations inside of the countless readers’ minds.
The final sonnet is “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This poem also follows the Petrarchan format and is also written in iambic pentameter. A large part of why the poem sounds so natural is because it uses repetition; the word love is used ten times throughout the poem. Instead of using synonyms for love, the poet wants to fill the one word with a multitude of different implications. This makes the word “love” multifaceted and three-dimensional. Had the word love been replaced with different words such as affection, it would have detracted from the full meaning of love. This also creates consistency; the speaker feels an unchanging sense of love for her significant other.
This sense of love is sharpened through the contrast of her previous grief. She states that the passion she put into grieving has been transferred to her love : “I love thee with the passion put to use / In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith” (Browning 9-10). This contributes to the idea of her version of love being more personal than a generic abstraction, as she is telling her lover that her passion for him has been shaped and fueled by her past history.
Anaphora dominates the poem, as the term “I love thee” is used eight times in the poem, including the ending, which states “I shall but love thee.” The author also uses alliteration, as she uses similar sounding words such as “thee/the” and “quiet/candlelight” in the same line. She also writes about abstract concepts as though they are human; through this personification, the author is able to create a feeling in which these abstractions are more personal to her.She uses capitalized words for these concepts: “the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (4). Any concept can generically apply to every individual; personified concepts are specific to how she conceptualizes them. This conveys the message she wants because the goal of her poem is to describe her love; by personifying abstractions, it describes her love as something that is more personal.
The volta comes in the last two lines of the sonnet: “Smiles, tears, of all my life!- And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death (13-14). In the first twelve lines of the poem, her love for her significant other is grounded in physicality; they talk about love in the physical world. However, the last two sentences talk about her love transcending empirical reality and into a different realm of existence. This shift from love in this life to love in the afterlife indicates the shift in how she describes her love.
All three poems utilize the idea of eternality: “Death, be not Proud” states that death is a mere temporary sleep, and one can overcome it; in “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” immortality is believed to be achievable through the preservation of their love in a poem; in “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” she wants to continue loving her significant other into the afterlife. In all three poems, their belief in what they are saying is unwavering, meaning that all three speakers thoroughly believe in what they are saying. Only through such belief can one reach immortality, as without such belief, doubt and fear can prevent one from achieving their goals.