In this poem, the speaker affronts an enemy, Death personified. This enemy is one most fear, but in this sonnet, the speaker essentially tells him off. The way the speaker talks to Death reveals that he is not afraid of Death, and does not think that Death should be so sure of himself and so proud. The confident tone of ‘Death, be not Proud,’ and the direct confrontation of Death provides an ironic sense of comfort to the readers by implicitly suggesting that Death is not to be feared at all, but that in the end, Death will be overcome by something even greater.
Death, be not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10) Analysis
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
The speaker immediately creates a personified version of death by talking directly to him. He paints a picture of Death as an arrogant being, and one who needs to be humbled. The speaker assumes the position of the one who must humble this being, Death. He tells him that he ought not to be so proud, even though for generations people have feared Death and called him “mighty and dreadful”. The speaker, however, with a voice of absolute authority on the matter, simply states, “thou art not so”. This poet uses the literary tactic of “apostrophe” to drive home his point. Apostrophe occurs when a writer addresses a subject who cannot respond. Readers know immediately that this sonnet will consist of one speaker who will do all of the talking and accusing of his subject. Death, though adequately personified, cannot respond to the accusations of the speaker.
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Here in Death, be not Proud, the speaker accuses the death of having illusions of grandeur. He claims that while Death thinks that he has the power to kill, he actually does not. The speaker first humbles Death by telling him that his idea that he has the power to overthrow lives is simply an illusion, and that he has no such power at all. Then, to further humiliate Death, the speaker calls him “Poor Death”. It sounds almost as if the speaker is making fun of Death for having lived under the illusion that he had any sort of power over life or death. Then, he addresses Death in a more personal manner, challenging him by saying, “yet canst thou kill me”. It seems dangerous for one to threaten death in this way. However, knowledge of John Donne’s background and ideologies can give some insight into the speaker’s confidence here. Though everyone knows that physical death does indeed occur, the speaker is challenging Death in a different way. He uses the Christian theology of eternity to taunt Death by telling him, essentially, “Even if you take my physical body, you can never truly kill me.”
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
With these lines, the speaker compares death to “rest and sleep” and even uses the word “pleasure” to describe how one should feel about death. Just as a restful night of sleep brings pleasure, so should death. The speaker implies that sleep is simply a small glimpse of Death. Thus, there is nothing to fear in death, for death will bring something like a pleasurable sleep.
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Here in Death, be not Proud, the speaker says that the best men seem to experience death the soonest. While others have long questioned why it seems as if the best people die soonest, the speaker offers an answer here, suggesting that the best among men deserve to experience the peaceful rest of death sooner, without having to endure the agonies of a long life on the earth. The speaker describes Death as “rest of their bones” and “soul’s delivery”. Both of these descriptions make Death seem like a welcome friend who comes to graciously offer rest and peace and the deliverance of one’s soul from an earthly body where pain and suffering abide.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
Here, the speaker takes on a stronger tone and begins to taunt Death with more ferocity than he did at first. Here, he calls Death a slave to “chance, kings, and desperate men”. He tells Death that he is not mighty and dreadful, but rather a poor slave who cannot even act on his own but is driven not only by fate and chance, but also by people, rich and poor alike”. He then accuses Death of having lowly companions such as “poison, war, and sickness”. He has taunted Death, telling him that he is not to be feared, but rather that he is a slave to the will of fate and men, and that as a lowly slave, his companions are the even lowlier beings such as sickness and war. These accusations serve to allow the readers to feel a sense of power and victory over Death. The speaker certainly feels authority over Death, and he passes this feeling along to his readers when he puts Death in his place by talking down to him.
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
The speaker continues to taunt Death, even more, saying that all he brings is a little sleep, and he doesn’t even do that as well as some other bringers of rest such as “poppy” or “charms”. This comparison further portrays Death as something not only weak, but even pleasurable. The speaker questions Death, asking “why swell’st thou then?” He is asking him why he is so puffed up with pride, when he cannot even do his job, as well as others, can.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die
With these final lines of Death, be not Proud, the speaker reveals exactly why he has been taunting death so relentlessly. Although it is obvious that Death is real, and that people who experience Death do not come back to earth, the speaker reveals his reasons for claiming that Death is weak and easily overcome. He claims that Death is only “one short sleep” and that those who experience Death “wake eternally”. Then, he claims that “death shall be no more”. Finally, he tells Death, “thou shalt die”. The speaker has not only told Death that he has no real power over anyone, but that he will experience the end of himself when all wake in eternity and death will be no more.