John Donne - England's Great Metaphysical Poet

John Donne
John Donne | Source

John Donne 1572 - 1631

By the 17th century England, along came John Donne to English literature, who broke all poetry conventions of the time. While English poets were still writing in the flowery and beautiful Elizabethan style of poetry, Donne came along and shocked them all with his metaphysical conceits that he used in his poetry. His poetry represented a shift from classical forms to more personal poetry.

John Donne became the master of metaphysical conceits used in his poetry. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor that combines two vastly different ideas into a single idea using imagery,. Metaphysical conceits go into great depth in compairing two completely unlike objects. These comparisons are on a more intellectual level and caused a break with the prevailing emotional poetry of the time. But, knowing a bit about John Donne will explain why his poetry made this type of shift.

John Donne was an English poet, satirist, lawyer and surprisingly a protestant priest in his later years. He is recognized as the pre-eminent of the metaphysical poets and he has a strong, sensual style that shows up in his sonnets, love poems, elegies, songs, epigrams, and religious essays and poems. He writes in a vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor that was different and unusual than the usual poet during this time period. His poetry was a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaption into European baroque and mannerist techniques.

Donne's writing career can be divided into two distinct different parts. In his early life he wrote the sensual love poems and in his later life he wrote the religious poems and essays. In his early life, he lived the life of womanising, literature, recreational pasttimes and travel. He had inherited money from his father which he quickly went through. He then lived in poverty for several years and relied on wealthy friends to fund him.

In 1601, he secretly married Anne Moore and the two had twelve children. Her father was so upset at the marriage he had Donne imprisoned for a time, but finally came to accept the union. It was a very happy marriage for Donne and Anne, but he had to struggle to earn enough money through his writing to provide for his large family.

As he grew older, Donne became a more serious in his writings. The poetry from his later life developed a more somber and pious tone. Many believe his numerous illnesses, financial strains, and the deaths of his friends contributed to this more serious tone in his writing.

By 1615, Donne had become an Anglican priest although he did not want to take the Anglican orders. However, England's King James I wanted him to do so and so ordered Donne to take orders, which Donne finally did. In 1621, Donne was appointed the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. It is during this time that he wrote his great religious essays and meditations.

Samuel Johnson who coined the term "metaphysical poets."
Samuel Johnson who coined the term "metaphysical poets." | Source

Donne's Metaphysical Conceits and Poetry

John Donne's early poems and work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion on an intellectual level. Donne did this through the use of conceits, wit, and intellect. His poems are also witty, using paradoxes,, puns and subtle yet remarkable analogies. His pieces are often ironic and cynical especially regarding love and human motives.

Donne was considered the master of the metaphyscial conceit and of the metaphyscial poets. The term was invented by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a poet and critic, to describe a loose group of British lyrical poets in 17th century England. Their work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits and speculation about topics such as love or religion.

Donne's poetry was fiercely criticized by fellow poet, John Dryden, who felt Donne's poetry was filled with too much philosophy when he should be engaging women's hearts and entertaining them with softness and love. He felt Donne's poems were too intellectual and not emotional enough. He said, Donne's poetry contained neither images of nature nor allusions to classical mythology, as were common at the time.

What was interesting at the time is that Donne's poems were not published during his lifetime and were just in handwritten manuscript form and distributed among the English poets of the time. It was not until after his death that his poems were published and others besides Johnson, Dryden and other metaphysical poets were able to read his poetry.

Modern critics have found platonic concepts in metaphysical poetry and the idea that perfection of beauty in the beloved acted as a remembrance of perfect beauty in the eternal realm. In Donne's poetry love and beeauty were platonic feelings rather than outright experienced emotional feelings.

A Look at Donne's Metaphysical Conceits

In his poem, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" Donne compares two lovers who are separated to the two legs of a geometrical compass in the last three stanzas of his poem:

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two,

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

To move but doth, if th' other do.


And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam.

It leans and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as it comes home.


Such wilt thou be to me, who must

Like th' other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.

As two legs of a geometrical compass, the lovers have attained a platonic love and they complete the image of perfection with the circle. This is the conceit, the extended metaphor of love Donne writes to his mistress.


In his poem, "The Flea," Donne compares the woman's virginity that she is denying him, to be as little as a flea. It can be swatted to death very easily and so Donne may never experience the great love they should share:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this

How little that which thou deniest me is;

Me, it sucked first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know'st that this cannot be said

A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

And this, alas, is more than we would do.


Oh, stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married, are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed and marriagee temple is'

Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet,

Though use make you apt to kill me

Let not to that, self-murder added be,

And sacrifice, three sins in killing three.


Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou

Find'st not thy self nor me the weaker now;

'Tis true, then learn how false fears be,

Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,

Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

If the woman refuses Donne's love and swats the flea, it will kill them both, but especially the love Donne has for the woman. Their love is mingled in the flea's blood, so the woman should be careful with the flea. Again, through his extended metaphorical conceit, Donne shocks us by comparing the woman's virginity to something as little as a flea.

These types of comparisons were considered to be shocking and a break with the traditional poetry being written during the 17th century. John Donne went for "shock and awe" with his love poems, and was criticized for it. His poetry is remembered for these shocking comparisons, of course, not so by today's standards, but by 17th century standards, they were quite bold. It is evident that Donne had a very sensual love life before settling down to marriage.


Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I.


Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


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Comments 29 comments

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi suzette, I have heard of John Donne so many times in books that I have read, but never knew who he was or what he did. This was fascinating reading, just like others throughout history, he did something that was far beyond his time even if it was poetry, and of course others moaned and complained, but he outlives them all by still being well known. Such a shame that he wasn't noticed when he was alive, but isn't that exactly what always happened back then, thanks for a great read, and now I know who he is! lol! voted up and shared, nell


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks so much for reading, Nell. I have always appreciated John Donne and his poetry despite what the critics said. Yep, he lasted in literature and became quite famous after his death. This is one of your country's best poets and writers and I will be doing a hub on the second part of his life with his religious writings. They are quite interesting, too and I know you will recognize his words when you read them!


Mazzy Bolero profile image

Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

I studied Donne years ago at college and always found his poems very direct and dramatic, much more in tune with modern minds, compared to the Elizabethans' elaborate courtly poetry. Thanks for writing this hub and reminding me of it, because now I will take another look at his poems to see if they mean something different to me now.


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

I haven't heard this name in decades. How embarrassing. Thank you for correcting this.


josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Suzette,

Thanks again for another very informational hub! I had no idea that he was imprisoned becuase of his marriage! WOW, crazy stuff! Thanks Suzette!


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Suzette - wow, this is a very insightful hub of the poet John Donne. I am glad he set the way for poems of a more personal nature, as that is what I love to write. Very interesting and well-written. Great hub. In His Love, Faith Reaper


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mazzy Bolero: It has been so long since I have studied him also. I prefer his poetry to the flowery Renaissance poems also. They are dramatic and bold. He tells it like it is through his comparisons. Thanks so much for the visit and for reading this. Much appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: You are welcome. I was leafing through my English Lit book from college and remembered Donne. Loved his poetry. He also wrote sonnets. I'm still trying to perfect my sonnet! LOL Thanks for the visit.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi josh: So glad you enjoyed this and that it was informative for you. I know, you had to be careful back then, if the girl's dad didn't like you, into jail you went. They were a little nutty back then. Thanks goodness we live in modern times! Thanks for the visit - much appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Faith: I enjoy his poetry, too. I'm so glad you liked this piece. I find his comparisons intriguing and much more interesting than love is like a rose stuff. Thanks so much for the visit - much appreciated!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Oh, Suzette, thank you so much for this enlightening hub. I had no idea about metaphysical poetry or John Donne. This is the first I've heard of it, but I relate. I adore his "Forbidden Mourning". It is inspirational perfection. I got so excited after reading it, I quickly scanned down the page to leave you a comment of gratitude. I am going to go back from here and read the other selection you've left. Thank you so much!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

John Donne, in his conceptual work in "The Flea", it feels to me, states his vehement anger at her denial with his thoughts running to reduce what she placed value on to the level of a parasitic, miniscule flea. For the times, this must have been scandulous, not to mention his intent of demeaning a woman he claimed to care for because he did not get his way. Donne, in this piece, comes across to me as a mean-spirited, petulant albeit innovative, provocative genius. Brilliant piece, Suzette.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Yes, you relate because your poetry is metaphysical. Your metaphors and conceits - very much on an intellectual level. Read some of Donne's poetry and you will love it. I you live near a university - stop in the bookstore and pick up the latest Norton Anthology of English Lit - Vol. I. You would love it! Thanks so much and I'm glad you enjoyed this!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Donne was exactly how you describe him, Amy, at the beginning of his career. Your insight to his poetry is spot on! I'd love to have you as a student in English. You get it! LOL. That's why so many of us here on HP love your poetry. It is intelligent, insightful and full of conceits and you haven't even studied this stuff. I'm an English major and you can write a metaphysical conceit better than I can! I've mentioned this before, and I mean it Amy, you really need to seriously publish your poetry. Send some of it to one of the publishing houses. Send some into the New Yorker Magazine - they publish modern poets along with their magazine articles. I think they would be interested in your poetry. Your life experiences have really made you a great poet, Amy, and I wish you the best if you choose to publish your poetry. It is good. billybuc and I are teachers, and we know good writing when we read it. I'm so happy, but not surprised that you would enjoy John Donne's poetry. Thanks so much for the visit and your insightful comments. Most appreciated.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Suzette, Thank you for so much very important information. Your hub on John Donne feels like one of those mystical, beyond coincidental occurrences. I lack your education, Suzette, and this is one of the most exciting learning experiences I can ever remember having, as it feels personal. When I read "Forbidden Mourning", I just knew how Donne came to his analogy, because everytime I sit down to write, I liken my topic to something relatable in the world...more than an analogy...more of a symbiotic connection to something separate from the obvious. I could see John Donne, furious about being denied, fuming as he thought of her power over him, concocting the ultimate putdown, reducing her gift to no more or less than the actions and results of a bloodsucking flea. I've felt that rage and indignation. Oh, I am definitely going to find his latest complilation of poetry. And, thank you so much for your suggestion regarding The New Yorker Magazine. I have one past issue and I am going to study it a little closer and act on your suggestions, Suzette. I would not have considered it before, as I felt I did not come up to their standards. You have given me a day of huge revelations that mean the world to me. You have lit me up. I can see your teaching skills and they are magnificent.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy, you bring tears to my eyes. You can't imagine how great it is to write a hub that has inspired you so much. I'm so glad you read this and learned from it. I really think your poetry is on a John Donne level and I think you write poetry so much better than I can. I always enjoy your poetry so much - it really makes me emote and is always so interesting. Each of us really takes something different from poems, but I always relate to your poetry on some level. Keep on writing!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Suzette, I loved this hub of course, and have always found Donne fascinating, but I was more riveted on Amy's discovery and comments. Isn't that just too cool?

Great job my friend; you have continued your teaching career with this great hub!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Well, Suzette and Bill, you know how someone tells you "things happen for a reason" and "things will get better, just hang in there". It used to make me angry, because I felt like "right, that's easy for you to say". But, today, I had my epiphany and both of you are instrumental in the overwhelming hope I feel right now. I am going to hang on to it and I have taken your suggestions, Suzette, to heart. But, more than that, I am going to act, because of your uplifting article, Bill, that speaks to the power within each of us and the self-defeating effect of "can't". I don't think I can...I know I can. Thank you both


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I have tears in my eyes, Amy! YOU GO GIRL!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I'm researching converting word documents to PDF to submit to The New Yorker right now, Bill!!!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy, Yes you CAN! Go for it. I don't know the logistics of PDF to help you- it has something to do with Adobe. Amy, I'm just so glad Bill and I were able to help and give you the confidence to do this! Don't ever underestimate yourself.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill and Amy; Things do happen for a reason, and sometimes the universe comes together and we all have eureka moments. I believe this is happening now, especially for you Amy. I'm just glad to be able to help in some small way by bringing Donne's poetry to you attention Amy. Great writers to do exactly what you do Amy when you write poetry and that is to make a comparison, analogy, metaphor or conceit to make the concept easier to grasp. I wish you the best in your endeavor Amy. Let us know what happens!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: this is an absolutely riviting moment for me . This is what teaching is all about-when these moments happen I know I made the right choice in my life when I decided to become a teacher. I have been out of the classroom for 2 and a half years, and I never expected a teaching situation like this to occur. I'm just so happy for Amy, you and me. I know Amy can do it.


midget38 profile image

midget38 4 years ago from Singapore

Suzette, thanks for sharing this. Donne is one of the poets that is a challenge to read because of his many interwoven and metaphysical insights....and you've brought out a great poem that highlights his use of such imagery so well. Thanks for sharing!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you so much for reading. Yes, when you read Donne you get a headful of his metaphysical insights and ideas. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for the visit. Much appreciated!


anamika sheikh 4 years ago

i got a lot of help to it .thanx a lot


sana 3 years ago

i got a lot of help. thank uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Voted up and awesome. An absolutely fascinating read. Passing this on.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Gypsy: Thank you again for your lovely comments. I am so glad you enjoyed this article. Donne is one of my favorite English poets. He is quite interesting.

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