John Donne World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 19, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3870

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...

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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 Metaphysical conceit.

It is particularly Donne’s conceits, his extended metaphors, that have intrigued his readers. Not that conceits are unique to him or even new. Previous poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt fully and carefully developed such images, but Donne pushes the conceit to startling new capacities for meaning, to extraordinary heights of association blending quite disparate elements.

Essentially, the Metaphysical conceit joins two things not usually thought of as being together, and in this fusion creates a new apprehension of truth. For example, one may bring together flint and steel and produce fire. To understand how this analogy supports the notion of the Metaphysical conceit, it is important to see that when one strikes the flint against the steel the result is not just flint or just steel, nor is it some combination of the flint and steel; it is a new entity, fire. Similarly, Donne, in one of his most famous conceits, brings together a compass and lovers. A compass has no more to do with lovers than does flint with steel, but when Donne unites them, a new concept emerges, a new way of looking at the relationship between lovers. Again, Donne brings together a flea and an argument for seduction, and disparate as these elements are, once one sees how Donne fuses them in his poem “The Flea,” one can never think of seduction in the same way again.

Reading Donne’s poetry is not always easy. It is the record of a passionate, analytical intellect at work. For him, no experience is ever complete. He constantly moves ideas around, observes them from different perspectives, arranges them into new patterns of thought. Perhaps as much as anyone else, he captures the spirit of the Renaissance, and his poetry has become an embodiment of it.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

First published: 1633 (collected in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death, 1633)

Type of work: Poem

In this moving poem containing Donne’s most famous conceit, the compass, the poet gently argues against weeping when true lovers part.

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” probably written to his wife in 1601 before Donne left on a trip to the Continent, has often been anthologized. It is not only one of Donne’s most popular works but also one of his most representative.

The poem rests, as do most of Donne’s love poems, in the tradition of Renaissance love poetry. There is, for example, the conventional analogy of dying and the parting of lovers; there are references to floods of tears, tempests of sighs, and the spiritualizing quality of love. The poem is not different in kind from other poetry of the period, but it is different in degree. Donne and his lover exceed the traditional model for lovers, for they have so spiritualized their love that to reveal it to common lovers by weeping at parting would profane it much as a mystic discussing his or her ecstatic union with God would cheapen that experience.

Further, the poem reveals Donne’s awareness of and interest in Renaissance topics such as astronomy. For his own purposes in this poem, Donne takes the traditional view and derives his phrase “sublunary lovers” from the older Ptolemaic system, which argued that everything beneath the moon was imperfect and corruptible while all above the moon was perfect and incorruptible. Donne insists that ordinary love, being beneath the moon, is inferior to his love, which has been made perfect beyond the moon.

Typically, Donne pushes his argument to more complex levels of understanding and turns next to the notion of Platonic love, which he also compares with his own. The basic idea of Platonic love is the idea that, in another world, the Real World, there exist perfect ideals or archetypes for all particular things that exist in this, the actual world. Thus, all examples of love in human experience must be compared to the ideal of love in the Real World in order to determine their validity. In this framework, Donne argues that his love is the Platonic archetype. Unlike sublunary, inferior love, which is activated by the senses, Donne’s love is nourished by the soul. Because of the superior love Donne and his lady enjoy, they should not behave as ordinary lovers and weep and sigh at parting.

Bringing to bear yet another argument against acting like inferior lovers, Donne next insists that his soul and the soul of his lover through a mystical union have become one. Thus, they do not experience a breach in parting but an expansion “like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.” Actually, this argument is two-pronged, for it posits the superiority of Donne’s love in that he compares it to gold, the costliest metal, and it offers further support that perfect love does not weep at parting, for it cannot admit absence.

The apex of Donne’s argument is developed in the last four stanzas of the poem as he unfolds his famous compass conceit. The metaphor is relatively simple; its value lies primarily in its success in shocking the reader into new sensibilities. The lady is the fixed foot of the compass; Donne is the moving foot. The firmer the fixed foot (the truer the lady’s love), the more just the circle of the moving foot.

This conceit, typical of Donne’s best, represents an elaboration of a metaphor to the furthest stage intellect can pursue it. It unifies sensation and reason, description of things and feelings. Donne stresses the logic of his argument more than the beauty of his metaphor, and ultimately the reader is likely to be more impressed with the puzzle of the image, with the fact that it really works, than with its delineation of character or passion. Thus, the conceit serves as a fitting climax to a powerful but gentle argument that true lovers secure in the exaltation of their love disdain public shows of affection.

“The Flea”

First published: 1633 (collected in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death, 1633)

Type of work: Poem

This sardonic poem of seduction traces the mind of Donne at his argumentative best.

Perhaps interest in “The Flea” is, as the English scholar and writer C. S. Lewis has suggested, mostly accidental. Perhaps, as he says, if the flea had not acquired a reputation as an unpleasant pest, the poem would not be as striking as it is. On the other hand, possibly no conceit ever developed represents as well as Donne’s flea a capacity for total meaning. Such a metaphor, coupled with the argumentative ingenuity of Donne, results in a remarkable poem.

It is impossible to say when the poem was written, but it was published among his Songs and Sonnets, which was included in Poems by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death (1633). The poem’s irreverent tone, its mocking challenge of traditional values, and its sardonic treatment of its subject matter mark it as one of Donne’s earlier poems, when he was known as Jack Donne, “a frequenter of ladies and of plays.” It is inconceivable that Donne could have written the poem after he became the dean of St. Paul’s Church.

Told in the first person, the poem is a dramatic monologue, a form often used by Donne, wherein the narrator, who is a character in the poem, is speaking to someone who never replies. The drama of the poem evolves, however, through the narrator’s response to events shared with the silent companion. In “The Flea,” the narrator has clearly been attempting unsuccessfully to seduce a lady. She has rejected his advances, remonstrating that sex for them would be a sin, a shame, and, for her, a loss of virginity—strong traditional arguments in seventeenth century England. Yet her arguments, perhaps even more than the prospect of sex, inspire the narrator to new heights of argumentative persuasion couched in the conceit of the flea.

He begins with the assertion that sex between them would have no more effect than the bite of a flea, but he then paradoxically argues for the significance of the flea he has just belittled. Now he claims that the flea represents the marriage bed, the ideal of sexuality; the Church, the sanctifier of marriage; and at least an earthly reflection of the Trinity, in that it represents three lives in one: the lives of Donne, the lady, and the flea. Why this paradoxical shift? Apart from Donne’s love of paradox, he probably expects his argument to show that since all three of the impediments to sex—marriage, Church, and Trinity—can be summed up in a flea, they are not significant obstacles.

Donne next argues that he is concerned that she will, by killing the flea, commit the triple crime of his murder, her own suicide, and the destruction of their sexual union, crimes all possible because the bloods of Donne and the woman are mixed in the flea. He believes that the lady is capable of such murder because, by withholding her sexual favors from him, she constantly kills him.

Even as Donne speaks, the lady kills the flea and triumphantly declares that his fears are unfounded, for the death of the flea weakens neither her nor Donne. In a brilliant reversal, Donne turns her argument against her, pointing out that just as she insists that the blood lost in the death of the flea is nothing, so blood lost in her yielding to him would be equally insignificant.

The argument of the poem is well wrought, and as the conceit unfolds, its elements lose their identities in a new way of looking at sexual love. Significantly, even as Donne cajoles and teases the lady into accepting his conclusion, readers find themselves drawn into the argument, shocked perhaps by the appearance and function of the flea but pleased with the overall effect, thus proving the efficacy of Donne’s conceit.

“Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God”

First published: 1633 (collected in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death, 1633)

Type of work: Poem

In this intensely personal sonnet, Donne depicts in military and marital terms his ongoing struggle with God.

“Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” is one of nineteen sonnets that Donne wrote after taking orders in the Anglican Church. Earlier in his life, before his marriage and ordination, he wrote some fifty-five poems published in Songs and Sonnets, but none of these is technically a sonnet. The latter sonnets that he wrote as an Anglican priest, however, are true sonnets, and they display Donne’s continuing love of wit and paradoxes but also his deepening concern about his relationship to God.

“Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” is a fairly typical sonnet. It has fourteen lines, and the metrical scheme is iambic pentameter, five feet to a line; each foot contains an unstressed and a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is abba, abba, cdcd, ee, not the only sonnet rhyme sequence but a common one. The poem, typical of many sonnets, is made up of an octet: The first eight lines have the same rhyme scheme and develop a single image, in this poem, the image of a city under siege. The last six lines form a sestet, the first four lines having a consistent rhyme scheme and their own image, that of a marital relationship. The last two lines of the sestet form a couplet; they rhyme with each other and bring together the thought of the octet and the sestet.

As Donne matured and as his image changed from that of Jack Donne, man-about-town, to that of John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s, his poetry also changed, as this poem shows. After he took Holy Orders, he directed his love poetry not to women but to God. He tempered the sardonic indifference of some of his earlier poetry with the submissiveness of faith, and the shocking conceits of his earlier writing soften. Yet his intellect remains as vigorous as ever, and his witty imagery and love of paradox still characterize his poetry.

The seemingly impatient, boundless energy of Donne’s mind continues to erupt in his later poetry. Disdaining connectives and transition, it abruptly expresses itself in verb after strong verb. Thus, Donne complains in this poem that until now God has been content to “knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,” but Donne desires God to “overthrow, and bend . . . to breake, blowe, burn, and make me new.” These lines record a writer trying in his poetry to keep up with, to describe, somehow, the passionate, scintillating images that tumble from his mind.

The witty imagery of this poem, like much of Donne’s work, is built upon paradox, not a surprising development when one couples Donne’s seemingly innate love of paradox with the emphasis on paradox in the Christian tradition to which Donne turned. Donne’s plea, for example, for God to overthrow him so he may stand, to enthrall him so he may be free, echoes the Christian ideas that the way up to God leads down, that one must lose one’s self in order to find one’s self, and that one must die to live. His appeal to God to ravish him so that he may be chaste recalls the paradox of Mary, the virgin Mother of God. Just as in the sex act the partner may aggressively surrender, so Donne “labors to admit” God. Ultimately, one finds in this poem a passionate yet reasoned attempt to resolve the Christian dilemma articulated by Saint Paul, who found himself doing not the good that he wanted to do but the evil that he did not want to do. Donne wants to be loved by God, but he finds himself “betroth’d” to God’s enemy, Satan.

In this poem, however, unlike earlier poems, the metaphors do not shock; they are fairly standard in Christian writing in the seventeenth century. Nor is it Donne’s argumentative wit, but perhaps the honesty of his depiction of the ongoing struggle between his body and his soul, that attracts. Vividly dramatized is his commitment to faith—his “captiv’d” reason is useless to him. The poem raises the question of whether the poetry of the dean of St. Paul’s is as good as the poetry of Jack Donne, but it settles once and for all Donne’s commitment to religion as a way of life.

“Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness”

First published: 1635 (collected in Poems, by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death, 1635)

Type of work: Poem

In this poem, written perhaps as late as eight days before his death, Donne reflects upon his dying and his prospects of salvation.

“Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” is perhaps the last poem that Donne ever wrote and thus serves as a good example of the poetic interests he maintained late in life after his wife’s death and his ordination. Most critics divide Donne’s career into at least two parts: an earlier, more productive period when he was known as a man-about-town and wrote primarily satires and witty treatments of love, and a later period after he accepted Holy Orders in the Anglican Church. Clearly, “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” belongs to the latter period. As one might expect, there are similarities and dissimilarities between it and the poems of the earlier period. “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” reveals Donne’s continuing wide intellectual interests and his ongoing talent for bringing these interests together in vivid, insightful metaphors; but it also shows a new, humbler concern for the welfare of his soul.

A cursory look at the poem reveals examples of Donne’s intellectual interests. He raises the issue of cartography, the making of maps, popular in the Renaissance when discoveries of new lands constantly made news. Donne reveals his own interest in and knowledge of geography, referring to Jerusalem, Gibraltar, the Pacific Ocean, and the Bering Strait, which had become a hoped-for passage to Eastern riches.

His use of the phrase “per fretum febris” (through the straits of fever) does not establish him as a Latin scholar, though he probably was, but it is his thorough acquaintance with religious topics that is striking. Thus, he writes about how in Christianity the East symbolizes birth and resurrection, how the West symbolizes death, and how just as on a map East and West merge, so birth fades into death and death into resurrection. He refers to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and the theory current in the seventeenth century that after the Deluge, these three sons repopulated the entire earth.

He shows his familiarity with the classical Christian notion that the Garden of Eden was located on the same spot where Jerusalem was later built and that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil grew on the same site where Christ’s cross stood, thus locating all four of these contrasting, contradicting symbols in the same place and creating a magnificently paradoxical image. Another paradox important to Donne and also indicative of his immersion in Christian theory is the paradox of the two Adams. As Donne points out, through the first Adam humankind fell from grace, forfeited the Garden of Eden, and was condemned to earn its bread with the sweat of physical labor. Through Christ, the second Adam, however, humanity is restored to grace, regains Paradise, and, instead of the pain of the first Adam’s sweat, knows the balm, the saving efficacy, of the second Adam’s blood.

In one of this poem’s most vivid metaphors, Donne brings his knowledge of geography and religion together in a conceit wherein spiritual and physical cosmography unite in the body of Donne. Thus, his physicians become cosmographers, mapmakers, and Donne’s body becomes their map. On this map, East, his birth, and West, his death, can be discerned. As surely as he began his journey in the East, he will conclude his journey in the West. Yet, asserts Donne, his West holds no fears for him, for as in all flat maps, and Donne’s body is such a map, East and West meld into one, so Donne expects his death to merge into resurrection. Death will become life.

Reflecting on the poem to this point, one may discern several similarities between it and Donne’s earlier poetry. It retains the same wittiness, love of learning, and penchant for striking comparisons as those earlier poems do. Yet there arises a difference in this poem. In previous poems, Donne flaunted his knowledge and used his wit to bully his opponents into submission. In this poem, Donne trusts not in his wit or argumentative acumen but in Christ’s “purple” (His Lordship) to save him, and he concludes not with the original swaggering confidence that he has taught his opponent a lesson but with the humbler hope that he may learn from his own poem. Ultimately, his conceit of the map does not carry him to flights of fancy but to submission to his fate as he reflects upon the straits before him and the God who waits beyond them.


John Donne Poetry: British Analysis


Donne, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))