How is the tone that is achieved change throughout the poem in "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the challenging, at times combative, tone of John Donne's Holy Sonnet X, also referred to as "Death Be Not Proud," the direct address of the poet to the personified death, is a metaphysical poem that employs argument, irony, and paradox. This poem is a far-fetched conceit, an unusual comparison between two entirely different things, that provides a medium for Donne to display his learning as an Anglican minister.

Donne personifies death and likens it to a proud, but ultimately ineffectual tyrant who cannot, ironically, kill those with eternal life. For instance, in lines 3 and 4, Donne makes reference to Revelation 21:4 in which the believers will attain eternal life after death, and, thus, foil death. Further, he tells Death that is no more effective than "poppy or charms" that can kill men just as easily. Finally, in the last line, Donne ends with the paradox, "Death, thou shalt die." For, the eternal life of the soul will conquer mortal death.

The challenges and mocking arguments against Death end with the speaker issuing a strong threat to Death itself as a defeated tyrant who cannot conquer him because he has eternal life:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Thus, Donne, as the speaker, combines eternal life and death in a unique way that displays his learning and ability to rhyme with unconventional and prosodic rhyme in which there are swells and pitches not normally found. 


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