Death Be Not Proud: (Holy Sonnet 10) - Summary & Analysis

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Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10)

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,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke: why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
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, Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me; From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Death Be Not Proud

Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      The poem Death Be Not Proud is included as Sonnet (10 ten) in the volume of Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations. In this poem Donne demolishes: two popular concepts firstly death is dreadful and secondly death is mighty. He personifies Death and addresses him directly. Death has a certain power over man and it gives temporary sleep. If death and sleep are like brothers, greater rest and relaxation must come from death. Death releases the soul from the body's prison. Opium and narcotics can induce sleep-like death. Why then should death boast of its great power? The poet, therefore, calls it "poor death". Moreover, man does not die; his soul lives forever; it is, therefore, death which becomes superfluous and meaningless. The victory of Christian resurrection over death is the last nail in the coffin of death. The poem proves the thesis that death is neither terrible nor powerful.

Poem Summary:

Lines 1-4
      The poem begins by addressing Death dramatically and directly. Such an address to something that we realistically know can't be listening is called an apostrophe. In treating Death as if it were a person, the poem also uses the device of personification. The first quatrain of the sonnet attacks Death for its pride, denying that it is "mighty and dreadful," some have called it. The poem then introduces a paradox, stating that the people Death "overthrew" do not really die, and that Death is not even strong enough to kill the speaker. In asserting Death's powerlessness, the speaker even goes so far as the express a note of pity, calling it "poor Death." impotence, its poverty of resources, as much as the ability to be pitied. And if we think of Death as total negation, of the absence of all the richness that we think of as Life, we can imagine how Death might be seen as "poor."

Lines 5-8
      Lines 5-8: The second quatrain develops the idea that Death is not to be feared. In fact, much the opposite is the case. The speaker draws the conventional analogy between Death, on the one hand, and "rest and sleep," which are Death's "pictures" or likenesses, on the other. We find rest and sleep pleasurable, so by analogy, we should find Death much more so. The speaker introduces evidence of Death's pleasantness, namely, that "our best men" die early. Here, however, the poem argues unconventionally, saying it is no tragedy that the good die young. Rather, they die willingly, eager for rest for their bodies in the grave, and release or freedom for their souls in heaven. Donne's development of the pleasantness of Death appears to be without irony; that is, Donne is not implying that the speaker is naive about Death's terror or power. Instead, the poem seems truly to argue that Death is not powerful, that the terror we traditionally associate with death is unwarranted, and that Death provides the believing Christian a genuine and pleasurable reward.

Lines 9-12
      The ninth line of an Italian sonnet, the form whose rhyme scheme this poem follows, usually marks a turn: a shift in the theme or tone of the sonnet between the eight-line octave and the six-line sestet. However, "Holy Sonnet 10" behaves structurally more like a Shakespearean sonnet. Instead of a strong change in tone or argument, line 9 continues developing the speaker's attack on Death in a similar tone. Death is no one's master, claims the speaker; in fact it is a slave, subject to those who deal death to others, including the forces of fate and chance, here personified, and the real persons of kings. Death also is a slave to "desperate men," that is, people in despair who commit suicide. Further, Death's fellows or family are not the noble companions befitting a proud monarch, but a horrible and disgusting crew: poison, war, and sickness, all personified. Death's ability to make us sleep — and here again the speaker uses the conventional analogy of sleep and death — can be equaled or bettered by drugs such as opium (the "poppy" being opium's source) or by magic spells or "charms." The speaker ends this third quatrain by asking death why it puffs itself up with pride, in direct defiance of the warning in line 1 to "be not proud."

Lines 13-14
      The sonnet's concluding couplet resolves the poem by offering the ultimate evidence of Death's powerlessness. In lines 5-6 and 11, the speaker has introduced the conventional analogy of sleep to death. In the close of the poem, however, the speaker argues that this analogy is actually an identity: Death really is asleep, from which we will awaken into eternal life. This assertion explains all the paradoxes in the poem: Death is not an ending but a beginning. Further, Death provides the means for its Own defeat, since by dying we will over-come Death, and Death will be destroyed. In the ultimate paradox, Death will die. Donne loved puns, and it is worth noting that he daringly used sexual metaphors and similes in several of his religious poems, such as "Holy Sonnet 14." A favorite pun of Donne's was on the word "die," which in his time carried the slang meaning "to consummate the sexual act." Donne makes extensive use of this pun in his great love poem "The Canonization." In "Holy Sonnet 10," Donne might similarly be punning on the word "die" in the final celebration of the death of Death. The speaker has just asked Death in line 12, "why swell'st thou then?" which, in addition to attacking Death's pride, might be Donne's playful joking about the sexual swelling of a man's erection. If so, then for Death to die would be for Death to be emptied, to be spent, and for Death's purpose to be consummated. In Christian terms, this would make sense, since the consummation of Death in the poem really does "father" us into the afterlife, making our eternal rebirth possible.

Paraphrase:

      Line. 1-8: Oh, Death, do not be proud. You are not powerful or horrible as some think. Those whom you are supposed to destroy are not dead in reality. You cannot kill me either. Death is like a restful sleep. People derive relaxation and joy from sleep - which is but a picture of death - similarly death gives greater comfort and rest: That is the reason why the best and virtuous people die young. Death frees their souls from the prison of their bodies and offers rest to them. As such, death cannot be called dreadful.

      Line. 9-14: Death is a slave or agent of Fate, accident, power of kings and criminals. It accomplishes its tasks through poison, war and sickness. Opium and other drugs can induce better sleep and more easily and gently. They are more welcome than the blow of death. Why is death puffed up with pride? Death can make us sleep for a short period in the grave. Thereafter we shall live eternally in Heaven. Death then will have no power over us. In fact death does not kill us; we become independent of death. It is death which itself dies.

Development of Thought:

      The poet argues that death is not dreadful because those whom death claims to have killed have a long and peaceful sleep. Sleep resembles death, but just as sleep refreshes and invigorates, similarly death would provide more comfort and pleasure. This is the reason for the virtuous dying young. Death brings rest and peace and therefore it is not dreadful.

Critical Analysis:

      Donne most likely wrote "Holy Sonnet 10" in 1609 but, like most poetry of that time, it did not appear in print during the poet's lifetime. The poem Death Be Not Proud was first published in 1633, two years after Donne's death; during his life, however, his poetry became well known because it circulated privately in manuscript and handwritten copies among literate Londoners. "Holy Sonnet 10" belongs to the latter part of Donne's output, the religious works known as his "Divine Poems," famous because they dramatically create a feeling of a personal and often agonized relationship between the speaker and God. Before composing his "Divine Poems," Donne had achieved fame for writing skillful and often cynical poetry in celebration of sexual love. But no strict chronological line splits his secular poems from his religious ones; for example, he probably wrote his great love poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" at about the same time as some of his religious works.

      Donne apparently loved the intellectual challenges of paradox, one of the key characteristics of metaphysical poetry. He constructs "Holy Sonnet 10" around one of the central paradoxes of Christianity: that Christ's sacrifice will ultimately mean the death of Death. The sonnet addresses Death directly as if it were a person, an example of the devices of apostrophe and personification. Systematically the poem instructs Death to give up its pride, since it will ultimately be defeated. Further, even though Death has power, its power is severely limited. Death also unknowingly does God’s since only through Death can humanity achieve the eternal life God promises.

      Apart from the debating skill and the plausible argument of the poet, there is a lurking fear of death. The allusion to resurrection and immortality does not in any way reduce the fear of death. One is reminded of Bacon's words: "Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark". The comparisons are common - death as sleep, death as opium, body as prison of the soul. This poem is similar to the sonnet entitled. At the round earth's imagined corners where Donne speaks of death's woe, and the triumph of souls over death on Dooms day. Here Donne emphasizes the impotence of Death.

      The structure of the poem facilitates the division of the theme into two parts. The octet proves that death is neither dreadful nor mighty. The sestet brings the argument to a personal level and regards death as a slave and a door through which the soul passes to immortality, The last line hits the nail on the head. It is not the poet who dies. The poet declares happily: "Death, thou shall die".

Death: A Slave

      Death is not powerful, as men think. It is not a powerful king but a miserable slave. It is an agent of fate, chance, actions of wicked people, poison, wars and sickness. Death is a servant of sickness and old age. It induces sleep, but there are various other means like opium and drugs which give a better and gentler sleep. Death has no reason to be proud. It can only make people sleep for some time. After sleep in the grave, people shall wake up on the day of resurrection and live forever. Then death will have absolutely no power over human beings. Thus death's jurisdiction comes to an end. In fact, death does not kill human beings; it is death which itself dies. The immortality of the soul ensures the survival of man. So, the poem ends on a paradox: Man is immortal; death is mortal.

Death Theme

      The most prominent theme of Holy Sonnet 10 is that one should not fear death. Death is admonished directly to "be not proud"; it is belittled vehemently as a slave whose job-providing rest and sleep for the soul is better done by humble drugs or simple magic charms. The poem asserts the Christian doctrine that Christ transformed death through his own death and resurrection, making it a passageway to the soul's rest and, after the resurrection of all people at the final judgment, the eternal pleasures of heaven.

      However, the very forcefulness with which the speaker berates death indicates some doubt on the poet's part. If death were truly vanquished, the speaker would not have to rail so loudly against it. The poem implies an unspoken fear that death can still pack a wallop-only good and faithful Christians will enjoy eternal life, while everyone else will spend eternity suffering the pains of hell, a fate that Christians believe to be much worse than death.

      There is evidence in the poem that the speaker feels his faith in Christianity is not very strong, and thus believes he might himself be headed for eternal damnation. The speaker does not put forth a very convincing case, for example, that death is a "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell." It could be said that these things are death's weapons or agents, rather than the other way around.

      The poet also downplays the significance and permanence of the change that death brings when he states "poppy or charms can make us sleep as well / And better than thy stroke." One might awake from an opium-induced sleep after a short period of time; one might break a sleep-inducing magic charm. When one awakens from either of these, it is to the life one knows already. Though the poet believes that humans will awake from the sleep of death, he cannot say with any certainty whether it will be to the pleasures of heaven or the pains of hell. His uncertainty is underscored by the statement in the second stanza that death "must" bring even more intense pleasures than the rest and sleep we know on earth, because rest and sleep are mere pictures-images that do not reflect the full character of death. If sleep and rest do not reflect death's complete nature, then the poet is forced to guess that it is a doorway to better things. After all, rest can be uneasy, and sleep can be populated with nightmares.

Appearances and Reality

      A major theme of Holy Sonnet 10 is that death seems mighty, but in reality, it is not. Though the stillness death brings seems to be permanent, the address your own letter to Death, in poetry or prose, expressing your feelings of defiance, fear, hatred, etc.

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," both also included in Poetry for Students, portray Death as a friendly companion. Compare their position to Donne's, and which you agree with and why.

What techniques does Donne use to define Death at the same time that he is pointing out its weaknesses? How does this help him make his point?

      Poet asserts, we will awake from it on Judgment Day. Though death seems proud and overpowering, it in fact is always attended by the squalor of poison, war, and sickness. Though it appears dreadful, death is but a slave to "fate, chance, kings" and even lowly "desperate men." Despite its apparent ability to strike humans down, the poet claims that humble drugs or magic spells can do death's work much better. Above all, death's permanence is an illusion. According to the poet's Christian faith, death will come to an end at the final judgment day, when the world will end and all people who ever lived will come back to life. On this day, Christians believe, God will bring good people to heaven and send evil people to hell, where they will live for eternity, never to die the death of death itself.

Style

      In its form, "Holy Sonnet 10" is an Italian sonnet (also known as a Petrarchan sonnet), written, like most sonnets, in iambic pentameter. The Italian sonnet's thematic organization usually has two well-developed movements corresponding to the eight-line octave and the six-line sestet. The the matic organization of "Holy Sonnet 10," however, more closely resembles the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet (also called an English sonnet), with its four shorter movements: three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The octave follows the conventional Petrarchan rhyme scheme of ab-baabba, while the sestet rhymes cddcee, one of several conventional patterns. The octave, however, behaves like two quatrains, the first attacking Death as less powerful than it thinks, and the second arguing that Death is not a horror but a pleasure, the most rewarding sleep of all. The sestet behaves like a quatrain that continues the belittling of Death, and a final couplet, a fitting conclusion proclaiming Death's ultimate defeat.

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