Death, be not proud

by John Donne

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In Death, Be Not Proud by John Donne, why is Death portrayed as arrogant?

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In this poem, the speaker directly addresses and mocks a personification of death. He implies that "Death" is proud or arrogant because it thinks that it "overthrow(s)" its victims. In other words, "Death" is arrogant because it thinks that it is able to completely conquer the people it takes.

However, the speaker says that "Death" overthrows its victims only temporarily. The speaker compares death to sleep, which is peaceful, restorative, and nothing to be afraid of. The speaker also says that death is, in fact, ultimately a good thing in that it brings about the "soul's delivery" and the moment when "we awake eternally." Here, the poet is implying that death's victory over mankind is really not a victory at all. Death doesn't overthrow its victims but rather helps them to move into the better world of the afterlife, where the soul is free and life is eternal. Death is thus reduced from a conqueror to an unwitting helper, and its arrogance thereby undermined.

John Donne had a fascination with death that is evident in much of his writing. This was in part due to his own poor health but also in part because he lived through a time of high mortality rates. Renaissance England was the time of the bubonic plague and also of endemic typhus, smallpox, and cholera. More than one in ten children died before their first birthday. Public executions were also popular public events. Donne wrote this poem in 1609, when he was 36 years old. The average life expectancy at this time was 42 years old. With all this in mind, it's easy to understand why Donne would write a poem like this, aggressively confronting death as arrogant.

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The concept of death and dying is powerful in the minds of most people. To manage the intense feelings associated with a discussion of death, John Donne personifies death in Death, Be Not Proud, and proceeds to discredit it because, although some may think that death is "mighty and dreadful," he maintains that  "thou art not so." Death, in its personified form, is arrogant because it thinks that it is the end of life but Donne points out that it is only "One short sleep." Death cannot get the better of man so Donne wonders why it feels as if it has achieved something when "our best men with thee do go" because, when they die, they simply "Rest (of) their bones."

The arrogance as Death "swell'st thou then" as it thinks that "thou dost overthrow" is unacceptable to Donne and Death is actually the entity that is defeated and overcome every time. It is nothing more than a transition and, whilst everyone must die, "we wake eternally"  and therefore we are no longer dead which shows that, in fact, it is Death that "shalt die." 

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Why does John Donne call death a slave in "Death, be not proud"?

"Holy Sonnet X," or as it is more traditionally known, "Death be not proud," is a personification of death as a living entity as well as a challenge to the supposedly proud being of conquest and domination that Death must think itself of being. The poet challenges Death, saying that it is not quite so fearsome and in the end may bring about more relief and rest than sleep ever could.

The poet refers to death as a "slave" to the whims of "Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men." The poet is saying that though Death may imagine itself as some discriminating force free to destroy whatever it chooses, it is actually subject to many whims, both cosmic and earthly, and may only occur on the discernment of beings and forces that it no doubt deems so beneath itself.

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Why does the poet feel that death is arrogant in "Death, be not proud"?

Right throughout the poem, the speaker attempts to expose the arrogance and presumptuousness of Death. He does this first of all by personifying Death, thus dragging him down to the level of an ordinary person who can easily be insulted. Once he's done that the speaker is in the ideal position to shower abuse and insults upon Death for his perceived arrogance.

First of all, the speaker thinks that Death is arrogant because he's not as scary or as powerful as many people think. It would seem that the figure of Death has an over-inflated opinion of himself and his capabilities:

though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

In other words, just because some people have called Death "mighty and dreadful" it doesn't meant to say that he is. The speaker certainly doesn't think so.

The speaker then goes on to belittle Death by comparing him to "rest and sleep". And as there's nothing remotely terrible or frightening about relaxing or dozing off, then there's no need for anyone to be scared of Death.

Furthermore, Death doesn't have as much power as he thinks he has. He is a slave to what must happen, what may happen, to the decisions of kings—because they can send people to their deaths in war or by having them executed—and desperate men, i.e. those who commit suicide. In all these cases it isn't Death that has the power, but fate, chance, and human beings.

In any case, a good Christian like Donne has no need to be afraid as Death is just a short sleep before his soul is rejoined with his body before entering into the bliss of eternity.

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