What literary techniques does John Donne use in his sonnet that begins "Death, be not proud"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Examples of the literary techniques used by John Donne in his sonnet beginning “Death, be not proud” include the following:

Line 1: Personification, in the reference to death as “Death.”  Irony and paradox, in addressing death as if it were a living thing. Enjambment, because of the lack of punctuation at the end of the line (a technique also used elsewhere in the poem).

Line 2: Metrical emphasis, as in the following departure from regular iambic rhythm: “Mighty and dreadful.” Normally, in iambic meter, the odd syllables are unaccented and the even syllables are accented. Thus, the first four syllables of this line, if they had been written in iambic rhythm, would look like this: unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed. Instead, Donne accentuates the first four syllables as follows: stressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed. He thus throws full weight onto the two key syllables, “Might” and “dread.”  Donne is a master at manipulating rhythms, as he proves again at the end of this line, in which the last three words (“art not so”) are all heavily accented monosyllables – a kind of rhythm that stresses the strong claim made in these emphatic words. Later, one could argue that every singly syllable of the following, similarly emphatic, phrase is accented: “nor yet canst thou kill me.”

Line 3: Alliteration, the repetition of the same consonant sounds, as in the repetition of “those,” “thou,” “thinkst,” and “overthrow.” This technique is also used elsewhere in the poem.

Line 5: Metaphor, or comparison without using “like” or “as,” when rest and sleep are called the “pictures” of death.

Line 8: Chiastic (or crisscrossed) phrasing, as in the way this line initially puts a noun (“Rest”) first, followed by possessive words (“of their bones”) and then puts a possessive word (“soul’s) first, followed by a noun (“delivery”).

Line 9: Cataloging (or listing), as in last six words of this line.  Notice, too, how Donne creates an expectation of single-syllable words (“fate, chance, kings”) and then disrupts that pattern by inserting a multisyllabic adjective (“desperate men”). Note also the use of assonance (emphasis on the same vowel sounds) in “slave” and “fate.”

Line 10: Iambic rhythm. Note that this line is (ironically) highly unusual in this poem since it uses the kind of iambic rhythm that is often extremely common in the works of other poets: "And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell."

Line 12: Rhetorical question, or a question added mainly for emphasis, as at the end of this line.

Line 14: Paradox, as in the final claim,

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



edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From the first line of the sonnet forward, Donne employs apostrophe, the technique of directly addressing an abstract idea; in this case, it is death itself the speaker speaks to. The opening line is an imperative sentence, as the speaker tells death, "be not..."

For the form, Donne chose the Elizabethan sonnet, comprised of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) with a concluding couplet, but he has altered the rhyme scheme to that of a Petrarchan sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABBA in the poem's first two quatrains. The concluding couplet is not rhymed, which is customary in an Elizabethan sonnet. Donne further alters the sonnet form by placing the volta at the end of the poem, where his speaker declares, "Death, thou shalt die." Voltas are usuallly placed at the ninth line to signal a turn, but here, Donne delays it, likely to emphasize the dramatic impact of the final, paradoxical statement.

Donne also employs anastrophe, or inverted word order, such as in the line "our best men with thee do go," to accommodate his arrangement of emphasis, rhyme, and meter.