Study Guide

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) Religion

By John Donne


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.