Thoughts on Donne’s “Death, be not proud”

And the first student to post on mrmcateer.com is…

By Olivia

Beginning with the title and continuing into the early lines of the sonnet, Donne conveys an assertive tone declaring “Be not proud” and “thou art not so”, evidently having no fear of death. Donne regards it as “mighty and dreadful” in the eyes of others, but he himself knows that this power is mistakenly given. His clear assertion that “canst thou kill me” illustrates how he has no fear of death, and after reading through the poem fully, I believe it is because he believes he will escape it.

After the first eight lines (I’m sure there is some sonnet term I should be using for this but oh well), I felt as though Donne established a strong rhetoric against death—in short, if he was running for president his party would be commending his aggressiveness.

Yet with the beginning of the next set of lines he moves from this stance to providing reason as to why death is so innately weak and, at the end of the day, why death will die. As he proclaims that death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”, Donne reflects on how death is associated with the whims of humanity, the whims of despotic kings, with nothing more than random chance to support death. I always thought of death in abstract terms, a large and dreadful unknown. However, through Donne’s comparison of death’s power to things as concrete to poppies sending us to a peaceful respite, he conceptualizes it, swiping at a giant curtain of darkness in order to reveal that the giant shadow could be caused by something as innocent as a flower. There is a clear break and shift in tone in the second to last line as Donne confides “we wake eternally,//and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.//” His religious beliefs here truly come to light as the prospect of eternal life seems imminent to him, and his assertive tone that thou shalt die, rather than thou mayest (flashback to East of Eden), is a commanding order, a lofty pledge to life over death.

I found this final shift in tone particularly evident in examining Donne’s use of structure and language in the last six lines. As I looked at the following,

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It was clear that Donne’s use of “And” at the beginning of each line served to continue the rhythmic sound of the poem if you will, and the additional rhyming scheme created a growing flow up until the question, “why swell’st thou then?” For me, it was at this moment where someone reading this would briefly pause, and then, after an almost poignant silence, moves into his final point, emphasized by the word shall saying that “death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

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