Death, Be Not Proud: A Reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X

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“Death, be not proud,” also known as Holy Sonnet X, is John Donne’s great poem in mockery of Death. Composed in 1609, the poem was published posthumously in 1633. It is fitting that Donne got the final word, laughing at Death from his grave.

The power of the poem is its reversal of our experience. Most of the time, we fear Death because it frustrates our efforts and our loves. But Donne uses the hope of eternity in Christ to flip the script. In Christ, it is Death who shall die, and we shall remain alive.

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This year, Easter Sunday also happens to be the feast of John Donne. Read this poem to celebrate both!

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 poem personifies Death and offers it a direct challenge. Death is not “mighty and dreadful.” Death does not “overthrow.” And those who seem to die, in fact, “die not.” And so Donne concludes with pity for “poor Death” and a final schoolyard taunt: “Nor yet canst thou kill me.”

Paul does something similar when he quotes Hosea in his letter to the Corinthians, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). We can taunt Death because we have the sure and certain hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ.

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.

In the second stanza, Donne compares Death to rest and sleep. The comparison is clear: both sleep and Death share the same posture. But Donne makes the further argument that if sleep gives the pleasure of refreshment, then Death will give the pleasure of even deeper rest. It’s a counterintuitive idea because we tend to associate Death with pain. But if Death is not the end, perhaps it is better associated with pleasure!

Again, this resonates with Paul’s teaching, who described Christians who have died as those “asleep in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:18). Paul even uses the comparison to sleep to mitigate grief, as in his letter to the Thessalonians: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

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?

In the third stanza, Donne shows how Death is not even a master of himself but is used by other and outside forces. The list of causes demonstrates Donne’s conceptual range, moving from the broadest cause (fate) to the most specific (desperate men) and then to the most universal (sickness).The second half of the stanza returns to the previous theme of sleep, though we learn that “poppy and charms” are even better ways of inducing it. The point is that Death, once shorn of its finality, has no further purpose. Rather than to swell in pride, Death ought to shrink!

Stanza 4

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

From the perspective of resurrection, Death is only a sleep. And though it may seem like a long time until the day of resurrection, once we are dead, it won’t be any time at all! We die, we sleep, and that “short sleep past, we wake eternally.”

And yes, eternally should be pronounced eternal-lie. This allows the poem to conclude with its triumphant rhyme: “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

In the final phrase, we see a structural and rhythmic repetition of the beginning: “Death, be not proudDeath, thou shalt die.” But notice that the final phrase also intensifies the poem’s opposition. Where the poem began by checking Death’s pretensions, here it ends with a declaration of doom.

In Conclusion

Though Holy Sonnet X is addressed to Death, it is powered by the energy of Easter. Because of the Empty Tomb, Death is no longer to be feared.

One of John Donne’s recent biographers, Katherine Rundell, contrasts the fear of Death with Donne’s apparent fearlessness:

“Spiritually speaking, many of us confronted with the thought of Death perform the psychological equivalence of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin: Donne hunted Death, battled it, killed it, saluted it, threw it parties. His poetry explicitly about Death is rarely sad: it thrums with strange images of living” (Super-Infinite, 277).
The deeper our faith in Christ, the more we can join Donne as he dances over Death. For Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
 

Published on

March 30, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

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