John Donne – Holy Sonnet X / Death Be Not Proud (Summary)

Summary of the Poem

‘Death Be Not Proud” is one of the nineteen Holy Sonnets written by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. As a typical product of Renaissance, Donne wrote a kind of love and religious poetry that shocked its readers into attention with its wit, conceits, far fetched imagery, erudition complexity, colloquial and dramatic styles. Donne’s poetry exemplifies the rare synthesis of reason and passion – a unique quality which is termed as the “Unified Sensibility.”

This poem forcefully demolishes the popular conception of death as a powerful tyrant. The poet presents an unconventional view of death. By addressing the poem to death, Donne says that Death should not feel proud of itself. Death is neither frightening nor powerful although some people have called it so. It has no power over the soul which is immortal. The poet explains his idea through the examples of rest and sleep. He says that rest and sleep are only the pictures of death. We derive pleasure from rest and sleep. So death itself should provide much more pleasure, which is the real thing. Secondly our best men get death very soon. Their bones get rest and their soul gets freedom. Hence death is not frightening thing.

Now the poet blasts the popular belief that death is all powerful. Death, in fact is a captive, a slave to the power of fate, chance, cruel kings and bad men. It lives in the bad company of poison, war and sickness. Opium and other narcotics are as effective as death in inducing us to sleep. They, actually, make us sleep better. Death cannot operate at its own level. So death should not feel proud of its powers.

In the end, the poet once again says that death is a kind of sleep, after which the soul will wake up to live forever and becomes immortal. Then death has no power over us. In other words the soul conquers death; it is the death which itself dies. Thus Donne degrades death and declares happily the impotence of death. It is, in no way, powerful and dreadful. So we should not fear death as it has no power over our souls.

Reference to the Context

Stanza – 1

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The lines quoted above have been taken from the poem ‘Death Bo Not Proud; written by John Donne. In this lines, the poet says that Death is neither terrible nor powerful. It has no effect on the soul of a person. So death should not feel proud of it power. These are the opening lines of the sonnet.

The opening of the poem a highly rhetorical and declamatory. Here the poet personifies the death. He say that death should not be feel proud. Although some people have called it powerful and fearful, yet in actual it is not so. Those people whom death thinks to have killed, do not actually die. Their souls become immortal. Death does not have the power to kill the poet either. In other words death has no effect and power over the soul. Donne considers death as a poor thing, not a mighty one. By calling death ‘poor’, the poet pities death for its powerlessness and vulnerability.

Stanza – 2

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

These lines quoted above have been taken from the poem ‘Death Bo Not Proud; written by John Donne. In this poem the poet says that Death is neither powerful nor fearful. It has no power over the soul. So it should not be proud of itself. The poet equates death to sleep.

In this stanza the poet say that death is not frightening. The poet attempts to provide us with the reasoning for his argument. If we derive pleasure from rest and sleep, which are only copies or pale imitations of death, we must derive even greater pleasure from death itself, which is the real thing. Moreover the poet says that those people die young whom God loves most. Death can kill only the bodies of persons and not the souls. After death the bones get rest and souls become free and immortal. Death actually gives rest to our bodies and release to our soul. It actually gives birth to the soul which earlier was encaged in our body. So death is not fearful and terrible.

Stanza – 3

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.

These lines quoted above have been taken from John Donne’s poem ‘Death Be Not Proud. In these lines, the poet says than man should not be fearful of death as it has no power over the soul. Sleep and rest, which are only images and pictures of death, give us a lot of pleasure. These are the closing lines of the sonnet.

In these lines the poet blasts the popular belief that that death is all-powerful. Death, in fact, is a captive or slave to power of fate, chance, cruel kings and bad men. Opium and other narcotics are as effective as death in inducing us to sleep. They, actually, make our sleep better. Death cannot operate at its own level; it has to seek the help of poison, war and sickness to show its efficacy in which’s company death lives. Death is only kind of short sleep, after which the soul will wake up to live forever. Moreover the soul conquers death. It is the death which itself dies because death has no power over the soul of a person. In a way Donne degrades death and declares as happily the impotence of death.

Question-Answer

Q.1. Comment on the opening of the sonnet ‘Death Be Not Proud’.
Ans.: In the opening lines of the poem, Donne addresses the Death and asks it not to feel proud. Some people have called death powerful and frightening yet actually it is not so. Donne considers death as a poor thing, not a mighty one. The people, whom death thinks to have killed, do not actually die. Rather their souls become immortal which will wake up to live forever. In this way the soul is more powerful and conquers death. The poet says that death cannot kill even him.

Q.2. What, according to the poet, are the agents of death?
Ans.: The poet says that poison, war and sickness are the agents of death. Death lives in their bad company. Death has to seek the help of these bad agents to kill a person. Death, in fact, is a slave to the power of fate, chance, cruel kings and bad men. Opium and other narcotics are as effective as death in inducing us to sleep. They, actually, make us sleep better. Death cannot operate at its own level. That’s why death is not powerful and dreadful.

Q.3. What does the image of ‘slave’ suggest?
Ans.: John Donne says that death is a captive or slave to the power of fate, chance, kings and bad men. This slave image of death suggests that death is not powerful. It is not independent and cannot operate at its own level. It only carries out the orders of fate and chance and kills others. It has to take the help of poison, war and sickness to show its efficacy.

Q.4. Explain the following expressions: (i) ‘Soul’s delivery’ (ii) death, thou shalt die.
Ans.: (i) ‘Soul’s delivery’ :- By soul’s delivery the poet want to convey that death is not frightening or dreadful. After death, our souls become free and immortal.
(ii) Death, thou shalt die:- The poet asserts that death is not almighty and dreadful because it has no power over the soul. It can kill only our bodies. After the death, our bones get rest and our soul gets freedom. The soul wakes up eternally and becomes immortal. In other words the soul conquers death; it is the death which itself dies because it can not destroy our soul. The powerful soul is, in this way, beyond the clutches of the poor death. So the poet pities death for its powerlessness and vulnerability.

Q.5. What conclusion do you derive about Donne’s religious faith from your reading of “Death Be Not Proud”?
Ans.: “Death Be Not Proud” is Sonnet No. 10 in Donne’s book Holy Sonnets. Donne is the typical product of Renaissance who has written a kind of love and religious poetry that shocks its reader into attention with its wits, conceits and far-fetched imagery. Some times his poetry becomes very difficult and obscure and can not be understood by the common reader. This poem shows that the poet is a deeply religious person. All the religious Christians believe in the immortality of soul. In the same way Donne, who is very much religious at heart says that Death has no power over the soul. It can kill only our bodies. After the death, the soul becomes immortal and will wake up eternally in the heaven. Rather it is the soul which conquers death. Donne considers death as poor thing, not a mighty one. By calling death ‘poor’ the poet pities death for its powerlessness and vulnerability.
He says that Death is neither terrible nor powerful. Death is only a form of rest and sleep which gives us much more pleasure. Again the poet describes death as a slave of fate, chance, kings and bad men. It lives in the bad company of poison, war and sickness. It cannot operate at its own level; it has to seek the help of its agents like poison, war and fate to finish a person. In other words it is not independent. It is powerless and should not feel proud in killing a person. In fact, it is the death which itself dies. In this way Donne degrades death and declares happily the impotence of death and this poem shows the deeply religious nature of the poet.

Q.6. Do you agree with Donne that Death is nothing but ‘poor death’?
Ans.: Yes, we fully agree with Donne that death is nothing but poor death. In this poem the poet forcefully demolishes the popular conception of death as a powerful tyrant. It does so by developing the argument that death is as temporary as sleep. Generally people believe that death is terrible and powerful. But the poet defies the authority of death. The boldness of the argument becomes obvious when Donne calls death ‘poor’ because it is merely a slave of fate, chance, kings and bad men. Death cannot operate at its own level. It has to seek the help of poison, war and sickness to kill a person. Again he compares death to sleep. He says that rest and sleep are only the pictures of death. They give us a lot of pleasure. So death itself should give much more pleasure.
Opium and other narcotics are as effective as death in inducing us to sleep. They, actually make us sleep better. Moreover our best men die soon. After the death their bodies get rest and their soul becomes free. It has no power over the soul. It can kill the bodies and not the soul. Death, for Donne, is nothing more than a door through which our soul has to pass to lead an eternal life. The poem thus celebrates soul’s immortality and death’s mortality. The soul conquers the death; it is the death which itself dies. The poem shocks the reader to begin with but finally convinces with the idea of death as insignificant nothing.

1 Comment

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