It is evident from John Donne
and his poetry that the composer “transmits his sexuality into spirituality
,” (Dean of St Pauls
). These images of sexuality and religion are “transmitted” through the texts by utilization of several poetic techniques
as well as specific language use and meticulous structure.
Alan Dilnot of Monash University describes the title of “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” as a reference to the “regret felt by one lover when the other departs.” It was believed in the 17th Century that a quiet death was the sign of a virtuous life. The Argument that the speaker strives to shroud the reader in with the persuasive tone of
”so let us melt, and make no noise,” is that a quiet departure of lovers indicates a profound and certain devotion. This is the theme within “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and the issues concurrent with the theme are represented thus.
The Stanzas’ overall structure is Ballad like, this helps to create the gently, slowly moving feel of the poem. The rhyme scheme is consistent and predictable all the way through as well, which gives the feeling of assurance to the reader. This feeling of assurance is appropriate in context with the poem, because of the theme of love and its perfection. This contrasts the structure of the “The Apparition” for example; where raw emotion combined with a structure of irregular stanza arrangement convey the image of anger and disarray.
Moving of the'earth brings harmes and fears
Men reckon what it did and meant
But trepidation of the spheares,
Though greater farre, is innocent.
Donne uncharacteristically begins with a placid simile, “As virtuous men passe mildly’away.” There is no need for an exaggerated display of the speaker’s mind, for criticism of others is not present or required. This simile gives the image of a genuine man who leaves the world in peace, fearless in death. The calm tone and emotive verbs of “whisper” and “breath” leave the reader with a serene impression of the speaker’s theme, and woos the viewer into parallel thought in conjunction with the theme of profound and certain devotion.
Persuading the Speaker’s beloved to silence herself and “make no noise” the Speaker’s tone then changes to that of a debater. The Speaker defines their love in terms of what it is not. This was a standard practice in Donne’s age, for it originated from the Socratic method of inquiry, simply put: questioning what something is not until what it is reveals itself. Their love is not expressed by “tears-floods” or “sigh-tempests.” The language used by the speaker describing what their love is not, is a direct reference to 14th Century Petrarchian Love Poetry. The Speaker would view their beloved from afar as well as the passion between these elopers profoundly influencing the weather, producing storms and tempest. However as Thomas Carew thought, Donne threw away “the lazie seeds of servile imitation,” after admiring his beloved by reversing the Petrarchian idea that separation of lovers is like death.
The statement in the 2nd Stanza, that these forces were the “prophanation of our joyes” extends these violent images combined with deliberate tone. The Language of Religion is then employed to emphasize the superiority of the Speaker’s lover. That it would be disrespectful to inform “the layetie of our love.” The usage of such religious connotation elevates the Speaker’s love to that of a holy and sacred one.
In the third Stanza by using a traditionally Elizabethan Idea that a virtuous man’s soul will steer its course towards heaven the Speaker’s reassurance to his beloved is expanded upon. Despite “trepidation of the spheres,” that could misdirect a tainted soul, the speaker’s soul is pure and therefore his soul shall be left to travel its natural course to God.
A contrast now occurs between the two lovers and every other couples within the “layetie.” This is that the Speaker’s love is astronomical, it its literal sense. Other lovers of the “dull sublunary” description love primarily with sensuality because their “soule is sense.” Therefore the speaker does not rely upon his beloved’s physical presence as “sublunary” lovers do because this material dependence is “elemented in it.” It being their soul.
The speaker then proclaims with adamant tone that their “refin’d” love is so spectacular not even they understand “what it is.” However “inter-assured of the mind” these two lovers are in trust so their parting is less painful. The catalogue of “eyes, lips and hands” emphasises the difference between the speaker’s superior love and “sublunary” love. The former is focused upon physicality. Spiritual lovers however have a whole sense of themselves, which transcends physicality. Hence their misunderstanding of “what it is.”
The 6th Stanza explains through Conceit how the lovers are joined like gold to a thinness over a distance but with its strength still unbroken; “Though I must goe, endure not yet/A breach but an expansion, /Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.” One further refinement gold becomes almost invisible, passing from the physical world to the spiritual. Because of this powerful imagery formed within the viewer’s mind by the Conceit the point made by the Speaker that because the love they share is pure, like gold, their two souls forming one perfect unity.
The next theme, that of unity is also expressed in a Conceit. The pair of compasses and the posture of the legs reflect both the spiritual unity of the lovers as well as their duality in independence in their physical separation. Even though one “in the center sit,” whilst the “other far doth rome” one “leanes and hearkens after” the other returns home. The image of the circle, which closes the conceit and poem represents perfect unity. This is the final theme of the poem, which is physically represented by the last conceit within the viewer’s mind.
It is very significant that the viewer recognise that the speaker is not simply speaking to or of a silent lover. As the different functions of the pair of compasses are described, the viewer realises Donne was celebrating his love with his Wife, that is reciprocal with equal but different functions. Therefore within the images created by Donne, with the use of conceit, simile, tone, regular rhythm, predictable rhyming and other language features, the image of perfect love as a circle is conveyed to the viewer.
The 18th Century critic Samuel Johnson found that Donne used a “combination of dissimilar images…in things apparently alike.” This suggests Johnson was referring to the employment of a paradox.
In the 2nd of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, “Oh my blacke Soule!” a powerful ending is displayed and emphasised with the use of a paradox. The speaker states “Christs blood…that being red...dyes” our “red soules to white.” An image of Christ on the cross, whose blood is evidently red but it is enough to make us and our souls, red with sin pure in the eyes of God. This is conveyed to the viewer because of the use of this magnificent poetic instrument.
Also in the conclusion of another poem Donne utilizes the power of a paradox, this is in “Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse.” The argument most famously developed my John Milton in Paradise Lost is paradoxically explored within Donne’s sermon like poem. Both Composers argue that God, in order to make us appreciate his goodness more fully, allowed us to fall into sin. Had we not experienced the horror of sin, which is separation from God, we would not as keenly appreciate the blessing of being redeemed of sin by Christ.
Almost like an answer to Donne’s “Hymne to God the Father,” where the speaker asks “Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne?” Donne answers for God in “Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse,” with the solution in inversion of “the Lord throws me down/Therefore that he may arise me.” This religious imagery of a sinner being thrown down by God in order to be raised up again is set within the viewers mind because it is the last thing that they are to read. In this circumstance Donne uses paradox to represent his theme.
In the 3rd Holy Sonnet by Donne, “This is my playes last scene,” the speaker employs the use of two paradoxes to convey their point to the viewer. The speaker’s life is described as a race that has been “idly but quickly run.” How can something be idle yet quickly running? The speaker intends to explain how as an individual they have been “idle” during their “race” even though time has “quickly run.” This imagery of a helpless and desperate soul by the use of paradox is formed within the viewer’s mind.
The more prominent paradox begins towards the end of the sestet. The argument by the speaker in “fall my sinnes…and would presse me, to hell. Impute my righteous, thus purg’d of evil,” Is the same paradox within the 6th line of the sestet within “Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse.” To be redeemed and arise we must first be sinful and be dragged by our sins to hell. The issue here within Donne’s Sonnet is repentance and the realisation of his sins and how he wishes to be redeemed before god prior to his death. This is clearly “transmitted” (as the Dean of St Pauls said) to the viewer because of the employment of paradox and religious imagery.
A characteristically typical Metaphysical Poet according to the 17th Century critic John Dryden would “perplex the minds of the fairer sex with nice speculations of philosophy.” This act of perplexing would usually involve the poets expressing themselves in elaborate intellectualised images or what critics often called "conceits."
Within “The Sunne Rising” Donne uses hyperbole within a coneit hit idea. In the final Stanza the speaker in a dominant tone informs the sun “This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.” The hyperbolic statement that the Speaker’s room be the entire world (sphere) informs the reader in an “elaborate” and “intellectualised” image of the Speaker’s intent. This being the supremacy of love and the authority the speaker assumes they have because of their supreme love.
“The Flea” is assumed to be one of Donne’s earlier poems because of the lack of morality and virtue. Instead it satirizes the act of being bitten by a flea by once again using hyperbolic conceits, however this poem introduces religious imagery into the conceit for added emphasis. The speaker observes the flea that has bitten both him and his beloved. Previously he has attempted to seduce his mistress, but she has denied him consent. The speaker argues how “little that which thou deny’st me is;” because in that theocentric age the flea has “mingled” (as the verb Donne uses) both of their bloods, the flea has succeeded in what his beloved dare not. This first conceit emphasizes the speaker’s argument on “how little” his request was in view with the act committed by the flea.
The Speaker continues to argue through conceit that since they are “three lives in one flea spare” because their blood is shared with the flea, they are basically married. This relates to the legal recognition of a man and wife being una caro or one flesh, thus one blood.
The Speaker’s uninformed beloved then logically attempts to kill the flea. The speaker pleads, “Let not do this” for it is sacrilege, “three sinnes in killing three.” This conceit also involves religious imagery to convey the speaker’s idea to the viewer.
Because of the use of several conceits within “the Flea” it is evident to the reader, the intent of the composer. This is to seduce their beloved and influence them to think that through the religious imagery and conceits, which an absurd authority is amassed within the speaker’s tone, God supports his requested act.
It is characteristic of Donne to open with violent language and aggressive tone. His earlier poems express this strongly, as in “The Sunne Rising,” “Busie old foole, unruly Sunne.” This tone and language conveys the sentiment of the speaker, that he envisages himself above the sun and thus everything below the sun.
Donne’s later Religious Sonnets also begin or exhibit further within the sonnet these violent openings. Such an example of “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” exemplifies the urgency of the speaker to be not “knocked” or “shined” but to be “broken,” “blown” and “burnt.” This strong opening along with alliteration on the plosive “b” expresses the speaker’s intent in desperation because they need to be “made…new” and have their “betrothal” to “your enemie/broke…again.”
To evaluate the effectiveness of Donne’s representation, contemporary and past contexts must be applied to the issues discussed within the poetry of Donne. John Dryden argues that Donne confuses people when instead he should “engage their hearts.” I believe if someone were to ingeniously make characteristics of mine into a conceit such as, “all States and all Princes,” or perhaps that my eyes are so bright that my “eyes have blinded” the sun’s, then the intent of a true love poet would be fulfilled. Love poetry Petrarchian or Metaphysical was primarily intended for one receiver, that receiver being the poet’s love.
If we, as unintended readers of Donne’s poetry do not understand how two souls “are two so, As stiffe twin compasses are two,” why should Dryden be so critical? It is this confusion and brilliance that defines Donne as a metaphysical poet, and this what people must compromise and understand. Thomas Carew expresses that Donne threw away the “lazie seeds of servile imitation” to make a new type of love poetry, not a conventional and understandable style that everyone would appreciate.
Although, I must agree with Dryden, finding Donne’s poetry “perplexing.” Because of the strength and thick language Donne uses as well as indicating his intent through poetic techniques and structural variety I find Donne’s representation extremely enthralling but certainly hard to understand in the way that you feel a certain sense of achievement after reading and understanding what Donne has written. It is such a concentration of passion and morality that Donne woos his readers with, which influences me so.
In concluding, I find reading Donne’s poetry a tremendous privilege because of the opportunity I have, but that intricate conceits and often unintelligible terms leave many gaps within my understanding. Thus Donne’s representation to me is not as effective as some contemporary poets, but still very engaging and utterly magnificent once an understanding has been established.