Mocking, John Donne provokes Deathi. He wants to humiliate, crush, annihilate her. He absolutely reverses the roles. He’s the one who’s holding the scythe now. In a few precise sentences, he reaps death and war, poison and disease. Death is nothing more than a slave subject to fate and chance, power and despair; she is chained, and there are far better sleepers than her, opiates or dreamers.
At the moment when death, the « poor death », believes it has conquered, only a short sleep separates us from eternity. Metaphysical pirouette. Great leap of the angel to the nose of nothingness.
The last line of the Sonnet reads « And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
This line reminds us of Paul’s formula: « O Death, where is thy victory? »ii.
Paul’s formula itself evokes that of the prophet Hosea when he pronounced curses against Ephraim and the idolaters of Judah: « And I will deliver them from the power of Sheol? And I will deliver them from death? O death, where is your pestilence? Sheol, where is your destruction? »iii
There is, however, an important nuance between Paul and Hosea. Hosea called Death and the power of Sheol over guilty men. Paul announces the annihilation of Death itself.
In this Paul does not innovate. He refers to Isaiah, when Isaiah said: « Yahweh has put an end to death forever. »iv
Isaiah, Hosea, Paul, Donne, through the centuries, share the same idea. One day, Death will die one day. No doubt, death will die.
Who better than a prophet, an apostle, a poet, can take a firm stand on this ultimate issue?
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull ; for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe go,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sickness dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake ; why swell’st thou then ?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more ; death, thou shalt die.
John Donne, Holy Sonnets, X
ii 1 Cor. 15.55
iii Hos. 13,14
iv Is. 25,8