John Donne as a poet
John Donne wrote a number of sonnets, satires, elegies; love lyrics etc., but he didn’t mean to publish them. He was a poet on the by” writing to please himself and his friends. It was his son John Donne, who collected his poems and published them under the title, Songs and Sonnets, in 1633.
Donne despised conventions. He led revolt against Spenserians whose poetry chiefly dealt in emotions. He also rejected the Petrarchans’ lofty cult of woman. He was very critical of them. The women of his first verses are without virtue or faith. Donne held Platonic love to be a lure. His love is always profoundly sensuous.
Union of passion and ratiocination is Donne’s chief quality. His poetry hovers between the singing voice of passion and the speaking voice of argument. His poems are erotic and satiric both. There is pre-dominance of wit in his poetry. Wit is indeed. By inself no novelty. Wit and conceits abound in Sidney and Shakespeare. But in them they are an ornament, an occasional grace. In Donne wit is everywhere. Passion, feeling, sensuality: all are subjected to wit. This play of wit sometimes results in astounding hyperbole.
His style is analogous. He has nothing to do with the easy and familiar. He employs far- fetched images and makes comparison between objects that have little in common with each other. He takes delight in mingling the lofty and the mean, the sublime and the trivial. He despised the laws of versification. He didn’t keep accent. He subordinated melody to meaning. He introduced into rhymed verse such innovations as were customary in the blank verse of the dramatists. To smoothly flowing lines he often preferred those that were freely divided. The tone of his poems is conversational. They are direct and personal. He makes brilliant use of unexpected and recondite images, pedantically precise hyperboles and daring paradoxes.
To conclude, Donne is perhaps the most singular of English Poets. His contemporary Ben Jonson described him as “the first poet in the world in some things.” His reputation as a poet sank in after the Restoration, but in the 20th century he rose as poet, to a fame as great as he had enjoyed when living, or even greater. The influence of his highly individual style can be seen widely in poetry written between World War I and II. He was the idol of the first half of the 20th century.
John Donne as Poet of Love
John Donne is one of the greatest poets of love. He ranks with browning and Rossetti as a singer of love. His love for poetry is singularly fresh and unconventional. It is marked at once by originality of theme and novelty of treatment. He led a revolt against the conventional Elizabethan love poetry.
His love poetry can be conveniently divided into two phases- poetry written before his marriage and poetry written after his marriage.
In the former, he rejects the lofty cult of woman- in other words he refuses to idealise or sentimentatlise her. He is both cynical and ironical in his attitude towards the fair sex. He looks upon woman as essentially inconstant and fickle- minded, lacking virture and steadfastness. Like Hamlet he seems to exclaim, frailty thy name is woman. In his famous song beginning with, “Go and catch a falling star” he is extremely uncharitable to the ‘fair sex and says ironically. :
Thou, when thou returnest will tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true and fair.
In these love poems, Donne revolts against conventional Elizabethan poetry in which the “lady love” is always represented as cruel and indifferent mistress and the lover as mad in love and and often sensual. He sometimes tempers. (modifies) his sensuousness with a bitter mocking cynicism. In his poem Ecstasy he begs his beloved that their passion may have a fleshly consummation.
Donne’s love – poems written after his marriage strike a different note. Most of them are addressed to his wife. Anne More, and pulsate with the warmth of married- love. These poems are distinguished by sincerity and realism. Some of them contain exquisite lyrical outbursts. The Anniversary, which is a typical example of Donne’s later love-poetry, is the finest songs of married bliss. It dwells on the immorality of love:
Only our love hath no decay,
This is tomorrow hath, nor yesterday
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last everlasting day
This poem suggests how love will persist even in the grave. It would be enhanced “when bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove.’
Donne’s love poetry thus is characterised by intensity of lyric passion sincerity and naturalism.
He never employs conventional similes or worn-out metaphors. In their stead, he uses ingenious conceits or far-fetched imagery. For instance, in his poem, The Sun- rising, he praises the beauty of his beloved by saying to the sun :
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look and tomorrow late tell me.
Similarly, in the same poem he compares the charm of his mistress by remarking that she is “both the Indias of spice and mine” rolled into one.
John Donne as Metaphysical Poet
John Donne is easily the greatest of metaphysical poets. He outshines all his contemporaries like Crawshaw and Cowley. He led a revolt against the conventional romanticism of Elizabethan song-writes. He introduced a number of innovations. For example: (a) He popularised conceits (far-fetched similes and metaphors). (b) He revolted against the sweet smoothness of Elizabethan Love-songs. (C) He emplyed a harsh and rugged poetic diction
Donne is a master of the conceits”. His poems abound in conceits that are remarkable for their freshness and novelty. At times, however they lapse into the fantastic or the far-fetched; but generally they are delightful. For instance, in his poem “The anniversary” he compares himself and his wife to two kings, each of them is also the subject of the other.
Here upon earth we’re kings and none but we
Can be such kings, nor of such subject.
In “The sun-rising” he says to the sun that he could eclipse and cloud its beams with a wink, but he would not lose her sight so long again, he adds that the “easy” of his beloved might blind the light of the sun. In the same poem he declares that his beloved combines both the Ideas of spice and mine”.
Donne’s poem “Twickenham Garden contains some of his best conceits. For instance:
(3) I do bring
The spider love, which transubstantiates all
And can convert manna to gall.
(4) And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.
Donne’s poetic style is, generally, singularly harsh and Obscure.
As he himself said:
I sing not siren – like to tempt; for I am harsh.
His friend Ben Jonson said about him, “Donne is the first poet in the world for some things, but for not keeping of accent deserves Hanging”.
Donne invites comparison with Browning. And has been called “Elizabethan Browning by one-critic. Ben Jonson commenting upon Donne’s obscurity remarked “He will perish through not being understood.”
The reasons for his obscurity are:
- He indulges in difficult and far-fetched conceits.
- He tries to express his thoughts into a few words.
- His thoughts are too deep and subtle to be conveyed by Words.
He alludes to reconcile scientific or philosophical knowledge and facts.
Donne set a vogue (fashion) for metaphysical conceits. He influenced a number of contemporary poets like Crashaw and Cowley.
Among the later poets, he exercised a strong influence on Robert Browning, who was an ardent admirer of Donne. Among the modern poets he has influenced T.S. Eliot.
Donne was under-estimated by poets of the eighteenth century. They condemned his poetic style as a mark of bad taste and eccentricity. Dr. Johnson ridiculed the farfetched imagery and departure from correctness- the two outstanding characteristics of the metaphysical school of poetry. At present Donne has been sympathetically revived.
English Literature- Important links
- “The Canonization” by John Donne- Summary & Line by line Explanation
- Critical appreciation of ‘The Canonisation’ (Poem by John Donne)
- Development of English poetry since the age of Shakespeare
- Important Forms of poetry in English (Narrative, Lyrical, Sonnet etc.)
- Sonnet 29- When, in disgrace with fortune (William Shakespeare)
- SONNET 138- When my love swears (Analysis and Explanation)
- Critical review of Sonnet Writing of William Shakespeare
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