Death Be Not Proud Summary Theme Analysis

John Donne most likely wrote “Holy Sonnet 10” in 1609 but, like most poetry of that time, it did not appear in print during the poet’s lifetime. The poem was first published in 1633, two years after Donne’s death. During his life, however, his poetry became well known because it circulated privately in manuscript and hand written copies among literate Londoners. “Holy Sonnet 10” belongs to the latter part of Donne’s output, the religious works known as his “Divine Poems”.

Death Be Not Proud Summary Theme Style

Death Be Not Proud Poem Text:

        Death Be Not Proud 
John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom you 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 souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt 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 shall die.

Death Be Not Proud Summary:

Death Be Not Proud Summary Line by Line:

Lines 1 – 4:

The poem begins by addressing Death dramatically and directly. Such an address to something that we realistically know can’t be listening is called an apostrophe. In treating Death as if it were a person, the poem also uses the device of personification.

The first quatrain of the sonnet attacks Death for its pride, denying that it is “mighty and dreadful”, as some have called it. The poem then introduces a paradox, stating that the people Death “overthrows” do not really die, and that Death is not even strong enough to kill the speaker. In asserting Death’s powerlessness, the speaker even goes so far as to express a note of pity, calling it “poor Death”.

But “poor” also suggests a note of contempt for Death’s importance, its poverty of resources, as much as the ability to be pitied. And if we think of Death as total negation, of the absence of all the richness that we think of as Life, we can imagine how Death might be seen as “poor”.

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Lines 5 – 8:

The second quatrain develops the idea that Death is not to be feared. In fact, much the opposite is the case. The speaker draws the conventional analogy between Death, on the one hand, and “rest and sleep” which are Death’s “pictures” or likeness, on the other. We find rest and sleep pleasurable, so by analogy, we should find Death much more so. The speaker introduces evidence of Death’s pleasantness, namely, that “our best men” die early. Here, however, the poem argues unconventionally, saying it is no tragedy that the good die young. Rather, they die willingly, eager for rest for their bodies in the grave, and release or freedom for their souls in haven.

Donne’s development of the pleasantness of Death appears to be without irony; that is, Donne is not implying that the speaker is naive about Death’s terror or power. Instead, the poem seems truly to argue that Death is not powerful, that the terror we traditionally associate with Death is unwarranted, and that Death provides the believing Christian a genuine and pleasurable reward.

Lines 9 – 12:

The ninth line of an Italian sonnet, the form whose rhyme-scheme this poem follows, usually makes a turn: a shift in the theme or tone of the sonnet between the eight line octave and the six-line sestet. However, “Holy Sonnet 10” behaves structurally more like a Shakespearean sonnet.

Instead of a strong change in tone or argument, line 9 continues developing the speaker’s attack on Drain a similar tone. Death is no one’s master, claims the speaker; in fact it is a slave, subject to those who deal death to others, including the forces of fate and chance, here personified, and the real persons of kings.

Death also is a slave to “desperate men”, that is, people in despair who commit suicide. Further, Death’s fellows or family are not the noble companions befitting a proud monarch, but a horrible and disgusting crew: poison, war and sickness, all personified.

Death’s ability to make us sleep – and here again the speaker uses the conventional analogy of sleep and death – can be equaled or bettered by drugs such as opium (the “poppy” being opium’s source) or by magic spells or “charms”. The speaker ends this third quatrain by asking death why it puffs itself up with pride, in direct defiance of the warning in line 1 to “be not proud”.

Lines 13-14:

The sonnet’s concluding couplet revolves the poem by offering the ultimate evidence of Death’s powerlessness. In lines 5-6 and 11, the speaker has introduced the conventional analogy of sleep to death. In the close of the poem, however, the speaker argues that this analogy is actually an identity: Death really is asleep, from which we will awaken into eternal life.

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This assertion explains all the paradoxes in the poem: Death is not an ending but a beginning. Further, Death provides the means for its own defeat, since by dying we will overcome Death, and Death will be destroyed. In the ultimate paradox, Death will die.

Donne loved puns, and it is worth nothing that he daringly used sexual metaphors and similes in several of his religious poems, such as “Holy Sonnet 14”. In “Holy Sonnet 10”, Donne might similarly be punning on the word “die” in the final celebration of the death of Death.

Themes of Holy Sonnet 10:

The most important theme of Holy Sonnet 10 is that one should not fear death. Death is admonished directly to “be not proud”, it is belittled vehemently as a slave whose job-providing rest and sleep for the soul is better done by humble drugs or simple magic charms.

The poem asserts the Christian doctrine that Christ transformed death through his own death and resurrection, making it a passage way to the soul’s rest and after the resurrection of all people at the final judgement, the eternal pleasures of heaven.

A major theme of Holy Sonnet 10 is that death seems mighty, but in reality, it is not. Though the stillness death brings seems to be permanent, the poet asserts, we will awake from it on the Judgement Day. Though death seems proud and over-powering, it in fact is always attended by the squalor of poison, war and sickness.

Though it appears dreadful, death is but a slave to “fate, chance, kings,” and even lowly “desperate men”. Despite its apparent ability to strike humans down, the poet claims that humble drugs or magic spells can do death’s work much better.

Style of the poem Holy Sonnet 10:

In its form, “Holy Sonnet 10”, is an Italian sonnet (also known as a Petrarchan sonnet), written, like most sonnets, in Iambic pentameter. The Italian sonnet’s thematic organization usually has two well-developed movements corresponding to the eight-line octave and the six-line sestet.

The thematic organization of “Holy Sonnet 10”, however, more closely resembles the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet (also called an English sonnet), with its four shorter movements: three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The octave follows the conventional Petrarchan rhyme scheme of abbaabba, while the sestet rhymes cddcee, one of several conventional patterns.

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