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Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called 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.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures 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.
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?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne was born in 1572 into a staunchly Catholic family. His uncle was a Jesuit priest, Jasper Heywood, who spent his life in exile. While a student at Cambridge, Donne refused to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging the authority of England’s monarch over matters of religion, and was denied his degree as a result. He studied law, traveled widely, and even joined the fight against the Spanish Armada. He had a chequered life story, and is as well known for his remarkable love poems as he is for his sacred poetry and his sermons! He eventually joined the Church of England, and in 1615 became a priest, serving as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was a renowned preacher. He preached his most famous sermon, “Death’s Duel” before the court of King Charles I in February, 1631, just a few weeks before his own death.
Death was a constant in Donne’s life. He and his wife, Anne, had twelve children—two of them were stillborn, and another three died before the age of ten. Anne died just five days after giving birth to their last child. In 1623, Donne had a near-fatal illness about which he wrote in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which include the famous passage, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 
All of these experiences shaped Donne’s attitudes, and his later works are deeply religious—and sometimes quite dark. In “Death’s Duel,” his famous “last” sermon, Donne writes that we are doomed from our very birth: “This deliverance, from the death of the womb, is an entrance, a delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world; we have a winding-sheet in our mother’s womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
In the Renaissance convention, death is a fearsome opponent, who pursues us and inevitably triumphs. But in this famous sonnet, “Death be not proud,” Donne approaches death in a very different way. Addressing death directly, Donne mocks death’s power. “Death, be not proud,” he says. “Some have called thee mighty and dreadful, but thou art not so.” No, death in this poem is not strong, but weak. Donne builds his case as the sonnet unfolds. Rest and sleep are common images for death and these are pleasant things; then death must be, too. The best among us die young, and what do they find but “rest of their bones, and soules delivery.” Both good things.
In the second half of the sonnet, Donne hammers home his point. Death is a slave to so many powers--fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, poison, war, and sickness, all of which control death’s power.  So what reason does death have to be proud?  Death is not in charge.
Donne’s final stroke is at the end of the poem. The real reason death can’t win—is that we can’t die. After the sleep of death, “we wake eternally.” Donne is evoking St. Paul in I Corinthians, and the fundamental Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead.” As Christians, the Resurrection isn’t something that happened once to Jesus – the Resurrection is our destiny too. “Just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ… For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
This sonnet wonderfully and dramatically reaffirms this basic Christian belief. Because Christ is risen, death has no dominion over him—or over us. Because Christ is risen, we will rise. The liturgy says this so well in the Easter Sequence: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous. The prince of life who died, reigns immortal.”




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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