John Donne and metaphysical poetry

Michael Donkor explains what makes John Donne a metaphysical poet, and looks at the creative and distinctive ways in which Donne used metaphysical techniques.

When we begin exploring John Donne’s verse, the description of him as a ‘metaphysical’ poet is inescapable and so it’s worth considering in detail.

Importantly, Donne and the other 16th- and 17th-century poets gathered under the ‘metaphysical’ banner – Carew, Vaughan and Marvell to name some of the most renowned – didn’t form a cohesive movement in their own time. However, their stylistic similarities – in particular a kind of showy originality and linguistic immediacy – have meant that they have been clustered together for centuries. Some critics such as the 18th-century essayist Samuel Johnson have criticised metaphysical poets for what they saw as their self-conscious cleverness. Others such as the poet T S Eliot have celebrated their inventiveness.

Although it’s important not to lose sight of the differences between these writers, Donne does make use of many typical ‘metaphysical’ features used by others in the group – arresting turns of phrase, conciseness, conceits and an emphasis on the argumentative, for example. We might then, reasonably enough, say that the metaphysical label ‘fits’ his work and leave it there. What warrants further exploration is establishing how – exactly, specifically – Donne makes brilliant and unique use of these techniques.

Arresting language: Questions and imperatives

Questions

Metaphysical poetry is often characterised by the freshness and energy of its narrative voices. Questions – or interrogatives – are devices that Donne powerfully uses to achieve these qualities.

‘The Good Morrow’ demonstrates the richness of questioning in Donne’s work. Here we open in the middle of the action, or in medias res, given immediate access to wandering ‘pillow talk’ between partners. The speaker boldly asks:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved. Were we not wean'd till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the ’seven sleepers' den?

The accumulative nature of the questions here enacts the whirring of an imagination made ‘childishly’ excited by the power of love. Along with the listing, the enjambment of the first line and caesura in the second work together to emphasise the persona’s incredulity at his good fortune: these structural strategies replicate a kind of stuttering in disbelief. Perhaps more than this, these opening phrases trace a dawning realisation about a wasted, worthless past and a transformed present and future. Rather than signalling uncertainty as we might expect interrogatives to do, these phrases are more like assertions. They mark an epiphany, the speaker’s sudden awareness of his and his lover’s changed state.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

First editon of John Donne's Poems, 1633

‘The Good Morrow’ was first printed, two years after Donne’s death, in this 1633 edition.

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A striking barrage of interrogatives also features in 'Woman’s Constancy'. Here, the act of asking serves a very different purpose. In this poem, our narrator is desperate to know:

Now thou hast loved me one whole day,
Tomorrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were?
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?

As in 'Break of Day' where the speaker cheekily demands ‘Why should we rise because ’tis light?/ Did we lie down because ’twas night?’ the start of 'Woman’s Constancy' is playful: these questions are teasing challenges, an arch performance of inferiority designed to draw out assured affirmations of feeling from the beloved. They give the text a kind of circularity, as the playfulness of these opening questions matches the text’s conclusion, where the speaker’s previous worries about his lady’s intentions are coolly seen off with the pithy line ‘For by tomorrow, I may think so too’.

Alternatively, this rapid firing of questions here can be read as combative, as the speaker aggressively silences potential interruptions from his companion. This is a silencing of the female speaker we often encounter in Donne’s work, an aspect of the texts which contemporary readers often find difficult.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

First editon of John Donne's Poems, 1633

‘Woman’s Constancy’ opens with a barrage of playful, teasing questions.

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This more antagonistic function of enquiry chimes with questioning in 'The Canonization'.

Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?

These questions loudly defend the lovers’ rights against powerful external pressures. Interestingly, the speaker’s images here nod towards ideas of voyaging and territorial enlargement. Such motifs of mapping recur throughout Donne’s poetry and reflect the metaphysical interest in the geographical advances and discoveries of the day. In the poem’s questions here, the speaker inverts the associations of these map-making symbols. Rather than being used to express exploratory desires, the persona seeks to preserve some small, enclosed ‘ground’ on which he and his mistress can love untroubled by the prying – and questioning? – of an unfeeling world.

The Mariner's Mirrour, 1588

The Mariner's Mirrour, 1588

This is an English version of the world’s first sea-atlas, translated by Anthony Ashley. The hand-coloured title page is filled with map-making instruments, and a blank globe waiting to be filled in.

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Imperatives

The poem’s imperatives possess the same force, vigour and intent:

For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honour, or his grace,
Or the King's real, or his stamped face
Contemplate, what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

These pointed, cocksure demands undermine the interference of a ‘busy bodying’ individual who disturbs the union between the lover and his partner. Reflecting the more rebellious vein of some metaphysical poetry, imperatives here serve to reduce the ambitions of a grasping ‘jobsworth’ who Donne characterises as engaging in boring, day-to-day activities much less significant than the sacred business of loving.

Commands are used similarly in 'The Sun Rising' too:

... go chide
Late schoolboys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;

The sun is made to limit his controlling to assigned public spheres. Imperatives are correctives, reminding ‘the sun’ that the intimate space of the bedroom is not ‘his’ rightful domain.

Showing the versatility of Donne’s craftsmanship, the fantastically brutal roar that is 'Twicknam Garden' reverberates with commands that operate very differently:

Love, let me
Some senseless piece of this place be;
Make me a mandrake, so I may grow here,
Or a stone fountain weeping out my year.

Orders enable the speaker to vengefully ‘boss around’ the feeling of ‘love’ that has mistreated him so badly. But rather than straightforward utterances of self-aggrandisement, these bullying remarks also have a distinct aftertaste of self-loathing, a trait we often find in the Holy Sonnets – ‘Batter My Heart’ especially. These imperatives are not wholly authoritative. They are, in fact, a reflection of the speaker’s weakened power, and his morbid wish to deaden and disempower himself even further.

Startling simplicity

Another element of metaphysical poetry – perhaps related to these arresting sentence types and one that features prominently across Donne’s love poetry – is flashes of startling simplicity. Though thematic and ideological complexity is characteristic of the work, Donne’s personae sometimes reject the more flowery phrasing favoured by their Elizabethan predecessors in favour of a plainer style. Couplets in 'The Anniversary' attest to this. A year after first meeting his mistress, the speaker assesses their relationship and believes:

All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;

The largely monosyllabic diction, the generalising approach evident in the opening term ‘all’ and the metrical neatness combine to create a clear statement about the endurance of love; one that requires little linguistic ornamentation. The phrase’s minimalism makes it irrefutably conclusive, like some of the constructions in 'The Sun Rising':

She's all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.

The unfussy quality of the writing gives a conversational directness – the feeling of a voice emboldened by love to speak confidently and clearly – and results in lines that are immensely quotable.

Again demonstrating the variety within the body of work, Donne’s conciseness can sometimes be much more subversive and mean-spirited.

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead,
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
… What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee;

The spurned suitor in 'The Apparition' only ‘speaks’ for 17 short lines, but what he succinctly says has piquancy and punch. Here, brevity perhaps reflects the idea that the speaker is so disgusted by the infidelity of his former beloved that he feels she is unworthy of a full explanation from him.

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

‘The Apparition’ is included in this beautiful hand-written anthology made for Sir William Cavendish, the first Duke of Newcastle.

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Conceits

Inventive metaphors – or conceits – and comparisons are perhaps the most widely known hallmark of metaphysical work. In his commentary on this poetry, the 18th-century critic and essayist Samuel Johnson was disturbed by the potential for conceits to ‘violent[ly]’ bring together ‘heterogeneous ideas’. Another, more positive response to these dazzlingly original images is that they make readers revisit well-worn ideas with fresh eyes.

A useful reference point here is 'The Bait', Donne’s buoyant reply to Sir Walter Raleigh’s pastoral poem, 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'. 'The Bait' uses a series of images from the world of fishing to explore the predatory nature of many romantic encounters. Using these images, the speaker characterises his beloved as irresistibly alluring, a woman who possesses temptations much more subtle than the fisherman’s crude forms of entrapment: ‘angling reeds, …strangling snare, or windowy net … sleave-silk flies’. All beings – particularly the speaker – are hopelessly drawn towards the luminous beloved, all ‘amorously [to her] swim’, perhaps in spite of their ‘wiser’ instincts.

This extended metaphor does more than flatter and praise. It is also a comment on the poet’s words themselves. In the same way that the speaker describes how ‘poor fish’ are inexorably pulled to the beloved, the text is also an attempt to entice the addressee to ‘live with [him] and be [his] love’. The poem is, in itself, a kind of ‘bait’, a collection of ‘silken lines, and silver hooks’ designed to reel in the addressee.

'The Flea' uses a conceit as a means of flirtation – and sexual coercion – too.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;

The flea metaphor represents denied sensual pleasure; its tiny scale reflects the insignificance of the woman’s chastity. Its body – containing the blood of speaker and mistress – symbolises the union between the couple. Here is part of the magic of metaphors and one of the reasons they perhaps appealed to the intellectually curious metaphysical poets: metaphors enable readers to see how one image can be stretched to accommodate a range of meanings and associations. They show the thrilling possibilities of language put to poetic use.

Micrographia by Robert Hooke, 1665

Micrographia by Robert Hooke, 1665

This astonishingly detailed illustration of a flea fills a huge fold-out page, 43x33cm. It is part of Robert Hooke’s book of objects seen through a microscope, published 34 years after Donne’s death.

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But, almost embodying the feelings of those bored and – perhaps more aptly – those ‘turned off’ by the speaker’s extended metaphor, towards the end of the text Donne’s mistress becomes a ‘cruel and sudden’ literary critic. She disrupts the speaker’s bombastic flow by killing the flea that inspired him:

… hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

However, the death of the flea doesn’t stop the narrator from creatively connecting the pest’s plight with his own. He prolongs the comparison:

Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me, the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

The speaker’s continued drawing of this parallel, even when it seems to have lost its persuasive power, perhaps leads us to wonder whether he is more enamoured with the artistry of his own conceits – and his own voice – than with the woman next to him.

'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' is another fascinating text to consider in terms of conceits. When reading such poetry we often expect one conceit to extend over the course of a poem. This was an aspect of Donne’s verse that Samuel Taylor Coleridge found especially stimulating. However, 'A Valediction' works differently. The poem’s speaker offers his companion consolation as the two embark on a long period of separation. In order to do this, he calls on a whole host of metaphors and images – the weather, natural disasters, astrological happenings, metallurgy – to describe the durability of their love. There is great compassion in this act: movingly, the speaker is determined to experiment with a whole range of comparisons to find the best one to soothe his partner’s anxieties.

Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in Margaret Bellasys's commonplace book, c. 1630

Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in I. A.'s 17th-century commonplace book

In the 17th century, many readers made collections of their favourite quotes and verses. This one includes Donne’s poem, ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, but with the title ‘Compasse’.

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In the final three quatrains the speaker alights on his most touching and effective analogy:

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 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.

With great elegance, an ordinary mathematical compass is refashioned in Donne’s hands. It becomes a poignant reflection of romantic togetherness and individuality; a beautiful meditation on the reciprocity, balance and sturdiness that we often find underpinning the healthiest and most long lasting of relationships. Pivoting, swinging, standing firm, the compass is here made dancerly: the reader observes it performing a seamless pas de deux, where both partners respond to and support one another intuitively.

16th-century compasses

16th-century compasses

This ornate pair of compasses is part of a set made by Bartholomew Newsum (c. 1530–1587), the clockmaker to Elizabeth I.

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Argumentation

Another distinctly metaphysical aspect of Donne’s writing is the explicit highlighting of the poetry’s rhetorical nature. This interest is also in keeping with the Renaissance appetite for Classical oration. 'A Fever' evidences this quality clearly. While the speaker observes his beloved physically struggling with illness, he undergoes mental suffering. He rails passionately:

But yet thou canst not die, I know;
To leave this world behind, is death,
But when thou from this world wilt go,
The whole world vapours with thy breath.

Or if, when thou, the world’s soul, goest,
It stay, ’tis but thy carcass then,
The fairest woman, but thy ghost,
But corrupt worms, the worthiest men.

As well as revealing heightened, frenzied feeling, these dramatic declarations also demonstrate an emotionally charged mind still able to construct logical, orderly argument. Each of the persona’s ideas occupies its own, designated stanza. Careful endstopping – the punctuation at the end of each line – steadies the pace. Coordinating conjunctions such as ‘but’ and ‘or’ both demonstrate the agility of the persona’s thinking and give linearity to the developing debate. Such features also show a concern with exploring cognition and the ways in which we form and organise our thoughts. This has led to some lively comparisons between this aspect of the poetry and the ‘stream of consciousness’ style adopted by many modernist writers.

This emphasis on debate and intellectual enquiry returns us to the classification of Donne’s writing as ‘metaphysical’. Such a classification draws attention to the ‘philosophical’ leanings of Donne’s work. It also usefully makes reference to the way in which Donne’s poems are often ‘philosophical’ investigations that probe puzzling abstractions. Some might find these complex musings of Donne’s speakers bloodless. However, it might be more rewarding to see them as concerted attempts by impassioned speakers to better understand the wonder of huge ideas – God, mortality, love. Thinking is, for these personae, an act of reverence towards these ideas. It provides potentially nebulous concepts with the substance they deserve, given that they mean so much more than some ‘lovely glorious nothing’.

  • Michael Donkor
  • Michael Donkor is a writer and is currently working on his first novel Hold. He also teaches English Literature at St Paul's Girls' School in London.

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