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Symbol Analysis

Death is a total poser in this poem, like a schoolyard bully who turns out not to be so tough, after all. The speaker even makes death out to be a good thing, because it leads to the new life of Christian eternity. Plus, everyone bosses Death around, from kings to suicidal people. Finally, a lot of the poem’s wit comes from combining literal and symbolic uses of the words "death" and die."

  • Lines 1-2: This has got to be one of the most famous examples of personification and apostrophe in all of poetry. The speaker treats death like a person who is considered "mighty" and "dreadful," which is personification. And, he addresses this person-like Death directly, even though Death obviously can’t respond, which is apostrophe.
  • Lines 3-4: Donne uses apostrophe again to address, "poor Death," which is an embarrassing and condescending way to talk to someone who considers himself a tough-guy.
  • Lines 5-6: In this metaphor, he calls rest and sleep "pictures" of Death. They don’t have photographs in Donne’s age, so "pictures" just refers to imitations, like a drawing or a painting.
  • Lines 7-8: Continuing the personification of Death, the speaker says that good people allow death to lead them out of their earthly lives. The bones of the "best men" are a synecdoche, because they actually stand for the whole physical body. Line 8, then, draws a standard religious contrast between body and soul.
  • Line 12: We often talk about people who "swell" with pride, and that’s what’s going on here, when the speaker asks, "Why swell’st thou then?" This is a rhetorical question, designed to make Death realize that he has no reason to be proud.
  • Line 14: He uses the concept of death three ways in this tricky line. First, there is real, physical death (the second word of the line). Then, there is the personified idea of Death. Finally, there is death as a metaphor for simple non-existence – something that ceases to be there – which the last word "die" references.

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