A several years back a friend of mine introduced me to the sonnet, “Death be not proud” by John Donne. Yesterday she again reminded me this poem. This is a beautiful poem that tries to tell death, which is for most of us a thing to be feared, that it is not as mighty or dreadful as it appears to be.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Donne tells death that it is not as dreadful or mighty as some have called it. He tells death that it cannot really kill the ones that it thinks have died. He says that “rest and sleep” are also pictures of death and are quite pleasurable- therefore death should be even more pleasurable. He then says that since the best men die young so who would want to avoid it. He then tells death that it is a slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men. He argues that the realm of death are things like “sickness, poison and war” and who would want to rule over such despicable domains. He pities death! And then he says that even poppies and potions can make us sleep – so death does not do anything great. He then goes beyond logic to say that death merely makes up sleep for some time and then we wake up for ever. And this eternal existence has no death- death itself would die when we reach that eternal existence. This is a very religious and spiritual argument. So in this poem Donne uses logic, rhetoric and spiritual arguments to “defeat” death and the fear that it places over the human heart.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.