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A Comparison of Concepts of Death and Immortality in Works of John Donne and Emily Dickinson

John Donne and Emily Dickinson, in their poems “Death Be Not Proud” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” personify death in order to explain the phenomenon of death and, more importantly, the wonder of eternal life. In his Holy Sonnet “Death Be Not Proud,” John Donne uses personification to characterize death as a weak antagonist, unworthy of the dread it causes. In her work, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Emily Dickinson also personifies death, although her attitude toward death differs from that of Donne. Unlike Donne, who rebukes death as an unimportant figure, Dickinson suggests that death is a charming suitor who takes Dickinson away from life. Although their conceptions of death are dissimilar in nature, both Donne and Dickinson see life beyond death. That belief in immortality even reaches the point of personification in Dickinson’s work: death is portrayed as the guide of the transitional period, from the world of the mortal to the world of the immortal. This attitude toward immortality and death in “Death Be Not Proud” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is supported by the authors’ use of personification and imagery, both of which generate an image of death as merely a companion on the journey to the timelessness of the afterlife.

John Donne uses personification extensively in “Death Be Not Proud,” creating the impression of death as a weak and inconsequential adversary. The opening lines of the sonnet read:

<BLOCKQUOTE>“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”</BLOCKQUOTE>

These lines serve to introduce not only death as a personified character, but also Donne’s view of that character. Despite the common perception of death as “Mighty and dreadful,” Donne recognizes death as one from whom “Much pleasure […] must flow” (line 6), because of the eternal rest that he brings. Furthermore, Donne’s death is an arrogant being who incorrectly believes he has the ultimate power over life. Donne compares the power of death to the power of poppy or charms, saying, “And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well / And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?” In Donne’s opinion, death has no reason to be proud, because the power of death is weaker than the power of eternal life: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die,” (lines 13-14). This final couplet of the poem reveals the ultimate paradox of death: that not even death can kill Donne, and that, when Donne reaches eternal life, death itself will die.

Emily Dickinson uses personification in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” in two figures: death and immortality. Death is the main focus of Dickinson’s attention throughout the poem, with immortality only mentioned in the first and, in an indirect way, last stanzas. Dickinson’s death is an enchanting suitor who “kindly stopped” (line 2) for her, because she was too caught up in life to stop for him. Dickinson describes death’s politeness and how she put aside all of her life’s troubles for him in lines 6-8: “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility.” Another figure, immortality, accompanies Dickinson’s carriage ride through life with death. Dickinson appears to pay hardly any attention to immortality throughout the poem; her focus is on the captivating death and the sights of the world outside. However, Dickinson’s belief in immortality is revealed in the last stanza: “Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity.” While death’s importance is shown at Dickinson’s gravesite in the previous stanza, immortality remains with Dickinson in the carriage past the gravesite, and at that moment, Dickinson realizes that the carriage’s final destination is towards eternity. This final moment of understanding brings the figure of immortality back into importance in the poem and supports Dickinson’s belief that death, while charming, is merely a companion that guides Dickinson towards eternity.

In “Death Be Not Proud,” John Donne also uses visual imagery to support his attitude towards death. The sonnet exposes death as a less powerful figure than common perception believes him to be, and, in line 9-10, Donne achieves this goal by revealing death as a “slave” to more powerful evils: “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.” Donne’s word choice is an important aspect of his imagery. Powerful words such as “fate,” “kings,” “poison,” and “war,” combined with the comparison of death to a “slave,” serve to reduce death’s strength. The images grow even stronger considering the historical context, a time when war and sickness were rampant. Donne also uses the image of sleep as a comparison to death. While sleep is a common comparison to death, this relation is emphasized in “Death Be Not Proud” because sleep is depicted as a source of satisfaction: “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Much pleasure” (lines 5-6). The image of sleep is continued in line 13, the first line of the ending couplet: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally.” Just as Donne uses sleep as a representation of death, so does he also employ its counterpart, waking, as a representation of eternal life. The visual imagery Donne uses to examine death is not as strong as his overall personification, but it aptly supports Donne’s goal of illustrating death as a weak figure that has no more command over life than a short sleep.

Emily Dickinson’s use of visual imagery in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is her most effective device in the poem, and she uses it extensively in her narration of her journey through life. Almost every stanza introduces new images, and each image has thematic significance. In the third stanza, Dickinson passes through each stage of life: first the school, where children are playing; then the fields of ripe (“gazing”) grain; and finally, the “Setting Sun.” These images further the theme of time that is a cornerstone of the poem. Dickinson, with death and immortality by her side, passes by life itself. In the fourth stanza, Dickinson shifts slightly, stating that the setting sun (a representation of not only the passage of time, but also of Dickinson’s imminent death) passes her by. The words “quivering” and “chill,” as well as the description of her meager attire in the following lines, convey her feeling of frigidity as she leaves life, expressing her fears and doubts about her death. Dickinson finally reaches the gravesite in the fifth stanza: “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.” The “swelling of the ground” provides an image of a newly dug grave, and brings the image of death back into the poem; however, the carriage only pauses at the gravesite, and Dickinson does not find the gravesite worthy of further comment past the fifth stanza. In the final stanza, the poem reaches its climax with its final image: that of the horses pointing their heads “toward Eternity.” The final image is notable because it represents the final destination in a long journey of images. From the first stanza, Dickinson uses a conceit of a carriage ride with death to represent her journey to the afterlife, and, in the final image of the poem, she emphasizes eternity as her final destination.

Both John Donne and Emily Dickinson examine death and eternal life in their respective poems; however, the manner and tone towards which they convey their beliefs differ greatly. The overall tone in “Death Be Not Proud” is one of condemnation and a righteous belief in the power of immortality. Donne uses personification of death and comparison of death to stronger images to create a death that is, in its essence, not deadly. Donne berates death for His pride and supposed power, while lifting up eternity as death’s slayer. Dickinson, on the other hand, develops a formal, somber tone in her work, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Dickinson is entranced by death, a polite suitor, and her journey through and away from life with him is solemn. She, too, believes in the ultimate power of immortality, though without Donne’s confident vigor. Dickinson employs extensive imagery in her poem, creating the experience of the carriage ride through pictures of life and death. She also uses words related to time to heighten her conception of the timelessness of immortality. In the final climactic moment of revelation, she feels the passage of time in both centuries and a day, highlighting her experience of being pulled out of the mortal understanding of time. Then, like Donne in the ending couplet of “Death Be Not Proud,” she is directed towards eternity. In all, despite contrasting views of death’s strength and importance, Emily Dickinson and John Donne both believe in immortality: an eternal life so resolute that death becomes merely a stopping-point on the final journey, a pause leading up to the moment when, one short sleep past, death itself is conquered.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2007.

Donne, John. “Death Be Not Proud.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2007.

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