Many of Donne’s poems, and Metaphysical Poems in general, sound like someone tying a complicated knot. Like a bowline. Or, a half-hitch. Or, a sheep shank. OK, so the kind of knot isn’t important. What’s important is that it has to be tied just right. Same thing goes with trying to prove that death isn’t scary using only a single, fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet. In general, we’ve got two contrasting strains in the poem, which are like the two ends of a string we use to tie the knot.
The first strain is what Death thinks he is. The second strain is what Death really is. Let’s try it out. In the beginning, death thinks he is "mighty and dreadful" because people call him that (line 2). But, then, the second strain gets looped in, and we learn that death isn’t either of these things. Easy enough.
How about lines 3-4? Well, Death thinks that he can kill or "overthrow" people, which is one end of our knot, but it turns out that Death can’t kill anyone at all, which is the other end of the knot. As you can see, the second end of the string does all the complicated twisting and looping around the first end of the string. With each line, Donne makes the knot a little thicker. Fortunately, compared to some of his other poems, this one is relatively easy to untangle.
Some people complain that Donne’s sonnets don’t have a consistent rhythm or meter. Sure, the poem is in iambic pentameter, but it breaks this pattern as often as it follows it. As in this line: "One short sleep past, we wake eternally" (line 13). In the phrase "short sleep past," all of the words seem equally accented, and, then, there’s a huge pause in the middle (as our two strains get tied together). But, it’s not that Donne lacks regularity: the knot-like pattern is his regularity. He goes back and forth, up and down, down and through. Sometimes, it sounds like his sentences come at you in reverse: "From rest and sleep, which but they pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow." If that isn’t a knot in words, we don’t know what is. But, that’s the point.
The other thing about a knot is that everything must come together at the end to make a grand loop. Donne’s sonnet does this. The poem begins on an apostrophe to Death and ends on one. The final statement sums everything up – with a twist. We think Donne would make a great Boy Scout.
This poem has no title. See another section.
OK, OK, we should probably say something about the Holy Sonnets. "Death, be not proud" belongs to a sequence of poems known as the Holy Sonnets. In all, there are nineteen. And, no, Donne is not an arrogant jerk who thinks that his poems are sacred objects – the title just means that the poems are about religion.
The poems are not published until after Donne’s death in 1631, but they appear in editions of Donne’s work in 1633 and 1635 under this name. "Death, be not proud" is usually known as the tenth poem in the sequence, or Holy Sonnet X. But, this number is arbitrary, too. It appeared as X in the 1635 edition, but not in the earlier one. A lot of people just refer to it as "Death, be not proud" based on the first line, although, as we point out in our "Detailed Summary," there is actually no comma after "Death" in the original version.
Do you need to know any of this? Probably not. But, it goes to show that titles are a lot more fluid back in the English Renaissance. Poets don’t feel the need to name everything: they can just let the work speak for itself.
We don’t call Donne a Metaphysical Poet for nothing. "Metaphysics" is the study of the reality beyond the physical, everyday world, and "Death, be not proud" is a good example. There are hardly any images of the "physical" world which we’re so used to seeing in poetry. It uses philosophical arguments, rather than descriptions of nature. But, hey, that’s not going to stop us.
Here’s what we know: in the fictional world of the poem, the speaker gets to address, or talk to, something that most people never get to talk to: Death. So, you’ve got to visualize him. We’ll stick with a skeleton wearing a black cloak and carrying a sickle, but, if you want to put Death in a tutu, go right ahead. We also know that Death is the only thing positioned between the speaker and eternal bliss. So, we imagine him as a big guy who stands in the middle of a doorway, blocking the path as if to say, "If you want to get through this door, buddy, you’re gonna have to get past me."
On the speaker’s side of the door, there’s life on earth, filled with both pain and joy. On the other side of the door, there’s the afterlife, which we hope means Heaven. Death looks really proud; in fact, he’s "swollen" with pride (line 12). You know you’ve got to cross the doorway eventually, but, when you do, Death will use a killer Sleeper Hold on you – worse than any that the WWF wrestlers can come up with. But, when you wake up, it’ll all be over, and Death will be gone, guaranteed. And, that’s where the poem leaves us. What happens next is up to your imagination.
The speaker of this poem finds himself in something like a David and Goliath situation. You might remember David from the Bible: he’s the skinny kid from Israel who takes down the biggest, meanest giant in the land with only a slingshot. The speaker doesn’t even have a slingshot – he only has his wit, or the ability to talk circles around his enemies. He’s got all the verbal tools: apostrophe, rhetorical questions, puns – the whole nine yards.
The speaker of the poem believes himself to be a good Christian, so he's confident he’ll eventually make it to Heaven. Even so, Death is nothing to sneeze at. The speaker sounds confident, even cocky, when he tells Death that he isn’t so "mighty and dreadful." But, despite this appearance, the speaker must be quaking in his boots. He has to summon all of his courage just to keep it together. If he shows any weakness, he knows that Death will pounce all over him.
By the time the poem takes a "turn" in line 9 (as any good Petrarchan sonnet will do), the speaker really lays into Death, calling him a slave and making fun of his friends. We imagine he’s right up in Death’s grill at this point, poking his finger in his chest. Fortunately, he ends the poem on a killer line about how Death will die. This probably leaves Death scratching his bony little head. And, as is always best to do when you tell off someone bigger than you, we imagine that the speaker doesn’t stick around for when Death finally comes to again. He gets the heck out of there.
It’s hard to keep track of all the different ways that he uses the word "death" in this poem. But, it’s clear that none of them make the hooded guy with a big sickle sound very scary or powerful. Donne can write devilishly hard and confusing poems, but this is one of his most accessible.
"Wit" is hard to define. Jane Austen has it. Oscar Wilde has it. ESPN SportsCenter has it. And, John Donne has it in spades. We wouldn’t want to get in a verbal jousting match this guy: we’d get wrecked. It’s hard to define "wit," but it roughly translates as the ability to think on your feet, use complicated puns and wordplay, and to deliver bone-crushing comebacks that the other person doesn’t even understand until ten minutes after the fact. Then, you’re like, "Wait a minute, did he just insult me?!"
You can thank Petrarch for all the sonnets you have to read in school. This 14th century Italian poet isn’t the first person to write sonnets, but he makes the form popular all across Europe, including England. He is the Elvis Presley of the sonnet. But, just as with rock 'n' roll, new poets keep fiddling with the sonnet form, tweaking it slightly to fit their needs. Shakespeare, for example, uses a different form of the sonnet, which we call "Shakespearean" for that reason. But, Donne stuck to the original. Mostly.
The Petrarchan sonnet has fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme that goes ABBAABBA and then, most frequently, CDCDCD. But, "Death, be not proud" finishes slightly differently. Its last six lines are CDDCAA. If you look closer, there’s even more weird stuff going on at the end. For example, line 13 has a word near the end, "swell’st," that rhymes with "dwell" and "well" from the previous two lines. He just sticks a rhyme in the middle of the verse: very strange. And, the last two lines don’t seem to rhyme well at all: "eternally" and "die." You have to pronounce it "eternal-lie" to make the rhyme work. No one is sure exactly what Renaissance English sounds like, so it’s possible that they did pronounce the word this way. But, it’s also possible that Donne wanted the rhyme scheme to fizzle out at the same moment when death "dies."
Another feature of a Petrarchan sonnet is a shift, or "turn," in the argument or subject matter somewhere in the poem. In Italian, the word is volta. Usually, the turn occurs at line 9 to coincide with the introduction of a new rhyme scheme. That’s the case for "Death, be not proud," although the turn isn’t major. The speaker sharpens his attack and starts calling Death names, but he doesn’t fundamentally change his argument. If you want to rebel, you can argue that the real turn doesn’t happen until the middle of the last line, when Donne drops this shocker: "Death, thou shalt die." At the very least, we think it’s the most surprising move in the poem.
Finally, the Petrarchan sonnet has a regular meter: iambic pentameter, which means that each line has ten syllables, and every second syllable is accented. That’s the reason, for example, that "Thou art" has to be condensed into one mouth-cramming syllable, "Thou’art" in line 9. Otherwise, there would be eleven syllables in the line.
But, what about the first line? For one thing, it begins on an accented beat: DEATH. Truth be told, Donne’s pretty loose with his iambic pentameter. For him, iambic pentameter is less of a rule and more of a general guideline, like that "No Horseplay" sign at your local pool. Of course there’s going to be horseplay! It’s a pool! And Donne sometimes counts a big pause as a syllable, which is why line 1 seems to only have nine syllables: because of the pauses in the line, it takes at least as long to recite.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Death is a total poser in this poem, like a schoolyard bully who turns out not to be so tough, after all. The speaker even makes death out to be a good thing, because it leads to the new life of Christian eternity. Plus, everyone bosses Death around, from kings to suicidal people. Finally, a lot of the poem’s wit comes from combining literal and symbolic uses of the words "death" and die."
Donne didn’t invent the comparison between death and sleep, but he uses it here to great effect. But, you have to know a tiny bit of Christian theology to fully understand the idea. It is thought that, when faithful Christians die, they are only "dead" until the Day of Judgment comes and Christ returns to Earth. They compare this length of time to a period of "sleep." At this point, time ends, eternity begins, and all the faithful Christians who died will "wake up" to be led into Heaven. At this point, all their earthly troubles are over for good, and they will be at "rest" with God.
Death hangs out with a bad crowd, like the kids who hang out behind the bleachers and try to talk you into vandalizing things on Halloween. Unfortunately, they aren’t cool at all. They’re big losers, in fact, and Death knows it – which is why it’s such an insult when the speaker points out Death’s connection to poison, war, and sickness. And, that’s not all. Death – this big strong guy – isn’t even his own master! All these other people tell him what to do. It’s like when you learn that the bully who torments you at school actually has his own bullies in the next grade up. It may not prevent your daily beatings, but it makes you feel a whole lot better about it.
There’s only one example, and it’s a play on words, but we wanted to give Birth a little love, too, because it’s nothing but Death, Death, Death for most of the poem.
There’s nothing like thoughts of death to kill your sex drive. This poem is like a cold shower.