How does the theme of Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for death" compare to that of John Donne's "Death, be not proud"?

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Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison between these two poems is the fact that, in each, Death is portrayed as subservient to humanity and powerless in the face of "Immortality."

In Donne's poem, the speaker has taken exception to the personified Death, and he expresses the command that he...

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Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison between these two poems is the fact that, in each, Death is portrayed as subservient to humanity and powerless in the face of "Immortality."

In Donne's poem, the speaker has taken exception to the personified Death, and he expresses the command that he "be not proud." He points out that, far from being "mighty and dreadful," "yet thou canst not kill me." Death is not actually in control of who lives or dies but instead is "slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men." That is: Death does not decide when he should arrive and intervene in the lives of people on earth; on the contrary, he is summoned by the invitation of "fate" or by the decrees of "kings" like a service man to take away the dead. And, in the end, Donne says that after "one short sleep . . . we wake eternally." Thus, only Death shall die, while humans will actually live.

Dickinson's speaker has had no altercation with Death; she does not find him to be "proud." However, she is not subservient to his wishes—she "could not stop for Death," with Death instead stopping for her, suggesting that he actually is tied to her timetable rather than she to his. Nor is he the only person who accompanies her on the final journey. On the contrary, "the carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality." In traveling with Death, Dickinson does not feel any sense of fear or of being controlled by him. It is almost as if Death is an usher accompanying her "toward Eternity." While the behavior of her personified Death is gentler than that of Donne's, the poem shares the theme of Donne's that Death serves us, rather than we him and that ultimately he is only there to escort us towards immortality.

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In their poems, Dickinson and Donne both express the idea that death is not something to fear or dread.  Their methods of expressing this theme, however, vary greatly.  Even though both personify death, they differ in their characterizations of death.  In Dickinson's poem, death is portrayed as a kindly gentleman who thoughtfully stops for the speaker, who was too busy with her daily affairs to stop for him.  He gently and slowly drives her to her final resting place, which is portrayed as a 

little house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible.

The cornice, in the ground.  

Her grave is described as a house, certainly nothing to be afraid of.  But she also knows that this is the home where she will be forever.  The carriage holds Immortality, and the horses' heads "were toward eternity."  This poem, though seemingly a strong statement of faith in the afterlife, is somewhat ambiguous.  "Surmised" is an interesting word choice because it means to guess without sufficient evidence.  Perhaps the speaker only thought the horses were heading toward eternity and since she stepped into her carriage centuries ago has has only experienced a vast void. She does not mention heaven or really even the afterlife--only the slow journey to the end.  So, the reader is left to question whether Death is the kindly gentleman the speaker once thought he was and wonder whether what looks like a home is in actuality a cold, dark tomb where she will remain in limbo.  

Donne's sonnet personifies death as a pompous bully who truly has no power over any mortal.  Although many may fear death, death, like a bully, only blusters about with no true ability to harm.  Donne relies on paradox to prove his point: 

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

This paradox is resolved by Donne equating death to sleep, from which we awaken to eternal life.  When all people have died and reawakened, then death can be no more, and therefore we all can transcend death.  Even though Donne uses paradoxes throughout his poem, his message, unlike Dickinson's, lacks ambiguity.  Eternal life is clearly something to be desired; death is not to be feared.  It is instead something, like sleep, from which we derive much pleasure.

 . . our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.

In Dickinson's poem the speaker is compliant and perhaps duped.  In Donne's poem, the speaker, in the face of death, is defiant and victorious.  

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