Sonnet Interpretation: The Poetry of Death Explanation in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X.

Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne conveys its speaker’s attitude towards death. This speaker believes that death should not hold its current place in the human imagination as something “mighty and dreadful” (line 2.) Not only does the speaker hold this belief, he believes it strongly and wants his audience to do so as well. Therefore, the poem serves not only to share the speaker’s views on death, but to share his conviction for this belief. The best format with which to accomplish this goal is a well organized sonnet.

The poem is in some ways set up like an argumentative essay; it has a clear introduction presenting his thesis, each individual step of that thesis is explained and given support one after the other and at the end is a conclusion driving home the overall message. This method makes the meaning of the poem very unambiguous. Such a methodical, concise means of presenting his argument also makes the speaker seem very direct and straightforward.

If the piece were a formal essay each step in the presentation of the speaker’s argument would be separated by a paragraph break; in other forms of poetry stanzas would fulfill the same function. In a sonnet there are no line breaks to delineate different steps in the speaker’s argument; instead the speaker relies on the more subtle mechanics of the poem’s end rhyme structure. The rhyme scheme of a sonnet allows the speaker to pair the lines composing each section of his argument, while the breaks in rhyme delineate the introduction, his first premise, second premise, and finally the speaker’s conclusion. By indicating shifts from section to section with rhyme the speaker needs no line breaks. The lack of line breaks makes the piece look and sound more condensed, which further reinforces the emotions of the speaker.

The first two lines of the poem are an excellent introduction quickly stating the overall topic of the work as well as setting the tone for the work; succinct, and aggressive. The first statement made, “Death, be not proud,” perfectly characterizes one of the speaker’s primary vehicles for driving his aggressive conviction home to his audience. The statement is phrased as an order and is blatantly insulting. To insult someone this baldly is rarely done in polite society because of the resentment it inspires yet in spite of this the speaker is absolutely willing to insult death and do it in front of others. By using personification to address death directly, as though it were a person, allows the speaker to easily communicate his feeling towards it. As social creatures human communication is far more geared to convey people’s feelings about one another than about abstract concepts such as death. An abstract discussion of death will not carry the same emotional firepower as a man challenging another man. This firepower is exactly what the speaker wants.

Since the speaker set out to debunk both the sense of dreadfulness as well as the sense of mightiness they are best debunked one at a time. Lines three and four begin the speaker’s arguments to deny that death is dreadful. The lines state that those who death has taken are not truly dead and can never truly be killed. If taken literally these lines would make little sense; if however Donne’s firm belief in the apocalypse, that when the world ends all souls will be brought back to life to live with god, is taken into account they make far more sense. To say someone has died implies permanence. Therefore, if everyone is destined to rise from the dead at some point in the future it could be implied that no one ever truly dies.

In addition to the development of the speaker’s argument line four contributes to the sense of adversarial zeal possessed by the speaker. Rather than being content to say that those death thinks dead are not dead the speaker says, “nor yet canst thou kill me” challenging death directly. The urge to challenge death personally shows zeal and generates energy around the speaker.

In lines five and six the speaker first decides that if people can “wake up” from death then death is like any other kind of rest, like sleeping which “thy pictures be.” It seems that for the speaker if it looks like duck or kind of sleep and acts like one it is a kind of sleep. Once the speaker has established rest and death as being akin to one another he points out that rest causes people to feel better and that if death is simply a glorified kind of rest it would likely provide even greater comfort than sleep. Thus death would cause, if anything, comfort rather than anything worthy of fear.

The nature of that comfort is quite obvious especially in light of the religious assumptions already made and is laid out in lines seven and eight. The only place where “our best men” go for their “soul’s delivery” is heaven. This is the speaker’s last blow to the idea of death as something dreadful, or bad and fear inspiring. If death is the means by which good men enter heaven it should seem about as threatening as the Easter bunny. Rather than some scary harmful thing the speaker concludes that death is healthy, even beneficial.

            Line nine begins the second group of lines which could for conveniences sake be referred to as body paragraphs. While the prospect of death as something dreadful was debunked the issue of death as something mighty remains, or in other words the commonly held belief that death has some sort of energy, authority, and power over the world. Unlike dreadfulness possessing might does not necessarily mean death is bad.

Lines nine and ten begin tearing at peoples vision of empowered death by pointing out that death does not cause itself, death is a side effect of the various things that may cause death such as war, cruel men, disease, and chance. Death is an effect rather than a cause. The power lies not with death but with the countless different things that can cause it. Whereas the common view of death at the beginning of the work was something to be afraid of death is now best compared to a slave. Rather than end his journey to defang the image of death the speaker presses harder.

Lines eleven and twelve point out that not only is a side affect, it isn’t even a unique affect. Drugs can put us to sleep in much better ways than death can. This is the last of the speakers points concerning the lack of might help by death. At the end of line twelve the speaker asks, “why swellest thou then?” as if to taunt death after its false power has been debunked.

            The final two lines of the poem bring the line of thought present in the entire poem full circle both logically and emotionally into a kind of crescendo when the speaker points out that once the apocalypse occurs and man becomes immortal the only thing to die in the permanent sense of the word would be the very concept of death itself. The couplet possessing a different metric pattern than the rest of the poem clearly marks the end of the work.

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Deborah Demander profile image

Deborah Demander 6 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

Great analysis of one of my favorite poets. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Namaste.

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