|This is a quick and rough explication. I had no desire to write it, but I finally got exhausted by the sheer number and frequency of emails from people in varying stages of panic and confusion pleading for help in decrypting this poem. I do not know why explicating this poem should incite such terror, since it is really not an impossible task. Regardless, here it is. Should you choose to use any of it, make sure to quote properly, and to give credit in your footnotes, end notes, or "Works Cited." Otherwise your professor may consider you guilty of plagiarismacademic dishonesty which is punishable in every reputable institute of academic learning. AJ.|
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
Simple. Donne is anthropomorphizing Death, and addressing him as an equal, or indeed, as it becomes apparent later, as an inferior. Donne is saying that Death likes to think of himself as powerful and terrifying, and indeed some people have called him that, but he is not so in truth. In the next lines Donne explains why.
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death thinks that he is "overthrowing" men when he takes them, that is, conquering, vanquishing, defeating, ruining, causing to fall. Instead, and this here is the "Holy" conceit of the sonnet, a very Christian concept, he does not cause them to fall, but helps them to risedeath is the means by which man finds Resurrection (literally, "rising again"), eternal life and immortality through Christ in heaven. Donne is patronizing and sarcastic with "poor Death", who is so deluded as to think himself a bane on man's existence. And again, "nor yet canst thou kill me", hearkens back to the same idea that Death does not kill, but is instead the enabler of new, immortal life. Death cannot kill him, thus he holds no power over the speaker (whom we may treat as Donne).
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] 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.
"rest and sleep, ... thy picture[s]" Here we have the Renaissance idea of sleep as death's image (cf. Donne, Woman's Constancy; Cowley, On the Death of Mr. William Hervey, Wroth, "When night's black mantle...", etc."), that is, death's likeness, semblancea sleeping man looks much like a dead man, and vice versa (the parallel of sleeping/waking and dying/waking is played with later in the sonnet). Thus, if man gets much pleasure out of rest and sleep, which are but copies of death, how much more pleasure then must be gotten from death, the original? This is why, Donne posits, the best men of the era go unhesitatingly to their deathsthey have wisely realized this to be the case. They go with Death, their bones get to their rest (in the grave), and their souls get "delivered" (lit. set free), containing the meanings at the same time of 1. being freed from the human body (think: "shuffle off this mortal coil" Hamlet), 2. freed from the fear of death, 3. delivered into heaven, and 4. delivered in the sense of being born, or reborn. Heady stuff, isn't it!
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
Here, Donne furthers the idea that Death is not mighty, but indeed is a slave, with "Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men" as his masters. The personified Death does not always have the power to choose who is to dieFate and chance may suddenly take someone, kings on a whim may doom people to their deaths, and desperate men, who see no way out, may take their own lives, thus cheating Death of his control and mastery. Next, Donne likens Death to a scavenger who cleans up where poison, war, and sickness have raged. How proud is his position now?
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell'st thou then ?
Going back to the sleep/Death image, Donne notes that drugs alike have the power of producing sleep, and in fact, create a truer sleep than Death (since Death, as Donne already pointed out, is but a fleeting moment's sleep before resurrection). Thus, Death's omnipotent self-image is again belittled and shown as false hubris, and the insult is delivered home with why swell'st thou then?, i.e., 'since this is the case, what reason have you, Death, to be proud?' The image used is that of a chest swelling with pride.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.
Thus, one short sleep past, that is, after we are dead a fleeting moment, we wake eternally, that is, we will wake up resurrected, to eternal life, never to sleep or die again. Then, death will cease to exist altogether, will die. Here now the personified Death has been shown to be not mighty and dreadful but a mere mortal, or rather less than we mortals, since he will die an eternal death at the resurrection, whereas we mortals will enjoy eternal life. The final pronouncement, Death, thou shalt die completes the idea that Death is the one who should be afraid, not the one to be feared.
Jokinen, Anniina. A Quick and Rough Explication of Donne's Holy Sonnet 10. Luminarium.
27 Mar. 2002. [Date when you accessed the page]. <http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/deathbenotexpl.htm>
Site copyright ©1996-2006 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
Page created on March 27, 2002. Last updated July 1, 2006.