Slave to Fate

Slave to Fate

This week’s poem is “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men

John Donne (1572—1631)

Poem 282. Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

This is Sonnet X of Donne’s Holy Sonnets which were written during his conversion to Anglicanism from Roman Catholicism. He suffered emotionally, financially and physically and the sonnets reflect his anxieties.

In this sonnet, Donne remonstrates with Death, who the world sees as a “mighty and dreadful” all-conquering warrior, claiming that the truth is that those who “thou dost overthrow” pass to their resurrection at the end of the world so that they “Die not, poor death”. Death’s inexorable supremacy is a façade that conceals the reality as Donne sees it: far from being all-powerful, Death is merely a slave whose stroke brings deliverance from our earthly concerns rather than annihilation.

Since we derive so much pleasure and restoration from sleep, how much should we expect to get from the ultimate rest, Donne asks, and enumerates Death’s masters “Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men” and constant companions “poyson, warre and sicknesse” and since “poppie, or charmes” (opium or other drugs) are as effective as or better at inducing sleep, why should we consider Death as such a potent enemy? With “one short sleepe” we shall wake to eternal life and since all will have eternal life, death will have no function: “Death thou shalt die.”

The play “Wit” is about Vivian Bearing, an English professor who reflects on her life as she fights terminal ovarian cancer. It was filmed in 2001 with Dame Emma Thompson taking the role of Vivian and Dame Eileen Atkins playing her mentor Evelyn Ashford. There is a moment in the film where Evelyn criticises Vivian’s naïve analysis of this poem and gives a fascinating insight into the role punctuation plays:

E.M. Ashford: With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.

E.M. Ashford: In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.

I like it because of the chiding tone Donne takes with this great inevitability and because he shows that whether you believe in a resurrection or not, Death is not a thing to be feared though we may not welcome it either.