Death be not Proud: Deconstruction of the Concept of Death
The critic Joe Nutt writes that ‘it takes a bold man to taunt death’. This observation was made in reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X, ‘Death be not proud’, and accurately portrays both the tone and subject of the poem. Throughout the sonnet, Donne consistently mocks, debilitates and deconstructs a personified Death, littering the poem with Christian theology and overtly combative rhetoric. Through the sonnet Donne leaves the reader with two conclusive ideas: firstly, that the individual can, and most likely should, face Death with a composed and confident character; and second, that this can be achieved by altering our definitive perception of death.
The persona that Donne adopts for the poem is one which clearly holds bold, confident and witty characteristics, maintaining both showmanship and stoicism to dissect the idea of death. Through ridiculing the apostrophized Death, Donne presents a state of mentality that can only be admired for its bravado and assertiveness. The first two lines of the poem, ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so’, provides the clear delivery of a taunting tone. The speaker challenges Death’s own perception of itself, connecting it to false pride and the misconceived idea that it is ‘Mighty and dreadful’. Donne thus shows an instinctive opposition to the idea that death is something to fear, presenting the basics of the argument that he will carry throughout the rest of the poem. Donne immediately makes a joke out of the figure of Death and thus is able to lay the foundations for his perception of this force.
Lines three and four continue this taunting of Death, ‘For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not, poor death’. (Lines 3-4) The use of the word ‘think’st’ throws doubt on the intelligence of Death and discards the idea that Death could be an omniscient power similar to God, while ‘overthrow’ is used instead of the more obvious kill. While kill suggests closure and the total ending of a life, ‘overthrow’ suggests something more temporary or reversible. The temporary insinuation of ‘overthrow’ is emphasized by ‘Die not’ in the following line, Donne thus presents an inability on Death’s part to adequately perform its role. This role is further mocked in lines five and six, ‘From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow’. (Lines 5-6) Donne suggests that the states of ‘rest and sleep’ from which pleasure flows are ‘pictures’, or imitations, of death. This suggests that if the imitation of death is pleasurable then the actual full experience of death must be even more fulfilling, thus further proving that death is nothing to be feared but rather something to be enjoyed. This pleasure found in death, however, can be elsewhere achieved as ‘poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well’, (Line 11) referencing to opiate drugs that can create a state equal to death. Death thus becomes obsolete and unnecessary, Donne having stripped it of its purpose, the persona that he embodies championing what most men fear and showing a bravery and strength that the reader should attempt to uphold.
The structure of the poem continues the taunting of Death, the use of iambic pentameter placing emphasis on certain words that mock it and its position in the universe. Line nine, the first line of the sonnets sestet, ‘Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men’ (Line 9) seems to hold twelve syllables, placing emphasis on ‘men’ with a stressed syllable and thus allows men to assert dominance over Death, humiliating him by reversing the power structure between the mortal and the forces which they abide by. However, if we read ‘Thou art’ as a single syllable, emphasis is placed on ‘slave’, ‘Fate’, kings’ and ‘desperate’, putting Death in a position of total ownership and submission to both a higher power and mortal men. Line five and six place emphasis on ‘rest’, ‘sleep’, ‘pictures’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘flow’, thus highlighting the elements of death that Donne believes the individual should really focus on. Structure becomes yet another component in Donne’s mission to reimagine death.
Donne’s interpretation of death as something that should be mocked and not feared stems from Christian theology concerning eternity and the immortality of the soul. Line thirteen, ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally’ (Line 13) summarizes the idea that death is nothing more than a temporary state. Linking to the notion of ‘rest and sleep’ being an imitation of death, Donne insinuates towards the Christian idea of judgment day, when Christ will come to the world again, separate the body and the soul of everyone on Earth, living or dead, and the soul shall move onto heaven where it will exist for eternity. Death thus should not only be approached with a sense of fearlessness for its pleasurable qualities but also because it is merely a transitional period between our mortal and eternal lives. Therefore, it is true ‘those, whom [Death] think’st, [it] dost overthrow, / Die not’, for if the soul is to later ‘wake eternally’ then death has no real power or purpose beyond acting as a middleman between our physical lives and our lives with God. Donne provides the reader with sound theological reasoning as to why death should be mocked and not feared; it holds no real power over us, death has no purpose other than to act as an usher into the next stage of our existence.
Nutt writes that in Holy Sonnet X Donne’s aim is to ‘establish an argument … which challenges our thinking, and then explain or elucidate it.’ [Pg. 161] This idea is illustrated by Donne presenting evidence based on Christin thought and mixing persuasive and insulting language in an attempt to assure the reader that the thing that nearly all people fear is nothing more than a joke. Death, for Donne, is powerless, unimportant and nothing more than a misunderstood idea. This sonnet, saturated with wit and humor, is ironic throughout, especially when it concludes that when we all live in eternity ‘death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.’ (Line 14) Death should not be feared, Donne states, because just like ourselves in our physical lives it exists on borrowed time.
 Joe Nutt, John Donne: The Poems, (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), pg. 161
 John Donne, ‘Holy Sonnet X’, in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose Volume 1: Verse, ed. by Alan Rudrum, Joseph Black & Holly Faith Nelson, (Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2001), pg. 58
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