John Donne's Songs and Sonnets

by John Donne

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What qualities in John Donne's love poems immediately arrest attention due to his genius, temperament, and learning?

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The quotation refers to Donne's "genius" (in other words, his innate ability as a thinker and writer), his "temperament" (in other words, his psychological make-up), and his "learning" (in other words, his reading and education). The phrase "Donne's love poems" probably refers to his secular (in other words, non-religious) love poetry, although many of Donne's religious poems can be seen as poems about love of God.

"Genius" is a difficult matter to discuss, because perhaps the only way to know for sure that a person possesses "genius" is to look upon the works that person produces and decide if they seem to be of exceptional value.

"Temperament" is also difficult to assess except by examining the works a writer produces.  Evidence of a writer's "temperament," however, survives not only in his or her literary works but often also in non-literary writings, such as letters and intellectual prose.  We can also often tell a good deal about a writer's temperament by reading what people who actually knew the writer had to say about the writer.

Finally, we can often tell a great deal about a writer's learning by studying his writings to see if they allude to books the writer may have read or to ideas that were common at the time.

The genius of Donne's love poetry can be illustrated by examining his famous poem "The Flea." Most readers who have read "The Flea" find it one of the funniest, wittiest, most clever, and most memorable love poems they have ever encountered. If the ability to impress so many diverse readers so greatly over such a long period of time is evidence of Donne's genius or innate talent, then "The Flea" can rightly be called a work of genius.

"The Flea" also seems to reflect Donne's temperament or characteristic psychology because it is simultaneously humorous and serious (as Donne himself could also be). The poem is also witty and ironic, and wit and irony seem to have real traits of Donne's personality. The poem is inventive and surprising, and these also seem to have been traits of Donne's mind. Finally, the poem displays Donne's tendency to pursue ideas in elaborate detail.

Finally, "The Flea" implies Donne's knowledge of a whole tradition of similar poems in the prior history of Western literature. The poem also suggests Donne's deep familiarity with many standard ideas of the Christian religion.  In addition, the poem implies Donne's familiarity with recent love poems of an altogether tamer sort. In "The Flea" as in so many of his other love poems, Donne echoes aspects of literary tradition while charting his own course in other ways. Only a deeply learned man could have written the kinds of love poetry that Donne habitually composed.

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"Donne's genius, temperament and learning gave to his love poems certain qualities which immediately arrest attention". Explain.

This quotation, which comes from Sir Herbert Grierson’s book Metaphysical Poems and Lyrics of the Seventeenth Century (1921), expresses a common reaction to many of Donne’s love poems.  One especially good illustration of Grierson’s claim can be found in Donne’s poem “The Relic.”

Certainly this poem “immediately arrest[s] attention” in its very opening lines:

When my grave is broke up again

Some second guest to entertain . . . (2)

It is hard to think of another poem that begins so strangely, with a reference to the common Renaissance practice of exhuming previously buried bodies from graves in order to bury fresh bodies in their places (a practice on display, also, in the "grave-digger" scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Here as so often elsewhere in his poetry, Donne likes to catch his readers off-guard.  Another startling image from the same poem is the reference to "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" (6) of the speaker's skeletal arm.

Lines such as the ones just quoted reflect the nature of Donne’s temperament, which was often witty, unconventional, inventive, and slyly humorous. It was a temperament that often allowed him to use the language of secular love in religious poems and the language of religious love in secular poems.

Yet “The Relic” also reflects the depth and breadth of Donne’s learning, as in his allusion to Judgment Day (10), his echo of the Bible (17-18), and his clever allusions to common Renaissance doctrines of love (23-24).

All in all, "The Relic" is a superb illustration of all three of Grierson's claims about Donne's love poetry.

A common reaction to reading Donne’s love poems is to think that only a genius could have concocted works that are at once so witty, so substantive, so thought-provoking, and so unusual.

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