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...

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