“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” begins Jane Austen in her novel, Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Perhaps this is true (though the irony is palpable). If it is, English poet and preacher John Donne may be the first exception to the rule.
When Donne was not fighting the Spanish alongside the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh, he spent the rest of his early twenties and good fortune exploring the sights, sounds, and women of Europe. Upon returning to London, a worldly and well-cultured John Donne entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England.
That was when Anne More, the daughter of a powerful politician and the niece to Donne’s new boss, caught his eye. This sweeping love affair proposed a new set of challenges for John. It was more than simply seduction, though John Donne was well-versed in that too (see “The Flea” for a shocking example). Anne’s father, George More, had considerable influence over John Donne’s future political career. The More’s belonged to a higher social class. Likewise, this was a dangerous mix of business and pleasure. For John Donne, a relationship with Anne More was forbidden fruit.
Perhaps that’s what made it irresistible. In 1601 with their close friends’ help, John and Anne were secretly married without her father’s blessing.
The consequences of their decision to marry were severe. John Donne was thrown into jail at the hands of Anne’s father. His career was over. And while he was eventually released from jail when the marriage was proved lawful, his signature in a letter to his wife illustrated the damage done: John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.
The two were eventually rejoined, and fearing what might happen if they stayed near London, they retreated to the countryside. In a small village on the left bank of the River Wey, the love between John and Anne grew strong. During the next fifteen years, Anne bore twelve children. On January 23, 1615, John Donne was ordained in the Anglican church, and later that year, King James I appointed him Royal Chaplain. And then, just two years later, the love of his life was tragically taken away from him. Anne died in childbirth.
Death was no stranger to Donne. He was acutely aware of his own mortality and the transient nature of this life. His father had passed when he was only four years old. His brother died in prison of the bubonic plague. Five years after Anne’s death, he would draw close to his own death from a severe, relapsing fever before ultimately recovering.
But John Donne also knew that life consisted of far more than a beating heart. 448 years later, we remember John Donne as the face of the Metaphysical Poets: a loose collective of writers that used paradox and reason to explore spiritual and philosophical topics. George Herbert is included in this group, and it was his mother, Magdalen, who served as a patron and encouragement for Donne later in life.
Donne was a man who clung to God’s fulfilled promise in Christ. Death Be Not Proud, one of his nineteen, “Holy Sonnets,” cuts death down to its diminutive size. With jest, mockery, and a bit of help from the trivial arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, Donne boldly confesses what we as Christians, because of Christ, know to be true: Death was permanently defeated on the cross, we are the victors, and one day soon, “Death, thou shalt die.”
Sonnet X: “Death Be Not Proud”
...though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so… (v. 1-2)
Written sometime between February and August of 1609, Death Be Not Proud is a poem aimed squarely at the false pride and lofty status of the personified character named Death. If you have a moment, I encourage you to read the full poem here. Since its published date in 1633, this poem has provided great comfort to Christians as they confront the reality of suffering and physical death in this life. We might view Donne’s Death Be Not Proud as a poetic continuation of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
With brilliance and bite, Donne personifies death and confronts his insecurities. “Poor Death,” he sighs in line four as if death deserves our pity for its ignorance and foolishness. As spectators, Donne invites us to join in on the belittling of Death, a desperate man who can do nothing but scribble on the wall in his prison cell.
Donne continues by calling Death a sorry slave to “fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.” Death has no control over these things or people, he says. He is merely a passive agent who answers to something or someone higher up the chain of command. Death, as Donne says, keeps terribly poor company too: “with poison, war, and sickness dwell.”
Far worse than all of these accusations, though, is Donne’s implicit one: Death is a fraud. Donne continues in the next line, saying, “And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,” calling into question Death’s power. What is death to the Christian, after all, but a heavy dose of Nyquil that leads to a different type of sleep? Will we not wake from that death-induced nap to a new world of everlasting perfection?
Recall our friends in C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as they tragically perished in the railway accident in the final book of the series, The Last Battle. As the book comes to a close, Lucy becomes concerned that they must once again leave Narnia for the real world. But Aslan interjects:
No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leaped, and a wild hope rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead.
The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.
Lucy and her family entered Aslan’s country, now free from the pains and perils of their earthly life. Eternal joy awaits, as they gleefully chase Aslan, “Further up and further in,” as he leads them deeper into Narnia Heaven. Their physical death was a portal that led to an abundant, youthful land where, in comparison to our fruit, “the freshest grapefruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry.”
Donne has silenced Death and pinned him into a corner. By the end of the poem, we see Death as a weak and shameful creature undeserving of the fear or respect it demands. “why swell’st thou then?” Donne taunts Death–and through Christ, we may join in with him.
Out of great pain and suffering often comes goodness, beauty, and truth. John Donne, born on the 22nd of January in 1573, is an excellent example of that for us in his masterful work, Death Be Not Proud. Through poetic invention, he brings us a fresh reminder every time we hear it. Death is but a portal to our everlasting existence with God. For those in Christ, it is as the Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt translated, “Who dieth thus, dies well.” (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” Gerhardt, 1659).