Poem 19 is the first of two poems titled “The Welcom(e)”. (See also The Welcome 33.) In both poems, the speaker welcomes death; but, in Poem 19, the irregular rhyme schemes and inharmonic cadences suggest how uneasy and contradictory the speaker’s thinking about death actually is.
The poem opens with the speaker offering her soul to personified Death, only to turn immediately from her at the start of the second line and listen to the tolling bell, which presumably marks the speaker’s impending death and asks that listeners pray for her departing soul. The speaker’s calling the bell “sweet” is ironic: early modern and modern European bells have a characteristic minor overtone, which gives them an inherently melancholic sound. The irony is doubled in this line’s echo of John Donne’s Devotions (1624). By asking “is it not for mee the bell doth toll?”, the speaker does what Donne says not to do: “Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am inuolued in Mankinde; And therefore neuer send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” Nevertheless, her leading question implies that she arrives at the same conclusion as Donne: the bell tolls for her, metaphorically if not literally.
The speaker then asks the reader to “trust” her—someone who has just revealed herself to be uncertain, asking questions without clear answers. She characterizes death as merely a brief and uneventful physiological experience (“a sigh and turning up the eye”) and a somewhat sad social occasion (“a few sad farewels to our freinds”). She claims that, for the tender-hearted on her deathbed, the grief of saying goodbye to her friends is enough to break her heart. But instead of breaking the speaker’s heart, grief has hardened it to stone, and so she finds herself simultaneously not fully alive and unable to die.
In l. 10, the speaker turns her attention again, this time to address her soul. The speaker treats her body and her soul as different entities, at odds with each other: her soul is imprisoned within her body. After her body dies, her soul will live in heaven. In looking forward to her soul’s saying “Adue” to Death, the speaker anticipates not the “sad farewell” she claimed in l. 6, but a happy end to Death’s recurring visits and a new beginning in the afterlife.
Several of Pulter’s poems have the speaker addressing Death, which, though not usually given a gender, is sometimes described with masculine or feminine pronouns, as in “The Welcome” . In early modern European art and literature, personified Death was depicted interchangeably with masculine and feminine features (ex. having a beard or breasts), sometimes in the same work1. The speaker’s description of Death as feminine is thus not exceptional. But Death in this poem is unusually social: she travels with her retinue, unlike the lone image of Death that was and remains common. The speaker’s death is likewise a social activity, involving parallel goodbyes to her friends in life and her friend in Death.
Pulter’s Death diverges from her contemporaries’ Death in several other ways. Donne’s Death in “Death be not proud” is opportunistic and engaged in a power struggle: he is a “slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” and dwells with “poyson, warre, and sicknesse.” Herbert’s Death in “Death” is highly material, “[n]othing but bones” until Christ’s “death did put some bloud / Into thy face”. As Herbert’s speaker finds beauty in death, Pulter’s speaker finds freedom from the confines of life. Whereas, in Donne’s and Herbert’s poems, death is transformed by Christ’s sacrifice—bringing new life, it is no longer something to be feared—in Pulter’s poem a nuanced struggle unfolds between one’s spiritual beliefs about death and its material realities: death is a release only for the redeemed Christian soul.
For more about Pulter’s depictions of Death and death, see the following Curations: Elizabeth Scott-Baumann’s Dear Death, Helen Smith’s The Good Death and Memento Mori, Elisa Tersigni’s Personified Death in Early Modern Art and Literature, and Wendy Wall’s Talking to Death. For more on the speaker’s desire for death, see Frances E. Dolan’s Desiring Death and More Ruminations on Death and Resurrection.
- See, for instance, the Basel Dance of Death (ca. 1440), in which Death is presented in many forms and gendered with both feminine and masculine features. For more on the gendering of personified Death, see Karl S. Guthke’s The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature (1999) and Diana Burton’s “The Gender of Death” in Personification in The Greek World: From Antiquity to Byzantium (2005).