How might one explain, line-by-line, the meanings of the first eight lines of John Donne's sonnet beginning "Death be not proud"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The first eight lines (or “octave”) of John Donne’s sonnet beginning “Death, be not proud” might be explicated, or explained almost word-by-word, as follows:

 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Death, whom I am addressing as if you were (paradoxically) a living thing, you should not feel arrogant or conceited, even though some other persons have told you

 

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

That you are powerful and the cause of fear, for you are not really powerful and terrifying.

 

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

After all, the people whom you imagine that you defeat by killing them

 

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Don’t really die, you weak and pitiful thing, nor can you cause me to die, either.

 

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Resting and sleeping are like imitations or paintings of you,

 

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And we derive a great deal of pleasure from resting and sleeping.  Therefore, you, Death, must provide much greater pleasure than mere resting and sleeping,

 

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

And, besides, often it is the very best human beings who die young,

 

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

And all that death is is simply a chance for their bodies to rest and for their souls to be freed from sin and taken up into heaven.

SOMETHING EXTRA: The speaker addresses Death in a Petrarchan sonnet (which has an octave rhyming as follows: abba abba). Donne’s choice of the Petrarchan sonnet form seems a bit deliberately ironic in this case for the following reasons:

  • Petrarchan sonnets were often addressed to (or written about) beautiful women.  Donne’s speaker, however, addresses a figure whom we normally consider ugly and terrifying.
  • The speakers of Petrarchan sonnets are often foolish and shallow, but the speaker of Donne’s sonnet is dealing with a profoundly important issue.
  • The speakers of Petrarchan sonnets are often obsessed with the temporary beauty of this world, but the speaker of Donne’s sonnet has his mind fixed on higher things.
  • The speakers of Petrarchan poems are often frustrated, and they rarely achieve the things they desire, whereas the speaker of Donne’s sonnet seems quite confident, because of his Christian faith, that he will defeat death.

Interestingly, this poem is one of the most confident and self-assured of all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, poems which are frequently quite bleak and anxious in tone.

 

Sources:

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