Death, be not proud

by John Donne

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Explain the meaning of "why swell'st thou then?" as it appears in "Death, be not proud" by John Donne.

Quick answer:

The speaker describes Death's arrogance and powerlessness throughout the poem, and so the question "why swell'st thou then?" refers to Death's unwarranted pride. Essentially, Death has no real power because it does not decide when to come for us, and it amounts to only one "short sleep" before we awake to eternal life. Death should not think of itself as such a big shot, so to speak, because its purview is really rather small.

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In this sonnet, the speaker addresses Death directly, personifying Death as an arrogant though, ultimately, powerless entity in the lives of human beings. He says that Death believes that it "overthrow[s]" the living, when in reality what we think of as death is not an ending but rather a beginning (line 3). With death's "One short sleep past, we wake eternally," the speaker argues (13). In other words, death does not conquer us, and it does not actually kill us because it cannot kill the soul. Furthermore, Death itself does not decide when to come for us; no, it is a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" (9). Death does not choose when we die; rather, fate or chance or kings who wage war or sentence one to death, perhaps, or even individuals who decide to end their own earthly lives make that decision. Ultimately, the speaker declares that "death shall be no more" because, when we awaken from that "short sleep" of death, we enjoy eternal life with God and Death will have no power to touch us anymore. Therefore, when the speaker asks Death, "why swell'st thou then?" he has already suggested that Death has no real power and the question implies that Death has no reason to think so highly of itself. Death thinks it is very powerful, a real big shot (so to speak), and this is why the speaker claims that it is "swell[ed]" up. He asks Death, given all of these reason, how it can think so much of itself because, in the speaker's view, it shouldn't.

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