McDaniel Lectures on British Poetry


The Lover as Logician

Donne's Poetry Allies Intellect and Passions

When he donned the vestments of an Anglican priest in 1615 at Old St. Paul's Cathedral, John Donne could comfort himself with the fact that whatever his spiritual impulses were, he had certainly solved his patronage problem. His impulsive marriage in 1602 had led to social and economic near-disaster for the young son of a wealthy Catholic ironmonger. But in taking holy orders and its vocational security, he would have to change poetic subjects; the rakish verbal pyrotechnics of the young poet (Ben Jonson said Donne wrote his best poems before he was 25) would have to give way to more sober poetic expressions. Donne's amorous poetry, so central today to the study of the Late English Renaissance traditions suffered a dramatic loss of readership in the two centuries following his death in 1631. (The famous Victorian anthology, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, contained only one Donne poem, and it a counterfeit one.) His major effect on 18th century poetry was that he and the school of intellectual poets who shared his poetic vision were scolded severely by Samuel Johnson, the self-appointed arbiter of Neoclassical taste. In his "Life of Cowley," Dr. Johnson complained of what he considered the ostentatious "yoking by violence together" of the most incongruous ideas that characterized the school of Dr. Donne. Since their metaphorical drew analogies that transcended apparent physical resemblance, Johnson derided them as unnecessarily Metaphysical. Like Methodism and Impressionism, this label, intended to insult, became the standard term.

Many an English literature sophomore has lodged Donne in a special place in their literary pantheon because of a heterogeneity that verges on the schizoid. As Jack Donne, the rake and adventurer with the Earl of Essex, he dazzled London poetic circles in the 1590s with his highly ornate, more than slightly frank amorous poems. As a poet who could write of the man-woman relationship with misogynistic sarcasm and Petrarchan idealism, Donne often resorted to metaphors of divine love to explain the human bond. After his conversion and ordination, when Donne turned his pen to devotional verse, he found analogies to divine love in the sexual union.

But it took scholarly encouragement for the 20th century to turn to Donne. Grierson's monumental edition of Donne's poetry evoked a good deal of critical response, including a review of the book by the young Anglo-American scholar T.S. Eliot in 1922. The anti-Victorian literary mind was ready for an intellectually compelling, highly cynical poet to counteract a century of post-Romantic emotionalism and Victorian High Seriousness. The New Critical Mind, led by Cleanth Brooks's adulation of Donne in The Well Wrought Urn, found intellectual delight and nourishment in Donne's ornate metaphors. English professors of the 20th century, down through the deconstructionists, have reveled in Donne's richness of wit and allusion.

Characteristics of Metaphysical Verse

In John Donne's love poetry, both the cynical and the idealistic, we see those traits which led Dr. Johnson to dislike Donne and Eliot and Brooks to find him fascinating. The first is an intense dramatic sense. After all, Donne was writing verse in the Golden Age of the English Renaissance stage, and in his fancy-free days he was known as a dramatic aficionado. Donne poems like the song "Go and catch a falling star" and "The Flea" are dramatic monologues, not unlike those that Browning and Tennyson would write in the 19th century. For example, "The Flea" is a speech delivered by a would-be lover to a reluctant lady, and the careful reader can discern her actions (and reactions) to his supplications. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" is a speech to a lachrymose wife.

The second characteristic is a dependence on intellectualism. Flying in the face of post-Renaissance tradition of couching amorous verse in emotionally intense poems such as Shakespeare's sonnets and the elegant lyrics of the Tribe of Ben, Donne demands that those who read his verse treat the "metaphysical conceits" as riddles.How is a love affair like a flea? How are two lovers like the phoenix bird? And, in the most celebrated simile of all, how are a happily married couple similar to a draftsman's compass? Dr. Johnson was unimpressed with the riddles, and 19th century, weaned on Byronic effusions, ignored them. But the post-Victorians, cloyed with sentiment, were ready to use their brains.

Third, we see in Donne's verse a rhetorical stance that probably stemmed from his days at the Inns of Court when he still saw for himself a legal career. The complaining lover in "The Flea" uses the messages of both science and religion to argue that their dalliance is justifiable. The narrator of "The Sun Rising" disputes with the sun itself, using every solar movement to fit his case. But it is his highly conversational tone of Donne's poetry which strikes the modern reader as being most akin to the modern poetic vision, freed from both neoclassical baggage and necromantic rhapsodizing. In the opening of a mock hymn to the morning sun, Donne has his persona chide the sun as a "busy old fool, unruly sun." The idealistic love-hymn The Canonization has the lover rudely dismiss his friend's advice: "For God's sake, hold you tongue, and let me love." But as arresting as this colloquial tone might have been to a belletristic culture accustomed to oratory, it pales in comparison to the unorthodox, even shocking comparisons, the "combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unalike" that upset Dr. Johnson.

Courtly Love Turned to Contempt

Those who turn to Donne's amorous verse will be first impressed by the antifeminist drift to much of it. To be sure, misogyny had found a voice in Shakespeare and almost everyone else, but in Donne the resentment of the moral falsity of women is notably caustic. Consider the song "Go and catch a falling star." The poet's persona gives a companion a whole list of things to do, a catalogue of impossibilities, running from the mythological, such as the opening line and the vulgar call to impregnate a mandrake root, to the realistic, such as learning to stave off envy or "find[ing]/ What wind/ Serves to advance an honest mind." Though the companion might be "born to strange sights" and "ride ten thousand days and nights," he will not be able to come back and tell the narrator that he has found "a woman true, and fair." The narrator then changes his mind, saying that if a woman who was beautiful and faithful could be found, "such a pilgrimage" would be "sweet" to make. Then he reverts to his contempt for the sex. Though he might find this fabled woman of both beauty and virtue "at next door," he would not make the journey, since though her virtue might last "till you write your letter," she could have trysted with "two, or three."

Donne utilizes the medieval courtly-love tradition in "The Apparition" as he threatens his Elizabethan la belle dame sans merci who has scorned his supplications He imagines that the exaggeration of the lover's complaint might actually come to pass and he would die of her denial, freeing her from his requests. Then his ghost would come to the bed of this "feigned vestal" and find her "in worse arms." In the presence of his ghost, her candle with flicker, and in her fear she will try to wake her new lover. "And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,/ Will, if thou stir or pinch to wake him, think/ Thou call'st for more,/ And in false sleep, will from thee shrink." She will, in her fearful "quicksilver sweat" be more ghostly than he. He refuses to tell her what he will accuse her of then, since now that his love is "spent," he wants her to be tortured by the anticipation of his ghostly visitation.

These two poems are infused with anger of the spurned lover. But Donne could also play the courtly suitor. The most famous of his poems in this vein is the extended conundrum "The flea," which is the most well-known and the best example of a whole tradition of flea poems in Renaissance erotica. It opens with the colloquial request for his coy mistress to "mark but this flea," and therein see how little that favor which she is withholding from him is. Having taken blood from both of them, it is now emblematic of their would-be union. And in this flea our two bloods mingled be. Yet the flea's actions caused no "sin or shame, or loss of maidenhead." The woman threatens to kill the flea, but he begs her not to, since "This flea is you and 1, and this/ Our marriage bed and marriage temple is." Their two lives are "cloistered in these living walls of jet," no matter what she objections she or her parents have. In a masterpiece of pseudo-theological logic, he argues that in killing the insect, she would be committing three sins: murder (her sexual reluctance, in the courtly-love tradition, is killing him); suicide (shedding the flea's blood is also shedding her blood); and sacrilege (the flea being the temple in which their wedding has taken place). But she "purples her nail" anyway, and he scolds her for her shedding "blood of innocence." He then turns his argument around to make that serve his purpose. He asks her to note how little effect that act has had on her. "Yet thou triumph'st," but she finds herself nonetheless vulnerable or shamed. That should be testimony, he says, that yielding her virginity to him will cost her no loss of honor.

‘But we by a love so much refined'

Modern readers, especially those of either sex who have any degree of feminist sensibility, will most likely find John Donne's misogynistic verse tiresome sophistry. The question remains as to whether those poems of his which continue in the Petrarchan tradition exculpate him to any extent. In "The Sun Rising," Donne follows in the aubade tradition of the song to the rising sun. (Cf. Romeo's "But soft! What light through yon window breaks?/ It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.") He rebukes the sun for waking him and his beloved. Echoing sentiments in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, he frees love from temporal demands: "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, months days, which are the rage of time." In the same fashion that he will mock Death in the most famous of his Holy Sonnets, he demeans the sun, saying that he could shut the sun's beams out at any time by closing his eyes, but he would thereby lose sight of her. Using the Petrarchan conceit that Shakespeare mocks in the opening line of Sonnet 130, Donne tells the sun that if her eyes "have not blinded thine," it should report the next day where the richness of the world lay—in the spice-and-gold rich Indies or in their bedroom. "She is all states, all princes, I./ Nothing else is." All the world's pageantry and honor is but a imperfect imitation of their exalted state, made so by love, which has made them "an everywhere," a microcosm of all that is of value in the world.

The most celebrated of Donne's amorous poems (and one of the most esoteric) is "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," which Donne's biographer tells us was composed before he made a trip to the Continent. (This poem demonstrates also the price that Donne pays for his verbal game-playing; this love poem, like most of Donne's poetry, is virtually devoid of lyrical charm. As Coleridge cogently observed, Donne's verse "does not sing.") Written in tetrameter quatrains, the poem is a farewell, but one that calls for no weeping. The persona says to her that their separation should be as unobtrusive as the passing of a holy man, so quiet that the rest of the world would not know when body and spirit had separated. "‘Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love." The language of the church provides him with his metaphor. Just as in "The Canonization," in which the lover defends himself for his removal from the world by saying that he and his beloved are saints to love, Donne has his persona claim that he and his beloved are the clergy, and making public their marital happiness with a tearful embarkation would be a desecrating of their love.

The rest of the poem is a series of academic analogies drawn from the unromantic worlds of astronomy, geography, chemistry, and geometry. Their separation will be as innocent as an erratic orbit in one of the outer spheres—purer because they are closer to Heaven. It is a love that has been through the crucible of refinement that "Interassured of the mind/ Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss." His going away merely expands the wedding ring, the symbol of their union, "Like gold to airy thinness beat."

The poem concludes with the most famous of Metaphysical comparisons, the finding of intellectually ostentatious, arcane correspondences that have led some, such as the 20th century poet W.H. Auden to brand Donne an "insufferable prima donna." The narrative voice concedes that if she cannot accept the expanded wedding-ring analogy, he will offer yet another. "If they be two, they are two so/ As stiff twin compasses are two;/ Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show/ To move, but if th' other do." He explains the analogy: she is to stay in London, firm in place, while he moves around. The compass flattens out as the roving point moves, but straightens out the closer it comes to the "fixed foot." (Donne uses language that heightens the sexual dimension to the union: "grows erect as it comes home.") The wife provides the fixity that makes the circle correct, bringing the narrator back to where the place from which he began, as suitable a metaphor for love as any Petrarchan figure.