This is one of John Donne’s most famous poems from the seventeenth century, “Death be not proud”, a cry of defiance against the idea of death as the Grim Reaper who all should fear. So by implication, I find, an affirmation of life, an optimistic poem, despite its overt subject matter.
Death Be Not Proud
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.
The sonnet is addressed to the personification of death, seen as the proud master of all our fates, for death will come and claim each of us one day, that we know. And yet Donne says death should not be proud, death is not powerful, death cannot kill me. These first four lines of the sonnet set up the paradox which the rest of the poem proceeds to resolve.
The first resolution is that we all benefit from rest and sleep – since death is just an extended from of rest, how much more shall we benefit and take pleasure from it. Second resolution – our best men are taken by death, giving their bones and bodies rest, but letting their souls free. Third resolution – death does not act with free will – he is subject to chance fate, the actions of kings and desperadoes, of wars and epidemics. Fourth resolution – we can sleep and rest as well with sleeping draughts made from poppies or other sleeping charms, so why should death be so special? Final resolution, after death, we shall wake to eternal life and there shall be no more death – this is Donne the priest and religious poet finding his voice here.
The poem is declamatory and could have been used by Donne in a sermon or speech. The images are powerful and the progression of ideas to resolve the paradox of death are appealing. This is deservedly one of his best-known and best-loved poems.
The Poetry Dude