John Donne is famous for the sheer variety and ingenuity of the imagery he uses in his poetry. Few poets have used imagery so unpredictably and inventively as Donne did. Donne’s poems rarely seem conventional (even when they are), partly because readers can never quite guess what startling or unusual image (or combination of images) Donne will use next.
A good example of Donne’s tendency to use a wide range of images can be seen in his famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” In this poem, the male speaker urges his female beloved to remain strong, even though he must leave her for a time. The poem is often considered one of the most beautiful celebrations of genuine love in the English language.
Few poets, however, have ever written a love poem as inventive and wide-ranging in its imagery as this one. For example, the first five lines compare the departing lovers to a dying man whose soul must leave his body. Then the lovers are compared to a solid object that melts (5). Next they are urged not to behave like floods or storms (6). Then they are compared to religious sophisticates who are superior to mere religious “laity” (7-8).
In lines 9-10, Donne uses imagery of earthquakes to make his point. In lines 11-12, he alludes to the heavenly spheres. Imagery of the earth and moon is implied in the reference to “Dull sublunary lovers” (14), while in lines 21-24, the speaker famously compares genuine mutual love to a piece of gold, which can expand enormously without breaking.
In lines 25-36, the speaker offers perhaps the most famous “conceit” (or detailed comparison) in all of English literature: the two lovers are compared to the feet of a compass: they are solidly joined together, even though one stays centered while the other moves away.
In the space of less than forty lines, then, Donne’s speaker presents a startling variety of images, and yet somehow the poem does not seem disjointed or haphazard at all in its development. It is part of the special genius of Donne that he was able to range so widely in his imagery and yet stay so focused in his thought.
For an early study of Donne’s imagery, see Milton Allan Rugoff, Donne’s Imagery: A Study in Creative Sources (New York: Corporate, 1939).