Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
"Death, be not proud"
"Death, be not proud" is one of Donne's Holy Sonnets (10) or Divine Poems, written probably in 1609/10 and published two years after his death in 1633.
Donne underwent a great transformation in his private and poetic life, writing erotic and passionate love poems early on in his career and later devoting himself to God—he became the dean of St Paul's in London no less—the Holy Sonnets being among his best religious poems.
"Death Be Not Proud" is a Petrarchan-style sonnet, 14 lines in total, the first eight lines concentrating on the role that Death plays, the last six lines detailing how Death is subject to other controls, such as fate, chance and governmental systems.
Throughout the poem, Death is personified—given human attributes—and addressed directly by the speaker. There's no easy ride for Death in this poem, in fact, Death is consistently belittled and does not come out alive.
Donne's nineteen Holy Sonnets are seen as minor masterpieces by many scholars, but some are divided on the sonnets as a complete body of work. One, Helen Gardner, interprets them as a 'structured sequence' (The Divine Poems, OUP, 1978), while Herbert Grierson in his book The Poems of John Donne, Oxford, 1912, believes them 'individual meditations'.
They were circulated among friends and colleagues when Donne was still alive and more than likely helped the poet in his personal battles, both religious and political, in an age of suspicion and subterfuge.
He knew himself to be a sinner, he just wanted God's approval. The sonnets are a sort of cathartic exercise helping Donne transition from his earlier days as a Catholic follower to a later Anglican devotee.
They cover subjects such as faith, mortality and divine judgement and have that personal touch so prevalent in Donne's poems.
"Death, be not proud" (Holy Sonnet 10)
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Lines 1 - 4
The direct address signifies immediately that the speaker is 'talking' to Death, here personified. Death is being treated as a human, capable of pride, interestingly the most serious of the seven deadly sins.
Death's reputation has gone down in human history no doubt, many considering it a fearful thing. But the speaker is having none of it. Reputations count for little as the speaker denounces Death and states that on the contrary, Death is not 'mighty and dreadful' at all.
The superior tone continues. Death may think he overthrows victims but that's not the end of affairs. People do not die...and just for fun the speaker introduces his own immunity and says he cannot be killed either.
Death is being treated rather shamefully, the speaker in a rather mocking kind of way suggesting that Death does not realise this—poor Death—as if pity is being shown.
These opening lines make it crystal clear that Death has no real power over humanity—the human body might perish but according to Christian theology, this is not the end.
Lines 5 - 8
Sleep and rest are pleasures, who doesn't relish the idea of a long restful sleep after a hard day's work? The speaker suggests that this is exactly what Death is, rest and sleep, but with a little added extra.
Sleep is natural, we wake up feeling better following some shuteye. Same with Death, only more so.
And Death may take the best men, the good die young so to speak, but they get a double bonus...they get to rest plus they get to have their soul delivered. That word delivery is related to birth, so not only has Death given pleasure it has helped the birth of the soul; Death as an integral part of the afterlife.
Lines 9 - 12
The final six lines intensify the charge against Death. The speaker states that Death is a slave, to fate, chance and kings and desperate men, meaning that Death has no authority, no control.
Random accidents, government machinery of law and justice, poison and war, sickness—Death only exists because of these.
From flowers such as the poppy comes opium, and from magic come charms—both are just as effective as Death when it comes to sleep. Even better. How demeaning. Death is reduced to a weakling—how foolish to swell up with pride when unmerited.
Lines 13 - 14
The end couplet sums up the situation beautifully. A human's death is but a short sleep for they'll wake up and go on forever, free of Death.
The ultimate insult—Death itself will therefore be dead.
This final nail in the coffin suggests that Death itself is alive and is logically subject to its own death, from the Christian perspective. The speaker will wake up, as from a sleep, and will not have to go through the dying process again, ever.
When two or more consonants starting a word are close together in a line:
For those whom thou think'st...much more must flow...thou then?...we wake...Death, thou shalt die.
When two or more words close together in a line have similar-sounding vowels:
thou think'st thou...much more must...bones, and soul's...slave to fate...desperate men...
When a line is paused midway roughly, by punctuation. For example:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
When a line continues on into the next with no punctuation, maintaining sense. For example, from 1st line to second, third to fourth.
In the last line when the speaker mocks Death by saying Death thou shalt die.
Used to emphasis meaning and reinforce an idea, as in lines 7, 10, 11, 12 and 14 And...
"Death, be not proud" is a sonnet that roughly follows the iambic pentameter pattern, five feet per line—daDUM daDUM etc. with the stress on the second syllable—but there are variations on this basic metrical line that add texture and interest for the reader.
The pure iambic pentameter line, without punctuation, plods along with predictable beats but Donne's sonnet has altered lines and uses trochee (DUMda), pyrrhic (dadum)
Death, be / not proud, / though some / have called / thee
Mighty / and dread / ful, for / thou art / not so;
For those / whom thou / think'st thou / dost o / verthrow
Die not, / poor Death, / nor yet / canst thou / kill me.
From rest / and sleep, / which but / thy pic / tures be,
Much pleas / ure; then / from thee / much more / must flow,
And soon / est our / best men / with thee / do go,
Rest of / their bones, / and soul's / deliv / ery.
Thou art / slave to / fate, chance, / kings, and / desper / ate men,
And dost / with poi / son, war, / and sick / ness dwell,
And pop / py or / charms can / make us / sleep as / well
And bet / ter than / thy stroke; / why swell's / thou then?
One short / sleep past, / we wake / eter / nally
And death / shall be / no more; / Death, thou / shalt die.
Reading through this sonnet with one ear for the metrical beats is a challenge and a joy. The syntax (the way clauses and grammar work together) isn't straightforward - typical Donne - and the pauses for commas and other punctuation give the reader just enough time to take it all in.
Some lines are pure iambic pentameter, five feet, ten syllables, a familiar daDUM beat. These are lines 3,5,6,7,10,12 and 14.
But half are not. The first line for example has only nine syllables, starts with a trochee (DUMda), and ends on what is known as a feminine ending, no stress.
Lines 9 and 11 have eleven syllables, an extra one. Line 9 has a spondee (DUMDA), both syllables are stressed midway through the line to give extra emphasis. Line 11 has an opening iamb but from then on is highly unusual, with trochees dominant and a single extra beat stressed.
Lines 4 and 8 start with trochees, stress on the first syllable.
Line 13 starts with a trochee, falling away initially, and also ends with a pyrrhic (no stress) which again gives a fade away to the line.
All in all a fascinating sonnet that demands intelligence from the reader and acute awareness of pause and flow.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2020 Andrew Spacey
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2020:
I studied this poem in an English Literature course many years ago. Thank you for sharing the poem and your analysis. I enjoyed reading your article very much.