As autumn falls in the flashing splendor and fading light of a dying season, we are invited, with the inevitability of the seasons, to face an inevitable fact: We, too, must die. No matter how commonplace this truth, it is still brutal in its brevity. How one understands it, however, makes all the difference—and good poetry is a good start for understanding anything.
And a haughty, triumphant poem it is, John Donne’s 1633 sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud,” to speak thus to Death:
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.
This poem raises a mocking toast to Death, calling out his derivative weakness and subjugation as a pawn of malice and malady. It leaves Hades no grounds to swell in the scope of his dominion, despite his dominance. For death is nothing compared to the dominion that every man and woman can claim over it, who are empowered to conquer the mere sadness of death by the sheer significance of life.
As Odysseus learned when he journeyed to the House of the Dead, life is only significant because we die, but even in death there awaits a mighty company of heroes.
A passage from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” echoes the sentiments of Donne’s sonnet with a similar exultant condemnation of Death:
“Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!”
Even so, Death is too proud a presence for all too many of the living. What these conclude, with trembling, is the unbearable thought that they are in a sense dead long before they are called to die. They have mistaken life for nothing other than vanity, which is too tied to the artificial to be authentic. Even the most successful in life, like Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, can see their life as a failure when they have to lose it. For these, physical life can prove a spiritual death instead of physical death bringing on spiritual life.
In the end, our attitude toward life should change through the acceptance of death and dying, even if that means running the gamut from terror to triumph. Though ignoring or denying death is not unusual, it is a delusion devised to ward off unpleasantries and only breeds superficiality, fear, and frustration.
Acceptance of death, on the other hand, allows for confidence, concord, and even contentment. Though death eclipses the concerns of life, love endures beyond life with a life of its own. “Death, Be Not Proud” is John Donne’s challenge, rattling the bony doors of death. It evokes the paradox that living well is the best way to die well—and that is a paradox that all souls should grapple with before they grapple with Death.
When autumn turns our thoughts toward the departed with questions regarding the purpose of life and what occurs after death, Donne’s brave poem thunders with a confident optimism that is ours for the taking. It swells in the victory of a life well lived that must make Death shrink into the shadows of insignificance, leaving us to live on unscathed, even unto eternity.