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Published: 03-12-2019

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A Comparison of Concepts of Death and Immortality in Works of John Donne and Emily Dickinson

John Donne and Emily Dickinson, in their poems “Death Be Not Proud” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” personify death in order to explain the phenomenon of death and, more importantly, the wonder of eternal life. In his Holy Sonnet “Death Be Not Proud,” John Donne makes use of personification to characterize death as a weak antagonist, unworthy of the dread it causes. In her function, “Because I Could Not Cease for Death,” Emily Dickinson also personifies death, though her attitude toward death differs from that of Donne. As opposed to Donne, who rebukes death as an unimportant figure, Dickinson suggests that death is a charming suitor who takes Dickinson away from life. Although their conceptions of death are dissimilar in nature, each Donne and Dickinson see life beyond death. That belief in immortality even reaches the point of personification in Dickinson’s operate: death is portrayed as the guide of the transitional period, from the globe of the mortal to the world of the immortal. This attitude toward immortality and death in “Death Be Not Proud” and “Because I Could Not Quit for Death” is supported by the authors’ use of personification and imagery, each of which produce an image of death as merely a companion on the journey to the timelessness of the afterlife.

John Donne makes use of personification extensively in “Death Be Not Proud,” making the impression of death as a weak and inconsequential adversary. The opening lines of the sonnet study:

<BLOCKQUOTE>“Death, be not proud, although some have named thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”</BLOCKQUOTE>

These lines serve to introduce not only death as a personified character, but also Donne’s view of that character. In spite of the typical perception of death as “Mighty and dreadful,” Donne recognizes death as a single from whom “Much pleasure […] must flow” (line 6), simply because of the eternal rest that he brings. Furthermore, Donne’s death is an arrogant becoming who incorrectly believes he has the ultimate power over life. Donne compares the power of death to the energy of poppy or charms, saying, “And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well / And greater than thy stroke why swell’st thou then?” In Donne’s opinion, death has no reason to be proud, since the energy of death is weaker than the power of eternal life: “One quick sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no much more Death, thou shalt die,” (lines 13-14). This final couplet of the poem reveals the ultimate paradox of death: that not even death can kill Donne, and that, when Donne reaches eternal life, death itself will die.

Emily Dickinson utilizes personification in “Because I Could Not Quit for Death” in two figures: death and immortality. Death is the main focus of Dickinson’s attention throughout the poem, with immortality only pointed out in the 1st and, in an indirect way, last stanzas. Dickinson’s death is an enchanting suitor who “kindly stopped” (line two) for her, simply because she was as well caught up in life to stop for him. Dickinson describes death’s politeness and how she put aside all of her life’s troubles for him in lines six-8: “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure as well, / For His Civility.” An additional figure, immortality, accompanies Dickinson’s carriage ride by means of life with death. Dickinson seems to spend hardly any attention to immortality all through the poem her concentrate is on the captivating death and the sights of the planet outdoors. Even so, Dickinson’s belief in immortality is revealed in the final stanza: “Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I 1st surmised the Horses’ Heads / Have been toward Eternity.” Whilst death’s significance is shown at Dickinson’s gravesite in the previous stanza, immortality remains with Dickinson in the carriage previous the gravesite, and at that moment, Dickinson realizes that the carriage’s final destination is towards eternity. This final moment of understanding brings the figure of immortality back into importance in the poem and supports Dickinson’s belief that death, even though charming, is merely a companion that guides Dickinson towards eternity.

In “Death Be Not Proud,” John Donne also uses visual imagery to assistance his attitude towards death. The sonnet exposes death as a much less strong figure than widespread perception believes him to be, and, in line 9-10, Donne achieves this objective by revealing death as a “slave” to more potent evils: “Thou art slave to fate, opportunity, kings, and desperate males, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.” Donne’s word option is an crucial aspect of his imagery. Potent words such as “fate,” “kings,” “poison,” and “war,” combined with the comparison of death to a “slave,” serve to decrease death’s strength. The photos develop even stronger thinking about the historical context, a time when war and sickness have been rampant. Donne also uses the image of sleep as a comparison to death. While sleep is a typical comparison to death, this relation is emphasized in “Death Be Not Proud” since sleep is depicted as a source of satisfaction: “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, / Significantly pleasure” (lines 5-6). The image of sleep is continued in line 13, the very first line of the ending couplet: “One short sleep previous, we wake eternally.” Just as Donne makes use of sleep as a representation of death, so does he also employ its counterpart, waking, as a representation of eternal life. The visual imagery Donne makes use of to examine death is not as robust as his general personification, but it aptly supports Donne’s goal of illustrating death as a weak figure that has no more command over life than a short sleep.

Emily Dickinson’s use of visual imagery in “Because I Could Not Quit for Death” is her most efficient device in the poem, and she makes use of it extensively in her narration of her journey via life. Virtually each stanza introduces new photos, and each image has thematic significance. In the third stanza, Dickinson passes via each stage of life: very first the college, where youngsters are playing then the fields of ripe (“gazing”) grain and ultimately, the “Setting Sun.” These photos additional the theme of time that is a cornerstone of the poem. Dickinson, with death and immortality by her side, passes by life itself. In the fourth stanza, Dickinson shifts slightly, stating that the setting sun (a representation of not only the passage of time, but also of Dickinson’s imminent death) passes her by. The words “quivering” and “chill,” as properly as the description of her meager attire in the following lines, convey her feeling of frigidity as she leaves life, expressing her fears and doubts about her death. Dickinson lastly reaches the gravesite in the fifth stanza: “We paused just before a Home that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.” The “swelling of the ground” gives an image of a newly dug grave, and brings the image of death back into the poem nevertheless, the carriage only pauses at the gravesite, and Dickinson does not locate the gravesite worthy of further comment past the fifth stanza. In the final stanza, the poem reaches its climax with its final image: that of the horses pointing their heads “toward Eternity.” The final image is notable since it represents the final location in a long journey of images. From the first stanza, Dickinson utilizes a conceit of a carriage ride with death to represent her journey to the afterlife, and, in the final image of the poem, she emphasizes eternity as her final location.

Both John Donne and Emily Dickinson examine death and eternal life in their respective poems nevertheless, the manner and tone towards which they convey their beliefs differ drastically. The general tone in “Death Be Not Proud” is one particular of condemnation and a righteous belief in the power of immortality. Donne utilizes personification of death and comparison of death to stronger pictures to produce a death that is, in its essence, not deadly. Donne berates death for His pride and supposed power, while lifting up eternity as death’s slayer. Dickinson, on the other hand, develops a formal, somber tone in her operate, “Because I Could Not Quit for Death.” Dickinson is entranced by death, a polite suitor, and her journey by way of and away from life with him is solemn. She, too, believes in the ultimate power of immortality, even though without having Donne’s confident vigor. Dickinson employs in depth imagery in her poem, producing the encounter of the carriage ride by way of images of life and death. She also makes use of words related to time to heighten her conception of the timelessness of immortality. In the final climactic moment of revelation, she feels the passage of time in both centuries and a day, highlighting her experience of getting pulled out of the mortal understanding of time. Then, like Donne in the ending couplet of “Death Be Not Proud,” she is directed towards eternity. In all, despite contrasting views of death’s strength and importance, Emily Dickinson and John Donne both think in immortality: an eternal life so resolute that death becomes merely a stopping-point on the final journey, a pause leading up to the moment when, one particular quick sleep past, death itself is conquered.

Performs Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Quit for Death.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2007.

Donne, John. “Death Be Not Proud.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2007.
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