Death Be Not Proud by John Donne
“Death Be Not Proud” is a poem written by John Donne around 1618. The poem is one of the many from the Holly Sonnets collection. This collection of poems has nineteen poems that have themes that are related to Christian philosophy. The structuring of the poem has incorporated the use of personification. Death has been personified to have the characteristics of a person. The narrator attacks this death all through the poem. The poem dwells in dismantling death from something that is powerful to one that is powerless and weak. The declaration “Death Be Not Proud” is an assertion that tries to change the existing perception that death has succeeded in his ambitions.
The speaker’s opinions and arguments are based on the Christian belief of eternal life. The belief of life in eternity being the main theme expresses how death fails to bring to an end the life of a person, as there is life after death. The poem brings out the discouragement of death and illness, but at the same time brings in how commitment and belief of life after death gives humanity the hope not to fear death (Santayana, 32). However prior to this perspective, the speaker hits on death and his motives by taking a secular perspective. He does this by looking at death from the logical and realistic perspective.
The poem follows the structure of a sonnet, which is a lyrical poem. The poem follows the conventional rhyme scheme that is composed of fourteen lines. The rhyme scheme found in the poem is: “abbaabbacddcee”. The rhyme skill gives the poem the aspect of identification as a literal genre. It makes the poem to flow and allows the reader to enjoy reading through it. This also helps in making it memorable, as it is lyrical.
The poem takes on death from both the secular and the Christian perspective. A non-Christian can easily follow up the arguments in the first twelve lines and still make sense out of it. However, in the last two lines the speaker takes on death from a Christian faith point of view. As such, one needs to believe in Christianity for these arguments to hold any water in terms of meaning. The speaker says, “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shall die” (14) which is a clear manifestation of the Christian belief of life in eternity.
In the first perspective, the speaker starts with feeling of great disregard against death. This is drives the speaker into the negative connotation with the character. The writer of the poem personified death to provide avenues through which feelings can be expressed verbally. It was effective in bringing out the disregard that the speaker has for the character that is death. Not long after this, the mocking unfolds: “Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (4). “Poore Death” is used to show how weak death is and that ‘his’ missions will not succeed.
The first angle, the secular, the speaker starts with a feeling of disdain and loathing in the words used against death, creating an immediate pejorative connotation with this character. This is followed by flippancy and mocking: “Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (4). Here the words “poore Death” are used to diminish Death’s formidability. This line follows with another that has the same enervating effect, “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more most flow” (5-6). Here the speaker, using logic, is stating that since death appears outwardly to be merely asleep, and sleep being a pleasurable thing, death must be even more pleasurable.
The speaker brings the issue of mocking when he addresses and refers to death as a slave, “Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men” (9). This is meant to mean that death does not have power. The literal death is compared to sleep which hints at the existence of life in eternity. The poem has a more powerful and convincing statement against death. This is well brought out in the last portion of the poem and especially the last two lines (Fletcher, 76). However, these arguments can only hold water if they are supported by the Christian belief of life after death.
The Christian philosophy has it that those who believe in Jesus Christ will never at any particular time die, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John.3.15 King James Version). However, this does not literally to mean that the Christians actually avoid the course of death. Death in the Christian circles is not the ceasing of life but a transition over which a person gets to another life. This other life is argued to be better and eternal. This makes Saint Paul not to fear death as he sees living is by faith and that if he died he will gain, as he will go to live with his spiritual father in the life of eternity. When a Christian dies, the earthly body is done but the soul will live forever. “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15.54).
John Donne’s Sonnet “Death Be Not Proud” borrows a lot from a passage in the King James Version Bible. This goes to where Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians in which the Christian view of death is reiterated. According to Saint Paul, Christians do not die rather they just go into a sleep. Paul was preaching on life in eternity (Collins, 64). The last line found in the poem is the last blow against death. The speaker claims that death is meaningless and a paradox. This statement is recursive in nature. Even as the speaker tells death that ‘he’ shall die, there is no death based on from the previous statement hence the only thing left is eternal life. The Bible has been depicted as a tool through which humans get consolation whenever they face challenges in life
The poem does not bring a tone that is remorseful alone as one might assume. It incorporates passionate feelings by the use of sounds that raises our deep emotions and passion. This is demonstrated right away from the start of the poem, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so” (1-2). The choice of words and the way they are placed initiate a peremptory tone to the first declaration (Donne, 123).
The poem has incorporated tonal variation in its formulation. The entire poem follows the manner that is the main declaration but shifts to one of “finality’. The speaker in finishing his sentiments says “…, Death though shalt die” (14). Heavy connotations are brought out by the words used in the poem. For instance, ‘Thou are slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men.” The two words that is, “slave’ and ‘desperate’ are words that have been used with heavy connotations. These lines can only be belched out sonorously but not whispered.
The use of Johnny Gunther has worked well for the poem. Given that the poem is based on the lamentation on what death comes with, the experience that Gunther goes through makes the reader join the speaker in condemning death. In condolence, the reader is likely to confide in the argument that there is life after death. The father, John ‘papa’ Gunther helps in invoking the reader’s feelings and emotions as he watches his son succumb to death after developing a head tumor. John ‘Papa’ Gunther is a representative of the society that is hungry with whatever death has done to those they loved and cherished most.
“Death Be Not Proud” is a sonnet that is revered for its argument against death. John Donne in this poem has incorporated the use of language and structuring of his arguments to suit both the Christian and the non-Christian audience. The works by Donne demonstrates how religion plays a role in determining the content and the meanings of poems. The use of personification is a main feature that describes the poem. The poem arouses a lot of curiosity from the readers that already have many questions concerning life, death and the ‘thereafter’.
Donne, Jonne. Death Be Not Proud. New York, NY: SAGE Publishers, 2001. Print.
Fletcher, Ralph. Poetry matters: Writing a poem from the inside out. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Meyer, Michael and Doug Downs. Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature 8th Ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martins, 2008. Print.
Santayana, George. Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, Boston, MA: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. Print.