Node your homework
!...or don’t. Pardon the stuffy, formal style, but I had to write this for English. Also, I had been reading a lot of literary criticism at the time, so my style tended to mimic theirs. Curse you C.S. Lewis
It would probably helpful to open the poems up as I read them in a new window, so you can read as I criticize.
Amongst literary circles, there are certain authors and poets whose mere name summons up an abundance of feeling and ideas, both conscious and nonconscious. All later writers are compared to the great writers and poets the moment they write something that smacks of an older style – any poet who attempts to write something heavily intellectual or witty, for example, will find himself being compared to John Donne. Amongst the witty poets, John Donne is perhaps the most well known; this wit and other poetical devices such as the conceit that he and others in his day and age used prompted John Dryden to term Donne and his contemporaries the “metaphysical poets” – Ben Johnson was the second to use the term, and the name has stuck – metaphysical meaning highly abstract and abstruse.
Donne’s work is striking because Donne wrote many poems about love, yet chose to suffuse nearly all of these love poems with a cynicism and skepticism very uncommon for a love poet. A true appreciation of Donne requires an understanding of why he used such a contrast of emotions in his work, and the reason is twofold: in his different views of love, Donne shows the different aspects of love; in his juxtaposition of these views he shows the paradoxes inherent in love which inspires both sentimentality and cynicism.
Juxtaposition is a very powerful idea; Donne utilized juxtaposition effectively in many of his poems, but even more effective is the juxtaposition between certain poems of his - his skeptical attitude towards love pervades almost all of his poems, but so does his sentimental side. A reader can find skeptical poems – such as The Indifferent – sentimental poems – such as Sweetest Love, I do not go – and poems where the author employs both effectively – such as A Lecture Upon the Shadow.
The contrast is useful not only because emotions impress us more in an intellectual and cynical man, but also because these emotions are more visible. We would perhaps miss the power of the paradoxes of love without his sharp contrasts; the human body is easily desensitized to prolonged stimuli and has been programmed to see only change - another neon sign in L.A. wouldn’t even be visible to a native, yet the same flashing cocktail sign would be shocking in a small rural town. Like a glass of water taken between meals, Donne’s cynicism makes his sentimentality more sharp to the taste, and visa versa. Witness the pungent though lighthearted shock of The Indifferent.
Donne describes in The Indifferent a love which inspires cynicism. This love has betrayed him, so he attacks back with a spiteful poem which attacks the base upon which love stands: constancy. He aims to destroy love itself by writing a poem about a world in which Venus herself despises fidelity.
The Indifferent has a very humorous tone; this is clear both from the rhythm of the poem and the heights of ridiculous he goes to in his attack on constancy. He sets the reader up for a humorous poem in the second stanza, where he describes an obese woman as “her whom abundance melts.”
This lightheartedness of The Indifferent might cause one to believe that Donne wrote the poem merely in jest, but that would be a mistake; there is a whole genre of books called satire which make their points through humor – it is very likely the author uses humor as a coping mechanism to allow himself to express his feelings while not causing himself to be exposed to the full power of his pain. This poem tells the story of a man who has become skeptical about constancy – and love in general – through repeated dealings with false people; perhaps this man is even John Donne himself. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous outpouring of emotion”; how could John Donne write about something he had never experienced? Donne has written volumes of poetry on the subject of fidelity – Women’s Constancy, Break of Day, Love’s Usury; The Broken Heart perhaps describes on of these betrayals.
Donne’s speech throughout the poem is very ironical, and this is where most of the humor of the piece comes from. In the last line of the first stanza, he states: “I can love any, so she be not true” - the absurdity of this line needs no explaining. In the next stanza he calls constancy a “vice”, and declares: “Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go. Must I, who came to travail thorough you, Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?” The author made some interesting choices in the words “rob” and “travail.” It is a great joke that he paints himself as a glutton for punishment who sees love as a chore; a necessary pain.
Later, his tone becomes so absurd as to be almost heretical. “She (Venus) heard not this till now; and that it should be so no more…some two or three Poor heretics in love there be.” Constancy is such a ridiculous idea that Venus hadn’t even heard of it till now; it sounds like moral outrage, one can imagine Venus’s shocked face. The choice of the word “heretics” is likewise ironical - constancy is a religious virtue, to call one who is true a heretic is an absurd reversal.
Tone wise, The Indifferent is multi layered. Beneath the humor, beneath the cynicism and skepticism, there is a touch of tragedy. The last line of the poem: “Since you will be true, you shall be true to them who are false to you” – a very sad note to end a humorous poem on. The “you” in this line is the speaker of the poem, perhaps even Donne himself – he has stated in Love’s Deity, “I must love her that loves not me.” There is also a touch of tragedy in the line: “Or doth a fear, that men are true, torment you? Oh we are not, be you not so” The speaker ultimately decides he can not expect constancy in a woman because he is not true himself; one might even say he blames himself for being betrayed. We see this thought again in Woman’s Constancy: “Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes (excuses for not being true) I could Dispute, and conquer, if I would, Which I abstain to do, For by tomorrow, I may think so too.”
In John Donne’s poem Sweetest Love, I do not go, the tone swings in the other direction. The tone is far more serious in this poem, the last four lines, “But think that we Are but turned aside to sleep; They who one another keep Alive, ne’er parted be” could be called mawkish. There is no trace of the skepticism seen in The Indifferent - we are presented with the first paradox of love, which inspires skepticism in The Indifferent, but now causes the author to form a love so powerful the distance he must now travel away from his love almost splits him in two when he considers the grief his absence will cause her.
The ideas expressed in this poem are much more like a traditional love poem, barring the fact that there is practically no imagery – such was Donne’s way. The first line seems almost to contradict statements made by him in more skeptical poems, for he proclaims boldly, “Sweetest Love, I do not go for weariness of thee, Nor in hope the world can show A fitter love for me”, as compared to the more cautious, “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I Love so alike that none do slacken” in The Good-Morrow. Next in line five he states “But since that I Must die at last, ‘tis best to use myself in jest, and Thus by feigned deaths to die.” He does not “travail” but rather this love is an addiction that he can’t quit cold turkey; he has to see less and less of his loved one in order to endure the final separation. In the second stanza he states that he is more faithful than the sun; his hyperbole betrays a great wealth of feeling; since the sun is our measurement of time, he is saying he is more faithful than time itself – time being the only thing men can be sure of (ie: “Death and Taxes”).
The fourth stanza is a really interesting point of comparison. “It cannot be that thou lov’st me, as thou say’st, If in thine my life thou waste”, he states, which sounds a bit more like the actions of a “Usurious God of Love”; here is indeed a man who could state that he has grown “your fixed subject, because you are true.” Once again the author presents us with a situation where Love is a commanding master. Yet the next line states, “Thou art the best of me.” So rather he enjoys this painful, commanding love. This is the paradox of love: it can give pain that drives one man a way while draws another closer; in this case it is the same man. In fact, if we did not commonly associate love with good things, this poem would make love sound like quite a painful thing.
This theme continues on in the last passage, where he states his addiction to love is so complete that even after the person is dead, he will continue to love them in his memory. Even death can not break this addiction. Describing his pain actually seems to be a more effective means of explaining his love rather than describing his pleasures; for the reader can do naught but infer that the pleasures of this love must be enormous to compensate for these pains.
The skepticism of The Indifferent returns with Love's Deity. In this poem he states why he is so angry with love as opposed to the ambiguity of The Indifferent: the one he admires has rejected him. She has frustrated his love and his desires, so here we see how love can inspire hate.
Upon first reading the title of this poem a reader can know that this is going to be a sacrilegious poem. For if this poem is going to state why love should have the rank of godhood, it means he or someone else has been questioning it. The only other alternative is to question its rank, which he soon does; the reader is at least allowed to brace himself for more of Donne’s skepticism.
The tone of Love’s Deity is very similar to that of The Indifferent: witty and filled with a humorous venom, yet tragic. In the rhythm alone, which is light and catchy, the reader can feel a witty mockery. There are also a few key lines in the poem that clue the reader into this, such as “Sure, they which made him god meant not so much” (line 9) which is a departure from the formal sound of the rest of the poem. The “sure” thrown in there gives the line, in the words of Joan Bennet, a “bored, flippant tone.” Lines 23 and 24 are full of spite and sarcasm, “Rebel and atheist too, why murmur I, As though I felt the worst that love could do?” He obviously has no respect for the god of love, as one can see from his calling love a petulant child in line 21 to a call to others to “ungod” love in line 23; calling himself a “Rebel” and an “Atheist” is pure sarcasm.
There are a few differences between the tone of Love’s Deity and The Indifferent, however. Love’s Deity expresses a hate of uncommon occurrence. A lover who does not reciprocate his love is said to “hate” and “scorn” him in this poem. He personifies custom, which he calls a vice-nature, just so he can hate that too for causing his current plight. Yet Love’s Deity also contains a hope that is not seen in The Indifferent. It is important to notice that Donne does not blame love for his current situation, he blames the god of love. In the first stanza, before the god of love existed, love was perfect; an old lover’s ghost would not sink “so low as to love one which did scorn” (line 4); in the second stanza he states that even the god of love was originally benevolent. In the last stanza Donne calls the god of love “love” to accentuate the fact that he has separated the two in his mind; notice he calls both love and the god of love “love” while treating them very differently in the same line “Love might make me leave loving” – which says Donne also finds things that are good in loving. - that’s a mouthful . It is important to note that he was Catholic, so he most likely did not believe in pagan gods such as Cupid. Rather he consciously personifies this particular love which frustrates him as Cupid so he can continue loving love; adopts an entire belief system just to keep believing in love. Donne does not even approach the god of love’s tyranny as an insoluble problem that has always existed, but as a situation which was good but has become corrupt.
Yet for all the hope in this poem, it is still a skeptical poem. Notice how he states, “I must love her that loves not me”, which is his “destiny.” The only solution he proposes as probable is actually worse – the god of love could inflict a “deeper plague” and force the one who loves another to love the speaker, yet that would be “falsehood” which “is worse than hate”, for the person whom the speaker loves already loves another. Donne’s idealism still exists in this poem, but it is being crushed by the weight of his skepticism.
John Donne’s poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is about a love that rather than being frustrated as it is in Love’s Deity is reciprocated in such a wonderful and abundant way that Donne writes a poem to soothe his lover for his approaching departure – Izaak Walton has stated that Donne wrote this poem for his wife before a trip to France. Donne wrote this poem to convince his wife not to mourn his leaving because he couldn’t bear to see or imagine her in pain – which he does not state, but rather gives two other reasons why she should not mourn him: others will see her and profane their love, and their love is so strong a bond that he can never really leave her. This poem truly expresses the highest pinnacle of relations, and provides a very interesting comparison to , Love’s Deity, and , The Indifferent; what great paradoxes there are in an emotion – love – that inspired all three of these poems!
In stanzas one, two, and three he talks about their love as something heavenly and holy which would be blasphemous to show to others by crying and grieving. He shows evidence of how this can occur in stanza one, where he gives the anecdote of the dying of virtuous men, whose friends argue over whether the men have died or not. He follows by stating “No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move”, and states that earthquakes (Clements 29) are noticed by men, yet moving of the heavens is a far greater “trepidation” yet goes unnoticed. It is important to note that floods, tempests, and earthquakes are natural disasters, of the earth and profane. For her to let her love pour out onto the earth in one of these natural disaster would profane their love which is more like the heavens, moving yet making no sound. He furthers the religious tone with the lines “’Twere profanations of our joys to tell the laity of our love.” Essentially, they are the clergy of love who rather than keeping the holy secrets of God to themselves safeguard the sacred joys of their love - this comparison of two lovers shunning the world for each other to saints shunning the world for God to find the greater joy is explored further by Donne in The Canonization.
The spirituality of Donne’s and his wife’s love is also the reason they are never really separate. Their love is not “Dull sublunary lovers’ love” – sublunary meaning earthly and thus subject not only to change but profanation - made entirely of physicality, so the distance of their physical bodies means nothing. Their love is that of their two souls conjoined, which expands as gold when pounded thin rather than breaking as physical bodies do – a common theme of Donne’s is that for love reach its full proportions it must transcend the body and exist on a purely spiritual level; this theme is further explored in Air and Angels, where he compares his lover to a non corporeal angel.
The two lovers are one, and can never be separate, and if they are two they are like the two parts of a compass – this is perhaps Donne’s most famous comparison: “If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two…” This metaphor is important, for it gives a visual for several important facets of their love. First, the two souls never really separate, for as the drawing part of the compass – which is symbolically Donne’s soul – moves, the anchoring part - symbolically her soul – complements those movements by leaning so that the two parts never separate: “And
though it in the center sit (the anchor), Yet when the other far doth roam, It leans, and hearkens after it.” Also in another light, she as the anchor gives his movements and thus his life meaning - “Thy firmness makes my circle just” – since without an anchor a compass would merely be a pencil; the two pieces work in synchrony as one to do what one part alone could not do, as anyone who has ever tried to draw a perfect circle by hand can attest to. Because a compass is made of a pencil, this also suggests that she helps him write his poetry; perhaps by being an anchor that keeps him in reality or from drifting into the pits of despair which his poetry can fall into when love frustrates him. Finally, he states that she “makes me end where I begun”, suggesting that her connection to him will always eventually bring him home - notice also that because of their spiritual connection to each other in the compass metaphor, they draw a circle, a figure both “endless and perfect” (Sparke), a figure that stands for a love only a spiritual connection could make. It is also important to notice a circle is yet another symbol of perfect unity and this metaphor makes that reason obvious – the line is joined to itself again as the circle is drawn.
To look at this poem as merely Donne’s attempt to sooth his wife’s grief at him leaving for a journey, however, is to miss the greater message of the poem: to sooth her when he eventually dies; note that the poem starts off with a description of a funeral, and the title contains the word “mourning.” The virtuous man passing mildly away in the first stanza could easily be Donne; perhaps he is preparing her for the profanations she will experience at this funeral and warning her not to take part in them - also “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” would hardly be appropriate for a simple journey. In this light certain lines in the poem take on new meaning altogether. If he died, their connection would have to be more than physical, because his body would no longer be existent - only souls could bridge the connection between life and death – so rather than leaving her forever he is joined to her forever. The compass analogy also takes on another meaning. He states “Thy firmness makes my circle just…And makes me end where I begun.” Notice the word “just”, which not only means “faithful to an original” (Webster 623), but correct, proper and righteous. She acts as a moral anchor – notice the word “firmness” also – that keeps him on the path to righteousness and thus heaven – the place where he began, since Christian – he was a Catholic - doctrine holds that God has a perfect design for each human before they are ever born; we are with him before we are ever on the earth. The circle analogy also assumes another importance – the circle being one of Donne’s key metaphors. According to him, man’s life is a circle which is being made as he is living in a counter-clockwise direction. When he is born he is at the top, and thus closest to God, and as he lives he gets further and further away from God, until he reaches midlife, where he now gets closer and closer to God (Fischler 171). Thus his wife allows him to complete the circle and return to God, instead of endlessly wandering further and further away.
Lover’s Infiniteness approaches love from yet another perspective. Rather than present simply one attitude or another towards love in this poem, Donne chose to present several views, and in doing so allows an excellent study of love’s character, for he isolates various parts of love and then sets them side by side so we can truly view love’s paradoxes. The metaphor he chooses for relationships is especially interesting, which he presents as a “love market”, in the words of Theodore Redpath.
In the first stanza of the poem, Donne worries in jealousy whether he will be able to possess all of his lover’s love: “If yet I have not all thy love, Dear, I shall never have it all.” He has spent all he has to buy her love – “Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters” – yet even that was not enough currency to purchase all of her love - “If then they gift of love were partial” - so it then seems that she would have to spend her excess of love on someone else: “That some to me, some should to others fall.”
In the second stanza, Donne states that even if he had enough of ]love’s currency] to buy all of her then, her heart would have grown new love from the seeds of other men: “But if in they heart, since, there be or shall New love created by, by other men”, other men who have not spent all of their “sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters” and so could “outbid” Donne. He is in a desperate situation, for she did not promise him this love: “For this love was not vowed by thee.” He, however, discovers a loophole: she had before promised him herself, and that included her heart, so he owns the ground upon which love grows and thus owns the love that grows there (Rovira): “…they gift being general, The ground, thy heart, is mine; whatever shall Grow there, dear, I should have it all…” - a twist upon the law of love which now allows him to rightly appropriate all of her affections!
In the third stanza, he backs off on his initial proposal to take all her love right at once, and decides conservation and investment is in order so that if in the future he needs more of her affections she will still have some to give: “Yet I would not have all yet; He that hath all can have no more, And since my love doth every day admit New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store.” Secondly, since her heart is a field, some crops have to be left on that field so that there will be a harvest after the next cycle of love. She can only give her heart once, so the love contained there is precious and must be saved.
Finally he decides that all this economics of love is ultimately foolish and base. Not only is it a perversion of love, but the title of the poem suggests its lunacy: Lovers’ Infiniteness. He can no more lay claim to all her love than he can lay claim to the entire universe, it is simply too big of a territory to even occupy. The gift of a large supply of love has now paradoxically become a curse, especially since invaders – other men – can easily stake their own claim to it. He tells her that rather than bartering for each other’s love they should become one body and share each other’s love between them – a sort of communism of heart to abolish the cruel economics of capitalist love – and in doing so realizes that lovers’ infiniteness is not a curse but a blessing.
The juxtaposition of love and economics is important because such a comparison of polar opposites is so ironical; yet it works well because it so fitting and thus becomes paradoxical. The jealous lover smothers his or her victim in trying to monopolize and hoard all of their lover’s love; jealous lovers worry about being “outbid” in love, whether in love’s currency of looks or actual money. Donne’s simple advice of simply becoming one with one’s lover is such a blessing, yet sometimes difficult to take – yet another one of love’s paradoxes, which Donne highlights and separates in such a way that we see love’s shape-shifting nature. For an even closer view of the many paradoxical facets of love, the reader can merely read the last line of each stanza of the poem: “Dear, I shall never have thee all”, “I should have it all”, and finally “Be one, and one another’s all.”
This is the true beauty of Donne’s poetry: that his metaphors are chosen not just for their ingenuity, but for their striking truth even when they seem most paradoxical; love has a thousand faces of which we see hundreds without fully registering how bizarre they all seem together. Simply describing love as avaricious is not enough to fully explain its strangeness, a comparison to economics is needed. Simply explaining that two lovers need to become one is not enough to fully explain the amazing transcendental nature of love, a comparison to a compass is needed. To go the final step and put these ideas side by side in juxtaposition to each other allows a second level of even greater understanding of the mystery of love.
Donne was obsessed with explaining abstract concepts such as love and spirituality, and his greatest gift to us is the way in which he hands down his amazing epiphanies in his metaphors. Since he can not communicate these ideas and emotions directly, his poems remain the best mode of transportation of such a precious cargo. That he hands them to us woven in such a beautiful tapestry and dark juxtaposed with light is only an additional blessing.
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