Throughout man’s history only one constant act has remained; death. No matter how one looks at life, or what era one is in, death has been there. Death is an act mankind will never be able to avoid, or conquer. However, religion has been a savior for man against death by supporting the idea of death only being a new beginning. Also, some in society have sized death up and realized it is not something a person can control. Both of these concepts and ideas can be seen within William Shakespeare’s sonnet “146” and John Donne’s sonnet “10” from “Holy Sonnets.”
Both Shakespeare’s and Donne’s sonnets embrace and after life and question the true power of death, working death down to nothing more than a faint figure. These ideas and concepts can be seen through the author’s use of theme and imagery shaped within the structure. While one author uses the theme of life after death and imagery of Death having no power, the other uses a theme of death having no power and the imagery of an afterlife to support. Both convey the same feeling, yet in two distinct ways.
William Shakespeare was a man who believed in an afterlife. His use of a theme involving this belief in the afterlife conveys a since of hope. To create this hope, Shakespeare focuses on the concept of a soul to support the idea of death not being the end. This idea can be seen as he paints a picture of a soul simply being a tenant within a decrepit building about to fall apart. While the building is collapsing the soul is still painting the wall and trying to make the place continuously livable. This theme, and image, can be seen within line four, the soul continues to create a livable atmosphere while paying dearly, but doing the act happily.
Continuing on into line five, Shakespeare supports his belief of an afterlife by questioning the soul of its action of paying dearly, knowing it is only here for a short time. Also to support this image of the soul, and the theme of an afterlife, Shakespeare creates a vision of the human body being an object of “excess,” meant to end while the soul continues on. This can be seen with Shakespeare creating a vision of what happens to a body after the soul has moved on. To support this, he uses the image of worms eating at the body; this shows the body as serving no more purpose in life than to feed worms.
While Shakespeare focuses on a theme of the afterlife, John Donne decides to focus on a theme involving, and showing, Death as a being holding no true power. Donne paints a picture of Death as a real figure in our life. To create this he uses apostrophe as if he where talking to a real live being. Also, the use of personification, such as in line two where Donne explains how Death has been called mighty and dreadful, gives Death human characteristics. Continuing this throughout the sonnet, Donne explains how Death, as a living entity, has no control over when, how, or at whose hand one dies. To support this concept Donne works against society’s belief in Death being the deciding factor in our death. Donne explains how it is, “fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” who decide our faith and not death.
Both of these themes create a question and/or a concept within the three quatrains. The quatrains within both sonnets are followed by a couplet which brings everything into perspective. Where these two great authors differ is the same as their approach to the quatrains, only flipped.
While Shakespeare talks about the soul and the afterlife within the quatrains, he discusses death and Deaths lack of control after death, within the couplet. This sets the image of death into relevance with the theme of an afterlife. These simple two lines, also, contain Shakespeare’s ideas, belief, and theme in the afterlife. Within the first line, he explains death feeds off of humans to receive its power, while at the same time it is the soul who feeds off of Death to become free. Simply put, the soul needs death to continue on into a higher plain of existence. Continuing into the second line, Shakespeare explains how Death holds no power or control over us once we are dead. This is done by him stating, “there’s no more dying then.” Shakespeare is trying to show once one is dead, one can not dye again. It also returns the theme back to the belief in an afterlife. This is done by Shakespeare hinting at there no longer being suffering after we are dead. This supports the idea of an afterlife in a world not consisting of pain and/or death.
Once again, while Shakespeare discussed one side Donne discussed the other. This time however Donne is discussing the afterlife within the couplet. These two lines are more direct in their belief then Shakespeare’s, but still revert the idea back to the original theme. For example, Donne clearly states “we wake eternally,” supporting the concept and belief in an afterlife. This idea of waking in a world not consisting of death is supported in the second line with, “death shall be no more,” showing a world where Death no longer serves a purpose. This lack of purpose also returns the theme back on Death being truly powerless. Finally, finishing with a statement consisting of a paradox explaining Death no longer serving a purpose, so death shall just simply die too, Donne returns fully to the theme of Death holding no true power in life or death.
Both authors are discussing but one concept, and that is death. A subject many run from, these two embrace it. Their ability to focus on two different points of death is what makes them the great authors they are. William Shakespeare, and John Donne, had a talent for taking a topic and bringing it to a level the common people were able to comprehend. Their use of imagery and theme discussing Death’s power, and the question of an afterlife, allow anyone who reads these works to walk away with a different understanding of at least one if not both themes within.