John Donne, Poems (many before 1597? /
"Expostulation #19" (1624), and "Meditation #4" (1632)
Genre: songs in a wide variety of meters,
rhyme schemes, and stanza structures; a sermon or moral argument.
Form: See entries for individual assigned works.
Donne acknowledged his indebtedness to Mary Sidney Herbert and Philip Sidney for
their translations of the Psalms in
dedicated to them, and he also appears to have developed some of his wildly
inventive stanza structures by following their lead. See, for instance,
the Sidney/Herbert translation of Psalm #139.
Characters: "Jack Donne"'s persona, a brash young courtier-lover
who will use any rhetorical strategy to attain his end, not excluding truth when it suits
the occasion; Dr. John Donne's persona, a weary, passionate, ferocious intellect
with a profound commitment to the religious faith of his flock. Note that this is
an extremely difficult set of personae to puzzle out. "Jack"'s humor is so
antic that there is no guarantee he is addressing a real woman at all, but rather he may
be playing a game with words, not unlike Sidney's "Astrophil" (or Herrick,
especially!). The second persona is more likely to be "on oath," since he
speaks from a pulpit, but in the Holy Sonnets he says shocking things that may remind us
of Margery Kempe or Julian of Norwich. How does he mean us to read?
If you want to consult one of
the best sources for contemporary evidence about the life of Donne as a
historical person, the library has a 1796 edition of Izaac Walton's life of
Donne, George Herbert, and other C17 poet-scholars. Want to read an early edition
of Donne? The library's C17 edition contains many
poems of interest, including two poems (one Latin and one English) written by Donne to
three 7-line stanzas rhyming ababccc.
The poem's conceit describes the lovers as "New World" explorers,
discoverers of the worlds that exist within each other. See Sir Walter Ralegh,
"That Man Is, As It Were, A Little World" (1030). This poem's conceit
pushes the man-microcosm analogy further by claiming the lovers' worlds are perfect
because perfectly blended. However, the poem finds it necessary to claim this
because something is amiss, something disturbing which the other poems describe.
"Song: Go and catch a falling star"--trochaic feet in tetrameter and
monometer (!), rhyming ababccddd (!). The persona instructs
his hearer to undertake notoriously impossible tasks from proverbial lore or impish
innovation, and concludes these tasks will be sooner completed than that the hearer will
find reward for honesty, a true and fair woman, or, if the latter be found, than that she
will remain fair. Its twee skipping meter in the ddd
lines accentuates their mocking content. Again, the exploration and discovery
metaphor is used, but here the findings are "more of the same."
"The Undertaking"--4-line stanzas in alternating trochaic and iambic
tetrameter and trimeter, rhyming abab cdcd, etc.. The
poem uses the skin=soul's clothing metaphor to advance the thesis that finding virtue in
the shape of one's beloved is rare enough to deserve secrecy to avoid the mockery of
profane men. This makes love a religion (see "Canonization") and the
search for love a pilgrimage (see "Good Morrow" and "Song" above).
"The Sun Rising"--10-line stanzas in a variety of meters rhyming abbacdcdee. The poem is a parody of an aubade. See
Jonson's Volpone, I.i.1ff for another parody of this medieval song of lovers
lamenting the sunrise which ends their illicit pleasures, or click here. for Chaucer's Troilus, III: 1450-70 to see a real
aubade with similarities to Donne's poem which are as yet undescribed in
publication. Here the "man-microcosm" motif might better be described
"man-woman-microcosm" as the lovers find in each other their strange New Worlds.
"The Indifferent"--9-line stanzas in trochees of varying numbers of
feet, rhyming abbacccdd (similar to "Song" above).
The bold statement of a faithless lover who urges his beloved to be similarly
faithless, too, rather than bind him with her own truth. He tells her Venus has
reported there are "some two or three / Poor heretics in love" (i.e., faithful
to their lovers and not playing the cheating game) but that she has warned them they'll be
wasting their truth on false beloveds. Donne's paradoxical reversals of vice and
virtue make his "religion of love" a dangerous rebellion against "dangerous
constancy." How might that relate to previous praises of unstable
"truth" in social relations which we've heard from Jonson and Shakespeare?
What might this mean for Jacobean English culture? (Thanks to Nicole Barnabee
[Fall 1999] for correcting a previous error in this note.)
"The Canonization"--9-line stanzas in varying numbers of iambs (and a
couple of other kinds of feet!), rhyming abbacccaa.
This is a tougher variant on the rhyme scheme of "The Indifferent"
because the "a" rhyme returns in each stanza's concluding couplet, and tougher
still because the "a" rhyme (--ove) is the same in all five stanzas. This is perhaps one of the most famous and
identifiable of Donne's poems, a shocking outburst that mocks the old Petrarchan conceits
and shifts to a series of shocking comparisons, ending in the claim that future ages will
make saints of the speaker and his beloved who will "build in sonnets pretty
rooms" (32). The next line's comparison of the poet's "hymns" to
"a well-wrought urn" formed the title for Cleanth Brooks' famous New Critical
study of poetic structure, which used the latter phrase for its title (821.9 B873
Note that the poem's furious development of its rejection of the world's interference keep
on going into the "worshipers"' address to the "saints" (speaker and
Beloved) "Who did the whole world's soul contract [shrink], and drove / Into the
glasses of your eyes / [. . . ] Countries, towns courts"--the universe becomes
compact enough to see reflected in one's lover's eye. Oh, and those future
worshipers will beg the recipe for that love. It's a wild ride. What kinds of
neoclassical and medieval poetic conventions does Donne mock here?
"Air and Angels"--two fourteen-line stanzas, sometimes in tetrameter
and other times in pentameter, rhyming abbabacdcddeee
(!!). The speaker tells the Beloved that his love is to her love as angels' divine
substance is to the barely grosser air which their wings displace. It's a "guy
thing," see? She's really divine, but he is, by nature, just a little less
so. This key passage gets attention from critics: "...For, nor in nothing, nor
in things / Extreme and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere" (21-2).
"Break of Day"--six line stanzas, four of which are in iambic
tetrameter and the last two are in iambic pentameter, rhyming baabbcc.
This is another mock aubade denying the sun's power to disrupt the lovers' tryst.
The third stanza draws upon the classical Roman distinction between commercium
(business), the duty of those who are not "liberalis" or free to dispose of
their time without working, and otium (leisure), the privilege of those who are,
and are free to love, by Donne's definition. For us working blokes (and
"blokesses"), this raises a familiar problem also addressed by
"Vivando," by the immortal Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.
"A Valediction: Of Weeping"--9-line stanzas in which lines 1, 5 and 6
are iambic dimeter, lines 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8 are iambic pentameter, and line 9 is iambic
hexameter. Don't cry, he tells her, and plays Petrarchan games with the metaphors
"tears are coins (round), reflective of the beloved's face, bearing (pregnant) with
the fruit of the beloved's essence, a world (sphere) or planet, a flood, a sea."
A "Valediction" is a farewell poem (hence, "valedictorian,"
s/he who delivers the high school seniors' farewell speech).
"The Flea"--9-line stanzas in tetrameters and pentameters, mostly
iambic, rhyming aabbccddd. The lover turns
insect-rights advocate, using the flea as a metaphor for intercourse resulting in
conception, a marriage bed, a sacred site, a sacrificial victim, and the lover, himself
("Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me, / Will waste, as this flea's death
took life from thee."). The phrase "Purpled thy nail in blood of
innocence" is an outrageous allusion to the Crucifixion, and the title of the poem
(and its spirit) probably inspired the stage name of one of the Red-Hot Chili Peppers (I
"A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day"--9-line
stanzas in a very complex metrical scheme, shrinking from pentameter lines (1,2) to
tetrameter (3,4) to trimeter (5) and ending with a four-line conclusion in
pentameter. This poem may allude to the turning point in Jack Donne's life--see also
Holy Sonnet #17, which more directly addresses the death of Anne More, the woman for whom
Donne ruined his career. The winter solstice, which the poem commemorates, serves
as a metaphor for the poet's hopes. The "spiritual model" strategy which
animated "The Canonization" is here reversed. The poet and his beloved are
dead, and no hope springs from the grave. It is an incredible paen to grief, itself,
which has made the poet an "elixer" or refined essence of death, itself.
In this poem, Donne claims a day of the year for English poetry and makes it his own.
"The Bait"--4-line stanzas rhyming aabb,
etc. Like Ralegh's poem (1022), it is a reply to Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd
to His Love" (767). The fishing motif is linked to a "fisherman caught by
the fish" motif that is reminiscent of Spenser's use of the Hunt of Love strategy in
the Amoretti. The bizarre (but accurate, alas) depiction of fly fishing on
reedy river banks is deliberately not aristocratic, but jarringly realistic. Compare
this with Marvell's "Mower" poems.
"The Apparition"--17 lines of varying meters rhyming abbacdededfggfhhh (whew!). The old motif of
"Death-the-bridegroom" here reappears in the form of the jilted lover's threat
to reappear (after "dying for love," that old Petrarchan conceit) to haunt her.
Just the thing for Halloween, though somewhat disturbing in its intensity.
"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"--four-line stanzas rhyming abab cdcd, etc. Compare this with the
"Valediction: Of Weeping." In this one, the lover envisions their
elevation by love's refinement beyond the realm of mere physical contact.
Their "refined" love gives them the ability to
transcend space and to respond, in harmony, to each other's presence and moods.
Typically, JD illustrates the extremity of his meaning with exotic similes
for the lovers, first
their refinement "Like gold to airy thinness beat" for gold leaf to adorn
manuscripts. As in other poems, this image makes their love's
manifestation in a simile a form of beautiful literature, in this case the
decoration of Donne's own manuscript poem. Then, they are described as one
foot of a navigator's compass responds to the stretching of the other toward some new
point on the map, laying lower or growing more erect (yes, that's what he means, but as in
"she swoons and then recovers") as the traveling foot ("JD") returns
"The Ecstasy"--4-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter (how refreshingly
simple!) rhyming abba, cddc, etc. The "refinement
by love" motif is continued here with the assertion that the lovers' bodies should be
thanked as the vehicles for enabling their souls to meet. In fact, the bodies
release the lovers' souls from their pristine isolation to make the greater Soul created
by love. The body is the book of love, and the poem is its text.
"The Funeral"--8-line stanzas of iambic pentameter (1,3,4,6,8), iambic
dimeter (2) and iambic trimeter (5,7), rhyming ababcdcd. Note
that the regularity of the rhyme is worked against by the irregularity of the line
length--something's struggling in this poem. The poet's jilted lover is warned that
her woven hair bracelet (a Renaissance tradition) will still be worn by the lover in his
grave where, thereby, "I bury some of you" (24)--sweet. Very Cold
War. Compare with the more sophisticated use of the hair bracelet
"The Blossom"--8-line stanzas of (mostly iambic) trimeter, tetrameter,
and pentameter lines rhyming ababccdd. Carpe diem
(seize the day) returns but in an address to a dying flower which grows beside the doorway
of the Beloved who rejects the poet's "naked thinking heart" (though not,
perhaps, "some other part" in time). He's not having any of that
languishing stuff. Better to scoot off to London, whoop it up: sorry flower, tough
"The Relic"--11-line stanzas of tetrameter, pentameter, and (2 per
stanza) trimeter lines, mostly iambics, rhyming aabbcddceee.
The love religion claims another pair of saints, this time with a relic, "A bracelet
of bright hair about the bone" (6). Does this seduce your loins, oh
Beloveds? Or does it address our old friend, the carpe diem theme, while
mocking (now, post-Reformation) Roman Catholic reverence for saints, relics, etc., even to
the extent of spoofing that the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature
cannot bring themselves to explicitly explain (see note 4, p. 1099) but which Tom Robbins
had no problem naming in Another Roadside Attraction. That is, if she's
"Mary Magdalen," who might her handsome friend be?
"A Lecture upon the Shadow"--alternating 11-line and 2-line stanzas,
with a meter I won't attempt to describe (do the math!), rhyming aabbcddceee
and ff (or is it back to aa
again?). The lovers, walking upon their first meeting under the waxing sun, produce
shadows which grow less while they produce love that grows greater. The paradox is
compounded by the danger that love poses should it once cease to grow--it shrinks to
nothing (noon to midnight) in an instant.
"Elegy 16. On His Mistress."--rhyming couplets (whew!).
This imitation of Ovid's Amores addresses a reluctant mistress, urging her to
withstand separation from him during his travels rather than accompanying him in disguise
as a page. (See the note re: Robert Dudley and Elizabeth Southwell on p.
1100. Things were wild and crazy then, eh?)
"Elegy 19. "To His Mistress Going to Bed"--rhyming
couplets. He praises her body as she disrobes, and promises to make of her his New
World ("O my America!"--cf. Alan Ginsberg!), his wealth of gems, his mythical
beloved, and his innocent (in what sense?) beloved. Yes, line 24 alludes to an
erection, and once again, the Beloved becomes a book whose body must be read by the lover.
Holy Sonnets--all are "English"
or "Shakespearian," most rhyming abbaabbacddcee.
Compare this rhyme scheme with the sonnets of Lady Mary Wroth for some sense
of Donne's communication with Wroth and other members of the Sidney circle at
Penshurst. These are the first experiments in what will become a major trend (see Herbert, Herrick,
Crashaw, and Vaughan) adopting secular poetic forms which used to discuss sexual desire
and transforming them to media for discussing divine love and the desire to be at peace
with a God whose demands are not less frustrating than those of the old erotic Beloveds.
- #5, the "man-microcosm" trope we saw in "The Good Morrow" and
"To the Sun Rising," but a little world corrupted and in need of a toxic waste
disposal unit at the spiritual level (see Issue #I below). Note the
"lover"'s plea to be assaulted by the divine power ("burn me, O
Lord"), which you will see again more intensely, if that's possible, in #14.
- #7, the speaker almost taunts God and the angels of the Apocalypse to do that which they
came to do, rather than cowering in fright. But the sudden doubt of salvation makes
the speaker pause in the proud boast and ask for instruction in repentance. Oddly,
this makes God responsible for the sinner's repentance--isn't that something free will was
- #10, turns to taunting Death, because the promise of the bodily resurrection will end
Death's power "And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."
Consider this in the light of Everyman! How has the culture changed, both in
its poetry and in its religion?
- #14, probably the most famous of Donne's Holy Sonnets or its astonishing use of
onomatopoeia in the sound of battering verbs and verb phrases set in speeded up iambic
series--"Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you / As yet but knock, breathe,
shine, and seek to mend..." (ll. 1-2). Again, like #5, the speaker taunts God
to "break, blow, burn, and make me new" (4) with the analogy of the soul in the
body being like a rebel population in a city under siege by the rightful lord.
Finally, Donne uses a metaphor for taking cities, and women, that has roots reaching back
to Homer, where the same verb was used to "unbind the bridal veil" with violence
and "to sack a city." How do Donne's metaphors work together in this poem,
and how might you compare them to the visions reported by Margery Kempe and Julian of
- #17, only discovered in manuscript form in 1892, this sonnet apparently refers to the
1617 death of Anne, Donne's wife (after she had borne him 12 children!). The poem
(like the first stanza of "Nocturnal on St. Lucy's Day") turns upon the
paradoxical symptoms of a patient suffering from "dropsy," a breakdown of the
lymphatic circulatory system that causes simultaneous swelling and overpowering
thirst. Note that Donne modifies Bembo's "Staircase" analogy to a stream
which he follows from Anne to that which made Anne beloved, but still he fears that
salvation will not succeed (#7 and others). This anxiety relates to Sypher's view of
Mannerist style (see Issue #1 below).
- "Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness"--again, Donne uses the metaphor of
physical exploration of the New World to describe a spiritual exploration, but this time
it is not the mortal Beloved to whom he is sailing (see "The Good Morrow,"
"The Sun Rising," etc.). Note also the effect of this "Metaphysical
Conceit" upon Donne's representation of the pains of dying. They are that which
tunes the bodily instrument to make it fit for the afterlife.
- Expostulation #19 takes up the vexing problem of interpretation,
especially interpreting sacred texts of the Bible. Donne asks the
most fundamental question: should we read the Bible literally or
figuratively, as a plain statement of facts and commands, or as something
we should presume to be written in metaphors or symbols that must be
interpreted before we can understand it. He appears to come down
solidly upon the "figural" side of the argument. What does this mean
for his own poems, especially the apparent contrast between the erotic and
sacred works? Could they, too, be written in a "figuration" that
hides even more than their literal, paraphrased meaning?
Click here for a note comparing
Donne's position with that of Sir Philip and Mary Sidney (Herbert) on
biblical translation, and linking them to the poems by Marvell and
Herbert on the perils of trying to beautify sacred texts with the secular
- Meditation #4, published during Donne's lifetime, is the most typical
way he was known to the English reading public. What major themes
does he explore here to define what it is to be human and the
relationship between mortal humans and immortal divinity? You
should see some relationships to medieval and earlier Renaissance
thought here. What is "new" about his writing these
ideas? How does the "Meditation" imaginatively re-see human
existence as something grand or marvelous, and then contract that vision
into a more traditional view of our inferiority, even to other animals?
Where does Donne stand in the process of historical change between
Medieval and Modern thought?
Issues and Research Sources:
After his death, Donne's Collected
Poems were published in an authoritative volume edited by the poet's son, John, who
also edited and published in three volumes a total of 156 of Donne's sermons from drafts
and notes his father had left to, him at his death. Together with Ben Jonson's
publication of his own works in 1616 and Shakespeare's friends' publication of the first
folio edition of his works in 1623, this marks a significant moment in the development of
English literature--the emergence of an "authorized edition." Standards
for editing authors' works remained somewhat loose, depending on the scholarly acumen of
the heir(s) and the accuracy of the printers they hired, but finally we have the whole corpus
or body of an author's life work available for study in a form we may be reasonably sure
the author intended it should have.
The appearance in print
of an authorized "life" of the poet, written by Izaac Walton, also
demonstrates the public interest in having poets' properly laid out for
acquaintance and study. These are another of sorts of the events which mark the
end of the "Middle Ages" and the beginning of the Modern Era.
- Donne's lyrics can be profitably compared with those of George Herbert,
whose The Temple was also posthumously published in 1633, the same
year as the first print edition of Donne's collected poems.
When we compare Herbert's and Donne's
lyrics, you should be struck by how amazingly different their diction is
from the poems of their contemporaries, like Jonson's or Herrick's, though
Herrick shared their interest in striking experiments in the shapes of poems'
stanzas and their meters.
Particularly in poems like "To the Sun Rising" and "Canonization," by Donne,
and "Redemption," the two "Jordan" poems and "The Collar," by Herbert, you
suddenly hear the ordinary spoken Early Modern English of the street in a
poem about erotic love and love of God. The rhythms also are
spectacularly vernacular, which produces some of the exotic variations in
line length and meter we see in the poem's shape on the page. "The
Modern is coming!," both poets proclaim, though in other ways their verses
still hark back to Medieval values. If you think about the
verbal "dances," moving on their verbal "feet" (iambs, trochees, etc.) in sudden
thrusts and spins, you also can get a feel for what will become known in later
generations as "Mannerist" style, a precursor to Milton's (and Bach's) "Baroque"
- Donne wrote two long elegiac poems for a patron, Sir Robert Drury, whose daughter,
Elizabeth, had died young. "The First Anniversary" (1108-1114) is a part
of one. See the introduction to that portion of the poem (1108) and consider Ben
Jonson's criticism of the intense emotion reflected in the poem.
- How do you interpret a poem's intense emotional expression of grief when you know the
poem is written for profit?
- Note, especially, the strategy by which Donne attaches the death of a single woman to a
more far-reaching sense of the degradation of the entire world, even the universe, since
the Fall in Genesis. Wylie Sypher (Four Stages of Renaissance Style, 1955)
uses Donne as his primary example of "Mannerist" style, one characterized by a
"circling examination . . . in a world thrown off center, wanting repose and
safety" (104). With Donne in this Mannerist canon of art produced in a state of
profound disorder, Sypher includes Shakespeare's character, Hamlet, Webster's Bosola (Duchess
of Malfi), Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets, and the visual art of El
Greco, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. Consider this expression of the mood from Donne's
"First Anniversary," and try to find the sources of its chaos:
- So did the world from that hour [The Fall] decay,
That evening was the beginning of the day,
And now the springs and summers which we see
Like sons of women after fifty be.
And new philosophy calls all in doubt:
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this [world]
Is crumbed out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that these can be
None of that kind of which he is, but he.
- For a larger collection of Donne's work than that in the Norton, click
Back to English
211, Syllabus View.