John Donne Poetry


John Donne is the most prominent poet of the Metaphysical school. His widespread popularity is due to his discovery by T.S. Eliot, who was impressed by the precision of expression, his cogent logic and the variety and distinctiveness of the voices Donne created. Donne wrote both on love and on death.

Donne’s Subject Matter: #

Love Poetry #

Donne’s life and art can be depicted in three phases;

During his student days he led a dissolute rakish student life, writing his early poetry for light entertainment at court.

*A great visitor of ladies and a great frequenter of Playes”

Anahid Nersessian in reviewing a new biography of John Donne argues for the sensuality and strangeness of both his work and his life.

Donne managed somehow to fuse the of the sacred with the profane in his love poetry and incorporate the carnal into his religious poetry.

Katherine Rundell Farrar, in Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
illustrates this with

“To His Mistress Going to Bed,”

a blisteringly hot hymn to the precoital striptease:

Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed-time!
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be and still can stand so nigh!
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flow’ry meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow!
Now off with those shoes and then safely tread
In this—Love’s hallowed temple—this soft bed!

Literally and figuratively, the poem is a panty dropper. This may be a bit cute, but it gets at something important about the metaphysical style, namely its vertiginous suspension of a difference between things that are real, and really happening, and things that are not.

Farrar shows how “The Flea” turns on the erotic possibilities of an insect bite:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deny’st me is:
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

From its startling, almost instantaneous shift between the declamatory and grandiose (“Mark but”) and the microscopic and disgusting (“this flea”) to its impish adolescent pleasure in repeating the word “suck”—and, silently, its orthographic neighbor “fuck”—to the demented logic according to which mastication by the same bug is equivalent to sex or getting married (“nay, more than…married”), the poem is, in a word, wild. It is also painstakingly calibrated, a thought experiment whose rakish absurdity is mixed with rising desperation.

Donne’s tolerance for homosexuality is evident in him writing of:

“rank itchie lust, desire and love” for a “plumpe muddy whore, or prostitute boy,”

When he falls madly in love with Ann Moore, at the age of 31, his poems become more serious.

Donne’s mature poems range from a passionate, intense and personal declaration of love to a philosophic celebration of the dualism of: soul and body, emotion and intellect.

His love poems are masculine - more about his attitudes to the lady than about the lady herself. (The lady can hardly be visualised.) Donne reacted against the artificial conventions of Platonic poetry though as a construct, his early poems may lack sincerity,

“I did best when I had least truth for my subjects”,

his mature love poems are intense, striking, immediate, colloquial and cover a wide range and depth of feelings both spiritual and sensual. We must remember his audience was the court of Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I and its purpose was more to flaunt the cleverness of his wit - to entertain than to persuade.

To demonstrate his wit was all his art”.

b) Divine Poetry #

Donne uses the same blend of passionate feeling, subtle thought and fantastic “wit” displayed as in the love poems. It is the same introspective spirit that wrestled with the contradictory emotions he felt towards his beloved, that now struggles to harmonise the same forces towards a relationship with God and a reconciliation of his morbid fascination with sin and death.

Donne became a priest reluctantly in 1615, realizing there was no other way out of his poverty and the need to provide for his family (his wife had twelve children, the birth of the last effectively killing her with exhaustion). Donne is presented as an apostate, neurotic and guilt-ridden, unable to detach himself emotionally from the Catholic faith but propelled into Anglicanism by a lust for power. Donne’s Dialogue of one - Paul Dean

The Holy Sonnets were composed shortly after his wife died when he decided to:

wholly on heavenly things my mind is set”.

Elizabethans were highly conscious of Heaven and Hell. He was fascinated by the mystery of Christ’s death with its possibility for Salvation.

In many poems he is determined overcome his doubt and to prove himself worthy of redemption. He uses the same logical arguments to resolve his anxiety and gain spiritual peace.

Donne is best known for his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, with its famous lines:

“never send to know for whom the bell tolls” and

“No man is an island, entire of itself.”

His last sermon, delivered only a month before he died.

Tone: #

The tones are generally very abrupt, blunt, defiant and dramatic, immediate and intense. (We can almost hear Donne speaking). Donne is self assured and assertive- sometimes arrogant and scathing.

The angry or aggressive tones often become modulated and mellowed as the poems progress to more argumentative, reasoning and even conciliatory and tender emotions.

In the Sunne Rising he is at once: masculine, persuasive, patronising, commanding and argumentative. Though passionate and intense, Donne seldom becomes sentimental or maudlin.

The tone of the divine poetry is often penitent, supplicatory, contrite:

  • striving for grace and atonement, yet permeated with doubt, torment and anxiety - sometimes even despair.

Only Shakespeare can parallel the variety and distinctiveness of the voices Donne created (something Browning admired and imitated).

Stubbs rightly says that:

“the relationship between Donne and the speakers of his poems is something like that which dramatists have with their characters,”

We must be careful not to read the poems as straightforward autobiography.

Donne’s Poetic Technique #

Donne is iconoclastic – he innovatively breaks the rules and attacks sacred cows. He is also a recusant - cocky, impertinent and sometimes borders on insolence.

The Petrarchan tradition idolises the sun, yet Donne addresses it disrespectfully calling it “unruly”.

The King must be treated with great respect to avoid decapitation for treason, yet Donne often makes disparaging references to his position.

God is omnipotent, yet Donne speaks directly to him in an imperious manner

His language is simple, colloquial, direct and forceful – like a boxer’s jab by the use of short monosyllabic words.

Donne uses natural rhythms and “strong lines often too harsh for our ears.”

He despised conventional rhythm and metre and preferred smooth verse and harmonious flowing cadences.

He uses a wide variety of original creative images - his unique poetic vision

Wit: Dr Samuel Johnson, writing 150 years after Donne’s death criticised him for:

“The most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.”

He also describes this quality as:

“A combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult remembrances in things apparently unlike”.

Critics hailed him as follows:

“A king that ruled as he saw fit,
The universal monarchy of wit.”

Donne put his wit to different uses. It could be amusing in ‘The Flea’; it could create an intense emotional mood in ‘Valediction: forbidding mourning”.

The intellectual and imaginative virtuosity of Donne’s wit is apparent everywhere in his work. Its effectiveness can be seen in just a few examples:

The Relique’:

my grave is broke up againe/ Some second guest to entertain”

or in

‘The Sunne Rising

“It could eclipse and cloud them with a winke
But that I would not lose her sight so long”.

Wit was the weapon Donne used in his revolt against the Petrarchan convention; its ammunition was surprise, its victory was the imaginative insight, the recreation of the lyric of personal expression. But wit which was mere cleverness could never have been the means towards such a high poetic end. Ultimately the foundation of metaphysical wit was rational.

As T S Eliot defined this quality,

it is a “tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.”

‘The Canonisation’

Donne compares the relationship between lovers to: Insects, candles, the eagle and the dove, and to the Phoenix.

Reason, then, becomes one of the essential elements in the structure of Donne’s method, together with the breadth of his knowledge and the imaginative distances bridged by his imagery. It is no more possible to separate the method from the achievement, than it would be to summarise a Donne poem in prose. The essence of Donne’s many-sided nature and the contradictory elements present in his poetry found unity in his use of the conceit, with its wit, surprise and rational foundation.

Donne’s wit could chain an analysis to an ecstasy. He used the conceit both for expansion and for contraction of an image. The discovery of resemblances can elaborate his conceit, as with the compasses in “A Valediction”. Or it can compress the idea into unit with its expression in:

The Relique”:

“And he that digs it, spies
a bracelet/of bright hair about the bone,
will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies.”

Intellectual and scholastic arguments. #

John Dryden said of Donne’s love poetry:

“He perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations in philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love.”

Donne attempts to define emotional and spiritual experiences in logical, rational cerebral terms.

Concised, compressed and concentrated thought. #

The Reader is held to one idea. Compression, brevity and a difficult nugget-like quality forces the reader to “read and think”. Samuel Johnson.

Use of paradox #

  • illustrates the tensions of opposites, the dialectic in life especially “Batter My Heart”, “The Canonisation”

My love is infinite; yet still increases - The Canonisation

  • To be chaste one must be ravished by Christ - Batter My Heart

  • He can only stand if he is overthrown Batter My Heart

He is only free if God imprisons him - Batter My Heart

  • The Sun is “unruly” – a ”busy fool” Sunne Rising -It rules the time – the source of all life.

  • “That he may raise, the lord throws down” Hymn to My God

Deals with dichotomies or dualities. Whereas Marvell does not try to resolve the dualities of body and soul/time and eternity/the real and the ideal/or carnal and divine love, but is merely content with finding a comprise between the poles of the dialectic, Donne needs to resolve everything into a tidy neat unit;

a) the oneness of lovers,
b) the image of the circle,
c) self-sufficiency of lovers.

Use of Conceits: #

In Elizabethan times - an extended metaphor, comparison or analogy, whose ingenuity is more striking than its validity. (see “wit”) - surprising, striking, wildly unexpected.

4. Recurring Themes and Ideas. #

a) Self-sufficiency and single-mindedness of their love: #

“She is all states and all Princes, I
Nothing Else is.”

“(….That did all to you epitomize)
Countries, Townes, Courts:

“We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”.

“Who is safe as wee?
Where none can doe

Treason to us except one of us two.”

“T’were prophanation of our joyes
To tell the layetie our love.”

b) References to Royalty and Nobility #

  • usually comparing themselves to Kings and Princes with benign condescension even contempt.

King James I, the father of Charles I, was a Stuart who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, staunchly believing in the Absolute Power of Monarchs and the Divine Right of Kings.

This is his speech to parliament on 21^(st) of March 1610:

Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King. God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.

Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”. When an noted lawyer, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives, King James thundered:

So then I am under the law. It is treason to say that!”

Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage.

Thirty years later Cromwell’s lawyers produced the first trial of a Head of State – that of Charles I. It traces the memorable career of John Cooke, the radical barrister and visionary social reformer who had the courage and intellect to devise a way to end the impunity of sovereigns.

Geoffrey Robertson’s paper, Ending Impunity: How International Criminal Law Can Put Tyrants on Trial has been published in the 2005 Cornell Law J ournal (issue 3, Volume 38).

38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle.

Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch. Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper. In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England by King James I.

Most of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance. There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances. There are few indications of his reactions.

MacBethmay have subtle cautionary messages about the limitations of a monarch, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.

“All kings, and all their favourites,
The Sunn itself
Is elder by a yeare, now,”

“Alas, as well as other Princes, wee,
(Who Prince enough in one another bee,)”

“Here on earth, we’re Kings, and none but wee
Can be such Kings

“She is all states, and all Princes, I.
Princes do but play us;”

“Goe tell Court huntsmen that the king will ride.”
“Aske for those kings whom thou sawst yesterday
And thou shalt heare, All in one bed lay.”

“Observe his honour or his grace,
Or the king’s reall or his stamped face.”

All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.

Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus

The fact is that despite the social contracts, real life is often experienced at the level of ordinary existence rather than by vaunted authority.

Donne, a recusant, appears to have a cocky, impertinent or irreverent attitude to authority – Kings, God, The Sun and even Death.

5. Themes of Donne’s poetry: #

As in most literature his is a search for meaning and direction in life.

In The Canonization he reveals his disillusionment with society and finds meaning only in his love.

In an age of change, doubt and uncertainty, we require something stable to believe in. Personal experience is one of the few certainties left.

All experience is personal, emotional and subjective - but Donne and the other Metaphysicals used their poetic talents to define emotional experiences by a series of intellectual parallels. They tried to objectify subjective emotions.

In his divine poetry there is the struggle of faith, the conflict between what Donne was and what he would be, between will and conscience; an attempt to bring harmony out of conflict.

Donne’s greatest struggle was to master his temperament and his greatest hope was not for forgiveness of his early excesses but for a consistent piety which would save him from despair. The sensuous immediacy of the love lyrics is replaced by moral intensity and agony of the Holy Sonnets.