Death, be not proud by John Donne

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“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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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 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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 993 words.)