John Donne comes out as a great metaphysical poet who uses paradoxical images, inventive syntax, subtle argument, imagery, irony and satirical statements to develop poems that engage the reader emotionally and mentally, coaxing new perspectives. In Death, Be Not Proud and The Flea, Donne uses different literary devices to develop succinctly written poems that touch on issues of great concern to the society. The use of rhetorical assertiveness in the poems shows the ability of the poet to invoke authority and danger, use of vivid examples, and the ability to evoke emotion and reason. The comparative analysis of the poems, Death, Be Not Proud and The Flea, compares the speakers in each poem and outlines the use of arguments with assertive rhetorical developments through a discussion of the rhetorical strategies.
John Donne uses assertive rhetoric in Death, Be Not Proud through the speaker who shows authority by presenting arguments against the power of death. Through the personification of Death, the poet calls out Death on his pride over the supposed power he holds. The speaker wants Death to “not be proud” for whatever he views as power is no power at all. While maintaining authority in the tone and attitude used, the speaker states that death does is nothing more than rest and sleep and, therefore, stating there is nothing for Death to be proud of. The Poet states “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…” (Kirszner and Mandell 757). The portrayal of death as mighty and dreadful is put to question by the poet through the speaker. By portraying Death as lacking of might and power stamps authority over it for the living to overcome the fear that comes with its imagination. The speaker wants to show that its occurrence is not and should not be terrifying to the living.
The assertive rhetorical strategy applied in Death, Be Not Proud is to depict death as a normalcy that it should not be proud of, and that people overcome, in the process killing death itself. The speaker says, “For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be…” (Kirszner and Mandell 757). According to the speaker, Death does not ‘overthrow’ as the people he thinks he does do not die. The speaker uses a contemptuous tone in addressing Death by stating that he cannot kill him/her. The condescending tone used to address Death by stating that the pictures of death are “much pleasure” since from death “more must flow” insinuating the transition to eternity brings out death as the victim. This element of the assertive rhetoric comes out even clearly when the speaker calls Death a “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” who dwells with “poison, war, and sickness” and ends up dying while humans wake eternally (Kirszner and Mandell 757).
On the other hand, in The Flea, Donne uses vivid images to bring out erotic love explicitly without referring to sex. The speaker talks about the bite of the flea and uses imagery to portray sex and loss of chastity. The speaker says, “Thou know’st that this cannot be said a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, yet this enjoys before it woo” (Kirszner and Mandell 758). The speaker uses the authority to go against the norms and taboos the society holds against sex and erotic relationships. The comparison of the sexual relationship with the bite of a flea that unites their blood and the use of the indulgent tone helps the speaker bring out sex as a normal act that should not evoke guilt. Moreover, the speaker evokes emotion as a rhetorical strategy by bringing in the resentment of their parents and the cruelty of the lover for killing the flea. The speaker states that flea carries his life, the life of the lover, and its own life and, therefore, killing it would mean taking three lives. When the lover kills it, the speaker states, “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?” (Donne; Kirszner and Mandell 758). The speaker furthers the assertive rhetoric by citing the innocence of the flea whose only crime was to suck a drop of blood from the lover.
In conclusion, through the speakers in each poem, the tones used, and the different literary elements, Donne manages to integrate the rhetorical assertiveness. In Death, Be Not proud, the author uses authority to portray Death as a normal occurrence and a weak character. Additionally, attributing to emotion, contempt and disdain, and imagery, the author promotes the assertive rhetoric. In The Flea, Donne uses vivid images, symbolism, and evokes emotion portray the assertive rhetoric and to develop the themes. In the use of the rhetorical strategies, therefore, the poems compare and differ significantly.