Article abstract: Capturing the restless, questioning spirit of the early seventeenth century, Donne established the “metaphysical” style—witty, colloquial, and dramatic—in his love poetry, which is both devotional and erotic.
John Donne’s early years set the stage for a lifelong tension that is reflected in his poetry, namely that between, on one hand, his careful cultivation of skills necessary for a politically prominent courtier and, on the other, his religion and imprudent marriage, which impeded his preferment. Donne was born in 1572, the son of John Donne, a successful London merchant and member of the Ironmongers’ Company, and Elizabeth, the daughter of epigrammatist John Heywood and the great-niece of the martyred Thomas More. Consequently trained in the Catholic faith, Donne learned early of the dangers accompanying Catholicism in Anglican Elizabethan England. Two of his uncles were Jesuits, one of whom headed a clandestine mission in England and was imprisoned, sentenced to death, and exiled. In addition, Donne’s brother Henry died of plague in Newgate Prison in 1593, having been arrested for harboring a seminary priest.
Being Catholic, Donne could not be granted a university or law degree, even though he matriculated at Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and was probably at Cambridge in 1588-1589. After traveling abroad (probably from 1589-1591), Donne entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and spent 1592 to 1594 at Lincoln’s Inn, studying law, the classics, divinity, and perhaps medicine. During this time, Donne lived the life of a young man about town, frequently attending plays and cultivating the persona of a witty, cynical rake. In 1596-1597, he sailed with the English expeditions to Cádiz and the Azores under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Ralegh, thus aligning himself with energetic and aspiring but doomed political forces (Raleigh was later imprisoned and Essex beheaded).
Donne’s poetry of the 1590’s communicates a sense of daring rebellion, restless talent, and spiritual exploration. Defying Elizabethan literary tradition, Donne wrote several Ovidian elegies. The elegies’ harsh realism, especially regarding sexual relationships, is a reaction against Golden Age idealism; their immediacy of situation and dominant, ironic speaking voice reflect the theater’s influence on Donne as well as his powers of self-dramatization as a “forward wit.” In addition to challenging literary tradition, Donne questions religious authority, specifically in his third satire. Again, the compelling speaking presence dictates the poem’s meter, so unlike the mellifluous Elizabethan verse with its patterned “flowers of rhetoric,” and the twisted, complex syntax mirrors the convoluted theological issues being explored. Donne urges readers to “doubt wisely” while pursuing a vigilant intellectual quest for personified Truth, which stands “on a huge hill,/ Cragged, and steep . . . and he that will/ Reach her, about must, and about must go.”
Even his frankly amatory verses (written approximately between 1590 and 1610 and published posthumously as Songs and Sonnets in Poems by John Donne with Elegies on the Author’s Death , 1633) are touched by his searching religious sensibility. While frequently interpreted as a typically metaphysical “forcible yoking together” of sacred and profane opposites, Donne’s technique derives from an incredible flexibility of mind which balances the physical and spiritual simultaneously. For example, “The Ecstasy,” with its steady movement from body to soul to body, can be interpreted both as a sophisticated verbal seduction, soon to be translated into the language of the body, and as a reverent celebration of the transcendent unity experienced by spiritual lovers. Even “The Flea,” typically viewed as one of Donne’s wittiest seduction poems, draws on religious...
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- Critical Essays