The Personification and Criticism of Death in
John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud."

"No poem of John Donne's is more widely read or more directly associated with Donne than the tenth of the Holy Sonnets, 'Death, be not proud.'" (Dr. Gerald McDaniel, lecture). In this sonnet, Donne personifies death in two ways, as rescuer and as punisher of even the most noble. Using these personifications, Donne turns the sting of death against death itself.
Donne's personification of death begins in line two where he says that some people have called death "Mighty and dreadful"(l 2). The quality of being powerful and the ability to cause great fear, basic definitions taken from Random House's 1962 The American College Dictionary, are undeniably human traits and Donne uses these traits to portray death as a formidable foe. "With an impudence that is characteristically Donne's, he deflates Death in the opening salvo. He discounts the power of death as a mere fiction" (Dr. Gerald McDaniel, lecture).
Now that the image of his foe, death, has been created, Donne denounces the power and fear associated with death, "for thou art not so. / For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me" (ll 2-4), Donne defies death's power. He is so bold as to mock death, calling it "poor death" (l 4), giving death the sense and personification of being deficient in that it cannot kill Donne.
In the second quatrain, Donne continues his critique of death. He questions death that if sleep or rest is a pleasure of life, then what greater pleasure can death bring? "Much pleasure, then from thee much pleasure must flow" (l 6). Donne also gives death credit that even the virtuous go with death, "And soonest our best men with thee do go" (l 7), to be delivered to an eternal rest and their soul's salvation, "Rest of our bones, and soul's delivery" (l 8).
From the third quatrain comes Donne's second perception about death, painting death as the associate of all the evil in life by saying "Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell" (l 9-10).
"The poet [Donne] even notes that narcotics or witchcraft ("poppies or charms" [l 11]) can outdo death in making people sleep, since drug-induced or hex-generated trances are not as permanent as death" (Dr. Gerald McDaniel, lecture). Here Donne uses the simile of narcotics as a form of death, implying that they can do the job just as well: "poppy or charms can make us sleep as well" (l 11). The superiority of these human-based methods of impersonating death - "better than thy stroke" (l 12), - takes away the last shred of dignity for death, which Donne again mocks as unfortunate: "why swell'st thou then?" (l 12).
The confidence Donne shows throughout the sonnet comes from the belief in "the victory of Christ over Death through the Resurrection" (Dr. Gerald McDaniel, lecture). With "One Short sleep past, we wake eternally" (l 13), he tells death that after the eyes have closed for the last time in life, we will enter into the afterlife of eternal life. In the end, Donne strikes one final victorious blow to death, telling it that after this life ends, there is no more death, only eternal life. Thus Donne uses death's power against it: "And death shalt be no more. Death, thou shalt die"