John Donne Poems
The Value of Donne’s Poetry
Donne is sick and his poetry is sick.- Stanley FishFish’s comment, though extreme in its reductive appraisal, is nevertheless understandable. He may find Donne’s poetry objectionable on three accounts: style, explicitness, and morbidity. With regards to style, Fish says Donne “is bulimic…someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up.” And Fish is certainly not alone in this sentiment. C.S. Lewis called Donne the “saddest” and most “uncomfortable” of our poets, whose verse “exercises the same dreadful fascination that we feel in the grip of the worst kind of bore – the hot-eyed, inescapable kind.” For his “not keeping of accent,” Ben Jonson said that Donne “deserved hanging.” And if Jonson finds fault with the way Donne ran roughshod over conventional rhythm, Deborah Larson finds his renegade semantic scope bewildering. “There is nothing,” bewails Larson, “not even the ugly and disgusting, which his verse will not say, no manner, not even the rudest, which it will not adopt to attain its almost impossible ends.” Added to this is Donne’s apostasy. “The first thing to remember about Donne,” writes John Carey, “is that he was a Catholic; the second that he betrayed his faith” – of which there are plenty of instances. For example, the poet states, “As a Father, as a Master; I can preserve my Family from attempts of Jesuits: to let a Jesuit escape is like sparing a fox or a wolf.” Such accusations, however, are hasty and subjective. If accusations of being “sick” stand, they stand alongside the justification of Donne’s desire to startle his readers into re-analyzing their faith and belief. In “Batter my Heart,” for example, Donne is deliberate in his use of shocking imagery to convey a mystic’s fervent desire to be alive in a faith that is indelicate, forceful, and all-consuming. Certainly, the imagery – “burned,” “battered,” “broken,” “ravished” – is morbid, but through it Donne reveals an urgency to be overwhelmed by God, and his images give us a glimpse of that moment when the self is absorbed into the whole, when the individual becomes an indistinguishable part of all time and creation.Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’ and bend Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new. I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue. Yet dearely’I love you,’ and would be loved faine, But am betroth’d unto your enemie: Divorce mee,’ untie, or breake that knot againe; Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I Except you’ enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. To take Donne literally as a sick proponent for rape or sadism is to seriously misread him. At worst the metaphors are startling, but in being so they remind us that one’s faith is not always a comfort and invite us to acknowledge that true spiritual discipleship requires not only accepting these contradictions in one’s understanding of God, but also a willingness to be consumed by that divine entity whom one can never fully comprehend.In fact, if there is a “charge” that holds any water, it would be that Donne’s arguments are sometimes too perfectly head-scratching and almost mathematically persuasive in their proof. In themselves, however, Donne’s metaphysical conceits are interesting not only in their novelty but also in the breadth of fields from which they draw analogies: God as a violent conqueror and rapist; the Holy Church as a wife made more holy by her availability to all men; the Sun as an exasperating “old fool” who disturbs a couple’s intimate morning; a teardrop as a navigator’s globe; separated lovers likened to the legs of a compass, the leg drawing the circle and eventually returning home to “the fixed foot”; or a flea bite compared to the act of making love (“Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee,” is a good case in point, particularly with the knowledge that in 17th century typography, the printed “s” looked a lot like the printed “f”). Donne’s conceits range from the commonplace to the diminutive, and his comparisons are elaborately rationalized. When they work, the metaphysical conceits have a startling appropriateness that makes one examine the topics in entirely new ways.If he can “play up” the terror in routine acts such as prayers through images of rape and ravishment, Donne is equally adept at “playing down” the terror in situations in which it may genuinely be justified. In “Death, be not Proud,” for example, Donne cleverly reverses the threat of death onto death itself, when he says, “Death, thou shalt die” Donne completes the idea that Death is the one who should be afraid, not the one to be feared: Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ; For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow, Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be, Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. Donne subverts the standard perception of Death as powerful and terrifying, by suggesting that instead of causing people to fall, Death helps them to rise, to “wake eternally.” The speaker’s tone is patronizing with “poor Death,” and culminates in saying that Death cannot kill him, thus he holds no power over the speaker. By personifying death, using pejorative conceits (“And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well”), Donne depicts Death not as “mighty and dreadful” but as a mere mortal – or rather less than we mortals, since he will die an eternal death at the resurrection, whereas we mortals will enjoy eternal life. In sum, this is an interesting “Donnesian” play of words and concepts. For Donne, however, innovation doesn’t stop at metaphysical conceits. Despite Jonson’s gripe of the poet’s “not keeping of accent,” closer analysis reveals a method in his apparent madness. In “Batter my Heart,” there is a conspicuous struggle between the “I” and the “you” pronouns, with the latter recurring significantly more than the other, and revealing the predominance of God over the individual. Added to this is the effect of the poem’s noticeably stumbling meter and the short-breathed caesuras that emphasize the speaker’s urgency to be ravished by God. This is not a sonnet of softly lilting iambic feet, but a series of pentameters that abuse the tradition of syllabic regularity. “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you” defies poetic explanation. It is neither solely iambic, nor exclusively trochaic, but rather a mixture of both. “Batter my heart” can thus be read as either a trochee followed by an iamb, or two spondees side by side. This unidentifiable meter, it can be argued, turns the prayer into a strongly individualistic poem that mirrors the instability of a troubled mind. But as the sonnet ends, the jarring metrical irregularity of the previous quatrains is suddenly transformed into pure iambic pentameter for the final line, “Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” The iambic meter here reflects the peace found as the poem ultimately finds its spiritual resolution. The tension still exists, but in a poised state of equilibrium. The divine assault is now seen fully as a spiritual act. That which is humanly imperfect and even exploitative becomes divinely perfect and fulfilling. The rape preserves, rather than destroys, chastity.Something must also be said of Donne’s fixation with anatomical functions, a characteristic that has brought him complaints from critics such as J.E.V Crofts and Rupert Brooke, and is also an elementary part of Fish’s gripe. As Prof Crofts notes, Donne’s oft-times explicit and unabashed treatment of sex surpasses his interest in visual beauty, “The beauty of the visible world meant nothing to him and yielded him no imagery for serious purpose.” The paucity of visual beauty in Donne’s work is, however, not a deficiency, as John Carey notes, because this poet seeks inspiration elsewhere – in more intense pressures of inner experiences and the tumults of unrequited passion. For him, love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or merely a sexual one, and it can give rise to emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. And to this end, Donne displays a natural predilection in his descriptions of human physicality, over descriptions of any other kind. Indeed, his conflicting proclivities often cause Donne to contradict himself. For example, though he writes, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,” in another he writes, “Death I recant, and say, unsaid by me/Whatever hath slipped, that might diminish thee.”In “The Ecstasy,” for example, the body (joint at the sweaty palms) and the soul are distinct, but are nevertheless related aspects of the totality of love. The uniting of souls is the purest and highest form of love, but this can only be attained through the uniting of bodies . Soe soule into the soule may flow,Though it to body first repaire. His focus on the soul leads Donne to express a contradictory attitude towards physical love (met with disfavour in this instance) in this poem:But O alas, so long, so farreOur bodies why doe wee forbear?They are ours, though they are not we, we areThe intelligences, they the sphere. This is in marked contrast to the speaker’s liberal attitude and eagerness to uncover his mistress’ body in “To his Mistress Going to Bed” or the speaker’s desire for cunnilingus in “Love’s Progress.” Nevertheless, Donne’s descriptions of the body (often deeply couched in metaphors) are a measure of his creativity, and one is inclined to agree with Carey, who sees the aim of Donne’s physical imagery as a self-assertive “intensity” – an effort to make “his inner self… sound concentrated and vehement.” As for Donne’s contradictions, they are representative of the powerful contrary forces at work in his poetry and in his soul, rather than of “sick” thinking or other charges of inconsistency. Taking any single poem in isolation, in this case, would only give one a limited view of Donne’s creativity depth, but treating each poem as part of a totality of experience, offers a better opportunity to appreciate his work.
Dying to Love: Romance and Faith in John Donne’s “The Funeral”
The speaker in John Donne’s “The Funeral” appears to have reasoned through the problem of death. He writes that “Whoever comes to shroud” him after he passes should not disturb “That subtle wreath of hair” which adorns his arm; he attests that the mystical bracelet, a prize given to him by a beloved mistress, will “keep [his] limbs… from dissolution” (lines 1, 3, 8). He bolsters the Romantic powers of his lover’s keepsake with Christian imagery, consecrating the wreath with religious might and importance. Yet, the idealized comparison inspires obvious skepticism in any candid reading of the poem. After all, does the speaker really think a tangle of hair can function as an “outward soul” and keep him alive after death (5)? In the second stanza, this doubt even creeps into the narrator’s logic as he tries to explain how the band works. Yet, the uncertain meaning and power of the bracelet only moves him to more religious bravado. The speaker’s use of classic, religious diction to describe his faith in the wreath, intimates his extreme faith in Love, while also contradicting its supposed power. In the first stanza, the speaker relies on the subtle use of religious terms with Christian significance to ascribe power to his bracelet. The band is described as “The mystery, the sign you must not touch” (4). The use of a definite article highlights the fact that “mystery” is being attributed a specific importance beyond its general meaning. “The mystery” does not imply that the wreath is simply an enigma; it also suggests that it embodies a religious truth that is beyond humanity’s capacity to understand, and is even associated with the sacred rites and sacraments of the Christian church. A greater allusion to Christian theology occurs when the speaker says that the wreath “crowns [his] arm” (3). Though, perhaps the choice in diction is a pun in the context of the greater scene- an obsolete definition of to crown means to hold a coroner’s inquest on- more likely refers to Jesus’ crown of thorns, a symbol of his martyrdom and faith. To the speaker, his wreath validates his position as “Love’s martyr” (19). But in this case, the odd misplacement of the object confers a misplaced importance: the wreath of hair is not a crown of thorns; the speaker’s martyrdom is certainly not equal to that of Jesus. In fact, though the narrator’s spiritual rhetoric imbues the bracelet with power, it also tarnishes his faith in love with flaws and contradictions. The speaker writes that the wreath is his “outward soul, / Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone, / Will leave this to control, / And keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution” (5-8). The concept of an “outward soul” is paradoxical in itself. “Outward” harnesses not only the obvious meaning of lying outside the speaker’s body but also that it is inherently physical or external- not spiritual or profound. This contradicts the very idea of a soul, that which is the spiritual, immaterial, everlasting essence of man. The incongruity indicates a flaw in the speaker’s idolatry: a physical, superficial soul cannot protect him from his own physical fate. The metaphor of the soul to a “viceroy” also presents a contrast to Christianity. A viceroy is literally a vice-king, but more generally, one who rules by the authority and in the name of a supreme figure. The obvious implication is that the bracelet will command the “provinces” of the speaker in the stead of the inward soul that will rise to heaven. But the peculiar choice of “viceroy” draws the immediate comparison to the Christian concept of God as a king. If the “outward soul” of the bracelet is merely viceroy, then the faith it represents is inherently lesser than that to the speaker’s true soul, the figurative king: God. Ironically the speaker’s religious terminology is a self-contained critique of his faith in the wreath. In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker attempts to account for the sovereignty of the wreath, but ends up questioning the meaning and power he so confidently bestowed upon it. He writes, “if the sinewy thread my brain lets fall / Through every part” is also the thing which “Can tie those parts and make me one of all” then hairs from his lover’s head, “from a better brain / Can better do it” (9-14). The anadiplosis of “parts” and “better” indicates the extent to which the speaker attempts to proceed rationally, creating syllogisms to justify the relationships between the several phrases. Yet, the logic in his thoughts is fanciful at best and just after the speaker utters his explication, he stutters: “except she meant that I / By this should know my pain, / As prisoners then are manacled, when they’re condemned to die” (14-16). The verse loses its fairly regular iambic meter just before “except,” requiring the observance of a virtual beat to uphold it. This formal stumble represents a greater faltering in the speaker’s speech; it is a gasp, a moment of realization. His reasoning, though beautifully passionate and Romantic, is hardly something on which to stake one’s life. The meaning of his wreath may have been completely misconstrued; it may be the thing that confers his tragic mortality- not his everlasting life. His fate, like the wreath, is ambiguous at best. Though the speaker’s subtle religious diction in the first stanza only hinted at the differences between his faith in the bracelet and actual Christianity, the final strophe exposes even greater evidence of their disparity. He writes, “bury [the wreath] with me, / For since I am Love’s martyr, it might breed idolatry, / If into others’ hands these relics came” (17-20). On one level, the speaker portrays himself as a martyr, someone valiantly dying for a greater purpose, for Love. Indeed, he even implies that he is a saint of Love by saying his possessions and body parts are relics. But in a skewed manner the narrator is also acting for the Christian faith he is lampooning; when he requests the wreath be buried along with him, he negates the possibility for his relics to “breed idolatry”- the immoderate attachment to a semblance of a deity, which is a sin in Christianity. He even criticizes himself for attaching such importance to the bracelet, saying “’twas humility”- meekness and low condition- “To afford to [the wreath] all that a soul can do” (21-22). But the narrator’s rhetoric of religious sacrifice belies the sexual implications of the speaker’s relationship with his mistress. The conversion of new worshippers is described as “breeding,” implying that worshippers’ faith is a sort of sexual offspring. A pun also degrades the nature of the contact between worshipper and idol, the verb form of “to come” suggesting that their relationship will be more bawdy than spiritual. Finally, there is the ambiguity between editions of the last line; “That since you would save none of me, I bury some of you” is sometimes printed with “have” in place of “save,” implying that it is the mistress’ decision to not copulate with the speaker- rather than her inability to act as a soul- which makes him question her power (24). Considering this new sexual aspect to the speaker’s faith, his martyrdom could be interpreted as decidedly selfish. Perhaps, he is not dying to save others from the peril of idolatry at all, but rather to preserve his loved one from gaining any new admirers. After all, “I bury some of you” cannot be uttered without a tinge of bitterness- especially when it is accompanied by a shift in the manner of address; no longer is the narrator’s speech attributed indirectly to “her” or “she,” now he is speaking to her directly- and forcefully- as “you.” The speaker’s use of religious terms and images creates an interesting dichotomy between his faith in Love and the traditional Christianity to which it is compared; however, the overall effect is not as grave as the subject matter or title might suggest. The paradoxes, puns, contradictions, and romanticized arguments presented within the verse are playful illustrations of what can happen when a person attempts to rationalize their most passionate emotions. And the religious references, though essential metaphors to understanding the poem, are not meant to confer any serious dogmatism, but rather to help express the depth of the speaker’s emotions. For as the narrator might agree, Love- no matter how misguided or bittersweet- is in many ways the reigning religion.Works Cited”The Funeral,” John Donne in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth edition, Vol. B, ed. David, Simpson. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 2006, 1278-1279.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?: On John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
Their love is like a virtuous man at death. Their love is like the planets in their orbits, not earthquakes. Their love is like a sheet of flattened gold. Their love is like a compass used in math class. These sentiments as they stand would do little to comfort a lover on the eve before a lengthy separation. They appear random, disjointed, and emotionless. In the context of John Donne’s metaphysical poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” these images comprise an element in the speaker’s assertion of his love, attesting to its sacredness, steadfastness, true worth, and guidance. Despite their sterile appearances, this imagery conveys a touching and profound vision of love within the context of this poem.An extended separation from a loved one can be emotionally wrenching, but Donne argues that overt displays of sadness do a grave injustice to the sacred love between the speaker and his partner. Rather than wailing and lamenting their imminent deaths, “virtuous men pass mildly away” with but a mere “whisper to their souls” that time has come to leave “their sad friends” and venture forth from the earth to heaven (2,3). The passive and peaceful images of a mild and whispered death mirror the speaker’s desire that the lovers “melt, and make no noise” upon his departure (5). He holds that their farewell must be devoid of the “profanation of [their] joys” through overdramatic “tear floods” and “sigh-tempests” (7,6). Their love refuses to be challenged by mere physical separation, thus lamentations insult the depth of their love.Although time and space divide the lovers, their bond transcends immediate and visible obstacles. The “moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears” to some people, yet those same people regard the “far greater” “trepidation of the spheres” as innocent (9,12,11). Likewise, couples grounded heavily in the “dull sublunary” and sensual form of love “cannot admit absence” from one another because the foundation of their relationship is therefore lost (13,14-15). The love between the speaker and his partner, however, possess a “refined” love “inter-assured of the mind” (17, 19). Their love remains undisturbed by “earthquakes” in the physical world because their steadfast bond lies in the spiritual, lunar realm.While the speaker’s departure may appear to be a separation or divide between the two souls, the speaker holds that they remain as one, simply extended over a greater distance. Their love refuses to be broken or “endure… a breach” in their time apart from one another (22-23). “Like gold to airy thinness beat,” their love will become “so fine that it will be spiritual,” and thus able to bridge the physical gap between them (24). The one soul shared between the lovers expands rather than breaks, like the gold as pressure flattens and lengthens it from its former state (23). This comparison to gold and flexibility of their love hearkens to the true worth and faithfulness of their relationship.Though the couple experiences a temporary separation, the speaker holds that their guiding love will bring them back together. The image of the compass illustrates that if the couple is comprised of two separate souls, these souls remain inextricably linked, like the two arms of the compass joined at one point. The movements of the rotating foot as it “far doth roam” causes the “fixed foot” in the center to “lean,” “hearken after it,” and “grow erect as that comes home” (30,27,31,32). While movement impacts them both, the fixed point holds fast. Though the speaker, like the movable foot, must “obliquely run” from his lover, her “firmness” and steadfastness in love acts as the pivot point and “makes [him] end, where [he] begun” (34,35,36). Though he ventures forth from her, she acts as his reference point, guiding where he has been, where he will go, and how to return to where he started.While comparing love to noble and understated deaths, the planetary motion, sheets of metal and an instrument of mathematics appears illogical and unfeeling, Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” employs these images in an attempt to capture the depth of the speaker’s love. A love so consuming is failed by mere description and limited adjectives. Therefore, Donne relies on these metaphors to allude to and attempt to capture the essence of pure love: sacred, steadfast, unbreakable, and guiding. Though the couple may be parted, physical distance holds no power over their pure love for one another. According to Donne, that is what love has to do with those seemingly disjointed images.
Donne’s Biblical Influences
There are several levels in literary criticism. The first – and most superficial – level examines the work in search of sounds and images that might contribute to the overall meaning of the piece. This type of analysis is an excellent starting point, but if one seeks to understand the full meaning of the piece, he or she must take into account the author’s life and the circumstances in which the work was composed. Familiarity with the author’s background and culture can help the critic draw out the full implications contained within the work. The general consensus on “Holy Sonnets #14” is that Donne’s poem is both highly original and overtly sexual; in the poem, the traditional view holds, the narrator hopes to be raped by God so that he may achieve salvation. According to this perspective, all of the images in the poem are explicit allusions to rape. While the rape imagery is certainly present, it serves only as a vehicle for Donne to evoke biblical allusions that, once understood, inform readers as to the true meaning of the work. Without comprehending the biblical foundation of the poem, the reader cannot achieve a proper understanding of Donne’s deep religiosity.The first instruction of the poem, “batter my heart”, contains two separate allusions. On a historical level, the tribe of Israel used battering rams when laying siege to a city. Since the Israelis were following God’s orders, there is a historical connection between God battering down the walls of cities in the Old Testament, and God battering down the speaker’s heart in “Holy Sonnets #14”. The second allusion is contained in the idea of God breaking the narrator’s heart. Psalm 51:17 says that “the sacrifices of God are…a broken and a contrite heart.” If God were to batter down the speaker’s heart, he would become a sacrificial, deified entity.When the speaker says that God “knock[s]”, he is alluding to Luke 11:9, where Jesus says that salvation is free to the seeker: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” This is an ironic reversal of action, because in the poem it is God who is knocking, yet Jesus says that it is we who must knock at His door. This reversal of action shows us the speaker’s true nature: he knows what he wants – salvation – but he is either unwilling or unable to attain it, so he asks God to act in his stead. He asks God to make him fit to become a sacrificial creature, because he is not capable of doing it himself. The speaker also asks God to “breathe” into him the same life that God first breathed into Adam when He “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (King James Bible, Gen. 2:7). Lines four and five are deeply steeped in allusion. In the Bible, salvation is found through destruction and rebirth: God destroys the world with a flood so that Noah and his family might start a new life; the Israelis are sent into captivity by the Babylonians so that they might be saved and redeemed; Jesus is crucified and resurrected so that he might offer eternal salvation to mankind. Christian teachings hold that a believer’s former life ends when he is saved; in other words, when he is “reborn” as a Christian. With this in mind, the speaker is theologically accurate when he asks God to “o’erthrow me, and bend/ Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.” God orders Jeremiah “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). The speaker directly links himself to the tribe of Israel when he asks God to “o’erthrow me…and make me new.”The second sestet outlines the speaker’s desire to be with God, but he is “untrue” because he is so bogged down by the weight of his sins. The use of the word “captive” continues the analogy of a soul under siege, but also refers to Timothy 2:26, which describes those caught in “the snare of the devil” and “taken captive by him at his will.” Sin and the devil have captured the speaker’s soul, and try as he might, he cannot “labor to admit” God; he needs God to “imprison” him and “break that knot” that ties him to sin. The third sestet generally restates what the speaker has already said while elaborating on his deeply sinful nature. The speaker says that he is “betrothed into your enemy,” which contrasts with Jesus’ belief that the Church (and all Christians) are “the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” While a good Christian is “betrothed” to God, the speaker sees himself as betrothed to the devil as a consequence of his sinful behavior.As Royal Chaplain of the Anglican Church, Donne was a man deeply rooted in Christian traditions, and would certainly have been aware of the implications of the language that he used. Indeed, many of the same subjects arise in Donne’s recorded sermons. In one sermon, “Preached upon the Penitentiall Psalmes”, Donne speaks about Psalm 51, which reads: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” This message is the very foundation of “Holy Sonnet #14”, thus revealing the deeply spiritual nature of the poem.This, then, is the paradox of the sonnet: to “be free”, the narrator must be “imprison[ed]”; to be chaste for God, he must first be ravished. The rape imagery in the poem is illusory because it gives the false impression that the work is focused on the sexual experience. The speaker wants to be spiritually chaste – not necessarily sexually chaste – but he can only achieve this with God’s help.
Sexism Within Donne’s “Elegy 19”
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 goBefore, 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 CitedDonne, 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
The Origin of Love: Donne’s Theogony
Ã¢LoveÃ¢s DeityÃ¢? is an anti-lyric poem; rather than lament loveÃ¢s inconstancy or celebrate loveÃ¢s union, Donne questions the nature of love itself. Donne presents the poem as a theogony, an account of the origin of the god of love. For Donne, Love is a pagan god, operating in a beautifully imagined pre-lapsarian world in which all love is correspondent. However, the god of love, a tyrant, comes to abuse his powers, leading to unrequited and unequal love as the fall of man. But there is no retrograde action; men cannot return to the mythic garden of correspondent love. Disparity, Donne writes, is loveÃ¢s Ã¢destiny,Ã¢? and so in the course of four stanzas, the poem expands from a theogony, an account of the creation of a god, to a theodicy, an attempt to justify the ways of god to men (5).The opening lines of Ã¢LoveÃ¢s DeityÃ¢? are startling. Ã¢I long to talk with some old loverÃ¢s ghost, / Who died before the god of love was born,Ã¢? the speaker intimates (1-2). We are thrown into a strange and paradoxical world: Can love exist before the god of love exists; did lovers and beloveds predate the god of love? Donne argues that this is the case. Not only does love exist before the birth of the god, but it exists in an unconstrained and elevated state: Ã¢I cannot think that he, who then loved most, / Sunk so low, as to love one which did scornÃ¢? (3-4). If this is so, if love predates the god, how did the god of love come into being? Donne suggests, perhaps, something akin to the transmigration of souls: the Ã¢old loverÃ¢s ghost,Ã¢? with pure and lofty love, dies, and the Ã¢god of loveÃ¢? is born (1-2).LoveÃ¢s deity, the subject of DonneÃ¢s poem, is likewise the theme of PlatoÃ¢s Symposium, an account of a banquet given by the young poet Agathon in which the guests debate the origin of love. The mythic quality of DonneÃ¢s poem, and the obscuration that attends the birth of the god, recall the debate in Plato. Phaedrus argues, from HesoidÃ¢s Theogony, for LoveÃ¢s age: Ã¢We honor him as one of the most ancient gods, and the proof of his great age is this: the parents of love have no place in poetry or legendÃ¢? (p.9). While the parenthood of DonneÃ¢s god is equally uncertain, Donne follows more closely to the speech of Agathon: Ã¢he is the youngest of the gods,Ã¢? states Agathon, Ã¢and most delicate; in addition he has a fluid, supple shape;Ã¢? Ã¢he is balanced and fluid in his natureÃ¢? (32-33). His work is the work of moderation.This is, too, the work of DonneÃ¢s deity in the second stanza. The Ã¢young godheadÃ¢? is conceived as a bureaucrat, taking the true loves that he observes Ã¢” Ã¢an even flame two hearts did touchÃ¢? Ã¢” and confirming them (9-10). Donne writes, Ã¢His office was indulgently to fit / Actives to passives. Correspondency / Only his subject wasÃ¢? (11-14). The god fits Ã¢activesÃ¢? Ã¢” lovers Ã¢” to Ã¢passivesÃ¢? Ã¢” their beloveds. His work, Ã¢correspondency,Ã¢? is a matter of weight and balance. DonneÃ¢s god of love Ã¢practisesÃ¢? in a world in which love already exists by necessity; it is built into human nature as the desire for the integrity of wholeness. Here, Donne recalls the myth proposed by Aristophanes in the Symposium:Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a Ã¢matching halfÃ¢? of a human whole.Ã¢? (27)Love, Aristophanes says, Ã¢is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be completeÃ¢? (29). DonneÃ¢s deity operates with this material: halves of wholes, fitting them together. His work is simple, good, and beautiful in its tranquility; thus, it is also Ã¢indulgentÃ¢? (11). The god of love is a lucky god.In this pre-lapsarian world of correspondent love, there is no need for lyric poetry. Unrequited love is absent from the vocabulary of men and gods; the law is, Ã¢I love her, that loves meÃ¢? (14). What brings about the fall? As narrated in the third stanza, the god of love comes to abuse his powers. Like a tyrant, he claims more than is rightfully his. The god of love grows; he becomes Ã¢modernÃ¢? and covetous. Donne writes, Ã¢every modern god will now extend / His vast prerogative, as far as JoveÃ¢? (15-16). Perhaps he is weary of the simplicity and serenity of his work; perhaps he is mischievous, youthful still. At any rate, the god of love creates unequal love, lovers who Ã¢love one which did scornÃ¢? (4). This is the Ã¢destinyÃ¢? of the god as foretold by the speaker in the first stanza. The Ã¢vice-nature, custom,Ã¢? validates this destiny, and the new law becomes, Ã¢I must love her, that loves not meÃ¢? (5-7).Donne suggests that the fall of the god of love Ã¢” the fall to tyranny and dark frivolity Ã¢” leads to a parallel fall in man; Ã¢To rage, to lust, to write to, to commend, / All is the purlieu of the god of loveÃ¢? (17-18). Rage, lust, poetry, praise: Donne aligns the new play of the deity to the traditional tropes of the unrequited courtly lover. We should look again at the speech of Agathon in the Symposium. AgathonÃ¢s speech follows that of Aristophanes, in which Aristophanes describes love as the desire for wholeness, and Love, the god, not as a creator but as a matchmaker: Ã¢he draws us towards what belongs to usÃ¢? (30). Agathon rejects AristophanesÃ¢s account of love; his Eros is a creator-god, the source of all arts and crafts, Ã¢archery, medicine, and prophecy,Ã¢? music, metallurgy, and weaving (36). Agathon muses, Ã¢the god is so skilled a poet that he can make others into poets: once Love touches him, anyone becomes a poetÃ¢? (35). And in a comic gesture, Agathon, as he speaks eloquently and generously of Love and its province, says, Ã¢I am suddenly struck by a need to say something in poetic meterÃ¢? (36).The fall of the god to tyranny results in the fall of man to poetry. The god of love, playful and poetic in his invention of unrequited love, moves man to poetry, Ã¢to rage, to lust, to write to, to commendÃ¢? (17). This is the source of lyric love poetry, of the sonnet sequence tracing the changing shapes and faces of a lover and his beloved, of creation as the lack of fulfillment. Lyric poetry, then, is a property of a fallen world. The speaker is conscious that he is unable to free himself from its hold anymore than he is able to free himself from the hold of a woman who does not return his love, resulting in the pathos of the last lines of the third stanza:Oh were we wakened by this tyrannyTo ungod this child again, it could not beI should love her, who loves not me. (19-21)But it is impossible to Ã¢ungod this child,Ã¢? to take back his claims and creations. To do this would be to renounce love, something the lover is unwilling to give up: Ã¢Why murmur I, / As though I felt the worst that love could do? Love might make me leave lovingÃ¢? (22-24). The god of love, taking his powers further, could take love away from men. This, the absence of love and its offspring, poetry, is terrifying to Donne, and would would seem to be the ultimate fear, but Donne declares that there is one even worse. The god of love might try Ã¢a deeper plague, to make her love me too, / Which, since she loves before, I am loth to seeÃ¢? (25-26). Love could force Ã¢correspondencyÃ¢? where it is unlegislated and unnatural, taking a half belonging to one man and affixing it to another. Haphazard and untrue love is worse than no love at all; Ã¢falsehood is worse than hateÃ¢? (27).DonneÃ¢s fourth stanza begins peculiarly, Ã¢Rebel and atheist too, why murmur I?Ã¢? (22). The Ã¢young godheadÃ¢? Love grows into a rebel, a modern god claiming more than his just ends. In a strange turn of events, Love also becomes an atheist. By crafting rage and lust, properties only falsely belonging to Love, the god shows that the perfection and completeness of Love as correspondency is not enough for him. He aspires to a different sort of godhead. But is the speaker, like the god of love, both a rebel and an atheist? This is the paradox of the fourth stanza: the speaker is neither rebellious nor atheistic. He is unwilling to Ã¢ungod this childÃ¢? and unwilling to contaminate Love further. The speaker remains true to a god who no longer exists in his original form, a god whose Ã¢office was indulgently to fit / Actives to passivesÃ¢? (11-12).The four stanzas of Ã¢LoveÃ¢s DeityÃ¢? end alternately, as an unrequited lover pulling petals off a daisy: She loves me, she loves me not. Donne writes, Ã¢I must love her, that loves not me;Ã¢? Ã¢Love, till I love her, that loves me;Ã¢? Ã¢I should love her, who loves not me;Ã¢? and finally, Ã¢If she whom I love, should love meÃ¢? (7, 14, 21, 28). Donne ends the poem on the final petal of correspondent love, but it is headed by an if. This is like Aristophanes calling the guests of the banquet to praise love for its potential:If we are to give due praise to the god who can give us this blessing, then, we must praise Love. Love does the best that can be done for the time being: he draws us towards what belongs to us. But for the future, Love promises the greatest hope of all: If we treat the gods with due reverence, he will restore to us our original nature, and by healing us, he will make us blessed and happy. (30)Donne does not argue that man can return to a pre-fallen state. However, he does argue that correspondent love is attainable Ã¢” not, as Aristophanes suggests, by the restoration of manÃ¢s original and joined nature, but as the closest approximation to this idea through romantic love. This union of lovers, forging a world of a room and each other, is the material for DonneÃ¢s lyric poetry. This is why he remains true to loveÃ¢s deity in a fallen world; in the theogony of the god of love Donne also finds a theodicy. The god of love, rebel and atheist, is justified because of the possibility: If she whom I love, should love me.
Jonathan Swift and John Donne: Balancing the Extremes of Renaissance England
The renaissance that spread through Europe, while effectively marking the transformation from medieval traditionalism to modern pragmatism, brought a plethora of new and old ideas into conflict with each other. From the enlightenment born of the Renaissance came new interests in logic, reason, science, individuality, and humanity. These characteristics often clashed with the staid traditionalism of old-world religion and superstition. But this period cannot accurately be characterized as a conflict between science and religion. With the sudden influx of new ideas to complicate life, ideas rooted in seemingly conflicting forms of rationality and religion each had vastly divergent characteristics. The timeless conflict of religion, namely between different branches of Christianity, sparked unspeakable bloodshed and hatred. Similarly, science and reason became buzzwords that were frequently misused by people who indulged in nothing more than their imagination, hoping it would pass for some form of creative logic. In a way, these divergences of thought produced, to the more sensible members of society, a clear polarization of those who pursued truth and those who simply made silly attempts to create it. As a result, humorous stories rife with sarcasm and subtle ridicule became a popular literary device for writers of the time. Their satires attempted to bring a true rationality to a time full of confusion that passed as clarity.Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub satirizes the attempts of the time to apply reason and logic to selecting the one “true” religion. At the time, sects of Christianity such as Catholics, Lutherans, Protestants, and Calvinists came into bitter conflict with each other. Each one claimed that it was the only true path towards salvation. The hostilities between these various Christians inspired a number of people to engage logic and reason to promote the “truth” of their religion. In the section of Tale of a Tub entitled, “digression concerning the original, the use, and improvement of madness in a commonwealth,” Swift attacks the brand of “rationality” used by many people involved in these debates by holding up for ridicule the absurdity of their style of bringing the most mysterious elements of ourselves and our world into focus with imaginative but impossibly simple explanations.John Donne’s Satire III is similarly grounded in the futility of allowing people’s limited capacity for knowledge and understanding to determine the truth behind God. But Donne’s shorter poem gets more directly to the point of Christian fundamentalism. Rather than that go to lengthy satirical explanation of how silly certain rationalists can be, he makes quick, simple work of denouncing the Churches of Europe that he thinks undermine the most basic principals of Christianity. Together, these selections from Donne and Swift complement each other by bringing into focus the relationship between futile arguments concerning the truths of religion and the hopelessly faulty reason and logic that spewed from quack scientists and rationalists.Jonathan Swift’s narrator in his satire, Tale of a Tub represents the arbitrary, non-linear, and excessively imaginative trend of certain “thinkers” that helped shape the wildly conflicting philosophies of the late 17th century. This character tries to weave together the legitimately philosophical views of other characters in The Tale, each representing a conflicting view of Christianity (Abrams, 2312). As a result, this narrator is the target of his satire, and through his numerous digressions throughout the piece, demonstrates the wide disparity between those who grounded their opinions with rationality and evidence and those who used this time of innovative thinking to indulge in uncontrolled ejaculations of thought.In the section titled “A Digression Concerning the Original, the Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth,” the narrator spews forth a profoundly convoluted series of paradoxes. In long winded fashion, the narrator accuses certain profound “thinkers” of his time and times before of conjecturing outlandish opinions and theories that have no basis in reality. He accuses early scientists such as Epicurus of conjuring the idea that the universe is made from the attraction of atoms. As it turns out, he Epicurus was not far off, but the narrator of course, implies that a similar miracle would be necessary to take him seriously (Swift, 2315). And yet, his thoroughly explained reason for this trend smacks of the very same illogic that he seeks to denounce.In an attempt to bring forth a pseudo-scientific explanation for the inconsistencies of modern thought, the narrator describes a kind of vapor that wafts from the “lower faculties” (Swift, 2313) of men, and infects the brain with the disease of irrationality. Although he uses the surprisingly accurate metaphor of the process through which a thunderstorm is formed, his analogy seeks scientific merit where there clearly is none. According to the narrator, Man is, in its natural state, docile and unlikely to produce distinguished though, much like a clear sky. But like moisture in the soil that eventually works its way up to the sky to form rain clouds, vapors ascend from the “lower faculties” of men, forming thunderstorms of thought that have varying results depending on the vapor’s source (Swift 2313).The narrator turns to the example of Henry IV, who inexplicably summoned a frighteningly powerful military presence that stood poised for a battle or conquest that nobody saw the need for. The narrator describes, in true satirical fashion, how a “surgeon”, curious as to the cause of Henry’s actions, drove a spike into his head to prove his hunch that mind-altering vapors would escape, “accidentally” killing him in the process (Swift 2313). Indeed, vapors did escape, and from this clearly contrived story, the narrator professes a wholly improbable theory. According to the narrator, Henry was in pursuit of the princess de Conde, who was relocated by her husband to the Spanish Netherlands. The prince, in desperation, and unable to find “relief” for his stoked sexual urges, falls victim to the dreaded vapors. The narrator speculates that unspent semen, “raised and inflamed” (Swift, 2313) combusted and was converted into a pure from of anger or irritability. They ascended through the body via the spinal “duct,” and poisoned the brain. Naturally, Henry was then driven to delusions of a need to pursue and conquer; and so his vast armies were born.Although this attempt to rationalize a series of obviously coincidental events is a laughable excuse for science, it does represent a perfectly valid, creative, and colorful metaphor. Perhaps Henry’s insecurity after his failed pursuit of the princess Conde drove him to obsess over other forms of conquer. But Swift’s point is clear. By making his narrator’s scientific reasoning so preposterous, he brings into focus the misconception that the world’s peculiar events can be explained away in terms no larger than the scale or scope of men. Swift even allows his narrator to make this very point. “For what man, in the natural state or course of thinking, did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own” (Swift, 2314)? And so the hypocrisy and paradoxes continue.In the same way that Swifts mocks those like his narrator who manufacture truth out of conjecture, Donne’s Satire III questions people’s ability to decide what is and is not religious truth. Donne seems embittered by the closed mindedness of various forms of religion and rationality. To attack their methods, he uses the characters Mirreus, Crantz, Graius, Phrygius, and Graccus to represent Roman Catholics, Calvinists, the Church of England, skeptics, and relativists respectively (Abrams, 1258). He accuses Mirreus of fleeing England for Rome where she can revel in her ancient traditions (Donne, 1258, 43). He implies that Crantz is utterly free of character, passion, love, or anything other than religious allegiances prescribed by the state (Donne, 1259, 48). Phrygius, the skeptic, denounces all religion because of his discontent with only one (Donne, 1259, 62). Meanwhile Graccus, the relativist, is so blinded by his acceptance of all truths, he does not see fit to at least pursue a deeper understanding of truth (Donne, 1259, 65). Each of these characters are stuck in their ways, unwilling, or unable to accept the infinite possibilities of themselves and the world they live in. Worse, they are all self-promoting, insistent upon their way as the only true way. They, namely those representing various religions, seek to impose upon others their version of the truth. But Donne understands that truth is not a universal constant.One of the most fundamental characteristics of the renaissance is the resurgence of humanity as a worthwhile subject of praise rather than scorn. Accepting differences and individuality were taken more seriously than before. Donne makes clear his belief that people should be free to choose for themselves what they believe to be religious truth. This plays on the idea that truth is not easily defined; that people do not have the capacity to discover truth in its entirety. As a result, people must engage in an intimate dialogue with their own hearts, affording themselves the freedom to move towards the religion that most effectively speaks to them. Donne makes this opinion clear saying,Be busy to seek her1 , believe me this,He’s not of non, nore worst, that seeks the best.To stand inquiring right, is not to stray; (Donne, 1259, 74)Donne goes on to use the imagery of a craggy mountain whose summit represents the personal achievement of religious truth (Donne, 1259, 80). The path to the summit is arduous and difficult, having no straight, easy paths; paths that the Catholics, Calvinists, etc. attempt to create.By viewing one of the foremost conflicts of the 17th century with Donne’s Satire III and understanding the Narrator’s character in Swift’s Tale of a Tub, we can begin to understand the method behind the madness that helped create such a quagmire of religious conflict. Donne encourages those who lack conviction to explore the infinite possibilities of spirituality, and decide for themselves, and only themselves, their true path to religious truth. He questions the process by which people arrive at their interpretation of religious truth with such conviction that they feel it their place to impose it upon others. Those who do so have reduced truth to “exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of [there] own” (Swift, 2314), as Swift’s narrator states, while elevating themselves to a level of perceived understanding that rivals God’s. And they arrive at these conclusions through similar processes satirized by Swift’s narrator.Donne implies that Mirreus, Crantz, and Graius give up their quest for truth in favor of an easier path, prescribed by their fathers or imposed by their community. They suffer a similar intellectual weakness to Swift’s narrator, as they choose not to employ their unique power to actively seek truth through knowledge, relying instead on basic impulses, broken logic, and partial ignorance. Even more similar to Swift’s narrator is Graccus, the relativist, who believes every religion represents truth, and that truth is so undefinable, we may simply create out own. Thomas Sloan, author of the article, “The persona as Rhetor: An Interpretation of Donne’s Satyre III,” best describes the folly of the relativists’s ways, saying that if we are “allowed to fashion our own reasons, we give up the search for truth and willingly turn our paths into ‘easy ways'” (Sloan, 109). Just as Swift’s narrator indulges in the fanciful creation of his own truths, so do relativists avoid the complicated, conflicting, and often frustrating task of seeking truth.With these passages Donne draws a fine line between the notion of a universal truth that is accessible to all, and an undefinable truth that differs with each person. Throughout Satire III, Donne touches upon the idea that some people, namely those who fiercely defend their religion and punish those who do not conform, are guilty of the very idolatry for which they persecute others. By believing that they are capable of fashioning an interpretation of proper religious worship in terms no greater than the depth and scope of humanity, they,. . .More choose men’s unjustPower from God claimed, than God himself to trust (Donne, 1260, 109)This final line of the poem represents the culmination of his argument that men should not presume themselves capable of knowing the truth in its entirety. At the same time, however, Donne does not support the idea that people should reduce themselves to a state of shrug-shouldered bewilderment or unchecked fantasy characterized by Swift’s narrator. Only through the honest pursuit of truth, based in reality, can one come to a legitimate conclusion about their religious convictions. Even then, the limitations of humanity can never claim to understand truth to its fullest.And so these authors paint two unique pictures that, by demonstrating the extremes of thought, draw a path of moderation towards the lofty goals for humanity that gathered its initial momentum during the European Renaissance. Many used rationalism, logic, and reason to give cold explanations to extraordinary things, offering a world defined by science. Others reveled in fantastical discharges of “reasoning” compiled completely without proper evidence or consideration. And still others remained steeped in the traditions of old. Yet even the most ardent rationalist failed to define true reasonability. Donne and Swift offer detailed descriptions of either side, and in doing so, imply that the area between represents true rationality. They suggest that a truly reasonable person takes into account the dynamic interplay of humanity, the mysteries of spirituality, and the resources of logic, reason, and knowledge to form a system of beliefs grounded in an honest compilation of understanding without the self-imposed limitations of obstinacy. This kind of balance, although it still struggles to take hold even today, owes much of it’s beginnings to the writers and satirists like Swift and Donne.Works CitedAbrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.Donne, John. “Satire III.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.Rousseau, G. S. “From Swift to Smollett: The Satirical Tradition in Prose Narrative.” The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed. John Richetti. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.Sloan, Thomas O. “The Persona as Rhetor: An Interpretation of Donne’s Satyre III.” Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne’s Poetry. Ed. John R. Roberts. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1975.Swift, Jonathan. “A Tale of a Tub.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Weaving Together Wit: Striking Similarities in “The Canonization” and Sonnet 55
William Shakespeare’s 55th Sonnet and John Donne’s “The Canonization” are both poems that possess the same themes, anxieties, and cultural practices, thus illuminating the two poets’ experiences in early modern Britain. According to Sasha Roberts, “’wit’ in the early modern period denoted ingenuity, intelligence, imagination, and verbal prowess and was arguably the most highly valued in literary faculty—more so than originality or authenticity. Shakespeare’s Sonnets demonstrate wit in abundance, not least in [their] deft use of paradox, conceit (an ingenious comparison often turning on unexpected or contrary states), imagery, and wordplay” (Roberts 179). Through their musings about love and artistic identity, these two poets used paradox, conceit, imagery, and wordplay to create provocative poems that ask profound questions – only to show the ridiculousness of (or lack of) any answer. Sonnet 55 is a famous Shakespearean poem that considers artistic identity, love, and passing time as it seeks answers that only lead to paradoxical conclusions and more questions. The surface narrative of the poem suggests that the speaker simply wants to immortalize his beloved friend in verse, instead of immortalizing himself as a poet (which is common in poems of this nature). Upon closer examination, however, there is more to the poem than this surface narrative. According to the last couplet, which in a sonnet is responsible for concluding a poem, the subject will live on through the lovers who will read the poem for ages to come. The poem claims to preserve the subject’s living memory but does not actually explain what it is about the subject that is worth immortalizing. The imagery in the poem has nothing to do with describing the physicality of its subject. Instead, the images in this sonnet invoke destruction, war, and impending doom. The speaker asserts that even when war is raging, even if Mars, the God of War, shakes his sword, nothing can destroy the memory of the subject. The 14-line poem also explores notions of class and wealth. Shakespeare juxtaposes “gilded monuments of princes” with the “powerful rhyme”, which refers to the poem itself. The speaker posits war, fought by kings, as wasteful, but considers his poem to be a “living record” of memory. Instead of immortalizing the poet or his beloved subject, this sonnet immortalizes poetry above all. There is no mention of the speaker’s part in the creative process; what is important in this poem is the idea of poetry itself. Similar to the way in which the speaker struggles against time and cultural convention to preserve the memory of his beloved friend, the poem itself could be viewed as destructive. Time seeks to besmear the subject of the poem, but because it is written word, it will be preserved better than any man-made monument, so that when future generations are able to read about the subject of the poem, they will keep him alive and well.Upon a close reading of the poem, some word play sheds light on the gender dynamics present in this sonnet. The words “besmeared” and “sluttish” both imply that devouring Time is feminine. While besmeared can mean to sully or dirty, it can also mean to defile or pollute. The double meanings continue with the word “sluttish”, which could could mean messy and untidy, insinuating that Time cannot keep the world a neatly organized place, and also connoting immoral and whorish undertones, that are normally used to describe a fallen woman. Even though the speaker claims to be immortalizing his beloved through his verse, it seems like he is really immortalizing his verse through his verse, because the poem does not give the reader any indication of the subject’s identity. What does live on in this sonnet is the witty and compelling tone of the speaker and the idea that poetry can protect humans from the ever malignant hands of time, even if Shakespeare (ironically) does not really accomplish that for the subject as much as he does for his own craft. “The Canonization” addresses the same issues as Sonnet 55 and also relies heavily on the devices that Roberts uses to denote wit, but Donne makes a few small developments on Shakespeare’s new habit of “infusing [his poetry] with unexpected skepticism and satire, bawdiness, and bitterness” (Roberts 172). The titles of Donne’s poems are often just as important to understanding the poems as the lines of verse themselves. “The Canonization” is not only the title of the poem, but also the overarching conceit that drives the poem forward to its climactic invocation of the lovers as saints and muses of lovers everywhere. Not only are the lovers in the poem literally canonized, or turned into saints of love, but they are canonized in the sense of the word “canon” as a law or decree, a general rule, or a fundamental principle (they are the law of love—the example for how to love the right way). The form of the poem itself is rendered with close attention to the conceit of the canon. The poem consists of 5 stanzas, whose every first and last line end in the word “love.” The uniformity present in the rhyme scheme (ABBACCCDD) and the hymn like repetitions at the beginning and end of each stanza make this poem a canonization in itself because of its list-like quality, dating back to the religious lists or canonizations of saints. Because the lovers have been sainted in love, they are an example and inspiration to God to champion other couples to fall in love. Through the imagery and wordplay in the poem, it is clear that the gender dynamics in “The Canonization” are very different than Sonnet 55 and Donne’s other poetry. The poem begins in a declarative way, with the speaker scolding his adversary for interfering with true love. He offers a handful of other qualities for his companion to comment upon, consisting of ironically repugnant things—his ruined fortune, his five grey hairs (which could allude to the five stanzas in the poem), and his palsy or gout. In the fourth line, Donne begins to differentiate the speaker from his fellow men and the rest of society, a trope that will continue throughout the entire poem. He lists a handful of worthless things that his wealthy friends would be better off doing than worrying about his love, which could allude to Donne’s bitterness about his own lost fortune and fall from social status. In the second stanza, the speaker seems to become rather defensive. He justifies his own relationship to himself and to his adversary, coming to the logical conclusion that even when he and his beloved are madly in love in a rapturous world of their own, the rest of the universe continues to spin and carry on with its daily business. The third and fourth stanzas of the poem are brimming with puns and images that continue to separate the speaker from his society and also begin to include his beloved in that distinction as well. The speaker asks his critic to “call [them] what [he] will” because they are defined by their love, not by the values that exist in normal everyday life. The line, “call her one, me another fly” could allude to some sort of bird or bug, but according to the OED, “fly” could also be understood to mean something insignificant, which meshes well with the rest of the situations in which the speaker uses class to differentiate himself and his lover from the world. However, class is not the only thing that sets them apart, because their love is what makes them so important and worth writing about. Donne depicts the couple as candles, burning themselves into oblivion, and as “the eagle and the dove.” According to Richard Kennedy, this may be an allusion to a long held tradition stating that those two specific birds have such a strong aversion to each other that if their feathers combine, they “consume of themselves.” (Kennedy 13). This line of reasoning illuminates the meaning of the following line about the phoenix. The legend of the phoenix associates the bird with immortality because of its ability to regenerate from its own ashes, connects to the meaning behind the images of the eagle and the dove. Although scholars often paint Donne as a misogynist, this stanza shows him placing women on the exact same footing as men when it comes to love. Both are beings that “die and rise the same, and prove mysterious by this love.” The fourth stanza of “The Canonization” shows the two lovers being cut off from society completely. If they cannot live by love (because they are always being pestered about it or because it is not accepted), they can die by it. But even in death they are set apart from regular humans. Their legend is unfit for a tomb or hearse because, as is indicated throughout the entire poem, the couple enjoys a transcendent and inexplicable connection that most people cannot understand, and which constantly leaves them on the outskirts of society. Even though they will not be fit for tombs or hearses, because they have not subscribed to the material connections with the earth, their love is worthy of verse. The wordplay with the term “chronicle” begs even more meaning out of the fourth stanza. While a chronicle could refer to a detailed register, list of events or a historical record with no literary style, according to the OED it could also be an Elizabethan descriptive title for plays based on historical matter. Since the couple in the poem probably will not have any historical significance in their worldly life, where they don’t belong anyway, they decide to build sonnets in pretty rooms (i.e. a pun on the Italian word for stanza) and create poetry that will suffice to prove their love and its worth. As a result, their love will be preserved throughout time, even though their passion is all consuming and so is Time. The imagery, conceit, and wordplay in this poem support the speaker’s hope that their love will offer them a form of immortality. “The Canonization” offers another commentary on the same issues that Shakespeare grapples with in Sonnet 55. While Shakespeare’s poem focuses mostly on the act of writing as the key to immortalization, Donne complicates matters by introducing the idea that to be immortalized, a couple must be one being split into two. Donne borders on blasphemy by using a religious metaphor to describe passion and intense love, and with more space in which to ponder, he takes the form that Shakespeare foregrounded and refines it to create a multi-faceted piece of poetry that evades understanding while luring the reader in with direct address and clever musings. Shakespeare and Donne both adopted traditional literary tropes but developed them in complex and intuitive ways, infusing their poetry with unparalleled wit in order showcase their unique opinions about love and its function in relation to society, literature, and the inevitable passing of time. Through their satirical word games and puzzling stanzas, both poems show that there is more to be understood than there seems to be upon initial consultation. It is possible that this “wit” is what has made these poems last the times so gracefully, and viewing both poems together through a similar critical lens allows for expanded meaning and understanding that might not have been possible otherwise. Works Cited Kennedy, Richard F. “Donne’s ‘the Canonization’.” Explicator 42.1 (1983): 13-4. Print. Roberts, Sasha. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and English Sonnet Sequences.” Early Modern British Poetry. Eds. Cheney, Hadfield, Sullivan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 172-183. Print.
An Analysis of Donne’s “The Sun Rising”
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.
The Differences Between Donne and Spenser
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 CitedDonne, 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.