Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
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.
Rest and Sleep
Donne didn’t invent the comparison between death and sleep, but he uses it here to great effect. But, you have to know a tiny bit of Christian theology to fully understand the idea. It is thought that, when faithful Christians die, they are only "dead" until the Day of Judgment comes and Christ returns to Earth. They compare this length of time to a period of "sleep." At this point, time ends, eternity begins, and all the faithful Christians who died will "wake up" to be led into Heaven. At this point, all their earthly troubles are over for good, and they will be at "rest" with God.
- Line 5: This metaphor compares "rest" and "sleep" to "pictures," like a painting or drawing. The point is that the rest and sleep are pale imitations, and Death is the real thing. On the other hand, Death is only a much stronger version of sleep, and not something scary and different.
- Line 8: This line describes what the experience of death means to the "best men" of line 7. One of its meanings is eternal rest for their weary bodies, or "bones."
- Line 11: The comparison between Death and sleep becomes an extended metaphor at this point. The speaker says that, if he only wants a really good sleep, he doesn’t even need Death; he can use "poppies" (opium, a kind of drug) or "charms" (magic or potions).
- Line 13: The extended metaphor continues. He calls the time between the speaker’s death and the Day of Judgment a "short sleep." In human terms, this may not seem that short (we can assume the speaker is "asleep" for hundreds of years already), but, compared to Eternity, pretty much anything is short. When the speaker "wakes up," he will find himself in Heaven.
Death’s Friends and Masters
Death hangs out with a bad crowd, like the kids who hang out behind the bleachers and try to talk you into vandalizing things on Halloween. Unfortunately, they aren’t cool at all. They’re big losers, in fact, and Death knows it – which is why it’s such an insult when the speaker points out Death’s connection to poison, war, and sickness. And, that’s not all. Death – this big strong guy – isn’t even his own master! All these other people tell him what to do. It’s like when you learn that the bully who torments you at school actually has his own bullies in the next grade up. It may not prevent your daily beatings, but it makes you feel a whole lot better about it.
- Line 9: This metaphor calls Death a "slave" to "fate, chance, kings, and desperate men." Implicitly, all these things are personified as Death’s master.
- Line 10: Although it’s not as obvious as in other parts of the poem, we think "poison, war, and sickness" are personified as thugs, or worthless individuals.
There’s only one example, and it’s a play on words, but we wanted to give Birth a little love, too, because it’s nothing but Death, Death, Death for most of the poem.
- Line 8: It’s a pun! Sweet! To "deliver" someone can mean to set them free, as in the Lord’s Prayer: "Deliver us from evil...." But, the speaker also wants to be "delivered" into the afterlife, like a baby is "delivered" into the world during birth. The comparison of death to rebirth is such a common metaphor that we rarely even think of it as a being a metaphor.