Donne wrote the poem “Death Be Not Proud” in the 17th century, at a time when death was rampant. In those times death came often due to a lack of safety, disease, lack of vaccinations and living conditions. In the poem Donne presents a new idea which must have been very appealing for the people at that time who were grieving for friends and family who were killed by plagues, accidents and other problems of the times. Donne proposed that death is not as powerful as another force, that being the Christian God; further he states that Death too would die. In fact, Donne was so sure of this that his message to Death was “be not proud”. Donne does not think Death should be proud as all of its work will be undone. This was the religious idea of an afterlife.
The symbolism of death as a human
The symbolism of the poem is that of Death as being just as fragile as a human being. By making a human being out of death, Donne can talk to Death, as well as give attributes to Death such as pride, which is a human condition. Donne refers to Death as though it were its proper human name. Because Death now has the human attributes of life, it too can die. If death is a concept or a state of being, that it is impossible to fight it, or to use a mocking tone to show one is not afraid. By symbolizing death as a human entity, Donne can treat Death with disdain. This is the core concept of the poem.
Donne is talking to death in a mocking tone. This is clear from the title and also when he states “though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so“(Donne, 978). Donne wants to ensure that Death is put in their place, and he does not disguise his negative feelings towards Death. Donne adds the reason why he is able to use a mocking tone with one as powerful as death when he states “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” (978). Death cannot win, as the everlasting life promised by God will undo the work of Death. The mocking tone is surprising, given that Death is something, or someone, to be feared.
Donne uses imagery to reinforce the idea of death as nothing to be feared. For example, he refers to “soul’s delivery” (978), or the comforting image of the soul returning to God. Rather than simply state what Donne felt to be true, that in the afterlife the dead returned to God, Donne explained it with positive language. There is also the image of a battle with Death, such as when Donne says “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow” (978). This leads one to imagine an actual being called Death who successfully battles victims, even “overthrowing” them. It also tells of the struggles that people of the time have against death. Donne uses powerful images which reinforce the religious nature of Donne’s concept, which is that God is more powerful than Death.
Donne’s poem used many techniques in order to develop the idea of this poem to Death. Donne treats Death symbolically as a person, also using a mocking tone, and this in combination with rich religious imagery helps to get across the idea that death is nothing to fear. Donne represented the religious ideals of the time, and in this poem he understands the power of religion and the afterlife to be stronger than that of Death.
- Donne, John. “Death Be Not Proud.” Literature Voice and Craft. Ed. Nicholas and Alan Cheuse Delbanco. Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012: 978.