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The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”

Among the cornerstone issues of human existence is the aspect of relations between man and Death. In the circle of life Death is the ultimate destination and the greatest mystery to solve; unknown and enigmatic, Death both draws people’s attention and scares them, since it takes away the most precious of all gifts, the gift of life. Trying to cognize and understand the sacrament of Death, people assumed a different attitude to it depending on the ideological framework of the time. Perceived with terror and aversion by ones, Death was gratefully accepted by others as a gateway to the eternal life of the soul. The latter approach is characteristic, inter alia, of the followers of Christian religion supporting the belief that body is but a perishable envelope containing immortal soul, and therefore considering Death to be not a tragic end to one’s life but triumphant emancipation of one’s soul on its way to eternity. Such attitude is passionately expressed in John Donne’s sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud”, where the poet asserts human prevalence over Death since the latter is denied its dominating status and ascribed a role of a mere assistant in the inevitable course of events.

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Perhaps one of the most representative poems among Donne’s works, “Death, Be Not Proud” initially appeared as “Holy Sonnet X” in a collection of nineteen sonnets. Following the tradition of Italian sonnet developed by Petrarch in the fourteenth century, the fourteen lines of the poem divide into an eight-line stanza (octave), presenting the theme, and a six-line stanza (sestet), developing the main idea. The rhyming scheme of the first octave (ABBA ABBA) corresponds to Italian tradition as well, with the final sestet demonstrating a slight digression (CDDC EE). The smooth stream of the iambic pentameter is at times disrupted by enjambments, or run-on lines, untypical of the sonnet form in general (Donne, lines 6, 12, and 14). Such rhythm communicates more ardor and passion to the poem, creating the impression of spontaneous inspired speech. Among the literary devices used by John Donne in the poem is alliteration, repeating the same sound at the beginning of several closely situated words and emphasizing the importance of the idea in the phrase: “Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst though kill me”; “Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow”; “One short sleep past, we wake eternally (Donne, lines 4, 6, and 13).

Opening the sonnet with a provoking message to Death, Donne (expressing himself as the speaker of the poem) assumes an astonishingly unceremonious attitude to the phenomenon that normally evokes fear and dread. Employing conceit, as a personification extended through the whole poem, Donne envisages Death as a person whom he addresses using the second person singular; this is obvious in such words as “thee”, “thou”, “thy” (lines 1–7, 9, 12, and 14). Such treatment of Death appears to be degrading for the master of human lives and reminds of the medieval masquerade tradition of disguising oneself as Death, thus making Death more earthly and approachable for mockery and parody.

Further deepening the contrast between the traditional image of Death and his perception of it, Donne employs a whole range of epithets and comparisons that render the image of Death not as a mighty ruler but as a simple element in the grand design of human existence. “Poor Death” is rather to be pitied than dreaded since it is only a “slave” performing the task of transferring the soul from its earthly life to eternal wake as a result of accidents, murder, disease, war, and royal orders (Donne, lines 4, 8–10, and 13). Referring to such traditional attributes of Death as “rest and sleep”, Donne interprets them as a pleasurable experience, attainable not only of Death’s will but also through “poppy or charms” accessible to any human being and rendering a much more pleasant effect than the unpredictable and often unpleasant “stroke” of Death (Donne, lines 5–6, and 11–12). Thus are Death’s significance and uniqueness destroyed and nearly trampled in the mud since it is represented as a mere reflection and imitation of earthly things.

With all its humiliation of Death, the sonnet represents an intriguing paradox in its interpretation of the topic: one can find an implication of the speaker’s initial fear of Death which was overthrown by analyzing Death’s role and mission (Hodgson 151). Conventionally viewed as a “mighty and dreadful” killer, Death is gradually denied its crucial significance and seen as a kind of messenger, delivering the soul from earthly life to eternity (Donne, lines 2, 4, 8, and 13). The traditional fear of Death impending over mortal beings throughout their earthly existence should not take place, since Donne envisages the afterlife as that free of Death, and free of its terror (line 14). Thus emerges an ironic situation: the statement “Death, thou shalt die” signifies the perishable nature of Death itself (Donne, line 14); it becomes obvious that Death does not actually kill anybody since it dies itself every time a soul is transferred to eternity, and if the end of one’s life is necessitated by Death, then it would have to kill itself.

Following the natural human urge to understand and override the mysterious forces guiding one’s life, John Donne in his “Death, Be Not Proud” outlines the initial attitude of fear towards Death, analyses its role in human existence, and arrives at the conclusion that Death is but a humble messenger between the mortal and the eternal world.

Works Cited

Donne, John. “Death, Be Not Proud.” Poetry: An Introduction. Ed. Michael Meyer. Bedford Books, 2006. Print.

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Hodgson, Elisabeth M. A. Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 3). The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 3). The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”. https://studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/

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"The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”." StudyCorgi, 3 Nov. 2021, studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/.

1. StudyCorgi. "The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”." November 3, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/.


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StudyCorgi. "The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”." November 3, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”." November 3, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-soul-never-dies-john-donnes-death-be-not-proud/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Soul Never Dies: John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud”'. 3 November.

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