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Holy Sonnet 10: Death, be not proud
by John Donne
In this poem by John Donne, the Speaker confronts Death personified and essentially tells Death off.
The Sonnet is, of course, 14 lines. The rhyme scheme is ABBA, ABBA, CDDC, AE.
LINES 1 AND 2:
The first two lines set the tone for the rest of the poem:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
Death is immediately personified as the poem is set up as a conversation between the Speaker and Death. Death never replies in the poem, though, so we might better think of this as something of a dressing-down of Death by the Speaker.
The term used to describe a Speaker who addresses someone who cannot respond is called “Apostrophe.”
Apostrophe (Greek ἀποστροφή, apostrophé, “turning away”; the final e being sounded) is an exclamatory figure of speech. It occurs when a speaker breaks off from addressing the audience (e.g. in a play) and directs speech to a third party such as an opposing litigant or some other individual, sometimes absent from the scene. Often the addressee is a personified abstract quality or inanimate object. In dramatic works and poetry written in or translated into English, such a figure of speech is often introduced by the vocative exclamation, “O”. Poets may apostrophize a beloved, the Muses, God or gods, love, time, or any other entity that can’t respond in reality.
The first two lines conclude with the Speaker authoritatively telling Death that he is neither mighty nor dreadful.
LINES 3 AND 4:
The Speaker goes into specifics about Death’s limited powers.
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
The source of the Speaker’s authority derives from a believe that Death cannot execute its core function. The Speaker tells Death that those it kills do not die and the Speaker further states that Death cannot kill him. The latter seems almost antagonistic.
Take note of the tone here. It’s mocking, as we see with the Speaker’s use of “poor Death.”
LINES 5 AND 6:
The Speaker diminishes Death’s work from something permanent and undesirable to something temporary and enjoyable.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
Who doesn’t love sleeping in or the occasional lazy afternoon nap?
LINES 7 AND 8:
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Here we get an answer for why it seems the good die young. The reason that the good die young, according to the Speaker, is that the best of humanity deserves Death’s rest sooner. This explanation is another inversion of a common belief. The Speaker says that something that is viewed as a greater tragedy – the death of the young – is actually a blessing. Death is providing a reward for work well done rather than inflicting a harm. By inverting this belief in this manner, the Speaker removes more of Death’s power.
LINES 9 AND 10:
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
The tone shifts in these lines from mocking and condescension to one of condemnation. Death is not an independent actor but is instead a slave. Mighty, powerful, dreadful death is none of those adjectives if it is also beholden to others.
The Speaker also in line 10 condemns the company that Death keeps – poison, war, and sickness.
The end result of these two lines is that Death as a personified opposition is being humbled and that the Reader can join the Speaker in feeling superiority over Death.
LINES 11 AND 12:
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
With Death humbled, the Speaker questions whether Death is even the best at its own job. The Speaker says that poppy or charms can lead to sleep just as well as Death. With this last bit of Death’s pride assaulted, the Speaker then asks Death outright why it feels such pride (i.e. why swell’st though then?) Though Death cannot answer, it is surely implied that Death is lowly and without reason for pride at all.
LINES 13 AND 14:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die
In the final two lines of the poem, we learn why the Speaker taunts Death. The Speaker believes that Death is temporary and that one day Death itself shall be no more. Not only has the Speaker humbled Death in the present, the Speaker has also proclaimed Death’s end sometime in the future.
Given the subject matter, I read this poem in Gandalf’s voice in my head.
Who is John Donne?
John Donne (/dʌn/ DUN; 22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English poet, scholar, soldier and secretary born into a recusant family, who later became a cleric in the Church of England. Under royal patronage, he was made Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (1621–1631). He is considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His poetical works are noted for their metaphorical and sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, and satires. He is also known for his sermons.
Donne’s style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. These features, along with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax and his tough eloquence, were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering and about which he often theorised. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.
Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. In 1615 he was ordained deacon and then Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Holy Orders and only did so because the king ordered it. He also served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614.