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John Donne

Death be not proud

More challenging questions!

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."
  • Why does the poet tell Death not to be proud? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the use of personification in this quatrain -- and, indeed, in the sonnet as a whole. (4)

[Need help?]

"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 what way can Death be described as being a slave? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet ask, "Why swell'st thou then?" (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is meant when the poet says that "poppy or charms" make us sleep as well? (4)

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  • Why is there an apostrophe in "think'st" and "swell'st"? (2)

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"One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die."
  • What difference would there be if the poet had used "will" instead of "shall" -- as in "Death will be no more. Death, thou wilt die"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the paradox in the conclusion, "Death, thou shalt die". (4)

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  • This poem is clearly a sonnet but what type of sonnet? Give clear reasons for your answer. (4)

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  • Why does the poet address Death with the titles "thee" and "thou"? (4)

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