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.