Analysis of Poem "Death Be Not Proud" ("Holy Sonnet 10") by John Donne
"Death, Be Not Proud", as "Holy Sonnet 10" is commonly known, was published in 1633, two years after John Donne's death.
It's often found in literature anthologies.
We'll go through the sonnet by quatrain and then the final couplet. This is unusual for an Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet; we'll look at the structure later.
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.
The speaker begins by addressing Death directly. He tells it not to be proud, despite its reputation as "Mighty and dreadful." This reputation is unfounded.
He pities death, because those it kills don't really die. He also states that Death can't kill him.
There are two poetic devices used in the opening—apostrophe and personification.
Apostrophe occurs when the speaker addresses someone who's not there, something abstract, or a thing. We see this here when he speaks to Death, an abstraction.
Personification occurs when human characteristics are attributed to something abstract or non-human. This happens here as Death is spoken to like it's a person, as in the Grim Reaper.
Lines 3 and 4 introduce the main argument that will be made plainer in the conclusion—those whom Death "dost overthrow / Die not"; death isn't an end but a transition. The speaker pities "poor" Death for this reason. It can't do the only thing it's supposed to do.
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.
The speaker reasons that because people get pleasure from resting and sleeping, which are mere images of Death, being dead must be even more pleasurable.
What's more, the best people die early and enjoy their rest. This allows their souls to be free.
The speaker now introduces the common comparison made between death and sleep. "Rest and sleep" are "pictures" of Death.
Some readers might find the reasoning in these lines to be unconvincing. The pleasure that comes from sleep usually doesn't occur while we're unconscious. Much of the pleasure is in lying restfully before falling asleep, or waking up knowing you can go back to sleep.
Likewise, his argument that the "best men" die young is suspect, and seems invented for his purposes.
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?
Rather than ruling people, Death is a slave to the actions of others. It also has to associate with a cast of undesirables.
The speaker continues by contending that Death shouldn't be proud of its ability, because drugs or magic can make us sleep just as well, or better.
Again, the speaker's framing of things can be called into question. Is Death really a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men," or are they his accomplices? If we stay with the idea that Death is a person, all these examples could be his helpers.
His dubious reasoning continues with the claim that opium ("poppy"), or a magic spell brings better sleep than Death. Since the speaker hasn't experienced the "sleep" of Death, he can't be sure of this. It also seems to contradict his earlier statement that sleep is just a picture of Death. If sleep is but a picture, a representation that doesn't capture the full experience, then no kind of sleep could be better than Death.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
The speaker concludes with the assertion that Death is nothing more than a short sleep that leads to eternal life. When this happens, Death is over; Death dies.
The last two lines emphasize what was established in lines 3 and 4, that Death's victims don't really die. Death is only a short sleep from which a person awakens to everlasting life. After Judgment Day, Death will be done away with—Death will itself die.
There's a dramatic reversal in this last line. Death thinks it's destroying people, but they will go on to live eternally. Death can't achieve salvation; the end Death experiences is real.
Now that the poem is over, the motive behind some of the speaker's shaky reasoning becomes clear. The sonnet is based on the belief that good people go to heaven when they die. If Death leads to something better, then it definitely isn't a cause for dread. The speaker crafts his arguments to support this, and wants his audience to accept them without reservation.
Some readers think these uncompelling arguments are evidence of doubt on the speaker's part. While I'm sure this premise could be cogently developed, I don't think it's right. This theory sounds like it requires doing a lot of work to avoid the more obvious interpretation.
1. Is there any irony in lines 7-10?
No. The speaker's argument for the powerlessness of Death in these lines seems to be sincere. The statements about the good dying young, Death being a slave, and its having to hang out with wretched company seem genuine. This is supported by the fact that the poem doesn't end with any kind of twist or reveal that makes us reinterpret the premise.
2. How is the poem structured?
"Death, Be Not Proud" is an Italian sonnet in rhyme scheme, but a Shakespearean sonnet in structure.
A hallmark of an Italian sonnet is the shift that occurs on line 9, after the octave on the first line of the sestet. There's a turn in the argument or a change in the tone. This sonnet doesn't deviate from the established premise in line 9. It starts out asserting that Death is powerless and ends the same way.
A variation is seen in the concluding couplet, as well. It doesn't rhyme. To my ear, it sounds like the speaker is saying, "I'm done thinking about how to structure this; Death is nothing." The last line lands with a thudding finality.
Due to these things, the sonnet reads as three quatrains and a modified couplet, rather than an octave and a sestet.
If you'd like to hear the poem, it was read by Kenneth Branagh's character at the end of episode 4 of the series Fortunes of War. It starts at 54:55 in the video below.