Death, be not proud Analysis
“Death, be not proud” is the tenth poem in a series of Holy Sonnets John Donne wrote about faith and God.
- The speaker directly addresses the personified figure of Death, which he proceeds to mock, declaring that Death cannot kill him.
- The poem ruminates on the nature of mortality: its speaker points out that there are so many ways to die that it is no source of pride to have dominion over death.
- Humans are the masters of death, the poem argues. When we reach heaven—and thus immortality—death ceases to matter.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
John Donne's "Death, be not proud" is one poem of a sequence known as the Holy Sonnets, many of which touch upon similar existential questions surrounding the nature of death, the purpose of life, and what it means to be a person. Donne is usually characterized as a metaphysical poet and, while the poets now known as such did not necessarily all write in similar ways, they all shared elements of interest, such as the desire to interrogate the status quo and explore the facets of what make life as it is. In this poem, Donne explores a theme he returns to elsewhere (see, for example, his "Valediction forbidding mourning"): he emphasizes the fact that death is not actually the end of human existence, nor is it necessarily something that should concern people.
The speaker's tone in this sonnet is extremely defiant: the speaker uses personification to address Death directly, and there is no humility in his words as he tells Death not to be "proud." On the contrary, his choice of language is dismissive; he refers to death as a "slave" to human whims, making Death appear small indeed as it is used by "desperate men" to end lives and summoned by humans in "war." Death becomes something of a service for humans, as he is described as offering "soul's delivery"—it is through the expedient of death that people are able to reach their true destination in "eternity."
The speaker imagines Death as a rather pitiable braggart, asking why he should "swell," as if puffing himself up in pride, when in actuality, he is not able to achieve anything that cannot be achieved by "charm" and "poppy." The word "poppy" here is used to represent medicines and other drugs derived from poppies, which might be used as painkillers or for recreational purposes. Donne seems even to pity Death's weakness, calling him "poor death."
This is a conceit which works well when the poem reaches its climax. What Donne emphasizes in the final couplet is that Death, far from being "proud," should be pitied, because he is in fact the only one who will "die." While humans will sleep only for a short time and then wake to be alongside God, Death himself will be destroyed by the fact that humans simply pass through that state to emerge on its other side, having transcended it.