Death, be not proud

by John Donne
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What is the theme of the poem "Death be not Proud" by John Donne?

The theme of the poem "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne, an Anglican priest, is that we should not fear death because the Resurrection of Christ means that we have defeated it. Humans will have eternal life, and death "shalt die."

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The overriding theme of the poem is that death is really nothing to be afraid of. According to the speaker, the personified figure of Death—note the capital "D"—has absolutely no reason to be proud. Far from being “mighty and dreadful,” Death is really no such thing. It therefore deserves neither fear nor respect.

In increasingly defiant words, the speaker spells out just why it is that Death should not be proud, and why it should not then be feared. For one thing, Death is nothing more than a form of rest and sleep, which are images of death. And in any case, the speaker imagines that death will be more pleasurable than either of these states.

Death's pretense to power is further undermined by its being the plaything of fate and luck and arbitrarily dished out by tyrannical kings and “desperate men.” And when it comes down to it, “poppy or charms”—that is to say, drugs and magic spells—are much more effective at providing us with rest than Death. This is just one more reason why we shouldn't fear Death and why it has no business being so high and mighty.

Besides, after we die, we will enter into eternity, where Death will no longer be able to touch us. On this reading, Death is just a transient phase between our earthly lives and our existence as souls in the afterlife. Once again, Donne is seeking to minimize Death's importance in the overall scheme of things.

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In this defiant poem, Donne's speaker takes on death with an aggressive swagger. People fear death and did so even more in the seventeenth century, when outbreaks of disease or almost any illness or accident could take a life suddenly.

Donne's speaker, rather than cowering, personifies "Death" as a person who can be jeered at because he has already lost the war against humankind. He has no reason to think that he is powerful, because he is a weak loser. The speaker tells Death not to keep deluding himself that he is

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

The speaker states, too, things that Death thinks it can "overthrow":

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

Contemporary readers, steeped in Christianity, would have quickly understood the context: because Jesus Christ died and was brought back to life by God, so all Christians will be resurrected at an appointed time.

The speaker goes on to say that Death is weak and dependent on human agency. Without "kings, and desperate men," Death has no chance to kill. Likewise, it is passively dependent on attaching itself to the emergence of unpleasant events like war or illness to function.

Death, too, is no more than a sleep from which we will awake. At the end of the poem, the speaker addresses Death directly with words of triumph. Humans will:

wake eternally
And death shall be no more
It is unusual for a religious poem to take on such an aggressive tone. The speaker sounds like a fighter emerging from a bar after a few drinks to challenge and beat up a hated enemy. By taking such a tone, Donne jolts the faithful reader into a new awareness of death's defeat.
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An additional theme to add to the other response is the power to face death with a steadfast courage. When most consider death, it is with a trepidation of the unknown. Yet this speaker shows no such fear:

...some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

Death is the end of all that we know in this world. So for the speaker to be able to look at this uncertainty and declare that Death has no real power and is neither "mighty" nor "dreadful" shows courageous tenacity. The speaker goes on to say that death "nor yet canst...kill me," his fearlessness showing a defiance of Death's claim to power.

The speaker denounces Death as a "slave," rendering its power useless under kings and even "desperate men." The speaker uses literary apostrophe to speak directly to Death, and this in itself shows a courageous spirit when compared to other voice options, such as writing about death in third person. This very direct and confrontational voice is somewhat antagonistic, ending in one final promise: "Death, thou shalt die."

Together, the voice, tone, and word choice show that the speaker is courageously certain of eventual victory over Death, leaving no room for any other possibility. There is no "unknown" to be questioned, as the speaker considers Death a mere transition from this life to one of eternal life. Thus, Death can never claim the speaker.

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The central theme of the poem "Death be not Proud" by John Donne is the powerlessness of death. According to Donne, death is but a pathway to eternal life, and as such is not something "mighty and dreadful" as some may believe it to be. Contrary to death's own conception of itself as a forbidding entity powerful enough to destroy and "overthrow," in reality it only brings the best men to a state of "much pleasure" and "soules deliverie." In essence, Donne is telling death that it has no basis for bragging and being "proud," because it is not the ominous, frightening force it would make itself out to be. The speaker's tone is almost belittling; his purpose is to cut arrogant death down to size.

Donne almost seems to poke fun at death's inflated sense of itself, telling it that, in reality, it is a "slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men." Even in its capability to bring rest it is not the best, because "poppie or charms can make us sleep as well." Death's influence is not final, nor even long-lasting; the speaker says that "one short sleep past, wee wake eternally." Death has not reason to be proud because its power is an illusion, its reign fleeting. Once it has served its purpose of transporting its victims out of earthly life, it is "no more," overcome by life which lasts eternally.

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