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Metaphysical Poetry of John Donne
Donne's life and work are filled with occurrences that are reflected as paradoxical images in his work. The secret marriage with his wife, Ann for example resulted in Donne's imprisonment as a result of the disapproval of her father. Donne also loses his powerful political position as a result of this and years of financial hardship follow. The couple is however extremely happy together and the death of Donne's wife in 1617 left him with seven surviving children from a total of twelve (Winny 35). This event left Donne with a spiritual crises that is exacerbated by his declining health in later years. A theme through much of his religious poetry is therefore the conflict that exists between his physical and his spiritual self. Donne lives with a continual feeling of spiritual inadequacy. This is especially shown in his later religious poetry, where the poet shows a kind of terror at the thought of being judged for what he sees as his own mortal and helpless sinfulness.
The paradox that is part of Donne's life is thus depicted most accurately in his religious poetry, whereas his love poetry depicts a more passionate reality that is free of the conflict of religious convention.
It is thus clear that Donne's poetry reflects the paradoxical complexity of his life. On the one hand he is the devoted Christian, and on the other he is the ambitious materialist. This paradox would plague Donne throughout his life. Below Donne's work is discussed in terms of this complexity, depicted by means of his metaphysical wit, his religious devotion and the violent yoke for which he has been often criticized by his contemporaries.
In fact, throughout Donne's Holy Sonnets, there is a lack of the spontaneous passion found in his love poetry. Instead his religious poems are filled with a paradigm of effort (Gardner 133).
Donne's metaphysical wit was most often displayed in his love poetry. This is brilliantly meshed with the paradoxical element in his poem "Canonization" (Brooks 48). The central paradox in this poem is Donne's treatment of "profane" love, or love between man and woman as if it is divine love. The poet speaks to a listener who is critical and contemptuous of the love that he feels for another human being. The poet however maintains that the physical love depicted in the poem can be as profound as a divine love.
There are many parallels that can be drawn throughout the poem between divine and the secular love depicted here. In the same way as a religious devotee would be entirely separated from the world in favor of religion, the lovers in the poem choose each other in favor of the world. Thus the physical pleasure derived from their love paradoxically becomes spiritual.
The wit in this poem resides in the way that the love paradox is treated. The poet acknowledges that absurd Patrarchan metaphors are often associated with the secular love that is the central theme of the poem. The poet appears to mock the very love that he defends by using these very absurdities in his lines (Brooks 51). Furthermore he parodizes religious canonization by applying it to secular love. The lovers are canonized as saints to be examples to all lovers of the future. Thus death becomes the gateway to a more intense love which is consciously chosen in favor of love. The poem thus becomes an affirmation of value in things that are seen by some as trite, worldly and unworthy. Donne's wit serves to bring across a serious theme.
Donne's love poetry thus appears to fulfill the ideal that he could never reach in his religious consciousness.
Donne furthermore demonstrates with in the poems "The Flea" and "Love's Infiniteness." The central image in "The Flea" appears trivial, and in the end the poet uses it to justify his enjoyment from physical love. "Love's Infiniteness" on the other hand again depicts love as the ultimate extremity that can never be satisfied. The poem is filled with irony and a sense of near hopelessness for the requirements of a love so vast that it can never be fulfilled.
The above demonstrates Eliot's (181) point that the metaphysical poets, and Donne in particular, use language as vehicles of sensation and experience. Donne, especially in his love poetry, uses words in order to depict what he feels. This accords for the extreme passion found in these works. The language used in his religious poetry however depicts a far less emotional state.
Religion is probably the area of Donne's life in which he experienced most of his lifelong conflict. After his wife died, he promised his children never to remarry (Winny 35). He thus exchanges his world of secular with love for the world of the divine. He is ordained by the Anglican church and proceeds to draw large audiences to his sermons. He paradoxically however experiences great spiritual upheaval and uncertainty. Many of his religious poems then depict a sense of uncertainty regarding his own adequacy as a faithful servant of God.
His increasing uncertainty in spiritual matters is then also marked by increasing ill health. Donne is unwilling or unable to rid himself of a feeling of extreme sinfulness. "Loves Usury"
This is reminiscent of the hopelessness the poet feels with regard to his own religious worthiness.
A depicts the conflict between the physical and the spiritual. The poet implores God to help him in his quest for greater spirituality. The pleasures of the flesh and of the world are juxtaposed against the piety of service to God. The poet is torn by his equally strong tendencies to achieve things in the world and to become more spiritual.
According to Gardner (124) the Holy Sonnets have been written to give the reader (and God, to whom they are directed) an offering of beauty and dignity. The two central images here are those of the soul and of God. The soul struggles with the paradox of faith in God's mercy and its own sense of desperate unworthiness (Gardner 130). This is shown on various occasions in the Sonnets when the poet, feeling weak, implores God to take over the struggle towards greater holiness from him Sonnet (XIV). His predicament resides in the fact that he is an intensely physical man, but he also profoundly and desperately feels the call to be a spiritual man. The image of God is depicted as profoundly holy, unfailing in mercy, and also as the savior. It is in this that the poet finds hope. God the savior is indeed able to redeem the poet, regardless of the whatever sins he is unable to forget.
Rather than the expression of passionate and rapturous feeling found in the love poetry then, Donne's religious poetry is marked by faith rather than vision. There is an effort of will, whereas romantic love is spontaneous. Being faithful requires the poet to make a continuous effort.
Thus there is a lack of ecstasy which is balanced with the profundity of the poet's paradoxical fear and faith in Christ as savior and victor over sin and death.
This in fact appears to be true since the beginning of Donne's marriage to Ann. She is for him the unity of secular and divine love, and his thoughts are turned increasingly towards holiness.
Donne's own feelings of inadequacy juxtaposed with a genuine wish to be pious resulted in poetry that could at times be extremely negative and at others again more positive in theme. This in itself is a paradox of his work in general. The poet's ambivalent feelings about death for example manifests itself in the poem "The Paradox." Love is for example used as an affirmation of life, whereas death swallows everything. Life and love are both brief, and the temptation is to think that death render both meaningless in their brevity.
Juxtaposed with the above is the poem "The Will," depicting death as a prolonged act of charity. He imagines all the aspects of his earthly self to be useful when he dies. It is his aim to give himself to the world completely and usefully. This is not a religious poem, but rather a poem about the connectedness of all life. The poet here depicts the certainty of what can be seen and felt on earth. It is as if he derives consolation from the fact that if not to God, at least he can be useful to human beings on earth5.
The Violent Yoke
John Donne was often criticized by his contemporaries for a technique of language referred to as "the violent yoke." This is the connection between two images in a poem which appear to be completely unconnected. Sometimes this connection is so absurd that it is perceived as "violent." comparison is carried to the furthest boundaries, only limited by the imagination of the poet (Eliot 282). Dissimilar images, such as compasses and lovers (in "A Valediction") are…[continue]
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