Jan 24, 2015

The Anniversary & Death Be Not Proud (John Donne)

Two of my all-time favourite poems. We studied Donne's poetry for the A Levels, and I fell in love with the ideas that he puts forth in his work. The English is a bit hard to get, so perhaps I'll kind of explain it along the way, although it might ruin the beauty of it because AHH! it's so beautiful. The rhyming and all. But here they are.

The Anniversary

This poem celebrates the first anniversary of the poet and his beloved. The first stanza talks about how everything - "all kings", "all glory of honours", and even "the sun itself" - are now a year older than when the poet first saw his beloved. All these things are now one year closer to their destruction - but, in contrast, their love is timeless, and knows no age.

All Kings, and all their favourites,
         All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
    The sun itself, which makes times, as they pass,
    Is elder by a year now than it was
    When thou and I first one another saw:
    All other things to their destruction draw,
         Only our love hath no decay;
    This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
    Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The second stanza recognises that even though their love knows no age, their bodies will decay eventually. Even then, their souls will prove their love after death. My favourite bit here is when he says that even princes are mortal, and how he links he and his beloved to princes: they are royalty in one another's eyes.

        Two graves must hide thine and my corse;
         If one might, death were no divorce.
    Alas, as well as other Princes, we
    (Who Prince enough in one another be)
    Must leave at last in death these eyes and ears,
    Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet salt tears;
         But souls where nothing dwells but love
    (All other thoughts being inmates) then shall prove
    This, or a love increasèd there above,
When bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove.

What I love about the third stanza is the comparison of his love to royalty. He and his beloved are rulers here on Earth, being the kings of each other's lives. Since their kingdoms only have one another, their kingdoms are the safest of all, because the only people who can commit treason is each other. Since they are kings to each other, the poet encourages his wife to "let us live nobly" and add years and years to their kingship: they now enter the second year of their "reign".

        And then we shall be throughly blessed;
         But we no more than all the rest.
    Here upon earth we’re Kings, and none but we
    Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be;
    Who is so safe as we? where none can do
    Treason to us, except one of us two.
         True and false fears let us refrain,
    Let us love nobly, and live, and add again
    Years and years unto years, till we attain
To write threescore: this is the second of our reign.

Death be not proud

As for this one, I'll attempt to do a 'modern-day translation' below.

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 pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
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.

Death, be not proud, although some have called you
Mighty and dreadful, for you are not so; 
For those whom you think you overthrow
Don't die, poor Death; nor can you kill me.
From rest and sleep, which are pictures of you,
We derive much pleasure; then from you what more must flow!
And our best men go soonest to you,
To rest their bones, and deliver their souls.
You are slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And you are forced to dwell with poison, war and sickness;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than your stroke; why are you proud, then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, you shall die.

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