Opening of Poem
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you nuberlesse infinites
Of soules, an to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, all fire shal o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, argues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law chances hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleeps, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these my sinnes abound,
‘This late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When we are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repend; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood
Oh Angels, blow your trumpets at the imaginary corners of the round earth on the Day of Judgment. Let innumerable souls arise from their graves and return to their bodies. (This has reference to the Christian belief in the resurrection of bodies on the Day of Judgment to present their account in God’s Court). There will be souls of people who died as a result of flood, fire, war, poverty, old age, fever, oppression of despots, frustration, operation of law, misfortune, and accident. The souls shall now see God face to face and never more be subject to death.
Oh God, let the souls sleep a little longer. Give me some more time to repent (the poet is afraid of facing God because he has committed many more sins than others and has not repented adequately or for long). It will be too late for me to ask for greater grace from you when we are all there standing before you because my sins will be greater than those of others. It will be better if you give me more time for repentance before the Day of Judgment. I would request you to teach me how to repent sincerely because true repentance is as powerful in securing the salvation of the soul as the crucification of Christ.
Death to 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 bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow
And soonest our best men with thee do goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou a slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men,
And dost with poison, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
Also, poppie, or charmes can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, though shalt die.
The poem is included as sonnet No. 10 in the volume of Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations, written by John Donne. Donne demolishes two popular concepts: firstly death is dreadful and secondly, death is mighty. He personifies Death and addresses him directly. Death has a certain power over man and it gives temporary sleep. If death and sleep are like brothers, greater rest and relaxation must come from death. Death releases the soul from the body’s prison. Opium and narcotics can induce sleep like death. Why then should death boast of its great power? The poet, therefore, calls it “poor death”. Moreover, man does not die; his soul lives forever; it is, therefore, a death that becomes superfluous and meaningless. The victory of the Christian resurrection over death is the last nail in the coffin of death. The poem proves the thesis that death is neither terrible nor powerful.
Development or Thought
The poet argues that death is not dreadful because those whom death claims to have killed have a long and peaceful sleep. Sleep resembles death; but just as sleep refreshes and invigorates. Similarly, death would provide more comfort and pleasure. This is the reason for the virtuous dying young. Death brings rest and peace and therefore it is not dreadful.
Death: A Slave
So, death is not powerful, as men think. It is not a powerful king but a miserable slave. It is an agent of fate, chance actions of wicked people, poison, wars, and sickness. Death is a servant of sickness and old age. It induces sleep, but there are various other means like opium and drugs, which give better and gentler sleep. Death has no reason to be proud. It can only make people sleep for some time. After being asleep in the grave, people shall wake up on the day of resurrection and live forever. Then death will have absolutely no power over human beings. Thus death’s jurisdiction comes to an end. In fact, death does not kill human beings; it is death which itself dies. The immortality of the soul ensures the survival of man. So, the poem ends with a paradox: Man is immortal; death is mortal.
Style of the Poet
Apart from the debating skill and the plausible argument of the poet, there is a lurking fear of death. The allusion to resurrection and immortality does not in any way reduce the fear of death. One is reminded of Bacon’s words: “Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark”. Also, George R. R. Martin quoted in his famous novel “A Game of Thrones”: “When we face death, what would you say to it? Not today”. The comparisons are common death as sleep death as opium, body as the prison of the soul.