“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.”
– St. John the Evangelist, Book of the Revelation Chapter 6, Verse 8
For whatever reason, I’ve been contemplating Death recently. Not the action, but the character. So, I decided to examine Death in the following pieces of literature: John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”, Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I chose these works for the simple reason that I could remember enough about them while running to work through some semblance of order. The thoughts here are my own, and as such, mistakes in translation, interpretation, or application are also my own and should not reflect poorly on the authors of these magnificent works of English literature.
John Donne: “Death Be Not Proud”
Donne sees Death as a foe to be defeated; this is indicated by the very title of his poem. To me, Donne’s initial view of Death is similar to that of a hired thug. In the opening lines, Donne says that Death is considered by some to be “mighty and dreadful”. I imagine this Death to be a hulking bulk of a man lurking in dark shadows waiting for his naïve victim to stroll by. Nevertheless, Death himself has no power. Like an assassin or mercenary, Donne’s Death is a slave. “Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men” determine Death’s contracts and there are always others willing to do the job: poison, war, sickness, poppies (narcotics), and charms (witchcraft) are always available. In addition, Donne’s belief in both a spiritual and bodily Resurrection means that Death has no real power; Death is simply a sleep from which one will soon wake. In the end, Donne’s Death is the schoolyard bully who will soon receive his comeuppance.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Death does not make an appearance here until Part 3 of “Rime,” and his appearance his quite brief. Having killed an albatross, a symbol of good luck, the mariner has doomed his crewmates to misfortune. Eventually, their ship is caught on a windless ocean and the men become delirious with thirst. It is in these throes of despair and despondency that Death makes his appearance. He comes for his prey on a ship befitting Death: it is able to sail and steer without wind, its masts appear to bar the sun, and the rigging has the appearance of cobwebs. Death himself is naked, perhaps intended as a reminder of the verse from the Book of Job; “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart” (Job 1:21). Death is seen gambling for the souls of the sailors with a woman Coleridge names “Life-in-Death”. Life-in-Death, portrayed as a naked woman, is – to the mariner – both macabre and beautiful, possessing golden hair, red lips, and skin “white as leprosy.” Of all the crew, only the mariner is won by Life-in Death; however, the mariner considers those who died to be the fortunate ones. Coleridge then gives us the idea that there are some things worse than death. For the mariner, his fate is immortality; driven on by a supernatural desire to tell others his tale, he becomes a prisoner in his own body – a body that yearns for the release of death, a release that may never come.
Edgar Allen Poe: Masque of the Red Death
Poe’s Death seems to take the worst aspects of Donne and Coleridge and combine them. Poe’s Death is accompanied by the Red Death, a form of pestilence (which will be examined in Death and All His Friends – Part 4: Pestilence) that kills within half an hour of initial infection. Against the threat of Death and contagion, Prince Prospero stocks his abbey with food and then locks himself and a thousand friends inside. As Poe says, “Security [was] within. Without was the “Red Death.” Six months later, Prospero hosts a wildly grotesque masquerade ball. Now in addition to his attempt at locking Death out, Prospero also chooses to mock fate in his décor: every room of the ball is decorated in bright colors except for the last, heavily adorned with black accoutrements, blood-red windows and containing a clock whose timing is designed to purposefully unnerve all who enter. To me, Prospero is mocking death by designing a room whose décor mirrors the color of death in the outside world. Almost theatrically, Death manifests himself at midnight. He comes dressed as the Red Death, wearing funeral robes stained with blood and the mask of a corpse. Ignoring the other revelers, Death moves inexorably towards Prospero, who calls for this uninvited guest to be seized and hanged. Lacking courage, none of Prospero’s friends move to help him; seizing a dagger, Prospero forces Death into the ghastly final room. However, upon reaching the disconcerting chamber, Death disappears and Prospero falls dead. It is then that the partygoers realize that figure of the Red Death was not a guest, but Death himself, and one by one they drop dead. When the last nobleman dies, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death [hold] illimitable dominion over all.” Unlike Donne, there is no defeat of Death; he is the unavoidable equalizer, bringing both small and great to the same end with no hope or assurance of salvation.
Pratchett’s Death is difficult to explain to those who haven’t read his novels, but I’ll do my best to explain: imagine Death as you would want him to be. The Death of the Discworld is personable; it is only in the first book of the series, The Colour of Magic, that he is downright malicious. However, as the series has progressed, so has Death. His job is not to kill, as Death does in Donne, Coleridge, and Poe, but to collect souls after physical death has occurred. It is Death’s job to show the departed the way to their respective afterlives, whether it be some version of Valhalla, Paradise, or Reincarnation. He is sympathetic to the plight of humanity, at times endeavoring to understand emotions such as love, forgetfulness, and boredom. Death is seen as the protector of humanity and the provider of a necessary service. He is not someone to be feared, but rather a guide in unknown territory. I find now that I cannot do justice to Pratchett’s Death, you’ll just have to read the books for yourself. Suffice it to say that I find the character of Death in the Discworld series to be one of the most comforting characters in modern English literature.
Author’s Note: Death plays a minor role in many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. For those desiring to read more about Death, he plays a major role in the following books: Mort , Reaper Man , Soul Music , Hogfather , and Thief of Time.