The Differences Between Donne and Spenser

May 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

Though his poetry was largely ignored and dismissed during his time, John Donne is known today for being one of the best poets of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He gained this reputation by creating poetry that was different, that made him stand out among his peers. Perhaps the best way to examine those unique characteristics is by analyzing one of Donne’s poems and one by another famous poet during his time, Edmund Spenser. By comparing and contrasting Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and John Donne’s “The Blossom,” the qualities of Donne’s poetry that are new and unique for the time prominently stand out.There are a few characteristics that Donne’s “The Blossom” and Spenser’s Sonnet 75 have in common. For starters, both poems imply the action of speech, with Spenser addressing his lover and Donne addressing a flower and then his heart. They both make use of symbols early on: Spenser uses the ocean as a metaphor for death and Donne uses a flower to represent newly bloomed love. Aside from that, however, Spenser’s and Donne’s poems are different in both form and subject.Sonnet 75 is found within Spenser’s “Amoretti and Epithalamion,” which was released in London in 1595 (Spenser 585). It is difficult, however, to date Donne’s “Songs and Sonnets.” Despite searching our John Donne: Selected Poetry text, class notes, and the Internet, I was unable to find a specific date for “The Blossom.” But because the subject of most of the poems in “Songs and Sonnets” seems to be secular, I believe it is safe to infer that Donne wrote “The Blossom” during his “rake and rogue, man about town” years, sometime before he secretly married Anne More in December of 1601 (Donne xxiv). Because both poems were written during the Petrarchan sonnet craze that was happening in England from the 1590s onward, one would expect them to share a common form and style, but this is not the case. Where Spenser’s poetry follows a slight variation on the English Petrarchan sonnet (three quatrains followed by a couplet), Donne separates himself from the Petrarchan trend by making his poem consist of five stanzas, with each stanza containing one quatrain and two couplets. The rhythm of the two poems varies as well. Spenser writes Sonnet 75 with lines that are roughly the same length, varying between 9 and 11 syllables. Donne’s poem, however, consists of lines of varying length in each stanza: roughly 7, 9, 10, 10, 10, 4, 10, 10 syllables. He continues this same pattern with each stanza in the poem.The subject matter differs greatly between both poems. Sonnet 75 begins first with a metaphorical visit to a beach in which the author demonstrates the futility of man’s attempts to immortalize “a mortall thing” (line 6). The poem, however, is not about a visit to the beach, and after four lines the speaker, is off the strand and addressing a lover who is criticizing him for trying to weather the tide of time and the inevitable fate of being forgotten. The speaker then argues that his lover and their love are greater than other “baser things” (line 9), that his verse will make them both eternal, and that their love is so great that it will renew life after death has conquered the world (lines 13-14). These characteristics are very typical for poetry of this time. The brief description of the speaker’s lover as possessing “vertues rare” (line 11) is a characteristic common in any maiden in Petrarchan sonnets. Likewise, the idea of a poem eternalizing the speakers beloved appears all over the place in late 16th- and early 17th-century poetry (cf. Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 and 19). Spenser also puts forth the idea that their love is a life-renewing kind of love, that it will be observed by all those on earth as the ideal model of love. This thought returns to the old concept of the “Golden World,” or the Mimetic Potency of the Ideal Model, which is another common characteristic of writings at the time. Whereas Spenser sticks with common contemporary themes, Donne’s poem is much more unique.“The Blossom,” instead of beginning with a scene, begins with the speaker talking to a flower. He laments the flower’s fate because he knows that, despite how lively and triumphant the blossom is today, he will find it “fall’n, or not at all” tomorrow (line 8). Donne then transforms the blossom from the first stanza to his heart in the second stanza. Here the act of speech really plays an important role, as the reader gets the sense that the heart and the speaker are two separate beings, and the speaker really does pity the poor heart. Then the unthinkable happens: the heart actually talks back to the speaker. The heart invokes logic to the speaker, arguing that he should “go to your friends, whose love and means present / Various content / To your eyes, ears, tongue, and every part. / If then your body go, what need you a heart?” (lines 21-24).In the next stanza, the speaker concedes to the stubborn heart, but warns it that “A naked thinking heart, that makes no show, / Is to a woman, a kind of ghost” (lines 27-28). He warns the heart that, despite all of its efforts, a woman will never know a heart. In the fourth stanza, the speaker tells his heart to meet him in London, where he will be in a much happier state after having been in the company of his friends. He also predicts that that he will find “another friend, whom we shall find / As glad to have my body, as my mind” to whom he can give his heart (lines 39-40).Having the speaker address an inanimate object is the first unique characteristic of Donne’s poem. In Sonnet 75, the speaker only addresses his lover, but in “The Blossom,” the speaker never actually talks to another human being, though he is speaking the entire time. The symbol of the flower is also an example of the metaphysical aspect of Donne’s poetry that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Whereas the beach scene in Sonnet 75 was a very plain metaphor for mortality, the flower in “The Blossom” goes from being a metaphor for new love to its own complex entity; it is something that is both within and without the man. The ways in which the poems treat their respective mistresses is different as well. Spenser speaks of the woman as the ideal virtuous woman who should be remembered by everyone forever, where Donne talks of the woman as a passing attraction who can be easily replaced. This leads to the next interesting difference between the two poems.It is also important to note the difference in tone. Sonnet 75 keeps a very serious tone throughout the entire poem. Spenser makes no jokes when it comes to mortality and the importance of his verse eternalizing his lover. And though Donne’s poem begins by sounding serious and sad, with language like “poor flower” and “poor heart,” it ends up sounding light-hearted. The speaker goes to London to be amongst friends, becoming “fresher, and more fat” (line 35), culminating with him taking on a careless attitude because he is confident that he can find a nameless other friend to give his heart to, as if doing so really does not mean much to him.It is very easy to see that Donne was doing some new and unique things with his poetry, but it is hard to account for these qualities simply because we do not know enough about him. An examination of his life and personality, however, makes it easy to guess why he wrote in such a unique style. It was discussed in class that Donne prided himself on being an outsider in society, an example of this being that he practiced Catholicism in a hostile Protestant culture. His choices in life also make him out to be the adventurous type: it is believed that he traveled abroad in Italy and Spain before he was twenty years old (Donne xxiii). He also saw combat after he volunteered for military service in 1596, and his secret marriage to Anne More in 1601 attributes rebelliousness to his personality (Donne xxiii-xxiv). I think that it is likely a culmination of all of these things that led Donne to be different from his contemporaries. It would seem as though Donne approached his poetry the same way he approached his life: with a sense of rebellion and adventure.Through the use of metaphysics, an uncommon form and style, and a different take on common themes, John Donne separates his poetry from that of his peers. He manages to make his work stand out in the crowded Petrarchan-dominated culture of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Despite the fact that he was dismissed by critics in his own time, he stands now in his rightful place as a unique and celebrated poet who dared to do something different in his own time.Works 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.

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