Tag 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

‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

There you met it – the mystery of hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found – and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
With gifts of yourself –
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’
Just as you had danced for your father
In his home of anger – gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch,
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death.

You searched for yourself to go on giving it
As if after the nightfall of his going
You danced on in the dark house,
Eight years old, in your tinsel.

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water
Listening for them – in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching –
Then dancing wilder in the darkness.

The colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected
That they were holding carefully, all of a piece,
Till the glue dried. And as if
Reporting some felony to the police
They let you know that you were not John Donne.
You no longer care. Did you save their names?
But then they let you know, day by day,
Their contempt for everything you attempted,
Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
Into your morning coffee. Even signed
Their homeopathic letters,
Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give –
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud – the mystery of that hatred.

This is from Ted Hughes’ 1998 Birthday Letters collection, which is all about his wife, Sylvia Plath. Perhaps Hughes intended this collection of poems to ‘set the record straight’; I think that he may have felt that many blamed him for his wife’s death because of their break-up after his affair with another woman not long before Plath committed suicide. It was my love for Plath that led me to read Hughes’ work, and this collection is full of love and pain and struggle and I find it quite fascinating and compelling mostly because it seems so intimate.

I chose this particular poem to blog about today because I simply love this image of Plath as a ‘wolf after whom the dogs do not bark.’ The poem is about Plath’s early attempts at poetry – when she was studying at Cambridge – and the negative criticism that she received at that time. But Hughes reminds us in this poem that it did not matter because she was in fact a wolf among dogs, and should not have cared whether the dogs barked after her or not.

Ted Hughes delivers this touching picture of his wife trying to get her “gifts of [her]self” – her poems – published. He likens her efforts to her “first words as a toddler/When you rushed at every visitor… crying “I love you! I love you!” I love this image because it is so telling; as most writers, Plath must have sought approval and recognition, and yet she was “hated” by the critics to begin with. It is also telling of Hughes’ affection for Sylvia.

I love the contrast between Hughes’ image of Plath, “dancing wilder in the darkness”, as though “searching for somebody drowning” trying to give these beautiful “gifts” of her soul … and the reaction is: “the colleges lifted their heads.” The critics who “hated” Plath when she was at Cambridge (she received many negative reviews there) were so institutionalized that Hughes refers to them not as people but as the buildings – the institution of a literary Establishment – that they represent. The image of the Cambridge colleges marks a sharp contrast to the image of Plath with her “strange glitter” and her childish enthusiasm – she is so much more alive, so much more real.

Now, the line that most excites me in this poem is “They let you know that you were not John Donne”. This comes back to what I wrote about yesterday in my blog about Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy’. I talked about “the weight of English Literature” in that post, which is something I heard Plath talk about in an interview that I watched on Youtube. In that interview, Sylvia says that she remembers a critic telling her that she had “started out [a poem] just like John Donne, but not quite managed to finish like John Donne”. It is then that she adds, “and I felt the weight of English Literature on me at that point”. I loved hearing Plath say that because she is part of English Literature (with the huge capital letters) now, and it is comforting and encouraging to think that she did not always feel that she was good enough…

But what viscousness; these critics are described as totally venomous by Hughes as they send his wife “Envelopes of carefully broken glass/ To lodge behind your eyes so you would see/ Nobody wanted your dance”. This is calculated hatred, “injected… into your morning coffee”. He describes this hate as a “mystery” — in fact, the “mystery” of this hatred frames the entire poem. And it seems to be a mystery that is haunting Hughes because this criticism so affected Plath.

But, of course, Sylvia Plath rose way above those early critics. As Hughes says: “You no longer care.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh