Category Archives: John Donne

‘Death, be not proud’ by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This poem, Divine Meditation 10 is one of Donne’s best-loved and most-quoted sonnets. The message of the piece is simple enough – a notion surely common to all religions (at least, to the Judeo-Christian faiths): “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians, verses 15-26). The poet personifies Death as he addresses it directly, and he does so with such confident, triumphant defiance that one cannot fail to be seduced.

Donne warns Death against pride, and affirms that he is not “Mighty and dreadful”, as he has been so perceived throughout history. “For”, explains the poet, those who he believes he “overthrow[s]/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me”. This kind of bravure on the part of a poet is irresistible.

The poet goes on to express the idea that Death’s role is simply the kindness to deliver us from this earthly plane and the pain of human suffering: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery”. Rather than depicting the terrifying traditional image of Death as the ‘reaper’, choosing his ‘victims’, Donne suggests that Death itself is in fact the ‘victim’, and by no means at the top of any hierarchy; Death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. It is “fate” (God’s will?), “chance”, or else human actions and decisions that conjure Death. Death decides nothing.

Donne also delivers the idea that Death is inferior to drugs (“poppy or charms”) in terms of giving us rest and sleep, for on the other side of Death we “wake eternally”. “Why swell’st thou then?” I love this direct, exultant question, and the delicious use of “swell’st”.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” So ends the poem, and in the final analysis (the poem is entitled  Divine Meditation 10, so we might have guessed from the start) the sonnet seems to have a very religious tint to it – in that great hope of eternal life.

However, the hope in this poem, though evidently religious, can also, I think, encompass hope in human endeavour and discovery. It is particularly the line, “And dost with… sickness dwell,/ And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well” that brings this idea to me. The notion of man’s capacity to create remedies for pain and sickness is present here. I feel like there is a sort of sub-plot to this sonnet, where Donne is foreseeing that man will make great discoveries and advances in medicine, and that indeed in many instances it will certainly be the case that “Death, thou shalt die”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The good morrow’ by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a
dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one,
and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.

This is the first poem by John Donne that I have posted on this site, and it is a beautiful and spiritual love poem. Donne lived from 1572-1631 and is probably the most famous of the metaphysical poets.

The good morrow begins with the speaker reflecting on what his life was like “before we loved” — before he loved the woman to whom this poem is addressed. The answer to this question is that his life was meaningless, before her. He may have enjoyed “country pleasures” before, but these were merely physical, and “childish”. My favourite lines in the whole poem are at the end of this first stanza: “If every any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a/ Dream of thee”. Any love the poet thought he felt before her — any liaisons he may have had before he met her — they were “but a/ Dream of thee”. They were not real, and only a shadow of what love can be.

Stanza two goes on to describe how this woman has become the speaker’s entire world, and the spiritual bond that they enjoy together. Their souls are “waking” — coming alive — because of this love that has opened their eyes and filled them with joy. They have no “fear”, and their “little room” becomes “an everywhere”. They may spend their time cooped in one small room together, but being together in this space means that it is more than enough. Donne goes on to write that he no longer cares about sea farers discovering new worlds (as was literally happening in Donne’s day, as the Americas and other new lands were being discovered.) The discovery of new worlds means nothing to the speaker in this poem, for he possesses his own new world: his lady.

When we arrive at the final verse, Donne writes beautifully about seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his lover, and she in his: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”. This third stanza fascinates me because there seems to be a desire for equality with his lover, which was perhaps unusual in Donne’s era. As he states, “Whatever dies was not mixed equally”. If the two love each other in equal measure then their love will not fade; “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I/ Love so alike than none do slacken, none can die”. I adore this ending to the piece, as it describes so beautifully how the spiritual marriage of minds and hearts can create an unbreakable bond of love.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

“The Flea” by John Donne

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, out two bloods mingled bee;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sinne, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh, stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where wee almost, yea more then maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make you apt to kill mee,
Let not to that, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which is suckd from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou
Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now;
‘Tis true, then learne how false, fears bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee.

John Donne left an incredibly rich heritage. It concerns both the quantity of his works and their quality, and “The Flea” is an excellent example of it. Here, one can clearly see why the intricate structure of Donne’s poems is often compared to lace.

Most poets who lived and worked at the same time as John Donne used so-called linear structure, in which the central image goes through the stages of introduction, exploration, and decline. John Donne, by contrast, chooses a single metaphor as a center of a poem and “weaves” several sets of associations around it. As a result of this, the whole poem is built around a single image, which is the essence of the metaphor. The conclusion that finishes the “lace” can be quite paradoxical, and this is the case with “The Flea”.

The first stanza of “The Flea” is a classical introduction of an image. Yet, in the second stanza the development of the metaphor takes an unexpected turn, and thus the metaphor seems to be exhausted (at first glance, at least). The third stanza brings back the initial metaphor, but it is not identical: the image is enriched with the suicidal motives, so typical to Donne’s works. Here, a murder or a suicide naturally stems from the discussion of moral taboos. The next stanza brings us back to the initial metaphor once again, and once again it shows the topic from a new, completely different, angle.

“The Flea” poem is just another example of the tendency to turn a metaphor “upside down”, which is so typical of John Donne. The image of a flea, hardly attractive in itself, is suggested as a symbol of an intimate contact between lovers, while in real life such a contact is restricted by moral norms. When a flea bites both the lovers, their blood melts in it, and as a result of this a type of intimate connection between the two people is established. This comparison must have looked really bizarre at the time of John Donne, and it still seems weird nowadays.

One more important feature of this poem (and of Donne’s works, in general) is the poet’s ability to introduce several explanations for one image, each of them having different depth.  A flea becomes a symbol of hopeless love, sexual contact as a mix of blood (at least in a flea’s belly), a murder and a suicide, and a dozen of other, more or less obvious, things. Thus, the author demonstrates a variety of meanings hidden in each object around us.

The Russian poet Iosif Brodsky, who translated a lot of John Donne’s works, described his poetry as an attempt to translate the sacral truth of the universe into the language of ordinary human beings, the language of his reader.

Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.

This stanza brings us back to the alchemy, to the wealth of the alchemical – or can we already mention chemical? – world, humans being its center. And to this very center the last stanza is devoted.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

A human being as the essence of the universe. Love as the most valuable treasure that a person can possess in all his short life.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk