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John Donne

Death be not proud

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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"Death be not proud" is part of a collection called "The Holy Sonnets". John Donne, an Anglican priest and a very religious man, looks at the theme of death, something that scares most people. He points out that one should not in fact be afraid of death at all because it is simply the gateway to another happier, eternal life.

The poet in fact personifies death, speaking directly to it as if it were a person. He accuses Death of having absolutely nothing to boast about because, in the end, Death has no power whatever.


"Death be not proud" is based upon the following extract from the New Testament:

"Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed -- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet . . . then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?' The sting of Death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

It is an Elizabethan sonnet, having 14 lines, divided into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. The quatrains deal with the chief theme of the sonnet, and the rhyming couplet concludes the argument.

Each line of the sonnet has 10 syllables of iambic pentameters -- i.e. there are five feet (called pentameters) and each foot contains a short syllable followed by a long one (iambic).

The rhyming scheme in this sonnet is a simple one:
abba, abba, cddc, ee

Note: The rhyming couplet at the end is usually a sign that one is looking at an Elizabethan sonnet.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Death, be not proud, though some have calléd 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."
  • "Death" is consistently spelled with an upper-case "D". Why does the poet do so? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is this language device called? (1)

[Need help?]

  • In what way does the poet see Death in a different light to other people? (2)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • Rewrite the following so that the meaning is made clear: "From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be | Much pleasure -- then, from thee, much more must flow." (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when he says, "Rest of their bones and soul's delivery"? (4)

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"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 this quatrain, the poet pours scorn on Death. How does he do so? (4)

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"One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die."
  • The poet presents an apparent contradiction in this rhyming couplet. Explain this contradiction in your own words. (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does one call such an apparent contradiction? (2)

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