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A difficult poet? Perhaps. A complex poet? Undoubtedly. But that complexity is part of his greatness.
on 5 June 2014
John Donne was perhaps the most eminent representative of that group of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century poets known as the “metaphysical poets”, although it has often been pointed out that they were never a self-conscious literary school or movement, and would never have referred to themselves by that epithet, which was invented by Samuel Johnson in 1781, inspired by a criticism of Donne made by John Dryden about a hundred years earlier.
Some of the metaphysical poets, such as George Herbert, wrote exclusively on religious themes, but with Donne this was not the case, although it is true that one of his two great themes was man’s love for God, the other being man’s love for woman. Donne does, however, display two common “metaphysical” traits. One was a taste for philosophical speculation, even in his secular verse, and it was this for which he was taken to task by Dryden, who said of him that “"He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign”.
The second is his use of the metaphysical conceit, an extended metaphor combining two very different ideas. I remember being taught at school that the classical example of a conceit was Donne’s comparison of his wife and himself in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" to a pair of compasses, joined even when they are physically separated. At least, we were taught that the lady in the poem is Mrs Donne, but that may just have been prudery on the part of the teacher. Like many of Donne’s poems this one cannot be precisely dated, and we know that he wrote poems to other mistresses before his marriage to Anne More in 1601.
Other well-known conceits include his comparison (in “The Flea”) of a flea biting two lovers to love-making and his description (in his “Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed”) of his mistress as “my America, my new-found land”. In “A Lecture upon the Shadow”, perhaps less well-known but nevertheless a striking poem, he draws parallels between the shadows cast by two lovers at different times of the day and the progress of their relationship. Donne’s imagery is often drawn from the sciences, from astronomy (as here), from alchemy and from geography.
This volume includes all of Donne’s English-language poetry. (Besides English, he also wrote in Latin). Not all of his output consisted of religious verse or love-poems; he also wrote brief epigrams, verse epistles, satires and “epicedes and obsequies”, that is to say poems written to mourn the death of a particular person. These are not the poems by which he is best-known today, although his satires contain some pithy indictments of the corruptions and follies of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His Third Satire deals with the subject of true religion, something dear to Donne’s heart; he was brought up in a notable recusant Catholic family, being related by blood to both Jasper Heywood and Thomas More, but left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism, which he saw as a via media between the extremes of Catholicism and Protestantism, and was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest.
His mourning poems, and some of his epistles written to living persons, are not well-known today, even though they contain some elegant poetical writing, possibly because, to modern tastes, they can come across as insincere and fawning. If everything Donne wrote in these poems was meant sincerely, I can only say that he had the great good fortune not only to have been a contemporary of some of the greatest saints who have ever lived but also to have known them personally. (Strangely, none of these persons have been officially canonised by any Church, unlike Donne himself, who is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England). In his two long poems entitled “The Anniversaries”, religious meditations occasioned by the death of a young girl named Elizabeth Drury, his language becomes so extravagant that one would think he were writing about God, Christ or the Virgin Mary rather than a teenage girl whom he does not appear to have known personally.
This insincerity contrasts strangely with Donne’s better-known poems in which emotional honesty is one of his hallmarks. Earlier erotic poets of the Petrarchan school could pen love-ballads, containing all the commonplaces of courtly love, to imaginary mistresses. A literal reading of Thomas Wyatt’s poems, for example, would suggest that he spent most of his life in the throes of unrequited love for a “cruel mistress” (in the poetic rather than the sexual sense) who refused to yield to his advances. A reading of Wyatt’s biography, however, would suggest that the poet, who was separated from his wife, was at the time living in a relationship with a real-life mistress (in the sexual rather than the poetic sense) who was presumably quite happy to yield to his advances.
With Donne, however, although we may not know whether his love poems were written to Anne or to some other person, they are so heartfelt that one is left with the feeling that they must have been written to a flesh-and-blood woman, not to some hypothetical descendant of Petrarch’s Laura. Some years ago my then girlfriend and I had a strange experience while saying goodbye late one evening. As we embraced, although nothing sexual actually took place, it seemed to us as though our personalities had joined and that we had become one person. When we eventually parted we discovered that an hour had passed even though it had only seemed like a few minutes. The only way I could describe the experience was by saying that we had made love without actually having sex- until I read Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy” which gives a perfect poetic description of an identical experience.
Donne had a great gift for finding the perfect description of emotional experiences, and not just joyous ones like this. His "A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day", is one of the most moving descriptions ever written of grief on the death of a loved one. (It may have been occasioned by the deaths of his daughter and his close friend Lady Bedford, who both died in 1627 and who shared the Christian name Lucy).
Donne’s love poems seem to have been written early in his career and are notable for their relatively free verse forms and rhythms which approximate to those of ordinary speech; they may have marked a reaction against the smooth, polished style of earlier Elizabethan poets such as Sidney. They were published after his death in a collection called “Songs and Sonnets”, although none is a sonnet in the strict sense of the word. His religious poems- the other main plank on which his reputation rests- were generally written later, and are stricter in their form; they include numerous strict-sense sonnets. Like his love poems, however, they are a record of deeply-felt personal experiences, not simply of a conventional piety, and like them often rely upon a startling juxtaposition of contrasting ideas.
Donne is sometimes thought of as a “difficult” poet, and there are good reasons for this. He is adept at compressing a great amount of meaning into a few lines, often relying upon paradoxes and double meanings to produce passages which are capable of being understood in more than one sense, and this can make his verse semantically complex, requiring several readings to be fully understood. His poems contain many allusions which are not always immediately transparent to the modern reader; this edition, edited by Professor A C Smith, contains copious notes, often longer than the poems they elucidate. And yet he was also capable of producing poetry of an elegant simplicity, a good example being the sonnet beginning “Death Be Not Proud”, a profound meditation on death and immortality. A difficult poet? Perhaps. A complex poet? Undoubtedly. But that complexity is part of his greatness.