DEATH BE NOT PROUD (by John Donne)

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 goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe 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.

THE TRIPLE FOOL (by John Donne)

“I am two fools, I know—
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry”

John Donne’s handwritten draft of his great poem “The Triple Fool.” Via the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

I am two fools, I know—
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry;
But where’s that wiseman that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
Then, as th’ earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhymes vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain,
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To Love and Grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read;
Both are increased by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published;
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – A Glance at John Donne

This phrase, For Whom the Bell Tolls, kept coming into my head this morning while I was doing my yoga and, as happens, set off a train of thought …

It is, of course, the title of Hemingway’s great novel of the Spanish Civil War. If you haven’t read it, do. And while we’re on that subject, let me mention another unforgettable Spanish Civil War novel, Winter In Madrid, this one by a contemporary British author, C.J. Sansom.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s title, is a quotation from John Donne, the English poet and younger contemporary of William Shakespeare. Some think the character of Hamlet was at least partly based on Donne.

Now what Donne actually wrote was: Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Donne was a great poet, one of the greatest in the English language, but these words do not come from a poem, they come from a sermon he delivered late in life when he was Dean of St Paul’s in the City of London. For Donne could not decide whether he was a bohemian poet – on the lines of the French poet Francois Villon – a lover of wine, women and song (which he was), or a devout Anglican priest  (which he became). No doubt a lot of soul-searching and vacillation went on  in The Mermaid Tavern and around the City and Southwark as he gradually gave up the former life-style and devoted himself to the latter. Soul-searching and vacillation which would have afforded Shakespeare and his fellow-actors and writers much amusement. And no one vacillates and soul-searches like Hamlet!

Those lines, as I say, do not come from a poem; but scan them:

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

The first line is a perfect pentameter, and the whole is something Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned.

You can’t keep a great poet down.

But what did Donne mean?

Immediately before these lines comes another much quoted line: No man is an island entire unto himself …

What happens to one, happens to all.

This is not the cold and soulless, so-called scientific, world view. This is the world view of the visionary and mystic. The world view of our ancestors. The view that mind is primary, that matter is a function of  mind, not mind of matter. And minds are, mind is, interconnected. As above, so below. As here, so there. As then, so now.

The bell that Donne heard all those years ago across the roofs of the old city tolls for us.

* * *

I’ll post a couple of Donne’s poems (one of each!) tomorrow and Monday.