Holy Sonnet X – John Donne
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 picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more
And soonest our best men with thee do go –
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and
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!
The opening lines of this poem are some of the few lines of poetry I can actually remember, from one of the most interesting poets I have studied, John Donne.
I wish I had taken the time to learn more about his private life during my studies. That has been rectified in a few ways this week through the BBC’s Poetry Season, in which Simon Schama presented a great programme on this metaphysical mix of sensuousity (http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/poets/john_donne.shtml). I hadn’t realised, for example, that his poems were never published during his lifetime. And, during my A level studies, I don’t think I really fully grasped the scale of his legacy, and the sacrifices, both social and otherwise, that he and his wife made in order to simply be together.
But I’m also, purely by coincidence reading The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran: the story of Donne’s love affair with his wife Anne More. It’s told from her point of view, and the John Donne that emerges from this novel is a reformed womaniser, seriously sexy, vulnerable and learned in equal measure. The young Anne is brought up by her grandparents; her mother having died after the birth of her elder sister, she lives with her grandparents on their Surrey estate.