The poem is included as Sonnet X in the volume of Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations. Donne demolishes two popular concepts: firstly death is dreadful and secondly death is mighty. He personifies Death and addresses him directly. Death has a certain power over man and it gives temporary sleep. If death and sleep are like brothers, greater rest and relaxation must come from death.Death releases the soul from the body’s prison. Opium and narcotics can induce sleep like death. Why then should death boast of its great power? The poet therefore calls it “poor death”. Moreover, man does not die; his soul lives for ever; it is, therefore, death which becomes superfluous and meaningless. The victory of Christian resurrection over death is the last nail in the coffin of death. The poem proves the thesis that death is neither terrible nor powerful.
DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
The poet argues that death is not dreadful because those whom death claims to have killed have a long and peaceful sleep. Sleep resembles death, but just as sleep resembles and invigorates, similarly death would provide more comfort and pleasure. This is the reason for the virtuous dying young. Death brings rest and peace and therefore it is not dreadful.
Death: a slave
Death is not powerful, as men think. It is not a powerful king but a miserable slave. It is an agent of fate, chance, actions of wicked people, poison, wars and sickness. Death is a servant of sickness and old age. It induces sleep, but there are various other means like opium and drugs which give a better and gentler sleep. Death has no reason to be proud. It can only make people sleep for some time. After sleep in the grave, people shall wake up on the day of resurrection and live for ever. Then death will have absolutely no power over human beings. Thus death’s jurisdiction comes to an end. In fact, death does not kill human beings; it is death which itself dies. The immortality of the soul ensures the survival of man. So, the poem ends on a paradox: Man is immortal; death is mortal.
Apart from the debating skill and the plausible argument of the poet, there is a lurking fear of death. The allusion to resurrection and immortality does not in any way reduce the fear of death. One is reminded of Bacon’s words: “Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark”. The comparisons are common—death as sleep, death as opium, body as prison of the soul. This poem is similar to the sonnet entitled. At the round earth’s imagined corners where Donne speaks of death’s woe, and the triumph of souls over death on Doomsday. Here Donne emphasizes the impotence of Death.
The structure of the poem facilitates the division of the theme into two parts. The octet proves that death is neither dreadful nor mighty.-The sestet brings the argument to a personal level and regards death as a slave and a door through which the soul passes to immortality. The last line hits the nail on the head. It is not the poet who dies. The poet declares happily: “Death, thou shall die”.