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Death, Be Not Proud
Published as Holy Sonnet X

By John Donne (1572-1631)
A Study Guide
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Title, Publication
Type of Work
Rhyme Scheme and Meter
Theme
Figures of Speech
Text of the Poem
Annotations
Donne's Works: Free Texts

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
... 2005

Title and Publication Information

The poem first appeared as “Holy Sonnet X” in a collection of nineteen sonnets by John Donne (1572-1631). However, its title came to be known as “Death, Be Not Proud” (after the first four words of the poem). It was written between 1601 and 1610—the exact year is uncertain—and published after Donne died. 

Type of Work

"Death, Be Not Proud" is a sonnet (fourteen-line poem) similar in format to that established in Italy by Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest who popularized the sonnet form before it was adopted and modified in England. Petrarch's sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. 

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of "Death, Be Not Proud" is as follows: ABBA, ABBA, CDDC, EE. 

Meter

The meter varies, although most of the poem is in iambic pentameter, as in lines 5-7:

.......1....................2....................3................4...............5
From REST..|..and SLEEP,..|..which BUT..|..thy PIC..|..tures BE

.......1....................2....................3..................4......................5
Much PLEA..|..sure; THEN..|..from THEE..|..much MORE..|..must FLOW,

........1.................2...............3..................4...............5
And SOON..|..est OUR..|..best MEN..|..with THEE..|..do GO

Theme

“Death Be Not Proud” is among the most famous and most beloved poems in English literature. Its popularity lies in its message of hope couched in eloquent, quotable language. Donne’s theme tells the reader that death has no right to be proud, since human beings do not die but live eternally after “one short sleep.” Although some people depict death as mighty and powerful, it is really a lowly slave that depends on luck, accidents, decrees, murder, disease, and war to put men to sleep. But a simple poppy (whose seeds provide a juice to make a narcotic) and various charms (incantations, amulets, spells, etc.) can also induce sleep—and do it better than death can. After a human being’s soul leaves the body and enters eternity, it lives on; only death dies.

Death, Be Not Proud
By John Donne
Text of the Poem
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,1
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,2
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest3 our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave4 to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well5
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?6
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
overthrow: kill
thy pictures be: rest and sleep mimic death
soonest: willingly; as soon as
Rest . . . delivery: Their bones go to their earthly rest but their souls do not die
slave: death is only a servant of events that end life: bad luck,
accidents, royal decrees, murder, war, and illness
poppy or charms: charms and drugs made from poppy seeds can
also induce sleep–and do it better than death can
why swell'st thou: why do you swell with pride?

 

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Figures of Speech

To convey his message, Donne relies primarily on personification, a type of metaphor, that extends through the entire poem. (Such an extended metaphor is often called a conceit.) Thus, death becomes a person whom Donne addresses, using the second-person singular (implied or stated as thou, thee, and thy). Donne also uses alliteration, as the following lines illustrate:

Alliteration

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then
One short sleep past, we wake eternally (Note: One begins with a w sound; thus, it alliterates with we and wake.)
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die
Metaphor
Thou [Death] art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men
Comparison of death to a slave
Metaphor With Personification
Death, be not proud
Comparison of death to a person
Paradox and Irony
Donne ends the poem with paradox and irony: Death, thou shalt die.

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