Super Essay John Donne

Super Essay John Donne

Ken Liu

Super Essay – John Donne


The poetry of John Donne was a contrast to the other poetry both before and during his time. Unlike the elaborate and ornate Elizabethan poetry, where themes and imagery were predictable, Donne’s poetry was often dramatic, clever in its imagery and derived from scholastic concepts.

A main characteristic of Donne’s poetry is his use of wit, the logical development of a statement which is often paradoxical or absurd and the reinforcement of the statement by means of ingenious comparisons. It is described by, Pope, a famous user of wit in The Rape of the Lock as “what’s often been thought, but never so well expressed.”

Reception in different Contexts

Donne’s poetry had been received differently in various historical contexts. In the 17th and 18th centuries, critics such as Samuel Johnson and John Dryden criticised Donne’s poetry for being too intellectual and concerned with ideas rather than feelings. The term “metaphysical” was coined around this time by Johnson to describe the poetry of Donne and others who employed philosophical debate (or metaphysics). However, this term was used satirically by the critic as he felt Donne’s poetry “perplexes the minds of the fair sex with speculations of philosophy.” This period was known as a time of rationalism or “enlightenment”, with a characteristic move away from traditional religious beliefs. Thus some of Donne’s imagery, such as those about “spheres” and other astronomical references, and even those of religions intensity seemed old fashioned.

During the early 20th century, Donne’s poetry was praised by many modernist writers such as T.S Eliot. He praised Donne for “playing” with ideas and being able to express a mind in thought, going from one thing to another by association. Also during this time, there was disorder in the world due to the effects of WWI. This sense of disorder contributed to a renewed interest in religion which much of Donne’s work is about.

John Donne’s Poetry is received differently today because of New Criticism. In connection with Johnson’s comments of Donne’s poetry “perplexing the minds of the fair sex”, an analysis through New Criticism today finds similarly that the poet had done injustice to the female sex and it is not through intelligent ideas.

Love Poetry

New Criticism changed the way we interpret texts. New Criticism sought to place individual texts into larger historical and theoretical contexts. John Donne’s context where society was dominated by a patriarchal society is no longer relevant in ananalysis of his poetry. Instead, his work is applied to today’s context where women have a greater social standing, and there is no universally ‘correct’ culture or religion. This is where gaps and silences (of the minorities in Donne’s society) are found in his poems. With New Criticism, more than one interpretation can be found for Donne’s love poems such as A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning and The Sunne Rising.

Central to Donne’s poetry is the conceit, an elaborate metaphor making striking syntheses of apparently unrelated objects or ideas. Conceits are beyond the simple metaphor or simile because they can be surprising and clever while offering a whole new perception of a subject.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Dominant Reading

InA Valediction, a presumably male persona is addressing his lover. He tells her not to worry and to “make no noise” every time he ventures out. Donne wrote this poem for his wife Ann, for the purpose of keeping her calm when he left for his long journeys outside London. The alliteration of the “s” sound creates a pacified tone which aims to comfort the emotional mistress: “careless eyes, lips, and hands to misse.”The poem is a direct second person address and poem is made to be very dramatic like in many of Donne’s poems. The colloquial language in the poem serves two purposes: to emphasise that his poem is an address or a thought, and it makes his poems dramatic.

Donne uses many conceits to elevate the status of the two lovers presented in the text. Firstly Donne compares the two lovers to celestial spheres. Donne applies and displays the concept ofthe physical cosmos consisting of concentric spheres. Donne’s poetry often shows his knowledge in the planets and astronomy. Donne goes on to describe the love of the subjects as so pure that it was like gold beaten to “ayery thinness”. His ingenious images derived from scholastic concepts, were later criticised by authors such as Pope who believed Donne’s purpose was to show off his intellect.

However, the main conceit used in this poem is comparing the lovers to a set of compasses. This conceit was described by Helen Gardner as a “comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness.” The wit and cleverness from conceits is realised by the audience when Donne points out the subtle likenesses when the audience is so focused on the unlikeness of the subjects in the comparison. Donne reasoned that like the compass legs, the lovers are inseparable, and when one of the legs ventured out, then the other would “lean and hearken” to support it. The male ventures out to accomplish his job (to draw the circle) and the female remains in the centre to for support so that in the end, the circle is “just” and ends it where it began. The circle in Donne’s time symbolised unity and perfection [the church favoured the idea of the perfect circle], and in the context of love poems, a circle also resembles a ring of marriage. Donne uses this symbol well by suggesting that both the male and the female support each other to complete the circle.

Feminist Reading

Donne lived a society where women assumed passive roles and evidently, he had adopted these notions into his portrayal of women. When read in today’s context, gaps and silences appear from the feminine perspective. Not once does the audience hear from the female lover in this poem, and the male persona is instructing her to make even less noise. Feminist critic Janet Halley describes this poem as “a subjective experience and authority of women are absent from the representation of them.” There is a difference between how the two lovers are presented. The male is telling the female to “make no noise” and “no tear-floods” when he ventures out. This portrays women as dependent on men and emotional, while men are described as “virtuous’. Critic Janel Mueller sums up the feminist interpretation of Donne’s love poetry well with “Donne’s poetry perpetuates the outlook and sexual role that casts the male as the persuader and possessor and the female as the persuaded and possessed.”

For example, in the clever conceit of the compass, the woman is the fixed leg and “it in the centre sit” while the leg of the male draws the circle (which is a compass’s job). This can be interpreted as a theme saying ‘women should stay at home, while men go out and perform the task’. The concluding stanza in A Valediction, the persona says “such wilt thou be to mee, who must like th’other foot, obliquely runne.” The tone of this line reflects men’s arrogance as they command women to “lean and hearken” after them.

The Sunne Rising

Dominant Reading

The Sunne Rising was another love poem written by Donne which was widely appreciated by the people of his time. The narrator, who is again presumably male turns away from his lover and addresses the Sun and the Sun, is personified through this. Donne sets up an imperative, commandingtone in the opening lines through an arrogant address to the Sun. For example the narrator calls the Sun a “Busie, old foole…Sawcy pedantique wretch” and commands it to do petty jobs such as “chide late schoolboys, call countrey ants to harvest” etc. The language used here to the Sun is reductive. The narrator uses of personal pronouns such as “I” or “us”, but he is also directly addressing the Sun with the second person, commanding point of view. The audience for The Sunne Rising, and other early Donne poems were his inner friends. This can explain the arrogant, boastful attitude Donne exhibits. The colloquial language is found again with the insults “busie old foole, unruly sun” etc. The language is also Donne’s way of adding humour by having the subject arguing with the almighty Sun.

Another technique common in metaphysical poems is the use of paradox, a contradictory statement that expresses some truth. Donne says he can easily shut out the Sun by closing his eyes; he a live without the Sun. However, Donne’s contradiction is that by doing so; he would lose sight of his lover: “I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke, but that I would not lose her sight so long.”

The conceits used in this poem are focused on the narrator’s lover.The lover is placed on a pedestal and admired. She is compared to exotic things such as “the India’s of spice and Myne…all wealth alchimie.”

The female lover is equated to all the States in the world and the male lover to all the Kings and Princes who all lie in the setting of the bedroom. In line 23, prestigious matters such as honour and wealth are all considered to lack substance and are superficial: “Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this, all honor’s mimique; all wealth alchimie.” On the contrary, the lover’s world represents a perfect model that symbolises true reality: “this bed thy centre is, these walls, thy spheare.” With the mention of spheres, Donne again uses the symbol of the circle to show perfection.The hyperbole of the two lovers is reinforced at the end of the poem when the narrator says “To warme the world, that’s done in warming us” implying that the two lovers make up the whole world.

Feminist Reading

A feminist reading can be effectively applied to The Sunne Rising and this is summed up in one line from the poem: “She’is all States and all Princes, I.” Donne is saying that the female lover is all the states in the world, and it is all the Princes (the male lover) who rules over the states. There are again gaps and silences from the female minority in this poem as the audience does not hear from the female lover in this argument between the man and the Sun.

Furthermore, the setting of this poem is in the lover’s bedroom: “This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy spheare.” The whole world (represented by the pair of lovers) is contained in the bedroom, “all here in one bed lay.” This implies that all women are good for is found in the bedroom.

Barbara Estrin in her article Small Change: Defections from Petrarchan and Spenserian Poetics” describes Donne’s love poems as “written by a man whose central theme is his own intense personal mood and whose poetry is composed exclusively, even domineeringly from the point of view of a man.” Donne adopts a stance in his argument that cannot be sustained and therefore has to become less commanding. To do this he uses the colloquial tone and humour, shifting from telling the Sun to go away at the start to inviting him into the lovers’ room to warm the lovers who represent the world in their perfect love.

In the Age of Reason, where show of emotion was considered inappropriate, Donne was the first to treat love as a wholly natural passion according to Una Nelly in The Poet Donne – a Study of His Dialectic Method. Although Donne’s original intent was not to discriminate against women, New Criticism does not take this into consideration. According to New Criticism, Donne’s love poetry reflected the values and attitudes of his historical and social contexts, where the authority of men and women were vastly unequal. Donne’s poetry not only perplexes the minds of the fair sex as Johnson points out, but also misrepresents the authority of the fair sex.

Religious Poetry

After Donne’s early love poems, he became a priest of the Anglican Church in 1615 and was appointed royal chaplain later that year. He attained eminence as a preacher, delivering sermons that are regarded as the most brilliant and eloquent of his time.

This change in his life was reflected in many of his later religious poems which promote Christianity as the only religion and the idea that we are all in debt to God. New Criticism can be applied to Donne’s religious poetry with equal effect. Donne wrote in a patriarchal society where the power lay with the white, male, Christian and aristocrats. Today,the church is no longer a dominant force. There are gaps and silences in Donne’s work which are products of their context and attempted to reinforce it. For example, male dominance was presented as the norm in Donne’s love poetry and the women were kept in submissive and secondary roles.With New Criticism, more than one interpretation can be found for Donne’s religious poems.

Hymne To God, My God, In My Sicknesse

Dominant Reading

Some of Donne’s religious poetry was written at a time close to his death. His poetry and sermons were like an offering to God to repent for his sins in order to proceed to Heaven. Hymne to God, My God, In My Sicknesse is one such poem, and is one of his less confrontational/dramatic poems.

The language is more sedate in this poem. It is also one of the few Donne poems where there is no second person address. The poem starts in media res: Donne, the narrator is on his death bed speaking to God. There are several conceits used by Donne to describe his near death state. He uses the context of his body as a musical instrument in the first stanza to be tuned to go to heaven: “I shall be made thy Musique; as I come I tune the Instrument here at the dore.” In the second stanza and throughout, Donne uses the metaphor of the map to describe himself and the doctors “study” him like cosmographers study a map. There is a fever or ‘fretum’ in the South which is taking him to the West. The West in this poem and other religious poems represents Death since the sun sets in the West and the East similarly represents Resurrection of Christ. A witty connection Donne makes with the map conceit is that if the flat map was joined, the East touches the West, and “death doth touch the resurrection.” Donne is happy to travel to the West to his death because he wants to be at one with God. Donne, a famous preacher, also makes many religious references particularly to the idea of the two Adams; Adam the saint, Christ when he took on human form and Adam the sinner, the first man who fell from grace with original sin. The persona in the final stanza puts forward the theme of preaching and believing God’s word (in Donne’s case, as a sacrifice for his sins) in order to go to heaven: “Be this my Text, my Sermon to mine owne, therefore that he may rise the Lord throws down.”

Marxist Reading

In the days when John Donne wrote this poem, many in his society would not only understand but also agree with the idea of Jesus making a sacrifice for Adam’s sins so that we may all rise to heaven. However, in today’s context, Christianity is no longer dominant and the content and message of Donne’s poem is more difficult to understand. One who is not Christian would not understand the meaning behind Donne’s listing of all the religious landmarks, or his story of the two Adams. In a Marxist viewpoint, this poem is a non-progressive text because it is writing by a Christian for Christians in a Christian dominated society. The poem appears to be suppressing or silencing the minority in Donne’s time who were the non-Christians. According to Donne, we are indebted to God and the only way to heaven is through Christ’s blood. This is a very Christian belief and at no point in the poem is it questioned by Donne.

Good Friday 1613 Riding Westward

Dominant Reading

The idea of being indebt to God or unworthy of entering Heaven is also presented in Good Friday 1613 Riding Westward. Like his love poems, there is again the dramatic and startling tone found in this poem. Donne is riding on a horse towards the West on Good Friday when he should be facing the East to pay respect to God and his crucifixion and following the natural motion from West to East. However, with Donne’s confrontational poems, there is usually a paradox found. Donne states that he does not wish to face God but he then contradicts this by saying that he is turning his back to God not because he has lost faith, but because he is unworthy of riding the other way until he has paid for all his sins: “I turne my backe to thee, but to receive corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.” This rectification comes 6 lines before the end of the poem, however, Donne’s seeming rejection only lasts for half the poem, until line 16 when Donne starts building his paradox by saying that the sight of God on the Cross is “too much weight for mee.” There is a conceit used at the start of the poem of a “mans Soule being a Spheare.” Again Donne shows his knowledge in spheres being moved by intelligences or angels (the common scientific planetary model at the time). The intelligence which moves a Soule in this case is devotion to God but these spheres can be “subject to foreign motions” such as “pleasure and business”.