John Donne Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

Describe John Donne as a metaphysical poet.

Expert Answers info

D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write11,032 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

Samuel Johnson, who came up with the term "metaphysical" to describe seventeenth-century poets like Donne, stated that in their poems,

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

What Johnson means here is that this group of poets groped to find striking metaphors or images that moved beyond the smooth commonplaces of Elizabethan poetry. It had become hackneyed and worn out, for example, to compare your lover's cheeks to roses or hair to gold wires, so the metaphysicals worked to come up with more interesting words and ideas. They deliberately tried to put together ideas that wouldn't, at first glance, seem to fit together--this was done to surprise people and make them think. Johnson grudgingly admits this strategy works--their learning instructs and their technique surprises, but in his opinion, the reader has to work too hard at understanding what the poems mean for the reward to be worth the effort.

Donne fits Johnson's description of a metaphysical poet. If we use one section of a famous Donne poem, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," we can illustrate how a startling and unusual metaphor yokes together an idea:

If they be two, they are two so / As stiff 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 centre sit, / Yet, when the other far doth roam, / It leans, and hearkens after it, / And grows erect, as that 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.

In the above, Donne compares a compass—the tool with which you draw a circle—to the relationship between his lover and himself. No matter how one "foot" or leg of the compass moves, the other stays still firm and fixed and holds the moving "foot" (i.e., lover) in place. It is unusual to compare lovers to the two legs of a compass and even more so to connect that image to sexual desire: "grow erect, as that comes home." And as Johnson points out, this is not a poem one can pull the meaning out of through a quick reading—it requires work and effort. Donne uses this kind of imagery all the time in his poems, and today we have a greater appreciation of this startling technique than did Johnson.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

tipputhyagarajan | Student

John Donne rebelled against the outdated style of the elizabethan poets.He used intellectualism and reason in place of idealism(which was followed by elizabethan poets).The remarkable features of John Donne's metaphysical poetry are:

-conceits:the complex logic of comparison,that startled the readers.

-concenteration:very specific in the discussion of the ideas.

-colloquial usage:it showed Donne's involvement in inducing the reader to delve deeper into the poem.

-controversial,abrupt openings:sudden and startling openings which immediately draw the reader's attention(eg:the sun raising,cannonization)

-deliberate use of false logic:he poses an argument and is able to convince the reader

-intellectual tone:he takes comarisons from science,philosophy,astronomy etc and compares his lover's teardrop to a minted coin(a valediction:for weeping) unlike the usual ones ie,comparison of lover's cheeks to rosebuds.

-dramatic effect:his energy injected poetry is full of vigour and animation

-freedom of rythm:no particular format was used or adopted.his poems were mostly rash and argumentative.

Donne enriched the post elizabethan era by differing from the elizabethan poets with regard to the above given aspects.      

kc4u | Student

Metaphysical Poetry is defined more in terms of style than content or a governing ideology. John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, Richard Crashaw and Abraham cowley are the poets in contention. The word 'Metaphysical' came later, in the contemporary period, these poems were called 'strong lines'.

The Metaphysical style and other elements as evident in the poetry of John Donne are as follows--

1.The concietful style--combining distant and far fetched analogies e.g. lovers' hearts and hemispheres

2. The allusive style--references to a vast area of discursive knowledge from mythology to science.

3. The poetry of erudition, displaying knowledge

4. Argumentative style--using logical forms, premise-conclusion structures

5. The epigrammatic style--working by the means of short pithy statements, paradoxes and ironies.

6. Parodic and undercutting style, marked with latent sarcasm

7. A critical and realist stance in terms of love-poetry--candid admission of sexuality and physicality in love, the accommodation of plurality in it, the body-soul dialogue in love, critique of the Elizabethan romantic idealism.