Death, be not proud by John Donne

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 between a plaintive lover and a hardhearted mistress whose love he is trying to win through the persuasiveness of his rhetorical suffering and wooing. William Shakespeare’s sonnets deal with his rivalries with other poets and his tempestuous relationships with lovers, but they also present the conflict between time, the destroyer, and human beauty as expressed in timeless poetry. Shakespeare defiantly declares that his loved one “shall shine more bright in these contents [poem]/ Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.” Donne, on the other hand, places his faith in the certainty of an afterlife as the antidote to the inevitability of death in the physical world.

Donne’s themes throughout the Holy Sonnets are anguished, because his is not an easy faith. Donne petitions God for help to overcome his temptations by drawing him toward God like a magnet and by replacing the fire of lust with the fiery...

(The entire section is 460 words.)