A Critical Analysis of “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne
The sonnet “Death Be Not Proud”, written by John Donne around the year 1618, is one of many sonnets that are part of a collection called The Holy Sonnets. This collection is comprised of nineteen sonnets with themes that pertain to Christian philosophy.
“Death Be Not Proud” is a powerful declaration against death, in which death is personified as a tyrant without real power “…some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe” (1-2). The poem continues to dismantle death from something mysterious and feared, to something weak and irrelevant. The speaker’s main polemic is grounded in the beliefs of Christian philosophy, in particular, its promise of eternal life. But prior to this, the poem dismantles death from secular angles as well.
From a structural standpoint, the poem tightly adheres to the sonnet form, which is defined as a lyric poem that adheres to a conventional rhyme scheme and is usually made up of fourteen lines (Murfin, Ray 450). The rhyme scheme for this poem is “abbaabbacddcee”.
The poem attacks death from two different angles: a secular angle and a religious angle. The first twelve lines are mostly secular in the sense that a non-Christian can at least follow the argument. The last two lines require a belief in Christianity, and with this belief, comes the more powerful, irrefutable claim, dramatically stated in the words “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”(14), which pertains to the Christian concept of Eternal Life.
The first angle, the secular, the speaker starts with a feeling of disdain and loathing in the words used against death, creating an immediate pejorative connotation with this character. This is followed by flippancy and mocking: “Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (4). Here the words “poore Death” are used to diminish Death’s formidability. This line follows with another that has the same enervating effect, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more most flow” (5-6). Here the speaker, using logic, is stating that since death appears outwardly to be merely a sleep, and sleep being a pleasurable thing, death must be even more pleasurable.
Flippancy and mocking is then turned into disarmament as the speaker addresses Death as a slave, at the whim of external influences, “Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men” (9). This line intimates that death has no real power, but is merely summoned like an instrument without complete autonomy of its own will.
The last part of the poem, particularly in the last two lines, forms the more powerful and convincing argument against the fortitude of death; however, it requires a belief in Christianity.
According to Christian philosophy, those that believe in Christ will never die but live eternally, "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John. 3.15 King James Version). This is not to imply that believers escape the natural course of all living things, which is to eventually cease from living, to die; death to Christians is not a ceasing of life, but rather, an entering into life, a better life, an eternal life. In essence, the earthly perishable body is left behind and the soul continues to live forever thereby escaping death:
"So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15.54).
In the aforementioned passage from the King James Version of the Bible, Saint Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, again reiterates the Christian faith’s view of death as something “irrelevant”, a similar view that is taken in John Donne’s sonnet “Death Be Not Proud”.
The last line of the poem is the final thrust against death. It is a claim that death is meaningless, and a paradox. This is written as a recursive statement “…death, thou shalt die”(14). Since there is no death, the only thing left is Eternal Life.
But this poem is not merely a remonstration; it is also a passionate piece of writing that is imbued with emotion and sounds. Starting from the first line, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so” (1-2), the words that are chosen and their placement, adds a peremptory tone to this first declaration; these are lines that can not be whispered, but rather, belched out sonorously. The entire poem follows in this manner, as a declaration loudly commanded. This continues up until the last lines of the sonnet, where the tone shifts to that of “finality”, “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (14). Also, many of the words in this poem bear heavy connotations, “Thou are slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men” (9), the words “slave” and “desperate” are words with strong emotional connotations.
“Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne, is a sonnet from the revered Holy Sonnets that passionately argues against the formidability of death. The poem cites the Christian hope of Eternal Life as the ultimate escape from death, but does provide secular arguments as well that work in lightening the concept of death. But beyond this, the sonnet is a literary work of immense beauty and structure; it is a brilliant work from any point-of-view.