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John Donne’s View of Human Death: Death Be Not Proud

Death be Not Proud

In “Death be Not Proud” by John Donne, the author uses metaphysical and poetry techniques to convey the idea that Death should not be feared. In conjunction with the metaphysical elements, the poem also contains many poetic devices to personify Death and undermine his power and importance.

The speaker begins with a strong statement, explaining “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death”. Death is personified as a human that the speaker talks to in order to portray that Death is not as divine as once thought. This personification is also reflected in the style of the poem, a sonnet, as it is written in iambic pentameter. This meter effectively mimics conversation, and by using it, the author is showing that Death can be spoken to as if it were but a mere person, and not a divine power. The speaker explains to Death that he cannot really kill anyone, as he is but “one short sleep past, we wake eternally [from]”. This comparison of sleep to Death is used to prove that Death is not the end all be all, it is merely a short break from life. Again, it undercuts Death’s assumed power to show Death as something not to be feared.

The speaker continues with comparing sleep to Death, commenting “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be / much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow”. This irony conveys that the speaker finds sleep to be pleasurable, and because Death is only an extended sleep, it must also be pleasurable. This introspective meditation on the power of Death shows a new truth – Death is not something to be feared. The passage itself takes on a mocking tone as the speaker breaks down Death’s assumed power to portray it as a peaceful sleep, in doing so he shows Death is not as scary as originally thought. The speaker relents that “our best men with thee do go,” only to taunt “[but] rest of their bones and soul’s delivery” . Essentially he is saying that Death may take away the best men, but it does not have a lasting effect, as what is after death is pleasurable.

Next he directly attacks the dominant power of death, claiming “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”. The diction of “slave” and “desperate” portray Death in an almost pathetic light, showing it is not nearly as omnipotent as one presumes. This realistic view of Death serves to knock down the feared pedestal upon which it sits, to show that Death is not the end all be all. Ironically, the speaker next compares Death to poppies and charms, as “[those] can make us sleep as well”. This ironic comparison also functions to belittle Death in a way to show one has nothing to fear from it.

Lastly, the author incorporates religious allusions as befitting a metaphysical poem. Upon comparing Death to sleep, the speaker relates “We wake eternally / and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die”. The paradox delivers a profound statement, one last blow to the personified Death’s ego, to show that it is no more than a window to the next world. The last couplet in which the paradox resides aligns with the predetermined purpose of a sonnet, as it functions as a conclusion to the argument presented in the preceding lines.

Throughout the poem the speaker uses wit and irony, metaphysical poem components, to tear apart the presumed notion of Death as a destructive, divine power. In conjunction with these, the structure of the poem functions to undermine Death’s authority by using Iambic pentameter and couplets. Personification is used heavily throughout the work to show Death as being mortal and weak, much like humans, to align with the speaker’s realistic view that Death should not be feared. In all, the poem fits within the metaphysical boundary as it discusses Death and God in a philosophical way to expose a truth, whilst subscribing to the traditional components of a metaphysical poem, the use of wit, irony, and paradox.

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