Death in Poetry — Then and Now by John Donne (December 2002)

Every student of English poetry has read the metaphysical poet John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Donne (1573-1631) concludes the poem with the line “Death, thou shalt die,” assuming that his Christian soul will live on after death.

To freethinkers it may seem that Donne is setting up a cardboard villain (Death) that he can easily knock down. He reminds us of a boy walking through a cemetery at midnight trying to ward off his fear, trying to substitute superstition for the facts of nature.

Death Be Not Proud

by John Donne

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.

If a freethinking contemporary of Donne had been allowed to express his or her views, perhaps the following lines might have been published.

by Tom Schlicht

John hopes his ogre Death to overthrow

(As if death were a phantom not hard fact).

The carcass and the corpse remain intact

Not long. Then longing home to earth they go.

The decomposing crow grows shoots in spring.

Do nature’s cycles need a creed to drive

Them? John’s own coil of clay will not survive

As saint but as snake or other earthsprung thing.

Nor do the dead across the Styx embark

To Hades or Hereafter. Within his mind

He stalks a man of straw but fails to find

His Mother as he whistles in the dark.

Can he not see that life and death are one?

With his conceits I hope to see John done.

Freedom From Religion Foundation