John Donne is termed a “metaphysical” poet: the Metaphysicals were a group of poets writing in the 16th and 17th century, and included figures such as Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and, indeed, William Shakespeare. The term “Metaphysical” stems from a comment by Dryden, who wrote about Donne “He affects the Metaphysics... in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts.” Dryden felt that these poets were too extravagant in the images that they used, allowing invention to get in the way of their subject, especially if that subject was love, a theme he believed should be tackled with more spontaneity and less artifice. Dr Johnson shared this view: in such poetry, he claimed, writing of Crashaw in his Lives of the Poets (1774), "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”
One of the major features of Metaphysical poetry is the conceit, a term that refers to the metaphoric links – images – that the poets create. As Johnson suggests, these can be unusual and sometimes strained: on the other hand, it can be argued that they are startling and new, allowing the reader to explore and experience more vividly the subject of the poem. John Donne, for example, uses a telling conceit in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. He and his wife are like a pair of compasses – although at times he is forced to travel away from her, leaving her at home, she is like the fixed foot of the compasses, he the moving foot, but both are joined together, and therefore never truly apart. They are so close as to be like one soul – but if they are two souls,
And though it in the center sit,
Arguably, too, the conceit had a religious purpose for the metaphysicals. A philosophical idea current at the time was the interconnectedness of things: the term used was “correspondences”. In essence, all things were connected to each other – an idea remarkably similar to superstring theory espoused by quantum physicists today! The conceit, then, by showing similarities between seemingly dissimilar objects, shows the connections they believed underlie the universe. So, then, the world can be like a chess board ( Cowley – “To Destiny”); prayer like the spear that pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion ( Herbert – “Prayer”); frustrated lovers like parallel lines ( “Marvell – “The Definition of Love”).
Furthermore, the metaphysicals showed that there are correspondences between the universe and objects within the universe: the microcosm – a small, seemingly self-contained aspect of the world – reflects the macrocosm – the larger world. In Donne’s “The Sunne Rising”, his bedroom where he is enjoying his mistress becomes the whole world:
Religion was the subject of much metaphysical poetry, and it is no coincidence that many of the metaphysicals were priests – among them George Herbert (whose collected poems, The Temple is a perfect example of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm) Richard Crashaw and, of course, John Donne. In his Holy Sonnets, and other religious poems, Donne discusses the relationship between God and man in intimately personal terms: punning on his own name in “A Hymn to God the Father” , and in Sonnet XIV using startling references from the world of sexual love:
John Donne was sharply aware of the duality of mankind:
Another feature common to Metaphysical poetry is “the line of wit”, a phrase taken from Abraham Cowley’s “Christs Passion”:
A further intellectual aspect to Donne’s poetry is the wealth of reference employed within it. Donne, like most if not all the metaphysical poets, was a man of learning as well as of religion, and this is reflected in his poems. Contextually, his age was a rich one: voyages of discovery were opening up the world ( Elegy XX – “To His Mistress Going to Bed, where Donne becomes the explorer, his mistress his “Newfoundland”); alchemy was still practiced, despite becoming less intellectually respectable ( “Love’s Alchemy”); “the Elizabethan world picture” based on the classical theory of the universe being constructed from a number of spheres ( “Love’s Growth”) was being supplanted by more scientific theories stemming from Copernicus and Galileo ( “The Sunne Rising”.) It is worth remembering that in Donne’s age, there was no real conflict between science and religion, despite the persecution of Galileo by the Inquisition; indeed, the emerging laws of physics and chemistry seemed to show underlying order at the root of the universe, confirming the existence of a benign Creator.
But, of course, this is not to suggest that Donne’s poetry is distanced by the learning that pervades it. Donne’s secular poems in particular are accessible, speaking as they do about the universality of human experience, particularly the experience of love. There is a heady tension in much of Donne’s poetry between the intellectual content and the sheer physicality of expression. Take, for example, Elegy XX – “To His Mistress Going to Bed where Donne combines references from Classical mythology, warfare, the voyages of discovery and religion with his urgent demands that his mistress should reveal herself to him as intimately as she would to her midwife, asking her to
This poem is often used to illustrate one of the claims that have been made about Donne: that his poetry is misogynist. This is not, of course, because of its sexual content: rather that in his poetry the female is passive; it is the male who acts and reacts to the female, In this poem woman is reduced to property, to land: a “Newfoundland” waiting to be explored, conquered and dominated by the male. A similar attitude is displayed in “The Sunne Rising”: “She's all states, and all princes I”. Furthermore, this passivity extends to other areas of life; as we have already seen in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” it is the male who travels the world, the female who stays behind, the “fix’d foot” who minds the house.
Perhaps, however, we might conclude that Donne is reflecting the prejudices of his age here. And, if Donne’s perspective and voice is generally male, is that not to be expected? Indeed, one could counter the arguments with poems that celebrate relationships on a surprisingly equal basis: “The Good Morrow” describes the lovers as “two hemispheres” – another scientific reference, and also a microcosm/macrocosm correspondence – of the one world, and celebrates the sharing aspect of love: “Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.”
There are, however, poems that show real negativity in their portrayal of women, particularly when his subject is betrayal. In “Love’s Alchemy” he is bitter about the value of female love:
Donne’s poetry is complex, many layered and richly rewarding. It is musical, with inventive rhyming patterns and metrical schemes, and the diction is carefully chosen both for content and for sound value. But most of all, Donne’s poetry is human, and celebrates the emotional intensity and physical complexity – and sometimes the underlying simplicity – of human life: something we ourselves share, despite our different contexts.
“Come live with me, and be my love,