While discussion continues over the order in which John Donne wrote the individual poems that compose his Holy Sonnets, the critic Helen Gardner has argued convincingly that Death Be Not Proud was published in 1633. Structured as a variant of the Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, the poem’s rhyme scheme is abbaabbacddcee. Donne became popular while serving as the dean of St. Paul’s, writing and preaching sermons that also occupy an important position in his works. As one who tended to the spiritual life of others, he dealt regularly with death, and the sonnet probably reflects the theme of hope he attempted to pass to the grieved. He had two strict views about the soul. He believed it immortal by the will of God and believed that a virtuous soul is taken to heaven at the moment of death; it does not linger to arise with the body on the last day, described by the Bible as the day of reckoning.
Donne could turn to the Bible for a model in his opening apostrophe to death, which he personifies through figurative language: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” Christian tenets held that a person need fear death only when burdened by sin. Because Christ had assumed that burden during his own death by crucifixion then arose from that death state, humans who accepted him as their savior stood redeemed from sin. The King James Bible (1611) translation of 1 Corinthians 15:55–57 reads, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Donne could call on verses such as these to support his claim against the power of death. The sonnet’s third line continues the speaker’s direct address of Death, stating, “For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.” By adopting a pitying attitude toward “poor death,” which cannot hurt true believers, the speaker co-opts the power that even the term death possesses to frighten humans.
Donne next adopts a familiar trope for death, that of sleep, one that Shakespeare used in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy that begins, “To be or not to be.” In his thoughts, Hamlet noted that death must offer an opportunity to men “perchance to dream.” However, because no communication from beyond the grave has ever occurred, he cannot be confident that his hope for a peaceful sleep will be fulfilled. Donne, however, has no doubts, as his speaker tells death, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow.” The poem’s persona remains completely and calmly convinced that death merely imitates a pleasurable sleep, and because it is long-lasting, humans will derive even more pleasure from death. The speaker even repeats the term much to convince his audience. When he acknowledges in the next lines that “soonest our best men with thee do go,” he describes that journey as rest for “their bones,” or flesh, but “delivery” for the soul, their spirit that will be released from its confines. This line concludes the first grouping of eight, which in the Italian sonnet propose a problem or issue. The secondary grouping of six lines will act as response.
Momentum in the final six lines gathers initially not only through Donne’s driving use of two series, but through the rising realization by the audience that death, indeed, is to be pitied. The speaker presses the idea of the reversal of power, with those in a position of strength, the humans, indulging in pity of death, which is weak. Death serves as merely one small part of a general plan of transitory earthly existence and attends humans only when circumstances determine. He acts as a slave, and as such, lacks any control over humans: “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.” Death keeps desperate company and draws no joy from his companions. The speaker makes clear that death’s power to promote sleep is nothing remarkable. It is shared by drugs concocted from nature by humans, as opium is derived from the poppy flower: “And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, / And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” Not only can such drugs and “charms” help people sleep, they prove superior to death. Donne chides death as if he were a child, asking why he would swell with pride over power not exclusively his own. The final couplet brilliantly declares victory over death as a transitory state, as the speaker claims the promise of eternal life made by God to all Christians: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” Donne concludes with a stunning paradox, declaring that death shall suffer the only permanent destruction.
In the 1940s the American journalist John Gunther adopted Donne’s opening line, “Death be not proud,” as the title of what critics term an “illness narrative.” He wrote in memoir form about the 15-month fight with cancer and subsequent death of his teenage son. As Donne, he chose to believe that death proved only a beginning of life beyond that experienced by mortal humans. Donne’s sonnet remains popular into the 21st century, read often at funeral services and readily available in electronic and print form.
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
Lancashire, Ian. “John Donne.” Representative Poetry on Line. The Department of English, University of Toronto. Available online. URL: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/ poem658.html.