Textual Analysis of Two Sonnets – Death, Be Not Proud and With How Sad Steps

Categories: John Donne

This essay intends to do a close reading on two sonnets, ‘Death, be not proud’ by John Donne and With How Sad Steps by Sir Philip Sidney: with the aim to compare the two sonnets to highlight how two sonnets on very different topics still follow the traditions set by the sonnets written before them.

Death, Be Not Proud is one of the nineteen Holy Sonnets written by John Donne. This collection of sonnets is said to be a ‘profound interconnection of secular and sacred experience’ (Wilcox, 2006:150).

In other words, this sonnet sequence has been written with a conflict within the poetry itself and Sonnet 10 is no exception. Wilcox (2006) also stated that Donne’s devotional writing has an ‘inseparable partnership’ (p.151) between the fear of death and the final judgment. This sonnet has the same idea and theme of life and death continue throughout the poem and follows the Petrarchan sonnet rhyming scheme. The poem consists an octet and sestet that is broken down into three quatrains that follow the ABBA rhyming sequence with a couplet at the end.

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It is written mostly in iambic pentameter; it does, however, fluctuate from this poetic device as the poem progresses.

Lines 1-2 are where the speaker presents Death personified by speaking to him directly, ‘Death, be not proud’ (Sonnet 10:1), as though he needs to be humble, less arrogant. This is despite previously being called ‘mighty and dreadful’ (Sonnet 10:2). The speaker then uses a literary device called an ‘apostrophe’, where the speaker addresses a subject who cannot respond.

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In this case, Death who despite being personified, cannot respond to the speaker. Lines 3-4 are as though the speaker is attempting to humiliate ‘poor Death’ (Sonnet 10:4), that Death’s thought that he had power and control over life and death is a mere illusion.

Within lines 5-6 the speaker puts death as a comparison to ‘rest and sleep’ (Sonnet 10:5), describing it as pleasurable as a restorative sleep and that there is nothing to fear in sleep. Therefore, Death is not to be feared. The second part of this quatrain questions why it seems ‘our best men with thee do go’ (Sonnet 10:7) and provides an answer, that these men deserve to rest first. Before we are told to not be fearful of Death and now we are being told Death is like a friend welcoming us to sleep. ‘Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery’ (Sonnet 10:8), Death removes all the pains we have on earth.

The speaker starts to take on a stronger tone in lines 9-10. Death is now a ‘slave to fate, chance, Kings’ (Sonnet 10: 9). No longer mighty and dreadful from line 2 but now a lowly slave who takes orders rather than give. The speaker also states that Death only has ‘poison, war; and sickness’ (Sonnet 10:10) as friends, all of which are unpleasant as if the speaker is attempting to claim authority over Death. Lines 11-12 repeat the idea of Death being something pleasurable with the ‘poppy or charms’ (Sonnet 10:11), meaning opium, a popular drug at the time that can induce sleep. In line 12, the speaker again directly addresses Death with ‘why swell’st thou then’ (Sonnet 10), as if the speaker were reminding Death, he has no reason to be proud. The final couplet brings the poem to its conclusion. The speaker addresses Death with the telling of it being ‘one short sleep’ (Sonnet 10:13). Death too will die, as once we wake to eternal life there will be no more need of Death, therefore Death himself dies.

The second sonnet this essay is looking at Sonnet 31 from the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney. This sonnet also follows the Petrarchan conventions around sonnets in that it has 14 lines and written in iambic pentameter throughout. It is traditional in the sense it is about unrequited love with the lover unreachable. In this case, Astrophil is posing questions to the Moon. Daalder (1991) suggests that this sonnets sestet was written so ‘we take a detached view of his [Astrophil’s] plight’ (p.136) when asking why Stella does not return his love. This sonnet also has the same idea and theme of love and nature that continue throughout the poem and follows the Petrarchan sonnet rhyming scheme. The poem consists of an octet and sestet that is broken down into three quatrains that follow the ABBA rhyming sequence with a couplet at the end.

Again, this poem starts with the personification of an object, here it is the Moon ‘Oh Moon, thou climb’st the skies’ (Sonnet 31:1). We are also given a physical description of the moon as an individual ‘How silently, and with how wan [pale] a face’ (Sonnet 31:2). There is also the repetition of the word ‘how’ bringing the readers attention to the object the speaker is describing. The first quatrain finishes with the sonnets first question to the moon. ‘What may it be, that even in heav’nly place/That busy archer [cupid] his sharp arrows tries?’ (Sonnet 31:3-4), questioning the sadness of the moon, as if this aspect of nature can have human emotions or pathetic fallacy.

The devices of pathetic fallacy and personification continue with ‘long-with-love-acquainted eyes/Can judge of love’ (Sonnet 31:5-6). This is followed by another description of the moon ‘thy languished grace’ (Sonnet 31:7), the moon is lovesick, weak. The speaker then makes a direct connection to their suffering and that of the moons with ‘To me, that feel like, thy state descries’ (Sonnet 31:8), this highlights the level of suffering the speaker is expressing.

The sestet brings the volta or turn that is a characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet form; it shifts from the descriptions of the moon to the speaker’s reflections on love. The speaker asks yet another question ‘Is constant love deemed there [heaven, sky] but want of wit?’ (Sonnet 31:10), but the speaker continues ‘Are beauties there as proud as here they be?’ (Sonnet 31:11). In other words, the speaker is asking if is love the same up there where the moon lives and are women as proud as they are on earth. This is telling the reader of the problems the speaker is trying to figure out with their treatment from Stella.

The final couplet ends the sonnet with two questions which brings forward the idea of the speaker being in pain, wounded from the rejection from Stella. It is like as though the speaker is going through an internal struggle with his relationship with Stella as shown in the line ‘Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?’ (Sonnet 31:13). Raghu (1994) notes that by ending the sonnet with the word ‘ungratefulness’ helps to show the ‘expectation of reciprocity innately present in love’ (p.131-132).

The two sonnets analysed in this essay have a variety of differences including the intended audience and subject, they do however follow a similar path and a longer essay would be able to address these differences that this essay could not allow. While these two sonnets both address objects they have personified, who are still out of their reach and unable to respond. Donne’s speaker wants to have a conversation with God about death and eternal life. Sidney’s Astrophil wants to know the opinions of women both on earth and in the heavens. They are both very different, but they are both about subjects that are still widely talked about in society today, Love and Death.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Textual Analysis of Two Sonnets – Death, Be Not Proud and With How Sad Steps. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/textual-analysis-of-two-sonnets-death-be-not-proud-and-with-how-sad-steps-essay

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