Death, be not proud Themes
The Insignificance of Death
The speaker's primary assertion is that Death can be overcome. Although people often consider it "mighty and dreadful," Death has no real power. It cannot determine its own course of action. It makes no decisions regarding when people ultimately die. In that way, Death is completely at the mercy of fate, rulers, and the sheer sense of desperation that arises among humankind. The speaker notes, therefore, that Death cannot kill him. He proceeds to explain that after Death, people awaken into an eternal life. The process of dying, therefore, is but a brief transition into the next realm of existence, making it insignificant in itself. It claims nothing ultimately.
Courage in Death
The author faces mortality with a bold sense of defiance. He is not fearful that Death will ultimately be part of his story and is not afraid of what comes after. He is confident that after a brief "sleep," he will awaken into a much better eternal life. With this confidence, there is nothing to fear in the process of dying. The speaker's sense of courage builds as the poem progresses, and his tone is almost mocking as he speaks to Death. Death has no hold on the speaker's decisions or choices and cannot take life from him. Although some consider death "mighty," the speaker dismisses any such superiority attributed to Death. He faces his end with bold convictions that he will be victorious over Death.
Faith in God
The religious undertones run heavy throughout the poem. If Death is not in charge of making decisions about the end of men's lives, then who is? There are several instances in the Bible of Christ raising people from the dead and telling their loved ones that they are merely sleeping and that there is no need for fear or tears. Isaiah 26:19 (KJV) notes, "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust...." The idea of awakening from sleep runs as a heavy theme in the Bible and is the basis for Donne's final lines in this poem. After a short sleep, the speaker will "wake eternally," presumably with God.
The idea that those who die find in Death their "soul's delivery" implies that life after Death is a relief. When this poem is taken in context with the rest of Donne's Holy Sonnets, it is apparent that the speaker foresees relief in Death because Death ushers him into the presence of God. Death shall "be no more," reflected in the words found in Revelation 21:4 (KJV): "...there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." The speaker draws from a deep place of faith to overcome any feelings of fear regarding Death.
Themes and Meanings
“Death, be not proud” is a sonnet concerning the ways in which one can defeat the fear of death and anticipate the happiness of an eternal afterlife. The poet creates various derogatory images of death in an effort to reduce its power as humankind’s most ubiquitous enemy. Life not only ends in death, it also is dominated by the presence and potentiality of death, which can be encountered anywhere at any time. It comes in many shapes and ways, but Donne wants to show that death is not the end but only the short passage to an eternal afterlife where death will not exist. Therefore, the poem consists of a series of paradoxical images of death as powerful, yet weak and servile. Donne appears as the preacher-poet-philosopher looking on the death skull and describing the ways in which one can deny its victories.
The transcendence of death through faith in an afterlife is not the conventional theme of the Renaissance sonnet. Sonnets usually concern love problems...
(The entire section is 930 words.)