Published as Holy Sonnet X
By John Donne (1572-1631)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
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.
"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.
The rhyme scheme of "Death, Be Not Proud" is as follows: ABBA, ABBA, CDDC, EE.
The meter varies, although most of the poem is in iambic pentameter, as in lines 5-7:
“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.
By John Donne
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:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrowMetaphor
Thou [Death] art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate menMetaphor With Personification
Death, be not proudParadox and Irony
Donne ends the poem with paradox and irony: Death, thou shalt die.