And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Billy Joel had it right, man: only the good die young.
The "best men […] soonest" follow this dude Death into the afterlife, thinking that he will give the "rest of their bones," and free or "deliver" their Christian souls from all the pain of earthly life.
(Note that "deliver" can also refer to childbirth, which adds to the whole "new life" idea.)
They are the hardest-working and bravest people in society, so they get to kick their feet back and enjoy eternal rest before everyone else.
(We think that, if Donne lived today, he would include women in this group, as well.)
The speaker almost certainly refers to people like soldiers and martyrs, who sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Is Donne being too cute here?
After all, not that many soldiers are really thrilled to go off to war, and few people go to war intending to die – otherwise they wouldn’t be very good soldiers.
Donne makes it sound like the best men volunteer for death, when, in most cases, they only volunteer to risk death in order to achieve something else.
It is worth keeping in mind how downright sneaky this poem can be.
It almost makes you want to run out and take on one of the "World’s Most Dangerous Jobs."
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
In Petrarchan sonnets like this, it’s standard for the poem to shift or "turn" at line 9.
This shift can be slight, or it can be a total U-turn.
We think this sonnet has more of a slight turn.
The speaker raises his intensity in these lines, and becomes more hostile towards Death, calling him names and taunting him as a slave.
With the metaphor of the slave, the speaker suggests that Death doesn’t act on his own free will, and instead is controlled or manipulated by other things like "fate, chance, kings, and desperate men."
Let’s take these one by one.
Like Death, Fate is often treated as a person in literature.
Fate is thought to control everything that happens to people, including when they will die.
So, Death doesn’t decide when people will die; he just carries out orders from Fate.
"Chance" is kind of the opposite of fate, so, again, it’s sneaky of Donne to put them side-by-side.
"Chance" is luck, the idea that things can happen for no particular rhyme or reason.
If you die when a meteor crashes through your house in the middle of the night, that’s sheer bad luck, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
"Kings" are different from fate and chance because they are real people, but they have a similar kind of control over when and how people die.
A king can send soldiers to die in battle or sentence people to execution.
"Desperate men," we think, refers to people who commit suicide or do stupid and reckless stuff, which might as well be suicide.
If you decide to take your own life, it pretty much robs Death of the only card he has to play.
In line 10, the speaker brings another accusation against Death, claiming that he hangs out, or "dwells," with those notorious thugs, "poison, war, and sickness."
In other words, Death’s friends are total losers.
It might be obvious by now, but we’ll repeat it anyway: Donne treats these three things like people.
What do poison, war, and sickness have in common?
Easy: they all kill lots and lots of people.
Moreover, they are all generally considered bad or painful ways to die.
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
In lines 5-6, the speaker argues that death will be just like sleep, except even better.
But, now, he’s all, "Who needs Death anyway? If I want to sleep really well, I can just use drugs and magic charms!"
This seems to conflict with the idea that Death is supposed to be way more pleasurable than sleep, but who cares?
The speaker’s on a roll, and doesn’t have time to think about whether his arguments make perfect sense.
When you’re trying to insult someone, it’s more important to be clever and think on your feet.
The "poppy" is a flower used to make opium, an old-fashioned drug that makes people really happy, but also turns their skin yellow.
In fact, drugs and magic charms work even "better" than Death at bringing on sleep.
(We’re like: and you know this how?)
And, "stroke" is another interesting word.
It could refer to "stroking" someone, like one might stroke a child’s head to put him to sleep.
Or, it could refer to the "stroke" of a sword, which is obviously much more violent.
Or, it could imply the "stroke" of a clock at the exact moment of death.
Totally demolishing Death’s claim to be the ultimate sleep aid, the speaker puts Death in his place, telling him not to "swell" with pride.
This rhetorical question culminates the poem’s entire argument up to this point.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Donne, and the Metaphysical Poets in general, are masters of the surprise ending, and this one is no exception.
First, he returns to the idea of death as "sleep," which gets a bit more complicated here because he gives a time-frame: it’s a "short sleep."
In traditional Christian theology, it is thought that, when people died, it is like they are asleep until the end of the world or Judgment Day.
At this point, Jesus wakes everyone up to lead them to Heaven, where they will spend eternity.
Therefore, when the Apocalypse happens and the world ends, there isn’t any more death. All good Christians will have eternal life in Heaven.
The poem’s final words seal the deal: "Death, thou shalt die."
If this is an action movie, this is be the witty line the hero says right before wasting the villain, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s "Hasta la vista, baby," in Terminator 2.
And, by the way, it also makes no sense on a literal level.
Assuming Death does not kill himself, who’s going to kill him other than, um, Death?
Clearly, the final "die" just means that he won’t exist anymore.
It’s a classic Metaphysical Poet move to end a poem on a line that seems to contradict itself.