Discuss death as the subject of the poem "Death, be not proud" by John Donne?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Donne was primarily a  popular minister in the seventeenth century; however, his poems were considered his greatest work. Donne named part of his poetry the  Holy Sonnets because they dealt with religious topics. "Death, be not proud" is Holy Sonnet 10.

The poem follows the Petrarchan sonnet form.  It has fourteen lines with three quatrains, and an ending couplet. The first eight lines follow a set  rhyme scheme  and then, most frequently, cdcdcd; but, this poem finishes with cddcaa. When writers talk to something that cannot answer or respond, this literary device is called an "apostrophe." This is the most recognized example of an apostrophe in literature.

The first quatrain focuses on the subject and audience of the poem: death.   Donne proudly attacks death in his poem. To him,  death goes beyond its realm. Death perceives itself as arrogant and able to maneuver people. Individuals are afraid of death and avert their eyes and do everything they can to avoid him. Death has been ascribed the abilities of a king and the power to do dreadful things.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

He ends the first section by telling death that the people he thinks that he kills, he actually does not.

In the second quatrain, death wants to be distinguished as powerful; in reality, he is no more than a rest or sleep.  Pleasure can be taken in death because those who die are released from their suffering here on earth.  Death becomes a "rest of the bones."

In the final quatrain, death is not a king but a subject to fate, chance, and murder.  On the other hand, death has no special place in life. Some men chose death to get away from their problems. Death 's companions are poison, war, and sickness--nothing of which to be proud.

In the final couplet, Donne returns to the idea of death as a brief sleep.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

In Donne's traditional Christian theology, when people die, they slumber until Jesus returns to take them to Heaven, where Christians will spend eternity.  Death will no longer have dominion over anyone.  There will be no need for death. Death, itself, will perish.


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