John Donne, a 17th century English poet, wrote “Death, be not proud,” a sonnet, in 1609. This particular poem was published posthumously along with a group of other poems in a collection known as his Holy Sonnets. These sonnets explore deep religious themes and are thought to have been written in a period of personal trial in Donne’s own life.
Another piece of life added to Donne’s poem is the composition of nine holy sonnets by composer Benjamin Britten in 1945. Though the poems are melancholy, there is a note of redemption, especially poignant in “Death, be not proud.” It is said that Britten was inspired to compose his work after witnessing the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. Both the poem and the musical composition are posted here.
Personally, when I first came across Donne’s poem I was deeply moved by its words and message. Though perhaps a bit gloomy, I have often been drawn to the imaginative personification of Death, the creative macabre (Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman perhaps). Death has been at times depicted as the great devil himself, Satan. At times Death is merely an angel or supernatural entity doing his duty (think of Zusak’s narrator in The Book Thief). At times he is kind and empathetic of life’s tragedies, and at times he is the instigator. For some reason, when I think of Death personified, I hear the last track of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida running through my mind: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; / I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.” But Donne’s words are clear and are our hope: “Death, thou shalt die.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are 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.