Death, be not proud

by John Donne
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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.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

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.

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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."

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Latest answer posted April 14, 2012, 8:51 pm (UTC)

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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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Holy Sonnet 10 (in a series of nineteen) gets its traditional title from the first four words of the poem, in which the poet issues a challenge to death that it should not boast of its conquests of people nor take pride in their fear of it. The poet depicts death as a force that is supposed to be “mighty and dreadful” because it kills everybody, but he denies its invincibility, pitying “poor” death and declaring that it will not kill him. Assuming the voice of a preacher—John Donne was an Anglican minister—the poet attempts to convince his audience, by the power of his rhetorical attack and his faith in the afterlife, not to be afraid of death, saying that people actually do not die forever.

In a series of paradoxes, the poet attacks the conventional characterization of death as man’s invincible conqueror. Rather than being a fearful experience, death brings greater release and pleasure than rest and sleep, which people use to restore their energy. Death not only provides “Rest ofbones” but also “soul’s delivery,” a release into a peaceful eternity. Moreover, death is not the tyrant that it imagines itself to be; rather, it is a slave to the arbitrary dictates of fate and chance and to the whims of capricious monarchs and murderers.

The poet concludes his attack with a series of lines beginning with the word “and” as a connected summary of the charges he amasses against death. Death is associated only with the most destructive elements in life—poison, war, and sickness. Moreover, opium and other drugs can put a person to sleep as easily and better than death does. Thus, as a result of its servility, weaknesses, and association with the worst human events, death should not swell with pride. The final two lines, an unrhyming couplet, sum up the poet’s defeat of vainglorious death: People may die, but they do not stay dead. They awaken from death as if from a short sleep into an eternity in which “death shall be no more.” Death shall die then, but humans will live eternally. In fourteen lines, Donne has carried out an effective rhetorical attack against the invincibility of death and, at the same time, has declared his faith in an eternal afterlife’s joys that shall transcend the horrors of earthly life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601

Donne uses his characteristic metaphysical wit in the choice of structure, poetic techniques, diction, sounds, meter, irony, and paradox. The structure of “Death, be not proud” consists of three units of four lines (quatrains) and a final unrhyming couplet. Each of the quatrains is composed of one sentence that Donne artfully extends over the four lines, thus imparting a sense of unity and development. Each quatrain presents an important link in the exposition of the argument against death, and the couplet both concludes and summarizes the attack with a ringing declaration of faith in the certainty of the afterlife and the demise of death.

In the first quatrain, the poet declares that death cannot kill its victims—that is, eliminate their existence forever. This quatrain ends with the poet’s assertion of will in the face of death (“nor yet canst thou kill me”) with the personal pronoun “me” representing the power of the individual to defy death. The next four lines depict the ways in which death actually is pleasurable and provides the soul’s delivery into eternity. The third quatrain groups death with the baleful instruments that induce it, and it ends with the only question in the poem, which recalls the first four words of the poem—Why does death puff with pride if it is not the invincible vanquisher of men it imagines itself to be?

The ending couplet reduces death to a short sleep before the eternal awakening when “Deathshalt die.” The use of sibilants in “short sleep” and in the future auxiliaries “shall” and “shalt” intensifies the swiftness of the movement into eternity. Finally, “eternally” in “we wake eternally”—along with “delivery” in “soul’s delivery”—is the longest word syllabically in the poem, and it represents the lasting victory over transitory, monosyllabic death.

The principal poetic techniques used by Donne to diminish death are to depict it as a person and then to challenge death as if the poet is engaged in single combat with it. Death can come in so many ways at any time to anybody that it seems to have myriad forms, so Donne reduces death by personifying it as a weak person subservient to the worst elements of life and unable to counter the poet’s challenge.

Another technique employed to diminish the power of death is through the alternation of regular and unconventional prosodic stress. When Donne wants to show that death is not to be feared, he orders it within the regular iambic beat (“And soonest our best men with thee do go”), but when he wants to attack death, he employs a pounding, sustained stress (“Death, be not proud,” “Death, thou shalt die”). Similarly, Donne’s choice of primarily monosyllabic words enhances the power of his simple declaration of defiance to death.

One of the central ironies of the poem is demonstrated by Donne’s use of variants of death and words related to it to dominate a poem directed against death. Death is the first word of the sonnet, and the last line, which declares the end of death, contains “death” twice and “die” as the last word of the couplet. The poet does not run away from death; he faces it directly and finally reduces it to the isolated and unrhyming last word of the poem. Moreover, since most of the other words in the poem contain the letters d and t, which are found in “death,” it is as if they are surrounding and attacking death on its own phonetic grounds—“not,” “proud,” “art,” “but,” “though,” “yet,” “canst,” “those,” “then,” “thinkst,” “dost,” and “desperate.”

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

“Death, be not proud” is a sonnet concerning the ways in which one can defeat the fear of death and anticipate the happiness of an eternal afterlife. The poet creates various derogatory images of death in an effort to reduce its power as humankind’s most ubiquitous enemy. Life not only ends in death, it also is dominated by the presence and potentiality of death, which can be encountered anywhere at any time. It comes in many shapes and ways, but Donne wants to show that death is not the end but only the short passage to an eternal afterlife where death will not exist. Therefore, the poem consists of a series of paradoxical images of death as powerful, yet weak and servile. Donne appears as the preacher-poet-philosopher looking on the death skull and describing the ways in which one can deny its victories.

The transcendence of death through faith in an afterlife is not the conventional theme of the Renaissance sonnet. Sonnets usually concern love problems between a plaintive lover and a hardhearted mistress whose love he is trying to win through the persuasiveness of his rhetorical suffering and wooing. William Shakespeare’s sonnets deal with his rivalries with other poets and his tempestuous relationships with lovers, but they also present the conflict between time, the destroyer, and human beauty as expressed in timeless poetry. Shakespeare defiantly declares that his loved one “shall shine more bright in these contents [poem]/ Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.” Donne, on the other hand, places his faith in the certainty of an afterlife as the antidote to the inevitability of death in the physical world.

Donne’s themes throughout the Holy Sonnets are anguished, because his is not an easy faith. Donne petitions God for help to overcome his temptations by drawing him toward God like a magnet and by replacing the fire of lust with the fiery spiritual zeal that will heal his divided self. He uses violent physical images of imprisonment, battering, and ravishment as the means of God’s releasing him from the transitory world into the eternal.

In Holy Sonnet 10, Donne wants to release humans from the horrors of death that are found in war, sickness, poison, and crime and which take the best people soonest to their graves. He consoles his audience by arguing that earthly life is not the final existence. If it were, death would win and deserve to be proud of its victories. Because of the afterlife, however, death’s horrors are diminished, its power is reduced, and finally, death is dismissed as an insuperable force. Donne does not flinch from the horrors of earthly life, but he is determined to impart meaning to one’s existence by describing one’s final destination.

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