Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Required Poet: John Donne

So, I finished reading the required works from John Donne, and while I am grateful that his poetry didn’t take very long to read, I am still not okay that this stuff is required. I barely understand any of it and I find it incredibly boring to read, discuss, or even think about. But that is just me. Nevertheless, selected works by John Donne are required and I will do my best to discuss them in detail here. If there is anything I missed please, please, please feel free to comment. I cannot stress enough that poetry is not, in any way, my strong point.


Donne wrote satire, love poetry, elegies, and sermons. He was considered the most undisputed leader of the Metaphysical School of Poetry, but I’ll discuss that literary movement more in the history section.

Seven of the works on the M.A. list fall under the category of Songs and Sonnets in the edition I am using (The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne by The Modern Library Classics). Elegy 19 (To His Mistress Going to Bed”) is obviously, well, an elegy, and “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” is considered a Divine Poem. The list then includes three Holy Sonnets, and then the very last entry on the list is “Meditation 17” from Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Clearly, this guy was versatile and did not stick with one formula, giving us a lot to work with.


Donne’s work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion. He was considered to be a master of the metaphysical conceit: an extended metaphor that combines two different ideas into a single one, often while using imagery. An example of this can be seen in “The Canonization.” And unlike Petrarchan conceits, which formed conceits between two similar subjects, metaphysical conceits go deeper by taking two mismatched ideas. This can be seen in “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.”

Donne was also a fan of using wit, paradoxes, abrupt openings, dislocations, argumentative structure, puns, and subtle analogies. His poetry is oftentimes ironic and cynical, especially when dealing with love, death, and religion. His poetry represented the shift from classical forms to more personal poetry.


The metaphysical poets were a group of British lyric poets of the 17th century who were interested in metaphysical concerns and a common means of investigating them. Interestingly enough, these poets were not formally affiliated, and a lot of them did not even know or read each other. Their poetry was influenced by the changing times, new sciences, and the debauched scene of the 17th century.

The chronology of Donne’s poetry is not known for sure, but scholars generally believe that the majority of his Elegies and Satires, and possibly the Songs and Sonnets, were written during his student years. Much of his youth was fraught with religious doubt as he went back and forth between the doctrines of Catholicism and the Anglican Church. By the mid 1590s, Donne had quietly abandoned the Catholic Church, and in 1615, he took up orders with the Anglican Church due to intense pressure from James I. He is commemorated as a priest in the calendar of the Church of England and in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31st.

Now, I will attempt to go through the poems on the list one by one and highlight the major key points. Let’s take a deep breath, and begin…

The Flea

Category: Songs and Sonnets
Okay, for me this poem gets the “icky” award, not only for being about a flea, but because of the entire general theme and tone. Donne flexes his metaphysical conceit muscle by likening a flea to a romance. The narrator is pointing out the flea to his beloved and basically attempting to convince her that because the flea bit them both, and is therefore mixing both of their blood in the same tiny body (uniting them in a way), it is as if they are already married, and therefore, there is no harm in them sleeping together. See? Icky.
Standout line: And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee

Song. “Go and catch a falling star”

Category: Songs and Sonnets
Basically, according to Donne in this poem, it is impossible to find a woman that is both attractive and faithful to one man. The list of impossible tasks at the beginning is, for the narrator, just as impossible as finding a faithful woman. The tone switches around between magical, bitter, self-pitying, mocking, and even bossy.
Standout line: Teach me to hear Mermaids singing

The Canonization

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The speaker is apparently being criticized by the unknown addressee for being in love, and the narrator would like for said addressee to leave him alone and let him love. He even asks the unknown person to criticize anything else about him, but to at least let him love. The speaker argues that no one is being hurt by his love, and he even believes that poetry that will be subsequently written about him and his lover will cause them to be canonized and admitted to the sainthood of love.
Standout line: Call us what you will, we are made such by love

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The poem is a nocturnal – a reflective and somber meditation. It takes place at midnight on the day of the winter solstice (“Being the shortest day”). It appears the narrator’s lover has died and he is now reflecting on how that love has changed him. Actually, he is more reflecting on how the love has “ruined” him. This is definitely one of the poems that was the hardest for me to understand, but this is what I got.
Standout line: Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not

A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The speaker is being forced to spend time apart from his lover, but before he leaves he explains to her that their goodbye should not be full of mourning and sorrow. Their love is refined enough to where they should not lament the loss and absence of “eyes, lips, and hands.” Donne then likens the two loves to the feet on a compass (there is that metaphysical stuff again).
Standout line: So let us melt, and make no noise

A Lecture upon the Shadow

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The shadows are cares and fears that the two lovers have. Just like shadows disappear and reappear with the movement of the people and the sun, so do the couples cares and fears. The shadows or fears of the afternoon are different from the ones in the morning. Some are fears that the two lovers created themselves, others sneak up on them from behind, and still others slowly grow longer through out the day.
Standout line: Love is a growing, or full constant light

Twickenham Garden

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The poet is sad because he is in love with a married woman who cannot reciprocate his feelings. He goes into the garden to cheer himself up, but he is too sad for it to work. He surmises that the only way to feel better is to become a part of the garden himself. He then asserts that if the tears of a lover are not like his, then they are not genuine tears.
Standout line: Or a stone fountain weeping out my years

Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed

Category: Elegies
This one gets an “icky” award too. It is bedtime, and by the end of the poem the narrator is naked and he asserts “What needst thou have more covering than a man.” I really don’t think I need to say anything more than that.
Standout line: Lincence my roaving hands, and let them go

Holy Sonnet 10 (Death be not proud)

Category: Holy Sonnets
It appears that the narrator is basically asserting that death is not that big a deal. The tone suggests more of a personal victory over death as opposed to death being the great conqueror. The narrator addresses death as if it were an equal or even an inferior, but definitely not a superior. It also almost seems as if the narrator is mocking death because he sees death as lasting only but a moment before the person goes off to heaven.
Standout line: One short sleep past, we wake eternally

Holy Sonnet 14 (Batter my heart)

Category: Holy Sonnets
This poem is about the union between God and man. The narrator wants God to come in and break his heart, and the only way for him to stand firm in his faith is if God come in and takes over completely. The narrator’s heart has been taken over completely the enemy, but he cannot let God take over again because he is still in union with sin and tends to take on traits of the enemy. He wants God to take him and imprison him, which would actually be more like freedom as opposed to slavery.
Standout line: That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee’, and bend

Holy Sonnet 17 (Since she whom I lov’d)

Category: Holy Sonnets
From what I can tell, the narrator’s lover has died (it just keeps happening doesn’t it?), so now his mind is constantly on heaven because that is where he believes her to be. Since his mind has been drawn to heaven, and it is also, consequently, drawn to God and to seeking him. He feels he ahs found God and that his thirst for him has been fed, but he still longs for something more (basically someone else to love). But he then questions his desire for another love as he still thinks about his about old one, and he now gives his love to Saints and Angels, not the flesh.
Standout line: And her Soule early into heaven ravished

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Category: Divine Poems
Profound religious insights accompanied by sincere personal penance. It contains intricate religious logic and deals with the poets understanding of himself in relation to God. The devotion of human begins to God keeps them on the right path. In the end, the narrator reflects on being glad not to have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. He then implores God to punish him so that he may be more like Christ.
Standout line: Could I behold those hands which span the Poles

Meditation 17 (from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

This is the only work by Donne on the list that is not a poem. It appears to be more of an essay than anything else. The Devotions themselves are a series of reflections written by Donne as he recovered from a serious illness. The devotions are divided up into 23 parts, each describing a different stage of the sickness. The parts are then further divided in Meditations. Meditation 17 from the M.A. list is part of Devotion 17, in which the narrator is preparing for death. It is the origin of the phrase “No man is an island,” and it is where Ernest Hemingway got the title for his book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The idea that no man is an island is the general theme for the entire meditation. The smallest action that happens to any member of a community affects the entire community. At this point in his illness, Donne felt like the bell was tolling for him, telling him that he was near death.

And there we have it. I can’t believe I did it, but I did. I guarantee you that as soon as I am done with this test, this collection of work by John Donne that I have been flipping through for the last two hours is going right back to Half-Price Books. I am sure there is someone out there who can appreciate it way more than me.

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