Sunday, November 7, 2010

Donne’s Contribution to English Style and Language

Donne has made a remarkable contribution to English poetic diction and versification. In this respect his status is like that of Dryden, Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot. We understand that the English language became too poetic in the age of Wordsworth, and in that of T.S. Eliot. It lost its touch with the language of everyday life, with the result that it became weak and enervated. Donne endeavoured to re-vitalise and invigorate English language by making it flexible. He imparted to it sinewy strength, energy and vigour.

Donne’s poetry is based on an individual technique. His poetic diction and style is unconventional. The ‘Donne-poem’ is an argument in which a mind living in analogy exploits a chosen situation with a new and elaborate set of inter-connected images. His poems are like voyages of discovery, exploring new worlds of life, love and spirits. They are voyages of the mind which
Cerates, transcending these,
                                                and other seas.
Matter more important than words
To Donne, matter was more important than words and the management of the thoughts dictated the form of the poem. De Quincey thought that Donne laid principal stress on the management of thought and secondly on the ornaments of style. Here is a poet who argues in verse accompanied by music. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”
His love-poems are explorations of the types of love and friendship, from the man’s point of view. They are not so obviously “poetic”, as those of Marvell and Herrick. Excess of intellectual satires and complexity prevent the luminosity and certainty of statement. This partly accounts for his occasional inequality, violence and obscurity. His style stands in a class by itself. Cazamian writes: “Donne will have nothing to do with the easy and familiar, the mythological imagery. At the risk of being enigmatic, he takes pleasure only in the subtle. Passion, feeling, sensuousness—all are subjected to wit. This play of wit sometimes results in astounding hyperbole; sometimes he ingeniously brings together ideas as remote from each other as the antipodes, mingling the lofty and the mean, the sublime and the trivial. He often prefers to a smoothly flowering line, the lines that are freely divided, and in which he accents have an effect of shock, and pull the reader up and awaken his attention”.
Donne’s world of ideas
The basis of the ‘Donne-poem’ is neither music nor imagery but the idea. There is a basic idea underlying each poem. The idea may be real or fantastic but it is never artificial or affected. Donne is modern in his psychological realism; he believed in the realism of a world of ideas. Donne told his friends that he described “the idea of a woman and not as she was.” He rejected the courtly idea of woman as an angel or a goddess. To him, woman was essentially fickle and inconstant in love. The song beginning, “Go and catch a falling star” is based on the faithlessness of women in love. Nowhere can you find a woman who is faithful to her lover—”Fraility, thy name is woman.” His important poem—The Anniversary—is a record of domestic bliss. The love of Donne and his wife is eternal and immortal and is not subject to decay or death:
All other things, to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday....
His poem—The Sun Rising—is a stern warning to the sun not to disturb the lovers in their bed-chamber. The proper duty of the sun is to call on schoolboys, apprentices and courtiers who must attend to their work in time. His song—”Sweetest Love”—is based on the idea that parting is no doubt sad and painful, but those who love each other sincerely and deeply can never be really parted. This poem was addressed by Donne to his wife when he wanted to go to foreign countries for about six months. He bids her farewell cheerfully, till he meets her again.
Both structural and decorative peculiarities of Donne’s poems
The ‘Donne-poem’ possesses both structural and decorative peculiarities. Firstly, the metre is not a matter of chance but of choice. The metre is a part and parcel of the fused whole; it is not an ornament super-added. S.T. Coleridge writes: “To read Dryden and Pope, you need only count syllables; but to read Donne you must measure Time and discover Time of each word by the sense of Passion.” You must hear his silences and his eloquence. Examine the following lines of the poem The Relic:
When my grave is broke up again
Some second ghost to entertain,
(For graves have learned that woman-head
To be more than one a bed)
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone
Will not he let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way,
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?
Donne’s interest in music
Moreover, the greatest metrical variety in the form of syllables and stanzas shows not only the fertility of his genius but also his interest in and ear for music, Let us analyse The Relic and study its metrical effects. The Relic, a love poem, contains three stanzas. Let us read loudly the first stanza to grasp the movement. Each stanza contains eleven lines, of which the first four are octosyllabic or four-footed lines, the fifth and seventh are three footed, and the remainder of the length are—of the blank. verse line i.e. decasyllabic. “In reading the first stanza aloud, one sees that the first two lines, regular and equal, broach the theme with a typical Donnian startlingness and boldness, lines three and four have the same length as one and two but their being enclosed in brackets and the dig at woman’s inconstancy which they offer, the meaning is, graves have learnt the feminine trick of being a bed to more than one person; old graves were often dug up to make room for new tenants.”
Donne’s use of simple and colloquial language
Dryden appreciated Donne for fusing and combining complexity of substance with simplicity of expression. According to Legouis, he did not feel any necessity of mentioning gods and goddesses in his poetry. He rejected all the conventional and traditional poetic devices. He used the different vocabulary and imagery which was quite popular among the masses of his time. In his time, medieval scholastic learning and science was quite popular, although it appears very dull and boring to the modem reader. Donne used all the current phrases and diction of his age. He even expresses complex emotions by means of simple and colloquial diction and phraseology. Thus, he revolted against the Petrarchan, Spenserian and pastoral poetry. The poet expressed “Petrarchan sighs in Petrarchan language”. The language, diction and imagery of poets had become too poetic, hackneyed and stereotyped. The conceits and images, metaphors and similes bear resemblance to one poet or another. Donne’s constitution is considered remarkable because of infusing into English language energy and sinewy strength. Due to the invigorating influence of his poetic diction, his language brought new lustre to English literature.
Harmony of English verse
Donne tries to lend metrical pattern to the rhetoric of utterance. Yet his verse has no note of jarring disharmony; on the contrary, it has a haunting harmony of its own. He is successful in finding the rhythm that will express his passionate argument, and his mood: that is why his verses are as startling as his phrasing.
Donne master of poetic rhetoric
What Jonson called the ‘wrenching of accent’ in Donne, can be amply justified. He plays with rhythm as he plays with conceits and phrases. Fletcher Melton has analysed his verse to show two metrical effects, the “troubling of the regular fall of verse-stress by the intrusion of rhetorical stress on syllables which the metrical pattern leaves unstressed, and secondly, an echoing and re-echoing of similar sounds parallel to his fondness for resemblances in thoughts and things.” He apparently uses an individual poetic diction, in the same way, he chooses metrical effects which are new and original. Prof. Grierson writes: “Donne is perhaps our first great master of poetic rhetoric, of poetry used, as Dryden and Pope were to use it, for effects of oratory rather than of song, and the advance which Dryden achieved was secured by subordinating to oratory the more passionate and imaginative qualities which troubled the balance and movement of Donne’s packed out imaginative rhetoric.”
Bold, original and startling use of figures of speech
The other important feature of his poetry is the bold, original and startling use of figures of speech. Comparisons are useful in communicating sensations, feelings and states of mind. Donne relies on his scholasticism for new and far-fetched comparisons, and yet they are real, credible and meaningful. Donne, in Love’s Progress, draws on geography and science of navigation in praising his mistress. The simile refers to the beloved’s eyes as sun, and the nose as the meridian.
The nose (like to the first meridian runs)
Not ‘twixt an East and West but ‘twixt two suns
The tears of lovers are always of great poetic account but Donne handles them in different ways. In A Valediction of Weeping, he calls his tears coins; they bear her stamp because they reflect her image; the tear acts as a mirror. Then be compares the tear to a blank globe before a cartographer. In Witchcraft by a Picture, the poet’s eye is reflected in his beloved’s eye. As his tears fall, her image also falls and so her love. In another poem, Donne compares a good man to a telescope because just as a telescope enables us to see distant things nearer and clearer, in the same way a good man exemplifies virtue in his life in a practical manner. A highly developed simile is found in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning written on the poet’s temporary separation from his wife. The leave-taking should be quiet and peaceful as the dying of virtuous men. During absence, the lovers’ two souls are not separated but undergo,
An expansion
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
Then the poet remarks that the two souls are like the two legs of a compasses:
If they be two, are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul the fix’d foot makes no show
To move but doth if th’ other do.
The wife’s soul is the fixed foot of the compass, the foot with the pin that remains in the centre of the circle. It moves only when the other foot—the husband’s soul—moves and then only by leaning in the direction of the return to the centre—symbolically—the journey to Europe and return—are accomplished because the other foot—the wife’s soul—remains fixed. The journey is realised in terms of the completion of the circle.
Contribution of conceits to English versification style
Donne’s conceits are peculiar and novel. A conceit means a strained or far-fetched comparison or literary figure. The Elizabethan conceits were decorative and ornamental, while metaphysical conceits were the products of the intellectual process of thinking in figures. Donne’s poems abound in conceits. Here are a few examples:
The spider lover, which unsubstantiates all
And can convert manna to gall,
Love, all alike, no reason knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
If, as in water stir’d more circles be
Produc’d by one love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres but one heaven make
For they are all concentric unto thee
For Donne, the flea who has sucked their blood is the blessed go-between who has united the lovers.
This flea is you and I and this
Our marriage bed and marriage temple is
In Twicknam Garden, Donne desires to measure the love of other lovers by the taste of his own tears:
Hither with crystal vials, lovers come,
And take my tears which are love’s wine
And try your mistress tears at home
For all are false that taste not just like mine.
Donne combines two figures of speech in The Sun Rising; here is apostrophe coupled with personification:
Busy old fool unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows and through curtains, call on us?
Here is a hyperbole in Song to describe the speed of a lover’s journey:
Yestemight the sun went hence,
And yet is here today,
He hath no desire nor sense,
Nor half so short a way;
Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
More wings and spurs than he.
Donne’s irony
Donne is fond of irony. A faithful woman will be false even while you inform others of her virtue:
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or there.
In Woman’s Constancy, Donne shifts irony from the beloved to himself:
Now thou hast lov’d me one whole day
Tomorrow when thou leav’st what will thou say?
 Will thou then antedate soon new made vow?
Or say that now.
We are not just those persons which we were?
For by tomorrow I may think so too.
The poet is afraid that the beloved will break off their relationship in one way or another. He changes his own idea, and thinks that even if she does nothing, he himself may end their relationship. Donne does not spare himself when he engages in pun.
In A Hymn to God the Father, he writes, “When thou hast done, thou has not done, For, I have more.”
Donne is fond of paradox. Here is one from A Burnt Ship with all its grim humour:
Out of a fired ship which by no way rescued
But drowning could be rescued from the flame
Some men leap’d forth and even as they came
Near the foe’s ships did by their shot decay
So all were lost which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt they in the burnt ship drowned.
The abundant use of poetic devices and metres shows that Donne is intellectual to the finger-tip. He plays not only with words but also with ideas. His mind is full of medieval theology, science, mathematics and jurisprudence. His imagination is as complex as his intellect. His ingenuity finds expression in hyperbole, wit and conceit. His poetry may not be harmonious or musical at times, but we cannot deny that it always poses both sincerity and strength—elements necessary for greatness in poetry. The strength of Donne lies in his being an inimitable poet, one whom it is very difficult to emulate. Donne in the Holy Sonets writes: “Show me dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.” The Church is certainly the bride but she is open to most men which is hardly complimentary to any married woman. Here he is both paradoxical and ironical.
Donne’s use of Diction in a Peculiar Manner
Simple words are used in unexpected way. Although diction is simple, yet simple words are combined in unexpected ways and thus strange compounds are formed. For example:
(i)         A she-sigh from my mistress’ heart....
(ii)        No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;...
Donne, sometimes, uses puns which are simple but effective; for example son/sun; done/Donne. Thus his use of words is often subtle and suggestive. He suggests much more than he narrates or describes.
Tone generally colloquial and flexible
Love-songs are highly admired because of the general tone of the language which are usually colloquial. They have liveliness of spoken language and thus they are flexible. The first lines are often colloquial in tone. They immediately startle the readers and capture their attention. For example, note the opening of The Canonization.
Donne’s symbols are intellectual
Helen Gardner commends the verbal craftsmanship of Donne which has an attraction and magic of its own. It arouses memories and associations in the minds of the readers. Such associations have an intellectual, not an emotional content. Though Donne deals with love, yet he borrows ideas from geometry and hydraulics to explain a gamut of emotions. In this connection, Helen Gardner writes: “Donne’s words bring with them the memory of abstract ideas. The magical lines in his poetry are those which evoke such conceptions as those of space, time, nothingness, and eternity. The words which strike the keynote of a poem are circles, spheres, concentrique, etc. They are the symbols of that infinity in love which underlies the human ebb and flow. The circle occurs again and again in Donne’s verse and in his prose as the symbol of infinity, insensibility to such intellectual symbolism has caused not only Dr. Johnson but even so modern a critic as Miss Sackville-West to cite the compass image in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, as an example of metaphysical inaptitude.”
Variety of versification
Donne is a great experimenter in verse. He uses a large number of metres and different types of forms. However, he sees to it that his versification suits the subject matter and is in harmony with the ideas expressed in the poems. In this connection, Redpath remarks: “Some of the stanza forms are very attractive in themselves. Much play is made with variations of lines length. Stanzas of more than six lines seem to give Donne the scope he so often needs to develop the complex interplay of thought and feeling which is so typical of him. With exceptions, the poems in shorter stanzas tend to be thin or slight.”
In the song, Go and Catch a Falling Star, the short lines offer a contrast to the long line at the tail of each stanza. Similarly, the change of line length in A Valediction: of Weeping, echoes the turbulent passion expressed in the poem.
Donne’s ruggedness
His ruggedness has been condemned by Ben Jonson who said that for not keeping of accent, Donne deserved hanging. It is true that Donne disregarded the simple rhythms of Elizabethan Age and introduced complicated rhythm patterns in order to convey the intellectual gymnastic and metaphysical conceits. One critic observes that every twist and turn of the sound pattern corresponds with the twist and turn of thought process. In the satire specially, his language is harsh and coarse. In this connection, Grierson remarks: “If there is one thing more distinctive than another of Donne’s best work it is the closeness with which the verse echoes the sense and soul of the poem. And so it is in the satires. Their abrupt and harsh verse reflects the spirit in which they are written. Horace, quite as much as Persius, is Donne’s teacher in satire and it is Horace he believes himself to be following in adopting a verse in harmony with the unpoetic temper of his work.”
Grierson points out: “Donne was no conscious reviver of Dante’s mataphysics, but to the game of elaborating fantastic conceits and hyperboles which was the fashion throughout Europe, he brought not only a full-blooded temperament and acute mind, but a vast and growing store of the same scholastic learning, the same Catholic theology, as controlled Dante’s thoughts, but jostling already with the new learning of Copernicus and Paracleus.”
“His vivid, simple, and realistic touches are too quickly merged in, learned and fantastic elaborations and the final effect of almost every poem of Donne’s is bizarre, if it be the expression of a strangely blended temperament, an intense emotion, a vivid imagination.”
Donne is bizarre and wayward in his style. He is “a maker of conceits for their own sake, a grafter of tasteless and irrelevant ornaments upon the body of his thought There are poems which undoubtedly support these accusations, and I shall be the last to deny that Donne relished the play of “wit’ for its own sake; but I am convinced that in general his style is admirably fitted to express his own thought and temperament, and in all probability grew out of the need of such expression. The element of dissonance is no exception. No doubt, it expresses his spirit of revolt against poetic custom… this case the poetic ideal of harmony. But the expression of revolt is only a superficial function. With its union of disparate suggestions dissonance is most serviceable instrument, in fact a prime necessity of expressing Donne’s multiple sensibility, his complex modes, and the discords of his temperament. In short, the dissonance; of style reflects a dissonance inwardly experienced.”
“What is true”, writes Grierson, “of Donne’s imagery is true of the other disconcerting element in his poetry, its harsh and rugged verse. It, is an outcome of the same double motive, the desire to startle and the desire to approximate poetic to direct, and unconventional colloquial speech.”
“Donne’s verse has a powerful harmony of its own, for he is striving to find a rhythm that will express the passionate fulness of his mind, the fluxes and refluxes of his moods, and the felicities of his verse are as frequent and startling as those of his phrasing. He is one of the first, perhaps the first, writers, of the elaborate stanza or paragraph in which the discords of individual lines or phrases are resolved in the complex and rhetorically effective harmony of the whole group of lines....”
“Donne secures two effects; firstly the trebling of the regular fall of the verse stresses by the introduction of rhetorical stresses on syllables which the metrical pattern leaves unstressed; and secondly, an echoing and re-echoing of similar sounds parallel to his fondness for resemblances in thoughts and things apparently the most remote from one another.”
“He writes as one who will say what he has to say with regard to conventions of poetic diction or smooth verse; but what he has to say is subtle and surprising and so are the metrical effects with which it is presented...It was not indeed in lyrical verse that Dryden followed and developed Donne, but in his eulogistic satirical and epistolary poems.”
Donne’s dramatic flexibility, rhetorical touches and poetic rhythms
Donne is quite dramatic in offering catchy opening lines. He almost catches the reader by his arms and give him a jolt. This dramatic rhythm gives the illusion of talk in a state of excitement. Donne is original in his innovation of poetic rhythm. As Legouis asserts: “John Donne is perhaps the most singular of English poets. His verses offer examples of everything castigated by classical writers as bad taste and eccentricity, all pushed to such an extreme that the critic’s head swims as he condemns...At the outset of Donne’s career, Spenser had already won his glory, and the Petrarchan sonneteers were producing collection upon collection. The independent young poet reacted against these schools. He despised highly regular metres and monotonous and harmonious cadences. He violated the rhythm in his Satires, Songs and Sonets and in his Elegies. His friend and admirer Ben Jonson said of him that he esteemed him ‘the first poet in the world for some things’ but also that, ‘Donne, for not keeping of accent deserved hanging’. Closely examined, this crime, for such it is, derives from his subordination of melody to meaning, his refusal to submit to the reigning hierarchy of words, sometimes from his lapses into the expressive spoken tongue, in defiance of the convention of poetic rhythm.”
Helen Gardner further remarks: “Donne deliberately deprived himself of the hypnotic power with which a regularly recurring beat plays upon the nerves. He needed rhythm for another purpose; his rhythms arrest and goad the reader, never quite fulfilling his expectations but forcing him to pause here and to rush on there, governing pace and emphasis so as to bring out the full force of the meaning. Traditional imagery and traditional rhythms are associated with traditional attitudes; but Donne wanted to express the complexity of his own moods, rude or subtle, harmonious or discordant. He had to find a more personal imagery and a more flexible rhythm. He made demands on his reader that no lyric poet had hitherto made.”
The memorable nature of Donne’s verses will strike any casual reader. Such verses haunt our memory and return to us again and again. Grierson has beautifully summed up the salient characteristics of John Donne’s style and versification. As he remarks: “Donne’s verse has a powerful and haunting harmony of its own. For Donne is not simply, no poet could be, willing to force his accent, to strain and crack a prescribed pattern; he is striving to find a rhythm that will express the passionate fulness of his mind, the fluxes and refluxes of his moods; and the felicities of verse are as frequent and startling as those of phrasing. He is one of the first masters, perhaps the first, of the elaborate stanza or paragraph in which the discords of individual lines or phrases are resolved in the complex and rhetorically effective harmony of the whole group of lines...The wrenching of accent which Jonson complained of is not entirely due to carelessness or indifference. It has often both a rhetorical and a harmonious justification. Donne plays with rhythmical effects as with conceits and words and often in much the same way...There is, that is to say, in his verse the same blend as in his diction of the colloquial and the bizarre. He writes as one who will say what he has to say without regard to conventions of poetic diction or smooth verse, but what he has to say is subtle and surprising, and so are the metrical effects with which it is presented. There is nothing of unconscious or merely careless harshness in his poetry. Donne is perhaps our first great master of poetic rhetoric, of poetry used, as Dryden and Pope were to use it, for effects of oratory rather than of song, and the advance which Dryden achieved was secured by subordinating to oratory the more passionate and imaginative qualities which troubled the balance and movement of Donne’s packed, but imaginative rhetoric.”

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