What is the meaning of the poem "Death, be not proud"?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In this poem, John Donne's use of arguments, religious ideology, and paradoxical comparisons to characterize Death demonstrates the use of conceit, a typical literary device in metaphysical poetry: Death, Be Not Proud highlights the comparison of death to a type of slumber.

In the poem, Death is personified as a malevolent figure devoid of any real power. The poet asserts that, although Death has been called 'Mighty and dreadful,' it has no real claim to its frightening reputation. After all, Death cannot really kill anyone, as the state of being dead mirrors a state of sleep and rest. The poet also claims that the sooner good men die, the quicker they can obtain rest for their bodies and enjoy the delivery of their souls from the clutches of sin, which brings on Death. Hence, the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul is alluded to here; death isn't the final determinant of one's fate, it is merely a phase of the human evolution which brings rest and eventual restoration.

The poet continues to taunt Death by claiming that it is 'fate, chance, kings, and desperate men' which decides who succumbs to Death's control. He asserts that Death deserves the same ugly reputation accorded to 'poison, war, and sickness' and that, since drugs and sleep potions can make us sleep better, Death need not glory in its fearless reputation. In fact, those who die will soon wake eternally, never to die again, after which 'death shall be no more' and shall itself cease to be of any import.

Yet, Donne's paradoxical arguments often has us questioning whether he is referring to the power of Death or of Life to decide our fate. For example, 'fate, chance, kings, and desperate men' may decide who dies, but the inverse is that, in deciding who dies, these factors also decide who lives. Could it be that our short earthly life really is a sort of death, after which we wake to our 'soul's delivery' where 'death shall be no more?'

Please refer to the links below for more on this fascinating poem!

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