Metaphysical Poets: John Donne
by José Goris, M.A.
John Donne is regarded as the founder of the school of Metaphysical Poets, to which Carew, Cowley, Marvell
and to a certain extent also Herbert belonged.
Samuel Johnson introduced the name more than a century after Donne died.
He criticized its followers for attaching undue importance to the displaying of knowledge.
The term 'metaphysical' refers to important elements of early seventeenth century poetry and
is hard to define, but a number of characteristics are typical:
- the more intellectual, less verbal character of their wit compared to the conceits of the Elizabethans;
- the finer psychology of which conceits are often an expression; their learned imagery;
- the peculiar blend of passion and thought, feeling and reason.
- The specific use of 'conceits' is a central element; a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than
- A comparison becomes a conceit when we are forced to compare things that in fact we consider to be very
- A conceit always surprises: suddenly two entirely different things unexpectedly turn out to have things in common from an
unusual point of view.
The best known example of a conceit is the comparison of two lovers with the legs of a pair of compasses in
'A Valediction forbidding Mourning'. At first sight it is an absurd comparison, which moreover diminishes the
tenderness of the emotions expressed in the poem. Donne convincingly shows several similarities, which become almost
a matter of course after the surprising start. Several of Donne's poems highlight only one conceit, in which he manages
to display new similarities with the poem's subject again and again.
- The conceit is also found in Elizabethan poetry. The metaphysical conceit is more intellectual. Donne manifests
himself as a widely read scholar in matters of theology and new scientific developments.
- In the way of thinking that forms its basis the term 'wit' comes in; the ability to make
unexpected associations and express them creatively and into great detail in language.
'Metaphysical wit' is more than linguistic ability; it is the entire intellectual process prior to the artistic creation.
'Wit' and 'conceit' are interconnected; wit gives life to the conceit; it makes the conceit sophisticated.
- The ultimate goal of the conceit is to strenthen the poem's arguments: argumentative evolution of lyrics.
The poem becomes a logically constructed plea, in which conceits are the most important arguments.
John Donne's Songs and Sonnets
'Love Poems' is hardly an adequate label for these lyrics: they are about love, but Donne treats love in a
different manner in almost every poem. At times he is a hardened cynic without illusions, but the next moment he can hardly find
the words to describe perfect love. He is sometimes cynical, sometimes resigned and tired.
Inconsistencies in tone are remarkable and numerous; he displays so many clashing views that we can hardly believe he endorses
all of them personally. Often his aim is to defend a certain point of view as convincingly as possible, thus creating
the impression of a direct, personal statement. Writing the sonnets took twenty years; they were not published until
after his death.
The Sunne Rising
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, moths, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th'Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
She's all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour's mimic; all wealth alchemy.
Thou sun art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
At first sight the poem is a shameless tirade against the sun;
Donne is very skilled at misleading the reader. However, it turns out to be an ode to perfect love - a remarkable
combination of shamelessness and tenderness, of sincerity and bragging: the contradictory elements are interconnected.
The last four lines of the poem make up a logical argument in a nutshell, intended to get the better of the sun,
at the same time evoking tenderness.
When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead,
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feigned vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink,
And then poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I;
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent.
Three conceits are both Petrarchan and Renaissance themes: the death of a rejected lover, a supernatural punishment
for the obstinate lady and the rejected lover's wish to revenge himself.
Petrarchism had courtly conventions; the lover places his loved one on a pedestal, is subservient, pities himself.
Donne ignores these courtly conventions. The speaker pretends in the first line that his loved one's rejection
has killed him, however, his contemptuous allegation proves that she won't get away with it. There is
no self pity, on the contrary: the speaker is full of revenge.
A Valediction: forbidding Mourning
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say, no:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th'earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
inter-assured of the mind,
care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, 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.
This poem highligths the lovers' relationship, which is so special that parting, however drastic, does not have to
evoke a display of emotions. Such a vulgar outburst would degrade the lovers to the level of the common people;
the 'laity', 'dull sublunary lovers'. So the speaker urges his loved one to control herself, as expressed by the poem's
composed tone and uncomplicated form.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Confess it, 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.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to this, self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled they nail, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
In the sixteenth century the flea was a popular subject for all kinds of erotic poetry. A poet who is
transformed into a flea can take greater liberties with his loved one's body. Donne presents a speaker who goes to
great lenghts to seduce her. With sophistic logic and display of wit he tries to convince the lady
that loss of virginity does not necessarily mean the complete loss of her honour. He argues that the flea has just
bitten both himself and her, thus containing a mixture of blood of the two of them.
Donne wrote much of his religious poetry after he was ordained priest. Therefore the Holy Sonnets were seen as the
product of the clerical Donne, whereas the Songs and Sonnets were written by his opposite, the adventurer.
However, the poems were written more or less at the same time. This seems strange
in view of Donne's bold love poems versus the pained tone of his religious poetry.
Yet, his own particular voice is heard in both. The persuasive force of his Songs and Sonnets,
in which he tries to win the argument at all cost, can also be found in the Holy Sonnets.
His arguments are supported by metaphysical wit, which is also the case in
the Holy Sonnets. But now the speaker addresses God, who cannot easily be convinced by wit or a display of
verbal and logical skills.
Batter my Heart, Three - Personed God
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The poem expresses the speaker's need to impel God to act; only a radical and forceful act of God can save him from
the influence of evil forces.
Death be not proud
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
The speaker enters into a duel with death, trusting to win the fight.
Most critics assume that the speaker's arrogant and
mocking tone serves to control his deep fear of death.
Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown,
That this is my south-west discovery
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,
I joy, that in these straits, I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's Cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapped receive me Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preached thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own;
Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.
Donne meditates about his death; possibly the poem was written on his deathbed. The poem's serene tone is striking; it
does not show any doubt, but full trust in God. This contradicts his other religious poetry, which reveals a troubled
relationship with the Creator as well as an agonizing fear of death. Nevertheless it is clearly Donne's : unexpected
imagery, complicated paradoxes and carefully developed analogies voice his truly religious feelings.
Elegy 19. To his Mistress going to Bed
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th'eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you, that now 'tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beautous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th'hill's shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow;
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou angel bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite,
Those set your hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blessed I am in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally, as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first, why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.
This is the dramatic monologue of a lover waiting impatiently for his loved one to get undressed and lie down in
bed with him. Associations prevail over images: his longing is not focussed on his loved one or their mutual love,
but merely on the clothes she is taking off.
Kermode,F. & Hollander, J. (eds) 1973: The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Volume 1.
Oxford University Press, London .
Dekkers, O. (1994 )JOHN DONNE GEDICHTEN - Keuze uit zijn poëzie.