John Donne as a Metaphysical Poet

Donne as a Metaphysical Poet

John Donne, whose poetic reputation languished before he was rediscovered in the early part of the twentieth century is remembered today as the leading exponent of a style of verse known as “metaphysical poetry,” which flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In fact, Metaphysical poetry and John Donne are so inherently interconnected that one without the other becomes a misnomer. Donne’s jarring, unusual meters; his proclivity for abstract puns and double entendres; his often bizarre metaphors; and his process of oblique reasoning is all characteristic traits of the metaphysical, unified in Donne as in no other poet. 

The poets who wrote successfully in the metaphysical style are all self-conscious and analytic. Because of this analytic habit, the metaphysical poets preferred to use words that call the mind into play rather than those that appeal to the senses. The following lines from ‘The Good Morow’ are brilliant examples of the above.
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

We recognize that the words in such lines as these have more than their normal prose meaning; they reverberate as surely as do the ‘Arabia’, ‘the Hebrides’ and ‘the cuckoo’ of Wordsworth but their stimulus is applied, not directly to the senses or emotions, but to something more akin to the faculty that apprehends a mathematical problem. 

The most striking quality of Donne’s poetry is the use of metaphysical conceit which is a figure of speech in which two far-fetched objects or images of very different nature are compared. It surprises its readers with its ingenious discovery and delights them by its intellectual quality. Such conceits are available in his poetry. Such a famous conceit occurs in the poem titled “The Sun Rising” where the poet remarks that his wife is to him two Indias in one-‘both India’s of spice and Myne.’ This conceit was supplied by the geographical discoveries made in his age. 

Another leading feature of Donne’s poetry is his dramatic presentation that arrests the attention of the readers very quickly. Like other famous poets, Donne has the capacity of opening a poem abruptly adding a dramatic quality to the poem. As we find such abruptness in opening the poem “The Canonization”. The line goes as:

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,

Or chide my palsy, or my gout,

Upon reading or hearing those opening lines, we can easily understand that the poem begins somewhat in the middle of a conversation. Now the more we advance, the more clear it becomes that why the speaker of the poem makes such a request to the unidentified listener. 

Closely related to the dramatic directness and abruptness of opening is Donne’s dexterous use of colloquial speech. This dramatic quality is strengthened by its colloquial tone. In the song: “Go and Catch a Falling Star” we can trace such a quality:  

Go, and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root

On perusing the two lines we will see that like many other poems Donne has employed colloquial language to make the poem more lifelike. From the lines, it is clear that a conversation is going on between two people.

 Through all the love poems of Donne, there runs a belief that physical passion is a good thing and he recognizes the claim of body side by side with the souls. His love poems enhance its attraction and novelty by blending physical, spiritual, and mystical love. Although there is a complexity in the poem, “The Ecstasy” Donne deals with twin aspects of love- physical and spiritual; love here is concretized through physical enjoyment of sex and then turns in its pure essence, spiritual.

Terseness is another characteristic of all metaphysical poets. It is true in the case of Donne in particular. And the use of such terseness results in obscurity. Such compactness is traceable in ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’:

No where

Lives a woman true, and fair.

The development of thought in metaphysical poetry is logical, syllogistic. In the last stanza of ‘The Good Morrow,’ the poet-lover puts forward the thesis that true love is not subject to death, decay and decline. He argues in favor of his thesis by referring to the Scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas that only those things are liable to death and decay whose constituents are not mixed in equal proportions: 

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

In fine, although Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, and others have evinced their astuteness and sharpness in representing common subject matters like love, religion, etc. with a new-fangled approach, John Donne shines unrivaled genius in amongst them like a luminous star for his stunning and rationalizing his daring imagination. It is Donne who blows the trumpet of change in the clichéd pattern of poetry, teeming with emotion, by inaugurating intellectualized poetry’– the metaphysical poetry.




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