Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Conceits in John Donnes Poetry


A conceit is basically a simile, or a comparison between two dissimilar things. In literature, a conceit is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison. Dr. Johnson pointed out that in metaphysical poetry, 'the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together'.

Far-Fetched Images

Far-fetched images, departing from the conventional Elizabethan type, mark Donne's poetry. An example is the comparison of the lovers to the two legs of a compass in 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'.

Another clever conceit is in 'The Flea' where the flea becomes the marriage bed and marriage temple. The comparison is not obvious but the poet unfolds the likeness logically.

From A Wide Range Of Subjects

The conceits employed by Donne are drawn from a wide range of subjects. They are learned—they display the poet's thorough knowledge of a wide range of subjects, such as science, mathematics, astrology, and several others. The conceits, thus give the poetry an intellectual tone.

From Contemporary Exploration

Reference to sea discoveries, new worlds and the hemispheres of the earth occur in most of Donne's poems, reflecting contemporary explorations.

In 'The Good Morrow', there are images of sea discoveries traveling to new worlds, maps showing worlds to worlds, and the two hemispheres. In 'Hymn to God, My God', again we have images of cosmographers, maps, straits, and the Pacific sea; the language of exploration is used to describe a spiritual condition.

From Military Affairs

War and military affairs also provide a source for Donne's conceits. In 'Batter My Heart', he compares himself to a usurped town.

In 'The Ecstasy', the lovers' souls are compared to two equal armies confronting and negotiating with each other.

'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning' employs the compasses image elaborately. Donne sustains the comparison through the whole process of drawing a circle because he is trying to give proof by analogy of the lovers' union.

Illustrative Function

 Donne's conceits are functional and used to illustrate and persuade. They are as Helen Gardner asserts, 'Instruments of definition in an argument or instruments to persuade'. The images are not merely a place of decoration; they serve to illustrate or convince.

 And to quote Joan Bennet

'The purpose of an image in Donne's poetry is to define the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel.'

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