An autistic analysis of how Holy Sonnets by John Donne expresses the innate need in humanity to stop fearing death.
Mankind is constantly on the search for immortality. Literary works of fiction, poems, and prose are riddled with exclamations of fear and despair around a person’s uncertain demise. On the other hand, some welcome the long sleep into the darkest of the abyss with open arms and or quicken the trip to Valhalla. In the Holy Sonnets by John Donne, poetic musings are penned about death’s futile march to your door. According to Butzner, many of Donne’s written works were centered around mankind’s battle with death (332).
The best way to unearth the exceptional meaning of Donne’s Death be not proud is by applying a deconstructionist approach. The binary of deconstruction is one valuable way of understanding the intention of this poem. In fact, this form of literary criticism was used as a primary means to decipher the meanings of biblical texts (Mathewson, pg.3). Death be not proud is a commentary on humanity’s futile fight to live despite the reaper hanging its scythe upon all of mankind. Thereby, succumbing to fear when being fearful is irrelevant.
Death is a force that cannot be avoided. It takes air from the souls it conquers and lives on. Donne says death, be not proud, though some have called thee which indicates that individuals attribute an intention death (Line 1). As it takes the air from the souls it has a human element of enjoyment that some would deem evil. However, Donne continues with mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so (Line 2). Death is not a sentient being. It does not plan and plot to murder and create pain for humanity.
It is a part of life that may be unpleasant, but it is the natural order. According to Dash, "be not proud" is a foreclosure of death's depredations; a pointer to the futility of our undue dread” (para.2). Death is dreaded even though it is inevitable. To worry about dying is wasteful and causes more pain than death itself.
Death can't die
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 (Line 3- 7). The only thing not impacted by the act of dying is death itself. It is an idea, a label put upon the act of bodily functions failing. Electronic impulses cease when the brain dies and the best label that mankind invented to describe this action is death.
Death does not discriminate based on social status. The bests and the worst individuals will succumb to death. 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 (Line 8-10).
Being a ‘slave to fate’ is a realistic perception of time. No one can predict the future. You do not know what will happen tomorrow or in five minutes, the wheels of time do not reveal their intention until the act is upon you. ‘Kings, poor men, sickly individuals or those kill in war’ are meeting their ultimate fate quicker than some, but still, everyone eventually dies.
Through the poem, Donne is proving death to be irrelevant which cancels the concept of fear (Dash para. 3). By accepting the inevitable fate of death Donne takes power over death when saying die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me (Line 4). Just as death cannot die it cannot kill the fear that humans conquer by acceptance. If you accept the reality you are no longer held hostage by your emotions.
The fear of death does nothing but harm an individual’s mental health. It is similar to swimming in the ocean and fearing saltwater. There is a chance that you could drown or be attacked by a sea creature, yet you still choose to swim. It is the fear that prevents you from taking a chance not the reality of the danger.
The true ending to everyone’s story is one short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die (Line 13-14). Donne’s poem is a message of freedom and reality. The ability to renounce the futile dread of death is in the hands of the person. Death becomes no more when fear is removed from the equation. Death is not a reaper seeking to take your soul. It is a concept of the human mind that puts you in an infinite loop of terror. If you accept death and acknowledge that everyone will die, you can conquer your fears and live life to the fullest.
Originally Written For Our Lit 375 Course 2021
Butzner, Alexis. “‘I Feare the More’: Donne’s Devotions and the Impossibility of Dying Well.” Studies in Philology, vol. 114, no. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 331–367. doi:10.1353/sip.2017.0012.
Dash, Bibhudutt. “The Portrayal of Death in Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ and Jaroslav Seifert’s ‘The Mistress of the Poets’: A Comparative Study.” Language in India, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 164–171.
Mathewson, Daniel B. “A Critical Binarism: Source Criticism and Deconstructive Criticism.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 26, no. 4, June 2002, p. 3. doi:10.1177/030908920202600401.
Poetry Foundation. “Holy Sonnets: Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44107/holy-sonnets-death-be-not-proud. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44107/holy-sonnets-death-be-not-proud
Sent, Esther-Mirjam. “Rationality and Bounded Rationality: You Can’t Have One without the Other.” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, vol. 25, no. 6, Dec. 2018, pp. 1370–1386. doi:10.1080/09672567.2018.1523206.