Concepts of Faith and Love in Donne’s Works
The metaphysical poets of the Renaissance sought to explore universal concepts of religion and and love against the backdrop of great social and religious change. The movement’s foremost contributor was arguably John Donne, whose poetry was innovative for its elaborate use of conceit in the representation and discussion of these enduring themes. Born Catholic into a time with strong anti-Catholic sentiments, Donne later renounced his faith and became an Anglican priest. This deeply personal relationship with spirituality enhanced his poetic exploration of desire. The profound effect of religion on his poetry is evident in Donne’s heavy use of religious imagery as a vehicle for expressing romantic love. To both reflect and challenge his era’s changing societal values in The Canonization and A Valediction: forbidding mourning, Donne employs techniques favored by metaphysical poets, including paradox, rhetorical language and conceit.
Paradox was a regular tool of metaphysical poets in forcing audiences to re-examine pre-conceived ideas concerning love. Conventional love poetry of the era emphasized the elevation and objectification of woman, an Elizabethan belief which Donne sought to confront. However, Donne employs paradox to promote intellectual and sexual equality in relationships, challenging social values that favored courtly love. In The Canonization, the poet creates an extended paradox in which two lovers are united as one. Donne uses mythological allusion to “the phoenix” to introduce this paradox. The bird is symbolic of rebirth, becoming a metaphor for two lovers combining as one. Repetitive use of the first person plural pronoun “we” throughout the fourth stanza suggests inclusivity between the lovers. This paradox is explicitly raised when he states “we two, being one”, causing Renaissance readers to reconsider the objectification of the female subject. Despite this extended paradox, Donne does succumb to societal views in his assignment of gender roles in relationships, as he divides the lovers into “th’eagle and the dove”. The “eagle” is a symbol of strength, typically associated with masculinity, while the “dove” connotes feminine peace. Therefore Donne’s use of paradox both confirms and subverts the inequality in relationships in Renaissance culture.
Rhetorical language is typical in metaphysical poetry, underscoring the rational progression of logic which characterized the movement’s discussion of abstract concepts of love and religion. The Renaissance poets followed the Petrarchan style, emphasizing beauty as being the primary virtue of a woman. Donne’s use of rhetoric however encouraged readers to look beyond a purely physical connection between man and woman. In A Valediction: forbidding mourning, the previous paradox is repeated when Donne surmises that the “two souls therefore…are one”. Rhetorical language, such as “therefore”, allows readers to follow the logical progression of his argument. In stating that “dull sublunary lovers…cannot admit absence”, high modal language in combination with assonance reinforces his argumentative tone, working to devalue the Renaissance preference for physical love. The poet uses synecdoche to highlight that the lovers “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss”, demonstrating that they connect beyond a purely physical level. Furthermore, to challenge the Elizabethan preference for overt displays of passion in literature, Donne parodies Petrarchan conventions in asking his lover to “make…no tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests”. By using rhetorical language to heighten the importance of emotional and intellectual connection in relationships, Donne defies the conventions of Renaissance love poetry. Donne’s discussion of desire is enabled and enhanced by his complex relationship with spirituality. Born into a Catholic family during a period of Catholic persecution, Donne later renounced his faith, converting to Anglicanism. During his time of writing, Elizabethan England was fraught with religious tension between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Consequently, it is significant that Donne builds a conceit based largely on Catholic protocols in The Canonization, in opposition to the Protestant government of the time. The canonization process becomes an important framework by which Donne structures his conceit. The poem opens ironically with blasphemy in “for God’s sake”, an example of the arresting openings typical of metaphysical poetry. The persona proves his personal sanctity with a series of rhetorical questions asking, “who’s injured by my love”. Donne further develops the conceit by asserting that “all shall approve us canonized for love”. This religious lexicon pervades the poem, with additional mention of “hymns” and “hermitage”. Donne’s religious conceit climaxes with the use of direct speech in the fifth stanza to reflect the final stage of canonization: veneration of the saint. Donne employs asyndeton to state that “countries, towns, courts beg from above a pattern of your love” to further elevate the lovers to divine, saintly status. The comparison of romantic love to Catholic practices in The Canonization thus rebels against the dominant Protestant leanings of Elizabethan England.
While conceit is used in the former to rail against the Protestant values of his 16th century context, A Valediction: forbidding mourning exemplifies and endorses Elizabethan society’s reliance on religion. Donne utilizes the conceit of sacred love to represent the epitome of romantic love. Elizabethan society valued religious piety, as supported by Donne’s promotion of this virtue in A Valediction, wherein he creates a conceit likening parting lovers to dying religious men. Using a euphemism to describe “virtuous men (passing) mildly away”, Donne expresses his admiration for pious men, in alignment with Elizabethan culture. The diction of “prophanation” implies the desecration of a religious object, comparing the couple’s love to divine love. In including the paradox that “two souls therefore…are one”, Donne echoes the Christian belief that souls continue into the afterlife. The persona suggests that the couple “prove mysterious by this love”, reflecting prevailing religious belief regarding the inexplicability of God’s actions. Through the use of conceit, Donne suggests that romantic love should aspire to divine love, thereby endorsing the Elizabethan virtue of piety.
The metaphysical movement in poetry sought to comprehend the abstract nature of love and religion with logic and reason. Throughout The Canonization and A Valediction: forbidding mourning, John Donne exploits paradox, rhetorical language and conceit to both challenge and champion Renaissance conventions. These characteristics of metaphysical poetry prove successful in critiquing the literary and social traditions of Elizabethan England. Perhaps in combining humanity’s most powerful motivators, love and religion, in his exploration of Renaissance values, Donne has secured the timeless appeal of metaphysical poetry.
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