The speaker tells Death that it should not feel proud, for though some have called it “mighty and dreadful,” it is not. Those whom Death thinks it kills do not truly die, nor, the speaker says, “can’st thou kill me.” Rest and sleep are like little copies of Death, and they are pleasurable; thus, the speaker reasons, Death itself must be even more so—indeed, it is the best men who go soonest to Death, to rest their bones and enjoy the delivery of their souls. Death, the speaker claims, is a slave to “fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,” and is forced to dwell with war, poison, and sickness. The speaker says that poppies and magic charms can make men sleep as well as, or better than, Death’s stroke, so why should Death swell with pride? Death is merely a short sleep, after which the dead awake into eternal life, where Death shall no longer exist: Death itself will die.
This simple sonnet follows an ABBAABBACDCDEE rhyme scheme and is written in a loose iambic pentameter. In its structural division of its subject, it is a Petrarchan sonnet rather than a Shakespearean one, with an octet establishing the poem’s tension, and the subsequent sestet resolving it.
This rather uncomplicated poem is probably Donne’s most famous and most anthologized; “Death be not proud” seems to be, for some reason, the most famous phrase in Donne. The sonnet takes the oblique reasoning and topsy-turvy symbolism of Donne’s metaphysical love poems and applies them to a religious theme, treating the personified figure of Death as someone not worthy of awe or terror but of contempt. Donne charts a line of reasoning that explores a different idea in each quatrain. First, Death is not powerful or mighty because he does not kill those he thinks he kills; second, the experience of being dead must be more pleasurable than rest and sleep, which are pleasurable, pale copies of death, and the best people die most readily to hurry to their “soul’s delivery” (“delivery,” a childbearing pun, introduces the idea that the death of the body is a birth for the soul).
In the third quatrain, the speaker mocks Death’s position: It is inferior to drugs and potions, a slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men (each of which deals out death), and lives in the gutter with poison and sickness. In the couplet, the speaker rounds out the idea of the poem, by saying that, if the afterlife is eternal, then upon the moment a person dies, it is really Death that dies to that person and not vice-versa, for that person will never again be subject to Death. This final idea represents the classic metaphysical moment, in which an established idea is turned completely on its head by a seemingly innocuous line of reasoning—the idea that Death could die is startling and counterintuitive but completely sensible in light of Donne’s reasoning. Of course, even in the seventeenth century the idea would not have seemed as startling as many of Donne’s other metaphysical conceits—it is an idea that appears not only in Shakespeare (“And death once dead, there’s no more dying then”) but also in the Bible itself (“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” from I Corinthians).