Study Guide

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) Themes

By John Donne

  • Mortality

    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?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Is the speaker talking to himself, to Death, or both?
    2. How many different meanings or uses for the words "death," "die," and "kill" does the poem have? How do these uses create paradoxes and contradictions?
    3. Why does the speaker think that Death will be like sleep? Does he have any reason to think that it will bring pleasure? Is it appropriate for a religious man to compare death to a physical pleasure?
    4. Is it true that good and brave people fear death less than the rest of us?

    Chew on This

    The speaker’s attempt to intimidate Death fails, because the only thing that can defeat death is Death itself.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    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.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How does the poem prepare for the dramatic statement: "Death, thou shalt die?"
    2. Does the speaker seem a wee bit cocky about his chances of "waking" eternally? Is his cockiness justified?
    3. Do you agree with the reasoning behind his claim that "much more" pleasure will "flow" from death than flows from sleep?
    4. How does the speaker know that the people whom Death thinks that he "overthrows" don’t actually "die" in the long run? How much of his argument is based on sheer faith or blind hope? All of it?

    Chew on This

    The speaker’s fear of death betrays his uncertainty about whether his faith is enough to enter eternal bliss.

  • Courage

    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.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Does the speaker’s courage come off as sincere, or is it just an act? Does he seem more or less courageous by the end of the poem?
    2. How would you explain the line: "And soonest our best men with thee do go?" What kind of men does he talk about?
    3. Is it still courageous if the speaker has no choice but to face Death? Can words express courage, or only actions?
    4. How does the expectation that death will bring pleasure complicate the speaker’s claim to courage?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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?

    Questions About Religion

    1. In what sense is the "sleep" of death a "short sleep" (line 13)?
    2. The poem has no overt references to Christianity. Aside from the title, how would you know that this is a religious poem? (Or, maybe it’s not...?)
    3. Is it possible for someone who is not a Christian to find Donne’s arguments persuasive? Which ones?
    4. Is there anything in the poem that can be seen as unconventional, from a religious perspective?

    Chew on This

    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.