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Reading the Poetry of John Donne

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Death be not proud, though some have calléd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinks't thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me...

- Sonnet 10, by John Donne.
I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whom the country formed, and whom the town....
I can love her and her and you and you
I can love any, so she be not true...

- 'The Indifferent', by John Donne.

John Donne

Literary critics tend to divide the poets of the 17th Century into two camps: the cavaliers and the metaphysical poets. For centuries, most readers felt little need to read beyond the cavalier poetry. Its even metre, 'off the cuff' style and sometimes graphic promotion of the carpe diem mentality in regard to women, wine and valour, makes for an easy and pleasant read. Metaphysical poets, on the other hand, received their name from a disgusted Samuel Johnson, who found them altogether too ornate, intellectual, spiritual and introspective for his taste.

The lead metaphysical poet — in fact, the man who practically invented the genre — was John Donne1, a romantic Catholic rake cum spiritual Protestant Dean of St Paul's Cathedral2. All other metaphysical poets (and not a few cavaliers) looked to his works for inspiration. However, these were not 'read aloud' works. Though the words themselves are often straightforward, the meaning is complexly woven into a series of paradoxes, images and extended metaphors. Only in Donne's works can you find a man begging God to rape his soul, or a lover romantically comparing himself to the leg of a geometric compass. The poets of the following centuries found it all a bit hard to digest.

The metaphysical poets remained in their unfavoured position until the early 20th Century, when they were rehabilitated by TS Eliot, who celebrated their rich imagery and depth of feeling. Because of the poems' complexity, many modern readers still give them wide berth. This is an unfortunate habit, for the works of Donne are not only rich with more genuine human emotion than most cavaliers, they are also intellectually stimulating to boot. Furthermore, there are only a few basic rules that a reader must learn to unlock the meaning of countless poems. Once understood, Donne's poems become less dense, and reading them becomes a pleasure.

The Rhythm

For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love,
Or chide my palsy or my gout
My five grey hairs or ruined fortune flout.

- 'The Canonization'.

Donne's contemporary Ben Jonson, spiritual father of the cavalier poets, wrote that Donne deserved to be hung for his flagrant violations of metre. Donne did not worry himself overly about metre. In contrast to the smooth, polished stanzas that Johnson churned out, Donne sought to imitate human speech patterns. This gives his poetry a more realistic and intimate feel, making it easier to identify with the speaker. However, it can make it difficult to read for two main reasons:

Firstly, the iambic metre you learned to look for in Shakespeare and Dr Seuss isn't here3. Frequently, no metre is present. The cadence and tone is conversational; Donne appears to be addressing a real human being in real human speech. Some poems, such as 'The Flea' or 'Song (Sweetest love I do not go)' even imply a reply from the other party occurring between stanzas. Unless context indicates otherwise (songs always have perfect metre), it's best to read the poems as conversational monologues.

Secondly, the sentences frequently break over several lines. A reader used to pausing at the end of a line to emphasise the rhyme will quickly find him or herself lost. Until you get the hang of his flow, it is better to read the sentences straight through and forget the rhymes, to better capture the meaning.

Conceits and Metaphors

It is a rare Donnian poem that employs no conceits or metaphors to make its point. Donne adored both the ease of illustration and the manipulation of meaning that these techniques afforded him, so keep your eyes peeled for his metaphoric shenanigans.

If you paid attention while others attempted to educate you about literature, you will know that a metaphor implies a comparison between two very unlike things. Burning rage, for example, compares anger to fire. An avalanche of words, for another, compares a harangue to a natural disaster. A conceit is an extended metaphor extended in all directions. The first stretches are in length and depth. 'Burning anger' and 'avalanche of words' are brief, superficial comparisons; a conceit can take an entire poem to develop, and usually delves below the surface. This is usually because of the second stretch — in topicality. Donne brings comparisons from all aspects of academia: astronomy, metallurgy, alchemy, law, mathematics and physiology4. Comparing two lovers to a king and queen ('the Sun Rising') might raise an eyebrow; comparing them to two hemispheres of the globe ('The Good Morrow') generates some scepticism; comparing them to the two legs of a compass ('A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning') leaves many with their arms folded, demanding to see it to believe it. So here it is:

Donne is temporarily leaving his wife, but telling her his love will not fade with distance;

....Our two souls therefore, which are one
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, then they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

- 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'.

So who ever said geometry wasn't romantic?

If you caught the quick metaphor to gold in the beginning, congratulate yourself. In his more complex poems, Donne fills the cracks around the central conceit with quick filler-metaphors. The metaphors serve to illustrate a complicated idea without much explanation, and throw in some connotations besides.

Donne is well aware that metaphors can have multiple layers of meaning; he frequently uses them to make sly insinuations. In 'The Undertaking', Donne insists that he isn’t going to discuss the wonderful thing he's done, because it is like the skill of cutting the mythical specular stone5: the stone cannot be found, so there's no point in learning to cut it. Later, he does spill the beans, and confesses that he's loved a woman for her virtue alone. The reference to a non-findable stone suddenly becomes charged with latent disparagement of womankind.

Donne also abuses metaphors to skew arguments. In 'Elegy III: Anagram', Donne tries to convince his friend to marry a girl who has all the properties of beauty, just in the wrong places: 'Though her cheeks be yellow, her hair's red.' He follows this with a series of metaphors, comparing her to perfume, where the buyer wants the right ingredients, but not necessarily in a specific place; to music, where the same notes perpetually rearranged create beautiful new innovations; and to language, where letters must be rearranged to create meaning. The argument leaves one thinking, 'Yes, but —', groping for a comeback.

The Logic of Paradox

This sort of teasing sophistry appears frequently in Donne's poems, with or without metaphor accompaniment. Donne laces his poems with a baseless logic that often pulls the rug from under its own feet:

Oh do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone,
That thee I shall not celebrate,
When I remember thou wast one.

- 'A Fever'.

Entire poems are based on such arguments, usually to tease the recipient. However, Donne was also a devoutly religious man, and brought his illogic to this higher plane. In the devotional vein, his paradoxes express the contradictory nature of man's behaviour.

In 'Sonnet 14', Donne develops two conceits and a paradox in a mere 14 lines, describing the internal conflict of one struggling to achieve oneness with God against the baser desires that prevent it.

'Batter my heart' begins the first conceit, comparing it to a city taken by the enemy, but wanting to be recaptured. Therein lies the first paradox — capture and destruction leading to freedom and greatness:

That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
The second conceit compares him to a love 'betrothed unto your enemy', but requesting to be kidnapped, imprisoned and forced. Therein lies the second paradox — that slavery is freedom and rape, purity:
Except that you enthrall me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

It is a demonstration of his prowess that Donne's penchant for mental gymnastics doesn't impede the depth of emotion driving his expression.

The Many Faces of Love

Oh to vex me, contraries meet in one!
- 'Sonnet 19'

Donne tried to create a schizoid personality for himself as a poet. The grave, religious poems were written by the older and wiser Dr Donne, Dean of St Paul's, while the hedonistic, rakish poems were written by the young and foolish Jack Donne6— or so he would have people believe (particularly the students at St Paul's, who gleefully circulated Jack Donne's poetry during Dr Donne's lectures). However, plenty of religious poems were written in his youth, and there is no evidence that he wasn't writing love poetry in his later life.

Donne wrote extensively about love. However, not all loves are created equal. The love of 'Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed' is purely physical lust couched in pretty phrases and metaphors of global exploration:

License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! My new-found-land...

The love of 'The Ecstasy', on the other hand, is purely platonic.

So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures7 in our eyes to get8
Was all our propagation.

In 'Woman's Constancy', Donne professes a fickle love, while in 'The Canonization' he swears it is undying. And then there is 'A Lecture Upon the Shadow' where he is unsure.

In general, the seduction and fickle love poems tend to be lighter, employing paradox and light metaphors, while platonic and eternal love poems are denser, full of conceits and heavy metaphors. Knowing the few basic themes he repeats in each type can help you unravel their meaning.

Serious Poetry: The Lovers' World

When Donne is in love, the world shrinks to include exactly two people and the earth they occupy: himself and his lover. Nor is he shy about telling this to the world in his poems. Thus, in 'The Sun Rising' he informs the sun that if he wants to light the world he need look no further than their bedroom:

She is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.

In 'The Good Morrow', he dismisses explorers who sail around the globe, explaining that he and she are the two hemispheres of the only world that counts.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have show:
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.

And on and on. The idea appears frequently, and is usually couched in a metaphor or conceit, so be prepared. Even if Donne doesn't develop the idea in a poem, it is there, a catalyst affecting the contents of the poem.

Serious Poetry: Elevated (Platonic) Love

The other common theme in his serious love poems is that love spiritually elevates the lovers. In its most basic form, this sentiment merely lifts the lovers above common mortals. He will almost certainly mention at some point in the poem how wonderful the two of them are. For example, in 'The Anniversary', everything decays over time except their love. 'The Canonisation' is about how their love is so sublime that they ought to be canonised for it.

One step beyond being elevated by common love is being elevated by platonic love. Ordinary, garden variety love is stimulated by physicality; stepping beyond that, and loving for purely spiritual reasons was, to Donne, the greatest love possible. 'The Undertaking', 'The Ecstasy' and 'The Relic' are a sampling of poems that celebrate love sans lust as a miracle and spiritual pleasure.

Differences of sex no more we knew
Than our guardian angels do;

- 'The Relic'

Note the comparison to angels — this is a celestial love.

We see by this it was not sex;
We see we saw not what did move;

- 'The Ecstasy'

This is from a poem about how he and she sat there for hours just looking into each other's eyes. The title says it all.

Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
And forget the He and She;
....Than you have a done a braver thing
Than all the Worthies did;

- 'The Undertaking'.

Not only celestial, but also heroic. The greatness of transcending physicality and attaining a spiritual love appears frequently, but only among the serious love poems. In his more flippant moods, Donne is unfailingly seductive.

Light Verse: Seduction

Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

- 'The Flea'.

As usual, Donne expresses his passion through logic. He argues with his lover, but in a teasing fashion, meant to break barriers more by charm than by force of logic. In 'The Flea', for example, Donne tries to prevent his love from killing a flea that has sucked both their blood, claiming it would be akin to killing him, her, and their child. When she kills it and laughs at him for his insubstantial fears, he turns the tables by suggesting that the fears that restrain her might be equally insubstantial.

'The Indifferent' follows a similar vein, bringing Venus as witness that only fools hold with long-term relationships. It packs the additional punch of instilling into the listener doubt about whoever she is being constant to:

....She went, examined, and returned ere long,
And said, Alas, some two or three
Poor heretics in love there be,
Which think to 'stablish dangerous constancy.
But I have told them, Since you will be true
you shall be true to them who are false to you.

- 'The Indifferent'.

There is nothing steamy or soppy about Donne's seductions, and some might argue that they aren't even romantic. But they are charming, clever and roguish, and quite fun to read.

Random: Petrarchan Backlash

If thou beest born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Til age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

- 'Song (Go and catch a falling star)'.

During the early Renaissance (1300s), literature was hijacked by Francesco Petrarcha (better known as Petrarch), whose genres dominated it for centuries. For example, he invented the sonnet. He also invented what became known as the Petrarchan lover, probably based on the knights and ladies of the Medieval Era. A Petrarchan lover pined for a virtuous, pure, and utterly perfect woman whose only fault was not returning his love. The Petrarchan lover was pale, didn't lace his boots, and wore expensive dark hats. The Petrarchan lover, in other words, was an utter fool.

Unbelievably, the Petrarchan lover was still around by Donne's day, but Donne didn't hold by him and his pining or his virtuous women. A handful of Donne's poems stand out for being unusually cynical on the subject of constant love — particularly for the man who spilled much ink over undying, virtuous love. These poems are more likely to be an expression of distaste for Petrarchan ideals than an expression of Donne's own personal opinion of women (he was happily married to a single woman for the majority of his life, and evidence suggests that he doted on her, rather).

Though some poems are wholly dedicated to women-bashing, Donne is usually more subtle, appearing to utilise Petrachan concepts, but twisting them around. In 'Love's Growth', he casts aspersions on the Petrarchan ideal of infinite love:

...Methinks I lied all winter when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.

In 'The Broken Heart', he tackles the threadbare idea of giving one's heart to a lady who doesn't return the love. Donne insists that his heart must have never arrived, because surely it would have educated hers in basic kindness:

I brought a heart into the room,
But from the room I carried none with me;
If it had gone to thee, I know
Mine would have taught thine heart to show
More pity unto me.

- 'The Broken Heart'.

In 'The Blossom', Donne holds forth with his heart concerning a trip to town that would take him away from his unrequiting lover. The heart insists that Donne's body go and leave him behind. To which Donne replies:

Well then, stay here; but know,
When thou hast stayed and done thy most
A naked thinking heart, that makes no show,
Is to a woman but a kind of ghost
How shall she know my heart; or having none,
Know thee for one?....
Meet me at London, then....
I would give you
There to another friend, whom we shall find
As glad to have my body as my mind.

- 'The Blossom'.


Few poems have been as cheerfully ignored as Donne's satires. Those who have felt the need to comment on them have been almost unanimously excoriating. The satires were written when it was fashionable to write satires after the styles of Horace (witty), Persius (moralising), and Juvenal (indignant); they address, for the most part, contemporary issues; and they tend to be densely packed avalanches of ideas. In other words, they are difficult to read.

Satire I and Satire III have the most enduring themes. Satire I is a dramatic monologue addressing the sort of person who, when talking to you, is always looking over your shoulder to see if there isn't someone more interesting to talk to. Satire III addresses the difficulty in knowing how to serve God among a clamour of competing religious systems.

Satire III is most commonly read as a biographical detail of Donne's life; it likely contains the arguments that led him to abandon Catholicism for Anglicanism. Satire III illustrates that while convenience may have been a catalyst to Donne's conversion9, it was driven by a frustrated search for an objective truth.

Religious Poetry

While Donne wrote his most profligate love poetry in his 20s and his most intense religious poetry decades later, the edges are blurred. The paradoxes and conceits of the secular poetry flows into the devotional verse. Spirituality and passion merge and blend throughout his works; but in the religious poems, the passion is directed toward God.

The holy sonnets come in two groups: La Carona, which describe Christ's life in seven stages; and the Holy Sonnets, which are a religious man’s musings on life. Only a bit of background in Christianity is necessary to follow his thoughts; Donne tends to emphasise the emotions that accompany religious fervour more than the nuts and bolts of practice. He acknowledges God's eternal love and strives to prove worthy of it, but is frustrated by his inability to do what he knows is right. His expressions of yearning and tortured self examination resonate with anyone who has found that their largest obstacle to achievement is themselves.

Donne's longer poems about religion are on a variety of subjects, from the clerical work itself to illustrations of Christian ideas. These appear less carefully wrought than the sonnets and love poems, if only because they are short on conceits and paradoxes. They also tend to be less interesting for non-Christians.

Donne's hymns are based on powerful feelings he had at pivotal moments, and how they turn his thoughts to God. Beyond that, it's difficult to make generalisations. Of note: 'A Hymn to God the Father' was set to music and sung in church weekly. Donne's delight was both that of the artist whose work is appreciated, and the sly trickster who hid his name in the hymn:

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Questions for Reading

When reading any poem, but particularly one by John Donne, answering a few questions can clarify quite a bit.

  • Who is speaking? Usually the speaker is male, but is he a lover or a worshipper? If a lover, is he a seducer or a serious suitor? Is he platonic?

  • Who is he speaking to? If he is addressing someone specific, you will usually find out in the first paragraph, if not the first line. Donne will talk to just about anything that will listen, so don't be thrown off to find him addressing a rose, his heart, death, God or the sun. Usually, though, he's talking to a person, and you just need to figure out the person's role: lover, friend, wife, adversary, etc.

  • What is he speaking about? This is more difficult to figure out, but chances are quite good it fits into one of the genres outlined above. Once you've figured out which, it's much easier to divine where he’s going with all those metaphors. Of course, look for the repetitive themes.

  • What images/conceits/metaphors are used? What do they illustrate? What connotations do they evoke? Are there multiple levels of meaning to the comparison?

With this background, and a bit of effort, you are ready to tackle the complex poetry of John Donne. Like most things that require effort, the results are worth it.

1Pronounced like the word 'done'.2He converted early in his career, probably because of honest religious convictions. And actually, he never stopped being romantic — he just aimed the romance at God instead of girls.3Iambic metre alternates emphasis on syllables: 'i DO not LIKE green EGGS and HAM, i DO not LIKE them SAM-i-AM.' ('Green Eggs and Ham' by Dr Seuss).4These disciplines were quite different back then, so a footnoted anthology is very helpful.5A translucent stone supposedly used for windows. Except nobody has ever identified it or proved that it existed.6The reckless fellow who ended a promising career (and landed briefly in jail) by secretly marrying his boss's daughter.7Our reflections.8Beget.9Catholics were a persecuted minority and had little career opportunities.

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