Death Be Not Proud" is number VI of John Donne's Holy Sonnets. The Holy Sonnets are not always specifically about God, but they all address eternal themes, with sometimes implied references to God or spiritual things. "Death Be Not Proud" is one of those. First of all the poet uses the device of apostrophe, in which he addresses something inanimate as if it were a human being (such as Byron's "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean"). Donne's first line establishes this "Death be no proud, though some have called thee". By making a concept or a state such as death into something that can be spoken to, even figuratively, Donne effectively brings death down to a level where it is less universal and more personal. This takes away some of death's power within the context of the poem. He speaks of death having much less power than most people think. "Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so". The poet implies that death should not be feared, for "nor yet canst thou kill me." Since the poet is a believer in God, and he believes in eternal life, the state of death has no power over him. This is a neat overturning of death's power, and places the speaker outside of what is considered the normal fate of humanity. In the next lines the poet further disempowers death by likening it to sleep. He emphasizes how sleep brings rest and pleasure to humanity, so therefore death cannot be that frightening. Since death is more permanent than sleep, he says "Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow," (line 6).
The poet then turns to how the "best men" go willingly to death, so why should not other more common people imitate their superiors? Here the religious aspect of the poem becomes more directly stated. Death is merely "soul's delivery." (8) But after these mild insults to death's power Donne moves to direct attack: "Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" (9). Death comes, Donne says, at the bidding of such things as fate, chance, desperate men, kings (who hold the power of life and death over people), and goes on to say that death keeps company with such low things as "poison, war, and sickness" (10). A mere flower, the poppy (line 11), from which opiates are derived, can make sleep -- so how could death be such a great and terrible thing? Here Donne's irony is at its sharpest. He relentlessly lists the horrors of life which can bring on death, but then turns quickly to the slimmest of comparisons (an opiate sleep compared to death) to show death hasn't the power to terrify. By this poetic expression Donne shows that humanity is still afraid of deaths in war and sickness, but must remember, and have faith, that no matter how terrifying death is it is really only a transition to eternal life. That the lines before this assertion have the power to frighten a reader make this irony all the more acute, and the reality of the fear of death is an involuntary part of the human condition. "One short sleep past, we wake eternally" (13). At the end of the poem the poet returns to his belief that life will continue forever, and therefore death is but a transition. Donne's mastery is in his subtle irony, his abstruse comparisons, and his ability to aver one thing while acknowledging the truth of its opposite.