Death, be not proud

by John Donne

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What is the theme of the poem "Death be not Proud" by John Donne?

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The theme of the poem "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne, an Anglican priest, is that we should not fear death because the Resurrection of Christ means that we have defeated it. Humans will have eternal life, and death "shalt die."

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The overriding theme of the poem is that death is really nothing to be afraid of. According to the speaker, the personified figure of Death—note the capital "D"—has absolutely no reason to be proud. Far from being “mighty and dreadful,” Death is really no such thing. It therefore deserves neither fear nor respect.

In increasingly defiant words, the speaker spells out just why it is that Death should not be proud, and why it should not then be feared. For one thing, Death is nothing more than a form of rest and sleep, which are images of death. And in any case, the speaker imagines that death will be more pleasurable than either of these states.

Death's pretense to power is further undermined by its being the plaything of fate and luck and arbitrarily dished out by tyrannical kings and “desperate men.” And when it comes down to it, “poppy or charms”—that is to say, drugs and magic spells—are much more effective at providing us with rest than Death. This is just one more reason why we shouldn't fear Death and why it has no business being so high and mighty.

Besides, after we die, we will enter into eternity, where Death will no longer be able to touch us. On this reading, Death is just a transient phase between our earthly lives and our existence as souls in the afterlife. Once again, Donne is seeking to minimize Death's importance in the overall scheme of things.

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In this defiant poem, Donne's speaker takes on death with an aggressive swagger. People fear death and did so even more in the seventeenth century, when outbreaks of disease or almost any illness or accident could take a life suddenly.

Donne's speaker, rather than cowering, personifies "Death" as a person who can be jeered at because he has already lost the war against humankind. He has no reason to think that he is powerful, because he is a weak loser. The speaker tells Death not to keep deluding himself that he is

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

The speaker states, too, things that Death thinks it can "overthrow":

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

Contemporary readers, steeped in Christianity, would have quickly understood the context: because Jesus Christ died and was brought back to life by God, so all Christians will be resurrected at an appointed time.

The speaker goes on to say that Death is weak and dependent on human agency. Without "kings, and desperate men," Death has no chance to kill. Likewise, it is passively dependent on attaching itself to the emergence of unpleasant events like war or illness to function.

Death, too, is no more than a sleep from which we will awake. At the end of the poem, the speaker addresses Death directly with words of triumph. Humans will:

wake eternally
And death shall be no more
It is unusual for a religious poem to take on such an aggressive tone. The speaker sounds like a fighter emerging from a bar after a few drinks to challenge and beat up a hated enemy. By taking such a tone, Donne jolts the faithful reader into a new awareness of death's defeat.
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An additional theme to add to the other response is the power to face death with a steadfast courage. When most consider death, it is with a trepidation of the unknown. Yet this speaker shows no such fear:

...some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so

Death is the end of all that we know in this world. So for the speaker to be able to look at this uncertainty and declare that Death has no real power and is neither "mighty" nor "dreadful" shows courageous tenacity. The speaker goes on to say that death "nor yet canst...kill me," his fearlessness showing a defiance of Death's claim to power.

The speaker denounces Death as a "slave," rendering its power useless under kings and even "desperate men." The speaker uses literary apostrophe to speak directly to Death, and this in itself shows a courageous spirit when compared to other voice options, such as writing about death in third person. This very direct and confrontational voice is somewhat antagonistic, ending in one final promise: "Death, thou shalt die."

Together, the voice, tone, and word choice show that the speaker is courageously certain of eventual victory over Death, leaving no room for any other possibility. There is no "unknown" to be questioned, as the speaker considers Death a mere transition from this life to one of eternal life. Thus, Death can never claim the speaker.

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The central theme of the poem "Death be not Proud" by John Donne is the powerlessness of death. According to Donne, death is but a pathway to eternal life, and as such is not something "mighty and dreadful" as some may believe it to be. Contrary to death's own conception of itself as a forbidding entity powerful enough to destroy and "overthrow," in reality it only brings the best men to a state of "much pleasure" and "soules deliverie." In essence, Donne is telling death that it has no basis for bragging and being "proud," because it is not the ominous, frightening force it would make itself out to be. The speaker's tone is almost belittling; his purpose is to cut arrogant death down to size.

Donne almost seems to poke fun at death's inflated sense of itself, telling it that, in reality, it is a "slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men." Even in its capability to bring rest it is not the best, because "poppie or charms can make us sleep as well." Death's influence is not final, nor even long-lasting; the speaker says that "one short sleep past, wee wake eternally." Death has not reason to be proud because its power is an illusion, its reign fleeting. Once it has served its purpose of transporting its victims out of earthly life, it is "no more," overcome by life which lasts eternally.

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Discuss death as the subject of the poem "Death, be not proud" by John Donne?

John Donne was primarily a  popular minister in the seventeenth century; however, his poems were considered his greatest work. Donne named part of his poetry the  Holy Sonnets because they dealt with religious topics. "Death, be not proud" is Holy Sonnet 10.

The poem follows the Petrarchan sonnet form.  It has fourteen lines with three quatrains, and an ending couplet. The first eight lines follow a set  rhyme scheme  and then, most frequently, cdcdcd; but, this poem finishes with cddcaa. When writers talk to something that cannot answer or respond, this literary device is called an "apostrophe." This is the most recognized example of an apostrophe in literature.

The first quatrain focuses on the subject and audience of the poem: death.   Donne proudly attacks death in his poem. To him,  death goes beyond its realm. Death perceives itself as arrogant and able to maneuver people. Individuals are afraid of death and avert their eyes and do everything they can to avoid him. Death has been ascribed the abilities of a king and the power to do dreadful things.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

He ends the first section by telling death that the people he thinks that he kills, he actually does not.

In the second quatrain, death wants to be distinguished as powerful; in reality, he is no more than a rest or sleep.  Pleasure can be taken in death because those who die are released from their suffering here on earth.  Death becomes a "rest of the bones."

In the final quatrain, death is not a king but a subject to fate, chance, and murder.  On the other hand, death has no special place in life. Some men chose death to get away from their problems. Death 's companions are poison, war, and sickness--nothing of which to be proud.

In the final couplet, Donne returns to the idea of death as a brief sleep.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

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

In Donne's traditional Christian theology, when people die, they slumber until Jesus returns to take them to Heaven, where Christians will spend eternity.  Death will no longer have dominion over anyone.  There will be no need for death. Death, itself, will perish.

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What is the subject matter of the poem Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne?

The poem makes a mockery of the belief that Death is all powerful and consuming by firstly addressing it as human (personification) and then criticizing its arrogance. The speaker states that Death should not be boastful about the fact that it has been called "mighty and dreadful" by some, for it is not. The speaker contends that Death's belief that it has ruined life is not true and that it cannot overcome him.  

The speaker belittles Death by equating the images of "rest and sleep" to the likeness presented by Death. Such rest and sleep bring comfort and peace much as Death does when it removes the greatest and most respected individuals from their physical state. All Death does, then, is to deliver their souls to a place of eternal rest. The speaker mentions that Death has to do much more to claim its status as the powerful and terrifying force it assumes itself to be.    

Furthermore, Death's claim to glory has no foundation, for it is ruled by chance and is a victim of fate. It is just as much controlled by the command of kings and is subject to the desires and whims of "desperate men." In essence, then, Death is not as much in control as it claims to be. In addition, Death cannot be boastful for it is associated with perfidy in the form of sickness, poison, and war—surely not companions one can be happy with. To accentuate the fact that Death has no real authority, the speaker states that drugs and spells can be used to bring about sleep even better than Death does, so it has no reason to brag.

In the end, Death has no dominion, for its power is temporary. The speaker makes it clear that once the soul awakens from its control (a temporary sleep) it will live forever and Death will cease.       

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What is the subject matter of the poem Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne?

"Death, be not proud" by John Donne is a poem about the fear of death, written from a Christian perspective. It is therefore considered one of Donne's "Holy Sonnets", and it has a strong religious moral. As many of Donne's sonnets, it uses extensive metaphor and figurative language to make an argument. The poem is cast as a direct speech to Death, who is personified in the poem as proud and boastful. It argues presents reasons why Death should not be proud, first that death is slave to chance, second that other things can lead to death-like affects, and that finally "death, thou shalt die" -- that even death himself is mortal because after the Last Judgement all humans shall have eternal life. Thus people should not fear death, because "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally."

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What is the meaning of the poem "Death, be not proud"?

In this poem, John Donne's use of arguments, religious ideology, and paradoxical comparisons to characterize Death demonstrates the use of conceit, a typical literary device in metaphysical poetry: Death, Be Not Proud highlights the comparison of death to a type of slumber.

In the poem, Death is personified as a malevolent figure devoid of any real power. The poet asserts that, although Death has been called 'Mighty and dreadful,' it has no real claim to its frightening reputation. After all, Death cannot really kill anyone, as the state of being dead mirrors a state of sleep and rest. The poet also claims that the sooner good men die, the quicker they can obtain rest for their bodies and enjoy the delivery of their souls from the clutches of sin, which brings on Death. Hence, the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul is alluded to here; death isn't the final determinant of one's fate, it is merely a phase of the human evolution which brings rest and eventual restoration.

The poet continues to taunt Death by claiming that it is 'fate, chance, kings, and desperate men' which decides who succumbs to Death's control. He asserts that Death deserves the same ugly reputation accorded to 'poison, war, and sickness' and that, since drugs and sleep potions can make us sleep better, Death need not glory in its fearless reputation. In fact, those who die will soon wake eternally, never to die again, after which 'death shall be no more' and shall itself cease to be of any import.

Yet, Donne's paradoxical arguments often has us questioning whether he is referring to the power of Death or of Life to decide our fate. For example, 'fate, chance, kings, and desperate men' may decide who dies, but the inverse is that, in deciding who dies, these factors also decide who lives. Could it be that our short earthly life really is a sort of death, after which we wake to our 'soul's delivery' where 'death shall be no more?'

Please refer to the links below for more on this fascinating poem!

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