For me, the most distinctive aspect of John Donne's poetry is the disparity between his young life and his later life: his ability to combine religion and sex (albeit with controversy)! I remember being in 11th grade and being shocked at what this man combined within his religious poems. (I wonder if it's John Donne who could be responsible for my love of sexual innuendo within literature, ... hmmmm.)
The entrance into the world of metaphysics, some would suggest to entice "the fair sex" seems to transcend through the entire body of his work. I suppose that someone like John Donne is a perfect person (not unlike Saint Augustine) to enter into religious ways. Why? He truly understands the passion of the flesh in young life. He is able to put things into words, therefore, that many of his time will understand.
Take me to You, imprison me, for I, / Except You enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.
Religion or sex? Great way to get 'em interested in your Holy Sonnet 14, John. You go!
One of the most distinctive traits about the poetry of John Donne is his inventiveness and thus his capacity to surprise. This ability to surprise his readers exists not only as one moves from poem to poem but also one progresses through individual poems themselves. One can never quite predict what any single poem by Donne will be about, just as one can never quite predict how he will handle any of the various topics he chooses to write about. Donne is almost infinite in his variety, and for this reason he is never boring.
Take, for instance, the selection of poems by Donne that appears in the eighth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The first poem is “The Flea,” in which a cocky male speaker tries to convince a woman to have sex with him by comparing sex to a flea bite. The topic alone seems preposterous (although, in fact, there was a long tradition of such poems in the literature preceding Donne), and Donne’s treatment of the topic is highly inventive, especially in the ways he uses religious language in a baldly erotic poem and also in the ways he has the woman silently respond to the speaker’s overly clever reasoning.
Immediately following “The Flea” in the Norton selection is “The Good-Morrow,” a poem as full of tender and genuine love as “The Flea” had been full of sheer, mere lust. Particularly inventive, perhaps, are the lines in which the male speaker tells his beloved,
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest . . . (15-16).
Only a very observant writer would have noted that when two lovers look closely into one another’s eyes, they can actually see reflections of themselves on each other’s eyeballs.
The next poem, “Song” (“Go and catch a falling star”), contrasts with “The Good-Morrow” because of its clever cynicism about the faithfulness of women. Such a list of odd juxtapositions could easily be extended. In “The Apparition,” for instance, Donne describes a vindictive male ghost who comes back to terrorize the woman who has rejected him, while in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (which immediately follows “The Apparition” in the Norton Anthology), he describes, through a series of highly inventive comparisons, a couple whose love for one another seems firm and indestructible.
Because so many of Donne’s poems present the viewpoints of speakers who are not necessarily to be associated with Donne himself, his poems are highly inventive in that way, as well. Like Shakespeare, he was immensely gifted at creating an enormously various cast of characters, and although most of Donne’s speakers speak rather than engaging in conversation, the poems are still often highly dramatic in many senses of that term.
Finally, Donne’s poems are also inventive in the particular language they use, in the particular analogies they offer, in the particular forms they take, and in the particular developments they present. To read Donne is almost always to be surprised in one way or another. Paradoxically, one of his most predictable traits is that he is highly unpredictable.