John Donne’s sonnet “Death be not proud” (Holy sonnet 10) stages a poetic monologue: the poet talks to a personified “Death” although Death, obviously, is not going to answer.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
The first two lines set the theme of the poem. Death is not as mighty and powerful as everybody thinks. The tone is clear as the sentence “for thou are not so” sounds definitive and direct. Furthermore, the adjective “proud” (a word which is usually used to describe people) reinforces the idea that Death is personified in the poem.
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death has delusions of grandeur. This aspect is shown by the construction “thou think’st”. Death thinks that she can overthrow people, she can’t overthrow them truly (says the narrator). Moreover, Death is also humiliated (the reader may notice the irony in the words “poor Death”) as she can’t fulfil her mission (kill) which is denied by the poet. (“nor yet canst thou kill me.”). This is thus the first outcome of this analysis: Death cannot do what she is meant to: kill.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure: then from thee much more must flow,
The narrator reminds the reader of the usual metaphors (or euphemism) used to talk about death. Death is a “rest” or Death is a “sleep”. The second verse is more obscure because Donne says that Death can bring “pleasure” and “much more” too. What does the poet intend with these two words? What else could Death bring? As Donne was a Christian poet of the Renaissance, the answer could be that Death is just a moment. After it, the resurrection of the soul and another life in eternity will come.
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
The best men seem to experience death the “soonest” and Death is a reward because it permits them to rest and achieve the “delivery” of their souls. These verses resonate with the two previous verses (dying as a step towards resurrection). This is indeed the second outcome of this analysis: Death is not an end; it is only a step.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
Suddenly, the tone of the poet becomes more insulting. Death is not free, she is the slave of “fate, chance, kings and desperate men”. Furthermore, it has negative or even diabolic companions: “poison, war and sickness”.
And poppy’ or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
If “poppy or charms” can make the job of death as well, why is Death so vain? Why is she so puffed up with pride (“swell’st thou then”)? We have here the third outcome of this analysis: the narrator taunts Death and diminishes her power.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Finally, Death is only a short sleep and when all will be in the eternity, Death will die too. The fourth outcome of the analysis is reached: Death can die and will die after we all pass away and resurrect (“wake eternally”).
To conclude, this poem is a depreciation and a critique of how Death is usually understood or seen. According to John Donne, Death is not mighty and dreadful; it is not eternal, and it is not a magnificent force that is above mankind. Instead, it is just a moment that allows men to reach the Christian eternity of the soul and, when we’re all dead and resurrected, then Death herself will be dead. As a last word, with this poem, John Donne encourages mankind not to fear death and to see it as a single moment, before another moment …