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Death Be Not Proud

Death Be Not Proud

'Death Be Not Proud' (1633) is a metaphysical poem by John Donne. It inverts the human fear of death in a mocking and ironic way by suggesting that Death’s reputation as all powerful is a little inflated.


Content Warning: Contains sexual themes

'Death Be Not Proud': John Donne

John Donne was born, the third of five children, in London in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family. His great-great uncle, Thomas More, was a martyred Catholic priest. Donne's father, also named John Donne who was an iron merchant, died when he was just four.

His mother, Elizabeth Heywood, soon remarried an Oxford-educated physician, John Syminges. Donne attended Oxford for three years but left without a degree, as he was Catholic at the time. He later became secular and then converted to Anglicanism.

As a young man, he was known to be extremely fond of women, and he spent most of his inheritance travelling through Europe. He also fought against the Spanish with Sir Walter Raleigh. After returning to England, Donne studied with and worked for a society of barristers at Lincoln’s Inn. A talented diplomat, he was soon appointed secretary to Lord Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of the Seal. Donne ensured the end of his political career with his marriage to Anne More. As the 17-year-old daughter of Egerton’s brother-in-law, she was of a higher class and the marriage did not have her father’s blessing. Donne was fired and briefly thrown into jail by Anne’s father.

Donne and his wife moved to the country, where he remained unemployed for over a decade. During this time of relying on the charity of friends and family, he wrote both poetry and prose. King James I strongly advised that Donne take his holy orders in 1615, which he did. Anne died in childbirth in 1617, leaving him with 5 surviving children. He wrote 'Holy Sonnet XVII' (1633) about her death. He never remarried, instead focusing on his career within the Anglican Church. In 1621, he was elected Dean of St Paul’s, going on to become the most lauded cleric of his time.

Having been a paradoxical poet and author who wrote poems about religious politics, lust, love and death, Donne then became famous for his religious oratory and prose. He died in 1631. All of his poetry was published after his death, as it was a little too unconventional to publish in his lifetime.

A paradox is an apparent logical contradiction that usually turns out to make sense once the subject is better understood.

Death Be Not Proud, John Donne's house by a lake, StudySmarterJohn and Anne Donne's country home.

'Death Be Not Proud': poem

'Death Be Not Proud' is one of the most quoted poems in the English language as it addresses a very human fear.

John Donne: Death Be Not Proud
Written inUnknown
Published in1633
Written byJohn Donne
Type of poemMetaphysical Pertrachan sonnet
Rhyme schemeABBAABBA CDDCEE.
StructureAn octave and a sestet
MeterIambic pentameter
Literary devicesConceit, personification, apostrophe
ImagerySleep, slavery

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': summary

'Death be not Proud' is a poem addressed to the personification of Death. The speaker highlights Death’s false pride, his unearned reputation, and his shortcomings.

The speaker begins by calling out Death for what he believes is an inflated ego and an unearned reputation as all-powerful. He directly informs Death that Death cannot kill him.

Linking the experience of sleep to death, he suggests that Death is merely a long sleep. Since sleep is pleasurable, then there is no reason to believe that Death would not be too.

The speaker goes on to mention that the best men die young, achieving rest from the realms of the earth. He suggests that Death is not all-powerful but actually dictated to by random events, kings and those desperate enough to murder or take their own lives.

Further berating the personification of Death, the speaker points out the type of undesirable company he keeps: Poison, war and sickness.

The speaker lists poppies and charms as things that can cause a peaceful sleep, which is better than what Death can offer. He asks Death why he is so puffed up when he is, in fact, inadequate.

Finally, the speaker suggests that Death is but a short sleep before we wake eternally, which logically means that Death then dies when the person 'awakes'.

Opium and laudanum were made from poppies and during the 17th century were used as general-purpose pain killers, sleeping aids, a cure for coughs and scurvy and even for keeping children quiet.

17th-century charms for enticing sleep included hanging cow dung from bedposts, eating lettuce soup and more practical things like having a routine and avoiding caffeine at night.

'Death Be Not Proud': structure

'Sonnet X', popularly known as 'Death Be Not Proud', is a Petrarchan sonnet. It is written in iambic pentameter over 14 lines.

A Petrarchan sonnet is form developed by the poet Francesco Petrarch. It consists of an octave (eight line stanza) and a sestet (six line stanza) and makes use of iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter is five iambic feet of stressed and unstressed syllables. It sounds like this:

duh-DUM duh-Dum duh-Dum duh-Dum duh-Dum

'Death Be Not Proud': rhyme scheme

The rhyme scheme used in 'Death Be Not Proud' is ABBAABBA CDDCEE. As a Petrarchan sonnet, the poem is structurally determined by the tradition of this type of poetry. It includes an octave which is an eight-line stanza. This has the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The sestet (six-line stanza) has a rhyme scheme of CDDCEE. Usually, the sestet would have a rhyme scheme of CDCDCD or CDECDE but other variations are allowed too, which Donne made use of.

'Death Be Not Proud': literary devices

'Death be Not Proud' is a metaphysical poem, so while it uses many literary devices, it would, of course, always contain a conceit.

The metaphysical poets wrote during the 17th century. They were characterised by their use of wit, wordplay, conceits and philosophical approach.

A conceit is an extended metaphor that usually lasts for the duration of the poem and is critical to its meaning.

Personification as a conceit

This poem is probably one of the most famous uses of personification in 17th-century literature. Donne personifies Death, so he can question his power. By personifying an abstract state or event, Donne creates a conceit and also immediately brings Death down to the level of the humans that fear it.

The personification enables him to address Death directly and attribute human shortcomings to him. These include false pride, being at the beck and call of human murderers and those who are suicidal, keeping bad company and also being a bit useless at his job of ensuring eternal death. As Death was something to be feared by many, Donne's approach is an interesting way to reduce the fear associated with phenomena that are not fully understood.

Apostrophe

In poetry, addressing a person who is not present, dead, or a personification is called an apostrophe. Donne’s 'Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud' is a well-known example of an apostrophe, as is Emily Dickinson’s lesser-known work, 'Wild Nights—Wild Nights!' (1861).

The poem is a form of argument within the Petrarchan sonnet format. Do you think that Donne's argument is valid? Why or why not?

'Death Be Not Proud': imagery

Donne makes extensive use of imagery to bring his poem of Death berating to life and to support his argument.

Imagery is a type of description that uses the readers' senses to create a vivid impression.

Sleep

Sleep is referred to as the 'picture' of death. This creates an image of death as just a longer version of sleep. To use a state (sleep) as imagery is unusual as it is not a visible object, but it is effective in diminishing the power of Death to instil fear. Who fears sleep?

The speaker goes on to add that the sleep of Death is temporary and that those waking to eternal life, ultimately 'kill Death'.

Slavery

Donne creates the image of Death as a slave to Kings, murderers, and the suicidal and random events. By doing this, he subverts the all-powerful reputation that Death has been given over time. Rather than a master over human life, he is, in fact, the minion of mankind and even dictated to by abstract, random events.

Eternal life after death is a concept common to many different religions. Donne was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism. Both of these religions have beliefs around eternal life for the faithful. It is considered a concept common to all Christian faiths.

The belief in a life after death is also found in various forms across many other religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, for example. Even the old mythologies had places like Valhalla, an afterlife for Norse warriors.

'Death Be Not Proud': quotes

The key themes and message of 'Death be Not Proud' can be seen by looking at a few key quotes.

This quote sets the tone and creates the conceit. The speaker directly challenges Death and advises him that he has no reason for his pride.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; (lines 1–2)

Here the speaker subverts the image of an all-powerful death and proclaims him a slave to the whims of humanity and chance.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, (lines 9–10)

The last two lines refer to the religious belief in eternal life after death. The speaker seemingly allocates this eternal life after death state to all humans. Donne's Christian churches, both the Roman Catholic and Anglican, are usually a little more specific about who can and who cannot gain access to eternal life. These lines invert the idea that humans die. Instead, Donne kills off Death.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (lines 13–14)

Death Be Not Proud - Key takeaways

  • John Donne was a metaphysical poet who became an Anglican Dean.
  • His poetry makes extensive use of the literary device, conceit.
  • Donne’s regular themes included death, which is the main subject of his Famous 'Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud'.
  • The poem makes use of personification and apostrophe to humanise and then admonish Death.
  • As a man raised as a Catholic who then converted to Anglicanism, Donne proposes that the concept of eternal life defeats Death.

Frequently Asked Questions about Death Be Not Proud

'Death Be Not Proud' is a poem about how Death is not all powerful, rather it is a temporary stop on the way to eternal life.

The message of the poem is that Death is not an all powerful thing to be feared.

Personification and apostrophe.

The speaker argues that Death is a mere slave to man and circumstance and that eternal life means the death of Death.

It is a metaphysical poem in the form of a Pertrarchan sonnet.

Final Death Be Not Proud Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

John Donne.

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What kind of poem is 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

It is a metaphysical poem.

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What type of sonnet is 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

Petrarchan Sonnet.

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What is the rhyme scheme in 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

ABBAABBA CDDCEE.

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What religions was John Donne associated with?

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Answer

Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.

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When was 'Death Be Not Proud' published?

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Answer

1633.

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What literary device is a defining characteristic of the metaphysical poets?

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Answer

The conceit.

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What is the main conceit used in 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

Death as a person, or Death personified.

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What other literary devices are central to the poem 'Death Be Not Proud?'

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Answer

Personification and apostrophe.

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What is an apostrophe in poetry?

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A poem addressed to a personification or an absent person who can not respond.

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What does the speaker compare Death to in 'Death Be Not Proud'?

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Answer

Sleep.

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Who does the speaker suggest are the earthly masters of Death?

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Answer

Chance, fate, Kings, murders and the suicidal.

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Which unsavoury companions does the speaker suggest Death hangs out with?

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Sickness, war and poison.

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How does the speaker diminish Death's power?

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By personifying Death, the speaker brings the abstract and the feared into the tangible realm of humanity.

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What is the final conclusion about Death in the poem, 'Death Be Not Proud?'

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Answer

'And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.'


This lines infers that when people are awakened to eternal life, they kill Death.

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