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Donne and Thomas: In the Face of Death Essay

John Donne and Dylan Thomas belong not only to two different ages but also to two different schools of poetry. The school of John Donne, more popularly known as the metaphysical poets, had their unique aesthetics and stressed on thought, rational, unconventional and even shocking arguments, reflection provoking imagery to grab the attention of the reader as opposed to the more romantic trend and stock imagery found in Elizabethan poetry. In the sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud”, the poet uses all the strategies typical of Metaphysical poetry to present his unique vision about death.

Dylan Thomas on the other hand is a true poet of the heart, and his presentation too is distinctive. In the poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, written to voice his deepest feelings confronted with his father’s mortality and weakness in face of death, each and every word of the poet burns with a passion, in the original religious connotation of the word. Donne refuses to grant Death the status of the “Mighty and dreadfull”, the standard Elizabethan epithets. The poet then proceeds, by means of arguments that invert the general Elizabethan idea of death, to take a highly optimistic stance.

For instance, that ‘Sleep’ and ‘Rest’ are considered to be ‘Death’s second self’ (Harrison, Shakespeare, Sonnet 73) leads Donne to conclude that Death, too must be a source of great pleasure, just as sleep is: From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee, Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, The belief, that the best of men fall victim to the ravage of Death, is used by the poet to argue that, then, in a moral universe, Death can never be something horrible.

The poet further undercuts Death’s formidable stature by associating it with war, sickness and poison and brings to test its power by calling it a “slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men”. Armed wits such arguments and armored with the poet’s unflinching faith in eternal life after Death, the poet goes on to state the ultimate antithesis in the final couplet of the sonnet: One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. Dylan Thomas, on the other hand, implicitly accepts the power that Death wields over human existence.

The periphrasis or the metaphors that the poet uses in his poem to talk about death provide evidence to that: in the entire poem, about Death, the word Death is used only once; Death is referred to either as the ‘good night’ or ‘the dying of the light’. Like Donne however, Dylan Thomas too is against a passive acceptance of death, against trembling in fear confronted with the formidable shadow of death. But being a modernist, incapable of sharing the older poets optimism or faith in eternal life after death, incapable of refuting the truth of Death, his poem sounds like an existential cry against the horror of it all.

Dylan Thomas thus, like the protagonists of Albert Camus’ The Plague, tries to find a value and meaning of life in the human rebellion against Death. The oft repeated refrain sums up the feelings of this poet, face to face with death, incapable of all meaningful action but rage: Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. However, both Dylan Thomas and John Donne, poets belonging to different eras and schools are one in their rebellion against a passive acceptance of the horror that is Death.

Although, Donne’s argument stems from a faith that might not be shared universally; although Thomas’s ‘Rage’ against Death is undercut again and again with irony and sarcasm originating from a recognition of the meaninglessness of it all in face of this all-consuming truth; nevertheless their refusal to bow in front of the might of Death are homage to the indestructible human spirit. Works Cited Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1991 Harrison,G. B. ed. Shakespeare, The Complete Works. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta: Harcount, Brace and World, Inc, 1968.

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