What are some useful methods for analyzing and explaining a poem by John Donne?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Although John Donne is an immensely inventive and unpredictable poet, certain analytical techniques are often consistently useful in analyzing his poems.  Take, for instance, his poem “The Apparition,” in which a vindictive ghost returns from the dead to torment the woman who once rejected him.

  • Throughout the poem, Donne lets the ghost speak for himself.  This technique is typical of Donne’s tendency to present speakers whose characters and motives the reader must assess for herself, based on the evidence the poem itself provides. Thus, the first line of “The Apparition” – “When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead” – implies a speaker who exaggerates, who is full of self-pity, who may be intentionally humorous, but who is certainly not to be taken completely seriously. A few lines later, the speaker tells the woman that after she has killed him,

Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,

And thee, feigned vestal, in worse arms shall see. (5-6)

These lines, like the whole poem, raise another issue typical of many of Donne’s poems: what is Donne’s own attitude toward this speaker?  Is he mocking him? Is he sympathizing with him?  Is he using the speaker to express his own feelings?  A crucial issue in many of Donne’s poems, then, involves trying to determine how seriously to take the speakers.  Often the speakers take themselves quite seriously indeed, but in many poems (and I believe this is one of them), Donne seems to be having fun at the speaker’s expense.  In any case, a good question to ask about any Donne poem is this one: how does the presentation of the speaker help present a particular image of Donne himself?  For example, if Donne is mocking and satirizing the speaker in “The Apparition,” then Donne may be implying that he himself is more sensible, more reasonable, and more humble than the speaker presented here.

  • Another effective way to approach a Donne poem is to ask yourself whether and/or how the speaker evolves during the course of the poem.  For example, by the end of “The Apparition,” one might argue that the speaker has become fairly sadistic and malevolent.  He seems to enjoy the prospect of the woman’s terror (11-13), and by the very end of the poem he seems unwilling to reveal anything to her that might diminish that terror.  In short, he wants her to suffer:

I had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,

Than by my threatenings rest still innocent. (16-17)

A poem, then, that begins almost as a joke evolves into work that seems to reveal something darker and more unsettling about the speaker than may have been apparent at first.

 

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