Wednesday, 17 April 2013

John Donne, as a Poet


A Metaphysical

            Donne has been classified both by Dryden and Samuel Johnson as a Metaphysical poet. This title has been conferred on him because of his sudden flights from the material to the spiritual sphere and also because of his obscurity which is occasionally baffling. His works abounds in wit and conceits. In addition to this, he has been termed a metaphysical poet because his style is overwhelmed with obscure philosophical allusions and subtle and abstract references to science and religion.

Treatment Of Love

            Donne's treatment of love is entirely unconventional. He does not fall in line with the ways and modes of feeling and expression, found in the Elizabethan love poetry. Most of the Elizabethan poets followed the fashion set by Petrarch, an Italian sonneteer, in their treatment of love. According to that fashion the lover was always subject, humble and obsequious (over-respectful). Obedience to his mistress's wishes was his chief virtue. He sighed, wept, yearned, pined, and languished for her.

Donne rebels against these stale and hackneyed conventions of love poetry. He rejects the lofty cult of the woman. She is no deity or goddess to be worshipped. He ridicules and laughs at her. This attitude is best revealed in ‘The Song: Go and catch a falling star’, where he says that nowhere lives a woman true and fair. This is a brilliant piece of mockery. Even in his defeat Donne rises superior to the woman.

In ‘Twicknam Garden’, also, he refers to woman as the perverse sex, and says that it is wrong to judge a woman’s thoughts by her tears.

Moreover, His poems are not concerned with limited number of moods of love as was the case with the Elizabethan lyrics of love. In his poems, there is the variety of moods, even the mood of fulfillment and joy of consummated love, which was absent in the Elizabethan lyrics.

His Use Of Conceits

            Donne and his followers made an excessive use of conceits. While in Shakespeare or Sydney a conceit is an ornament or an occasional grace, in Donne it is everywhere. It is his very genius, and fashions his feelings and thought. Donne's conceits are more intellectual than those of Shakespeare or Sydney. It is chiefly on account of the excessive use of intellectual and far-fetched conceits that Donne is known as a metaphysical poet.

His use of strange and far-fetched conceits may be illustrated from the poems included in our syllabus. In ‘The Song: Go and catch a falling star’, the whole of the first stanza contains a series of conceits. The poet asks to catch a falling star, get a mandrake root and find out who cleft the devil's foot. In ‘The Anniversary’, each of the lovers is a king with the other as the subject. In ‘Twicknam Garden’, the poet's love is like a spider which converts the beauty of spring into poison.

          Being more often intellectual than emotional, these conceits make Donne's poetry difficult. They puzzle and perplex us. At the same time when we succeed in understanding them, we feel a certain pleasure as we feel after having solved a difficult mathematical problem.

Originality In Diction And Colloquialism

            Donne's originality in diction includes words not merely from the vocabulary of science but from colloquialism. He selected colloquial diction which has vigor, freshness and originality. He discards literary words and phrases which became rusty because of repetition. The vigor of Colloquialism is evident in his poem ‘The Good Morrow’, as the opening lines given below show:

                        I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we lov'd...

            Donne was the first English poet who has used facts of scientific discoveries of his time in the poetry-- the objects, which are utilized in the laboratories such as compasses, and the globe with the maps of earth pasted on it, and various other objects derived from various branches of science like biology, physics and chemistry etc. Such kind of imagery was entirely unexpected at that time.

Monarch Of Wit

            Donne's poems have plenty of wit, as defined by Dr. Johnson, in relation with the metaphysical poets. His conceits indeed are startling, but ultimately just. The poet often proves their truth. The ability to elaborate a conceit to its farthest possibility without losing the sense of its appropriateness speaks for a high intellectual caliber. The compasses image in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is an intricate conceit which is logically developed by Donne. Moreover his display of wit can be seen in his humorous and satiric remarks as in ‘The Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star’, and ‘The Elegies’.

The paradoxical style of some of his poems also reflect Donne's wit, especially so in ‘The Holy Sonnet, Batter my heart’.

 To conclude, John Donne is a great metaphysical poet because of the rich themes of his poetry, as well as his treatment and structure. The themes of most of his poems are based upon religion and love and thereby indicate the deep-rooted relationship between body and soul and God, man and his own self. His poetic artifice is to put forth arguments in a controversial manner. Thus he shines on the firmament of the history of poetry not only in England but in the whole of European poetry.

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