Commentary on Death be not Proud

Death be not Proud consists of a number of reasons why human beings should not fear death. However, rather than state the reasons as if talking to us, Donne turns to Death itself. He personifies and apostrophises it: he argues it into submission, till at the end he can state the paradox ‘Death, thou shalt die!' triumphantly.

Death not the end

To understand the poem fully, we need to know three things:

  • Firstly, that Donne genuinely had to wrestle with near fatal illnesses, and seems to have had difficulty in the past with the fear of death, fed by a strong sense of guilt
  • Secondly, in the forms of meditation he and his contemporaries often used, a skull or ‘death's head' was frequently on display! This was to focus thoughts on man's mortality and the need to live as free from sin as possible
  • Thirdly, the Christian teaching on death is that it is not the end of life at all: that there is a resurrection and a judgement, and the life of the Christian believer will continue for eternity. Death, therefore, is seen as a rite of passage to something much better. A well-known biblical passage often read at funerals is 1 Corinthians 15:35-57.

More on resurrection: see The Exequy by Henry King

The poem is best understood as three quatrains and a concluding couplet.

First quatrain

The first quatrain states the theme, with its central paradox that those whom death touches do not really die. That is because of the Christian hope of resurrection and immortality. Paul writes, using the image of a grain of wheat: ‘it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body' 1 Corinthians 15:44.

Second quatrain

SleepingThe second quatrain takes the idea that sleep and death are allied, one being an image of the other (‘thy pictures'). Sleep is pleasant, therefore death must be, so why fear it? In fact, the best people, that is those who are most pure in their lives, die most quickly, because they know their soul will be ‘delivered' into a new life.

Third quatrain

The third quatrain mocks death. Death is not in control of itself, but has to come wherever there is disease or war. So why is death so proud? Then he argues that opiates mimic death and much more pleasantly.

Concluding couplet

This leads on to the triumphant couplet, that we shall wake into eternal life and death will be finished. The triumphant couplet echoes Paul's triumphant question:

‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?' 1 Corinthians 15:55, quoting Hosea 13:14

The poem is not an argument as such. Rather, it is a number of points piled up one upon another, not always quite logically connected, but nevertheless effective in building up to a climax.

Investigating Death be not Proud
  • Read the whole passage from 1 Corinthians 15:35-57
    • What do you notice about the difference in tone and argument?
  • In what way is mocking our enemies an effective way of dealing with them?
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