An Analysis of Donne's Death Be Not Proud: Fighting the Fear of Death

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In 'Death be not proud' (Divine Sonnet X), Donne turns his rhetorical skills on his greatest poetic adversary - death itself. “Divine Sonnet X” by John Donne is one of his best-known religious poems. It famously begins “Death be not proud” and advances a stream of arguments to prove that man’s greatest fear has no power over him.


The opening line, “Death be not proud”, is an apostrophe or address to an abstract figure. Donne favours apostrophes and dramatic monologues, which give an immediacy and urgency to his rhetoric – in his career as a churchman, Donne was a famous preacher, so it’s no surprise that many of his poems sound like dramatic speeches. In rhetorically picking on death, Donne is taking on a big adversary, though not entirely without precedent. There is an echo in the opening of St. Paul’s famous demand in Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory


Rather than developing a single line of logic, Donne throws several arguments at Death to try to humble it. “those whom thou think’st thou dost ovethrow/ Die not” he declares, without fully explaining what he means at this point. “Rest and sleep” seem to be the “pictures” of death, and these are enjoyable, he argues, so the real thing must be even more pleasant – and in any case “soonest our best men with thee do go”; if the good die young, why should anyone want to avoid it? In a brilliant turn of argument, Donne tells Death that it is not “mighty and dreadful” because it is merely a functionary, a “slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men”. Anything which can be whistled for by so many despicable causes is hardly to be respected. Its habitat is amongst “poison, war and sickness”, a realm which no-one would want to rule. This is typical Donne: grandiose, verbally aggressive, and picking up any argument, however specious or inconsistent, which can serve to support his cause. He even goes so far as to patronize the Grim Reaper, calling it “poor death” and demanding “why swell’st thou then?”

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As the poem ends he elaborates on his earlier statement that “those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow/ Die not. . . nor yet can’st thou kill me”, by pointing out that for Christians, death is merely the beginning of eternal life: “one short sleep past, we live eternally. ” He encapsulates this in an even shorter phrase in the last line, mingling the consolation of the Christian faith with a paradox, and triumphing “Death will be more no more, death, thou shalt die. ”

In Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther explores the process of death: discovery, fighting, living on, and then dying. The process becomes just a little bit easier, as humor, human kindness and courage all are woven in. More than just about dying, this memoir becomes a study of living. Gunther asked himself the larger questions: 'Why was Johnny being subjected to this merciless experience?' And, then he says, 'suffering is an inevitable part of most lives. ' He wanted to believe there was some greater purpose, like the works of art that came out of Milton's blindness and Beethoven's deafness. He says, 'perhaps the entire harrowing episode would make his brain even finer, subtler, and more sensitive than it was. ' Of course, Johnny's brain did not become sharper. Even early in the process of fighting the brain tumor, he seems to feel that death is inevitable, as Johnny laments: 'I have so much to do! and there's so little time!' In a very literary sense, his statement is foreshadowing his untimely end, but there's also a feeling of eagerness, of an absolute passion for life. He wants to see what he can do, what he can accomplish! He's still so young, and there's a certain amount of impetuous naivety mingled with absolute realism.

We know Death will win, but Death need not be proud. Johnny fought a valiant fight; and, along the way, he gained the respect of his family, friends, his doctors, and strangers. His life becomes a sort of experiment. And, in the end, the doctors could do nothing. 'All the doctors!--helpless flies now, climbing across the granite face of death. ' Johnny was sometimes able to function at a level that could almost be called 'normal,' but he was continually faced with the realization that his mind was deteriorating. His memory began to fail him, as more of the healthy tissue was taken over. As Gunther writes, 'All that goes into the brain--the goodness, the wit, the sum total of enchantment in a personality, the very will, indeed the ego itself--being killed inexorably, remorselessly, by an evil growth!' And, no matter what new treatments they tried, they couldn't find a cure.

A Fight to the Death

The struggle against death is a fight against the void, against the loss of life--the spark. It is, as Gunther says: 'A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force--this was what went on in Johnny's head. What he was fighting against was the ruthless assault of chaos. What he was fighting for, as it were, the life of the human mind. '

Ultimately, Death came, like a thief in the night. The warmth of his body crept away. 'Then little by little the life-color left his face, his lips became blue, and his hands were cold. ' He was 17 years old. He would have attended Harvard. But, none of that mattered, as everyone who knew him remembered his life. Frances writes of her grief and remembrance: 'My grief, I find, is not desolation or rebellion at universal law or deity. I find grief to be much simpler and sadder. . . All the things he loved tear at my heart because he is no longer here on earth to enjoy them. All the things he loved!'

Like John Gunther, Frances asks the big questions: 'What does it mean? What can it mean, now?' But, then she draws upon the universality to her discussion of death: 'Parents all over the earth who lost sons in the war have felt this kind of question, and sought and answer. To me, it means loving life more, being more aware of life, of one's fellow human beings, of the earth. '

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