No one’s sure when John Donne’s Holy Sonnets were written. Many people think that Donne composed them after the death of his wife in 1617, but that’s just a guess. At any rate, they weren’t published until 1633, two years after Donne’s death. As the title suggests, they are about religion. But, not exclusively. Some of them are also about sex, violence, and, in this case, mortality. Donne was a preacher, and he wrote many electrifying sermons in his lifetime. However, he is best known for his poems, among which the Holy Sonnets stand out. They are deep, intense, personal, complicated, and playful.
Donne is commonly grouped among the Metaphysical Poets, a loose collection of writers from the early 17th century. Along with Donne, the most famous Metaphysicals are Andrew Marvell and George Herbert. We wish we could say that they have a clubhouse and a secret password, but, sadly, no. They weren’t a formal group at all, and the term didn’t exist until the famous literary critic Samuel Johnson coined it in the 18th century.
"Metaphysics" is the study of the ultimate reality beyond our everyday world, including questions about God, creation, and the afterlife. These poets are known for using symbols and images from the "physical" world to spin complicated arguments about such "metaphysical" concerns. They are known especially for the use of wit, which involves a lot of wordplay. When someone makes fun of you and you find the perfect comeback, that’s wit. After you read this poem, you’ll be convinced: if Donne was alive today, he’d be a master of the comeback.
This sonnet is about making death seem not-so-scary. We could say that you should care about the poem because it succeeds in this goal, but quite frankly, we’re still afraid of death after reading it. Donne wrote a lot of poems and sermons about religion and the afterlife, but we don’t think the average reader picking up this sonnet will be cured of his or her anxious thoughts about mortality.
But, there’s another reason you should care about this poem: it’s a great example of how to tell off a bully of any kind. It doesn’t have to be the type of bully that wants to sucker-punch you, and then take your lunch money. It could be a boss who gives you all the worst jobs to do, or a friend who tries to intimidate you. Donne will teach you how to take them down a notch.
Step 1: Catch them off guard. Donne starts ordering Death around right from the start. This is a total role-reversal, and we assume that Death doesn’t know what to make of it.
Step 2: Act sympathetic, with a touch of condescension. Nothing annoys a bully more than your pity. When Donne calls Death "poor," we imagine that it just burns the guy up.
Step 3: When they do bad stuff to you, pretend it’s good. Donne says that death will be pleasurable, like sleep and rest. If you ever get into fistfight with someone bigger than you (which we definitely don’t encourage), you can try the same thing: "Hey, thanks for showing me some moves."
Step 4: Point out their weaknesses. Donne points out that lesser figures control Death, like suicidal people. Then, he makes fun of Death for hanging out with losers like "sickness." Seriously, dude: Sickness? That guy always gets picked last in gym class.
Step 5: Claim that other people can do the job better. Donne claims that "poppies" or "charms" are just as good at making him fall asleep.
Step 6: Scare them with future consequences. Donne tells Death that he’ll "die" once eternity comes. You probably shouldn’t threaten your bully with death, but you can tell them that they’ll probably end up working for you one day.
There you have it. Six easy steps to conquering that really scary person in your life, courtesy of Mr. Donne, Metaphysical Poet and self-help expert.
Audio files with readings of the poem, including "Death, be not proud."
After you see this picture, you’ll know why the ladies love him.
The flower people use to make opium.
A fantastic resource. You can check out the first published versions of Donne’s poetry, which have a different punctuation and order.
T.S. Eliot Essay
An famous essay by the poet T.S. Eliot on the Metaphysical Poets.
John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays, by Helen Gardner
Gardner is one of the most important Donne scholars of the 20th century.
Wit: A Play, by Margaret Edson
An fantastic Pulitzer Prize winning play about a John Donne scholar diagnosed with cancer. Facing her own death, Donne's poems, and particularly "Death be not proud," take on new meaning for her. This play was also turned into a great movie starring Emma Thompson.
A fantastic Web site containing a detailed biography, scholarly essays on Donne, and a very large selection of his works.
Make sure to check out the link to "A Brief Guide to the Metaphysical Poets."
"Death, be not proud": Live action version
An actor reads the sonnet while sitting next to a fireplace.