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Death is a Key Theme in a Number of John Donnes Poems Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Death is a key theme in a number of John Donne’s poems, including ‘Death Be Not Proud’ and ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’. I have decided to compare these two poems with Emily Dickenson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’. From the two Donne poems he releases a mixture of feelings including terror and fear however Donne introduces quite a quantity of Christian images to present death. This could have a lot to do with the multiple times Donne came close to death himself and the pressure and constant fear of death whilst being a Catholic under Jacobean England. Donne’s father also known as John Donne died in 1576, leaving his wife, Elizabeth Heywood, the responsibility of raising his many children. A few months after the death of Donne’s father, his two sisters Mary and Katherine died in 1581. Donne’s uncle William Harrington was tortured on the rack, hanged until not quite dead, then was subjected to disembowelment, this is thought to have had a great effect on John Donne and resulting in him questioning his Catholic faith. Emily Dickinson

There are many ways which Donne shows his fear of death, one of which is the way he personifies it making it seem like a feared image that is actually standing next to him. In ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’ Donne refers to death as ‘gluttonous’ making us think that death is greedy for more victims and waiting for more people that ‘he’ can swallow up. Donne’s use of capitol letters whilst referring to death makes it seem more like a real person. Similarly, Emily Dickenson also personifies death in her poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’’ similarly to Donne by her use of capitol letters for ‘death’. Donne says ‘…will instantly unjoint’ making it sound like being ripped apart from earth and taken to another life against your own will. Antonio S. Oliver once said about Donne ‘’ Some poems depict death as insignificant while others present it as something he, and therefore humans, should fear’’. I agree with this quote because ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’ greatly emphasises the fear that Donne quite obviously had towards death whilst writing this poem. This fear of death was probably generated by the Catholic climate in the late 16th Century and early 17th century.

It was dangerous to be a Catholic in England at this time. You could not, if you remained faithful to your religion, hope to play any part in public life, and you were debarred from graduating university, something which Donne experienced firsthand. Donne was educated privately from the age of 11. After three years at Oxford he was admitted to Cambridge, where he studied for a further three years. He was unable to obtain a degree from either institution because of his Catholicism, since he could not take the Oath of Supremacy required of graduates. However, Donne uses euphemisms as a way of reassuring that death is not as fearful as he otherwise makes out. In ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’ it says ‘’and I shall sleep a space’’, this sibilance and the euphemism of death simply being falling to sleep seems like a way of Donne trying to calm himself of his nerves that come with living in stress and constant fear of death being close every moment of his life.

Antonio S. Oliver said about Donne ‘’His faith in theology calmed his fears and doubts.’’ I strongly agree with this statement as religion was a big part of Donne’s life at the time. In 1621 Donne was made Deacon of St Pauls, a leading and well paid position in the Church of England and one that he held until his death in 1631 which emphasises just how much of his life he devoted to his religion. Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ is basically an ongoing metaphor. Dickinson get’s into ‘’the carriage’’ with death and is taken through a journey of her life. At the end of her first stanza Dickinson says ‘’and immortality’’ which shows us that similarly to Donne she is comforted by the idea of life after death and is curious about what happens behind the grave.

Antonio S. Oliver said about Donne ‘’His poetry is

highly paradoxical, a quality that only adds to its richness and attractiveness much to the delight

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of its readers.’’ A lot of Donne’s poems end in paradoxes which make the reader feel frightened and comforted at the same time as well as possibly a little unsure about the actual message of the poem. ‘Death Be Not Proud’ ends with a paradox which says,

‘’One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die’’

This is a statement of clear religious beliefs. Donne is literally saying that death one day shall actually die. Donne is still personifying death by using capitol letters. The use of alliteration for ‘death’ and ‘die’ is quite a deafening and bold sound. From this paradox it is hard to understand whether Donne is underneath quite scared about coming close to death or whether he has overcome his previous fear and by saying that one day death will die is his way of bringing death down to size. ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’ also ends with a paradox which says,

‘’Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil, For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.’’

Donne uses a direct quotation at the end of this paradox, ‘’I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.’’ Is a direct quotation from the Holy Baptism which refers to the start of life where sins are forgiven. I think Donne is questioning the afterlife and wondering if he can get forgiven before he moves on. ‘’Impute me righteous’ ’ Is Donne questioning God, because he feels like his sins will weigh him down to hell and therefore result in him not reaching heaven. Both paradoxes link to the Christian life and Donne’s ability to question how much he knows about the afterlife. Donne’s married his wife Anne More just before Christmas in 1601.

The wedding ruined Donne’s career and earned him a short stay in Fleet Prison along with Samuel Brooke who married them. It was not until 1609 that Donne was reconciled with his father-in-law and received his wife’s dowry. Anne bore twelve children in sixteen years of marriage including two stillbirths. In a state of despair, Donne noted that the death of a child would mean one less mouth to feed, but he could not afford the burial expenses. Anne died on 15th August 1617, five days after giving birth to their twelfth child, a still-born baby. Donne mourned her deeply. Antonio S. Oliver said on Donne’s relationship with Anne, ‘’Donne’s wife’s death in 1617 was a prolific source of inspiration for Donne’s poetry.’’ I strongly agree with this statement however, we do not know whether his poems are written about his wife for sure but we know that the relationship that he had with Anne clearly influenced his outlook on life and also his outlook on death.

Donne himself was extremely fearful of being judged and being sent to hell. However, in ‘This Is My Play’s Last Scene’ Donne uses some pleasant metaphor’s to show different ways of seeing death. Some examples are ‘’My Pilgrimage’s last mile.’’ ‘’My span’s last inch.’’ ‘’My minutes latest point.’’, these metaphor’s for approaching death are very calming with no actual Christian reference showing that it isn’t just his faith that keeps his attitude towards death quite cool and collected and overall making death sound inevitable. Donne was an apostate and risked eternal damnation.

Damnation was no myth as far as Donne and his contemporaries were concerned. Hell was a vivid reality to most people at the time, and it was believed to be a pit of fire where you burn in agony eternally. Donne’s decision over whether to become an Anglican was one which we are told to have been an agonisingly long and hard choice. Many of Donne’s poems reflect his tortured soul-searching for answers about what to do in this specific decision. Antonio S. Oliver said of Donne ‘’It is safe to assume he did not fear death in the conventional manner, for he believed in the concept of an afterlife.’’ I agree with this statement as it obvious that Donne believed in the afterlife as it shows that he spent a lot of time theologising over what the afterlife was and what happened if you were not accepted into heaven. In ‘Death Be Not Proud’ Donne refers to death as ‘’rest and sleep’’ which is what we all look forward to after a day’s hard work and ultimately shows death in a non-fearing way and shows it as something we should welcome.

Emily Dickinson is views death in the same inevitable way. After the carriage of death stopped for her to get on board, she says ‘’we slowly drove, he knew no haste,’’ showing that we shouldn’t rush to death and that it will take you the way it wants. Dickinson refers to adulthood as the ‘gazing grain,’ and refers to death as ‘’the setting sun.’’ Similarly to the way Donne referred to death as being rest after a hard day working. Dickinson seems to embrace death in a much more pleasant way as she doesn’t ask any questions and see’s death as something natural, like going home to God. The poem ‘Because I could Not Stop For Death’ seems more accepting of death than both Donne’s poems, however Dickinson does portray an instant fear of death when she says ‘’The dews grew quivering and chill’’ stating this temperature change where she suddenly goes cold shows a ripple of fear she has underneath, possibly the realisation that she is approaching death. At the end of the poem Dickinson uses the word ‘’eternity’’ which shows her fear and clinging onto what she always believed in, life after death.

Donne has had quite a few near death experiences where he probably experience the sudden temperature change within his body when the realisation of his death because all that more real. In late November and early December 1623 Donne suffered a near-fatal illness, thought to be either typhus or a combination of a cold followed by a period of fever. He earned a reputation as an eloquent preacher and 160 of his sermons have survived, including the famous Death’s Duel sermon delivered at the Palace of Whitehall before King Charles I in February 1631. It is thought that his final illness was stomach cancer, although this has not been proven. Donne died on 31st March 1631. Donne was buried in St Pauls Cathedral where he served as Dean for 10 years, where a memorial statue of him was erected. Donne’s monument survived the 1666 fire, maybe the same way that Donne himself survived Hell?

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