Death, be not proud Analysis
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.

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Analysis

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.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,389 words.)