Although Elizabethan times are characterized by romantic and highly ornamented poetry devoted to the exploration of the human feelings, there was also a group of bold poets in the 17th Century who took their words to a rather analytical side of the abstracts aspects of life. John Donne, one of Metaphysical Poetry’s main figures, stands out for his choice of simple words to approach more complex themes of life. In ‘‘Holy Sonnet 10’’, Donne brings Death to human level in which he strongly criticizes it for being inferior to other mortal pleasures.
Donne’s boldness is emphasized as he alters the English sonnet’s structure to fit his own theme. The poet combines the basic structure of 3 quatrains and a couplet with the rhyming scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet in the first three quatrains. The most unusual rhyme though, is the couplet AE in which he brings back his principal claim and intertwines it with his conclusion, and at the same time he accentuates it with a line that does not rhyme with any other. This provokes the turn of the sonnet to be at the middle of the conclusion rather than in line 9, another daring aspect of the sonnet.
This particular rhyme scheme gives each stanza its own rhythm, leading the reader into a strong emphatic conclusion. The sonnet’s metaphysical conceit refers to Death’s personification. The poet attempts to diminish Death’s power and frightful presence by addressing to it as no more than a common person with flaws. He feels pity for the “poor Death” (line 4). The poet compares it with the “pleasure”(line 6)of sleeping, and accuse him of having no real power since his skills are due to mortal aspects such as “war and sickness”(line 10).
Donne even directs to Death in an informal way, calling it “thou” (lines 2, 3, 4, 9, 12, and 14). This endows the reader with a new and mortal perspective of mortality. The oxymoron in which the sonnet concludes is the main focus of the sonnet; “Death, thou shalt die” (line 14). It refers to the holy aspect of the work when the dead “wake eternally” (line 13) and Death will be of no use. Donne endeavors to diminish and end Death, but as it “dies” it is affected by Death itself, which gives it power once again; kill death with death.
This brings a doubt to the reader, as it is left for free interpretation, the power and mortality of death. Donne’s metaphysical poetry presents a wide analysis of abstract themes, in this case death. He opts for simple diction, direct messages and to defy the conventional in order to illustrate the reader. These peculiar and paradoxical ideas of Death are left as an open question for the reader to decide where its power and life begins and ends.