Metaphysical Poetry: An Introduction to John Donne
John Donne1572-1631, London, EnglandRepresentative metaphysical poet Lovers’ eyeballs threaded on a string. A god who assaults the human heart with a battering ram. A teardrop that encompasses and drowns the world. John Donne’s poems abound with startling images, some of them exalting and others grotesque. With his strange and playful intelligence, expressed in puns, paradoxes and elaborately sustained metaphors know as “conceits” Donne has enthralled (and sometimes enraged) reader from his day to our own (Norton). • Contemporary of Shakespeare, 1564-1616
The Early Seventeenth Century • 1603: Death of Elizabeth; accession of James I, first Stuart king of England. Religious tension mounted during King James’s reign • 1605: The Gunpowder Plot, a failed effort by Catholic extremists to blow up Paliament and the King • 1620: Arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World aboard the Mayflower • 1625: Death of James; accession of Charles I • 1642: Outbreak of Civil War; theaters closed
Sound and Content (Norton) • The early seventeenth century saw important changes in poetic fashion. Several prominent Elizabethan genres were no longer in evidence (sonnet sequences, pastoral poems), nor were stylistic features such as nature imagery and florid ornament. The norm was coming to be short, very concentrated poems in a colloquial and often witty “plain” style. • The major poets of these years, Donne, Jonson, and George Herbert, led this shift. • The poetry itself uses rough everyday rhythms of language – it is not gentle poetry – and is often used as an argument: Donne engages with God, himself, his spouse, science, and elements of the natural world.
John Donne was born in London 1572 into a devout Roman Catholic household • They suffered heavily for their loyalty to the Catholic Church • He was a Catholic growing up in Protestant England during decades when anti-Roman feeling reached new heights. • At some point in the 1590’s, having returned to London with travels abroad, he converted to the English church.
What is metaphysical poetry? • The term “metaphysical” was first used derogatively by John Dryden to describe John Donne’s work. Dryden’s accusation was aimed at Donne’s references to science and philosophy (a great departure from sing-song, “lovey-dovey” poetry), and his “unnatural” engagement with intellectual ideas. • Ben Johnson too employed the term 'metaphysical poets', apparently having Donne, Cleveland, and Cowley chiefly in mind. He remarks of them that their poems yoked 'the most heterogeneous ideas…by violence together'.
Donne continued • Donne uses witty, often sexually-based metaphors. In a poem about undressing his mistress, for example, Donne writes, “Oh! my America, my newfound land!” comparing the revelation of her body to the discovery of a new continent. He also employs the word “death” (fully intending the double entendre) to suggest both death itself and sexual activity, hence, the lines, “I die and rise in thee again” carry a physical, sexually-charged resonance.
Religion • “[Donne’s] early work, collected in Satires and in Songs and Sonnets, was released in an era of religious oppression… The intensity with which Donne grapples with concepts of divinity and mortality is exemplified in “Sonnet X [Death, be not proud],” “Sonnet XIV” [Batter my heart, three person’d God],” both of which we will examine in detail in the next few days.
Commentary • Metaphysical poets are revered for “their intricacy and their originality,” as well as a “poetic style in which philosophical and spiritual subjects [are] approached with reason and often [conclude] in paradox. This group of writers established meditation—based on the union of thought and feeling...” (Academy of American Poets).
Poetry in the Academy • As a group, these poets were eclipsed by the Romantic and Victorian poets, but T.S Eliot brought their work back into the academic sphere because he “saw in this group of poets a capacity for ‘devouring all kinds of experience.’”
“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” • One of Donne’s friends, Izaac Walton, reported that this poem was written to Donne’s wife when Donne went to the Continent in 1611. “Valediction”: a departure speech or discourse; a bidding of farewell. • In this poem, Donne, “[elaborates]…a figure of speech to the furthest stage to which [his] ingenuity can carry it.” That is, Donne compares two lovers to the legs of a compass, and this unlikely comparison, or conceit, carries the poem.