Death, be not proud Summary
by John Donne

Start Your Free Trial

Download Death, be not proud Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Death, be not proud Summary

"Death, be not proud" is one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets. Written using the fourteen-line sonnet form, it utilizes the closing rhymed couplet to underline its conclusion and key message, which is that although humans might be afraid of Death, Death ultimately does not have any jurisdiction over them.

Donne addresses Death directly, personifying him and prevailing upon him not to be "proud." He states that, although many in the past have suggested that Death is powerful and "dreadful," this is really not the case, because those whom Death believes he has destroyed have not actually been destroyed by him. Death may believe he has the power to "overthrow" them, but this is not true—nor can he kill the speaker of the poem.

The second quatrain of the sonnet goes on to elucidate why the speaker believes this to be the case. The speaker points out that "rest and sleep," which are only versions of Death on a smaller scale, are actually enjoyed by those on earth: they give humans "pleasure." Therefore, it only stands to reason that Death itself must actually provide a still greater pleasure, and so of course the "best men" from among the human race will go with Death eventually. Death will not only provide them with pleasure of the same sort that sleep provides, but it will also be their "soul's delivery"—it will result in their ascension to heaven, where they will meet God; and ultimately, they will have been saved from Death.

Next, the speaker points out that Death does not himself wield very much power—on the contrary, Death is a "slave" to all kinds of other instruments humans might utilize in order to summon him. Such disparate elements as misfortune, poison, war, and desperation can all summon Death, without Death having any say in the matter. And, as for the fact that Death can cause humans to sleep, this does not make Death special, because other things, such as "charms" and sleeping potions derived from poppies, can also do this. Therefore, Death has no reason to be proud, as he is not particularly special.

In the final couplet of the poem, the speaker states that Death only ever makes humans sleep for a short time, after which they will "wake eternally"—they will rise out of this sleep in order to join God for eternity. Therefore, it is Death itself which will actually be killed in the end, rather than the humans he attempts to kill.