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John Donne's "The Apparition"

Updated on April 12, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Donne

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Apparition"

John Donne's seventeen-line poem, "The Apparition" offers up a rime scheme of ABBABCDCDCEFFGGG. Similar thematically to "The Flea," this poem dramatizes the exploits that young men have used to seduce young women over the centuries. The originality of this seduction poem is, however, quite shocking.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir'd before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath'd in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat'nings rest still innocent.

Reading of "The Apparition"

John Donne

Source

Commentary

This poem offers a stunningly original metaphor (conceit) for a poem of seduction.

First Movement: Murder by Lustless

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,

The speaker labels the young lady a murderer for refusing to satisfy his lust. The notion that not giving in to his sexual urges will kill a man has remained an ignorant superstition since the Renaissance times and quite likely even earlier.

The speaker employs this absurd notion, anticipating that the young woman will be exploitable and therefore accept his ludicrous drivel. Therefore, he labels her a murderer because he is "dying" to have sex with her.

The speaker has obviously tried more than once to seduce this lady, but thus far she has succeeded in evading his advances. Therefore, he cooks up this ghost/murder scheme to try to scare her in to bedding with him; in other words, she is killing him now, but his ghost will kill her later.

After the speaker has died, his target lady will, at first, think she is free of him and his constant urgings. However, he lets her know that his urges are so strong that even his neutered ghost will appear to her to continue his desired ravishment.

Second Movement: No Investment in Virginity

And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir'd before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;

The clever, though mightily deluded, speaker then flings at the woman the term "feign’d vestal." He is not, however, shaming her for not being a virgin. He has no investment in virginity, hers, his, or anyone else's.

The speaker is merely insulting her intelligence again, asserting that she is pretending. He is convinced that she will not remain a virgin, as the original Roman Vestal Virgin priestesses did for thirty years. He assumes that it logically follows that if she will not remain a virgin, she should not worry about her virginal status now that she has this horny bastard before her raging to get into her pants.

Therefore, after she has seen his ghost, after she has killed him, she will be sore afraid. She will try to awaken her sleeping bed partner, who will fail to pay any attention to her. The bed partner will have been worn out from earlier love-making and merely think she wants it again. Thus he will just sluff her off. This speaker's penchant for the gross and obnoxious knows no bounds.

Third Movement: Sweaty Ghost Fear

And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath'd in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat'nings rest still innocent.

The speaker finally makes the prediction that the object of his lust will transform into a "poor aspen wretch." She will turn pale from the fear of this poor bastard's ghost; thus, she will be "Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat." She will become all sweaty because of her fear of the ghost, the "Apparition."

The speaker reports to her that the words his ghost will utter to her when the time comes will make her even more fearful. He refuses to tell her now what he will say. He wants the shock and awe value to be greater later at the time they occur. He figures that if he told her now, she could somehow steel herself, and the shock value would be lost. We wants her to suffer mightily for not letting him relieve his lust at the expense of her virginity.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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