John Donne Questions and Answers

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Is Donne an intellectual realist? Discuss Donne's selections from Grierson's Metaphysical lyrics and poems.  

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It appears that Grierson's own view is that Donne is a realist but not truly an intellectual, if I understand him correctly:

A metaphysical, a philosophical poet to the degree to which even his contemporary Fulke Grenville might be called such, Donne was not. The thought in his poetry is not his primary concern but the feeling. No scheme of thought, no interpretation of life became for him a complete and illuminating experience. The central theme of his poetry is ever his own intense personal moods, as a lover, a friend, an analyst of his own experiences worldly and religious. His philosophy cannot unify these experiences.

This comes, in Grierson's introductory essay to his edition of Donne, at the end of a long train of observations about Donne, which, I have to confess, are difficult to follow. Much of the poetry of Donne he quotes is not among Donne's best-known verse. But if we take the two elements of your question—intellectuality and realism—separately into consideration, we would have to conclude, based not just on Grierson's excerpts, that Donne is an intellectual and is a realist.

Donne's poetry shows an enormous knowledge of religion, philosophy, and the latest trends in intellectual thought. Grierson quotes from Donne's "Anatomy of the World":

The new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

Donne is alluding to the scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. In his Satires, Donne brings an intellectual bent to the religious controversies of the age—unsurprisingly, given that he was born a Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism. The Satires, as Grierson notes, were among the most read of Donne's works during his lifetime. But the manner in which he impudently describes those points of disagreement in religion are typical of Donne's realistic attitude (and also of the sardonic tone of his love poetry).

The love poetry is where the realist Donne is most strongly felt, but the result often is overly acerbic and cynical. Grierson quotes from "The Apparition":

When by thy scorn, O murderess,
I am dead,
And that thou thinkest thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed.

Or, in "The Canonization," Donne rails against those who would be morally judgmental toward him:

For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love.

In "The Extasie," the realistic degree of passion, as Donne tells of the fixation between himself and his love, is palpable:

And whilst our souls negotiate there
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day the same our postures were,
And we said nothing all the day.

The question remains as to whether Donne succeeded in (as your question asks) joining his intelligence to his realistic sense. I tend to agree with Grierson as quoted above. We also have to consider what it was that actually constituted "intellectual realism" in Donne's time. This was a period when the scientific method, pioneered by Donne's contemporary Francis Bacon, was just getting off the ground. It was also a time when brutal wars regularly took place, often in the name of religion. So, this is a complex question, for which one can only grope toward an answer by studying as much of Donne's verse and prose as possible.

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It depends upon which Donne.  There are two: the early Donne focuses on the physical union of the male and female, while the late Donne focuses on the spiritual union of man and God.

Both Donnes are intellectual.  Neither are realistic, really.  The early Donne is definitely not realistic: he uses metaphysical conceits, a harsh meter, and a complex tone.  In "The Flea," for example, he urges society to leave he and his lover alone because he thinks the world is coming to an end.  This is highly emotional and not realistic.

At age 43, Donne became a minister for socio-economic means more than any real spiritual or artistic conversion (the Church of England thanked him kindly).  His intellectual correspondence with his parishioners was not realistically achieved: he still used the complex metaphorical language of a poet in his homilies.  He intrudes and digresses in his highly stylized sermons and poetry of this period.

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