Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
Death has got a real attitude problem.
He thinks he’s the biggest, baddest, meanest dude in town.
He’s "proud," arrogant, and thinks he can boss people around.
When he walks down the street, people avert their eyes and leap into alleyways to escape him.
Everybody treats him like a king – of the Underworld. They think that he has the power ("might") to do terrible ("dreadful") things.
(And, by the way, we’re going to refer to Death as "he" because Donne talks to death as if it is a person – think of the hooded guy who carries around a sickle. Also, when poets address a person or thing that isn’t there or can’t respond, it’s called an "apostrophe." This is one of the most famous examples of apostrophe in all of literature.)
But, the speaker isn’t afraid.
He walks right up to Death and gives him a piece of his mind, just like your mother told you to do with grade-school bullies.
It’s downright gutsy for the speaker to be telling this guy – who frightens everyone – what to do.
The speaker orders Death not to be proud, and then says that people are mistaken in treating Death as some fearsome being.
Now, let’s go off on a tangent for a second. We’ve got an important message from the people who study Donne and other Renaissance poets for a living, and that is: the poem you’re reading is not exactly the same version as the one published in the 17th century.
For one thing, you’re probably reading a version with modern English spelling (except for the occasional "thee," "thou" or "art.").The original version has old-school spellings like "dreadfull" instead of "dreadful." That's no biggie.
More important are the changes in punctuation, of which the first line is a great example.
In the original version from 1633, the sonnet begins "Death be not proud."
What’s the difference? There’s no comma after "death" in the original.
Now, we think it’s perfectly cool for modern editors to change the punctuation to make it clearer that Donne addresses Death like a person.
But, just keep in mind that it changes the meaning slightly.
For one thing, in the modern version, we lose the possibility that the speaker could describe Death, as well as address it.
That is, you could read "Death be not proud" to mean "Death is not proud," which means Death isn’t trying to be a tough guy, after all.
We think "Tough Guy Death" is more fun, but it’s just something for you to think about.
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death thinks that he has the power to kill people, but he actually doesn’t.
Donne uses the word "overthrow" instead of "kill" in line 3 – an interesting choice, because people usually use the word in the context of "overthrowing" a ruler and taking control of his territory.
Notice how there’s a nice dramatic pause created by the line break between "overthrow" and "die," as if the speaker lets Death savor the idea of killing people just before pulling the rug out from under him.
To make things more humiliating, the speaker starts to show his pity by addressing "poor Death," as if Death just had his dreams crushed, and now needs some cheering up.
But, hold on: it seems totally ridiculous to say that Death doesn’t kill people.
That’s what makes Death Death! What gives?
Donne uses the idea of Christian eternity to argue that death is something that people pass through on their way to a new, eternal life.
A good Christian must experience death – the end of life on earth – but, in the long run, he or she can’t be "killed."
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
Didn’t they teach Donne in school that you shouldn’t start a sentence with a preposition like "from?"
These two lines are a tangled knot of words, so read ‘em slow, and then go back and read ‘em again.
He compares death to "rest" and "sleep," two things that give us "pleasure."
Therefore, death should give us pleasure, too, when we finally meet it.
He claims that rest and sleep are only "pictures" of death.
The difference these two things and death is like the difference between a painting of an object and the real thing.
They are watered-down versions of death, so if they give us some pleasure, then death will give "much more."
The pleasure of death will "flow’ like water or honey.
Sounds nice – where do we sign up?
The comparison of death to sleep or eternal rest is a classic metaphor in Christian writings – one that goes back a long time.
The philosopher St. Augustine, for example, writes that he won’t know what rest is really like, until he rests with God in Heaven.
It is a way for people to talk themselves out of their fear of dying – compare it to an experience that they enjoy.
Kind of like how you might persuade someone to go skydiving by comparing it to a super-fun rollercoaster ride.