John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

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  • April 23 2009: My One Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

Donne Wrong

Great Poetry, to me, is like great wine. It takes a lot of wine-tastings to recognize, describe and appreciate great wine. There’s a whole vocabulary and I confess, I don’t know it. I wish I did. So, if someone wants to recommend a good blog or site for the art of wine tasting, let me know. This is my version of the same for poetry.

John DonneAt the Poetry Foundation I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion on John Donne’s Sonnet: Death be not proud… As part of the discussion I started searching the web to see what others had written. (I especially wanted to find readings and performances.) But, to my astonishment, I saw that everyone was misreading the poem!

As it turns out, this Sonnet (like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) is one of the most misread sonnets in the English Language.

Julian Glover offers a (sort of) period performance in front of a suitably medieval fireplace. Glover was trained with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and, of all actors, should know how to perform Iambic Pentameter. But, astonishingly, Glover misreads it. He’s not alone. I couldn’t find a Youtube performance that reads the Sonnet correctly.

Audio recordings? I checked out the Gutenberg Project and Librivox. They misread it too!

What do they get wrong? Consider the first line:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee….

They all pronounce the word called as monosyllabic. It’s not. It’s disyllabic – pronounced callèd. Death be not proud.... CD by Britten & BostridgeHere it is, performed correctly in  a composition by Benjamin Britten (who music’d all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets). The performance is by Ian Bostridge and clicking on the CD’s image will take you to Amazon:


However, if that’s not evidence enough, here’s something from a composer much closer to Donne’s lifetime – G.F. Handel:


…and His name shall be callèd Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God…

If you listen carefully, you will notice that Handel, and presumably his librettist Charles Jennens, treated callèd as a two syllable  word. While the pronunciation of the past tense -èd was rapidly fading from common parlance, it was still alive and well in poetic convention even a hundred years after Donne’s career. In Donne’s own day, when language was much more in flux, this older pronunciation could be found in common parlance too. For this reason, since spelling had not been standardized in Elizabethan times, poets frequently, though not always, used spelling to indicate whether the -ed should be pronounced. In Donne’s case, rather than spelling called as call’d or calld, which was frequently done with other words, he left the e intact.

Here are some other examples from a facsimile addition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Powre instead of Power
flowre instead of flower
alter’d instead of altered
conquerd instead of conquered
purposd instead of purposed

In all these examples, the e has either shifted position or has been removed and in all these examples, the e was not meant to be pronounced. On the other hand, consider the following:

Sonnet 116 ever-fixed mark
Sonnet 92 assured mine
Sonnet 81 entombed in men’s eyes
Sonnet 66 disabled

In all these examples, the e was left intact. Modern day editors, in an effort to make sure the words are pronounced correctly, write them as follows: ever-fixèd mark; assurèd mine; entombèd in men’s eyes; disablèd.

They also modernize the spellings of words like conquerd (since there’s no longer any risk that a reader will mispronounce  conquered as conquerèd). The end result is that reader’s aren’t exposed to the kinds of devices Shakespeare and others used to signal pronunciation.

Donne Right

Here is a scansion of Donne’s poem.  Purple indicates a spondaic foot. Red indicates a trochaic foot. These colors are my own invention. As far as I know, I’m the only one to use this sort of scheme.

Death be not proud - Color Coded Scansion

July 27 2009: Me reading the poem

I’ve had some requests to read this poem the way it might have sounded in Donne’s day. So.  Mea culpa. I apologize profusely to all actors who can wear an accent as though they were born to it.  And I apologize to every reader who speaks the Queen’s English. You must be horrified. I invite any of you to send me a proper MP3, and I will dutifully add it to this post.

I accept all criticism.

Here’s the reason for my effort.What may sound like slant rhymes in our day, eternally and die, were probably much closer, if not identical, in Donne’s day. While nobody can recreate the accents of the Elizabethans, we can make educated guesses based on the kinds of words they rhymed. According to what I’ve read, many scholars think that the London accent of Elizabethan times may have actually sounded just a touch more American than British -  think of the classic Pirate’s accent in movies. London was a sea-faring city.

I’m trying out my second recording. I tried too hard with some of the accent.  I think I’ll try again, maybe later today.


The First Line

line-1

So, let’s go line by line. The first line, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, seems to give modern readers the most trouble – readers unaccustomed to reading Iambic Pentameter. Here is how many readers read it:

tetrameter-reading

This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter with three variant feet: a headless first foot, an anapestic second foot, and a feminine ending. Historically, Donne would never have written a line like this as part of a sonnet, let alone as the first line. There is no Elizabethan who wrote anything like this in any of their sonnets. Just as in music, there were conventions and rules. Iambic Pentameter was still relatively new and poets wanted to master it, not break it. The reading above, a thoroughly modern reading, would have been scandalous and ridiculed.

Here is another version I have heard among modern readers:

modern-pentameter-reading

This makes the line Pentameter, but not very Iambic. Every single foot is a variant foot: a headless first foot, trochaic second third and fourth, and a spondaic final foot. Donne would have been ridiculed as incompetent. Some readers, continue the trochaic reading through to the end (making the line Trochaic Pantemeter) :

modern-pentameter-reading-trochaic-ending

No Elizabethan poet would have offered up a trochaic final foot – let alone a trochaic line within the span of a Sonnet. The trochaic final foot, with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, didn’t show up regularly until the start of the 20th Century. Between these three scansions there are variations but these examples cover most of them. Some of the misreadings occur because readers simply aren’t used to reading meter, and some because readers, misreading callèd, simply don’t know what to make of the line.

What is worth noticing in all these readings is that DEATH receives the stress. As modern readers, we want to read the sonnet as though Donne were addressing a character on stage. Hey, Death! But that’s not the story meter tells.

As I’ve written elsewhere: A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter tells us that the subject of Donne’s sonnet is Death’s Pride. it’s the verb be that receives the iambic stress, not DEATH (though DEATH should still receive more emphasis than otherwise). The reason be receives the stress is because this is a sonnet about DEATH’s disposition, his pride, his state of being.

DEATH be | not proud, | though some | have call|ed thee

Recognizing called as disyllabic allows us to read the line iambically – more easily making sense of the first two feet.

The Second Line

line-2

The second line is still problematic for modern readers:

Mighty |and dread|full, for, |thou art | not so,

The stumbling block is usually the fourth and fifth foot, which readers are apt to read as:

Mighty |and dread|full, for,| (thou art |not so),

And this precisely how Glover reads the line. No, no, no,no… One might concede the trochaic fourth foot as a matter of interpretation, but never a trochaic final foot, not in Elizabethan times – not even Milton, in the entirety of Paradise lost, writes a single trochaic final foot (unless we anachronistically pronounce the word).

In poetry of this period, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. Even though it’s possible that Donne read the fourth foot as trochaic, all we know for certain is that he was writing Iambic Pentameter and that the verb art is in a (stress) position. Besides stress, Glover’s reading misses Donne’s argument. Placing stress on the verb art echoes the first line’s be. There is a parallelism at work, a kind of Epanalepsis wherein a word or phrase at the start of a sentence is repeated  at the end of the same or adjoining sentence:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

In both cases, the verb “to be” receives the emphasis. Donne is addressing Death’s being which, he will argue, is a non-being. The play on the verb “to be” and being may or may not be a part of Donne’s intentions, but the idea is present in the poem and, perhaps, gains some credence by Donne’s stressing of the verb “to be” in both the first and second line – which, besides the meter, is another reason I choose to stress the verb be over the inactive noun DEATH.

The Third Line

line-3

This line offers up another curve ball for modern readers. Many will read it as a  Tetrameter line (see the Youtube videos):

line-3-tetrameter-reading

Green, as with all my scansions, represents an anapestic foot.

So, with many modern readers (including Glover again), we’ve already introduced two tetrameter lines within the first three lines. No metrical pattern is established and Donne’s Sonnet is effectively remade as a rhyming free verse poem.

Again, if you were scanning this poem, warning flags should be flying. No Elizabethan poet, within the confines of Sonnet, ever varied the number of feet from one line to the next. Never.

A masterfully written metrical poem tells us two stories: If we read the third line as Iambic Pentameter, the meter begins to tell us something. This isn’t a sonnet to be recited, meditatively, in front of a fireplace. This is a sonnet, god damn-it, of vehemence – an argument asserted forcefully. The Elizabethans were a fierce and gameful bunch and Donne was famed for his sermons.

For, those | whom thou | thinks’t, thou | dost o | verthrow

There is derision and defiace in those words!  This is a sonnet of defiance. Consider the first two lines in light of the what the meter is telling us:

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Observe the repeated thou’s. Donne is almost spitting the personal pronoun. You think you’re so great? Is that what you think?

The Fourth Line

line-4

donne-shroud-monumentThis line is perhaps the least problematic of the first quatrain, but the fourth foot is still apt to trip up modern readers. Readers may want to read it as follows:

1                 2                      3                4                        5

Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

We know already that the trochaic fifth foot can’t be right. If one reads the fourth foot as trochaic, then the reader is not only subverting the meter of the poem, but the tale the meter is telling us, the vehemence and defiance of them. Yet again, Donne throws defiance in DEATH’s face with another thou.

DEATH be |not proud, |though some |have call|ed thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, |thou art |not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not,| poor death, |nor yet |canst thou |kill me

After the third stressed thou, I find it hard not to read derision in Donne’s verse. This is no fireside chat. This is a sonnet by a man obsessed with death; who, several weeks before his death, posed in his own death shroud for the making of his final monument.

The Second Quatrain

second-quatrain

The second quatrain is the least problematic for modern readers. One could read the third foot of the third line as spondaic – both best and men receiving, essentially, the same stress.

And soon|est our |best men |with thee |doe goe,

More to the point is the change in tone from the first quatrain. There is less a feeling of derision and more a tone of confidence and certainty. The meter, accordingly, is smoother and confidently asserts itself. It’s hard to read the four lines as anything but Iambic Pentameter. The first foot in the second line, which I’ve marked as being spondaic, could also be read iambically. There us an almost jubilant certainty in content and meter.

In terms of content. A common conceit was to consider sleep a kind of death. This is what Donne means when he refers to rest and sleep as death’s “pictures”. Sleep and rest are false “pictures” of death, imitations. Sleep and rest were considered healing and restorative. So, says Donne, if sleep and death are but an imitation (a picture) of death, then death itself must be all the more healing and restorative. Much pleasure, he writes in the wise, must flow from death, “much more” than the false pictures of rest and sleep. Brave men must go with death, but it is their soul’s delivery.

The Third Quatrain

the-third-quatrain1

The third quatrain illustrates what made Donne’s meter  rough and inelegant to his contemporaries. Ben Jonson was quoted as having said: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Even two hundred years later, literary historian Henry Hallam considered Donne the “most inharmonius of our versifiers, if he can be said to have deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre.” Right up to 1899, Francis Thompson was describing Donne’s poetry as “punget, clever, with metre like a rope all hanks and knots.”

Thomas Carew, a contemporary, wrote in his elegy to Donne:

Our stubborne language bends, made only fit
With her tough-thick-rib’d hoopes to gird about
Thy Giant phansie

Carew praised Donne’s meter for it’s “masculine expression”.  Dryden, on the other hand, wished that Donne “had taken care of his words, and of his numbers [numbers was a popular term for meter] eschewing in particular his habitual rough cadence. (For most of these quotes, I’m indebted to  C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library introduction to Donne’s complete poems.) It was lines like the following that they were referring to:

Th’art slave to FateChance, kings, and desperate men

The very lines that we, as modern readers, relish and enjoy.

In his own day and for generations afterward, these lines were idiosyncratic departures.  I scanned it the way Donne’s contemporaries would have tried to read it – which is possibly the way Donne himself imagined it. I do know that he was working within the confines of an art form that was still fairly new and that too much departure from metrical pattern wasn’t seen is innovative but as incompetent. Anapestic variant feet, within the confines of a sonnet, were  rare. To have three anapestic feet within one quatrain would have been extremely unlikely.

The first line is the easiest to read as Iambic:

Th’art slave | to Fate, | Chance, kings, |and des|p’rate men

Since most of us pronounce desperate as disyllabic (desp’rate), reading the last foot as Iambic (rather than anapestic) probably isn’t a stretch.

If the elision of thou art to th’art seems farfetched, here’s some precedent by Donne’s contemporary Shakespeare:

Hamlet V. ii

As th’art a man,
Give me the cup. Let go! By heaven, I’ll ha’t.

Taming of the Shrew I. ii

And yet I’ll promise thee she shall be rich,
And very rich; but th’art too much my friend,
And I’ll not wish thee to her.

Taming of the Shrew IV. iv

Th’art a tall fellow; hold thee that to drink.
Here comes Baptista. Set your countenance, sir.

One might object that Donne hasn’t elided Thou art and therefore means for us to read the first foot as anapestic, but this doesn’t acknowledge poetic practice during his own day. (It’s also possible that he did, but that the printer didn’t correctly reproduce Donne’s text.) In the first line, when Donne didn’t accent callèd, he omitted the accent  first, because they didn’t use the grave accent, and secondly, because it was assumed that readers would properly read the word. The Elizabethan audience knew how to read Iambic Pentameter. And since literacy was limited to a fairly limited and educated class, this was a safe assumption. Likewise, and given the strong (and new) expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, it was assumed that the reader would elide Thou art to read Th’art. Generally, if a first word ends with a vowel and the second begins with a vowel, and if an Anapest can be reduced to an Iamb by doing so, one probably should.  These were the poetic conventions of the day. Poets expected their readers to understand them. Even modern speakers naturally elide such words without a second thought.

And pop|pie’r charmes | can make |us sleepe |as well,

This reading may seem controversial but it’s not so farfetched. Say “poppy or charms” over and over to yourself and you will find that you naturally elide the vowels. It’s simply the way the English langauge is spoken. Donne takes advantage of this to fit extra words into his meter.

I’m not trying to regularize Donne’s meter.

  • The point of studying meter, to me, isn’t to fit the poetry to the meter, but to see how understanding meter can teach us something about the poem and how the poet might have exploited it.

Even if we elide all the feet as I have suggested, Donne’s practice still stretches the conventions of his own day. His lines still have an anapestic ring to them. The elision can’t make the extra syllable wholly disappear. He still doesn’t quite keep the accent and still, as Jonson said, deserves hanging. My reason for scanning it this way is to give modern readers an idea of how Donne probably imagined the sonnet.

And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;

Ostensibly, the word swell refers to DEATH’s pride, but Donne also plays on the image of the bloated corpse, a common site in Donne’s plague-ridden day.

The Final Couplet

the-final-couplet

The final couplet offers a few more opportunities for tripping up. Modern readers are apt to read the lines as follows:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This reading, though, misses the emphasis of Donne’s closing and triumphant argument. If read with the meter, watch what happens:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne’s emphasis is on short. This is not an eternal sleep that awaits us but a short one before we wake eternally. But it’s in the second line that the importance of the meter really makes itself felt. Donne reminds us of the opening lines, of his emphasis on the verb to be:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so

And he adds:

DEATH | be |not |proud
Thou      |art |not |so
shall       | be | no  | more

Donne defies Death’s being, making him no more – a no being. It’s not me who will die, says Donne to DEATH, but thou. Thou shalt die!

A Note on the Structure

The structure of the poem is probably most closely related to Sidney’s Sonnets, in terms of Rhyme Scheme, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (or the English Sonnet) in that 3 quatrains lead to a final, epigrammatic couplet. With typical Elizabethan rigorousness, Donne hammers out his argument. The effect is a little different though. Each of the quatrians encloses its own couplet (see the brackets). The effect subliminally dilutes the power of the final couplet while strengthening (to me) the unity of the sonnet. The rhyme scheme, which limits itself to only 4 distinct rhymes, as opposed to Shakespeare’s 7, also lends to the poem a feeling of organic wholeness and clarity. One can only speculate why Donne chose this rhyme scheme, unique among all the other sonnets being written during his day. For a look at the other sonnets being written in his day, see my post on Shakespeare, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets.

If you enjoyed this post, found it helpful, or have a question, please comment!

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