Study Guide

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) Quotes

By John Donne

  • Mortality

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; (lines 1-2)

    Death is personified, or treated like a person, throughout the entire poem. The phrase "some who called thee" is also classic understatement. We’re like, some? Pretty much everyone fears death, but "some" sounds like only a handful of people. And, "mighty and dreadful" are adjectives you might apply to a medieval king. The speaker not only attacks death’s power in the afterlife, but on earth as well.

    For those whom you think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, no yet canst thou kill me. (lines 3-4)

    Again, the language of kings and the monarchy appears with the word "overthrow." Usually, you "overthrow" kings during a war or rebellion, but, here, Donne uses the word in the context of a normal person’s death. Also, the poem introduces its wittiest trick in these lines: the symbolic use of the word "die." On a literal level, of course, everyone dies. But, in the long run, it’s a different story – particularly from the perspective of a Christian believer.

    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (lines 5-6)

    Rest and sleep are pale imitations of death. They are like cheap paintings from an art fair. At the same time, the speaker really hopes that death is similar to sleep, if much, much stronger. Which leads us to wonder: will we still have dreams when we die?

    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery (line 8)

    How does that soup commercial go again? Mmm...Death! Good for the body! Good for the soul! Here, the traditional religious distinction between body ("bones") and soul appears. The body gets rest, and the soul gets freedom. Everybody wins!

    One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; (lines 13-14)

    What is the speaker more afraid of: the sheer terror and pain at the moment of death, or the possibility that he might not exist in any form after it? The comfort that death is a "short sleep" suggests that he is more afraid of non-existence.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    nor yet canst thou kill me. (line 4)

    You can read "yet" in the sense of "not yet." In this reading, the speaker doesn’t deny that death can kill; he only says that death can’t kill him right now. However, we prefer to read "yet" as a synonym for the word "even." The two words are interchangeable in this context during the Renaissance. So, Donne sticks his tongue out at death and says, "You can’t even kill little ole’ me, Death."

    then from thee much more must flow (line 6)

    We’re not so sure about the speaker’s reasoning here. How does he know that death is like sleep? Because people stay in one place with their eyes closed in both states? He uses their similarity in appearance to predict a similarity in their effect.

    And soonest our best men with thee do go, (line 7)

    This seems like a more reasonable basis for hope. People tend to base their behavior and beliefs on other people whom they really respect and admire. So, if good people act unafraid of death – either in war or in martyrdom – then, maybe they know something that the rest of us don’t.

    One short sleep past, we wake eternally (line 13)

    At the end of the poem, the speaker suddenly shifts into the future, imagining the time after the Day of Judgment when Christ "wakes up" the faithful Christians who died to join him in Heaven. This rhetorical move allows him to end on a triumphant note.

  • Courage

    Death, be not proud (line 1)

    The poem begins by naming the speaker’s greatest fear, followed immediately by a command, as if Death is one of his servants. This is meant to strike us as gutsy and inspiring. But, keep in mind that the speaker only has his words and thoughts to fight with are.

    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. (lines 7-8)

    In these lines, "best" might as well mean "bravest." The people who are most likely to "go with" Death soonest are the people who risk their lives, which is the definition of physical courage. But, there’s a twist: the poem seems to say that these brave people, including soldiers and martyrs, know something that the rest of us don’t; namely, that death will bring rest and freedom. Isn’t the point of courage, though, that it involves a risk for the person who does a courageous deed? Where is the risk here?

    Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

    "Guts" or "nerve" seems more accurate than "courage" in describing what goes on in this line. The speaker doubles down on his bet by insulting Death more directly.

    And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
    And better than thy stroke; why swellst thou then? (line 11-12)

    Is it courage or delusion to compare Death to a drug that many people in Donne’s day consider pleasant and relaxing ("poppy" is a reference to opium)? The speaker seems to try to make death into an experience that requires less courage than is normally thought. After all, anyone can sit around and smoke an opium pipe. At least, in the 17th century, before they know how bad drugs are for you.

  • Religion

    For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. (lines 3-4)

    The immortality of the soul is the reason that Death doesn’t really "kill." As expressed in this poem, does this idea seem profound, or just clever and superficial?

    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. (lines 7-8)

    "Best men" is vague enough that it can have religious or secular meanings. Does it mean courageous warriors who risk life and limb for their country, or does it means religious martyrs who prefer to meet death than compromise their beliefs? In point of fact, soldiers can be religious heroes, too, especially if there is no separation of church and state, as in Anglican England.

    Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men (line 9)

    One name is noticeably absent from this list: God. Is there room for God in a world that is ruled by "fate" and "chance?" For a poem called a "Holy Sonnet," this is a strikingly non-religious line.

    why swell’st thou then?

    In medieval Christian theology, pride is the most dangerous and seductive sin. It is the source of almost all other sins. So, to say that Death "swells" with pride is a serious accusation. Whether or not Death actually cares is another question.

    One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die (lines 13-14)

    Now, finally, the poem becomes really religious. The setting shifts from the present to the future, as the speaker describes what will happen after death. This is funny, because so much of the poem is preoccupied with imagining what death itself is like. Here, he finally puts death behind him – figuratively, at least. This is like the end of an action movie, when the hero finally offs the villain – but not before uttering a snappy quip.