Death be not Proud by John Donne

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Here, you will find a summary and questions/answers to chapter 2 (poetry) “Death be not Proud” by John Donne which is a part of Class 12 Alternative English syllabus for students studying under the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE).

death be not proud

Summary: ‘Death be Not Proud’ is one of the great metaphysical poet John Donne’s nineteen Holy Sonnets. Donne, a classic Renaissance product, developed a type of love and religious poetry that captivated its readers with its wit, conceits, fantastic imagery, erudite complexity, colloquial and dramatic styles. Donne’s poetry shows the unusual confluence of reason and passion — a trait known as “Unified Sensibility.”

This poem deconstructs the conventional image of death as a formidable ruler. The poet offers an unusual perspective on death. Donne addresses the poem to Death, implying that Death should not be proud of itself. Death, according to popular belief, is neither frightening nor strong. It has no control over the immortal soul. The poet illustrates his point with examples of rest and slumber. He claims that rest and sleep are merely euphemisms for death. Rest and sleep provide us with joy. As a result, dying should bring far more pleasure, which is the actual thing. Second, our best men are taken from us far too young. Their bones are rejuvenated, and their souls are liberated. As a result, dying is not a terrifying experience.

Now, the poet debunks the widely held assumption that death is all-powerful. Death, in truth, is a prisoner, a slave to fate, chance, cruel kings, and wicked men. It is associated with poison, battle, and sickness. Opium and other narcotics have the same impact on us as death in terms of putting us to sleep. They do, in fact, help us sleep better. Death cannot function on its own level. As a result, death should not be proud of its abilities.

Finally, the poet states that death is a form of sleep from which the soul awakens to live eternally and becomes immortal. Then death has no hold over us. In other words, the soul triumphs over death; it is death that dies. Donne thus lowers death and joyfully reveals its impotence. It is not frightening or overpowering in any manner. As a result, we should not be afraid of death because it has no influence over our souls.

Answer the following questions briefly.

1. Who is the poet addressing in the poem? 

Answer: The poet is addressing Death in the poem.

2. What do people think of death according to the poet?

Answer: According to the poet, people think of death as mighty and terrifying, something that frightens their imaginations and thoughts. They believe that death is a tremendous force that terminates everything in a human’s life.

3. Why is the poet not afraid of death?

Answer: John Donne, the poet, is not terrified of death since he believes that when individuals die, they are only dead for a brief period and that their souls live on in the afterlife alongside all other spirits in heaven. As a result, he argues that death cannot kill him.

4. Give an example of the use of paradox in the poem.

Answer: The poet employs the paradox of death by questioning its traditional portrayal as man’s indomitable conqueror, claiming that it provides greater relief and pleasure than rest and sleep. It also offers “Souls’ delivery,” which is a release into a tranquil eternity.

5. How does death set a man free?

Answer: When a man transitions from a physical being to a spiritual being, he becomes free. Where he shall live forever. He transcends into the joys of an eternal afterlife, free of the tragedies, conflicts, and afflictions of earthly life.

Explain the following lines with reference to the context.

1. 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,

a. Why does the poet call death a slave?

Answer: Death does not select its victims because sickness and accident determine who dies. Because death lacks the ability to choose, the poet referred to it as a “slave.”

b. Which two activities produce the same effect as death?

Answer: The two activities that produce the same effect as death are ‘fate’ and ‘chance’.

2. And better than thy stroke; why swell’s thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

a. What does the poet mean by ‘why swell’s though then?’

Answer: These lines are taken from the poem “Death be not Proud,” written by John  Donne. The poet is here contemplating death’s destructive force. Death is compared by the poet to a range of powers that take lives on their own volition, such as fate, chance, monarchs, and desperate individuals. Even in terms of rest, death is inferior to medications.

b. What is the Christian theme being indicated with ‘we wake eternally’?

Answer: The line “We Wake Externally” by poet John Donne alludes to a man’s victory after death, where his physical existence transcends to the spiritual being as a living soul, sparking the commencement of a new kind of existence.

The poet suggests a Christian motif here, as Christians believe in life after death and equate death to a brief slumber from which they will arise to live eternally in heaven. He encourages his readers to be brave in the face of death since it is a path to our true self of living forever away from the hardships, worries, and misery of this physical world. He signifies the long-term triumph over the transient, monosyllabic death. Donne has launched a powerful rhetorical attack on death’s invincibility while also declaring his faith in the eternal afterlife’s joys that would transcend the miseries of earthly existence.

Answer the following questions in detail.

1. Why does the poet feel that death is arrogant? How does he belittle this arrogance?

Answer: To manage the emotional feelings linked with a discussion of death, John Donne personifies death in ‘Death be not proud’ and proceeds to disparage it because, while some may think that death is mighty and dreadful, he maintains that “Thou art not such.” Death, personified, is pompous because it believes death is the end of existence, but Donne tells out that it is simply a “brief sleep.” Death cannot defeat man, therefore Donne asks why it feels as though it has accomplished anything when our best men with thee depart, because after they die, their bones simply rest.

Death’s arrogance as it thinks ‘thou dost overthrow’ is unacceptable to Donne, because death is actually the entity that is beaten and vanquished every time. It is nothing more than a transition, and while everyone must die, we wake eternally and thus are no longer dead, proving that it is death that will die.

2. Discuss the central theme of the poem.

Answer: The central theme of the poem is death’s powerlessness, with Donne describing death as a doorway to endless life, rather than something ‘mighty and horrible’ as some may assume. According to John Donne, death only delivers the noblest men to a condition of great joy “as well as “soul’s delivery.” In essence, he is reminding death that it has no reason to gloat or be “proud.” “because it is not the ominous, terrifying entity it portrays itself to be. Death, according to Donne, has no reason to be proud because its authority is an illusion, and its rule is fading. It is “no more” once it has served its goal of transferring its victims out of worldly existence, having been overwhelmed by eternal life.

3. And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.Explain the significance of the line.

Answer: The line is taken from John Donne’s poem “Death be not Proud.” The given line represents the defeat of death itself, which is seen as all-powerful and horrible, and is feared by mankind. The poem opens with death personified as an individual who ends everything, but the poet compares it to other characters and powers and demonstrates his fearlessness towards death, suggesting that it is just a short slumber and more like a passage into one’s eternal existence.

According to the poet, when death has done its work on man, it is the end of itself, for man will no longer die, but will be transcended to a spiritual being free of the miseries of earthly physical life. In some ways, going through death is a happy experience because man will enter his true purpose of living eternally in heaven free of all miseries. Death itself becomes the final terror for man, where he no longer feels it.

4. In the poem, death is represented as a lowly figure keeping company with poison, war, and sickness. What does the poet imply by this?

Answer: Donne depicts the figure of death, which has lost its mighty and frightening appearance due to poison, war, and sickness, and where endless life beyond death has overshadowed the terrifying element of death. Donne urges death not to be proud, even though he has been given great names, for even if death has taken many lives, it does not mean that he has won, nor among the lives of people, because their souls will have eternal life. The end of mortal life or the claim of death by battle, poison, or sickness will have eternal life because their death is transient and can be induced by pharmaceuticals as well. As a result, Donne claims that death is neither great nor horrible. Death, on the other hand, is a slave to fate, chance, and monarchs since death can only take away men’s lives when fate or chance allow it, when kings declare war, or when sickness or poison kills them. Donne even goes so far as to term death “poor death,” because it is little compared to the recompense obtained in the afterlife, where death will be no more.

Additional/extra questions and answers/solutions

1. What is the genre of the poem “Death, Be Not Proud”?

Answer: The poem is written in iambic pentameter and is an example of a Shakespearean sonnet.

2. What is the speaker’s take on Death? What are the many forces that cause it?

Answer: Death is portrayed as someone deserving of scorn rather than reverence. Death, according to lines nine and ten, can only act when it is brought about by fate, chance, monarchs, desperate individuals, poison, battle, and sickness.

3. What is the significance of Donne’s statement that those whom Death believes he kills “die not”?

Answer: According to the speaker, death is merely a halt in life, and people who die are simply waiting to awaken to eternal life. As a result, death should not be proud.

4. Explain the relevance of the caesurae in the final line of the poem.

Answer: The placement of a semicolon between “more” and “death” implies that death is simply a halt for the dying. The comma after “death” implies that death is the victim of dying rather than the person. Because once someone dies, death no longer has the ability to live for that person.

5. Discuss the opening lines of the sonnet ‘Death be not Proud.’

Answer: In the poem’s first lines, Donne addresses Death and asks it not to be proud. Death has been described as forceful and frightening by some, but this is not the case. Death, according to Donne, is a lowly thing, not a mighty one. Death does not genuinely murder the persons it believes it has killed. Rather, their souls become eternal, and they awaken to live forever. As a result, the soul becomes more powerful and conquers death.

6. Who, in the poet’s opinion, are the agents of death?

Answer: Poison, war, and sickness, according to the poet, are the agents of death. Death is present in their awful company. To kill a person, Death must enlist the assistance of these evil agents. Death, in truth, is a victim of fate, chance, harsh kings, and terrible individuals. Opium and other narcotics have the same impact on us as death in terms of putting us to sleep. They do, in fact, help us sleep better. Death cannot function on its own level. That is why death is not terrifying and powerful.

7. What does the word ‘slave’ imply?

Answer: According to John Donne, death is a hostage or slave to the power of fate, chance, monarchs, and wicked men. This slave picture of death implies that death is powerless. It is not self-sufficient and cannot function at its own level. It merely executes fate’s and chance’s directions and kills others. It must rely on poison, conflict, and sickness to demonstrate its effectiveness.

8. Based on your reading of “Death be not Proud,” what conclusions do you draw about Donne’s religious faith?

Answer: Donne is a classic Renaissance figure who wrote a type of love and religious poetry that catches the reader’s attention with its wits, conceits, and fantastic imagery. His poetry can be tough and obscure at times, rendering it incomprehensible to the average reader.

This poem demonstrates the poet’s strong religious beliefs. All religious Christians believe in the soul’s immortality. Similarly, Donne, who is deeply religious, claims that Death has no influence over the soul. It can only kill our bodies. The soul becomes immortal after death and awakens eternally in paradise. Rather, it is the soul that triumphs over death. Death, according to Donne, is a lowly thing, not a mighty one. The poet pities death for its weakness and vulnerability by referring to it as ‘poor.’ Death, he claims, is neither terrifying nor strong. Death is simply a sort of relaxation and slumber that provides us with far more pleasure. 

Death is once again described by the poet as a slave of fate, chance, monarchs, and wicked men. It is associated with poison, battle, and sickness. It cannot work at its own level; it must enlist the assistance of its agents such as poison, war, and fate in order to finish a person. In other words, it is not self-contained. It has no power and should not take pride in killing someone. It is death itself that dies. Donne reduces death in this way, declaring cheerfully death’s impotence, and this poem demonstrates the poet’s genuinely religious nature.

9. Do you agree with Donne that death is nothing more than a “poor death”?

Answer: Yes, we completely agree with Donne that death is nothing but a poor death. The author deconstructs the conventional image of death as a terrible ruler in this poem. It accomplishes this by advancing the concept that death is as fleeting as sleep. People often feel that death is a horrible and powerful force. But the poet opposes death’s authority. The audacity of the argument is evident when Donne refers to death as “poor” because it is only a slave of fate, chance, monarchs, and terrible men. Death cannot function on its own level. To kill a person, poison, war, and sickness must be used. He compares death to slumber once more. He claims that rest and sleep are merely euphemisms for death. They provide us a lot of joy. As a result, dying should provide far more pleasure. Opium and other narcotics have the same impact on us as death in terms of putting us to sleep. They do, in fact, help us sleep better. Furthermore, our best men die young. Their bodies rest after death, and their souls become free. It has no influence over the soul. It can only kill bodies, not souls. For Donne, death is nothing more than a portal through which our spirit must pass in order to live an endless existence. Thus, the poem celebrates the immortality of the soul and the mortality of death. The soul triumphs over death; it is death that dies. The poem initially shocks the reader, but eventually convinces him of death’s insignificance.

Get solutions to other chapters of NBSE Class 12 Alternative English


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