Keynote metaphysical poet, John Donne illumed a path of delicate brightness for the Romantics to follow. While is poetry appears natural, he was a well-studied man who was able to free himself from the entrapments of history and culture to reflect his present moment experience. His poetry successfully leads his readers to other realms where love, truth, and beauty flourish as a matter of course. Bringing colloquial terms of his time into poetic play, Donne advanced the refinement of the English language, bringing it out of Elizabethan stuffiness, and into the bright light of morning.
Metaphysics is the study of that beyond the physical, but which enlivens the physical, and is not unconnected. Poetry has the capacity to ignite the spirit, drawing one into contemplation with the beauty inherent in all nature. To accomplish this, Donne employed “metaphysical conceit” which is the literary practice of contrasting two divergent images, objects, or ideas. In between the contrast is the route of light which reflects the connection between everything. This connectivity provides the base on which the unity of all life exists. Expressing the reality of quantum entanglement hundreds of years before science discovered it, Donne writes,
Here quantum entanglement is illustrated through the magical connection of lovers, which are illustrated by the two feet of a compass. Much like how metaphysical contemplation arises in the mind (sudden, surprising, coincidental, etc.) Donne’s poetry often has a startling quality which catches the reader off guard. If this is so today, imagine how surprising it would have been in the 17th century. This is seen in the surprising opening of the poem “The Canonization” which begins, “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love/ Or chide my palsy, or my gout” (Alam). This draws the reader into an immediate experience of conversation with the poem, which demands they stop their train of thought to follow the poet. Supporting this method, Donne was one of the first poets to incorporate colloquial speech into his work, desiring the humble the high and reach the low. He does this out of a desire to trip the line which would help people stumble into their own contemplation, and this is less easily accomplished when using highfalutin language which keeps the mind occupied.
Metaphysics is a philosophic school which is consistently embracing sensuality, for even as they gaze beyond the limitations of the material realm they allow their visions to inspire their physical life. Coming out of the puritanical Elizabethan culture, Donne’s approach to sensuality was also a surprise. As illustrated in his poem, “The Ecstasy”;
Even today this poem retains it sensual salacity, and using his metaphysical conceit tool, he entwines Earthly and Heavenly love in the experience of the lovers. Harkening back to the tantric past of metaphysics, “Although there is a complexity in the poem, ‘The Ecstasy’ Donne deals twin aspects of love - physical and spiritual; love here is concretized through physical enjoyment of sex and then turns in its pure essence, spiritual” (Alam). Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family, and risked disgrace in his day and age to so boldly profess his love for the flesh (Academy of American Poets). Researcher remark, “Donne's love poetry was written nearly four hundred years ago; yet one reason for its appeal is that it speaks to us as directly and urgently as if we overhear a present confidence” (Biography.com Editors). This has added to the appeal of his work over the years as well as empowered many poets to be bold with their personal voice.
In fact there is some evidence that Donne’s wild passions did cool a bit as he grew older, and desired a greater place in the esteem of his culture. This can be seen in the life course; two years later he succumbed to religious pressure and joined the Anglican Church after his younger brother, convicted for his Catholic loyalties, died in prison. Donne wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse, and some sacred poems in the 1590s, creating two major volumes of work: Satires and Songs and Sonnets. In 1598, after returning from a two-year naval expedition against Spain, Donne was appointed secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. (Academy of American Poets)
While he may have strived to be thought “respectable” on the surface, in his heart and private life he was anything but. He confounded the public and his relatives when he secretly married 16 year-old, Anne More. However, following his passions had its price, as “Donne’s father-in-law disapproved of the marriage. As punishment, he did not provide a dowry for the couple and had Donne briefly imprisoned. This left the couple isolated and dependent on friends, relatives, and patrons” (Academy of American Poets). The passion which so sustained his poetry was hard pressed to find stable footing in the real world, as he suffered constant financial stress due to being shunned and having many children. However, the drama was relatively short lived as Anne More died at age 33 during the delivery of Donne’s twelfth child (Academy of American Poets).
The poet found himself pressured to show contrition, and found himself only able to be employed in the Anglican Church. He eventually became the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and continued to write poetry throughout his life. However, there is stark contrast between young Donne’s poetry and the later years where he revealed himself terrified of death. This reveals a fundamental lack of faith which is common is sensualists, and no doubt Donne was quite unfulfilled with life in the clergy. If he had truly been a man of his faith he would have embraced the idea of death as the pathway to the divine (Jokinen).
No matter his personal religious crisis, he was a charismatic preacher who was able to utilize his way with words to invigorate the hearts of his community. As revealed in his poem “Air and Angels” Donne could find ways to illume the spirit with imagery from the day;
No doubt he held onto this passion for the flesh even as he feared the annihilation of the flesh in death. As he wrote, “I am a little world made cunningly/ Of elements, and an angelic sprite” (Notable Quotes). He must have believed in the immortality of the spirit, but feared what that meant for the pleasures of the flesh he so duly cultivated. Perhaps foreseeing a diminution of his work, “During the Restoration his writing went out of fashion and remained so for several centuries. Throughout the 18th century, and for much of the 19th century, he was little read and scarcely appreciated” (Biography.com Editors). In his own death he may have seen the death of a movement of spirit. His poetry continues to inspire and be celebrated throughout the world where romance and mysticism live on in the hearts of many dreamers.
John Donne’s poetry remains a vivid masterstroke of passion and ingenuity through ages of confinement and compression. He opened the door to the metaphysical passion which would come to enliven the Romantics, and enflame the passions of generations of those who contemplate love. His poetry is full of yearning, drawing, desire, and an urge to be close to his reader, creating an intimate embrace of a read. He claims his love, “If I dream I have you, I have you,/ For, all our joys are but fantastical.” 2 Donne emphasized that passion is a creation of the fantastical mind which can see beyond the limitations of culture, the physical, and the status quo which reinforces fear.
1: This is a quote from Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” which points to the life persisting throughout all of life’s sufferings.
2: This is a quote from Donne’s poem “Elegy X: The Dream” which emphasizes that death does not part lovers, who live on forever in dreams. His suffering over his wife’s death he translated into such eloquent passion as a way to love on through it all.
Academy of American Poets. “John Donne.” Poets.org, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/john-donne
Alam, Saiful. “English Literature and Grammar.” 2016. Retrieved from: http://literaryhelpinenglish.blogspot.com/2013/02/john-donne-as-metaphysical-poet.html
Biography.com Editors. “John Donne.” Biography.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.biography.com/people/john-donne-9277090
Donne, John. “The Ecstasy.” Poetry Foundation, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44099
Donne, John. “Air and Angels.” Poets.org, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/air-and-angels
Notable Quotes. “John Donne Quotes.” Notable-quotes.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.notable-quotes.com/d/donne_john.html
Jokinen, Anniina. “The Life of John Donne.” Luminarium, 22 June 2006. Retrieved from: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebio.htm