I interviewed a devoutly Catholic man yesterday for non-Catholic reasons. He told me that for people like him and me, both nearer 60 than 50, each day boils down to “a choice between Dunkirk and the Alamo.” When you get into a situation, there are two outcomes: You get your boats off the beach and live to fight another day, as at Dunkirk; or you make your last stand, as at the Alamo. Meaning, we’re getting near the end of the line, and now it’s only a question of, How long?
Then he said, “Of course, we Catholics know that there is a final destination, and that makes all the difference,” or words to that effect. (He said all of this with much saltier language. I have never met a Catholic more at home with profanity.)
All of this made me think of the line “Death be not proud,” which I first encountered as the title of a memoir by John Gunther about his son’s early death from, I think it was, a brain tumor. We read the book in 7th grade, or maybe 8th, and it made an impression.
Where does the line come from? My sister Elizabeth, the English scholar in the family, would know, because it comes from her favorite poet, John Donne (pictured). Here is Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10. It’s worth a second reading for any Catholic.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou thinks’t, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
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 deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.