Posts Tagged ‘Death Be Not Proud’

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

Poetry: John Donne

December 20, 2014

If asked, he’s my all-time favourite poet, for his wit, mainly, and the astonishing range of his poetry, from the passionate love lyrics of his early days to the deeply religious poems by the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Sadly, I had fewer opportunities to teach his poetry than I’d have liked, because, to quote an examination board official, “he’s too difficult for today’s students”. Whilst that comment had me seething, there is some truth in it as I recall being observed by a headteacher early in my career who was somewhat astonished at my ability to deliver a crash-course in basic theology to sixth-formers… o tempora, o mores…

Donne wrote in those far-off days when any educated man could turn out a decent poem for an occasion or to a lover, in English certainly and perhaps in Latin or Greek, too. I’ve come to feel, over the years, that Donne surpasses Shakespeare as a poet (of verse, not of drama, obviously) in the breadth of his achievement and the astonishing versatility of his language. Yes, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, but Donne wrote a wide range of different lyrics. Shakespeare is in some ways more polished, Donne rougher but livelier too, and more sparkling.

There is the spectacular (sexual) energy via the direct address in such poems as The Sunne Rising and The Flea – who could imagine a lover lecturing his mistress on an insect, as a way of persuading her into bed? There is the real tenderness of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which shades delicately into a hint of sexuality at the end. And contrast the verse structures of these three poems! And then jealousy: the woman spooked in The Apparition

When it came to religion, there is the genuine doubt which sprang from an age of religious turmoil, the yearning for God, and the love for Him. The Holy Sonnets may perhaps be more sober than the love lyrics, but there is still the atonishing boldness of the direct address in Death Be Not Proud and the sexual violence of Batter My Heart. And then, the tenderness, the quietness of the Hymn To God The Father, with the subtle wit in playing with his wife’s name.

Donne wrote in the days when so many writers – perhaps Shakespeare most of all – were doing amazing things as they experimented with the versatility of the developing English language; Donne works in many examples of wit, learning, puns, metaphors and conceits to astonish his readers. His life speaks through his verse: from the would-be courtier, the lover whose real love and unconventional marriage cost him advancement to the Anglican priest searching for God and faith in such troubled times: for me the poet par excellence from the most energetic age of English literature.

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