Death be not proud
Death stole away last Saturday, clutching to his breast the life of the man I most loved in the world. He was no mere prince among men; he was not in my eyes one of the mortals. He was my father, and nothing less.
In making the arrangements for the funeral, my instinct was that the service should include an appropriate poem. I thought of Dylan Thomas’ ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ but, with its description of bones picked clean, I felt it was, if you pardon the expression, too close to the bone. I decided instead on John Donne’s sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’ which you may consider a crassly obvious choice, though, to my surprise, the undertakers had not heard of it or known it to have been used.
Preparing for the day, I naturally read and re-read the verses, a process that I had forgotten can have an alchemical effect, transforming the words in your mouth as you recite them. In the circumstances, I think I will be forgiven for not researching the poem more deeply. A cursory glance across the internet now shows me there is a useful and detailed explication of the sonnet’s scansion, which would perhaps have saved me from some misplaced stresses. But a poem, even one of such artifice as a sonnet, is not formed only of its meter. Here is a brief comment of what this reader found as he prepared to speak before his father’s coffin.
For a modern recitation, the most problematic part of the poem is what appears to us to be the failed rhyme of the final couplet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.
But I came to realise that the rhyme was not central to those lines. What matters is the final word of the penultimate line, which is like an explosion following the staccato gun-fire of the monosyllabics which precede it. Indeed, ‘eternally’ is one of only two four-syllable words in a poem dominated by monosyllables. The other occurs in the ninth line, where normal grammar seems nearly to break down:
And soonest our best men with thee shall go,
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery.
Again, I began to understand that the point of the line was the breaking of single-syllable dominance with a final word that also provides an uplifting, imperfect cadence. In such circumstances, normal grammar need not apply.
I have not read Donne’s sonnets in detail but, from what I have seen, the preponderance of monosyllables in this poem is unusual even for him. Is it too much to sense in this word-selection part of the poet’s purpose? Death, the end, that brings life to a full stop, and falls on us like an enormous no — death is, in its form and its nature, monosyllabic. And, while acknowledging that, this sonnet also turns language against it, both using monosyllables to deny it — ‘be not proud, … thou art not so’ — and introducing polysyllables as if they were a form of release. Death’s grunt is pitted against man’s potential for eloquence and belief.
Patrick Gillespie, the American poet who gives us the intelligent dissection of the sonnet’s scansion on-line, describes ‘Death be not proud’ as a poem of defiance. I understand that reading of it, though I defy anyone to make the last line sound like a resounding challenge. ‘Death, thou shalt die’ — that wonderful oxymoron — is a phrase simply not made to be shouted or expressed in anger; if it were, it would fall limp, giving Death a final victory in the silence that followed. It seems to me, instead, that what Donne has given us is a poem of confidence, where unshakeable Christian belief in the resurrection of the body allows the reader to step close to Death and whisper in his ear: ‘why swell’st thou then?’ The words ‘we wake eternally’ are a celebration, which leave us with no need for gloating. The final line that follows is a recognition of the magnitude of the miracle that lies at the heart of Christian faith, to be spoken in quiet wonder.