Saturday, May 21, 2011

Death and Time (Donne and Herbert)

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In poetry of the Seventeenth Century, many different views can be discovered about time and death. Perceptions of time and death have been symbolized throughout history. Often they can be categorized with the same meaning. Time and death has been given different personas such as good or evil. Poets, John Donne and George Herbert can be among the most well known authors that characterized time and death. In Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10”, he directly approaches Death. In Herbert’s, “Time” he also addresses death, but calls it time. From two very different prospectives, Donne and Herbert both directly address death and its effect on civilization dealing with God and eternal life.

In John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10”, Donne approaches Death with an aggressive approach, using a serious and yet belittling tone. The opening of the poem, “Death, be not proud…for thou art not so;” (1-) shows his challenge to Death’s authority and power. He goes on to tell Death, “those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow/ Die not, poor Death nor yet canst thou kill me.” (-4) Donne condemns and challenges Death’s power over human beings. Donne explains his bravery to Death by expressing that if Death is like sleep than he would be better off still. When he goes on to say, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure,”(5-6) he tries to express that rest and sleep are images of Death and makes dying appear to be something that is wonderful. If they are pleasing, it shows that Death itself must be more enjoyable, When Donne continues, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery,” he explains that Death has an advantage over sleep, which is the ability to discharge our souls from earth.

Donne continues in his poem by implying that Death is a “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,” () and this conveys his opinion that like these things that Death doesn’t have power over, he doesn’t have power over us either. Death cannot gather up our souls unless you allow him to. Donne depicts Death as a scavenger who “dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,” (10) because Death must wait for these things to do something before he can do his job. He then criticizes Death by saying, “and poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, / And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou now?” (11-1). This further explains the comparing between Death and sleep stating that there are other ways to sleep besides dying. He better explains himself stating that Death is “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,” (1) which expresses that the sleep of Death is short lived compared to eternal life. Finally, Donne explains what becomes of Death once it has taken our life. He says, “And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” (14) which explains the fact that once Death carries us to eternal sleep, it is made useless and will die. Donne has rebuked Death’s pride and has reduced Death to a short nap before eternity. He also does not welcome Death, but in “Time” by George Herbert, he, does.

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George Herbert’s poem “Time” has a smoother tone in dealing with the symbols of death and time. Herbert speaks about a meeting with Time, which gives a more gentle relationship between the poet and its subject. In his first encounter with “Time”, Herbert states, “Slack thing…thy scythe is dull; whet it for shame” (1-). This explains his disappointment with the dull scythe. Time desires this when Herbert continues to explain “No marvel, sir, he did reply, / If it at length deserve some blame;/ But where one man would have me grind it, / Twenty for one too sharp do find it,” (-6). This basically expresses that most people don’t want Time’s reaping scythe to be sharp. Herbert further expresses himself saying, “Perhaps some of old did pass, / Who above all things loved this life;/ To whom the scythe a hatchet was, / Which now is but a pruning knife” (7-10). He is trying to convey that at one time for some people Time’s scythe, which is death, was excruciating and deadly. But now he explains that the scythe helps our souls to grow. He justifies this change by Time and its scythe stating, “Christ’s coming hath made man thy debtor, / Since by cutting he grows better” (11-1). He refers to how Christ died on the cross to save our souls. Since Christ has sacrificed himself for us, death is just a stage that we have to go through in order to get to Heaven. He compares Time and the death to a gardener who prunes his wards to help them grow stronger.

Herbert continues talking about time explaining its change. Using the lines, “for where thou only wert before/ An executioner at best,” “Thou art gardener now, and more, / An usher to convey our souls/ Beyond the utmost stars and poles,” (14-18) he illustrates how Time is a road through life into death, journeying further to eternal life. Through death, Time now acts as a guide to God. Herbert explains how Time moves at a slow pace when one is aware of the eternal happiness of heaven. He says, “And this is that makes life so long, / While it detains us from our God.” (1-0) He goes on to say, “Who wants the place where God doth dwell/ Partakes already half a hell,” (-4) expressing that earth is a part of hell. Time finally replies by saying, “This man deludes/ What do I here before his door? / He doth not crave less time, but more,” (-0) expressing that although Time is like a gardener planting our way to salvation, humans search for more time in life. Despite the truth that life is just a waiting place to get to heaven, humans still have the wishes to live. Time expresses, “this man deludes,” (8), saying that as humans we delude ourselves with desires for long life, when in reality death is freedom to get to God.

Both poets have the same aspect of death, which is freedom, and portray life as being like a waiting place for eternity. They both look forward to death, and view life as a penalty. Herbert depicts life as “a rod” () while Donne describes death as freedom. Although there are connections, the poets insights on Time and Death are not alike. Donne is more hostile while Herbert is friendlier about it. Donne never gives Death a chance to respond, making Death appear vulnerable. Herbert allows Time to respond by singling out man’s limitations. Basically, Donne hates Death for what it has become while Herbert loves Time for what it has become. They both explain the connection between death and humanity. They also see death as a vehicle to eternal life.

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