Poets And Poetry

Poetry Explication Holy Sonnet 10 John Donnes Address to Death



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Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell'st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.

"Holy Sonnet 10:" John Donne's Address to Death

The sonnet is one of the most respected forms of poetry, one of the most difficult to compose and one of the most moving to read. John Donne's seventeenth century sonnet "Holy Sonnet 10" is a powerful example of the emotional strength of the sonnet, with its demonstration of deep personal meaning to the poet, and with the force of the feelings shown. Donne writes passionately about his feelings towards death, and his belief that death is not the "Mighty and dreadful" (2) entity that people fear. John Donne addresses a personified death throughout "Holy Sonnet 10," charging death that it is not powerful, as it believes, but simply a peaceful escape from life, and an entity dependant on others to accomplish his wishes. Donne expresses his feelings regarding death to the reader by appearing to be speaking with death, and thereby shows the apparent mortality of death. "Holy Sonnet 10" is constructed of poetic devices that greatly increase the power of Donne's message, and show the significance and importance of the theme. John Donne uses very effectively chosen vocabulary in this sonnet to create a specific attitude in the reader, particularly through the use of the connotation of his chosen words. Metaphors occur frequently throughout the poem to enforce the significance of the poem's intended purpose, and Donne's comparison of death to sleep. The most important and powerful poetic device used in "Holy Sonnet 10" is personification. Used when describing death, personification captures the entire purpose of the poem at each application, and Donne's feelings are displayed most strongly at these points. "Holy Sonnet 10" uses these poetic devices and Donne's powerful feelings to express the evident lack of substance and power of death, a normally feared and terrible entity.

John Donne's choice of words for "Holy Sonnet 10" is very important to the theme of the poem because of its significant impression on the audience. Donne uses connotation frequently to show his disdain for death's pride, and to illustrate the weakness of death. Donne describes how people think of death as "Mighty and dreadful" (2), both words implying a fearful respect and showing how much people are awed by death. "Mighty" (2) shows the apparent power of death over all living things, and "dreadful" (2) communicates the suffering people undergo from their fear of death, and from death itself. Throughout "Holy Sonnet 10" death is described as "rest and sleep" (5), implying the ineffectiveness of death, and the shortness of its effects. "[R]est and sleep" (5) have the reader viewing death as a far from permanent condition, as sleep is a reasonably short-lived occurrence that one will wake up from. When writing of the feeling of death and sleep Donne uses "pleasure" (6) to describe what death must be like, implying that not only is death not to be feared, but that it is also an enjoyable experience. John Donne shows the reader that death is not to be feared, but to be welcomed as a relaxing escape from life. Again describing death, Donne uses the word "slave" (9) in conjunction with a metaphor, to show how weak death is. The definition of a "slave" (9) is someone who must obey another's bidding, and therefore Donne is showing the lack of true substance or power of death. Another example of the connotation used by Donne along with a metaphor occurs with a comparison of death's methods to "poppy or charms" (11). This connotation exhibits that the feeling of death is not necessarily painful, and "poppy or charms" (11) both imply a peaceful and relaxed passing into sleep or death, therefore greatly diminishing the fear of death. A final use of connotation is Donne's use of "eternally" (13) to describe life after waking from death. "[E]ternally" (13), while meaning the same thing as forever, is a much more powerful word, which will give the reader the impression of a much longer period of time. "[E]ternally" (13) also shows a more pleasurable time, therefore showing that after death the afterlife will be both enjoyable and never-ending. Donne uses his choice of words very effectively to convey the theme that death is not the overpowering force that society believes it to be. 

John Donne uses metaphors frequently in the sonnet compare death to sleep, in order to convey a feeling of familiarity with death, and therefore an acceptance through understanding. "From rest and sleep, which but thy pictured be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow," (5-6) is a comparison of death with sleep. The metaphor explains that since sleep is such a pleasurable activity, death must be even more pleasurable, since Donne believes that death is simply a deeper form of sleep. The same metaphor also refers to the "pictures" (5) of death, the pictures being sleep, which tells the reader that sleep during life is simply a short experience of death, in which case, death is obviously not as terrible as is generally believed. This metaphor very effectively expresses the theme because it entirely removes the mystery from death, and makes it seem simple and understandable. Donne attacks the immortality and pride of death when he writes: "Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" (9). This comparison makes death appear to be dependant on forces other than its own, particularly the forces of man. By making death appear to depend on man Donne shows the reader that rather than death being overpowering, man is in fact more in control of death than death is itself. This undermines the belief that death controls the lives of men, and demonstrates why death is weak and powerless on its own. The poet explains that death's dominance "dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, / And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well / And better than thy stroke" (10-12). The metaphor Donne uses refers to the sleep induced by the opium from a poppy or from charms. The metaphor suggests that while death uses terrible methods to achieve its purpose, while other simple and inoffensive causes can induce sleep more effectively and more peacefully. Donne alludes to an afterlife by using the metaphor "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more" (13-14). Donne compares the relationship of death to the afterlife to that of sleep to waking up. This metaphor encompasses the religious aspect of the theme by showing that death is not everlasting, but is merely a break between one life and the next. Another comparison that illustrates the shortness of time spent in death is evident when Donne tells death that "soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest their bones, and soul's delivery" (7-8). This metaphor implies that death is sort-lived, or a "Rest" (8), and not an everlasting state. John Donne's use of metaphors helps to thoroughly express the theme of "Holy Sonnet 10" by pointing out the likeness of death to sleep, and therefore removing the fear of the unknown.

The most important element of "Holy Sonnet 10" is the poet's use of personification. The personification of death is evident from the initial line of the sonnet "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee" (1). This first personification shows the attitude of the poet towards death throughout the poem by making the audience immediately aware that death is not above being addressed by a mortal. Using "thee" (1) John Donne puts death on the same level as himself, and demonstrates his lack of fear and awe for death. This message, that death is not to be feared and should not cause such awe, is evidently the objective of "Holy Sonnet 10." Donne addresses death as an equal when he writes: "those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me" (3-4). The poet again personifies death by giving him the status of "slave" (9), a definitely human occupation. Death is also said to be "not proud" (1), and to be able to "swell" (12). These emotions are characteristic of people, not of abstract entities, and this makes death appear vulnerable and much less formidable. John Donne applies personification during the entirety of "Holy Sonnet 10" by using "thee" (1), "thou" (9), and "thy" (12), when speaking to death, which gives the poem the appearance of a simple conversation between two individuals. People are generally much less afraid of one another than they are of abstract and incomprehensible beings or effects. Because of this, the representation of death as a mortal being is much more effective in diminishing the fear of death than leaving death as an unknown force would be. John Donne makes his sonnet's message much more potent and effective with the use of personification by appearing to take a stand against the will of death, and telling death of its weaknesses, while in reality trying to prove to society that its fear of death is unfounded. Donne illustrates humanity's and faith's power over death when he concludes his "Holy Sonnet 10" with: "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die" (13-14). This very powerful statement demonstrates John Donne's belief that life after death will ultimately be the downfall of death, and that death can die as easily as any man or woman.

Society has always feared what it cannot explain, assuming that if something cannot be explained it is terrible and dangerous. John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 10" addresses an entity that society has feared for indeterminate ages. Death has been used to frighten in most cultures, and many people's greatest fear is the death that will end their lives. Death has been a punishment throughout history, not necessarily feared by all, but feared by enough people to be a powerful method of control. In "Holy Sonnet 10" death is made out to be mortal, and the mystery that has made death so awe-inspiring is shed. Through the use of connotation, comparison, and personification, John Donne shows his audience that death is but a "short sleep" (13), and is not to be feared. Donne alludes to life after death when he writes that after death "we wake eternally" (13), and by doing so eliminates the fear that death is the end of all life. Donne's obvious belief in an afterlife gives his sonnet much more effect, because of his personal feelings towards the subject, and the deep personal meaning of the poem to him. The sonnet makes it clear that death is as mortal as any living being, because death dies when those it has killed reach a new life. Poetic devices and strong emotional elements make "Holy Sonnet 10" a moving and effective poem that appeals to its audience with a forceful theme and message. Few themes are more important in life than the impending death that everyone in society faces, and Donne's sonnet is therefore very important and inspiring. The final statement of "Holy Sonnet 10," "Death, thou shalt die" (14), displays Donne's stand against death, and his wish for societies to stop fearing death and accept it as a "Rest of their bones, and [their] soul[s'] delivery" (8) as they depart from one life into another.

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