In "Death be not proud, though some have called thee (946)," John Donne artfully uses words of verse to humble fearsome death. Though John Donne's poem was written over three hundred years ago, it has survived the centuries because it discusses the universal topic of death with a refreshing approach, one that causes people to reevaluate their concepts of death. Through use of personification, irony, and paradox, John Donne suggests that there is no reason to fear death and that the spirit, not death, shall be the victor of all things in the end. The speaker of the poem begins by telling death blatantly that it has no reason to be proud: "for thou art not so" (line 2). Addressing death, a metaphysical being, rather than a single tangible being, clearly constitutes a metaphorical personification. John Donne uses this device continually in his poem to play on the logic of the readers.
Examples of personification are as follows: his use of capitalization of the letter "D" on Death, as if death was a proper name, and the capitalization of other improper nouns, such as fate, chance, poison, war and sickness. Most important is the fact that the entire poem is spoken to death as if it was a person to be accepting his criticism; Donne uses "thou," a direct address to some "one." To talk to death directly, in a literal sense, would sound ridiculous and foolish because the readers know that death cannot respond, so from the very beginning, the speaker uses a clear form of metaphor to ensure the suspension of disbelief. A second technique John Donne uses to communicate his mockery of death is irony. The speaker almost sarcastically calls it "poor Death...
." (line 4), which implies that the speaker pities death. Normally pity is reserved for the victims of death, not for death itself. In line nine, the speaker says that death is the "slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men." Are not these thing usually considered to be the slaves of death? It could be argued that fate, chance, kings and desperate men are decision makers and can design or cause the deaths of people, but since all of those variables ultimately result in death, it can be said that death is far superior to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men by virtue of its being the inevitable culmination of all events. It is also ironic that death "with Poison, War, and Sickness dwells" (line 10) because common knowledge suggests that poison and war and sickness would fall under the domain of death and fate. Changing the syntax so that it reads .".. and Sickness dwells" connotes that death is under the domain of the poison, war, and sickness, not vice versa.
Another important rhetorical device Donne uses is paradox. In so many words, the speaker of "Death be not Proud, though some have called thee" tells death that sleep is superior to it because sleep is enjoyable, and can even be easily induced with "poppy or charms" (line 11), while death is not at all enjoyable. This may be true, but the paradox here is that a definition of death is eternal sleep, and if sleep is truly as wonderful as the speaker claims, logically speaking, death would be preferred. Also, in line three and four, the speaker tells death that it is foolish to think it has ever conquered anyone; it even goes so far as to tell death "nor yet canst thou kill me." In a physical sense, death is the very result of killing, so if that statement is taken literally, it is shown to be a blatant lie. "Nor canst thou kill me" is a powerful declaration; such strong remark would not have been stated if the reader did not think that it was true in some way. Therefore, to find the validity of this statement, the reader must look beyond to a deeper meaning than the literal one.
The deeper meaning implied here is that although the speaker can be defeated by death physically, the speaker will remain immortal because the spirit will never die. This is more clearly expressed by a paradox in the final two lines of the poem: "we wake eternally and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die"; notice that this is the only place in the poem that the author does not capitalize death. Obviously, death really can not die because it does not have a body, but if these lines are viewed from a spiritual viewpoint, death can die because after people die, they are no longer susceptible to death; therefore, death dies and it is no longer a factor in someone's existence. The idea of the spirit is also mentioned in line eight which states: "Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery." During the entire poem, Donne clearly retains the same emphatic, confident, almost belligerent attitude, which invites us to view death as a morally inferior thing; he does this through diction. The speaker clearly links certain "inferior" sounding words with death; he uses "slave,"poor," and "with poison, war, and sickness dwell." To be a salve is a terrible existence, to be poor is a pitiable existence, and to live alongside poison, war, and sickness is a dreadful and volatile existence. No person would choose such a life and the thought that death does so makes death wretched and pathetic in the eyes of the readers.
In addition, Donne uses many words that link Death's personality with arrogance, like "proud,"mighty and dreadful,"overthrow," and "swell " st," which may seem noble in other contexts, but are unwanted qualities in this poem due to its tone. All these words connote an amount of degradation because if we view them altogether, they create a pompous, tyrannical, terrible, and depraved picture of death. Amazingly, by describing and addressing death through the use of all the previously mentioned literary devices, the poet actually winds up conquering and intangible. His words triumph over death because the poem ends with the following idea: even though death can be terrible, powerful, and indiscriminate, we shall overcome it in the end, because when death comes for us, we will surpass it and be forever beyond its reach.