John Donne and Don Quixote: Two Views of Death

In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho Panza (Quixote’s squire) describes the insatiable and indiscriminate appetite of Death in one of his classic sanchismos:

By my faith, Señor,” responded Sancho, “you mustn’t trust in the fleshless woman, I mean Death, who devours lamb as well as mutton; I’ve heard our priest say that she tramples the high towers of kings as well as the humble huts of the poor. This lady is more powerful than finicky; nothing disgusts her, she eats everything, and she does everything, and she crams her pack with all kinds and ages and ranks of people. She’s not a reaper who takes naps; she reaps constantly and cuts the dry grass along with the green, and she doesn’t seem to chew her food but wolfs it down and swallows everything that’s put in front of her, because she’s hungry as a dog and is never satisfied; and though she has no belly, it’s clear that she has dropsy and is always thirsty and ready to drink down the lives of everyone living, like somebody drinking a pitcher of cold water. — Trans. Edith Grossman (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) p. 590.

Compare that with John Donne’s classic poem, Death Be Not Proud:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Sometimes it takes the Easter season to turn the Sancho Panzas among us back into John Donnes.

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