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John Donne's Holy Sonnet X

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet X

In John Donne's Holy Sonnet X, the speaker is rebuking the concept of death, taking away from it all its power to terrify and confuse the heart and mind of humankind.

At first glance, it may seem the speaker is personifying "Death," as human beings are the creatures capable of pride and retaining "mighty and dreadful" characteristics. However, in this sonnet, death simply remains a force or a concept, not a person because in the final analysis this speaker assigns death to oblivion.

After the initial stage of life after death, the eternal soul realizes itself as immortal, at which time death itself dies and exists no more. That important detail cannot be said of the human being—either before or after death has intervened.

Instead of being "personified," the concept of death is merely assigned the anthropomorphic characteristic of possessing pride, as in the first line, "Death, be not proud" and in the concluding line of the third quatrain, "why swell'st thou then?," which refers to swelling with pride. Thus the only true human characteristic death possesses in this drama is that of pride.

Holy Sonnet X

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
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.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Reading of Holy Sonnet X

Commentary

The speaker essentially kills death in this little drama, by robbing it of its dread and placing it among other evil but feckless invaders of the soul

First Quatrain: A Command to Leave Off Pride

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The speaker begins by commanding death to leave off with its pride because it, in fact, has no reason for being proud. Even though some folks have claimed the powers of might and dread for the force of death, the speaker contradicts that characterization. He informs death that even though it might be persuaded that it can kill, it cannot.

The speaker instructs death that it cannot "overthrow" anyone simply because those that death thinks it kills do not actually "die," and the speaker adds that death cannot kill him. The speaker is aware of the immortality of the soul that exists eternally, despite its falling under the illusion of the concepts of "life" and "death."

Second Quatrain: Shadow Images of Death

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.

The speaker then explains that even "rest and sleep" represent only shadow images of death, but they convey a pleasing comfort as it is comforting to engage in rest and sleep after much physical exertion.

And for the soul itself, the respite given by leaving the physical encasement, which is what death essentially is, only results in "delivery" from the trials, tribulations, and trammels of life on earth.

Even the "best men" are subject to death, and from that fact the speaker is able to conclude that the death force cannot be the dreadful, tragic source that is so widely attributed to it.

Third Quatrain: A Mere Slave with Low Companions

Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

The speaker then offers a convincing evidentiary assertion that cuts death down to the level of a "slave." Death has been used by "kings" and by "desperate men" against their enemies. Thus death is simply a servant of "Fate" and of "chance."

Additionally, the company death keeps includes despicable, degenerates as well; with companions such as "poison, war, and sickness," with whom death makes his residence, one can only conclude again that death has no reason to be proud.

The speaker then claims that sleeping potions can make people sleep as well as death can do. And the results of such, "poppy" or "charms" are always superior to that of death; thus again death has no reason to possess pride in its abilities.

The Couplet: The Death of Death

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

The speaker finally punctures the puffed-up pride of death by asserting that the soul after it awakes in its Divine Beloved Creator, will know itself to be eternally immortal. Where is death then? Death itself has to "die" and "shall be no more."

Speculation by as yet soul-unrealized beings remains just that, speculation. But in order to describe the ineffable, the speaker always must resort to metaphor; thus "one short sleep," in fact, may actually include many such "short sleep[s]," depending on the level of achievement of the individual soul.

The meaning remains the same: the soul is immortal and exists eternally; thus, the episodes of life and death remain a mayic delusion. "[W]e wake eternally" is the fact that remains despite the necessity of metaphorically likening any temporal durations in the after-death time frame to earth experienced ones. Each soul is on one long journey, and the number of times that it requires for reincarnating in the physical encasement is ultimately irrelevant to the spiritual fact of the soul's eternal immorality.

John Donne Monument

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the poems #6 and #10 about in John Donne's Holy Sonnet X?

Answer: Sonnet 6: As his final moments draw him closer to death, the speaker likens his life to a play, and he is in the "last scene." He feels that he has moved speedily through his God-directed journey. His greatest wish, the goal that he constantly engages, is to be delivered from the ravages of sin that have caused his body to writhe in physical pain, and his mind to remain concentrated on a deep melancholy. The speaker demonstrates in each sonnet that his faith is deep and strong. He relies upon God now more than he has ever before done. And his active, creative mind fashions his little dramas that hold his speculations regarding his last moments as well as his likely journey that will continue after his soul has left its miserable physical encasement.

Sonnet 10: In John Donne's Holy Sonnet X, the speaker rebukes the concept of death, taking away from it all its power to terrify and confuse the heart and mind of humankind. At first glance, it may seem the speaker is personifying "Death," as human beings are the creatures capable of pride and retaining "mighty and dreadful" characteristics. However, in this sonnet, death simply remains a force or a concept, not a person because in the final analysis this speaker assigns death to oblivion. After the initial stage of life after death, the eternal soul realizes itself as immortal, at which time death itself dies and exists no more. That important detail cannot be said of the human being—either before or after death has intervened. Instead of being "personified," the concept of death is merely assigned the anthropomorphic characteristic of possessing pride, as in the first line, "Death, be not proud" and in the concluding line of the third quatrain, "why swell'st thou then?," which refers to swelling with pride. Thus the only true human characteristic death possesses in this drama is that of pride.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes