A brief summary and analysis of one of John Donne’s classic Holy Sonnets
The sonnet ‘Death, be not proud’ is one of the most famous ‘holy sonnets’ written by John Donne (1572-1631). What follows is the poem, followed by a short introduction to it, including an analysis of its more interesting imagery and language.
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.
Death is personified as a male braggart, like a soldier boasting of all the men he’s slain. There is also a suggestion of a male lover bragging about all of his conquests between the sheets: Donne liked the double meaning of ‘die’ as both ‘expire’ and ‘orgasm’, and the idea that ‘those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not’ hides the suggestion that ‘you may think all those women you conquer are overcome with pleasure, but they’re faking it’. (This faint suggestion of an erotic subtext is also borne out by the line, ‘Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow’.)
‘Stroake’, too, is ambiguous: it ostensibly refers to the stroke of an axe or a sword that ends somebody’s life, but it is also alive to the other, more tender, meaning of stroking somebody in a caress, such as in lovemaking. ‘Why swell’st thou then?’ Well, quite – tumescence is uncalled for, since you’re not ‘all that’ as a lover, Death. Note the monosyllables of the last line, which hammer out in ten short words the matter-of-fact declaration that the speaker will beat death through being born again in heaven.
‘Death, be not proud’ is rightly viewed as one of Donne’s finest poems, and certainly one of his greatest sonnets. Like the best of Donne’s poetry it fuses religious and erotic imagery and ideas, bringing the physical and the metaphysical together.
Continue to explore Donne’s life and work with these interesting facts revealing his literary ancestry and our discussion of the complex imagery of his classic poem ‘The Good-Morrow’. We’ve compiled more of the best poems about death here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.