Another metaphysical Catholic poem? Why, yes of course! Although, my dearest Charlotte tells me that he was in fact first Catholic, then reneged the faith (his family were recusant), then became Anglican priest and apostatised, which is rather shocking to me. That word has rather negative connotations for me since I watched the 2016 Scorsese film Silence. See below John Donne’s striking rebuke of Death personified:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are 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 uses the literary tactic of Apostrophe (not apostasy), which addresses a subject who cannot respond. Here, Donne addresses Death directly, as a person, and takes him down a peg. In the first two lines we see Death’s reputation as being full of pride and mighty. Donne tells us that this is in fact not the case. The second two lines follow suit, telling Death that he does not not in fact have the power to overthrow us, that Death itself has no power to kill, so we should not be afraid of it. Even St Paul knew this, as Charlotte pointed out to me as we were walking to Mass, in the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”

1 Corinthians 15:55

The next four lines show death as akin to falling asleep, further degrading Death personified and encouraging the reader to be less frightened. Donne goes on to explain that the good die soonest in order to experience this peaceful rest and go with death to their eternal resting place.

There’s really no point in doing anything in life because it’s all over in the blink of an eye. The next thing you know, rigor mortis sets in. Oh, how the good die young.

Mr Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel

(excellent article on the nonsense poetry int he film here)

Lines 9-10 see Donne taunting Death saying that he is impotent without the foolish acts of man. Without chancers and fate, Death would not have a purpose, in essence. Donne makes fun of Death’s friends, poison war and sickness, to further degrade him. Lines 11-12 continue in the vein of lines 7 and 8, stating that Death brings only a short sleep and that poppies (drugs) can do the same. Why should we be afraid of a little sleep?

The final two lines are evidence of Donne’s faith. One short sleep and we, like Christ, awake into eternal life. Therefore, Death is robbed of all his power and indeed shall die. This notion of eternal life is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. It helps the faithful live their life to the fullest in the hope of eternal glory. This concept is one I have been wrestling with for some time but can see is wonderfully calming when understood. Donne saw this almost 400 years ago and I have found great comfort in his writings. I can only hope you will, also.