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The Holy Sonnet 'Death be not Proud' (Complete Poetry 283-4) seems to show Donne's mind grappling anew with the reality of death in the wake of his wife's demise. The form of the poem gives an impression of thinking aloud, as if the reader overhears the poet's thoughts as he engages directly with death in an attempt both to cut it down to size and to understand its true nature - by such understanding, Donne's words strongly imply, fear of death will be banished, for death will be seen in its true colors as a place of passage from one, unsatisfactory, existence, to another, equally real but more complete and joyful. The opening lines reflect the fact that Donne himself has been among those who have been in awe of death: 'Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful...'. Donne immediately argues against that perception, stating flatly that 'thou art not soe' and asserting the reality of life after death, rendering death itself powerless: 'For those whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.' Donne goes on to integrate death into the divine pattern of existence, reflecting that it, too, is part of God's creation and has a purpose, even to be considered desirable and pleasant: 'From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures bee, / Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow'. Just as rest and sleep restore the body, so the sleep of death has its purpose in restoring the soul and preparing it for new life. But the poem seems to find its center of gravity in the assurance that death is, ultimately, powerless; the theme to which Donne returns with his observation that death is dependent upon external agents to have any effect, 'Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,' and is rivalled by sleeping draughts and charms for effectiveness: 'why swell'st thou then?' Donne ends with a firm declaration that it is the lot of the human soul to 'wake eternally' after the short sleep of death, 'And death shall bee no more; death, thou shalt die.' The sonnet is not so much an attack upon death or a lament as a reckoning of death's power in the light of Christian assurances of resurrection and the afterlife. In the aftermath of his wife's death it seems Donne needed to seek, and to articulate, such reassurance as much for himself as for others: 'nor yet canst thou kill mee.'
Donne himself declares in another of his Holy Sonnets, Sonnet XVII (Complete Poetry 286-7), that it is his wife's death that has set him to thinking about matters of the spirit more, and with greater intensity, than was the case before:
Since she whom I lov'd hath payd her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her Soule early into Heaven ravished,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is sett.
There is a double meaning in these lines. They can be read as meaning that, with the death of his wife, Donne is able to concentrate 'wholly' on spiritual things, now that the competition for love of God which his wife represented is gone, and indeed that is one way in which Donne understands that he could find a resolution for his grief over his dead wife: 'though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hath fed'. But it is clear that Donne is dissatisfied with this explanation, and finds it insufficient in the light of his own feelings over the loss of Anne. Perhaps before her death he would have exercised this rationalization in abstract and found it satisfactory, but now that death and loss is such a reality to him he is unable to do this: 'why should I begg more Love, when as thou / Dost wooe my soule for hers; offring all thine' is his bitter rejoinder, and he goes on in an extraordinary final passage, effectively, to rebuke God for small-minded jealousy, in finding it necessary to take away his wife in order to be sure of all his love:
And dost not only feare least I allow
My Love to Saints and Angels things divine,
But in thy tender jealosy dost doubt
Least the World, Fleshe, yea Devill putt thee out.
If the Holy Sonnets are to be read, as one scholar has argued, as evidence not of God as an active presence but rather 'of the presence of God not as an active participant in the dramatized moment but as a silent presence beyond human words and human reason' (Beaston 107), this direct addressing of the deity appears somewhat paradoxical - unless it is seen in the context of a grieving man seeking an orthodox Christian channel of expression for the powerful feelings of anger, powerlessness, guilt and sorrow that grief contains.
A similar psychological explanation, arising entirely from the experience of Anne's death, can be proposed for the very real presence of death throughout the Holy Sonnets. In many of the poems, Donne's sense of the immanent presence of death, and of the reality of his own mortality, is very striking. Sonnet VI (Collected Poetry 281), for example, begins 'This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint / My pilgrimages last mile', while Donne's tone in Sonnet I (Collected Poetry 279-80) is dramatic and, initially, almost panic-stricken:
Thou hast made me, and shall thy worke decay?
Repaire me now, for now mine end doth haste, runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
dare not move my dimme eyes any way,
Despaire behind, and death before doth cast
The sonnet ends with Donne protection from temptation, and revealing that his fear is not death itself but rather the separation of his soul from God that death may entail - it is thus grace and salvation he seeks. Yet despite this conventional theology, the dread brought into Donne's life by his recent very personal experience of death is clear. As one scholar has pointed out, the many evidences of the fear of death in the Holy Sonnets represent a conventional view of the necessity for death and rebirth that underlies the notion of Christian salvation: 'Donne's contemporaries typically invoke "death" and "resurrection" to describe regeneration and the death of the old man and resurrection of the new' (Cefalu 78), and this is certainly present in Donne, but the reading of the sonnet that addresses Donne's loss of wife explicitly, Sonnet XVII, above, suggests that this is insufficient to account for the vivid presence of death and the fear of death in these sonnets. Donne's religious faith and doctrine is being tested in these sonnets by the experience of his wife's early death.
John Carey has suggested that Donne's views of death in Sonnet XVII are ultimately egotistical, that his 'feeling of loss is self-centered' (Carey 44), and it is certainly true that he turns the subject of the sonnet to himself with the phrase 'But though I have found thee' (Complete Poetry 286). This self-centeredness, however, is present throughout Donne's work; in poem after poem, whether its ostensible subject be love, or God, or death, the 'I' of the poet constantly asserts itself. What is much more important than the fact of the continuation of this tendency in these post-1617 poems is its coexistence with a new highly personal concern with the meaning of death and how it can be accommodated. In respect to this it is important to reassert Donne's concern with the physical as well as the spiritual, with the body as well as the soul, and with the bond between the two. Marriage plays a central role for Donne in his approach to these issues. In 1626, in a sermon for the funeral of Sir William Cockayne, Donne expressed this relationship in the following vivid manner:
Though the soule be in lecto florida, in that bed which is alwayes green, in an everlasting spring, in Abraham's bosome; and the body but in that green-bed, whose covering is but a yard and a halfe of Turfe, and a Rugge of grasse, and the sheet but a winding sheet, yet they are not divorced... (Parfitt 118)
Perhaps the foremost earthly expression of such physical and spiritual unity is marriage, and Donne expresses this notion in his 'epithalamia' or marriage songs from the earlier part of his writing career.
In marriage the separateness of the individual, and individually barren, man and woman is replaced by a new divinely-sanctioned and (it was hoped) fruitful unity, just as the soul inhabiting the body is able to devote its earthly existence to the praise of God and striving for salvation.…[continue]
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