John Donne explores both physical and spiritual aspects of life using skilled logic and wit.
Despite the passage of centuries, Donne's poetry continues to engage and challenge readers who come to him afresh. He analyses with potent logic and wit both the physical and spiritual aspects of one's existence. The subject matters he discusses are still as ever present in today's society as they were four hundred years ago, but his perspective seems to emerge from the aged abyss to revive our opinions with somehow contemporary thoughts and feelings.
You may also like: Full notes on John Donne
Donne explores the spiritual gratification of the indefatigable love between him and his wife in "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning". During this composition, he was relocating for a year, meaning he would apart from his wife. He tries to convince her that a public display of grief would tarnish and cheapen their alliance.
Donne employs many ingenious conceits, encompassing scientific, mathematical and geological profundity that, even as a twenty-first century reader, astounded me. In stanza three, he emphasises how their relationship, although displaced, will sustain through their time apart - "Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears/Man reckon what it did and meant;/But trepidation of the spheres/Though greater far, is innocent." Using skilled logic, Donne asserts that the rotation of the planet, though on a far larger scale than any movement of the earth's surface during a calamitous earthquake, has no perceivable affect on them. The modification of location, although important, should hold no tangible consequence on their spiritual connection. The scholarly nature of this concept baffled me as it introduced me to a new type of imaginative experience.
Donne's passion for the spiritual connection he has with his wife is palpable throughout this poem. For Donne, an equal part of romantic love is intellectual engagement - the marriage of minds, of spirit. He differentiates their love from others, as it does not require a physical presence to establish a connection - "Care less eyes, lips and hands to miss." Donne's skilled logical here proves that a spiritual connection will supersede a physical one. These dramatic claims serve to convey the enormity of their love that transcends physicality - a theme of enormous appeal to a modern audience in a world where love is often trivialised.
However, in "The Dreame" Donne focuses solely on the physical aspect of a relationship, attempting to coax a woman into bed with him through many persuasive techniques. Although, in this poem I believe Donne's logic has escaped him in place of sexual frustration. He likens his lover to an angel, saying it was in fact her eyes and not her noise that awoke him -"As lightning or a taper's light, thine eyes and not thy noise wak'd me."
Donne continues to implore the woman to sleep with him, until he sums up his ceaseless pestering with "but else would die." He is blaming his imminent death on her refusal to have sex with him. Once again, Donne is lacking in the logic department as he greatly exaggerates the consequence of her refusal. However, he does employ wit if we read the word "die" as a sexual innuendo - meaning to climax or orgasm - emphasising his preoccupation with sex and not the spiritual aspect of the relationship. The tongue-in-cheek, taboo humour employed emphasises the redundancy of a woman in Donne's physical pursuits - he can satisfy himself if necessary. This somewhat erodes the sincerity of his latter angelic commendations and highlights a man's manipulative nature when courting a woman.
You may also like: Complete Guide: A1 Leaving Cert English Notes and Sample Answers 2017
Donne also explores the purely physical pursuit of sexual gratification in "The Flea". To me, this was an enlightening perspective on a woman's sexual endeavours. In an era where copulating outside of the marriage bed was synonymous with occupying the street corner, Donne regards the loss of a woman's virginity, in a casual setting or otherwise, routine and not shameful. He seems to consider it so banal an occurrence that he relates it the merging of blood within an ectoparasite, "And in this flea our two bloods mingled be/ Thou knows't it cannot be said/A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead." This is in fact a very skilled argument. Donne is comparing the woman yielding to his advances, to the flea sucking both of their bloods - the mingling of bodily fluids. This radical, and tolerant notion, although not entirely altruistic, portrays how Donne regards virginity as a mere social construct and not something to be preserved.
Donne employs wit while attempting to convince the woman to sleep with him, by mock envying the flea - "And pampered swells with one blood made of two, and this, alas, is more than we would do." The "swells" made me think of the flea gaining copious amounts of muscle and exerting its new found dominance over the woman - more than Donne is allowed to do. He now feels emasculated in comparson to a parasite. "Swells" could also refer to an erection, as the flea is allowed to relish in the pleasure of the mingling of the bodily fluids, but Donne is unable to reach that state of arousal. Thus, he employs skilled wit to make light out of his fruitless advances in the realm of physicality.
I found it very interesting that in the most physical and sensual of Donne's poems, he still manages to mirror his reference to the Trinity of the "Three-personed-God" in "Batter My Heart" when he refers to the "three lives in one flea." This is an example of the overlap between romantic relationships and Donne's personal relationship with God.
"Batter My Heart" is one of three members of Donne's Holy Sonnets where Donne addresses God directly. Here, Donne references the Deist concept of God - the creator of intricate tangible mechanisms, just like how a person's soul is intricate. Donne likens God to a potter and him to a fundamentally flawed pot. However, this poem is known for its phenomenally paradoxical nature in dealing with the spiritual aspect of life. Donne had a penchant for illustrating abstract ideas through powerful conceits, but many of his statements appear incoherent and devoid of logic. His longing to be reinstated as virginal may only be achieved through God ravishing him, "Not ever chaste, except you ravish me." This confused me slightly as this unsanctimonious exploit is usually induced by power on behalf of the ravisher, and not by love or concern. In Donne's time especially, women who were impressed upon in this manner were considered to have lost all chastity, though Donne insists it is the only way to restore his. We many conclude that, to Donne, talking about God in earthly terms was simply fruitless. The sort of salvation Donne seeks seemingly requires a seismic shift, and that's why the speaker gets so caught up in paradoxes and illogical mixed metaphors.
Donne considers his spiritual relationship with God further in "Thou Hast Made Me". This poem is strangely compatible to my own experience with religion as Donne questions why God has created him just to watch his vessel deteriorate, "Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?" It seems Donne has regained some logic and is now questioning his finite existence and mortality - an age old qualm. It does seem quite senseless that the almighty God would create such intricate beings and allow them to "decay" shortly after.
Donne then gives us an insight into life on the cusp of death - reciting the "dim eyes" and "feeble flesh" of an elderly person. Despite Donne relaying all woes befitting old age, I do not feel any sympathy for him. He does not approach his spirituality logically - but selfishly. He does not seek salvation because he laments his wrongdoings but rather because he fears the supposed damnation that accompanies sin: "By sin in it, which towards hell doth weigh." He attempts to be absolved of sin solely to preserve a place in Heaven, which I believe is a selfish motive.
Although Donne's poetry is over four hundred years old, its startling humour, wit and sentiment provide it with an enduring quality that is a testimony to Donne's ingenuity and gumption. His verse reaches deep into the erotic psyche and shakes the heavens in demand for deliverance. His skilled logic, though lacking at times, accompanied by his wit make his poems both effortless and timeless.
Leaving Cert Sample Essays and Notes