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Characteristics of John Donne's Poetry

Updated on January 20, 2015
John Donne as a Poet
John Donne as a Poet | Source

John Donne as a Poet

John Donne is regarded as the leading metaphysical poet in the history of English literature. Like other poets of his age, he was totally different from them in his attitude, mannerism and treatment of subjects in his poetry. Ben Jonson, who a great admirer of classicism, could not help admiring poetic genius of John Donne. He appreciated John Donne for his bold reaction against the Petrarchan conventions of Elizabethan poetry. Anderson says, “Donne is better known as a poet than as a divine…. And his contemporaries are lavish in his praise. Prejudiced, perhaps by the style of writing which was then fashionable, they seem to have rated his performance beyond their just value. To the praise of wit and sublimit his title is unquestionable. In all his pieces, he displays a prodigious richness of fancy, and an elaborate minuteness of description but his thoughts are seldom natural, obvious, or just, and much debased by the carelessness of his versification.”

Characteristics of John Donne's Poetry

Originality in John Donne’s poetry

Originality is the most important feature of John Donne’s poetry. He was not only original in his ideas, thoughts and feelings but in his diction as well. He presents unique ideas in his poetry using unique words, which come not only from science but from various fields of life. There are many poems of John Donne, which dwell upon unique ideas. For example, in The Flee, John Donne prevents his beloved from taking the life of the flee, who has just bitten both of them, by arguing that it would be tantamount to killing of three souls. Look at the following lines taken from The Flee:

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

(The Flee by John Donne)

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Fusion of Thoughts and Feelings in John Donne’s Poetry

Another important characteristic that we find in John Donne’s poetry is the fusion of thoughts and feelings. It is also called unification of sensibility. Usually, we find only passion and feelings in most of the poetry in the history of English literature. There is no one, except John Donne and metaphysical poets, who has combined passion and thoughts in his poetry. This unique blending of passion and reason can be found in every poem of John Donne. For example, in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, he convinces his wife not to mourn at their temporary separation as they are just like the legs of a compass. He compares his wife to the standing leg of the compass, while he is just like the rotating leg, which will ultimately come close to the standing leg. He wants to convey that ultimately he will come to her. In this beautiful conceit, an idea, though having no emotional bearing in this context, has been expounded to show his love for his wife. Thus, there is a fusion of thought and feelings in this poem.

Colloquialism in John Donne’s Poetry

Colloquial language is another vivid characteristic of John Donne’s poetry. Most of the poems of John Donne show usage of colloquial language. He uses direct and common phrases to startle his reader. Though, he is famous for ambiguity of his thoughts, yet in some cases, he is very simple and does not use any complicated language. Look at the beginning lines of The Canonization, which shows how beautifully he has used colloquial language:

FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve.

(The Canonization by John Donne)

Metaphysical Conceit and Images in John Donne’s Poetry

Conceit is another important characteristic of John Donne’s poetry. He is widely known for using complicated conceits and images in his poetry. Sir Walter Raleigh says in this regard, “ when Milton does fall into a vein of conceit, it is generally both trivial and obvious, with none of the saving quality of Donne’s remoter extravagances; in Donne they are hardly extravagances: the vast overshadowing canopy of his imagination seems to bring the most widely dissimilar thing together with ease.” Leigh Hunt also says that “ the conceits astonish us in the gravest, and men subtlest thinker, whose taste is not proportionate to their mental perceptions, men like Donne, for instance; who apart from accidental personal impressions, seem to look at nothing as it really is but only as to what may be thought of it.” John Donne uses metaphysical conceit in his poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:

Twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d 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 that comes home.”


Wit in John Donne’s Poetry

Wit plays a key role in the poetry of John Donne. John Donne is considered as the Monarch of Wit in the history of English literature. His wit not only pleases us but also startles us how he handles the words to convey his ideas. Thomas Carew has lavishly praised the wit of John Donne in his elegy, An Elegie upon the death of the Deane of Pauls, Dr. Iohn Donne’ in the following lines:

Here lies a King, that rul'd as hee thought fit
The universall Monarchy of wit;
Here lie two Flamens, and both those the best,
Apollo's first, at last, the true Gods Priest.

Brevity in John Donne’s Poetry

One of vivid characteristics of John Donne’s poetry is brevity. John Donne was gifted with such a command of language that he could say a lot in very few words unlike other poets of his age. Many of his lines have become sayings of the day. Look at the following lines, which show how he has conveyed an idea into very few words:

And swear
Nowhere
Lives a woman true, and fair.

(Song: Go and catch a falling star By John Donne)

Obscurity in John Donne’s Poetry

Most of the poems of John Donne are so obscure and ambiguous that a common reader cannot grasp the meaning of a single line. This obscurity and ambiguity has led him to be regarded as the most difficult poet to be understood. Frequent reading of his poems is required to get to the root of the poem. Dowden says in this regard that “Donne as a poet is certainly difficult of access. How shall we approach him?” That is the reason; Ben Jonson opined that John Donne’s popularity would decline with the passage of time due to his lack of ability to express himself clearly before the readers.

Platonic Love in John Donne’s Poetry

Another important characteristic that we find in the poetry of John Donne is platonic love. In many of his poems, he considers love as a spiritual entity not a lust. John Donne in his poem ‘Canonization’ dwells upon the spiritual aspect of love. Consider the following lines, wherein he considers love as a spiritual thing unlike physical which is meant for just satiating one’s lust:

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes,
For he who color loves, and skin,
Loves but their oldest clothes.

(The Undertaking by John Donne)

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

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