General Overview of John Donne’s Life and Poetry
An English poet, priest and lawyer, John Donne is considered to be one of the most prominent representatives of metaphysical movement in poetry. Sensual and realistic style of his works is incorporated in his sonnets, sires, love poetry, epigrams, elegies, religions poems, and sermons.
Donne’s style is also marked by various paradoxes, dislocations as well as abrupt opening, which indicates constantly changing patterns of the poet’s life (Clements 21). Along with these distinctive features, his works also combine dramatic speech rhythms, tough eloquence, and tense syntax that contract conventional smoothness of the Elizabethan poetry.
In this respect, Donne’s works rigidly deviate from existing tradition; instead of historical and methodological narratives, he made use of alternative genres to combine contrastive and ambivalent features, as presented in his two poetical works – The Flea and A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day. One the one hand, both poems popularize the theme of love and acts celebrating sexuality that are expressed through metaphorical representation.
One the other hand, Donne is toughly committed to religious themes unveiling the poets protest against established traditions claiming that it is better to carefully analyze one’s religions confessions before blindly following the commonly accepted rules. However, this obscurity and ambivalence presented in this works also explain the author’s metaphysical approaches to mediating and unusual techniques in rendering his thoughts.
Seduction in Donne’s Poetry as an Act of Erotic Desire
In his love poetry, Donne predominantly resorts to pastoral and metaphysical language rendering concealed and implicit meanings. This particular style complements the overall mystery and ambiguity of lines as presented in Flee. The so-called cajolery technique allows the poet to compress erotic ideas in conceits seeking for darkness and uncertainty.
In particular, the poem deals not with a love as a feeling, but with sexual and physical desires revealed in a premarital love-making. It is also possible to interpret the poem meaning as the sexual intercourse. Hence, Donne materializes love that absolutely contradicts all Elizabethan traditions in the seventeenth century. The main theme of The Flea is narrowed to a seduction poem, containing provocative thoughts as for that time.
The speaker seeks after his mistress hopefully and zealously and compares their sexual intercourse with blood mingling: “Me it suck’d first, and now such thee, and in this flea our two blood mingled bee…” (The Love Poems of John Donne 36). While seducing his mistress, the speaker assures her that there is nothing amoral in a premarital act of love-making as he sees no sense in waiting until they get marry.
This is one of the themes that Donne popularizes – seizing the moment and putting anything aside because beauty can quickly fade away as time is irrecoverable: “Confesse it, this cannot be said/ A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,/ Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,/ And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two/ And this, alas, is more than wee would doe” (The Love Poems of John Donne 36).
The final stroke of analysis can be complemented with symbolism and metaphors presented in the poem creating some carpe diem characteristics. The speaker identifies himself and his mistress with the sun uniting them in a ball where lovers can interact and correlate.
Reminiscent techniques are also applied to A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day to represent the celebration of love and sexual desire.
Though the poem is more associated with death and somber motives, Donne still manages to imbue it with eroticism. Being a kind of epitaph, Donne presents would-be lovers and describes the chemistry which love has impacted on him; love that has managed to “express a quintessence even from nothingness,/from dull privations, and lean emptiness” (The Love Poems of John Donne 39).
Despite obscurity of meaning displayed in stanzas, it is still possible to assume that the concept of love here is presented in spiritual or even romantic terms. The reader can still be left confused concerning poet’s attitude and understanding of love alchemy. Dual nature of representation can be discovered in the following stanzas: “…And love; all, all some properties invest;/If an ordinary nothing were, as shadow, a light and body must be here…” (The Love Poems of John Donne 39).
The ambivalent stanzas imply the speaker spiritual and physical commitment to his bellowed, even though metaphorical obscurity conceals the actual meaning. What is more vague representation also enables readers to provide two-polar interpretations of the verses. Juxtaposition and antagonistic trends presented in the poem also render the impetuous and passionate style of exposition.
Existential and secular motifs as well as mundane context are closely associated with author’s desire to render the contrasts and routines of life. In order to make this routine more colorful and less ordinary, the author selects a multidimensional approach to describe this grief and suffer.
Instead of mourning the death of the bellowed, he speaks of the lost moments of life and advises others to enjoy each moment of being in love. Despite negative connotations, Donne is still attached to his hedonistic views on the concept of life. Pleasure, joy, love should fill in the emptiness and when all these attributes are absent, a person also turns into nothing:
….I am a very dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy.
Doe this art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not (The Love Poems of John Donne 39).
Donne inserts as much tenseness as possible into these lines to render a full variety of feelings he experiences. While applying to these techniques, the author expresses metaphysical representation of love and human relationships.
Seduction in Donne’s Poetry as an Act of Religion Commitment
As it has been mentioned previously, Donne can be considered one of the founders of the metaphysical conceit because he skillfully combines to different ideas into one single unity, which is often performed through the use of imagery. Contrasting and juxtaposing is revealed through representation two opposed themes that contradict each at a glance.
In this respect, the poems under consideration embody a combination of spirituality and materialism, secularity and divine motifs, religion and romanticism. Indeed, his love poetry is saturated with theological motifs and symbolism. Hence, The Flea also incorporates the themes of love and religion as well as Donne’s divine meditation on the essence of life. Despite straight themes of sexuality and sexual desire, there are still symbols that refer to religious imagery.
For instance, the line “Confesse it one blood made of two…” can mean either sex or pregnancy, or even a child and a mother; “cloysterd sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three…” can symbolize holy trinity as well as the words “three live in one flea” (The Love Poems of John Donne 36). Metaphor “blood of innocence” can be associated with Christ. In this respect, combining erotic and spiritual motifs can be seen as Donne’s interpretation of secular love through religious experience.
The poet is extremely concerned with infidelity to religion that is behind sexuality and, therefore, most of religious elements are presented as subversive because they are subjected to human love. In this respect, The Flea subverts its explicit theme of seduction through its form and through reference to religious imagery.
When Donne mentions “marriage bed, and marriage temple”, he, apparently, refers to the act of consummation that is religiously approved by the Bible. The chapters of the New Testament provide us with a religious vision on the concept of love, marriage, and sex. In particular, letters to Hebrews reveal: “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremonger and adulterers God will judge” (The King James Version, Heb. 13.4).
The Bible also reflects on such sins as lust, which is also emphasized in Donne’s poetical works. Hence, in response to Donne’s The Flea, letters to Timothy say: “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (The King James Version, 2 Tim. 2.22). Thessalonians chapters also emphasize the importance of being pure and free from immorality: “No in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God” (The King James Version, Thes. 4.4).
Considering Donne’s diving mediations in A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day, the concept of “nothingness” here is revealed through the notion of “chaos” that provides a certain connection with the biblical Chaos that preceded genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep…” (King James Version, Gen. 1.1-2).
The chaos here is closely associated with emptiness and nothingness that existed before the creation of the world. Like love appears out of nothing, the world appeared in the same way. The concept of pure and spiritual love is also expressed through Lucy’s elevation to the rank of the Saints as if the speaker sees her afterlife in Heaven.
Biblical themes are also concealed in Donne’s The Holy Sonnets where the poet provides his unconventional views on religion and spirituality. The approaches he uses to conceptualize God and the divine are often perceived as despairing and fearful.
However, the failure to meet traditional views cannot be regarded as a sign of desolation and despair, but a belief that salvation and reconciliation can be found in God’s silence and his evident absence that heightens human sense of spiritual vitality. What is more, although Donne sees God as a “humanoid giant” that manipulates people’s life, the poet still demonstrates the unity of love toward God.
Hence, Sonnet II demonstrates the author’s state of redemption and eternal love to the Lord: “(o god), first I was made by thee, and for thee, and when I was deca’de/ Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine” (The Holy Sonnets 5). Just like previous poems expressing obscurity and ambivalence of the poet’s feelings. This sonnet is also full vague expressions of love and religious commitment, though deviated from traditional positions.
Discussing the Specifics of Themes and Styles in Donne’s Poetical Works Metaphysical conceit
According to Furniss and Bath, metaphysical conceit can be considered as a “dramatic use of intellectual ingenuity, irony, and paradox, and uses of figurative language in explicitly argumentative and pseudo-logical ways” (180). This definition closely related to techniques that Donne applied to his poetical works. Hence, in The Flea the poet speaks ironically of the importance of marriage and fidelity and conceals the speaker’s actual attempt to seduce his mistress.
Metaphysical conceits are also explicitly displayed in Donne’s A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day. Religious and existential associations, philosophical reflection on the sense of life, and importance of love are expressed through abstract notions and similes.
For instance, Donne associates summer with new life and pleasure, the time when people should get the most: “You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun/ At this time to the Goat is run/ To fetch new lust, and give it you, Enjoy your summer all…” (The Love Poems of John Donne 39). Similar conceits are also present in other passages that bear the same poetical purpose.
Using Paradoxes and Vibrancy of Language to Express Donne’s Deep Emotional State and Appetite for Life
Comparison of religion and romanticism is one of the salient paradoxes presented in Donne’s poetry. Juxtaposing the erotic and the spiritual is closely associated with the poet attempts to reconcile his desires with his outlook on religion and on the divine that sufficiently deviate from the traditionally established ones. In fact, abrupt openings, dislocations, tough rhythms, and contrastive language are used to render’ Donne’s changing trends in life as well as his deep emotional state and appetite for life.
These trends can also be perceived while reading the poems under analysis. For instance, obscurity and uncertainty presented in The Flea explains Donne’s ironical outlook on love and lust as well as the way it is connected with the traditional religious view on these concepts. Similarly, hedonistic and gothic undercurrent also reflects Donne’s searching for the truth and the veritable feelings and emotions.
In conclusion, it can be states that John Donne’s love and religious poetry presents a dual existential and metaphysical view on the concepts of the spiritual and the erotic. He makes use of specific techniques and alternative genres to compare and contrast ambivalent feature, as depicted in his poetical works, specifically in The Flea and A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day.
Juxtaposing the themes of love and eroticism to religious commitment unveils Donne’s searching for the essence of life. Such an explanation justifies the poet’s obscurity and usage of irony and paradoxes mostly in all his works. Hence, sensuality and realism, abrupt openings, and tense comparisons, vibrancy of langue reflect author’s desire to express his actual vision of life.
Special attention should also be given to prompt usage of metaphors that saturate each line of his poetic works. In addition, author’s attempt to encapsulate a single idea about love and religion makes reader believe that these two concepts can harmonically co-exist. His poetry is an honorable proof of that.
Clements, Arthur. L. Poetry of Contemplation: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and the modern period. US: SUNY Press, 1990. Print.
Donne, John. The Holy Sonnets. Ed. Gary A. Sringer. US: Indiana University Press. 2005. Print.
Donne, John. The Love Poems of John Donne. Boston MA: Digireads.com Publishing, 2009. Print.
Furniss, Tom and Michael Bath. Reading Poetry: An Introduction. London: Pearson Education, 2007. Print.
The King James Version. New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.