What literary devices are used in "Death, be not proud" by John Donne?

In his poem titled “Death, be not proud,” John Donne uses literary devices such as apostrophe, personification, rhyme scheme, anaphora, and paradox. He uses these devices to diminish Death’s power, so people will not fear Death as much as they do.

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The entire poem is an example of apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed to Death. At the beginning the speaker states, “Death, be not proud” and at the end, “Death, though shalt die.” By framing the poem with these examples of apostrophe, Donne demonstrates that Death is not as immortal or inhuman as people perceive it to be. Instead, Death is subject to forces outside of itself, just like humans.

If the poem is an example of apostrophe, naturally, there is also personification. The speaker personifies Death, even telling it to not be “proud,” “mighty,” or “dreadful,” even though people perceive Death this way. Donne personifies Death to humanize it. When Death is humanized, it loses some of the power that people naturally ascribe to it.

Toward the end of the poem, Donne utilizes anaphora. He begins several consecutive lines with “And.” Through these lines, he is building the pacing by amassing what Death is a “slave” to. Through this, Death is belittled, its position shrunk and its power diminished. Instead of Death being this master of life, it is at the mercy of a myriad of factors.

Donne closes out the poem with a paradox: “Death, thou shalt die.” Of course, Death is unable to die. However, through closing the poem with this paradox, the speaker demonstrates the full diminishment of Death’s power. It is now at the mercy of its own purpose.

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Other educators have already noted that the key literary device holding this poem together is the personification of Death. Personification is a type of metaphor in which something that is not human is accorded human attributes and described as if it has human motivations. Further to this, however, it should also be noted that death is not actually present, and yet the speaker is addressing it, or him. This form of address is a literary device known as apostrophe, and we can see it most specifically in the opening of the poem—"Death, be not proud"—and in the closing "Death, thou shalt die."

We can also find language features in this poem such as a rhyme scheme and use of the fourteen-line sonnet structure. Donne also uses alliteration ("those whom thou think'st thou dost...").

One interesting feature of this poem is its use of accumulation. This is a rhetorical device in which the speaker intensifies the weight of his point by adding more and more elements to his argument. We can see this towards the end of the poem, highlighted by Donne's anaphoric structure in the lines beginning "And..." Donne uses accumulation to create a steadily increasing sense that Death, far from being "mighty," is actually a slave to numerous potential dangers.

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Donne uses the literary device of a rhyme scheme in this poem. He uses the rhyme scheme ABBA, ending with a rhyming couplet. This adds a regular, comforting rhythm to his verse.

The poet establishes a defiant tone, directly addressing and jeering at death as nothing to be afraid of, telling him he is not mighty or dreadful. Addressing an inanimate object or concept (like death) in a poem is called apostrophe.

Donne employs anaphora, which is starting repeated lines with the same word. In this poem, he uses "and" three times in a row to build up a sense that death's weaknesses go on and on.

The poet also uses metaphor, which is a comparison not using the words like or as. He compares death to a slave. He also compares death to a short sleep, from which humans awaken into eternal life. Both of these comparisons diminish death's fearful qualities.

Donne ends on a paradox: that death will die. A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement. In this case, one might wonder how death, which is dead, can die. The poem states:

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

The words mean that because of the resurrection of Christ (Donne was an Anglican priest) death will be vanquished or overcome by eternal life.

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The most notable literary device Donne uses in this poem is personification. Personification is when an author attributes human characteristics to non-human things. He carries personification of death throughout the poem by saying that death should not be proud because, contrary to what most people think, death does not have the ability to kill. Instead, it delivers eternal life to those it touches. At the end of the poem when he says, “Death, thou shalt die,” Donne implies death has the ability to die like people do, though we know death cannot literally die.

In this case, death is non-human, but Donne uses the literary device apostrophe to address death as if death is a person to whom Donne is writing. When he addresses death with “thou,” it is as if he is addressing death as a person (“thou” being the equivalent of “you” today).

Another literary device in this poem is a rhetorical question. In lines 11-12, Donne explains that “poppy and charms” can induce the same kind of sleep that death can, so he questions, “why swell’st thou then?” In other words, he asks death why it swells with pride at its ability to put people to sleep when other more trivial things can do the job just as well. This rhetorical question is another way for Donne to make his point that death does not have the right to be proud and that people who believe in eternal life have no reason to fear death.

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