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.