Many of Donne’s poems, and Metaphysical Poems in general, sound like someone tying a complicated knot. Like a bowline. Or, a half-hitch. Or, a sheep shank. OK, so the kind of knot isn’t important. What’s important is that it has to be tied just right. Same thing goes with trying to prove that death isn’t scary using only a single, fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet. In general, we’ve got two contrasting strains in the poem, which are like the two ends of a string we use to tie the knot.
The first strain is what Death thinks he is. The second strain is what Death really is. Let’s try it out. In the beginning, death thinks he is "mighty and dreadful" because people call him that (line 2). But, then, the second strain gets looped in, and we learn that death isn’t either of these things. Easy enough.
How about lines 3-4? Well, Death thinks that he can kill or "overthrow" people, which is one end of our knot, but it turns out that Death can’t kill anyone at all, which is the other end of the knot. As you can see, the second end of the string does all the complicated twisting and looping around the first end of the string. With each line, Donne makes the knot a little thicker. Fortunately, compared to some of his other poems, this one is relatively easy to untangle.
Some people complain that Donne’s sonnets don’t have a consistent rhythm or meter. Sure, the poem is in iambic pentameter, but it breaks this pattern as often as it follows it. As in this line: "One short sleep past, we wake eternally" (line 13). In the phrase "short sleep past," all of the words seem equally accented, and, then, there’s a huge pause in the middle (as our two strains get tied together). But, it’s not that Donne lacks regularity: the knot-like pattern is his regularity. He goes back and forth, up and down, down and through. Sometimes, it sounds like his sentences come at you in reverse: "From rest and sleep, which but they pictures be, / Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow." If that isn’t a knot in words, we don’t know what is. But, that’s the point.
The other thing about a knot is that everything must come together at the end to make a grand loop. Donne’s sonnet does this. The poem begins on an apostrophe to Death and ends on one. The final statement sums everything up – with a twist. We think Donne would make a great Boy Scout.