Poetry: Donne – Holy Sonnet X

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.

John Donne, Holy Sonnet X

While on this earth, death wrestles to overcome us. We face death every day: in our driving, the changing seasons, the passing of those we love. Death is all around us, lurking in the shadows, waiting for its moment. Our first instinct is to fear death, to save our own skin, to do what we can to live on either in the flesh or in memory. Death is the enemy. And yet, Donne, though recently faced with his mortality, mocks death. Why?

Donne is not afraid.

In “Holy Sonnet X,” Donne puts death in its place. Like Dickinson, Donne engages with the personification of Death. But unlike Dickinson, Donne mocks this final foe. Death is not mighty or dreadful, though we all mourn. Death has no power over us but instead is “slave to fate” and mankind’s will. Death is nothing more than our final sleep and thus is no more to be feared than when we say goodnight. After all, that is why we pray:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I ‘wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Such a simple prayer, yet such peace. Again, we pray:

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

We sleep in peace, knowing that the Lord holds us. We sleep knowing that we may not wake in this life, but we may in the life to come. Our comfort, our rest, our assurance, our hope is in the Lord. There is no room for fear of death!

For what is sleep except that which transports us to the next day? And what is death’s sleep except that which transports us to that Great Day? Death, be not proud! Though you think you have killed us, we yet sleep until the sounding of the trumpet to awake us. You have no power over us. Though you think you have killed us, we die not. How so? Have not many great people been taken into your dark embrace? Yes, and yet, this is merely rest for our bones, waiting for that new creation. Our souls have already been delivered. We have been washed and made for life eternal.

So why should death “swell’st” when it has been conquered? And why should we fear it? Though this is a season where death and darkness lurk about, and some celebrate it, another greater time is at hand. We look forward to three better days. The first two, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, are when we remember those who have come and died before us, their bodies asleep in death, awaiting the Resurrection. And the third, when Christ comes again and the dead are raised!

Like Donne, we fear not sickness, war, or death. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” Like Donne, we await that day in joy and peace: when death is dead, and we wake to live with Christ forevermore.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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