‘Death, be not proud’ by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

This poem, Divine Meditation 10 is one of Donne’s best-loved and most-quoted sonnets. The message of the piece is simple enough – a notion surely common to all religions (at least, to the Judeo-Christian faiths): “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians, verses 15-26). The poet personifies Death as he addresses it directly, and he does so with such confident, triumphant defiance that one cannot fail to be seduced.

Donne warns Death against pride, and affirms that he is not “Mighty and dreadful”, as he has been so perceived throughout history. “For”, explains the poet, those who he believes he “overthrow[s]/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me”. This kind of bravure on the part of a poet is irresistible.

The poet goes on to express the idea that Death’s role is simply the kindness to deliver us from this earthly plane and the pain of human suffering: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery”. Rather than depicting the terrifying traditional image of Death as the ‘reaper’, choosing his ‘victims’, Donne suggests that Death itself is in fact the ‘victim’, and by no means at the top of any hierarchy; Death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. It is “fate” (God’s will?), “chance”, or else human actions and decisions that conjure Death. Death decides nothing.

Donne also delivers the idea that Death is inferior to drugs (“poppy or charms”) in terms of giving us rest and sleep, for on the other side of Death we “wake eternally”. “Why swell’st thou then?” I love this direct, exultant question, and the delicious use of “swell’st”.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” So ends the poem, and in the final analysis (the poem is entitled  Divine Meditation 10, so we might have guessed from the start) the sonnet seems to have a very religious tint to it – in that great hope of eternal life.

However, the hope in this poem, though evidently religious, can also, I think, encompass hope in human endeavour and discovery. It is particularly the line, “And dost with… sickness dwell,/ And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well” that brings this idea to me. The notion of man’s capacity to create remedies for pain and sickness is present here. I feel like there is a sort of sub-plot to this sonnet, where Donne is foreseeing that man will make great discoveries and advances in medicine, and that indeed in many instances it will certainly be the case that “Death, thou shalt die”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

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