The term “wit” is difficult to define, for it has various aspects and disparate manifestations in different writers. However, Donne has been called a “wit” by several critics—Coleridge, Pope and Dr. Johnson to name only a few. Dr. Johnson describes the wit of Donne as being a kind of discordia concors, or a combination of dissimilar images, or a discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.
Donne’s poems have plenty of wit as defined by Dr. Johnson in relation with the metaphysical poets. His conceits indeed are original and startling, but ultimately just. The poet often proves their truth. The ability to elaborate a conceit to its farthest possibility without losing the sense of its appropriateness speaks for a high intellectual calibre. In The Good-Morrow, the poet compares himself and his beloved to two hemispheres which form the whole earth—what is more, they are even better than the actual earth, for they do not have the “sharp North” and the “declining West”. It is a complex image conveying the exclusive world of the lovers and the warmth of passion in this world on which the sun never sets. The compasses image in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is another intricate conceit which is logically developed by Donne. These images show his intellectual realism. The mind staggers at the apparent unlikeness between the things compared, but on close examination the conceits have truth.
Wit in its other forms is also embodied in Donne’s poems. Basically, any form of wit involves a high intellectual capacity. It may manifest itself in humorous remarks too. Donne was capable of this kind of wit too. Some of his poems show his capacity for satiric and ironic wit, as in Go and Catch a Falling Star, and the Elegies. In The Flea we have a remarkable display of wit—he has here “performed a kind of miracle, made fire without sticks, built a house without bricks, created something out of nothing, or next to nothing”. Out of a flea bite, Donne has drawn an ingenious simile and written twenty-seven lines of witty argument. It is brilliant in its wit
Donne’s wit manifests itself in the argumentation and ratiocination present in the poems. How logically he moves from mood to mood in The Sun Rising; from willing the “Busy old sun” to leave the lovers alone he goes on to end the poem by saying that the sun can warm the whole world by just shining on their small room, for the lovers constitute the whole world. The paradoxical style of some of his poems also reflect Donne’s wit, specially so in the Holy Sonnet, Batter my heart.
Donne’s poems are strewn with brilliant witty lines—such as “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”, which is striking for the image it conjures. In The Anniversary, the poet considers himself and his beloved as king and subjects of each other—as such, neither needs to fear treason. The thought is complicated but no one can argue about its truth.
Donne’s wit surprises us with its intellectual vigour and agility. Furthermore, his wit is not confined to a clever use of words, though he shows his ability at punning too. It is more a means to an intellectual expression of emotion. Thought and emotion are fused in his poetry— the intellectual imagery and argumentation arise from an emotional situation. The wit lies in the ingenious manner in which Donne uses his learning.
Indeed, we cannot deny the title of “Monarch of Wit” to Donne, for in his poems wit is characterised by a complexity of moods and attitudes reflecting his perception of intricacy of life. Thus his wit ranges from the gay and playful to the bitter and cynical. It expresses his poetic sensibility and his attitude to life. Donne’s wit is no trick of fashion. It arises from a deeper source—his very attitude to life—and is an expression of his wisdom. His poems reflect his poetic intelligence, his ability to fuse thought and feeling, or his “sensuous apprehension of thought”.