Structure and versification in Death be not Proud

Sonnet form

Death be not Proud is technically a Shakespearean, or Elizabethan, sonnet, consisting of three quatrains and a couplet. Typically, the couplet packs the punch, which it does here, though the preceding lines are not without their punches too.

However, the rhyme scheme (abba abba) is that of the Petrarchan sonnet which has the first eight lines as a group or octave. The Shakespearean sonnet typically rhymes abab cdcd. However, the couplet rhymes of ee is typical of the Shakespearean form.

Sonnets are typically in iambic pentameters.

  • Donne, however, likes an emphatic start, so there is some significant first foot inversion to make sure the stress comes on the very first syllable of the lines:
    • ‘Death','Might-‘,'Die', ‘Rest'
  • Notice, too, the caesurae in ll.4,12,13,14
  • Also the lists in ll.9,10, giving extra stresses spondees on ‘Chance, kings'
  • The rhythm is disturbed a number of other times, as in ‘one short sleep past'.

Investigating Death be not Proud
  • Consider the rhyme scheme of Death be not Proud
    • Can you see any internal rhymes?
    • What other stylistic features have you noticed?
  • Trace the contrasts in rhythm that Donne introduces
  • If you were setting this to music
    • where would you emphasise the beat?
    • where might you employ some syncopation?
    • where might you vary the tempo?
  • What seem to you the most memorable features of the poem?

Resource: The sonnet has been set to music by Benjamin Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35.

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