Holy Sonnet 6

from Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations *


Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.


For an audio recording, try this one by David Barnes.


* This short sequence of six sonnets on death and judgment was probably written in 1609.

line 1. Death be not proud. These words also open an Elegy on Mrs. Bulstrode, which is almost certainly not by Donne.

line 7. soonest our best men with thee do goe. The reference may be to the proverbial saying that the good die young, or to the death-bed of a righteous man; cf. ‘Valediction: forbidding mourning’:

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
And whisper to their soules, to goe.

line 8. soules deliverie. Death is both the soul’s birth, and its ‘gaol-delivery’.

lines 12–13. better . . . wake. ‘Easyer’ and ‘live’, the readings of Group III and W[estmoreland] stood, I believe, in Donne’s first version. ‘Easyer’ merely means more pleasantly; ‘better’ give us a hyperbole. The sleep of drugs is heavy and long; death’s is short. ‘Wake’ gives a better antithesis to ‘sleepe’ than ‘live’ does.

line 14. And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die. I have restored the light pointing of this line in 1633. It is supported by Group I, TCC, A 18, W[estmoreland]. [H. J. C.] Grierson’s ‘no more; death, thou shalt die’ has support from TCD, Group III. All the MSS. [manuscripts] agree in giving the second ‘death’ a capital.

On the Westmoreland manuscript: “W is a fine, large manuscript, written throughout in one hand. Unlike most of the manuscripts of Group III, it contains no doubtful poems. . . . The fact that it contains no doubtful poems, and that its text is remarkably free from the blunders we find in even the best of the other manuscripts, gives it high authority. It was plainly copied with great care from two excellent sources.”

Source: Helen Gardner, editor, John Donne: The Divine Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), pages lxxix, lxxx, 9, 69, and 70; Helen Gardner, editor, The Metaphysical Poets (London: Penguin, [1972] 1985), page 83 and 85.

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