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.
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 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.’’