Death’s Dual:  Life Be Not Proud



He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto God the Lord belong the issues from death.

                                                                                Psalm 68, 20


Among the “Holy Sonnets” written by John Donne (1572-1631) is a poem that begins “Death be not proud…”  The poem is a prime example of the metaphysical style with which Donne is associated, and it also exhibits the unity of the theology found in Donne’s sermons (as an Anglican preacher) with the metaphysical philosophy of his poetry.  The conceit of the poem is the conflating of life and death, leading to the famous concluding (and seemingly paradoxical) phrase “death, thou shalt die”. The cadence of this phrase mirrors that of the opening phrase, and the two together enclose the poem, contributing to its sense of musical cohesion and fulfillment. 


Conceptually the poem addresses earthly life, which it denigrates relative to the everlasting life to come, consistent with the Christian tradition, but does so in consciously paradoxical terms, referring to both life and death by the name “death”. The craft and artistry of the poem is evident in how this conceit is carried through so successfully. The first-time reader could easily take the words at face value, and imagine (at first) that the poem is addressing death. The initial images are carefully chosen and stated so that they can be taken either way. For example, one can equally well say that both life and death have been called, by some, mighty and dreadful. Also, we may ask whether our overthrow is threatened by death, or by life.  And when Donne says “nor yet canst thou kill me”, using the verb “kill” as distinct from “death”, we understand that killing, i.e., bringing about the actual passive state of death, is an action that cannot be performed by death itself. It is life that does the killing.


In continuity with this, the next lines continue to consider this transitional aspect of life/death, asserting that “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”. Here the notions of rest and sleep are seemingly presented as likenesses of the cessation of life, but later Donne reveals that sleep is his metaphor for earthly life. The next line accuses the addressee of being “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”, which surely is a more apt description of earthly life than of death. Likewise one can certainly say of earthly life that it dwells with poison, war, and sickness.


In the next line Donne begins to unfold the conceit, saying that “poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, and better than thy stroke”. This could still plausibly be referring to death, but it’s actually more intelligible if taken in reference to life, since drugs arguably produce a better or enhanced state than the normal state of life. By contrast, the idea that drugs induce a sleep better than death is dubious. Still, the misdirection is maintained by (again) referring to “sleep”, the meaning of which is revealed only in the next line, which says “one short sleep past, we wake eternally”. Here we see unambiguously that the “sleep” to which Donne refers is nothing other than our short earthly life, from which, through death, we wake eternally. Rounding out the conceit, he concludes “death (i.e., earthly life), thou shalt die”, and by now the meaning of this phrase, which taken at face value sounds paradoxical, has become plain.


Donne seems to have been fascinated with this conceit, and labored in several of his poems to perfect the expression and evocation of it. See, for example, the 14th Holy Sonnet, which concludes with the paradoxing couplet “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”, and the 5th sonnet, which ends “Burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal”. (Apparently Donne’s readers were expected to be familiar with things like Psalm 69;9, “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up…”) Similarly the poem “Hymn to God My God, in my Sickness”, in which Donne explicitly associates his poetry with his sermons, ends with “Be this my text, my sermon to mine own; therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down”.


But the fullest expression and exploration of this idea came in the last of Donne’s sermons, delivered in 1630, just days before his death. The accepted title of this sermon, in printed form, is “Death’s Duel, or, A Consolation to the Soul Against the Dying Life and Living Death of the Body”. How consoling this sermon actually is can be debated, but it certainly presents a detailed elaboration of Donne’s conception of the duality between life and death. It has always seems odd (to me) that the sermon’s title refers to “duel” rather than “dual”. There is no reference in the body of the sermon to any duel or battle with death. Instead, the entire sermon is essentially a defense of the thesis of duality between death and life. Without knowing how the sermon was transcribed and prepared for publication (posthumously), is it possible that someone just wrote down the spoken words, and mistook the abstractly metaphysical word “dual” for the more commonly familiar word “duel”? Considering the scholarly scrutiny to which Donne’s writings have been subjected, this seems unlikely, but at the very least, we must presume that the pun was intentional.


Donne took as his text the 20th verse of the 68th Psalm, which reads (in the King James version)


He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto God the Lord belong the issues from death.


In order to make this serve his multiple rhetorical purposes, Donne found it necessary to argue that the word “from” can also be rendered “of”, so that he has the repeated refrain “Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death”. He also pluralized salvation to salvations, because God gives us each spiritual and temporal salvations, as well as providing the single universal Salvation. In the course of this sermon, Donne makes explicit the idea of conflating life with death underlying the 10th sonnet:


And though the apostle would not say that whilst we are in the body we are dead, yet he says whilst we are in the body we are but in a pilgrimage, and we are absent from the Lord. He might have said dead, for this whole world is but a universal churchyard, but our common grave, and the life and motion that the greatest persons have in it is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their grave, by an earthquake. That which we call life is but a week of death, seven days, seven periods of our life spent in dying, a dying seven times over; and there is an end.


This again confirms that Donne sought to present earthly life as the most real form of “death”, and this “dying life and living death” is clearly what he was addressing when we wrote “Death be not proud”.


Since Donne’s poems were not published during his lifetime, it isn’t possible to date them with certainty. Traditionally the exuberant and somewhat risqué poems are assumed to have been products of his youth, while the more abstract and somber works are attributed to his mature years, but this is really only speculation. It is thought, based on circumstantial evidence, that most of the Holy Sonnets had been written by around 1612. If so, it’s remarkable that nearly 20 years later he was still pre-occupied with the very same theme.


Many have noted the similarity of Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146, believed to have been written and circulated privately among Shakespeare’s friends some time before 1598, but first published (in a pirated quarto) by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. Like Donne, Shakespeare begins by denigrating earthly life, pointing out its vanity and false pride:


Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,

Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array,

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting they outward walls so costly gay?

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon they fading mansion spend?


He uses “pine” there in the sense of “yearn”, but after describing the inevitable decline and decay of the earthly form (the outward walls), he uses the same word for the wood of the body’s coffin, and urges that we tend more to our eternal soul than to the temporary form of our body (the soul’s servant):


Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

And let that pine to aggravate they store;

By terms divine in selling hours of dross;

Within be fed, without be rich no more.


He concludes with the couplet:


So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,

And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.


which is remarkably similar to the final couplet in Donne’s poem. It would be interesting to know if Donne ever read Shakespeare’s sonnets – and vice versa. (Donne was only eight years younger than Shakespeare.)


Technically the structure of Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet gives an impression of modernism, despite being written in strict adherence to the sonnet form, in iambic pentameter, complete with line-ending rhymes in the pattern abba abba cddc aa, thus combining the octave pattern of the Petrarchian form with a sestet that includes a final couplet in the English style. To some extent the apparent “modernity” of Donne’s poetry may be attributed to the fact that several of the creators of modern poetic taste (e.g., T. S. Eliot) were heavily influenced by Donne – but this begs the question of why Donne’s style appealed to these modern poets. One factor is that Donne sometimes made his rhythms and rhymes more palatable (for modern readers) by diverting attention from them. In less sophisticated poetry the conveyed thoughts are often rigidly segmented by line, and each line ends with a significant word, which of course must fit into the rhyme pattern. In some of Donne’s poetry the line-break exerts less literal authority. The thoughts are allowed to flow on through the end of a line, and the last word of a line may be an insignificant one in the middle of a natural phrase, even though it carries the rhyme. For example, the 10th sonnet begins


Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…


The phrase “some have called thee mighty and dreadful” is broken at the word “thee”, even though this is not a natural pause. The constraints of iambic pentameter and the strict rhyme scheme are made to seem less confining, and this also gives an impression of effortlessness, quite different from the sense of obvious labor of rhymes used to punctuate the conceptual structure of some more conventional poetry of that time.


Moreover, by allowing the literal phrases to disregard line breaks, the line break is freed to serve another purpose, allowing the poet to introduce additional ideas and layers of meaning within the same compact space. For example, the opening line of the 10th sonnet, standing alone, reads “Death be not proud, though some have called thee”, which in isolation conveys the idea that some have “called”, i.e., appealed to, death. Admittedly when we proceed to the next line and the completion of the phrase “called thee mighty and dreadful”, we see that the literal meaning is quite different, but the line break has had its effect. This technique of using line breaks to allow the parts of a single sentence to separately convey multiple meanings has an obvious appeal to modern readers, and is a staple of modern poetry.


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