How should we read “Death be not proud?” The first two lines alone of this famous sonnet by John Donne could animate a class discussion, a whole course, even a lifelong debate.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not so.
Is Death a mighty villain? Or a preening pretender? The speaker’s triumph seems assured by this concluding couplet: “One short sleepe past, we live eternally / And Death shalbe no more, Death thou shallt dy.” But what should we make of the initial reference to Death as “mighty and dreadfull”? Does the speaker describe Death this way in order to make their encounter seem more consequential? Or do these descriptors betray that the speaker rightly fears what he mocks?
In Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, David Marno offers a very different way to read—and teach—Donne’s sonnet and indeed all of Donne’s devotional poetry. By focusing on the message, he says, we have overlooked the techne of the poem. The poem, Marno argues, is a devotional technology, “designed to provide “practical, experiential proof for the mortality of death by showing that distraction may be overcome.”
Marno attributes this misunderstanding of the poem to a misunderstanding of the doctrine it endorses at the end, paraphrasing Paul’s announcement in his first letter to the Corinthians, that the Savior’s resurrection means Christ’s followers are no longer subject to death. Marno argues that Paul’s passage was not an authoritative pronouncement or a proof in the Aristotelian sense: It was instead a demonstrative expression of faith. When Paul ends his discussion of resurrection with these words, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting,” Marno explains, this “final personification and mockery of death . . . is Paul’s own, personal demonstration of his faith.” Paul proved Christ’s victory over death by proclaiming his own belief in Christ’s victory over death.
As with Paul, so with Donne. The purpose of the sonnet that ends by paraphrasing Paul, Marno argues, is to “prove the Pauline doctrine of the resurrection.” So how does the poem fulfill this purpose?
Here we encounter Marno’s most ambitious claim: that Donne’s poetry reveals what philosophy can learn from religion. “Death be not proud” proves the Pauline doctrine of the resurrection, Marno argues, by making this doctrine seem vibrant and true to the individual thinking it. If, in a post-Hegelian dispensation, philosophical thought is most often associated with reflexive assessment of how one thought connects to another, Marno explains, Donne’s devotional sonnets thereby represent a robust alternative. Instead of being concerned with evidence and reasons and critique, the devotional sonnets are concerned instead with cognitive receptivity, or whether they have prepared the speaker to move from abstracted comprehension to personal apprehension, from distracted thinking to holy attention.
From the perspective of Marno’s argument, my opening questions about how Donne personifies Death represent the sort of distractions that the poem must repudiate.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not so.
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost ouerthrow
Dy 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 do go,
Rest of their bones, and Soules deliveree.
Thou art Slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sicknesse dwell;
And Poppy or Charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And easier then thy stroke, why swellst thou then?
One short sleepe past, we live eternally
And Death shalbe no more, Death thou shalt dy.
What I find striking in these passages is the choice to personify death and the intimacy of the relationship the speaker envisions with his adversary. Others have focused on questions of the speaker’s psychology, the striking alternations of desperation and comfort and defiance and speculation. But for Marno the key is the way death distracts: whatever the speaker says, death is still there in the next line to contend with. The poem cannot dispense with death, Marno posits, because it personifies death; each denunciation focuses on a specific property of this multi-faceted character, leaving room for another to emerge.
Why, Marno asks, does the poem fail in what seems to be its obvious purpose? The answer, he says, “lies in the Augustinian logic of attention. The poem’s attention, like human attention, is incarnate attention, which means primarily that the more it tends to something, the more distraction it produces at the same time.”
As Marno describes it, everything that is variable and specific registers as distraction. It is only in the poem’s last line, the first time when the poem speaks about death in the third person, that a new possibility emerges. At this point, when attention is finally on death qua death, no longer a character with specific properties, the “thought of death” finally gets the speaker’s “full and undistracted attention.” Cognitively speaking, Marno’s reading thus presumes that interaction is akin to distraction. Thinking becomes transformative only in a solitary moment of pure receptivity.
This argument about the philosophical import of holy attention puts death in a curious position. Death becomes a cognitive problem with a cognitive solution.
And much rides on the purity of this solution—on the cognitive and devotional purity of holy attention. Marno thereby describes Donne as fulfilling what Augustine acknowledged but did not fully explore: that pure attention should be the foundation and goal of prayer. It is “remarkable,” Marno says, that Augustine recognized that the presence of an object introduces distraction, that pure attention is intransitive, but dedicated almost no space to this insight. Likely the pastoral and doctrinal Augustine won out, Marno concludes by way of explaining why Augustine “found it more appropriate to emphasize the ubiquity of distraction than to engage into speculations” about how it might be overcome by holy attention.”
What Marno regrets in Augustine is what I consider Augustine’s most significant cognitive insight: the philosopher bishop understood that there is no way to transcend distraction, that whatever prayers he might offer would have to make use of human language, broken into syllables and sentences rather than unified into pure moments of expressivity, and that the interactive exchange of ideas, of the sort that raised him and his mother, Monica, together to a vision at Ostia, or that he modeled throughout the Confessions, by interspersing biblical speech with his own, was the necessary and effective means of transformative thought. As Marno himself makes clear in his chapter on Augustine’s account of attention and distraction, Augustine abandoned the Soliloquies, his experiment in writing “by myself,” and moved on to the form of the Confessions, where almost every page addresses God directly. Crucially, the form of the Confessions affirms that the interactive address to God is the process of discovery, not something he overcomes by understanding that everything else is a distraction but in finding God in and through the distractions.
This is a book, as Marno says at the outset, that “reads poetry to make an argument about devotion as a way of thinking.” And it is an important book precisely because it persuasively demonstrates exactly this: that devotion is a way of thinking. All the more reason to be impressed by what both Augustine and Donne make clear: that the use of personification, direct address, and dialogue affirms that humans are interactive thinkers. And, when humans cultivate receptivity through acts of invention or imaginative, this poetic creativity is all the more powerfully enacted as an interactive process. There is a long and proud tradition of privileging abstraction over interaction, cognition over affect, and apophatic over cataphatic theology. But just as today theories of social cognition seek to demonstrate that brain development is a social process and thinking itself a social endeavor, the devotional tradition that shaped Donne and to which he himself contributed seems most psychologically and cognitively insightful in refusing to make purity a necessary precondition for transformation.
Cognitively speaking, Donne’s choice to personify Death in a sonnet about how we might think about mortality does not register distraction so much as a sophisticated understanding of cognitive receptivity. It is not incidental but essential that, as Donne himself acknowledges, poetry and prayer are similar because of address and apostrophe. Marno’s book makes clear that all readers of Donne’s Holy Sonnets should be thinking about philosophy as well as devotion and it is a book that should be read by anyone who claims these are distinct endeavors.
I am not, in the end, persuaded by Marno’s reading of the poem that gave his book its title, but his arguments clarified my own sense that “Death be not proud” represents the great philosophical insights of a devotional tradition not because it cultivates a singular concluding moment of holy attention, but because of the way Donne personifies Death, because of the way the compacted lines of his sonnet crowd together messy materiality and poetic abstraction. The brilliance of Donne’s poem is not its singular conclusion but the manifold ways that the poem in its entirety acknowledges that we delimit death’s power by confronting death directly.