The poem takes an assertive stand against mortality. It makes the paradoxical statement that mortality is itself mortal. In other words, death doesn’t exist in the long run. But, the speaker wouldn’t make this argument if he doesn’t fear that maybe death is the end. As readers, we must decide whether the poem’s boldness masks some very deep terror about the "void" on the other side of life. After all, is it really possible to talk oneself out of this fear? And, if not, what’s the point of writing the poem?
The speaker’s attempt to intimidate Death fails, because the only thing that can defeat death is Death itself.
The big dream and hope in the poem is to defeat Death and go to Heaven. The speaker is confident that his faith in God won’t let him down, but that’s the thing about faith: it doesn’t come with a guarantee. Unfortunately, the speaker doesn’t have a lot of other options. He must die, no matter what. Although he states the final assertion – "Death, thou shalt die" – as if it’s a fact of life (like gravity), it’s really an expression of hope for the unknown future.
The speaker’s fear of death betrays his uncertainty about whether his faith is enough to enter eternal bliss.
We’ve got to admit it: we’re impressed. It takes real guts and chutzpah to stand up to Death. Throughout the entire length of the poem, the speaker never once drops his guard. In fact, he grows more confident in the second half. But, is it courage or delusion? Maybe real courage is to accept that death is the end of life as we know it, and anything that comes after that is a mystery.
The poem gives more evidence of bluster than of courage, as the speaker rapidly tries out a number of different arguments, none of which seem to work perfectly.
Back in Donne’s day, the smartest, funniest, hippest writers – The Metaphysical Poets – are the ones who can talk about complex religious topics while letting fly with jokes, puns, and one-liners. But, whatever happens to simple religious devotion – saying "I believe" and leaving it at that? Clearly, Donne feels that something a bit more sophisticated is necessary. The poem is more concerned with spinning out clever and complicated arguments than with reciting prayers or religious scripture. Does this take away from the religious message of the work? Or, does it make that message resonate even more?
Despite its inclusion as one of Donne’s "Holy Sonnets," "Death, be not proud" is not a true religious poem until the final two lines.