John Donne Questions and Answers

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Compare and contrast the Elizabethan poetic tradition and metaphysical age. Use at least two poems each to justify your answer.

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With so many important poets dominating the time periods you mention, the scope of your question is enormous! However, I’ll try to answer it as succinctly as possible in the space we have available here.

I’d look at the works of four poets for a comparative analysis of Elizabethan and metaphysical traditions: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, and George Herbert. But first, a couple of clarifications: Elizabethan verse refers to English poetry written around the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), whereas metaphysical refers to a school of poetry which rose in the Jacobean period (1603-1625) and lasted for a few decades after; therefore there is more of an overlapping continuum rather than a sharp boundary between the two kinds of poetry. For example, Shakespeare is considered an Elizabethan writer, though his work spans both the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

Very broadly speaking, we can say that Elizabethan verse, strongly influenced by the courtly Italianate form—the sonnet—was formal and courtly in nature, as we can especially see in the works of poets like Edmund Spenser (1552/53-1599) and Sir Philip Sidney. Sonnet 89 from Spenser’s sonnet cycle Amoretti illustrates some of the distinctive features of Elizabethan verse.

No joy of aught that under heaven doth hove,
Can comfort me, but her own joyous sight
Whose sweet aspect both God and man can move,
In her unspotted pleasance to delight.
Dark is my day, whiles her fair light I miss,
And dead my life that wants such lively bliss. (Lines 9-14)

Elizabethan verse was often written in the 14-line sonnet form, though typically, poets put their own spin on it. For instance, take the Spenserian sonnet, which has the rhyme scheme ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, unlike the ABBA ABBA CDE CDE scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet. Further, as you can see in the extract above, the subject of Elizabethan verse was often love, and the theme was richly illustrated with metaphors. However, the metaphors were courtly and firmly set in the tradition of the mistress as an exalted, rare creature. Note the conventional love metaphors, as well as the hallowed description of the beloved in Spenser’s sonnet. In contrast, the 15th-century English working of the Petrarchan sonnet is a little more cynical about love. Typical of Elizabethan verse, the Spenserian sonnet is well rhymed, though Spenser took rhyme to a whole new height of perfection. You can read more about Spenser’s poetry here.

Spenser’s Amoretti was published in 1595, while the sonnets of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) came out in 1609; yet we can see stylistic differences in the verses, indicating that poets were already breaking away from the flowery language of courtly tradition. Even though most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are built around the theme of love, some take a look at more philosophical and existential questions. The metaphors Shakespeare uses are now more realistic and grounded, unlike the lofty comparisons of high Elizabethan court verse. Let us contrast these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 with Spenser’s verses above.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare. (Lines 9-14)

As you can see, the rhyme scheme here is different from the Spenserian, and the metaphors are bolder and more jarring. The poet knows music is a far more pleasing sound than his beloved’s voice, and no goddess, she treads the earth like anyone else. Yet her love for him is no less precious than any extolled in a courtly song. Keeping in mind these differences from courtly verse, I think we can view Shakespeare as a bridge between Elizabethan poets and the metaphysical poets of the 17th century.

By the time of John Donne (1572-1631), the reaction to the Petrarchan and Spenserian tradition was more pronounced. Metaphysical poets shunned overtly flowery language and sentimentality. The carnal apsects of love were now freely discussed with poems such as John Donne’s “The Flea” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” asking the beloved to stop shying away from premarital sex. The themes for poetry had also shifted, from predominantly romance to a mix of questions on love, existence, religion, and philosophy. Thus, the label “metaphysical” or beyond the physical—though it must be said Donne and Herbert never referred to themselves as such. The term was coined by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century.

Another distinctive feature of metaphysical poetry was the use of the jarring conceit. Poets like Donne used unusual scientific and maritime metaphors to illustrate their poems. Often the metaphors were bold and violent, as we can see in Donne’s religious poem, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (1633):

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

God is a violent force who batters, burns, and breaks in order to mend the speaker into a state of spiritual transformation. The speaker’s plea to God is direct, passionate, and powerful. Compare this with Spenser’s gentler, softer metaphors, in order to trace the trend of changes in English verse from the 16th to the 17th centuries. However, it must be noted that Donne still writes in the sonnet form and still uses metaphors to build up the poem’s central theme, much in the Petrarchan tradition of the “conceit”. What is distinctive about Donne’s use of conceits is that he often uses intellectually challenging arguments, as we can see in the way the poem “Break of Day” begins, where the speaker is exhorting his beloved to stay in bed a little longer: ‘Why should we rise because ’tis light?/ Did we lie down because ’twas night?"

Coming to George Herbert (1593-1633), we see a turning away from the cheeky, carnal themes of Donne and Marvell. Though Donne and Herbert were close contemporaries, Herbert’s verse is strikingly different. His themes are more religious, and in a sense, he is even more inventive than Donne, breaking away from the sonnet form altogether. Herbert used stanzaic and typographical innovation in an unprecedented way, as we can see in his poem “Easter Wings,” where the arrangement of the stanzas itself suggests spreading wings, reproduced in its entirely below. (There is no other way to convey the effect of his innovation.) Herbert’s poems are more devotional than Donne’s and ostensibly less intellectual. His metaphors are striking yet simpler, more drawn from every day life than the world of scientific discovery. Thus, we see how each generation of poets from Spenser to Herbert drew from their predecessors and contemporaries and also developed in reaction to them, building a healthy synergy which produced some of the best poetry in English.

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,

Though foolishly he lost the same,

Decaying more and more,

Till he became

Most poore:

With thee

O let me rise

As larks, harmoniously,

And sing this day thy victories:

Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne

And still with sicknesses and shame.

Thou didst so punish sinne,

That I became

Most thinne.

With thee

Let me combine,

And feel thy victorie:

For, if I imp my wing on thine,

Affliction shall advance the flight in me.