The Canonization

by John Donne

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What is the paradox in the title of John Donne's "The Canonization"?

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The paradox in John Donne's "The Canonization" lies in the contradiction between the lovers' perceived sinful relationship and their immortalization in poetry. Despite societal disapproval, the speaker argues their intense love justifies their 'canonization' or sainthood in verse. Even if their love story may be unfit for traditional commemoration, it is aptly celebrated through poetry, thus creating a paradox between societal perception and poetic immortalization.

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Let us remember that the speaker of this poem appears to be addressing a cynic of love, who is arguing that the speaker's love for his beloved is harmful or at least damaging to himself. Thus it is that the title of the poem refers to the way that the speaker and his beloved can become "canonised" or be made saints through the way that their love is expressed in poetry. Consider how the penultimate stanza of this excellent poem explores the paradox between the actual nature of their relationship and the way that it can be immortalised in poetry:

We can die by it, if not live by love, 
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ; 
And if no piece of chronicle we prove, 
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ; 
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs, 
And by these hymns, all shall approve 
Us canonized for love ;

Even though the "legend" of their lovemight be "unfit for tomb or hearse," it can be "fit for verse." Poetry seems to be an apt way to give them the "canonisation" for the intensity of the love they bear for one another, even though in life they may receive no recognition for it at all. The paradox of the title refers to the difference between the way their love is thought of by others and the way it can be immortalised in poetry. The fact that we continue to talk about this poem so much nowadays gives testament to the way in which Donne achieved the "canonisation" of the love between the speaker and his beloved.

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What is the paradox inherent in the title of the poem 'The Canonization'

A paradox is a statement that contradicts the central message of a work of literature such as poems, dramas, novels, and short stories.

In The Canonization a courtier is venting his frustrations over how he admires someone whom he cannot have. This could be a married woman, a higher ranking woman, or any other woman whose attachment to the courtier would be inappropriate. The man voices aloud his need for this person's love. 

When did the heats which my veins fill 
        Add one more to the plague bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still 
    Litigious men, which quarrels move, 
    Though she and I do love.

Since the love is perhaps even sinful, the irony that manifests in the poem's paradoxical title is that the poet treats this indiscreet relationship as if it were a mandate from heave that the two should be together. He sees himself as a figure of martyrdom and she as someone equally celestial 

Call's what you will, we are made such by love ; 
    Call her one, me another fly,
    We're tapers too, and at our own cost die

A canonization is the induction of a martyr into sainthood. As the poem indicates, this is clearly not the case. 

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