Should Death Be Proud or Not?

John DonneJohn Donne              

Last December, in writing on Margaret Edson’s play W;t, I noted that I didn’t think John Donne’s famous sonnet “Death Be Not Proud” would be very useful in helping someone handle death.  (The dying Donne scholar in W;t doesn’t turn to it.)  Since then, a friend pointed out that John Gunther’s 1949 book about a man losing his 17-year-old son to a brain tumor has Death Be Not Proud for a title.  In other words, perhaps someone has been comforted by the poem.  I use this post to revisit my claim.

First of all, here’s the poem:

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.

Gunther’s work opens with the Donne sonnet.  It then goes on to tell a moving story about his son’s 15-month bout with cancer.  Gunther recounts the ups and downs of those months as he paints a picture of a wonderful boy.  The book concludes with letters that his son wrote to him when he was away and with some reflections by his wife.

I am skeptical about the poem’s healing powers because I am dubious whether Donne really believes what he is saying.  I hear him putting a brave face on things, trying to shout death into submission or attempting to talk himself into accepting death.  I hear him being very clever.  But I don’t hear true conviction.

As far as I can tell, Gunther doesn’t really make use of the poem except for the four opening words.  He doesn’t say that his son’s dead body reminds him of someone resting or sleeping.  He doesn’t talk about how, one day, his son will wake eternally.  In fact, he acknowledges that he is an agnostic.  The book concludes with an “Unbeliever’s Prayer” in which he thanks God, if God exists, for the gift of his son.  He also uses the occasion of his address to commit himself to “fight[ing] the good fight.”

His wife also doesn’t claim victory over death.  In fact, her diary written during the period when Johnny is dying shows her trying to make friends with death, perhaps to curry favor:

Look Death in the face.  To look Death in the face, and not be afraid.  To be friendly to Death as to Life.  Death as a part of Life, like Birth.  Not the final part.  I have no sense of finality about Death.  Only the final scene in a single act of a play that goes on forever. Look Death in the face: it’s a friendly face, a kindly face, sad, reluctant, knowing it is not welcome but having to play its part when its cue is called, perhaps trying to say, ‘Come, it won’t be too bad, don’t be too bad, don’t be afraid, I understand how you feel, but come—there may be other miracles!’ No fear of Death, no fight against Death, no enmity toward Death, friedndship with Death as weith Life.  That is—Death for myself, but not for Johnny, God, not yet. He’s too young to miss all the other parts of Life, all the other lovely living parts of Life.  All the wonderful, miraculous things to do, to feel, to see, to hear, to touch, to smell, to taste, to experience, to enjoy.  What a joy Life is.

And it continues on.  What I hear in her words is a circling around death: trying to reconcile herself with it, trying to rationalize it, trying to bargain with it (and with God: take me, not my son), trying to commit herself to life. When my own son drowned, my conversations with death were different, but I hear echoes.  At such moments all of us enter into the great human dialogue with death.

But returning to the subject of this post, Frances Gunther doesn’t appear to be drawing on any of the sentiments that are to be found in Donne’s poem.

So has Donne’s poem been misapplied?  Not entirely.  The opening line may have helped bolster the father and maybe the mother through the ordeal.  They seem to have taken, from Donne’s words, the message, “Death, you shall not defeat us. We will continue to love life and we will continue to love our son, even though you tear into our lives.  You cannot take those loves away from us.”

That’s not the reasoning of the poem but who cares.  It’s almost as though the poem, just by suggesting that arguments can be made  about why death doesn’t get the last word (it doesn’t matter what the arguments are), has done its job for the Gunthers.

It’s as though a scrap has broken off of the main poem, like a board from a wrecked ship, and given the father (he’s the one citing Donne) something to cling to.  In short, we have another example of poetry doing heavy lifting in the face of human sorrow.

To sum up, the Gunthers’ experience has not entirely refuted my doubts about the poem’s power to comfort.  Neither of them used the poem’s logic to cope with the death of their son.  But I failed to acknowledge that just those first four words could come to the rescue.  I forgot that there are countless ways in which people can use a particular work of literature.

Interestingly enough, one of the doctors writing the family a letter after Johnny dies quotes from a poem that I too turned to after my Justin’s death: “He hath outsoared the shadow of our night.”  The line is from Adonais, Percy Shelley’s poem mourning the death of Keats.  It is a poem that provides tremendous consolation, pointing both to our veil of tears and to the prospect of rest following great suffering.  The following passage from Adonais is on a plaque on our son’s tombstone:

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone . . .

I often sit on a bench by Justin’s grave, read those words, and look out over the St. Mary’s River where Justin drowned.  The passage reassures me that he is not altogether gone.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Looking to Poetry for Afterlife Evidence on October 17, 2010 at 1:01 am

    […] the rest of the poem is that the images don’t convince me emotionally. It’s a little bit like my response to John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” I want to have Herbert’s confidence, I want to […]

  2. By Can Art Perform in the Face of Death? on December 31, 2010 at 8:48 am

    […] month later I returned to the play and, alluding to the famous Donne sonnet, asked, “Should death be proud or not?” My answer was […]


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