DEATH BE NOT PROUD

Holy Sonnet X


 The house at Pyrford, Surrey, where Donne and his wife lived 1600-1604 after his release from prison.

The house at Pyrford, Surrey, where Donne and his wife lived 1600-1604 after his release from prison.

This film is different from the others, because it offers a single reading of a more complex sonnet. It was written by John Donne in the early seventeenth century. Donne, who was born in London in 1572, very near to Milton’s birthplace, became known as a court poet and wit and for the sensuality of his language.

His life was full of paradox: the love-poet and man-about-town who became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, a man born into a recusant Catholic family who ended his career in the Protestant Church, a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge who could not be given a degree because he refused at that time to reject his Catholic beliefs, a man with a large inheritance who lived much of his life in relative poverty, a man who was sent to prison for a secret marriage to his mentor’s daughter, a sometime prisoner and a lawyer, a political rebel and a Member of Parliament.

All these facets of his life and character add power to his poetry.

As a young man he wrote provocative, paradoxical love poems with strong metaphors and a highly original tone - especially the strong opening line of many of the ‘Songs and Sonets’.

               I can love both fair and browne,                                       ('The Indifferent')

               For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love;            (The Canonization.)

               When by thy scorn, O murdresse, I am dead,                   ('The Apparition')

               

               I am two fools, I know,

               For loving, and for saying so

               In whining poetry.                                                            ('The Triple Foole')

Later, as chaplain and the Dean, he wrote deeply religious poems and profound sermons.

Yet the tone is similar, from the love sonnet which opens

                       Busy old foole, unruly Sunne,

                       Why dost thou thus,

                Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?

to the ‘Holy Sonnet” which opens

                Death be not proud, though some have called thee

                Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not soe,

 The church of St Edmund & St James in Blunham, Bedfordshire, where Donne was rector for the last ten years of his life.

The church of St Edmund & St James in Blunham, Bedfordshire, where Donne was rector for the last ten years of his life.

The change might have been due to the death of his wife, who had followed him through thick and thin, in 1617. In the eloquent words of his first biographer Izaak Walton (Lives of John Donne, Henry Wotton, Rich'd Hooker, George Herbert, &C., 1640), who knew some of Donne’s friends, he buried his earthly joys with his tears in her grave, and devoted himself to a “retired and solitary life”.

In this retiredness, which was often from the sight of all his dearest friends, he became crucified to the world, and all those vanities, those imaginary pleasures, that are daily acted on that restless stage…
— Isaac Walton, The Life of Dr John Donne

This short documentary will look at the places connected to his life, and consider the various aspects of his career, to end with a reading of ‘Death be not proud’,


 'Death be not proud' in Donne's handwriting (top half of the page) from the Westmoreland Manuscript of his works in the Berg Collection. c. 1620.                                       From the New York Public Library.

'Death be not proud' in Donne's handwriting (top half of the page) from the Westmoreland Manuscript of his works in the Berg Collection. c. 1620.

                                     From the New York Public Library.