Imagery and symbolism in Death be not Proud


The main figure of speech in Death be not Proud is the personification.

  • Death is given negative human traits: pride mainly, but also pretence and inferiority.
  • Death is likened to sleep, a commonplace image. Donne doesn't pursue this image very far in the second quatrain, but then picks it up in the third, suggesting that death can never be more than sleep. The final reference to sleep is in the couplet: ‘One short sleep past'. Death really is no more than a short sleep. It has been reduced step by step in this extended metaphor.


Opium poppies, photo by Andrew Smith, available through Creative Commons‘Poppy and charms' refer to the use of opium and magic to produce sleep, or, ambiguously, to produce a gentle death. Technically ‘poppy' is a metonymy rather than a metaphor: it is what is derived from the poppy that is the opiate, not literally the flower itself.

But then death is likened to a slave as well, and this is the startling conceit. It has no choice where it is to fall. ‘Fate, Chance, king' are all examples of metonymy, suggesting certain reasons why death occurs:

  • Chance we can understand as accidents
  • Kings as the whole judicial and/or the military system
  • Fate must suggest a wider concept, that our length of life is decreed elsewhere, and death is therefore no more than an executioner. Although Fate is not in itself a Christian concept, the Bible does suggest a sense of destiny in the matter: ‘Just as man is destined to die once' Hebrews 9:27.

Investigating Death be not Proud
  • Explain ‘And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell'
  • What is the difference between ‘Fate' and ‘Chance', or is Donne merely using two words for the same idea?
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