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John Donne - England's Great Metaphysical Poet
- "Death be not proud" - John Donne and his Holy Sonnets
John Donne was a complicated man and this definitely showed up in his writings. His metaphysical conceits are intellectual, unique, and even quite bold. His poetry is full of his genius conceits. His prose writings, his sermons and meditations, are..
- "For Whom the Bell Tolls" - John Donne
You are probably thinking, Ernest Hemingway and his famous novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," right? Well Hemingway took the words from John Donne for the title of his novel as the bells were tolling for Jordan, his hero and protagon
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.
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