Death, be not proud

by John Donne

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How does Donne use conceit in "Death Be Not Proud"?

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In "Death, be not Proud," Donne creates an effective argument against Death as he looks at it from the perspective of his Christian beliefs. According to the Bible, Death has no power over a Christian. The experience of death will be like falling asleep and then awakening to everlasting life.

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In so-called metaphysical poetry such as Donne's, a conceit is an elaborate metaphor in which two dissimilar things are compared over the course of a poem.

In "Death, Be Not Proud" the relevant conceit is that death is being compared to a boastful, but not very impressive, man. Donne addresses the personified figure of Death as if it were a man he'd come across in his ordinary everyday life. He subjects it to the kind of scorn normally reserved for a personal enemy, caustically mocking Death for its pride, for its pretensions to being mighty and dreadful, simply because some have called it so.

Instead, he reminds Death that it is ultimately nothing, a mere absence of life rather than something positive in its own right. For all Death's pretensions to greatness, it is barely indistinguishable from sleep. And as sleep can easily be brought on by "poppy or charms"—that is to say, drugs or medicines—there's no reason for Death to be so full of itself, so swelled with pride.

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Explain how Donne creates an argument against Death in "Death, be not Proud."

In "Death, be not proud," Donne creates his argument in the poem's first two lines, establishing a coherent picture of Death for him to dismantle:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

Note that, in these two lines, two contrasting visions of Death are established: one maintains that Death is powerful and terrifying, while the other (Donne's perspective) states that it is actually weak. It is on this contrast between the widespread fear of Death and Donne's negation of that fear that the poem and its ideas depend. From here, Donne's task is to establish why Death is not so frightening and powerful as it is so often believed.

For one thing, he makes note of Death's actual powerlessness within human affairs, and in the process, he reverses the traditional assumptions concerning death. Often, death is viewed as one of the great inevitabilities to which all human beings must eventually bow, and yet Donne reverses this vision, noting that it is instead Death that must bow to human beings, being a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men."

Moreover, however, Donne's vision is shaped by his Christian perspective, and it is in this context that (at least in Donne's mind) the fear of dying should lose its power. Thus, Donne writes, at the end of his poem,

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Donne is saying here that there is no need to fear death, given Christianity's promise of salvation: What is Death's supposed power, existing only within the moment, when compared against this vision of eternal life?

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Explain how Donne creates an argument against Death in "Death, be not Proud."

In the sonnet "Death, be not proud" by John Donne, the poet argues with Death from a Christian perspective. Death is personified as someone to whom Donne speaks directly. However, the poet has no respect at all for Death. He scorns it, saying that it is not "mighty and dreadful," that it has no power to kill Donne, and that it is in fact a "slave to fate" that puts people to sleep the same way that "poppy or charms" do.

To understand why Donne derides Death so scornfully, it is important to know that he was a fervent Christian, a priest in the Church of England. In this poem, he clearly expresses his belief in life after death. For him as a Christian, death was but a short sleep, and he would then, as promised in the Bible, wake to everlasting life. That's why he writes that after "one short sleep" he would "wake eternally," and "death shall be no more." According to Donne, a believing Christian never really dies. For this reason, he proclaims to Death that "thou shalt die," because Christians overcome Death instead of being conquered by it. As an educated priest, he is aware that numerous bible passages back him up in this. For instance, in John 5:24, Jesus says,

He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

Many other passages in the New Testament of the Bible affirm the power of God's everlasting life over death. Donne believed in this concept, and that's why he is able to rebuke Death and argue against it with such confidence in his poem.

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Explain how Donne creates an argument against Death in "Death, be not Proud."

Sonnet 10 begins famously with the opening line "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee" (1).  This personification of death continues through the rest of the sonnet, as Donne basically calls out Death, as though to challenge him or to pick a fight with him.  When reading the first two lines, Donne basically says that, although some people might consider Death to be "mighty and dreadful," he knows that Death is really not that scary (2).  To further downplay Death's menace, Donne likens Death to "rest and sleep" which are really not frightening at all (5). 

The end of the poem argues that Death's power over man is only temporary and fleeting, because God will resurrect His believers to "wake eternally" (15).  Donne's "Sonnet 10" challenges Death, and through the poet's cleverly crafted argument, wins the fight! Donne's conclusion feels triumphant: "And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die" (16). Death, consider yourself 'poem-slapped' by John Donne...

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Explain how Donne creates an argument against Death in "Death, be not Proud."

One of the central ways that Donne creates an argument against death in this powerful poem that is normally entitled "Sonnet X" in his Holy Sonnets, is through paradox. Remember, paradox is a statement that at first glance seems impossible or illogical, but when interrogated further, reveals a more profound truth or reality than was immediately obvious. What is interesting about paradoxes is that they grab our attention immediately and force us to consider issues more deeply that we otherwise would do.

In this poem, then, two key paradoxes are used to create Donne's argument against Death. The first is that Death doesn't actually "kill" its victims:

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

This is because Death is shown throughout the poem to be nothing more than a transitional state, as some part of the person goes on living and there is an afterlife.

The second paradox that is used is at the very end of the poem:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Of course, this paradox is in many ways one of the strongest, which makes it a perfect way to finish the poem. However, Donne is suggesting that because Death lacks the power to really kill, because of the "eternal" waking we shall experience after our "short sleep," this shows that Death has no dominion over us and therefore metaphorically "dies."

Donne therefore establishes his argument very carefully through the use of paradox to demonstrate and illustrate that Death, although feared by many, actually does have no dominion over us.

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