Death is a fate. You can’t change or alter it. But the views of the two poets John Donne and James Shirley are completely opposite. James Shirley believes that death is the end and is finality. His works are similar to that of the poet Francis Beaumont. These two men conclude that death is the ultimate stage of mortality. Yet the writer John Donne believes that when he dies, he will be taken to a better place, which is heaven. This is called reincarnation. The poet Dylan Thomas agrees with Donne and both poets share a similar view. Their mode of thought is reflected throughout their poetry.
The poet John Donne lived from 1573-1631. Maybe the views on death in his poetry resonated from he death of his wife while giving birth to his stillborn baby. The death of Anne Moore gave him the insight that there would be an extra eternal life in Elysium, heaven, to reward her. Even though being brought up as a Catholic he changed and converted to the Anglican faith in the year 1598. It was after his marriage that he decides to become and Anglican priest. This occurrence in his life happened in the year 1615. The morality and belief of his religion is the most likely explanation for his view on existence, death and posterity. Obsessed with the idea of death, Donne had a portrait painted of himself dressed in his burial shroud, a memento mori (reminder of death), which he had placed so he could see it as he lay on his deathbed.
A poet whose viewpoint that death is not omnipotent is John Donne you can see this in his poem “Death.” The central theme of the poem is discussing death and its all-powerful qualities, or more likely death has no omnipotent attribute.
The predominant emotion that the poem expresses is that of anger. Also the concept of sadness protrudes. This sadness is almost like sympathy. When he says,
“DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee.”
There is an indication of audacity and courage in the way he speaks with loud out bursts, short sentences and the language he uses.
John Donne is personifying death through out the whole poem. Donne is literally scolding death to his face.
” Death, be not proud.”
He is standing up to death. He knows through his religion and other aspects of belief that dying is not the end. Death is not as daunting as made out to be. He takes the viewpoint that he will be reincarnated in heaven after death.
“Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”
When rebuking death Donne is saying that how little power death actually has. When he says…
“Die not, poor death; nor yet canst thou
Donne here is saying that death, you can’t kill me. The people you kill have not died. In other words Donne is saying that even if someone is victim to death his or her works and memories will still live on. Death is an instrument. There is no need to be fearful of it. Death only exists in our world because of the people and the evil and pernicious poisons and weapons they make.
“Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell.”
Chance and fate play role in the killing of people, not just the desperate men and kings. It takes a king to call an execution and a desperate man to raise a knife. So Donne unlike the other poet James Shirley believes that death will come by chance and not necessarily when he chooses.
Another difference is the belief in heaven and another, better eternal world.
” One short sleep past we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!”
When saying a short sleep past Donne means that he will sleep for a short period. This is a minute amount for the vast time in heaven. Death shall not exist in heaven; he shall die because no deaths can be taken. At the end like a judge condemning a prisoner he bravely and boldly he ‘sentences’ death to die.
The other poet with an opposite view of the corresponding topic is James Shirley an English dramatist and poet, born in London. He lived from 1596-1666. After attending the Merchant Tailor’s School and then Cambridge. He was brought up as an Anglican but he was then converted to Roman Catholicism and abandoned what might have been a career in the church for school teaching at St. Albans Grammar School. In 1624 however, he gave up his head-master position, and took up his residence at Gray’s Inn, London, although there is no evidence that he ever actually became a lawyer. You can see his ideas toward death in the poem “Death the leveller.”
The main thesis of the poem is on death and the end of all consciousness. It gives a message that death is all-powerful. It doesn’t matter who you are what rank or position you hold death; sooner or later death is going to claim you.
The initial emotion the poem expresses, is that of desperation and hopelessness. It makes you feel weak and timid against deaths all-powerful features. This very unlike John Donne, who stands up to death and gives you a feeling of confidence.
” Death, be not proud.”
“Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”
The choice of words and the things Donne says, give you confidence and the feeling that death is inferior to you. But then Shirley further states;
“There is no armour against fate.”
At the beginning he launches straight into this point. Shirley is saying that death is fate and you can not prevent it from happening.
“Death lay his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”
The end of this verse is basically saying that even if a king in all his might and splendour has to die, then let it be. All his riches the Sceptre, Crown and other prosperity will be diminished to the dust. He and his belongings are worth no more. They have been made equal to the poor crooked scythe and spade.
“Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up there murmuring breath.”
So in other words your age and youth does not matter to death. If you are to die and rot, death will take you.
In the poem he is making you understand that death will be the mighty one who will decide your fate.
“Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon deaths purple altar now.”
There is no point flaunting before death. It is all to be forgotten. I think the reason of the purple altar was to signify death’s importance. Purple in the 15th century was expensive and rare making it the colour of royalty.
“Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.”
At the end the message is that who ever you are, you are finally going to die and must be buried in a tomb where your soul will not live on. People who have made impressions during their life for the good of men will at least be remembered for good, even while dead.
When comparing these two poets there are definite and bold differences. John Donne the more religious of the two completing becoming a priest, shows a much more biblical and moral approach, whereas James Shirley takes his view of no after life and makes death seem a tyrant and an oppressor. Donne’s biblical belief is recognised in his language and views. Shirley was introduced and brought up in two Christian faiths yet fails to show any sign of belief in death being a beginning of a new life.