Essay On Donne As A Metaphysical Poet

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John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England. He is known as the founder of the Metaphysical Poets, a term created by Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth-century English essayist, poet, and philosopher. The loosely associated group also includes George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and John Cleveland. The Metaphysical Poets are known for their ability to startle the reader and coax new perspective through paradoxical images, subtle argument, inventive syntax, and imagery from art, philosophy, and religion using an extended metaphor known as a conceit. Donne reached beyond the rational and hierarchical structures of the seventeenth century with his exacting and ingenious conceits, advancing the exploratory spirit of his time.

Donne entered the world during a period of theological and political unrest for both England and France; a Protestant massacre occurred on Saint Bartholomew's day in France; while in England, the Catholics were the persecuted minority. Born into a Roman Catholic family, Donne's personal relationship with religion was tumultuous and passionate, and at the center of much of his poetry. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in his early teen years. He did not take a degree at either school, because to do so would have meant subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles, the doctrine that defined Anglicanism. At age twenty he studied law at Lincoln's Inn. Two years later he succumbed to religious pressure and joined the Anglican Church after his younger brother, convicted for his Catholic loyalties, died in prison. Donne wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse, and some sacred poems in the 1590s, creating two major volumes of work: Satires and Songs and Sonnets.

In 1598, after returning from a two-year naval expedition against Spain, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. While sitting in Queen Elizabeth's last Parliament in 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Donne's father-in-law disapproved of the marriage. As punishment, he did not provide a dowry for the couple and had Donne briefly imprisoned.

This left the couple isolated and dependent on friends, relatives, and patrons. Donne suffered social and financial instability in the years following his marriage, exacerbated by the birth of many children. He continued to write and published the Divine Poems in 1607. In Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610, Donne displayed his extensive knowledge of the laws of the Church and state, arguing that Roman Catholics could support James I without compromising their faith. In 1615, James I pressured him to enter the Anglican Ministry by declaring that Donne could not be employed outside of the Church. He was appointed Royal Chaplain later that year. His wife died in 1617 at thirty-three years old shortly after giving birth to their twelfth child, who was stillborn. The Holy Sonnets are also attributed to this phase of his life.

In 1621, he became dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral. In his later years, Donne's writing reflected his fear of his inevitable death. He wrote his private prayers, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, during a period of severe illness and published them in 1624. His learned, charismatic, and inventive preaching made him a highly influential presence in London. Best known for his vivacious, compelling style and thorough examination of mortal paradox, John Donne died in London on March 31, 1631.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Satires (1593)
Songs and Sonnets (1601)
Divine Poems (1607)
Psevdo-Martyr (1610)
An Anatomy of the World (1611)
Ignatius his Conclaue (1611)
The Second Anniuersarie. Of The Progres of the Soule (1611)
An Anatomie of the World (1612)
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
Deaths Dvell (1632)
Ivvenilia (1633)
Poems (1633)
Sapientia Clamitans (1638)
Wisdome crying out to Sinners (1639)

Prose

Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651)
A Collection of Letters, Made by Sr Tobie Mathews, Kt. (1660)

Essays

A Sermon Vpon The VIII. Verse Of The I. Chapter of The Acts Of The Apostles (1622)
A Sermon Vpon The XV. Verse Of The XX. Chapter Of The Booke Of Ivdges (1622)
Encania. The Feast of Dedication. Celebrated At Lincolnes Inne, in a Sermon there upon Ascension day (1623)
Three Sermons Upon Speciall Occasions (1623)
A Sermon, Preached To The Kings Mtie. At Whitehall (1625)
The First Sermon Preached To King Charles (1625)
Fovre Sermons Upon Speciall Occasions (1625)
Five Sermons Vpon Speciall Occasions (1626)
A Sermon Of Commemoration Of The Lady Dãuers (1627)
Six Sermons Vpon Severall Occasions (1634)
LXXX Sermons (1640)
Biathanatos: A Declaration of that Paradoxe, or Thesis that Selfe-homicide is not so (1644)
Naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise (1647)
Essayes in Divinity (1651)

Samuel Johnson, who came up with the term "metaphysical" to describe seventeenth-century poets like Donne, stated that in their poems,

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

What Johnson means here is that this group of poets groped to...

Samuel Johnson, who came up with the term "metaphysical" to describe seventeenth-century poets like Donne, stated that in their poems,

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

What Johnson means here is that this group of poets groped to find striking metaphors or images that moved beyond the smooth commonplaces of Elizabethan poetry. It had become hackneyed and worn out, for example, to compare your lover's cheeks to roses or hair to gold wires, so the metaphysicals worked to come up with more interesting words and ideas. They deliberately tried to put together ideas that wouldn't, at first glance, seem to fit together--this was done to surprise people and make them think. Johnson grudgingly admits this strategy works--their learning instructs and their technique surprises, but in his opinion, the reader has to work too hard at understanding what the poems mean for the reward to be worth the effort.

Donne fits Johnson's description of a metaphysical poet. If we use one section of a famous Donne poem, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," we can illustrate how a startling and unusual metaphor yokes together an idea:

If they be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two; / Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if th' other do. / And though it in the centre sit, / Yet, when the other far doth roam, / It leans, and hearkens after it, / And grows erect, as that comes home. / Such wilt thou be to me, who must, / Like th' other foot, obliquely run; / Thy firmness makes my circle just / And makes me end where I begun.

In the above, Donne compares a compass—the tool with which you draw a circle—to the relationship between his lover and himself. No matter how one "foot" or leg of the compass moves, the other stays still firm and fixed and holds the moving "foot" (i.e., lover) in place. It is unusual to compare lovers to the two legs of a compass and even more so to connect that image to sexual desire: "grow erect, as that comes home." And as Johnson points out, this is not a poem one can pull the meaning out of through a quick reading—it requires work and effort. Donne uses this kind of imagery all the time in his poems, and today we have a greater appreciation of this startling technique than did Johnson.

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