“Holy Sonnet 10,” often referred to as “Death, Be Not Proud,” was written by the English poet and Christian cleric John Donne in 1609 and first published in 1633. The poem is a direct address to death, arguing that it is powerless because it acts merely as a “short sleep” between earthly living and the eternal afterlife—in essence, death is nothing to fear. The sonnet written mostly in iambic pentameter and is part of a series known as Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”(or “Divine Meditations”/ “Divine Sonnets”). In keeping with these other poems, “Holy Sonnet 10” is a devotional lyric that looks at life’s biggest questions in the context of Donne’s religious beliefs.
The title of the poem comes from its first line. Donne highlights his Christian belief taking reference from Bible Corinthians 15:26, where Paul writes ‘the final enemy to be destroyed is death’.
The death is personified and the speaker brings forth an argument; the argument is that Death is not all powerful as we are forced to think. Addressing Death as a person, the speaker warns Death against pride in his power. Such power is merely an illusion, and the end Death thinks it brings to men and women is in fact a rest from world-weariness for its alleged “victims.” The poet criticizes Death as a slave to other forces: fate, chance, kings, and desperate men. Death is not in control, for a variety of other powers exercise their volition in taking lives. Even in the rest it brings, Death is inferior to drugs. Finally, the speaker predicts the end of Death itself, stating “Death, thou shalt die.”
Finally, Death gives us the way to the eternal life, a kind of freedom from this worldly sorrow. Death is just a sound sleep from which we will awake at the Day of Judgment. From that day, there will not be death. On that very day, Death dies. So, there is no reasoning in fearing of Death and Death too does not have any logical reason to be proud of.
Text and paraphrase of “Death, be not Proud”
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.
The speaker directly addresses and personifies Death, telling it not to be arrogant just because some people find death scary and intimidating. In fact, death is neither of these things because people don’t really die when death—whom the speaker pities—comes to them; nor will the speaker truly die when death arrives for him.
The poem also begins with apostrophe, which makes it clear that “Death” is the intended listener.
By personifying death, the speaker imbues it with the undesirable human characteristic of misplaced pride. Death has a self-inflated sense of importance and trades on its reputation as fearsome and final. The speaker acknowledges that some people view death in this way, but makes it clear that they shouldn’t—and that the rest of the poem will prove why.
Lines 2-4 expand on the opening proposition that Death is wrong to feel proud, and that it is neither mighty nor dreadful. Death thinks that it can “overthrow” life, which, as the fourth line clarifies, means “kill people.” Here, Death is characterized as an aggressor. But the speaker states very clearly that this aggression is misplaced because, essentially, nobody ever actually dies.
This is, of course, a paradoxical statement—the poem doesn’t really intend to deny the existence of death. Instead, it takes the Christian belief in the eternal afterlife as proof that death is really nothing at all. Though the afterlife has not yet been mentioned, it informs the atmosphere of the quatrain’s proposition. Again, this sets up the standpoint of the poem’s argument and it is from here that the speaker must prove why this argument holds true.
In line 3, the alliterative use of /th/ sounds creates a delicate quality that juxtaposes with the idea of death as a powerful, almighty figure. The enjambment from lines 3 to 4 suspends the sentence—the reader, and Death as the poem’s addressee, need to get to line 4 to understand what happens to those that supposedly die. The “overthrow” is literally thrown into a short suspense, and then completely undercut by “Die not.” The very reason, then, for death’s existence is based on an untruth. Accordingly, the speaker again addresses Death directly using apostrophe, but this time adding the adjective “poor.” Not only does the speaker not fear Death—he actively pities it.
For the most part, the poem conforms to the Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme (with an important difference to come). Here, the rhyme scheme sets up “thee” from line 1 in opposition with “me” in line 4. This puts Death on one side of the argument—the wrong one—and the speaker on the other.
By the end of line 4, the poem is still in the proposition stage of the argument. The bold statement has been made—that death cannot kill—and it is up to the rest of the poem to somehow demonstrate this to be true.
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.
Comparing death to rest and sleep—which are like images of death—the speaker anticipates death to be even more pleasurable than these activities. Furthermore, it’s often the best people who go with death—which represents nothing more than the resting of the body and the arrival of the soul in the afterlife.
The second quatrain, which is closely linked to the first through the abba rhyme scheme, turns the criticism of Death as less than fearful into praise for Death’s good qualities. From Death comes “Much pleasure” (line 5) since those good souls whom Death releases from earthly suffering experience “Rest of their bones” (line 6).
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?
Death is fully controlled by fate and luck, and often administered by rulers or people acting desperately. The speaker points out that death is also associated with poison, war, and illness. Drugs and magic spells are more effective than death when it comes to rest. With all this in mind, what possible reason could death have for being so puffed up with pride?
Donne then returns to criticizing Death for thinking too highly of itself: Death is no sovereign, but a “slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” (line 9); this last demonstrates that there is no hierarchy in which Death is near the top. Although a desperate man can choose Death as an escape from earthly suffering, even the rest which Death offers can be achieved better by “poppy, or charms” (line 11), so even there Death has no superiority.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Death is nothing but a mere sleep in between people’s earthly lives and the eternal afterlife, in which death can visit them no more. It is instead death—or a certain idea of death as something to be scared of—that is going to die.
The final couplet caps the argument against Death. Not only is Death the servant of other powers and essentially impotent to truly kill anyone, but also Death is itself destined to die when, as in the Christian tradition, the dead are resurrected to their eternal reward. Here Donne echoes the sentiment of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:26, where Paul writes that “the final enemy to be destroyed is death.” Donne taps into his Christian background to point out that Death has no power and one day will cease to exist.