John Donne


Question 3. Bring out what you consider to be the most distinctive features of Donne as a love poet in comparison with a sixteenth century predecessor. Illustrate your answer with analysis of specific poems or passages, considering both themes and style.


John Donne is invariably regarded as being a metaphysical poet. As a metaphysical poet Donne often employed new, avant-garde, styles when writing. Donne typically used his metaphysical wit to write about love, religion or politics, often combining these themes in a way that his predecessors had never explored. As a love poet Donne displays some very distinctive features, so distinctive in fact; these features make Donne’s portrayals of love instantly recognisable. Donne is the master of incongruity in his handling of the love poem. Where the sonnets of Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser could be mistaken for one or the other, Donne’s expressions of love are unique. While any of these sixteenth century sonneteers’ work would amply illustrate Donne’s most distinctive features as a love poet when juxtaposed with his work, it is the work of Edmund Spenser which assists in highlighting these features most dramatically. Donne’s poetry is starkly different to that of Spenser’s. Both write about love with great panache but go about it in very different ways. Hyperbole is a common feature of Donne’s love poetry where as Spenser’s metaphors never escape the realms of nature. Donne’s writing style is also very distinct, often not adhering as strictly to the poetic conventions of love poetry as Spenser did. Where Spenser was a great believer in the conventional sounds of lilting romantic poetry; Donne did not see the need, creating blunt and edgy verse at times.


Donne’s otherworldly comparisons are extremely characteristic of his love poems. “A Valediction: of Weeping” is an example of a love poem where Donne utilises hyperbole to do justice to his feelings.


“O more than moon,


Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,


Weep me not dead, in thine arms.


(A Valediction: of Weeping ll. 19-21)


Donne’s lover is more than the moon because she draws seas of salt tears up in to the heaven of her arms where he lies weeping with her.” (Reid, David, The Metaphysical Poets, Longman 2000)


Reid goes on to further interpret Donne’s use of hyperbole;


“All, the whole world, is not enough to make pictures of his grief, so fantastically cancels and improves on the shape of the universe to give himself to the melodrama of parting.”(Reid, David, The Metaphysical Poets, Longman 2000)


In “The canonization” Donne also uses hyperbole to great effect. Firstly, the title alone gives the subsequent love poem much gravity as it is saints who are “canonized”. However it is stanza number three which exaggerates and embellishes upon the union of two lovers making it very characteristic of Donne.


“Call us what you will, We are made such by love;


Call her one, me another fly,


We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,


And we in us find the eagle and the dove.


The phoenix riddle hath more wit


By us: we two being one, are it.


So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.


We die and rise the same, and prove


Mysterious by love.”


(The Canonization ll: 19-27, Norton Anthology)


The union of two lovers to create a new being at the point of climax is emphatic enough as a proclamation of love but the fact that the new being is the mythical phoenix further emphasises Donne’s point. The phoenix is said to have been “consumed by fire, then rose triumphantly from its ashes as a new bird.” In addition the phoenix is also said to represent “immortality” and sometimes Christ. This would also tie in with another of Donne’s characteristics; that of using two heterogeneous subjects it tandem to create emphasis. Here Donne exploits the religious connotations of “canonization” and the phoenix next to the explicit portrayals of sexual intercourse. This would have doubtlessly been controversial at the time. Spenser on the other hand uses quite sedate imagery and avoids controversy in his love poetry. He also finds tangible aspects of nature sufficient when drawing comparisons to his love. No need for mythical resurrections or, as Reid puts it, ‘lunar disaster’. As part of Spenser’s Amoretti (little