John Donne Poems

Analyzing a Poem “The Good-Morrow” by John Donne

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

When analyzing a work by John Donne it is important to remember that Donne was arguably one of the most influential poets of his time. It is imperative for readers to be aware that Donne’s use of complex metaphors and imagery was revolutionary and it takes a very close attention to detail to put the pieces of his poems together. This is especially the case in his poem “The Good-Morrow.” In this poem, the speaker is explaining to his lover the nature of their relationship. The speaker uses the first half of the poem to set the ground work for the long and detailed image in the second half of the poem at which point he uses a globe as a representation of the love that the two of them share in. Donne’s use of geographical imagery in this context emphasizes the duality of human nature in the unity of romantic love.

More specifically, the imagery shows that the unity between the poem’s lovers is both physical and spiritual. The first stanza of the poem introduces the physical aspect of the love shared between the speaker and his beloved. The speaker says to his beloved, “Were we not weaned till then? / But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?”[1] It is with these two rhetorical questions presented by the speaker that the necessity of the physical body in their love is established. The speaker then goes on to confirm that the answer to both of these questions is yes. What the speaker is implying is that before they formed their loving unity, they pursued only physical, and more specifically sexual, love because that was all they had known.

The lines also suggest that the two have already performed acts of physical love with one another through the use of sexual innuendos like “sucked on country pleasures.” In the conclusion of the first stanza the speaker says, “If ever any beauty I did see, / Which I desired, and got, ‘twas but a dream of thee.”[2] The stanza concludes with the image of sleep, which is physical act or state of being. The object of the speaker’s sleep or id to dream, and more specifically to dream of his lover. What the speaker is saying in these lines is that anyone that he met or had sexual relations with before her was not a true unity and therefore only served as a way of leading him to her. The implication of this claim made by the speaker is that it was the physical characteristics of human nature, whether it be immature sexual relations or the fact that he was “asleep” before he met her, that led him to his beloved.

The spiritual aspect of the lovers’ unity is touched upon briefly at the end of the first stanza before being more deeply explored in the second stanza. Previously I had discussed the last two lines of the first stanza where Donne provides imagery of dreams, which are a consequence of sleep. While the act of sleeping can be seen as something physical, the act of dreaming has more of a spiritual insinuation. The speaking is saying that while the physical part of the body is asleep (presumably after indulging is sexual pleasures) the spirit of the speaker is longing for a connection with the lover. In the opening line of the second stanza the speaker says, “And now good-morrow to our waking souls, / Which watch not one another out of fear; / For love, all love of other sights controls, / And makes one little room an everywhere.”[3] The speaker begins by implying that he is no longer dreaming of his beloved, because now they are awake and their souls are joined. In this instance, the spiritual connecting of the lovers is being represented by their souls.

After introducing the spiritual element with the souls, the speaker then goes on to point out a difference between physical and spiritual love. In the first stanza, we see that with physical love there is an experience of pleasure that is followed by sleep. However, when two souls are joined together in love there is an absence of fear and the outside world becomes irrelevant to them. The room that the two of them are in (in this case the bedroom that they woke up in) is the only world that matter because that is where their souls are joined. By saying that once their souls become connected they are free of fear and the rest of the world becomes obsolete, the speaker puts a large amount of significance on the spiritual nature of their relationship in unity of the lovers. After describing the importance of the physical nature of the lovers and the spiritual nature of the lovers, the speaker then goes on to discuss how these two ideas are connected in the latter portion of the poem.

At the start of the third stanza, the speaker says that “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, / And true plain hearts do in the faces rest.”[4] In these lines the speaker is bringing together the physical and the spiritual by saying that their faces are reflected in the other’s eye, which is the window to their soul where they can see the other’s heart. G.R. Wilson, Jr. says, in reference to lines 15 and 16, that “Each lover has two manifestations – himself and the reflected self in the other lover’s eye – and thus each has both a physical and an ideal, or shadow, existence.”[5] Wilson does a great job of representing the dichotomy of the image Donne gives, however I disagree with how he concludes his statement.

While I agree that the manifestation of the speaker himself represents the physical side of image, I would argue that the speaker’s reflection in his lover’s eye is meant to represent a spiritual side of the image. I believe this represents a spiritual side to the image because it appears to be directly related to the previous line in which the speaker says, “Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”[6] Here the speaker is saying that each of them is a world for the other to explore and together they make up one world. This one world is in reference to the previous lines in which the speaker discusses the conception of one would as a result of the joining of their two souls. Therefore, when the speaker and his beloved are looking into each other’s eyes they are exploring the world that was described in the second stanza, which is comprised of the lovers’ bodies and souls and as a result displays both physical and spiritual components.

Taking this a step further, Wilson quotes the work of Arnold Stein saying, “In his elaborate explication of this poem, Stein points out that ‘where the lover sees his own reflected face directly, while he sees directly the other face, but only feels its image reflected in his own eye, there exists the most delicate point of contrast between the subjective and the objective.’”[7] What Stein seems to be suggesting is that the image of the lover reflected in the speaker’s eye is not something that he could ever perceive. So how could he know that the image is there? While the idea that he can see his lover represents her physical manifestation, the reflection of his lover in his own eye seems to take on her spiritual manifestation because although he cannot see her refection, he knows that it is there as result of their connected souls.

At the end of the final stanza the speaker brings up another instance that implies the connectivity of physical and the spiritual. The speaker says, “Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; / If our two loves be one, or, thou and I / Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.”[8] Here the speaker explains that in order for a love to be eternal the constructs of that love must be balances, otherwise the love will eventually die. As the arguments previously stated in this paper suggest, the components that make constitute love for Donne in this poem are the physical and spiritual aspects of human nature.

Therefore, lines 19 to 20 suggest that both the physical and the spiritual are equally important aspects of the love between the speaker and his beloved and as a result, vital for their everlasting unity. In the third stanza of the poem, the speaker introduces an extended image that serves the purpose of explaining to the reader how both the physical and the spiritual work into the unity of the poem’s lovers. The quatrain of the third stanza read “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, / And true plain hearts do in the faces rest; / Where can we find two better hemispheres, / Without sharp north, without declining west?”[9] Many critics and scholars have understood this quatrain to use the image of a cordiform map to illustrate the unity of the speaker and his beloved. One of the most notable and well know authors to draw the connection between what Donne is saying and the composition of cordiform maps is Robert L. Sharp. Sharp says in these lines “Donne is saying that each heart is a hemisphere: the two hearts together make one world. There is just such a depiction of two hearts, each a hemisphere and both together forming one world, in the double cordiform maps of Fine and Mercator.”[10] What Sharp is suggesting is that the two hemispheres are two whole hearts that come together to make one heart. What is important to note here is that by making that assertion, Sharp must conclude that the map Donne is referring to is one comprised of the unity of two whole hearts and therefore must be a double cordiform.

Author Julia M. Walker agrees that the map Donne is referring to is a cordiform map, however she takes issue with Sharp’s argument that it is a double cordiform map created by two whole hearts. Walker says, “The third stanza develops the image of a single projection: ‘My face in thine eye,’ (1. 15) not ‘eyes’, Donne writes. The ‘two…hemispheres’ the lovers see must therefore be united hemispheres, a single projection of a cordiform map, not the divided world of the double projection.”[11] I think that while this argument is valid, she seems to be neglecting the last line of the second stanza where the speaker states that him and his beloved are both whole worlds that make up one world. I would instead suggest a hybrid of both Robert Sharp’s and Julia Walker’s arguments to explain this complex image.

The argument for a double cordiform map seems to be a solid argument because of the information provided in line 14. However, I think that Mrs. Walker’s argument can be used not to prove that the unity of the two lovers can be split into two half hearts, but rather that each whole heart that both the speaker and his beloved poses can be split in two. The speaker says, “Where can we find two better hemispheres” immediately after the image of the speaker and his beloved looking into each other’s eyes, which I previously stated showed a dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual in each of the individuals.

Therefore, it would make sense logically that the hemispheres in the next line are not the speaker and his beloved, but rather the physical and the spiritual elements that make their portion of the one world in the double cordiform map. By making this distinction, Donne is able to use this extended imagery of the globe to show the importance of the duality in human nature to the construct of the unity between the poem’s lovers.

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Dynamics and Movement: Importance of Poem’s Structure in Holy Sonnet I

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In his nineteen holy sonnets, John Donne contemplates his mortality, and explores themes of divine love and judgment along with his deep personal troubles. In the first loosely Petrarchan holy sonnet “Thou hast made me”, Donne presents a hopeless situation in which death and hell loom in front of the speaker due to his sins, and God’s grace is the only way through which he can be saved. The poem is focused on the speaker’s inescapable bond to death, his increasing desperation in fear of his fall to hell, and his plea towards God to help him. There is extensive use of movement, both of the speaker’s physical circumstance and the poem’s technical aspects, which reflects the situation and creates the tension in the poem. In Holy Sonnet I, Donne uses movement in the poem’s structure and the subject to depict the speaker’s entrapment and God’s role in the outcome to his predicament.

Donne’s Holy Sonnet 1 is chilling in the proximity the reader feels to the speaker’s situation. The sonnet is written in first person, which, in addition to the vivid imagery and dramatic speeds at which the poem moves, creates for the reader a more intimate experience with such impending death. The poem is composed of an octave and a sestet. In the octave, Donne describes the speaker’s situation: his entrapment in despair’s maze in which only Death from hell waits for him at the exit. In the following sestet, Donne explores the hope for the speaker as he looks towards God for help.

In the poem, the extensive amount of movement portrayed in the speaker’s situation creates the heightened tension and depicts how he is trapped in his anxiety and ill fated to fall to hell unless he finds a source of salvation. The speaker “[runs] to death, and death meets [him] as fast” (3). Caught in the dread of this inevitable collision, the speaker has lost all sense of pleasure like they are yesterday. The words “run”, “meets”, and “fast” are then followed immediately by stillness, as the speaker “[dares] not move [his] dim eyes any way” (5), for he is trapped by despair behind him and “death before [that casts] / such terror” (6). The syntax of these lines changes along with the speaker’s physical situation. The separation of line 3 into the speaker running to death and then death meeting him reflects the image of death enclosing on all sides as well. Such use of line order is repeated in line 6, in which despair is behind and death in front. The active stance that death and despair take, for example “death meets me” (3) instead of “I meet death”, contributes to the foreboding image of death that “cast / such terror” (6) as if it is as alive as the speaker is, and serves to increase the tension in the poem. Donne continues to describe the speaker’s “feeble flesh [wasting] / By sin… and [it towards hell doth weigh]” (7). The action of the flesh, emphasized as “feeble” with the use of alliteration, weighing the speaker down towards hell, contributes to the inescapable element of the situation.

The parallel structure of lines six, seven and eight, in which with “death before doth cast / Such terror, and [his] feeble flesh doth waste / …in it, which it towards hell doth weigh” makes use of the repetition of the word “doth”. Such repeated use of the same word, and therefore emphasis on the casting of terror and wasting flesh that is weighing towards hell, intensifies the terror felt by the speaker and the labyrinth-like situation. At the end of line nine, the word “weigh” and the scene of falling are then juxtaposed with the word “rise” (10) when the speaker looks toward God, in a similar fashion to the way lack of movement in line 5 followed the collision of the speaker and death in line 3. This movement created by the subject of the poem allows the poem to move swiftly but with pauses, reflecting the narrator’s turbulent state of mind. He has not risen yet, however, and his “subtle foe” (11) – Satan – still tempts him. He knows that only God is able to save him from the devil and subsequently his sins, and he turns towards God.

In addition to creating the speaker’s feelings of entrapment, the movement in this poem reflects and also questions the hierarchy of himself and God as well as depicting the momentous role of God in the narrator’s situation. The opening line begins the poem with a questionably accusatory and demanding tone. The speaker states that [God] hast made [him]” (1), then questions whether God shall allow his own work decay so the speaker then demands: “Repair me now” (2), for death is upon him. The flow of the first two lines, each of them formed by two abrupt phrases separated by a comma, is as broken as the speaker’s words are brusque. However, at the volta (line 9), when the poem’s subject returns to God, the speaker’s tone is much more deferential, as if after having contemplated his own terrible situation, he realizes that God’s grace is the only way out. Here, there is a hopeful sense of moving upwards that is associated with God, created by the words “above” (9), “towards” (9), and “rise” (10). A caesura presents itself here after line 10 as rhythmic emphasis is placed on the statement “I rise again”. The relatively pleasant mood of the poem’s previous few lines is immediately broken with the subjects of Satan and temptation in line 11. The speaker is so powerless against the temptations of sin or the immediacy of death and subsequently hell that “not one hour [himself] [he] can sustain” (12).

Finally, the couplet at the end of the poem concludes the sonnet and presents the speaker’s fate. Along with the literal meaning of how “[God’s] grace may [give wings to]” (13) the speaker to prevent Satan’s “art” of corrupting him, “wings” are often associated with angels or birds, which connote the idea of rising. The poem ends on a determined note, quite the opposite of the predominant despairing tone. God draws the speaker towards him as a magnet draws iron; the movement is strong, with purpose, and – conveniently – “adamant” (14). The many fluctuations throughout the poem in the speaker’s tone and attitude towards God present themselves before the final strong, steady pulse of attraction and determination to rise to heaven concludes the poem.

Given that the poem is highly metaphysical, it is worthwhile to question whether Donne saw his poem as a literal narration of the internal conflicts of one who saw death approaching, or an exaggerated representation of feared emotional or spiritual death. In both circumstances, looking towards God is equivalent to the steady rising of salvation, whether to heaven or to sanity, and to do otherwise meant wasting in sin and falling to hell.

In Holy Sonnet I, imagery is abundant and vivid, but is largely governed by the movement in the subject that is so central to the poem. The movement creates the speaker’s feelings of entrapment and also the relationship between him and God. Heaven is associated with smooth rising, while hell is portrayed with chaotic rhythms and the abrupt act of falling. The speaker, in the end, decides that it is not God’s obligation to repair him; it is instead he himself who may find peaceful death or life once he moves towards God. However, the speaker needs God’s acceptance and support, for without God’s wings and magnetic force, the speaker is still powerless. The conundrum is therefore left unsolved, as Donne ends the poem without giving an answer for whether the speaker is worthy of God’s help.

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Admiration and Misogyny: Controversial View of Women in Elegy 19

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In his essay “A Defence of A Womans Inconstancy,” John Donne wrote of the female race that “for all their fellowship will they never be tamed, nor Commanded by us.” His affinity for the grace and beauty of women is evident in his many works. Yet Donne establishes a paradox within his own poetry that ignites controversy over his view of women in general. Achsah Guibbory, in his article “The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies,” contends that “We may not like to admit the presence of misogyny in one of the greatest love poets in the English language, but we need to come to terms with it” (813).

Though widely known for his witty and intellectual poetry of love, at first glance John Donne is not typically seen as a misogynist, but rather as a craftsman of words and metaphors, providing “an astonishing variety of attitudes, viewpoints, and feelings” (Logan, 1235). Written during the seventeenth century, Donne’s poem “Elegy 19,” later titled “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” is a sexual allegory illustrating the male perspective of intercourse. However, this descriptive and whimsical elegy provides a clear objectification of women, both through Donne’s use of possessive words and phrases in his imagery, and through the persona of his mistress within the poem.

With the use of possessive grammar and images of women as property, Donne establishes a misogynistic tone in “Elegy 19,” particularly in the second stanza. The speaker claims possession of his mistress by using meticulous pronouns:

License my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O my America! my new-found-land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,

My mine of precious stones, my empery (25-29).

Here, the narrator’s use of “my” and “mine” allude to ownership of his lover, and “the repeated possessives reinforce the sense of his mastery” over the slowly undressing woman before him (Guibbory 822).

Much like the controlling syntax of the second stanza, Donne’s descriptive allegory of the woman in “Elegy 19” establishes power and authority held by the speaker in relation to his mistress. The woman is “wittingly idealized and commodified through a variety of stunning conceits that aim to conquer her” (Guibbory 821). Donne symbolizes the mistress in the second stanza, line 27, as “O my America! my new-found-land,” which implies the mistress as nothing but mere property for the speaker to discover and take as his own. His sole desire in the sonnet is to “possess and thus master the colonized woman” (Guibbory 822). According to Germaine Greer, “Catherine Ginelli Martin identifies the speaker’s purpose in this poem as… at once objectifying, shaming, and figuratively raping his ‘New-found-land’” (218). Line 28 refers to the mistress as “My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,” also signifying the objectification of her by the narrator, as she is portrayed as a conquered kingdom thatis only safe when guarded by him.

The misogyny of “Elegy 19” can also be seen in Donne’s imagery throughout the rest of the poem. One line 11 of the sonnet, the speaker commands his lover, “Off with that happy busk, which I envy.” The bodice to which the narrator refers to is symbolically seen as a device that “allowed women to hide their femininity, endow themselves with masculine form and, thereby, power” (Feinstein 63). Though most likely the speaker’s “envy” alludes to Donne’s parallel of the hard, upright busk to the narrator’s erection, this jealously of the bodice suggests the speaker’s desire for more control over his lover. The bodice is tightly secured around the woman, confining her to its boundaries. The busk, which is “‘happy’ not only for its situation but for its literally infinite control,” relays constraint, and insinuates that the narrator is a misogynist (Feinstein 69).

The last couplet of “Elegy 19” reiterates the speaker’s desire to control and dominate his lover. Donne writes that “To teach thee, I am naked first; why then/ What need’st thou have more covering than a man?” The use of the verb “teach” again implies the insubordinate nature of the woman, who must learn from the speaker, as if she is uneducated in the area of intercourse. The narrator’s ambiguity over “covering” reveals that “as a woman needs no more covering than a man does, a woman needs no more than a man to cover her” (Greer 221).

Aside from the misogynistic grammar and imagery of “Elegy 19,” the mere demeanor of the female character is evidence of the poem’s anti-feminist and sexist tone. During the seventeenth century, the rule of Queen Elizabeth was “an anomaly in a strongly patriarchal, hierarchical culture in which women were considered subordinate to men” (Guibbory 813). Though Donne’s conversion to the Church of England no doubt illustrated his support of the Queen, his portrayal of the woman in “Elegy 19” tends to convey the typical female inferiority of the time period. Throughout the sonnet, the speaker demands and commands his mistress, yet she remains distanced, and “not only is the female figure of the elegy silent, she is unresponsive in every way” (Greer 222). The narrator portrays her in a stereotypical fashion, quiet and demure, as “the woman’s silence and distance dehumanize her” (Greer 217). Donne’s speaker instructs the lover to remove her clothes, thus enacting “passivity” of the woman to her man and establishing her as inferior to his power (Greer 219). The mere fact that the woman is referred to as a “mistress” in the later title given to “Elegy 19” suggests that though the two characters may have been married, she is but a sexual conquest for the male speaker.

Though it would be unfair to ignore the narrator’s admiration and love for his mistress in “Elegy 19,” it would be equally unjust to overlook the clear misogyny revealed in Donne’s sexually amorous sonnet. The speaker recognizes her beauty, yet he yearns to control and overpower it, thus objectifying the recipient of his lust. With possessive pronouns and symbolic imagery, coupled with the passive portrayal of the female lover, Donne establishes a representation of male dominance and superiority in “Elegy 19.”

Works Cited

Donne, John. “Elegy 19.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. George Logan. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000. 1256-7.

Donne, John. “A Defence of Womans Inconstancy.” 2004. Ed. Alan Soble. 31 March 2005 <URL[]>.

Feinstein, Sandy. “Donne’s ‘Elegy 19’: The Busk Between a Pair of Bodies.” Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 61-70.

Greer, Germaine. “Donne’s ‘Nineteenth Elegy.’” A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Ed. Michael Hattaway. Crowall: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. UWF Course Reserves. 30 March 2005 <URL[]>.

Guibbory, Achsah. “The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies.” ELH 57 (1990): 811-833.

Logan, George, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000.

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Holy Sonnets and the Textual Culture

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Donne’s Holy Sonnets have long been considered classic examples of Renaissance poetry. They were not printed until after his death in 1631, with the first printing being in 1633, and three additional sonnets being added some time later when another manuscript was discovered. This essay will look at the rhetorical and textual culture surrounding and influencing Holy Sonnet 9 (as the ordering of the sonnets across manuscripts and printed versions was not uniform, it appears as sonnet 5 in one sequence), which begins “If poysonous minerals…”. In addition, the sonnet’s illustration of the Renaissance idea of the self will be examined, as will the meter and other formal features. For the sake of ease, this sonnet will henceforth referred to simply as “Minerals”, and for the purposes of quotation, this essay will treat the Westmoreland manuscript version of “Minerals” as the primary source.

Like most Renaissance writings, “Minerals” is laden with rhetorical techniques, the purpose of which is to highlight the points being made or influence the audience in some way. Rhetoric is firmly rooted in ancient Greek and Roman culture, the precepts and mechanisms thereof being laid out by such ancient luminaries as Aristotle and Plato. It is natural, then, that such techniques would be foremost in the minds of Renaissance writers; Jacob Burckhardt, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, says “…rhetoric was especially sought by the humanist” (Burckhardt, 1860, p.80), since much of their learning hinged on ancient Greece and Rome. The Holy Sonnets actually have specific significance for the general idea of rhetorical culture – it was widely believed that speech, and therefore rhetoric, was God-given and distinguished humans from animals. The phrase “God ordained Speech”, used by Richard Allestree in The Government of the Tongue (1674), sums this idea up nicely. During the Reformation people began exploring this idea that speech and divinity were intertwined, and therefore being adept at rhetoric made sense from a religious point of view – the better one performed with one’s God-given gift, the closer to God one could be. Combined with the emerging sense of self during this period, this gave heavy cultural weight to the ability to orate effectively.

Examples of rhetorical devices which can be found in “Minerals” include the octave which begins it. It is, in its totality, an example of logos – the use of examples to make an argument based on reason. In both quatrains, Donne employs rhetorical questions. The type of questions he is asking is described as anacoenosis, and involves asking the audience directly for their opinion (though, of course, without expecting an answer). In the first line of the sestet, however, the audience changes and so do the rhetorical techniques since in contrast, the sestet constitutes an example of pathos, or appeal to emotion. Donne uses a different type of rhetorical question in line 9, called epiplexis, to express grief that he has been asking the questions present in the octave. This is reinforced by the use of another rhetorical technique known as apostrophe, in line 10, in which Donne exclaims “O God”, saying essentially that he is unworthy (though this apostrophe is not present in every surviving version of the sonnet). Further techniques follow this: Donne’s reference to his tears making a “Heauenly Lethean floud” is an example of hyperbole, which is a type of auxesis or amplification. The final line, “I think it mercy, if thou wilt forgett”, is what categorises the sestet as an appeal to emotion rather than logic. This shift in rhetorical techniques underlines the difference between the two parts of the sonnet and emphasises the emotions and ideas conveyed within.

Our understanding of Donne’s exact idea of the structure or vocabulary of “Minerals” is hindered by the lack of a manuscript with definitive authorial approval. Three versions of the sonnet exist, any of which could be Donne’s intended sonnet. Between the three versions which exist, there are mainly minor changes; “letcherous” contrasted with “Leacherous”, for example, which are likely idiosyncrasies of the author or typesetter of each manuscript or print. Small changes in spelling or punctuation are common, such as the insertion of parentheses or commas around “ellse immortall” in line two, or the insertion of a comma in line 12 (so it reads “And drowne in it, my Sins blacke memoree” as in the Westmoreland manuscript). According to a letter written by Donne, he decided to collate his poetry just before taking his holy orders, and asked to borrow “that old book” (Donne, 1654, Internet 1) from Henry Goodere, with whom he was corresponding. This implies that, as said by Stringer, “he had failed even to retain manuscript copies for his own use or reference” (Stringer, 2005, p. L), so there is no proof that there is even a definitive version of the sonnet.

Two of the versions each have a significant difference, which means that Donne’s complete idea of the sonnet is not certain. The first printed copy, for example (published in 1633), differs from the Westmoreland manuscript (dated to 1620, and verified as having been written by Rowland Woodward, a friend of Donne) and the Divine Meditations printing (1635) in line 13. Instead of “That thou remember them, Some clayme as dett”, it contains the line “That thou remember them no more as debt”. This difference is obviously significant as it considerably affects the interpretive depth of the line, removes (or inserts) what is possibly a reference to a Bible passage, and is likely a change made to the sonnet by Donne himself some time after its original distribution. The presence of “Some clayme as dett” in both The Westmoreland Manuscript and the Divine Meditations (the text of which was taken from a different manuscript) implies that Donne intended the poem to read this way, though it is not possible to be sure. The Westmoreland manuscript’s significant difference is across lines 9 and 10; instead of “But who am I that dare dispute with thee?/O God” it reads “But who am I that dare dispute with thee/O God?”. This changes the “O God” from an exclamation of emotion or grief (which mirrors the “alas” found in line 4) to simply the end of a question, and thus has an impact on the effect of the sonnet as a whole.

“Minerals” is, arguably, an exploration of the idea of the self as an autonomous entity and is therefore an apt example of a Renaissance perspective on self-identity. In the quatrains, the speaker asks what the difference is between harmful animals or plants and humans, and why it is that the “sins” of plants and animals go unpunished. This brings up the concept of agency, which is a key component of self-identity; the idea that one has the authority to commit sin, or indeed undertake any action, of one’s own volition. Stephen Greenblatt, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, says that self-fashioning takes place under several general conditions, many of which are demonstrated in “Minerals”. It depends on “submission to an absolute power” (Greenblatt, 1980, p.9), which is of course the very subject of the sonnet and demonstrated by line 9, “But who am I that dare dispute with thee?”. In addition, self-fashioning is contingent on the existence of a dangerous Other which is perceived as “strange, alien or hostile” (Greenblatt, 1980, p.9). In this sonnet, there are multiple examples: the goats, minerals, and serpents, which are explicitly stated, but also the Devil, whose influence is merely implied. Another of Greenblatt’s suggested conditions is that “one man’s authority is another man’s alien” (Greenblatt, 1980, p.9) which is a particularly relevant point during the religious upheaval of the Reformation, and the different views of God which emerged during that time.

The sonnet is especially salient when looking at Renaissance self-fashioning because the speaker directly questions the audiences: in the two quatrains, the listening audience; in the sestet, God himself. This demonstrates an individual attempting to define their own identity within their own peer group and reconcile it with the rules of their perceived authority. In line 5, the speaker makes reference to “intent, or reason borne in mee”, upon which damnation is said to be predicated, and these two concepts are crucial to the idea of the self. The speaker of the sonnet identifies as a repentant sinner – not merely someone who has inherited sin, but someone who has willingly and actively sinned, as evidenced by the the mention of reason and intent as well as the phrase in line 12 “my Sins blacke memoree” (while it might be figurative, it implies that the speaker remembers their sins). Identifying oneself as a sinner could be considered parrhesia, described as “a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth” (Foucault, 1999, p.6). The speaker establishes a conflict between themselves and both their peer group and their authority with this admission, and identifies them as being able to act and think independently.

“Minerals” is written in iambic pentameter, like most other Renaissance sonnets, and has a relatively stable metrical structure with the second, fourth and eighth syllables being stressed in almost every line. It has two deviations from this structure, however; depending on how the line 11 is read, the first stressed syllable is the sixth, as that is the first occurrence of a polysyllabic word which has a forced lexical stress. While the word “teares” may be post-lexically stressed, it is a monosyllabic word, therefore its stress is left up to the reader; it comprises the third syllable of the line and thus does not conform to iambic pentameter. This line also requires the elision of the “e” sounds in both “heauenly” and “Lethean” in order to conform to the metre. The other, more important, deviation is in line 6: the presence of the word “hainous” here places the stress on the ninth syllable, with the etymology of the word disproving the possibility of a different method of pronunciation. There is no way of reading this line without stressing an odd-numbered syllable, therefore it may be deliberate subversion of the metre by Donne. If, however, one looks at the punctuation in the versions of the sonnet deemed to be closest to Donne’s own hand (the Westmoreland and Divine Meditations versions), there is a caesura after “equall” in the form of a comma, after which (if read as a standalone line) the metre is again iambic pentameter. Either way, it is a meaningful deviation from the structure and is noteworthy for that reason.

The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is interesting, too, as it does not specifically conform to any particular established type of sonnet; it is a mixture of Shakespearean and Petrarchan patterns, with the rhyme scheme being ABBAABBAACCADD. Looking at the sonnet with this in mind, it is divided into three quatrains and one rhyming couplet, rather than a clearly defined octave and sestet. This has the effect of separating the couplet into a kind of epigram, which is borne out by the punctuation in the Westmoreland and Divine Meditations versions of the sonnet: in these two, the couplet is preceded by a period at the end of line 12, separating it orthographically from the rest of the sonnet.

“Minerals” thus comprises a rich vein of information about culture during the Renaissance, and illustrates many of the extrinsic and intrinsic factors which shaped the poetry (and, indeed, individuals) of that time. It, and the other Holy Sonnets, allow us to see the many ways in which the Renaissance was shaped by ancient Greece and Rome as well as the society of the time, lending weight to the idea espoused by New Historicism, as described by John Martin in Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence (1997, p.1313), of the self being “…not an autonomous entity but rather as a site on which broader institutional and political forces are inscribed”.


Donne, J. 2005 [1610-1620]. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Edited Gary A. Stringer. Digitaldonne version, accessed 29/12/13 at

Burckhardt, J. 1860. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Project Gutenberg version, accessed 01/10/13 at

Allestree, R. 1674. The Government of the Tongue. Christian Classics Ethereal Library version, accessed 03/01/2014 at

Internet 1:

Greenblatt, S. 1980. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More To Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. 1985 [1983]. Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia. Edited Joseph Pearson. Internet version, accessed at

Martin, J. 1997, ‘Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence’. The American Historical Review Vol. 102, No. 5, p. 1309 – 1342


Donne, J. 2005 [1610-1620]. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Edited Gary A. Stringer. Digitaldonne version, accessed 29/12/13 at

Burckhardt, J. 1860. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Project Gutenberg version, accessed 01/10/13 at

Allestree, R. 1674. The Government of the Tongue. Christian Classics Ethereal Library version, accessed 03/01/2014 at

Internet 1:

Greenblatt, S. 1980. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More To Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. 1985 [1983]. Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia. Edited Joseph Pearson. Internet version, accessed 05/01/14 at

Martin, J. 1997, ‘Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence’. The American Historical Review Vol. 102, No. 5, p. 1309 – 1342

The Review of English Studies , Vol. 7, No. 28 (Oct., 1931), pp. 454-457, Published by: Oxford University Press, accessed 01/01/14 at

Ong, W. J. 1982. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge

Rebhorn, W. A. 2000. Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric. New York: Cornell University Press

Silva Rhetoricae (, accessed 02/01/14

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Construction of Concept of Love based on The Flea and To His Mistress

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In order to truly grasp how John Donne (1572 – 1631) regards and treats the concept of love in his poems, one must be well aware of the fact that his love poems never refer to one single unchanging view of love. Instead, in Donne’s love poems, not only can one find a wide variety of emotions presented, but there are also his contrasting attitudes towards love. Among Donne’s many different love experiences, however, both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ can be viewed as Donne’s attempts to glorify the physical nature of love, most guiltlessly and shamelessly, to reject and challenge the Petrarchan traditional idea of courtly love, and to equate physical love to the spiritual love by transforming its mere physicality into a celebration of holy union between souls and God.

Both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ are dedicated to Donne’s glorifying of the physical nature of love. ‘The Flea’ is all about seduction and persuasion, and love-making is depicted as both natural, innocuous and even heretical. In ‘The Flea’, the speaker of the poem endeavours to invalid the young lady’s moral concerns and to convince her to surrender her virginity to him by taking the advantage of a flea. In the first stanza, the speaker explains to the young lady that after the flea has sucked both their blood, the two of them already become one through their blood mingling in the flea’s body, as a result if such a commonplace occurrence “… cannot be said / A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” (line 5-6), then sexual intercourse between them should also be considered harmless and shameless. Later in stanza three, after the young lady has killed the flea in spite of the objection of the speaker, he describes her concern for the loss of chastity as “false fears” (line 25) since having sexual intercourse with him should be of no greater consequences than an act as simple as killing the flea. Under Donne’s pen, therefore, even premarital sex becomes glorified as natural and innocuous.

In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, not only is the physical nature of love without guilt or shame, but that it is also glorified as a happy and exciting exploratory adventure. ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ is all about praising the sensual pleasure of a young lady’s body. The poem unfolds as the speaker of the poem waits and witnesses his mistress undress before him in stages. Such an experience is full of excitement and anticipation for the speaker, as he claims that “… All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be, To taste whole joys.” (line 32-35) and thus “full nakedness!” (line 32) is what brings him joys. The speaker also deems the young lady’s body as an unexplored land that is waiting for him to conquer, as he describes her body as “O my America! my new-found-land” (line 27) and that during the exploration he establishes “My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d” (line 28). ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ therefore is a piece of celebration of the physical pleasure in love.

Donne’s glorifying of the physical nature of love consequently rejects and challenges the Petrarchan notion of love. In Petrarchan poetry, the mistresses are usually chaste and remote while the male lovers would be constantly devotional yet eventually suffering from unrequited love. In ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, however, unlike his prevailing works in Petrarchan poetry, Donne creates an entirely different scene with the idea of a courtly love non-existent. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the heroine is far away from being remote to the male lover, as she has a real physical presence in the poem, which is in the bedroom with the speaker. In ‘The Flea’, unlike how the male lovers would usually try to win over the mistresses with beautiful and unrealistic languages in the Petrarchan love poetry, in ‘The Flea’ the speaker uses an unromantic imagery of a mediocre animal, the flea as the metaphor for his intimate relationship with the young lady, in order to persuade her to sexually connect with him. Most importantly, both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ stress on the immediate physical satisfaction which is a direct contrary to the chastity spirit of the Petrarchan world.

Apart from glorifying the physical nature of love and consequently breaking the Petrarchan conventional notion of love, in ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, Donne also equates the physical love with the spiritual love by transforming the mere physical union into a more holy union between soul and soul, and even between soul and God. In ‘The Flea’, the flea becomes the representation of the sacred and holy religious ritual of marriage between the speaker and the young lady as he claims to her that “This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.” (line 12-13). The blood that the flea carries in its body not only represents the essence of life, but it also symbolizes different aspects of life under Donne’s pen, from the physical passion to the religious devotion. In the second stanza, the “three lives in one flea spare” (line 10) also refers to the flea as a sacred ideal of the holy trinity of the Bible. The many religious metaphors presented in ‘The Flea’ therefore, can be regarded as an indication of Donne’s belief that the physical union with women can also bring him closer to the union with God.

Such a connection between the physical love and the spiritual love can be also reflected in Donne’s adaptation of the Neoplatonic conception of love in ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’. The Neoplatonic conception of love treats the physical love as the lowest rung of the ladder. Once there is the appearance of physical love, it can then move onto the higher rungs of the ladder and eventually progress as the love for God and for spiritual beauty. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the speaker suggests in “As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be” (line 35) that the spiritual connection of two souls outside the body is crucial. The speaker compares his mistress with an angel, as in “In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise” (line 19-21). Angel symbolizes the divine mediate between human beings and God, and therefore here in the poem the speaker believes that his love for her, be it merely physical admiration or not, can help bring him closer to God.

Despite Donne’s many changing views of love, ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ share a lot of similarities. In both poems, Donne glorifies the physical nature of love, rendering it not only natural and innocuous, but also exciting and worthy of celebration. Such a glorifying of the physical pleasure in love then in turn rejects and challenges the conventional Petrarchan notion of courtly love and its spirits of chastity. Finally, in both poems, Donne also equates the physical love with the spiritual love, transforming the physical union into the holy union between souls and God.

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Donne and Spencer Comparative Characteristics

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Though his poetry was largely ignored and dismissed during his time, John Donne is known today for being one of the best poets of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He gained this reputation by creating poetry that was different, that made him stand out among his peers. Perhaps the best way to examine those unique characteristics is by analyzing one of Donne’s poems and one by another famous poet during his time, Edmund Spenser. By comparing and contrasting Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and John Donne’s “The Blossom,” the qualities of Donne’s poetry that are new and unique for the time prominently stand out.

There are a few characteristics that Donne’s “The Blossom” and Spenser’s Sonnet 75 have in common. For starters, both poems imply the action of speech, with Spenser addressing his lover and Donne addressing a flower and then his heart. They both make use of symbols early on: Spenser uses the ocean as a metaphor for death and Donne uses a flower to represent newly bloomed love. Aside from that, however, Spenser’s and Donne’s poems are different in both form and subject.

Sonnet 75 is found within Spenser’s “Amoretti and Epithalamion,” which was released in London in 1595 (Spenser 585). It is difficult, however, to date Donne’s “Songs and Sonnets.” Despite searching our John Donne: Selected Poetry text, class notes, and the Internet, I was unable to find a specific date for “The Blossom.” But because the subject of most of the poems in “Songs and Sonnets” seems to be secular, I believe it is safe to infer that Donne wrote “The Blossom” during his “rake and rogue, man about town” years, sometime before he secretly married Anne More in December of 1601 (Donne xxiv). Because both poems were written during the Petrarchan sonnet craze that was happening in England from the 1590s onward, one would expect them to share a common form and style, but this is not the case.

Where Spenser’s poetry follows a slight variation on the English Petrarchan sonnet (three quatrains followed by a couplet), Donne separates himself from the Petrarchan trend by making his poem consist of five stanzas, with each stanza containing one quatrain and two couplets. The rhythm of the two poems varies as well. Spenser writes Sonnet 75 with lines that are roughly the same length, varying between 9 and 11 syllables. Donne’s poem, however, consists of lines of varying length in each stanza: roughly 7, 9, 10, 10, 10, 4, 10, 10 syllables. He continues this same pattern with each stanza in the poem.

The subject matter differs greatly between both poems. Sonnet 75 begins first with a metaphorical visit to a beach in which the author demonstrates the futility of man’s attempts to immortalize “a mortall thing” (line 6). The poem, however, is not about a visit to the beach, and after four lines the speaker, is off the strand and addressing a lover who is criticizing him for trying to weather the tide of time and the inevitable fate of being forgotten. The speaker then argues that his lover and their love are greater than other “baser things” (line 9), that his verse will make them both eternal, and that their love is so great that it will renew life after death has conquered the world (lines 13-14).

These characteristics are very typical for poetry of this time. The brief description of the speaker’s lover as possessing “vertues rare” (line 11) is a characteristic common in any maiden in Petrarchan sonnets. Likewise, the idea of a poem eternalizing the speakers beloved appears all over the place in late 16th- and early 17th-century poetry (cf. Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 and 19). Spenser also puts forth the idea that their love is a life-renewing kind of love, that it will be observed by all those on earth as the ideal model of love. This thought returns to the old concept of the “Golden World,” or the Mimetic Potency of the Ideal Model, which is another common characteristic of writings at the time. Whereas Spenser sticks with common contemporary themes, Donne’s poem is much more unique.

“The Blossom,” instead of beginning with a scene, begins with the speaker talking to a flower. He laments the flower’s fate because he knows that, despite how lively and triumphant the blossom is today, he will find it “fall’n, or not at all” tomorrow (line 8). Donne then transforms the blossom from the first stanza to his heart in the second stanza. Here the act of speech really plays an important role, as the reader gets the sense that the heart and the speaker are two separate beings, and the speaker really does pity the poor heart. Then the unthinkable happens: the heart actually talks back to the speaker. The heart invokes logic to the speaker, arguing that he should “go to your friends, whose love and means present / Various content / To your eyes, ears, tongue, and every part. / If then your body go, what need you a heart?” (lines 21-24).

In the next stanza, the speaker concedes to the stubborn heart, but warns it that “A naked thinking heart, that makes no show, / Is to a woman, a kind of ghost” (lines 27-28). He warns the heart that, despite all of its efforts, a woman will never know a heart. In the fourth stanza, the speaker tells his heart to meet him in London, where he will be in a much happier state after having been in the company of his friends. He also predicts that that he will find “another friend, whom we shall find / As glad to have my body, as my mind” to whom he can give his heart (lines 39-40).

Having the speaker address an inanimate object is the first unique characteristic of Donne’s poem. In Sonnet 75, the speaker only addresses his lover, but in “The Blossom,” the speaker never actually talks to another human being, though he is speaking the entire time. The symbol of the flower is also an example of the metaphysical aspect of Donne’s poetry that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Whereas the beach scene in Sonnet 75 was a very plain metaphor for mortality, the flower in “The Blossom” goes from being a metaphor for new love to its own complex entity; it is something that is both within and without the man. The ways in which the poems treat their respective mistresses is different as well. Spenser speaks of the woman as the ideal virtuous woman who should be remembered by everyone forever, where Donne talks of the woman as a passing attraction who can be easily replaced. This leads to the next interesting difference between the two poems.

It is also important to note the difference in tone. Sonnet 75 keeps a very serious tone throughout the entire poem. Spenser makes no jokes when it comes to mortality and the importance of his verse eternalizing his lover. And though Donne’s poem begins by sounding serious and sad, with language like “poor flower” and “poor heart,” it ends up sounding light-hearted. The speaker goes to London to be amongst friends, becoming “fresher, and more fat” (line 35), culminating with him taking on a careless attitude because he is confident that he can find a nameless other friend to give his heart to, as if doing so really does not mean much to him.

It is very easy to see that Donne was doing some new and unique things with his poetry, but it is hard to account for these qualities simply because we do not know enough about him. An examination of his life and personality, however, makes it easy to guess why he wrote in such a unique style. It was discussed in class that Donne prided himself on being an outsider in society, an example of this being that he practiced Catholicism in a hostile Protestant culture. His choices in life also make him out to be the adventurous type: it is believed that he traveled abroad in Italy and Spain before he was twenty years old (Donne xxiii). He also saw combat after he volunteered for military service in 1596, and his secret marriage to Anne More in 1601 attributes rebelliousness to his personality (Donne xxiii-xxiv). I think that it is likely a culmination of all of these things that led Donne to be different from his contemporaries. It would seem as though Donne approached his poetry the same way he approached his life: with a sense of rebellion and adventure.

Through the use of metaphysics, an uncommon form and style, and a different take on common themes, John Donne separates his poetry from that of his peers. He manages to make his work stand out in the crowded Petrarchan-dominated culture of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Despite the fact that he was dismissed by critics in his own time, he stands now in his rightful place as a unique and celebrated poet who dared to do something different in his own time.

Works Cited

Donne, John. John Donne: Selected Poetry. Ed. John Carey. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. William A. Oram, Einar Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell. Yale University, 1989. Print.

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The Flea and A Gender Question

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In the majority of John Donne’s poetry, it is easy to characterize Donne as a domineering speaker, one who frequently overbears the female voice. Yet in “The Flea,” Donne complicates the prototypical gender roles seen in most early modern love poetry. Throughout the poem, the poet uses symbolism and unspoken dialogue to imply a complicated and conflicted relationship with the poem’s addressee. Instead of insisting upon a stable patriarchy, Donne uses these devices to destabilize hierarchal systems of power associated with gender.

Exhibiting classic elements of metaphysical poetry, Donne utilizes the most unlikely images to symbolize romance. In this poem, it is the flea itself that the speaker uses to try and persuade his lover to engage in premarital sex. By using the flea as a symbolic framework element, Donne is able to set up a unique banter between the speaker and his addressee. To the speaker, their “mingled” blood within the flea’s body is equivalent to the exchange of bodily fluids during sexual intercourse (4). However, his recipient obviously does not agree, having “denied” him what the flea symbolically enjoys (2). Unlike lots of love poetry where the male figure dominates, the flea serves as a symbol for the mutual union of love making and a woman’s role in seduction. The opening stanza provides a compelling example of previously mentioned blurred gender lines: the male seducer becomes identified with the seduced female by the insects mutual sucking (“It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee”; line 3). In a sense, Donne introduces the innovative idea that romance is mutual and sacred, rather than solely for a man’s sexual pleasure. While an overall look at the poem may lead readers to believe the speaker is a misogynistic character concerned only with his own sexual gratification, a closer look at the speaker’s persuasive monologue suggests a progressive view of women.

“The Flea” depicts an interaction between two equally intelligent people playfully challenging each other. Although the woman in the poem is silent for its entirety, it is ironically her unspoken voice which controls the poem. By even suggesting the woman’s ability to engage in a witty argument, Donne is subtly complimenting female intelligence. Not only does she have the ability to understand his proposition, but also to respond and participate in the banter. Furthermore, the woman is presented as preoccupied with preserving her honor, or “maidenhead,” instead of succumbing to the male’s plea (6). The opening lines “Marke but this flea, and marke in this, / How little that which thou deny’st me is” immediately establishes a woman’s right to refuse a man’s sexual desires (1-2). The later lines regarding “a sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” indicates the woman’s desire to remain pure and virtuous – positive attributes in the eyes of early modern society (6). By presenting the poem’s addressee as morally excellent, Donne reveals the barbaric and overtly sexualized ideals possessed by men. Likewise, Donne emphasizes a woman’s power to deny a man sex. Although the male speaker presents a somewhat convincing argument, the woman ultimately controls the outcome. By line 19, the poem’s addressee has become “cruel and sudden,” and she decisively kills the flea. By “purple[ing] [her] nail in blood of innocence,” the woman kills not only the flea, but also symbolically squashes any hope the speaker may have had in getting the woman into bed with him (20). Granting the woman power to deny the man and “triumph” in the argument suggests an implicit praise of virtuous women (23). By refusing to accommodate the speaker’s wishes, the addressee maintains her purity and honor throughout the entire poem. Thus, instead of creating a weak and vulnerable woman, Donne choses to present the poem’s addressee as a woman who has her own self-agency and righteousness.

Ostensibly, “The Flea” can be seen as a contemptuous representation of women. However, a closer reading of the poem reveals Donne’s desire to destabilize conventional gender hierarchies. Throughout the poem, the poet uses symbolism and unspoken dialogue to imply a complicated and conflicted relationship with the poem’s addressee. Presenting the woman in the poem as respectable and wholesome allows for a stark contrast to the overtly horny and sexualized male speaker. Ultimately, it is important to look below the surface before attempting to characterize John Donne as a misogynistic male chauvinist.

Work Cited

Donne, John. “The Flea.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry: 1603 – 1660. Ed. John Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York: Norton, 2006. Page 33. Print.

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Poem The Flea by John Donne

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Flea by John Donne is a metaphysical love poem which takes the form of an erotic humorous narrative. The predominant theme in this poem is seduction which is illustrated using a persuasive conceit of a humble flea. The strikingly original figure of the flea is used to unconventionally demonstrate that the two lovers are already conjoined in the eyes of God and the Church, as the flea has bitten both their bodies and intermingled their blood.

The speaker contends that the flea has effectively made their two fleshes into one, alluding to the sacrament of marriage whereupon ‘a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be cleaved unto his wife and they shall be one flesh’ (Gensis 2:24). Drawing on this biblical reference, the wooer attempts to lend authoritative substance to his argument. As compelling as the speaker’s assertions are, his motives are completely transparent as he is attempting to convince his lady that surrendering her virginity would be no shame under the sanctified circumstances provided by the flea.The tone of the poem is highly ironic, dramatic and absurdly amusing.

Extravagant declarations of devotion and eternal fidelity which are typical found in love poetry are absent. Instead, the unorthodox and creative speaker offers philosophical and theological arguments that rest in the absurd authority that their union has already been consummated within the flea’s little body.The direct address narrative of the poem alters in tempo over the three stanzas.

The first stanza is contemplative and whimsical, moving slowly in a rhythm that might be likened to sexual foreplay. Donne uses words such as ‘sucked’ and ‘swell’ giving a strong impression of the speaker’s sexual desires even though it is only the flea whose desires are satisfied. The sexual references are particularly evident if one considers during this period a written ’s’ closely resembled the letter ‘f’, rendering the line, ‘It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,’ positively obscene.

The second stanza is even more delightfully ludicrous as the lady moves to strike the flea and the speaker attempts convince her of the heinous nature of this action. He declares that in killing the flea she will also be guilty of killing him, guilty of self murder as well as guilty of ‘sacrilege’ in destroying the holy union or marriage bond that he argues is embodied in the flea. As the reductio ad absurdum of his argument builds, so too does the pace of the poem in imitation of the sex act. Undeterred, the lady kills the insect in a climactic strike and the ‘cruel and sudden’ death of the flea parallels sexual release often euphemised in the Renaissance as ‘the little death’ or ‘la petite mort’.

The third stanza slows again, the tempo similar to a post-coital quietude, as the speaker reflects on the fate of the flea and during which he completely reverses his argument. Undeterred by the ‘death’ of their union, himself and his lover, the speaker observes that the flea’s untimely demise was of no great matter after all and he ‘Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now’. As such, he extrapolates that surely this means that should she surrender her virginity, they would likewise find it of no greater consequence than the death of the flea.

The Flea is a wonderful example of Donne’s confident and finely skilled application of an audacious metaphor that imbues a flea, the least likely of romantic figures, with such importance and high ideals. Donne’s ability to embody sexual desire, sin, sacred love and holy marriage in a simple flea before ultimately turning the argument on it’s head and declaring the flea means naught after all, is as concise as it is humorous. The exuberant absurdity of the conceit compliments the energetic theme of ardent and persistent seduction making this a sublimely enjoyable and unusual poem.

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Donne’s The Sun Rising: The Joy of Infinite Love

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

John Donne addresses his poem “The Sun Rising” to the sun, but the theme of the poem is the joy of true love. The poet derives infinite joy by loving and by being loved. The poet’s wit and irony are here directed against the sun for trying to interfere in the lover’s happiness.

In the opening stanza, the sun is addressed as “busy, old fool” flashing his light into the lover’s bedroom, perhaps with the intention of waking up and parting them. It is unfair on his part to expect the lovers to act according to his movements. He may go about his trivial errands like pulling up ‘late school boys’ and lazy apprentices who hate to work. The country ants and courtiers may knuckle under his authority but not so the lovers. Love is above time, which is regulated by the sun. For lovers, seasons, hours and days have no meaning.

The argument against the sun is continued. The sun need not think that his light is dazzling and worthy of respect. If the poet closes his eyes, the sunlight is rendered dark. But he does not like to lose sight of his beloved by closing his eyes. In hyperbolic language he asks the sun if the eyes of his beloved are not brighter than sunlight. Gazing into her eyes, the sun may feel dazzled. Roaming over the whole world, the sun can inform him on the next day whether the lady is not worth more than the East and the West Indies. The poet’s lady comprises in her all the kingdoms. The poet, in the possession of his mistress is thus richer than any king on earth.

The lovers in Donne’s poem are the archetypal ideas or the soul of the world, of which the states and princes are imperfect perfections. The poet declares that there is nothing else besides him and his beloved which implies that they have become one, and together they constitute the soul of the world. The lovers can look down upon the world from the heights of perfection they have reached through the realization of their true love. The pomp and majesty of a king is then a mere imitation of the glory attained by lovers. Compared to their spiritual wealth, all material wealth seems counterfeit. The sun, being old and run down, will welcome the contraction of the world. Now that the lovers are the world, the can fulfill his duty of lighting and warming the world by merely shining on them. By circling round a single room, he can circle round the whole world.

The tone of the poem is gently ironic besides being playful and colloquial. Love is shown as having triumphed over time and space. The poet’s sense of completeness in the possession of his mistress is an illusion. The lovers mock at space and time as illusions without realizing that they themselves are under an illusion. Those who accept the reality of time and space may be poor deluded mortals, but the lovers who pride themselves I having achieved a sense of completeness are by no means better. Professor A. Stein points out, “What the lovers represent majestically is not a distillation of all that is precious and delightful on earth to the imagination of a lover, who does not feel himself quite on earth…. The lovers possess in their bed what does not seem to incommode them as idea and image, a composite token of the material possession of that gross external world.”

The lovers look out on other illusions from an unexamined illusion. The poet, with his beloved by his side, feels infinite bliss, which to him appears perfect. He tries to force on us the conviction that the kings and their kingdoms are all with the lovers. The lady comprises in her all the kingdoms, and the poet comprises in him all the kings. A king with all his indisputable power and majesty can only imitate the bliss of the lovers. Even the sun is presented as being glad to move round the lovers who represent the whole world. The sun’s duty of giving light and warmth to the world is thus lightened.

All told, one is left wondering if Donne is not mocking at himself and his lady, living in an illusory world of unadulterated joy. Donne is here mocking at the conventional conceits found in the love poems of his time, or he is implying that the lovers represent the soul of the world or the Platonic archetype of the world.

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The Flea: an Implicit Erotic Metaphor

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;

And this, alas! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, yea, more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,

And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.

Though use make you apt to kill me,

Let not to that self-murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.

‘Tis true; then learn how false fears be;

Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,

Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

This poem exhibits John Donne’s skill for turning the least likely images into elaborate metaphysical symbols of love, lust, and romance. “The Flea” uses the image of a flea that has just bitten the speaker and his beloved to describe a conflict over whether the two will have sex. The speaker wants to but his beloved does not, and so he uses the flea as an argument and metaphor to show how innocuous sex can be. He reasons that if their blood mingling in the flea is harmless and innocent, sexual mingling would be equally innocuous. The speaker tells his beloved to look at the flea and to note “how little” that “thing” that she denies him is, thus trivialising sex. Their blood mingling cannot be called “sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead”; rather, the flea has joined them together in a way that, “alas, is more than we would do.” His arguments go far beyond this preliminary idea, and are even turned on their heads when his beloved kills the flea. This paper examines the core idea that the flea is a metaphor used to trivialise sex, and ultimately to convey the unimportance of virginity.

The opening line “mark but this flea, and mark in this, how little that which deniest me is” shows that the flea is small and inconsequential, and reveals that the speaker’s lady is denying him sex. The metaphor of the flea develops as it relates to the other symbols. For example, blood is used more than once as a symbol in the poem. The speaker talks of blood reverently and equates it to honor: blood symbolises life and soul. The flea has bitten him and his lady, hence the speaker remarks that in the flea his blood and his lady’s blood are mixed. Likewise, during sex their souls are “mingled” and become one. The speaker initially seems to have a respectful attitude about sex, holding that it can be spiritual and important. But this is eventually revealed to be only a ploy to prove that sex should not be taken so seriously.

As his beloved moves to kill the flea, the speaker “stays” her hand, asking her to spare the trinity of three lives in the flea: his life, her life, and the flea’s life. In the flea where their blood is mingled, they are almost “married,” even more than married, and the flea is their “marriage bed” and “marriage temple.” Though their parents “grudge” and disapprove of their romance and though she does not want to have sex with him, they are nevertheless united and “cloister’d” in the living walls of the flea’s body. He asks that she not kill herself by killing the flea that contains her blood; he says that to kill the flea would be sacrilege, “three sins in killing three,” suggesting a holy trinity. Here, he is using the flea to convince his lady of his high-minded and apparently sophisticated argument.

However, when his beloved kills the flea despite his protestations (and probably as a deliberate move to destroy his argument), the speaker turns his argument on its head and claims that despite the high-minded ideals he has been invoking, killing the flea did not impugn his beloved’s honour – nor will consenting to sex. Donne’s speaker seems to adapt his argument as it progresses, sometimes in contradictory ways – a feature that perhaps challenges that image of the metaphysical conceit of the flea as a single, consistent, unified, confident metaphor. The speaker calls his lover “cruel” and speaks of how she is “purpling” her fingernail with the “blood of innocence,” suggesting that the flea was “innocent” and that his ideas were entirely noble. The speaker asks his lover what the flea’s sin was, other than having “suck’d” from each of them a drop of blood. His lover apparently replies that neither of them is less noble for having killed the flea, and he agrees that this true, and it is this that proves that her fears regarding honor are false: if she were to “yield to” him and have sex, she would lose no more honor than she lost when she killed the flea. Here, the speaker is suggesting that sex does not have the power to take away innocence. There is more to it than just that.

The “murder” of the flea also adds to the poem. As we have seen, the exchange of lifeblood during sex forms a “marriage” between the partners, and the narrator asks his lady not to kill the flea, which is symbolic of the end of sex, or orgasm. It was common thinking during that period that every time a man had sex his life was shortened, and thus it is reasonable to say that the speaker is likening the murder of the flea to the shortening of his own life. The speaker states that the flea has not taken anything from either of them, and therefore the act of sex will not diminish their lives. Thus the speaker reasons with his lady by lessening the importance of virginity.

In this clever poem, Donne uses a flea, blood, and the murder of the flea as analogies for the oldest exchange: sex. The speaker in this poem hopes to convince his lady to sleep with him by trivializing sex. Donne not only questions the validity of coveting virginity, but also the importance of sex. This poem is one of many clever love poems that use the flea as an erotic image; it is an idea that goes as far back as Ovid. Donne’s skill of hinting at the erotic without ever explicitly referring to sex is remarkable: the idea that being bitten by a flea would represent “sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” conveys his point with a clarity that more literal representations might have undermined.


Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896 pp. 1-2.

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