Form and Structure of Donne’s Metaphysical Poetry

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Donne’s metaphysical love poem, ‘A Valediction: Of Weeping’, the central notion is that of spheres and cycles. This corroborates with Parfitt’s assertion that ‘in Donne’s lyric world stasis is rare’[1], which is expressed in ‘A Valediction’ through a constant sequence of creation and destruction, and a corresponding tension between reality and representation. The form and structure of the poem is mimetic of these cycles, as well as acting in a meta fictional manner, revealing a self-awareness of the poetic voice of the artificial nature of poetry.

Donne’s use of the spherical motifs of coins, tears, pregnancy and the globe contribute to the conceits used in each stanza. The first metaphor is financial, of tears as coins: ‘Let me pour forth My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here, For thy face coins them, and the stamp they bear, And by this mintage they are something worth’ (‘A Valediction’, 1.1-4) The metaphor introduces the reflection dynamic that is present throughout the poem, with the woman’s face reflected in the narrator’s tears, giving them value. The reflection is not a physical connection and therefore emphasizes both the emotional depth of their connection and the detachment that will occur on the lover’s parting. The harsh plosive <p> and <b> sounds in ‘pour’, ‘before’, ‘bear’, ‘stamp’ and ‘by’ contrast to the softer liquid and sibilant sounds of ‘let’, ‘my’, ‘mintage’ and ‘something’, further contributing to the tension between unification and separation. The transactional nature of the metaphor represents a cycle, due to the ironic separation of the lovers- the narrator is leaving in order to earn money so that they may be together. The paradoxical nature of the poem echoes Donne’s removal of love poetry from the court to a natural setting[2], from public to private, and yet remains universally recognizable. This shows ‘A Valediction’ to be a kind of meta fiction, for the strict rhyme scheme, tripartite structure and iambic meter express poetry as artificial construct and the poem is characteristically dialectic, with ideas, logic and reasoning expressed in the three long stanzas, together comprising a syllogism[3]. This ordered structure contrasts with the emotional and often illogical subject matter of love. Thus, the dramatic situation of the lovers in the poem simultaneously allows identification with human emotion, and thus the reader reads the poem both artificially and in earnest.

The conceit of the second stanza continues this mixture of reality and representation in the image of a globe, a ‘round ball’ (‘A Valediction’, 2.1), contrasting with the actuality of the world we live in. The biblical allusion to Genesis[4] in the final couplet of the stanza, ‘Till thy tears mix’d with mine do overflow/This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolvèd so’ (‘A Valediction’, 2.8-9) again presents the conflict and continuation between the universal and individual experience. The increased line lengths in this stanza (and the other two stanzas) from ‘On a round ball’ (‘A Valediction’, 2.1) to the ninth and final line are mimetic of the cycles presented in the poem, in this stanza from the creation of the ‘workman’ who can ‘quickly make that, which was nothing, all’(‘A Valediction’, 2.2-4) to the ‘globe, yea world, but that impression grow’(‘A Valediction’, 2.7), to the Biblical destruction of the final line, pre-empting the short first line of the next stanza. The Biblical allusion to Noah’s Arc places individual experience at a global level, thus acting in hyperbolic manner. This somewhat aligns with Bell’s argument that ‘most [of Donne’s lyrics] are dramatic, colloquial, conversational; they sound as if they were written to be recited or read aloud by Donne himself, and most likely they were.’[5] Whilst the ‘dramatic’ element is true, I would suggest that the terms ‘colloquial’ and ‘conversational’ are contradictory to this. In their place, ‘individual’ and ‘personal’ as the antithesis to ‘dramatic’ may be better used, as Donne’s poetry is meticulously constructed and in the case of ‘A Valediction’ uses high language, not colloquialisms. The fourth line of this stanza claims to ‘quickly make that, which was nothing, all’ (‘A Valediction’, 2.4), which seems a subtle reference to the process of transubstantiation, once again a religious idea. This Christian theory, of bread and wine turning into the literal body and blood of Christ, is also alluded to in Donne’s ‘The Canonization’, where the narrator ‘[you] […] who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove/into the glasses of your eyes’[6]. In this case, is not just the whole word that contracts, it is the ‘whole world’s soul’. Once again, this adds a dramatic universality to the personal experience of lovers.

The cycle of creation and destruction is a primary concern in ‘A Valediction’. In the first stanza this is explored through the symbols of pregnancy and birth: For thus they be Pregnant of thee; Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more’ (‘A Valediction’, 1.5-7) The rhyme of lines five and six is coupled together only in this stanza, creating a structural ‘fullness’ echoing that of a pregnancy. Pregnancy as a function of creation is explored in this extract, and the minted tears are ‘pregnant of thee’, as well as ‘fruits of grief’ and ‘emblems of more’. This creates a dichotomy between the tears being the literal fruits of grief (of the present), and symbolic ‘emblems’ of future grief at the lovers parting. In both ways, this acts an inversion of the function of pregnancy, creating a loss rather than a gain, contributing to the idea of creation and destruction. ‘Fruits of much grief’ alludes to the Biblical fruit from the tree of knowledge, causing the ‘grief’ of the Fall of man[7], thus once again Donne universalises the individual experience of the lovers. Biblical symbolism also occurs in the final stanza, in an inversion of the idea of the breath of life: ‘Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,/Whoe’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death’. The Biblical idea of breath as life giving creates a paradox here as each breath ‘hastes the other’s death’, and so Donne completes the cycle of life and death, creation and destruction in the final metaphor of the poem.[8] Again, there is a tension between the metaphorical and the literal, and the metaphor can be read to mean that the physical expressions of grief cause emotional harm. The image of the lover’s as one is similar to that presented in ‘The Canonization’: ‘Call us what you will, we are made such by love; Call her one, me another fly, We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die, And we in us find the eagle and the dove.’ (‘The Canonization’, 3.1-4) The lovers here are shown to be flies, killed by candle flame, candles that taper out, and eagles and doves, predator and prey. This shows a continuation of the theme of union as destructive found in ‘A Valediction’, and I would argue that fundamentally Donne is presenting love as the ultimate cycle of creation and destruction.

‘A Valediction’ therefore focuses on the meaning and consequences of love both to the individual and society. The non-traditional form of the poem resonates with Parfitt’s view that ‘the sequences (of Elizabethan lyric) are based upon the notion of fidelity and the belief that love is a difficult but worthwhile activity. Donne calls such views into question’.[9] Thus when Donne explores the reality of human experiences of love, rather than inauthentic Elizabethan lyrical love, he is interrogating the function of poetry itself. Therefore, the tensions set up in ‘A Valediction’ that primarily explore love, oppositions between fruits and emblems, reality and representation, the literal and the metaphorical, link to the bigger conflict between the dramatic and the sincere expression of both emotion and poetry.


Primary Sources

Carroll & Prickett, ed., The Bible AKJV with Apocrypha, (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Donne, The Complete English Poems, (London, England: Penguin Books, 1986)

Secondary Sources

Cuddon, J.A., A Dictionary of Literary Terms, (London, England: Penguin Books, 1982).

Guibbory, Achsah, ed., The Cambridge companion to John Donne [electronic resource]. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Parfitt, George, English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, (Essex, England: Longman Group Limited, 1985)

Grierson, Herbert, The Poems of John Donne: Volume II, (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1966)

[1]George Parfitt, English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, (Essex, England: Longman Group Limited, 1985), p.22

[2] ‘The impatience with standard(s) […] disrupts the closed courtly world of leisure and wealth, and thus Donne opens that world up, expands the context of poetic love’, ibid, p.22

[3] Greek formation of argument, comprising of a major premise, a minor premise and thus logical progression to a conclusion. J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, (London, England: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 670

[4] Genesis 7:10-11- 10 And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

[5] Ilona Bell, ‘Gender matters: the women in Donne’s poems’ in Guibbory, Achsah, ed., The Cambridge companion to John Donne [electronic resource]. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 202.

[6] Donne ‘The Canonization’ 5.3-4 in Donne, The Complete English Poems, (London, England: Penguin Books, 1986), pp.47-8.

[7] Genesis 3.3 3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. Also see Genesis 3.16-17.

[8] Genesis 2:7, ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’

[9] English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, p. 21

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