John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne
Portrait of Donne in a great hat by unknown English artist, c1595. © Estate of Lord Lothian.   This is possibly the painting ‘taken in shadows’ to which he refers in his will.

John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’  originally published in 1921.  This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked.  Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication.  This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect.  It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.

Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends.  Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.

Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste.  As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education.  He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry.  It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day.  When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’.  One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.

The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’.  Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics.  Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.

Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works.  Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career.  The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known.  The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.

What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular? 

What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration.  Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven.  This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases.  For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw.

Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed.  It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.  To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.

His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines.  Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic.  Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare.  Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage.  Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc. 

(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement.  We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World.  Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)

This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue.  The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem.  Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments.  In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner.  He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis.  The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative.  What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds.  What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation.  In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.  The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155).   The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits …

All other things to their destruction draw.

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow.  He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns.  While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.

A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit.  The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English.  Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice.  The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets.  Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits.  The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’  This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere.  But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’). 

A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone.  The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge.  No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.

The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’).  Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high.  Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’).  We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry. 

This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love.  This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’.  We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker.  The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic.  The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future.  In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity. 

The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery.  Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy.  In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety.  Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of  ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.

The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.  It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).

Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem.  Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic.  Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.  Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.

Conclusions

Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).

With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity.  The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader.  At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’.  At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.

Further Reading

You might also like to read related blog posts by the same author:

An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry

An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

Works Referred to

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley

Works Cited

T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets“.  First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921.

Winny, J., A Preface to Donne, Longman, 1970.

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