15. Death Be Not Proud: John Donne

Another poem about death, a favorite subject of middle schoolers. This classic poem has several things going for it, including the same titled memoir by John Gunther about his teen age son dying of brain cancer. It is a great read, although very post-WWII “New Yorker” in style.

There are several different versions of this poem around; so many that I cannot remember which is the original. That, though, is in itself an excellent lesson in sources, truth and how little things change the meaning of a poem. The big different is if the “d” in death is a capital or not. Little death is a condition, while big Death is a proper noun, leading to different meanings. Is Donne addressing a corporal being, complete with scythe? I’ve also come across fate, chance and kings in capital letters. Hmmm.

To underscore the death theme, the excellent Mike Nichol’s HBO adaptation of Margaret Edson’s “Wit” puts this poem at its center. Emma Thompson is Vivian Bearing, a tough professor of the metaphysical poets dying of cancer. A cold and uncomfortable gynecological exam (not graphic, just heartless) and a slow death of cancer make this PG-13 film for mature middle school classes, yet it is well written and powerful. Are your students older elementary students or young high school students, would be the question to ask. Nevertheless, Bearing of “Wit” puts a lot of value on the last line being a semicolon or a comma; is it a pause, or a full last breath? That scene is great, and short. I have even seen it as a full colon. What does it matter? Good question. Discuss.

Death be not Proud
John Donne

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 pictures 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 art 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.

One thought on “15. Death Be Not Proud: John Donne

Add yours

  1. there will be an eternal life after death but it is a different life as the good are in paradise and the bad ones are in hell.

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