Death, be not proud

by John Donne

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What are the figures of speech in "Death, be not proud"?

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Some of the figures of speech in "Death, Be Not Proud" include apostrophe, allusion, paradox, and caesura. Together, these devices create a belittling tone toward death and ultimate hope in an eternal afterlife.

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The poem is an example of apostrophe, addressing Death (personified) as a living being who is thus listening to the speaker. This intentionally removes the mystery or sense of superiority in the concept of death, making it seem as though death can be easily defeated.

Allusion is used in the final line. 1 Corinthians 15:26 states, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." This both echoes the sentiments of the poem, nothing that Death is the enemy of humanity, and that Death has no power itself. Ultimately, those who believe in Christ will defeat Death through salvation and eternal life. The speaker of this poem notes that death is simply a "short sleep," after which "we wake eternally / And death shall be no more."

A paradox is established in these lines:

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not

Death thinks it it possible to "overthrow," or end the lives of, humanity. Another way to rephrase this would be "The people you think you have killed are not dead." This paradox reinforces the central meaning of the poem, that death has no ultimate power and is only a temporary transition into a much more powerful afterlife.

Caesura, which is an intentional pause within a line of poetry, is used in the opening:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

These pauses establish two purposes. First, the intended audience is made clear. It's a slow and intentional direct address, somewhat confrontational in nature because of the long pauses. Second, the central idea of the poem is presented in a pointed way. Death cannot call itself proud, and the speaker will provide the support for this statement throughout the poem. Caesura creates a dramatic opening for this poem, which one would expect when addressing Death itself.

All of these devices are used to achieve a nearly belittling tone toward death and therefore propel the ultimate message of hope in an eternal afterlife.

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The most important figure of speech in the poem is the personification of "Death." By personifying death, Dickinson makes it seem less powerful. In fact, she makes it seem mortal, and vulnerable, just like people. This is the point that Dickinson makes throughout the poem. Toward the end of the poem, she emphasizes the point by posing a rhetorical question, addressed to death. She asks, "why swell'st thou then?" The point of a rhetorical question is to put an implied answer in the listener's mind. The implied answer here, based on what Dickinson has said about death previously in the poem, is that death should not be arrogant, and so has no reason at all to "swell."

Throughout the poem Dickinson also uses a lot of imperative phrases. An imperative phrase begins with a verb, and is expressed as an order. For example, "be not proud," and "Die not, poor Death." By using imperative phrases like this, Dickinson is implying that death is not the one with the power. Death is the one who must take the orders.

Dickinson continues to, as it were, put "Death" in its place, by describing how it is, metaphorically, "slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men." In other words death comes when summoned or ordered by kings, or when called upon by desperate, suicidal men, or sometimes simply when fate or chance decides that death should occur. The point of the "slave" metaphor is to compound the idea discussed above, that death does not have dominion over men, or fate, but is a "slave" to the whims of both.

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First of all we have personification. This is a figure of speech where something that isn't human is given human characteristics. In this particular case, that something is death. All of the character traits given by Donne to death are negative ones. Death has no reason to be proud; some may call it "mighty and dreadful," but it really isn't. Death can really be nothing more than sleep:

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure . . .
And what's so special about sleep? Sleep potions and drugs can do the job just as well as death:
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
In any case, death is but a short sleep, a prelude to better things: the elevation of our souls to eternal life:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Sleep is used by Donne, then, as an extended metaphor. This is in keeping with his strategy in the poem to disabuse death of its pride and arrogance. In reducing death to little more than a short sleep, he's depriving it of its tyrannical power over us.

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole. An example would be "hand" as in "hand in marriage." You don't marry someone's hand; the hand is used to stand for the whole person. Donne's use of synecdoche here is much less obvious, more subtle:

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

"Me" doesn't simply refer to the speaker of the poem; it refers to all of us. So the speaker is standing for the whole of humanity as part of the general theme of the piece.
And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Of course it's not just our bones that rest when we die, but our whole bodies. But "bones" is being used here to stand for our bodies. Alliteration is used throughout the poem. In particular, the repetition of the "d" sound induces a deadening, sleepy rhythm that perfectly captures the spirit of Donne's extended metaphor of death as sleep. Also, the repetition of "k" introduces a note of sparky defiance to the poem, a bold challenge to the deadening weight of death's sleep:
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
In the previous line the spirit of defiance is also represented by the repeated use of the "th" digraph:
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow . . .
Finally, Donne ends the poem with a paradox. He's emphasizing his main point once more—that individuals and societies should stop fearing death. And if they can do this, then death will effectively lose its power over people:
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
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What are examples of figurative language in "Death, be not proud"?

Simply put, figurative language uses words to convey a meaning beyond their literal interpretation. For instance, take this common idiom for feeling nervous: "I have butterflies in my stomach." This, of course, does not imply one has actual butterflies flitting about in the stomach. Rather, it compares the sensation of nervousness in the pit of your belly to a fluttering, as if by butterflies in dance. Poets, such as John Donne, often use figurative language to make their text come alive for the reader and to layer it with meaning.

Donne's sonnet "Death, be not proud" (1610), often referred to as Holy Sonnet 13, begins with a bold use of figurative language in the form of personification. In personification, human traits are given to a non-human entity, which could be a concept, an object, or an animal. Here, Death itself is personified and told not to be proud, since it is not as powerful as it thinks. Accompanying the personification is an apostrophe, a direct address to a presumed "you." Again, this "you" could be a person, an idea, or any animate or inanimate object. Donne addresses his poem to Death itself, referring to it as "thee" and "thou." The twin use of the personification and apostrophe has the effect of demystifying Death for us. Because Death has human features and can be addressed so boldly, it is not as fearsome as we think. Death is ordinary and manageable.

With the ordinariness of death proposed from the first line itself, Donne introduces another figure of speech: the extended metaphor. Typical to the sonnet form, the extended metaphor is the central idea which the poem puts forward and which it keeps approaching through different uses of figurative language. The extended metaphor of the poem is that death is nothing to be afraid of, since it is nothing more than a short sleep:

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow (lines 5–6)

The striking use of rest and sleep as pictures of death is a metaphor piled upon a personification. We can almost visualize three paintings of figures in sleep, rest, and Death. Can you always tell which is which? Donne argues that death is as commonplace as a nap. The amplification of figurative language is typical of Donne's poetic style, known for its rich use of conceits.

The metaphor of Death as sleep is further elaborated with the use of other figures of speech, such as synecdoche in lines 7–8:

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Synecdoche refers to the use of a part to represent the whole, such as using "all hands on deck" to mean all people gathering. In the lines above, "bones" represents the physical, human body, which rests for a bit in death while the soul moves onto "delivery" or bliss. There is a poignant, paradoxical note in these lines too, which I will revisit at the end of this answer.

Furthering the conceit is the metonymy of lines 11 and 12, in which Donne uses closely associated images to evoke the death-as-sleep metaphor. "Poppy," standing in for the relaxing drug opium, and "charms," denoting sleeping spells, are associated with a deep sleep. Since Death is nothing but a kind of sleep and sleep can be so easily achieved, what is so mighty about Death?

What's more, in lines 9–10, Death keeps bad company, with the likes of "fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell." (Note the personification of fate, poison, war and sickness, put at war with kings and desperate men.) Not only is Death ordinary, it is also somewhat seedy, Donne implies.

The use of alliteration infuses the poem with rhythm and also underscores its central message. For instance, the repetition of the "k" sounds in line 4 ("nor yet canst thou kill me") emphasizes the futility of Death, almost like an incantation. Similarly, the alliteration of the soft "m" sounds in line 6 ("Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow") amplifies the pleasant idea of Death as a lulling sleep.

Thus, various figures of speech build the poet's central argument that Death need not gloat its conquests, since these conquests are only in Death's own mind. The last two lines take this even further when the poet says that not only is Death incapable of killing anyone, it itself will one day be vanquished. The idea of Death "dying" is an example of a paradox, which brings together seemingly incompatible ideas:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Since eternal life in heaven is the consequence of death, death itself ceases to exist. Death is just a step, then, to immortality.

However, despite the poet's assertive stance, the poem has an inbuilt paradox: firstly, the fact that Death is the poem's subject does paradoxically underline its importance. No matter how much the poet debases Death, its specter looms large. The line "And soonest our best men with thee do go" adds a note of poignancy to the proceedings. Death preys on the young and the best too, and thus it is a formidable foe. The poem manages to metaphorically defeat it—but only just.

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Identify the figures of speech used in "Death, be not proud."

John Donne uses several brilliant figures of speech in his sonnet "Death, Be Not Proud." The poem begins with an apostrophe, which is the technique of addressing someone not present or an inanimate or abstract object as if it could hear and respond. Donne speaks to Death, adjuring it to stop being proud, because it is not worthy of the dread it produces in people. By speaking to Death, Donne is also using personification, that is, attributing human qualities to something that isn't human.

The poem uses multiple metaphors to characterize death. First, Death is compared to a conqueror or tyrant with the use of the word "overthrow." Rest and sleep are "pictures" of death. The sedation produced by poppies or magic is also compared to sleep, providing additional metaphors. Death is called a "slave," which is another metaphor. Most of these metaphors serve to highlight death's weakness or inferiority.

In the last three lines, Donne stacks up literary devices one atop another. First, he uses a rhetorical question: "Why swell'st thou then?" The answer is obvious: Death has no reason to be proud. Next he uses understatement to describe the moment that people fear and dread, the moment when the soul leaves the body. It is merely "one short sleep." The last line is ironic, or perhaps a paradox: "And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." That the end should meet its end is hard to grasp logically, but it is a delightful twist to know that the terror that has plagued mankind since the beginning will itself be done away with.

Donne uses figures of speech to superb effect in this "Holy Sonnet."

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