What are some characteristics of imagery in John Donne's poetry?

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Samuel Johnson said of metaphysical poetry:

[In it, t]he most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together

Johnson's is an unflattering way of putting it, but Donne's metaphysical imagery is characterized by juxtaposing the sacred and the profane and startling us with his imagery.

One startling image—though we may have heard it so many times by now that it has lost some of its edge—is the comparison of a human being to an island. These (human and island) could be said to be heterogeneous ideas yoked together, but Donne makes a point through them about the interconnectedness of human experience. He uses geographical metaphors when he writes:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

The sacred and profane are mixed in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," a poem about love. Donne uses a startling and spiritual image of "gold to aery thinness beat" as he describes how the lovers souls are connected, no matter how far apart their bodies:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

But two stanzas later in the same poem he uses very earthy sexual imagery, comparing one of the hands of the compass to a human penis:

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Donne's imagery is startlingly original and combines the sacred and profane.

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As is true of the writings of many good poets, John Donne’s imagery can be highly various and diverse.  Yet Donne’s poems, far more than those of many other writers, often seem especially unpredictable in the kinds of images they employ.  Donne was an innovator who extended the breadth and depth of the sorts of imagery that could be used in English poetry.  Whereas some of the poetry of the sixteenth century uses imagery in fairly conventional ways, Donne’s imagery is often not very conventional at all.

In his famous poem “The Flea,” for instance, Donne’s speaker compares the act of sex to a flea bite. While poems about fleas were not entirely original, certainly Donne’s is the most famous such poem ever written, particularly in English. Partly this is because of the unconventionality of some of the poem’s other imagery, as when the speaker says,

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed and marriage temple is . . . (12-13)

Equally unusual is the poem’s later accusation that the woman who has just crushed the flea has “Purpled [her] nail in blood of innocence” (20). The examples just quoted illustrate several characteristic traits of Donne’s imagery, including its vividness, its cleverness, its wit, its inventiveness, and its capacity to surprise and even to shock.

Another famous trait of Donne’s use of imagery involves his ability to extend and develop a single image over many lines.  Such an image (called a “conceit”) is especially obvious in the final twelve lines of Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” in which the male speaker compares his spiritual link to his female beloved to the link that exists between the two legs of the kind of “compass” used for measurement and for drawing circles (25-36).

Donne’s imagery can also be suggestively allusive, as when, in “Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed,” he thrice uses imagery of standing to allude to a male’s erection (4, 12, 24).

Yet Donne could also use imagery that would have been instantly recognizable to his readers, even as he develops that imagery in striking and memorable ways.  Thus, it was common during Donne’s period to imagine Truth or Reason as residing at the top of a mountain, but it was Donne who breathed great life into that image by writing (in “Satire 3),

. . . On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . . . (79-82)

Here, the repeated “about must, and about must” mimics the very action it describes, so that the imagery is memorable in part because it is so literally energetic.  Donne’s images are almost always vital and striking; one senses that one is dealing with a poet who saw life and the world freshly for himself, and who could ingeniously communicate that kind of fresh, vivid vision to others.

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