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John Donne World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Fewer than ten of Donne’s poems were published during his lifetime, and he was better known as a preacher and a writer of prose, especially sermons. Donne himself seems not to have been sure of the value of the poetry he wrote before he became a priest. It was 1633 before his first collection of poetry was published.

Early response to his poetry was not entirely favorable. Even his friend Ben Jonson said that Donne “did not keep accent” and that he would perish for “being misunderstood.” Samuel Johnson, calling him a Metaphysical poet, said that Donne’s poetry was new but not natural, that it presented “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.” He did acknowledge that Donne demonstrated intensive knowledge. Johnson’s critical views of Donne’s poetry served as a standard for years, but in the twentieth century, largely through the influence of T. S. Eliot, who perceived Donne’s images not as excesses but as significant examples of “sensuous apprehension of thought,” Donne’s reputation as a poet improved to the point that he is now regarded as a major English poet of the seventeenth century. He is still perceived as a Metaphysical poet, but the appreciation for such poetry has grown so that now Donne’s Metaphysical qualities are not disparaged but admired.

Increasingly among moderns, Donne is seen as a product and spokesperson for his age, the Renaissance, a period characterized by new discoveries and intellectual advancements but also by the fragmentation of such institutions as feudalism and scholasticism, a time of separation of the secular and the spiritual, a turbulent, confusing world where truth could no longer be perceived as one. Thinkers such as Donne would have found themselves attracted to all the new worlds but detached from them. Donne said “the new philosophy puts all in doubt.” To live in such a world invited either indifference or attempts, which Donne chose, to achieve a unified sensibility, of which his poetry becomes one of the finest statements of the period. As one might expect, unifying the fractured world of the seventeenth century proved to be a formidable task, and it is his poetic adaptations to this task that give Donne’s poetry its original rhetoric and imagery.

Donne writes as a scholar, as a curious observer open to a wide range of experiences. He fills his writing with allusions to his wide reading: “A Valediction: Of the Booke” contains references to the Sybil, Homer, Platonism, national leaders, the Bible, alchemy, theology, astronomy, and languages; Biathanatos quotes more than one hundred authorities. His intellectuality shapes his rhetoric, for he crowds his ideas into his poetry. As if impatient of transition and connectives, Donne may construct a single line of poetry almost entirely of verbs: “I saw him I/ Assail’d, fight, taken, stabb’d, bleed, fall, and dye.”

Well versed in casuistry and law, Donne writes analytically, dialectically, as opposed to reflectively. As one reads Donne’s poetry, one senses an imagined conversation in which Donne constantly tries to convince, verbally pushing and shoving. His sentences are more faithful to the form of conversation and logic than to poetic meter; thus, his poetry seems rugged and argumentative.

Yet Donne is not just a logical analyst; he is also a sensitive poet, and as he writes in the chaos of his passion and thought, he creates some startling imagery. Thus, he can write of the heart as the seat of the emotions, or he can write of the heart as a butcher might think of it: “When I had ripp’d me, ’and search’d where hearts did lye.” He can also speak of bodies as temples of souls, or he can observe that “Rack’t carcasses make ill anatomies.” Forcing such imagery into a poem can result in vivid poetry, but it may also necessitate a vehicle to portray such sharply contrasting modes of perception—what came to be known as one of the outstanding features of Donne’s poetry, the...

(The entire section is 3,870 words.)