The Canonization

by John Donne

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Can you provide a critical appreciation of John Donne's "The Canonization"?

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John Donne's "The Canonization" is atypical as it lacks an extended conceit, instead using a series of brief metaphors. Donne and his mistress are compared to various pairs, and their love is exalted through metaphors like flies, tapers, and the Phoenix. Donne's tone is often defensive and acerbic, reflecting his intense, sometimes narcissistic view of love. Despite his faults, Donne's language remains strikingly effective and honest.

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"The Canonization" is perhaps technically somewhat atypical of Donne because it isn't based on a strikingly clever, extended conceit that dominates the poem as a whole, as is so often the case with him. Instead, Donne confronts us with a series of brief, more incidental metaphors in a kind of scattershot approach. Donne and his mistress are, in rapid succession, two flies, two tapers, the eagle and the dove, and the Phoenix. Of their love he says

We can die by it, if not live for love.

The Italian Renaissance poets often used morire (to die) as symbolic of sexual climax, and as with many other things, the English transferred that metaphor to our language.

And if no piece of chronicle we prove,

We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms.

Stanza is Italian for "room." The rapid-fire metaphorical devices continue, in which a "well-wrought urn" is likened to "these hymns" (the poems Donne and his love will "build"), and finally Donne employs a figure he uses elsewhere in which eyes serve as a reflecting mirror of the outside world, creating a personal microcosm:

You, to whom love was peace, and now is rage;

Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove

Into the glasses of your eyes

(So made such mirrors, and such spies

That they did all to you epitomize)

Countries, towns, courts.

As always Donne regards his personal love as so important that the world seems to be subordinated to it. He comes across as something of a narcissist, here and elsewhere in his oeuvre.

Regardless of the technique in which he presents his thoughts, one has to observe about the content of the poem that Donne at least borders on "protesting too much." He often takes a defensive, angry attitude about love and sexual matters, reacting harshly to people's alleged criticism of him. Or, possibly he is even parodying this stance as the typical way men act:

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

Or chide my palsy, or my gout.

This is similar to his more playful criticism, elsewhere, of the great and central inanimate force he senses as hostile to his desires in interrupting them:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,

Why dost thou thus?

Through windows, and through curtains call on us.

Or the implied criticism is sometimes directed against the object of his love, showing an impatience with her supposed inability to understand his logic:

Mark but this flea, and mark but well in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is.

Donne often comes across as a slightly (or more than slightly) impudent man who seems to overstate the case of how great his love is while simultaneously appearing sarcastic and even hostile. In "The Canonization," the same tendency is there but perhaps not as forcefully as in other poems.

Though we can partly dismiss his attitude as just a sign of the times, it's significant that most of his contemporaries wrote quite differently. The Cavalier poets such as Lovelace recreated a more courtly attitude to women, and other Metaphysicals such as Marvell may have been just as love- (or sex-) obsessed as Donne but in a far more light-hearted manner, without the acerbic, defensive tone. But one thing we can say about "The Canonization " and Donne in general is that whatever his faults, he's honest, and his language is always strikingly effective and uncannily lucid.

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