Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Living John Donne

(A) THE LIFE OF JOHN DONNE (1572-1631)
A contemporary of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Donne (pronounced as “Dun”) shares with them the spirit and the quality of the Renaissance. The contradictions of the age are reflected in the career and achievement of Donne. The inconsistency of the Elizabethans is mirrored in the complex personality of Donne, a poet of intellectual ingenuity and theological ingenuousness. It is not difficult to explain the versatility and the varied achievements of the poet, in the light of the age to which he belonged.

Birth, parentage, early life and marriage
John Donne, born in 1572, was the eldest son of a London iron-merchant. His mother was the sister of John Heywood, the dramatist. After receiving education privately, Donne matriculated at Oxford in 1584. Probably he went to Cambridge for higher education, but obviously he could not take a degree on account of his opposition to the oath of thirty-nine articles. Of the years from 1584 to 1592, we know very little. He was admitted as a law student to Lincoln’s Inn in May 1592. Like many young members of the Inns of Court, he was fond of pleasure and company: “Not dissolute but very neat, a great visitor of ladies, a great frequentor of plays, a great writer of conceited verses.”
John Donne tells us that during that period, he “of study and play made strange hermaphrodites”. During these formative years, Donne studied both law and religion. He also wrote a number of songs, elegies and satires before his twenty-fifth year. There is no doubt that he visited Italy in order to proceed to Jerusalem but prevented from doing so, he passed over into Spain, where he studied the laws, the language and the arts of Spain. His collection of books contained many Spanish writers. The earliest portrait of Donne, dated 1591, bears a Spanish motto. The spirit of Italian life and literature and influence of Spanish philosophers and theologians dominated his early poetry. He also came across other Catholics who, like him, felt terribly the harassment and persecution they were subject to. John Donne wrote of this period: “I had my first breeding and conversation with men of suppressed and afflicted religion (Catholicism), accustomed to the respite of death and hungry of an imagined martyrdom.” These were the days of inner conflict. His soul was torn between Catholicism and Anglicanism. Ultimately, by 1597 he must have embraced the Church of England, when he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton. But before 1597, Donne enlisted as a volunteer in two combined military and naval expeditions. The Cadiz Expedition of 1556 and Azore Expedition of 1597 show that he was an adherent of the Earl of Essex His. The Storm and The Calm describe the experiences of his voyage. It was during the expedition that he came in contact with Thomas, the eldest son of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He served Egerton for four years as Secretary. He would have got promotion and advancement in public service had he not committed the indiscretion of contracting a run-away marriage with Anne More, daughter of Sir George More of Losely and niece of Egerton’s second wife. Possibly Donne miscalculated, as he thought this marriage would strengthen his claims to promotion. On the contrary, Egerton dismissed him from service. The reconciliation with More, his father-in-law, saved him from a long imprisonment.
Donne’s conversion of Anglicanism
A word may be said about his conversion to Anglicanism. Brought up among the Catholics in early age, his belief in the old faith struggled against the impact of the Established Church. Donne was no hypocrite; he knew the shortcomings of the Church of Rome; his intellectual spirit detached itself from Catholicism. His conversion to Anglicanism was not due to opportunism or expediency but intellectual persuasion. Even then, in later life he felt, to some extent, a sort of spiritual unrest:
Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear...
Donne’s hasty and imprudent marriage meant the loss of a promising and stable public career. The years from 1601 to 1609 were full of fluctuating fortunes, when Donne had to depend on the generosity of his patron, Sir Robert Drury, the Countess of Beford, Lord Hay, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, who helped him in different ways. The Pseudo Martyr (1610) shows him definitely on the Anglician side, trying to defend the oath of allegiance.
Two loves of Donne
Donne had two loves—poetry, the mistress of his youth, and Divinity, the wife of his mature age. Equally remote he stood from the ascetic ideal. He believed in the joy of living and the seduction of poetry. Donne followed the middle path between blind faith and reformation.
To adore or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep or run wrong is.
Donne’s satiric genius found expression in his satire on heresy and on women. In The Progress of the Soul (1601), he traces the progress of the soul of heresy from the fall of Eve to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The career of Donne entered a prosperous phase by his entering the Ministry of the Church of England in 1615. His steps to the altar, had cost him much misery and anguish. His pursuits were now controversial but devout. His sermons and poems written during this period reflect the complexity of his character, his varied erudition and his alert mind. The letters in verse written to different persons reflect his moods and interests. These metaphysical compliments and hyperboles need not make us forget the intensification of religious feeling and inner experience which found expression in the Holy Sonets. His Divine Poems, likewise, show the conflict of faith and reason, of hope and despair, and the penitence of a soul which has undergone a purgation of emotional experience. And yet the last poems queerly blend harshness with a sonorous harmony.
Some of his poems are in the amorous Cavalier tradition; such is his celebrated song Go and Catch a Falling Star, which avers that no-where lives a woman true and fair. In something of the same tradition is the poem Love’s Deity, beginning:
I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost
Who died before the god of love was born.
In a somewhat different strain, one more like his religious poems, is A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. It is for his religious poetry, however, that Donne is most admired. Among the best of these are masterful sonnet Death, with the inspired couplet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, Death, thou shah die:
and the powerful A Hymn To God The Father, spun out of amazing puns on the poet’s own name: ‘When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done....”.
Donne—the Dean of St Paul’s
In 1619, Donne, the Chaplain, accompanied his friend the Earl of Doncaster to Germany. He was promoted to the post of Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621. His sermons attracted large audiences. During his serious sickness he composed a few devotional poems including the hymns Since I am Coming and Wilt thou forgive. Donne felt greatly comforted by the first hymn: “The words of that hymn have restored me to the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness when I composed it”. During his second sickness in 1630, he gave orders for his own monument which still stands in St. Paul’s. He died in London on 31st March 1631.
Donne left a deep and pervasive influence on English poetry. The metaphysical lyricists owed a great debt to him. Sometimes, his followers excelled him in happy conceit, passion and paradoxical reasoning. And yet he gave a sincere and passionate quality to the Elizabethan lyric. He interwove argument with poetry. In spite of its intellectual content, his poems attract us with a sense of vision, an intensity of feeling, and a felicity of expression. He is one of those great poets who have left a mark on the history of English poetry. Look at the compliments in verses below:
That never any one could before become,
So great a monarch, in so small a room,
He conquered rebel passions, ruled them so,
As under-spheres by the first Mover go,
Banished so far their working, that we can
But know he had some, for we knew him man.
Then let his last excuse his first extremes,
His age saw vision, though his youth dream’d dreams’
—Sir Lucius Carie
This soul of verse (in its first pure estate)
Shall live, for all the world to imitate
But not come near, for in thy Fancy’s flight
Thou dost not stoop unto the vulgar sight,
But hovering highly in the air of Wit
Hold’st such a pitch that few can follow it.
—Arthur Wilson
Who was the Prince of wits, amongst whom he reign’d
High as a Prince, and as great State maintain’d?
—Robert Browning
The secular poems of John Donne may be classified under the following headings:
(a) “Songs and Sonets” (Love Poems)
His love poems, Songs and Sonets, were written in the same period, and are intense and subtle analyses of all the moods of a lover, expressed in vivid and startling language, which is colloquial rather than conventional. A vein of satire runs through these too. The rhythm is dramatic and gives the illusion, of excited talk. He avoids the smooth, easy pattern of most of his contemporaries, preferring to arrest attention rather than to lull the senses. His great variety of pace, his fondness for echoing sounds, his deliberate use of shortened lines and unusual stress contribute also to this effect of vivid speech, swift thought, and delicate emotional responses. He is essentially a psychological poet whose primary concern is feeling. His poems are all intensely personal and reveal a powerful and complex being. Among the best known and most typical of the poems of this group are Aire and Angels, A Nocturnall upon St. Lucies day; Valediction; forbidding Mourning, and The Extasy.
(b) The Satires
“Donne put much more into satire than any English writer did before him, and in any history of English verse his satires would have to be described as a landmark.” These satires are five in number. They are modelled in style and technique on the Roman satirist Persius. Like Elizabethan satire, John Donne’s satires are rough and harsh. His satires have the usual energy—a richness of contemporary observation. They were written in the early period of his life. They reveal his cynical nature and keenly critical mind. They were written in the couplet form, later to be adopted by Dryden and then by Pope and show clearly, often coarsely and crudely, Donne’s dissatisfaction with the world around him.
(c) The Elegies
The elegies are twenty in number. They were first published in 1633, although they were written in the early period of his life, most probably in 1590. “They are all love-poems in loose iambic pentameter couplets, and have always had a reputation for indecency”. The titles of these elegies indicate their nature, e.g. Jealousy, The Anagram, Change, The Perfume, His Picture, On His Mistress Going to Bed, Love’s Progress, Love and War. The main features of the elegies are vigour, concrete imagery, a set of psychological attitudes which are found also in some of the poems of Songs and Sonets.
(d) Verse letters
These verse letters were addressed to the Countess of Bedford. They reveal the author’s unique personality.
(e) Epithalamions
Donne has attempted three epithalamions or marriage songs. The first song was written for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth on St.Valentine’s Day, 1613. As Grierson remarks: “In this poem, Donne comes in places near in style to Spenser, supreme master of the epithalamion”. The second epilhalamion was attempted to celebrate the marriage of the Earl of Somerset who was the King’s favourite and Chief Minister in 1613. The third epithalamion may be described as more Spenserian than princess Elizabeth‘s epithalamion
(f) The Progress of the Soul
It is a strange and fantastic poem which was written in 1601 by John Donne. The queen has been treated as the last of a line of arch-heretics. As Gransden asserts: “The poem is one of which Donne would have had enough reason to repent (it is indecent and unpatriotic)”. He used the title again, perhaps by way of expiation, for his Second Anniversary written eleven years later, in which he followed with Christian fervour the soul of a dead girl on its direct, innocent and orthodox flight to paradise. The soul makes a very different sort of problem in this poem. It is Donne’s most fantastic piece of speculation. It provides an evidence of youthful interest in the Cabbal.
(g) Epicedes and Obsequies
These poems were written to mourn the death of celebrated contemporaries. They are, in fact, elegies. “These elegies are good working examples of how the resources of the metaphysical technique enable the poet, who probably feels no personal grief, to offer a variety of comfort, appropriate yet original, upon the formal occasion of death; the conceits and analogies are as carefully chosen as acquaintances would now-a-days choose flowers for a wreath.”
(h) The Anniversaries
The two Anniversaries were published in 1611. They were written for Sir Robert Drury on the death of his daughter Elizabeth. These poems characterized the transition from the secular to the divine poems. They reveal the darker side of Donne’s wit. The basic idea of these poems is that the death of one who is so young and innocent, makes the world empty, virtueless and rotten. They reveal the poet’s disillusion with this life and hope of the next with which his mind has been filled during the difficult and frustrated decade.
His religious poetry was written after 1610, and the greatest, the nineteen Holy Sonets, and the lyrics such as A Hymn to God the Father, after his wife’s death in 1617. They too are intense and personal and have a force unique in his mind before taking orders in the Anglican Church--his horror of death, and the fascination which it had for him, his dread of the wrath of God, and his longing for God’s love. They are the expression of a deep and troubled soul. In them are found the intellectual subtlety, the scholastic learning, and the ‘wit’ and ‘conceits’ of the love poems.
Donne’s prose work is considerable both in bulk and achievement. The Pseudo-Martyr (1610) was a defence of the oath of allegiance, while Ignatius His Conclave (1611) was a satire upon Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits. The best introduction to Donne’s prose is, however, through his Devotions (1614), which give an account of his spiritual struggles during his serious illness. They have many of the qualities of his poetry. They are direct and personal and also reveal a keen psychological insight and the preoccupation with death and his own sinfulness which is also to be seen in his Holy Sonets. The strong power of his imagination and the mask of learning, which are the features of his works, cannot hide the basic underlying simplicity of Donne’s faith and his longing for rest in God. His finest prose works are his Sermons which number about 160. In seventeenth-century England the sermon was a most important influence, and the powerful preacher in London was a public figure capable of wielding great influence. We possess a great number of these sermons which show the form to have a highly devel­oped literary technique based on well-established oratorial traditions. Donne’s sermons, of which the finest is probably Death’s Duel (1630), contain many of the features of his poetry. Intensely personal, their appeal is primarily emotional, and Donne seems to have used a dramatic technique which had a great hold on his audiences. They reveal the same sort of imagery, the same unusual wit, the keen analytical mind, and the preoccupation with morbid themes which exist in his poetry, and they are full of the same out-of-the-way learning.
Donne’s was a complex personality, abounding in good and bad qualities. In him, great virtues and serious faults were inextricably mixed together. His merits often fascinate us; “his weaknesses often repel us.” On the whole, in spite of, all his shortcomings and faults,we cannot help feeling the fascination of Donne as a man. This monarch of wit will continue to find favour with coming generations:
Here lies a King, that rul‘d as he thought fit,
The universal Monarch of wit;
Here lie two Flames, and both these, the best,
Apollo’s Tint, at last, the true   
                                                            God’s Priest.’
John Donne’s versatility and complexity
It is hard to find among the English poets, a genius of such versatility and complexity as John Donne. Brought up as a Catholic, Donne led a life of pleasure and promise as a young gallant in the temple in London. He was, in the words of Sir Richard Barker, “not dissolute, but very great”, a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of conceited verses. It was impossible that “a vulgar soul should dwell in such promising features.” We have a portrait of this young man as he appeared in 1591, holding a sword, possessing an eager and intellectual look, with a Spanish lover’s motto, “Sooner dead than changed”. This portrait is in harmony with the tenor of the poems of the period namely, the Song and Sonets. He was not quite sensual, he was passionate and arrogant. In his poems, he lays little stress on the aesthetic element in passion. He had little feeling for pure, and artistic beauty. But he ranges through the different moods of passion—from the earthliest to the sublimest. There are poems of illicit love and seduction (as The Extasy and The Perfume); of lover’s moods (“For Godsake hold your tongue and let me love”, “Twice or thrice had I loved thee”), of Petrarchan love (like the Primrose, The Relique and Twicknam Garden). It is possible that Donne paid compliments to the noble ladies whom he knew, in the Petrarchan tradition. There are a few songs of the later period dealing with love in a restrained and chastened mood, possibly written after his marriage with Anne More. They are A Valediction and Sweetest love, I do not go. These poems possess the depth and sweetness of pure love.
Influence of European literature on Donne
Donne’s personality was enriched by his residence abroad. His service as a volunteer in the expeditions of Essex, and his stay in Italy and Spain opened up the treasures of European literature to him, His library contained many volumes of foreign poets. He was extremely fond of Spanish authors. The Renaissance strain in his genius made him welcome the fresh air offered by contemporary writers.’
Influence on Donne’s personality by his conversion to Anglicanism
Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism and his ordination as Dean of St Paul’s should not be construed as a swing of the pendulum, from a life of fun and pleasure to asceticism and repentance. The basic characteristic of Donne is not change, rather it is the constancy of his nature. His poems represent the balanced and harmonious development of life, the merging of the body and the soul in religious experience.
Donne—a student of literature and religion
Throughout his life, Donne remained a great student of literature and religion. He spent a considerable time every day in his library, pondering over books.
Here are God’s conduits, grave divines, and here Nature’s Secretary (Aristotle), the philosopher,
And jolly statesman which teach how to tie
The sinews of a city’s majestic body,
Here gathering chroniclers, and by them stand
Giddy fantastic poets of each land.
Donne’s multifarious activities
Undoubtedly, Donne was ambitious. He had the examples of Bacon, Davies and Raleigh before him. But there was one hurdle in his way. He was a Catholic. Either he should go abroad and seek employment under a Catholic Prince or lead a simple life at home. Donne knew that for most men, religion was an accident of birth. He voices the right of the individual to choose his faith and to doubt wisely. Some critics feel that Donne’s farewell to Rome was a matter of expediency. He had to lean towards Anglicanism if he desired a bright future. But it was in pursuance of the individual’s right to choice of faith that Donne embraced the Church of England. His later poems show his great love of and enthusiasm for Anglicanism.
Though Donne occupied the high office of the Dean of St. Paul’s he was a city poet, a court-poet, a poet who wrote for wits and elite of the metropolis.
His evaporations of wit were quite consistent and in keeping with his pursuits, devout and secular. His letters to the Countess of Bedford, Elizabeth Drury and other aristocratic ladies abound in conceits and compliment. And yet these poems of extraordinary and erudite wit were written side by side with the holy sonnets and divine poems dealing with religious and transcendental topics.
Donne’s letters to his friends and patrons throw a flood of light on his personality. Here he appears as a brilliant but arrogant young man, scholarly and witty, often harassed and melancholy, soliciting for favour or preferment, flattering the great, eagerly canvassing for office, and even conniving at corrupt arrangements. Moreover, his melancholy, often verging on the need of suicide in face of failure in love or ambition is deep-rooted, though held in abeyance by his quibbles and quips and the sunny prospect of the affection, esteem and favour of high ladies.
As a typical product of the Renaissance movement, Donne shows elements of humanism, both in his personality and poetry. Humanism has been defined by Maritain as something which “essentially tends to render man more truly human and to make his original greatness manifest by causing him to participate in all that can enrich human nature and in history, (by ‘concentrating the world in man’, as Schiller has said, and by ‘dilating man to the world’)”. It, at once, demands that man makes use of all the potentialities he holds within him, his creative powers and the life of the reason, and labours to make the powers of the physical world the instruments of his freedom. “So humanism leads to individualism, to self-analysis, to the discovery of the latent powers of man. The navigational explorations of the physical world in the sixteenth century and the voyages of the mind of Marlowe, Bacon and Donne are manifestations of the humanist spirit. Humanism discovers the importance of the world of man, and man’s relation to the physical world. It, therefore, ensures the freedom of creative development, the curiosity, the courage of experiment and the revelation of the inner spirit of man. Donne and the religious poets of the seventeenth century were, true humanists; they believed in the Christian concept of human nature and man’s dependence on God. The advance of knowledge, the discoveries and inventions of science, were viewed by them as manifestations of the Divine Power. The circulation of blood, the motion of the earth, the various natural phenomena only tended to show how man fitted in God’s universe.
Donne’s humanism finds its best outlet in his hunger for knowledge and thirst for unravelling the mystery of existence.
Thirst for that time, O, my insatiate soul
And serve thy thirst, with God’s safe-sealing Bowl.
Be thirsty still, and drink still till thou go,
To tho’ only Health, to be Hydroptique so
(The Second anniversary, Ll. 45-48)
Even in his disillusionment and despair, he finds his sheet-anchor in faith—”I am the man that cannot despair, since Christ is the remedy.” And yet this thirst cannot be quenched, the search of a truth is an arduous endeavour, a steep climb uphill:
On huge hill
Cragged, sod steep. Truth stand, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hills suddenness resists, win so;
Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
—(Satire III, LI. 79-84)
Donne’s attitude to love is another aspect of his humanism. His love is not subject to time, nor his beloved’s beauty liable to decay, as swift as that of the rose:
No spring, nor summer Beauty hath such grace,
As I have seen in one Autummal face
(The Autumnall)
Donne’s intellectual curiosity enabled him to challenge accepted beliefs and conventions. Donne’s dismissal and adversity shook for a time, his belief in humanism. This was responsible for the gloomy strain and pessimistic note of his later writings. His craving for death, his inability to reconcile flesh and spirit, his vacillation between faith and reason was but a temporary phase due to unfavourable domestic circumstances. Donne regained his humanism by reconciliation of matter with spirit
Donne does not belittle the world of the senses. Just as the alchemist distills the quintessence from elemental matter, so the poet derives refined pleasure through the senses. To him, “the gifts of the body are better than those of the mind’ and the joy of physical love as portrayed in The Ecstasy is the mystical union of souls. The senses show the way though they are not the end of his search—“They are ours, though they are not we”. As Mahood puts:” In this double hunger after metaphysical knowledge and supersensory experience, Donne has a life-line.”
There is a strain of scepticism in Donne. He does not understand the mysteries through reason but through intuition. He knows the invisible world which is as real as the visible one. He realises man’s condition as not that of one fallen but redeemed. In his Devotions, Donne writes: “Earth is the centre of my body. Heaven is the centre of my soul....As yet not in. As yet God suspends me between Heaven and Earth, as a Meteor, and I am not in Heaven, because an earthly body clogs me, and 1 am not in the Earth, because a heavenly soul sustains me.” His mind no longer vacillates like the quivering needle of the mariner’s compass.
Donne was a contemporary of Shakespeare and most of his work was written before 1593. He was an Elizabethan, in the restricted sense of the term, and yet he gave a new direction to the creative activity of his age.
Main features of Elizabethan poetry
Elizabethan poetry followed certain conventions—there was the Petrarchan tradition, the pastoral convention, and the classical norms. There were advantages and disadvantages in these conventions. Spenser’s mellifluousness, Sydney’s passionate outbursts and Marlowe’s mighty line gave Elizabethan poetry a distinct and high place in English literature. Poetry gained in intensity but lost in complexity or what T.S. Eliot called the “dissocation of sensibility”.
The sonnet sequences of the Elizabethan age flowed in the Petrarchan channel. The poet sang of the pains and sorrows of love, the beauty of the beloved and her steady cruelty. The images were borrowed from nature—rain, wind, fire, ice, and storm; from the classics and mythology--Venus, Cupid, Cynthia and Apollo. Poetry became a tame and mechanical art, devoid of originality and true feeling.
John Donne’s revolt against the Elizabethan poetry
By 1590, there were distinct indications of a revolt against the prevailing conventions in poetry. The conventional themes and conceits no longer appealed to the readers. There was a demand that the poet should go “back to nature”--to life itself--to appeal to the true lovers of poetry. Sidney’s recipe--”Look in thy heart and write... ”. Drayton’s affirmation that he was no “pickpurse of another’s wit” showed clearly a tendency towards realism. There was opposition both to poetic themes, images, and styles. The bold bawdry of the Elizabethan poets, their references to Greek gods and classical myths were held up to ridicule.
The reasons for the change in literary taste were not far to seek. The tone of the age by the end of the sixteenth century was becoming sober and puritanical. The drama was insisting on a realistic treatment of the problems of ethics and behaviour. The people wanted solid stuff--”more matter with less art”.
Donne challenged the prevailing forms and conventions in Elizabethan poetry. He introduced the “metaphysical lyric” On the whole, he was anti-Petrarchan, though at times, he wrote in the Petrarchan vein. He represented the swing from the romantic to the sexual, in English love poetry. His mood was similar to that of Shakespeare when the latter wrote the “dark-lady” sonnets. Donne questioned the sonneteers’ constancy to their mistresses and ridiculed their Platonism which was a mere pose. He dwelt on the delights of physical love. Moreover, Donne’s flair for satire showed his impatience with the artificial and conventional love poetry. Carew commended Donne’s purging the Muses’ garden of its “Pedantic weeds’’.
Donne was no iconoclast. He did not reject all that was Elizabethan but he presented the same values in terms of contemporary life. Donne did not neglect the Elizabethan conceit. He revitalized it by making it a vehicle of his logic and eloquence. Donne put common images to different uses, for example, the image of the besieged fort which was usually associated with love he used in a religious context.
I like an usurpt town to another due.
Labour to admit you, but, oh, to no end……
—(Holy Sonet, XIV)
So the church which is the bride of Christ “is embraced and open to most men”--something which cannot be said with propriety of a chaste wife. The mathematical, astronomical and medical images show his originality and intellectualism. Donne delights in playing with emotions and conceits. He shows a weakening of the moral sense, a spirit of scientific curiosity and interrogation which anticipates the spirit of the Restoration.
Paradoxically enough, Donne, though an Elizabethan, is trying to undermine Elizabethan poetic convention from within. He develops the dramatic strain in non-dramatic poetry.
It is not true to say that whatever Donne touched he adorned. At times, his poetry is strange, fantastic, bizarre, may be repellent. Just as Michaelangelo turned out to be a bad model for those who did not possess his strength or vision, Donne became a bad example for his weak successors. The worst effects of Donne’s influence can be seen in his successors who failed to weld passion with reason. Donne may not be capable at times of graceful love or sweetness of song, but he definitely enriched Elizabethan poetry with sincerity, originality and fullness of thought.
John Donne is the most remarkable of English poets. In a strict sense, he was a true Elizabethan who, however, led a most daring revolt against the conventional romanticism of Elizabethan love poetry. The Elizabethans were dominated both by Spenser and Petrarch--the Italian poet. Pastoral poetry, allegories, and conventional love-poetry were the order of the day. Donne was a sworn enemy of convention and monotonous form. Especially, he despised the harmonious cadences and highly regular metres of his contemporaries. He violated the conventional rhythms and traditional poetic expressions. He proclaimed his revolt with a resounding trumpet sound. “I sing not siren-like to tempt; for I am harsh”. He broke fresh ground both in subject matter and style. Ben Jonson, commenting on the harshness of Donne’s style is said to have remarked: “Donne is the first poet in the world for some things, but, for not keeping of accent, deserves hanging”.
Donne as a metaphysical poet
Donne has been classified both by Dryden and Samuel Johnson as a “metaphysical poet”. This title has been conferred on him because of “his sudden flights from the material to the spiritual sphere” and also because of his obscurity which is occasionally baffling. His work abounds in wit and conceits. Conceits are the very soul and stuff of his poetic diction. In addition to this, he has been termed a metaphysical poet because his style is overwhelmed with obscure philosophical allusions (references) and subtle and abstract references to science and religion. He set a vogue (fashion) for metaphysical conceits and influenced a number of contemporary poets like Crashaw and Cowley.
Donne as a love poet
Donne’s treatment of love is entirely unconventional. He does not fall in line with the ways and modes of feeling and expression found in the Elizabethan love poetry. Most of the Elizabethan poets followed the fashion set by Petrarch, an Italian sonneteer, in his treatment of love. According to that fashion the lover was always subject, humble, and obsequious (over-respectful). Obedience to his mistress’s wishes was his chief virtue. He sighed, wept, yearned, pined, and languished for her. The beloved’s coldness and indifference did not damp his enthusiasm. In fact, Petrarch had been widely imitated, and, therefore, cheapened, Besides, the Elizabethan poets were fond of making plentiful references to Greek gods and goddesses like Cupid and Venus in their love poetry.
Donne rebels against these stale and hackneyed conventions of love poetry; He rejects the lofty cult of the woman. She is no deity or goddess to be worshipped. He ridicules and laughs at her. This attitude is best revealed in The Song: “Go and catch a falling star”, where he says that nowhere lives a woman true and fair, and that even the truest woman is false to several men. This poem is a brilliant piece of mockery. Even in his defeat Donne rises superior to the woman. Her faithlessness to him only makes her look stupid and cheap. In Twicknam Garden also, he refers to woman as the perverse sex, and says that it is wrong to judge a woman’s thoughts by her tears. In fact, his attitude in this poem is a mixture of scorn for the fair sex and praise for the particular woman.
Donne’s use of conceits
A conceit is a pleasant, fantastic far-fetched idea, image or comparison. For instance, it would be a conceit to say that cool wine laughs for joy because a charming woman’s lips will touch it Similarly, when a lover talking of his love for his mistress says that if he were dead and buried and if his mistress were only to walk over his grave, his very bones would stir and grow into a flower-plant this is also a conceit
A conceit is a poetic ornament. Elizabethan poetry contains hundreds of conceits. Conceits are found scattered throughout the works of Shakespeare and Sydney. In the eighteenth century, however, conceits were not favoured.
Donne and his followers made an excessive use of conceits. While in Shakespeare or Sydney a conceit is an ornament or an occasional grace, in Donne it is everywhere. It is his very genius, and fashions his feeling and thought. Donne’s conceits are more intellectual than those of Shakespeare or Sydney. It is chiefly on account of the excessive use of intellectual and far-fetched conceits that Donne is known as a metaphysical poet. He employs scholastic, superstitious, sceptical, theological, and mathematical conceits.
His use of strange and far-fetched conceits may be illustrated from the poems included in our selected poems of Donne. In The Song the whole of the first stanza contains a series of conceits. The poet asks us to catch a falling star, get a mandrake root and find out who cleft the devil’s foot. In The Anniversary each of the lovers is a king with the other as the subject. In The Sun Rising, the lover declares that he would have extinguished and eclipsed the sun-beams with a wink but he cannot afford to miss the sight of his beloved even for a moment. The beloved in his bed represents both the East Indies (known for spices) and the West Indies (known for diamond mines), because she is fragrant like spices and bright like diamonds. The lover’s bed chamber is the whole sphere of the sun because the entire earth is compressed there. In Twicknam Garden, the poet’s love is like a spider which converts the beauty of spring into poison. The garden is like paradise where his love, because of its poisonous quality, is like the serpent. The lover would like to be some senseless object in order not to feel the pain of disappointment: he may be a mandrake (an imaginary plant) or a stone fountain. His tears are the standard by which the taste of the tears of all true lovers is to be tasted.
Being more often intellectual than emotional, these conceits make Donne’s poetry difficult. We find it hard to get the meaning of most of his conceits without guidance of notes. They puzzle and perplex us. At the same time when we succeed in understanding them, we feel a certain pleasure as we feel after having solved a difficult mathematical problem. They make Donne’s poetry obscure but at the same time a source of delight. They lend originality and novelty to his poetry.
A quality of dissonance in Donne’s poetry
A distinguishing quality of Donne’s poetry is what may be called dissonance. Just as in music, a dissonant chord is sometimes struck to produce a certain artistic effect, similarly Donne employed dissonances in his poetry. “The spider love” in Twicknam Garden is an example of this. Usually a poet is expected to use decorative and attractive pictures when talking of love. But Donne mentions the spider, thus striking a note highly dissonant with the reader’s expectation. Sometimes, dissonance is produced by diction which offers contrast in dignity or general associations. Again, Twicknam Garden contains an illustration. Throughout the first five lines the diction has been simple and sensuous, consisting for the most part of monosyllables. Then in the sixth line comes, as if from a different world, the use of a learned word, “transubstantiates”, the very length of which makes a savage thrust among the dominant monosyllables.
Another method of producing dissonance is to introduce some well-known conventional element and then shatter it by introducing some discordant (i.e.,disharmonious) association or conclusion. For instance, a lover’s sighs and tears are a well worn idea for a poet Twicknam Garden opens with a reference to the lover’s sighs and tears; but later in the poem, Donne makes a dissonant association of the tears with wine and finally points out that the taste of his tears represents the standard by which the tears of all true lovers are to be judged.
Dissonance may also arise in the enumerations which Donne frequently introduces:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrak root,
Tell me where all put yean are,
Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear Mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
                                                What find,
                                                What wind,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Here the concrete and the abstract, the real and the legendary, the literal and the figurative, are mingled. Again, in The Sun Rising:
Go tell Court-huntsmen that the king will ride.
Call country ants to harvest offices
Here such diverse elements as the ‘king’ and ‘ants’ are introduced together.
Donne wrote in a spirit of revolt against poetic custom. Dissonance, he employed, in revolt against the poetic ideal of harmony or concord. But at the same time, dissonance expresses Donne’s multiple sensibility, his complex moods and the discords of his temperament. In short, the dissonance of style reflects a dissonance inwardly experienced by the poet. His creation of a technique for expressing the complex moment of feeling, was probably Donne’s greatest contribution to English poetry.
Donne’s obscurity
According to another critic, “the chief characteristic of Donne’s style are his obscurity, his inequality and his violence. The obscurity is due partly to the fact that Donne has deeper thoughts than words will readily convey, and that he tries to express them in too few words, and partly to his metaphysical indulgence in difficult conceits. His inequality is annoying and perverse; many a time he will begin a poem smoothly and beautifully, only to continue harshly and obscurely. His violence consists in his startling and unusual phrases which, however, sometimes harmonise with his thoughts and emotions.”
On account of the obscurity of his style, Donne has also been likened to Robert Browning whom he anticipated by two centuries. Ben Jonson said about Donne that “Donne would perish through not being understood”. The bulk of Donne’s poetry “is distinguished by wit, profundity of thought, erudition (scholarship) passion and subtlety, coupled with a certain roughness of form”.

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