John Donne and His Holy Sonnet X

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UNIVERSIDAD DE ZARAGOZA
27820 LITERATURA INGLESA II

Holy Sonnet X:
Death, be not proud
John Donne

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was an English poet of the early 17th century. He was also a satirist, a lawyer and a cleric of the Church of England. Born in a Roman Catholic family, he became an Anglican priest as King James I ordered so. He is considered to be the representative of the metaphysical poets along with George Herbert or Andrew Marvell among others. This metaphysical poetry deals with abstract topics such as love or religion. Some of his works include sonnets, love and religious poems, Latin translations, elegies, satires and sermons. Donne died in 1631 due to an unconfirmed stomach cancer and he stays buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The poem analysed ‘X’ is part of a collection of nineteen poems known as the Holy Sonnets. They were published in 1633 and the title, X, has to do with the position occupied in the collection.

The sonnet is about how the poetic speaker tries to discredit Death, who is, treated as a person, by telling him not to be proud as he is not as scary or invincible as he think he is and that, after all, death is just another step to reach the eternal life and once Eternity is achieved, the Death itself will have died. This sonnet belongs to the metaphysical poetry because it mainly talks about death, a topic which is highly abstract. The main theme is death although I must say it is closely linked with the second theme, religion, which will be further down analysed. I must say that this poem was written right after Donne’s wife’s death so, maybe, this poem was written as a mental solution to deal with all the pain caused by the loss. The poem offers a double paradox. First off, death is treated as a person because the poetic speaker is addressing death directly ‘Dead, be not proud’ (l.1) and, by paying attention to the time it was written and the author’s Christian belief, I think Donne had the traditional man with the hood and the scythe in mind. However, that is my own interpretation as there is no explicit description. It is also paradoxical because Death is being told that he is not

scary and that he is just a mere stage on the way to mortality and once mortality is achieved Death will have died so it is as if Death kills himself by killing people. Another theme in this sonnet is Religion. We can see the author’s religious background: his complete faith in Christianity. However, there is nothing explicitly Christian in the verses of the sonnet but, the title itself, as well as the idea of eternity, leads us to think of Christianity even more when we read about Donne’s life. There is a third minor theme: courage. If we pay attention to the plot, a human being is confident and religious enough to treat Death as another human and being confident enough to tell Death that he is only a mere step to eternity. There are no details about who the poetic speaker may be or what does for a living but we know, from his actions, that he is either very brave to feel sympathy for Death ‘poor Death’ (l.4), or very ignorant to be treating Death that way.

These three themes are developed in the sonnet. It is a sonnet because the poem is made up of an octave, which has two quatrains, and a sestet. Furthermore, it is Petrarchan because the rhymes of the quatrains are ABBA ABBA, with the typical enclosed rhyme. However, the sestet is somewhat irregular and does not follow the Petrarchan pattern which is CDCDCD but CDDCAE. In fact, the four first verses of the sestet rhyme: men, dwell, well and then /e/, but then, the rhyme in the last two verses change completely: eternally /i/ and die /ai/. Maybe in Donne’s time, eternally was pronounced as die and hence, it rhymed; or maybe, Donne did it this way consciously so that the end of the sonnet coincided with the highpoint of the poem which is when the poetic speaker tells Death he will die.

This Petrarchan sonnet has a regular meter. Its verses are iambic...
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