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Who is the poet addressing in the poem "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne?

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sherryperny | eNoter

Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:53 PM via web

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Who is the poet addressing in the poem "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:05 AM (Answer #1)

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Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe

Who is the poet addressing?

The poetic narrator of the poem speaks to “Death.” Death is supposed to be “mighty and dreadful” because it kills everybody, but Donne takes a different look at death. He pities its and antagonistically tells Death not to be proud of itself.  

Donne was a minister. With his familiarity with death, he speaks to it as if it were a person. Speaking in incongruities, he states that people do not really die when they meet Death, so neither will the speaker.  Then, Death is compared to the calming facets of life: rest and sleep. Death comes to all no matter who a person is. He adds that the best of men often go with Death because these people know that they will not find pain, but delight.

And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Then, the speaker makes an accusation against Death: It is a slave to chance, luck, kings and dangerous men.  Death does not keep very good company. His companions are war, illness, and poison.  Death is not a necessity and should not be feared. A person could always take drugs to die and have the same effect as falling asleep.  Death is like a nap.  The Christian wakes up and finds himself in a better place. When that happens, there will be no need for Death—Death will die.

The speaker challenges Death and essentially out wits him.  Donne employs several types of figurative language to get the best of Death.  A metaphor, an apostrophe, personification, an extended metaphor,  a pun—these are the tools used by the poet.

The primary hope is to be able to defeat Death and go to Heaven. The Christian will continue his existence in the next world; consequently, Death will not win. The speaker’s faith will not let him down. The final assertion states that Death has to die as well.

Background

John Donne was a metaphysical poet.  These poets study the reality beyond the physical, everyday world and deal with questions about God, the creation, and the afterlife.  “Death Be Not Proud” is a good example of this type of poem.  Written after the death of his wife, this was one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. This is Holy Sonnet 10. These poems were published two years after Donne’s death in 1631.

The poem is written in the Petrarchan sonnet style. It has fourteen lines and  is divided into an octave and a sestet. The purpose of the poem is to take the sting out of death and not make it seem so scary.  It may not work, but that was what Donne was hoping for in his poem.  He also tells the reader how to handle death when it comes for him.  This same advice could apply to anyone person that tries to intimidate another person.

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