John Donne's Wit & Myth of Poetry

We have seen the history of English poetry rewritten by critics convinced of Donne's cardinal importance. This change was partly the effect of the reception into England of French Symbolist thought and its assimilation to the native doctrines of Blake, Coleridge, and Pater. Poets and critics were struck by the way Donne exhibits the play of an agile mind within the sensors body of poetry, so that even his most passionate poems work by wit, abounding in argument and analogy.

A series of poets, culminating in Mr. Eliot, proclaimed their affinity with Donne. They also searched the past ignored to discover the moment when the blend of thought and passion that came so naturally to Donne, and with such difficulty to themselves, developed its modern inaccessibility. One answer was that this occurred during the lifetime of Milton, who helped to create the difficulties under which modern poetry labors. This very characteristic, symbolist, historical myth is usually called by the name Mr. Eliot gave it, the "dissociation of sensibility. Donne has been distorted to serve this myth, but it is true that earlier criticism had treated him harshly. As Ben Johnson suggested, his kind of poetry runs the risk of neglect, especially in periods that value perspicuity. Dryden thought of him as a great wit, rather than as a poet, and a normal late seventeenth century view of Donne was that this "eminent poet became a much more eminent preacher." Johnson's brilliant critique occurs more or less accidentally in his life of Cowley. Coleridge and Lamb, Browning and George Eliot admired him, but Gosse, is patronizing about the poetry and calls Donne's influence "almost entirely malign." The revaluation of Donne has certainly been radical. The present is probably a favorable moment for a just estimate. 

Wit is a quality allowed Donne by all critics, of all parties. In his own time people admired his "strong lines," and perhaps the best way of giving a general account of his wit is to try to explain what this expression meant. Donne is notoriously an obscure poet. In fact, this obscurity is often over estimated, but he is never easy, and this is often because his manner is tortuous and in his own word, 'harsh'. Carew's famous tribute emphasizes the strain he put on Language: "To the awe of thy imperious wit our stubborn language bends." Carew speaks his "masculine expression." Donne was not writing for the many. He expected his readers to enjoy difficulty, not only in the scholastic ingenuity of his arguments, but in the combination of complicated verse-forms and apparently spontaneous thought. This kind of writing belongs to a rhetorical tradition ignored by much Elizabethan poetry which argued that language could directly represent the immediate play of mind-style as the instantaneous expression of thinking. Hence, this is why Donne will always appear to readers "whom the rhythm of thought itself attracts by virtue of its own peculiar convolutions." Ben Johnson, himself not a stranger to the strong lines was only the first to accuse Donne of overdoing. But for a while "strong lines" was a eulogistic term. Fuller said that "his Epithets were pregnant with metaphors, carrying in them a difficult plainness, difficult at the hearing, plain at the considering thereof." However, there was opposite to what Walton called "the strong lines now in fashion." Hobbes called them "no better than riddles." The taste for strong lines is not universal, nor are the powers they require of poets. 

As strong lines directly record mental activity, they contain concepts, or, in the contemporary form of the word, "conceits." The value of such lines obviously depends on the value of the concepts they express, and these were usually metaphors. The world was regarded as a vast divine system of metaphors, and the mind was at its fullest stretch when observing them. Peculiar ability in this respect was called by the Italians and the English wit. We cannot think of Donne without thinking of relentless argument. He depends heavily upon dialectical sleight-of-hand. Still, it is wise to learn what we can from continental critics of witty poetry, and the most important lesson, brilliantly suggested by S.L. Bethel, is that they regarded the conceit of argument as the highest and rarest kind of conceit. This is Donne's commonest device. (Some aspects of Donne's Jesuit training would help him in the business of analogy, but primarily the conceit of his secular poetry is derived from his later religious studies. What made him a poet, also made him an Anglican; The revaluation of a tradition.)

A great deal has been made of his interest in the "new philosophy," and the disturbance supposed to have been caused him by such astronomical discoveries as the elliptical movement pf planets; the movement of the earth, and so on. Donne was aware of such developments. But it is the greatest possible misunderstanding of Donne to suppose that he took this as any more than another proof, of the imperfection of human intellect. Sometimes he uses "new philosophy" more seriously, to illustrate some moral or theological assertion. There is always an antithesis in Donne, between natural and divine knowledge, the first shadowy and in exact, the second clear and sure. New philosophy belongs to the first class. We may speak confidently of a "libertine" or "naturalist" Donne only if we use the terms as applying to literature and thought rather than to life. Donne openly despises the ritual and indirection of Platonic love, he will follow nature and pluck his rose. 

Donne's wit depends on the assumption that a joke can be a serious matter. Wit, as he understood it, was born of the preaching of the word. Walton says: "His fancy was inimitably high, equalled only by his great wit. He was by nature highly passionate." It will never be regretted that the twentieth century, restored him to his place among the English poets, and wit to its place in poetry. 

Andrew Marvell's "The Definition of Love" an Analytical & Critical Note

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

Before we start our discussion about this poem, let us have a quick overview on the concept of the Metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical deals with new reality. The new discoveries that had been taking place in the 19th century. Thus, this poetry deals with the reality not with metaphysics, for we do not see any abstraction in this poetry and in most of the cases this poetry is not referential. 

In "The Definition of Love", Marvell has spiritualized love. This poem describes the character of the poet's love for his beloved. This love, says the poet is perfect and therefore unattainable. This love is divine, but for that very reason hopeless. Perfect love of this kind is most unwelcome to Fate who therefore never permits the union of perfect lovers. This kind of perfect love can mean only a spiritual union but never a physical one. This love is "the conjunction of the mind and opposition of the mind and opposition of the stars".

The poet begins with the three dimensional allegorical figures: Despair, Hope and Fate that control love of the whole world. The poem begins with the highly intellectual conceit. And at the beginning of this poem the poet says that the love of the poet has a rare parentage: and its aim is exceptionally strange and sublime. His love, the poet says, is the offspring of Despair and impossibility. Here he says:

"My Love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for abject strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility"

It was so divine a thing as his love. The poet goes on to say that Fate grows jealous of two perfect lovers:
"But fate does Iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt."

When we read this poem, we find that the clarity is not there; there is deviation from the decorum, and the conception is not familiar. In this kind of poetry you have to be at least of new area of poetry initiated by the poet. Those poets did use conceits. Most of the words or imagery is the idea where the thought and feeling are one. There is an image when there is a fusion between the thought and feeling. John Donne: in one of his poems says separate could not take place between him and his beloved.

The experience of this poem is one; it is an experience of love. Outside the poem the experience of love could be either simple or complex. Definitely, from the point of view of a good reader the poet must be at ease in order to tackle in the poem his experience. If the poet is truly in love, he wouldn't have written this poem because he is conceiving this experience from an architectural point of view. In architecture you could look on different aspects of the object. The object is one but the facts are many. The poet is at ease when he is writing the poem. The poet is not suffering for the reasons that will come. If he was suffering he couldn't write this work of art. This kind of poetry proves that poetry could be written outside the range of suffering. Suffering would be the material of the poem but not the product of it. 

In part 1, there is no point of departure and arrival in the poem. The poem is tackling one simple experience of love. Fate is against him. The way he is expressing his words proves that he is not suffering. 

In part 2 despair is never magnanimous; he is after paradox once more. This proves that there is a formula that prevails throughout the poem. Although the experience is one, there is complexity in the relationship between himself and his beloved. Therefore, he is using many images for the same experience.

In part 3 fate is like an iron wedge which separates us in between myself and my beloved. He must be cool to say that fate is against us. Otherwise he would have been meditative. He is playing with words. So we could conclude that the poem is moving through a formula (thesis & antithesis). They could be united but fate is against them; this formula prevails throughout the entire poem which explains on the structural level the usage of the paradoxes. So, he created a paradox and  enlarged the love experience through it. In a paradox there is some sort of oppositions by which the range of experience in the poem is extended. If he is expressing a personal experience, he would not need 32 lines to write the poem. What he is saying is one thing but extended through this formula. He is not expressing a personal experience, but he is writing a poetic experience. Therefore, he is exploiting a new area of poetry which is initiated by John Donne. 

In part 4 he is moving systematically throughout the same formula. If fate is strong, they will be separated; and if they unite, fate will be ruined.  

In part 5 "Her" refers to fate. Thus, there is a decrees that cannot be broken. It does not permit their union because the union of two lovers would mean the ruin of the power of Fate. Fate has placed these two lovers as far apart from each other as the North Pole and the South Pole are from each other. The love of the poet and his beloved are however like parallel lines which can never meet. Finally the poet describes the love between his and mistress as the conjunction of the mind and opposition of the stars. He is complicating the experience because he is resorting to an area outside the poem. He is doing this on purpose, intentional ambiguity. The imagery is borrowed from outside the poem. "Decrees of steel" can't be broken: between the north pole and the south pole there is an axis on which the world does rotate; the axis couldn't be broken because it is made of steel. In addition, they can't be embraced but the entire world does exist. The relationship can't be broken the two entity are opposite. It is true also around this axis the world does rotate. The experience in itself is simple. He is creating complexity by using an area beyond the range of poetry. He is borrowing imagery from outside the poem. Thus, he is enlarging our sensitivity. There is unity in his feelings. The idea and imagery are the body of his poem, so you have to respond emotionally before thinking.  

Thus the whole poem is a kind of logically developed argument. The whole poem is characterized by Metaphysical wit. Fate also plays an important role in this poem. However, in this poem we find the touch of Platonic love where spirit, soul and mind dominate the theme.

Thus, from the above discussion we can say that the attitude and mood of Marvell in this poem “The Definition of Love”, is full of gloom and frustrations as the lover is painfully aware of the impossibility of his union with of the beloved.

The Divine Poetry of John Donne

The Poetry of John Donne:
All the students of the English metaphysical poets would agree that Donne is the central figure in the group. Certainly not because Donne is typical, but all students agree that he is the most metaphysical of the English metaphysicals in the sense of having perhaps more of the distinctively metaphysical qualities than any other poet of his time. The beginnings of John Donne's poetry are distinctly secular, not to say profane, and they are highly personal, but they are significant for the whole development of English metaphysical poetry. For here in these early love poems meet two elements of crucial importance, a change in the movement of the spirit of the time, and a man who in temperament and experience was fitted to seize upon the emergent elements in the life about him. The metaphysical poetry of Donne is, what might reasonably be expected at such a juncture from such a man. Donne flouts but does not entirely sweep aside the conventions of his day in the most conventional field of all love poetry. However, a large number are of the other type that has made him famous. They are a revolt against a literary convention, one of the most brilliant rebellions known to English literature, a revolt against what was restrictive and artificial and hackneyed and stale in that convention, it is true, but also a revolt against what was ideal and graceful in it. Donne has an eye for the life about him.

Edmund Gosse, "Donne was ... by far the most modern and contemporaneous of the writers of his time." Much of this daily material is handled with that candor, that absence of any impulse to idealism. Donne's genius as so often happens, takes this "realism" for the characteristic note of the poet. But this element, is only one element in the imaginative effect of Donne's verses. There is, also, that element of passionate awareness of implications larger than those of the moment with which realism is so often obsessed that curios effect which most readers have vaguely described as mystical.

Dr. Johnson: "The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning, was their whole endeavor."

T.S. Eliot has said:"A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. As Mr. Leishman has pointed out so comprehensively: "He (Donne) does not idealize his experiences or transform them by association into splendid visions; he grapples with them, carefully analyzes them, and often tries to interpret them by means of intellectual conceptions. But though a philosophic or metaphysical poet, he is still a poet, because he always tries to communicate the concrete experience itself, and not merely the results of his reflection upon it." It is not just a mingling of emotion, one feeling suddenly shot through with another, for the elements of Donne's experience tend to preserve at once their identity and their inter penetrability. It is rather the swift setting of emotion against emotion with the same defiance of perspective that we have seen already in the handling of imagery. Ordinary human feeling moves much less quickly. It is sluggish in its rich diffusion, it does not move with such clean completeness as does the emotion of Donne. Yet at the same time there is  nothing trivial or mercurial in this mobility of feeling. The explanation is, of course, that in Donne feeling like imagination is submissive to the operations of the logical faculty. There are very few readers of poetry who would not at some time or other recognize the delight of seeing a complicated matter reduced to simplicity, a mass of discordant elements brought to unity. This purely intellectual satisfaction is to be had again and again in Donne as in all his followers. One of the main features of the development of seventeenth century thought is the imposition of mathematical pattern upon the multiplicity of reality. The very sharpness and precision of the working of Donne's mind and imagination are reflected in the felicity of his diction, a felicity in which precision is never sacrificed to grace and very seldom even to the sensational effect dear to Donne's heart. He was the kind of man that generations of naturalistic poets and novelists have dreamed of as their hero, as some one has wittily said, the kind of man Lord Byron wanted the world to think he was. And he was that kind of man not only in his sense but in his mind, in his imagination.

In his 'Renaissance Essays', Frank Kermode says 'Wit is a quality allowed Donne by all critics, of all parties. In his own time people admired his 'strong lines'. Donne is notoriously an obscure poet-in faxt his obscurity is often overestimated, but he is never easy and tho often because his manner is tortuous and, in his own word, 'harsh'. Donne was not writing for the many he expected his readers to enjoy difficulty, not only in the scholastic ingenuity of his arguments, but in the combination of the complicated verse-forms and apparently spontaneous thought, thought that doubled back, corrected itself, broke off in passionate interjections. This kind of writing belongs to a rhetorical tradition ignored by much Elizabethan poetry, which argued that language could directly represent the immediate play of mind-style as the instantaneous expression of thinking.

Ben Jonson, himself not a stranger to the strong line, was only the first to accuse Donne of overdoing it. He recommended a middle course between jejune (extreme) smoothness and a manner conscientiously rough. But for a while 'strong lines'-applied to prose as well to verse-was a eulogistic (praise) term. So Fuller could praise those or Cleveland, saying that 'his Epithetes were pregnant with metaphors, carrying in them a difficult plainness, difficult at the hearing, plain at the considering thereof'. As strong lines directly record mental activity, the contain concepts, or, in the contemporary form of the word, 'conceits'. The value of such lines obviously depends on the value of the concepts they express, and these were usually metaphors. A high evaluation was placed on metaphor. The world was regarded as a vast divine system of metaphors, and the mind was at it's fullest stretch when observing them. Peculiar ability in this respect was called 'wit'.

The Divine Poetry of John Donne:
In certain respects this sacred poetry of Donne, has a very remarkable interest for the student of religious verse. Self-revelatory like everything Donne ever wrote, it his the initial human value of giving us an inward picture of one of the most notable religious personalities in English history. His uniqueness lies in the way in which he goes behind and ahead of his day, in that versatility of mind and temperament that cuts across the lines of his age and embraces elements usually dissevered in the more partial general experience. They are lyric and reflective, almost exclusively, these divine poems. Donne's sermons show a very rich and immediate sense of the social problems of his day. For a man Donne's temperament, forever pulled between the poles of resolute and immovable common sense and warm intensity this was bound to be especially hard. This restlessness is due to that want to concentration, that constant liability to distraction, of which he was himself so sharply aware.

As Mr. T.S. Eliot so well points out the root of this distraction is probably Donne's incapacity to let go of himself, to surrender that acute and pervasive self-awareness that is the secret of his genius and his fascination.

According to Stanley Archer, the structure of the 'Holy sonnets' is very similar to Donne's poetry from the first poems to the last, concluding thus that the structure of his divine poetry is not the outcome of formal exercises of "meditation" and that although as he grew older, his environment and interests changed, but his poems kept their same fundamental structure and dramatic tone. As to Miss Gardener and to Professor Louis Martz the structure of the 'Holy Sonnets' is indeed influenced by meditative tradition and that Donne more likely has received such influence during his childhood. Moreover they believed that such structure cannot be accounted for in the poetic tradition, but it is a result of a fusion of both the poetic and meditative traditions.

All metaphysical poets are writing lyric poetry of an intensely religious character. But within the common type their bass undertakings are different. In much of his religious verse John Donne is expressing to the ear of a supposedly attentive Heaven his religious yearnings. He is an undoubted master of the inner life but on the side of self-analysis and self-expression. God is the object of his prayers, the end to which he is reaching, rather than the theme of his contemplation.

From the 'Language of Paradox' By Cleanth Brooks:
Few of us are prepared to accept the statement that the language of poetry is the language of paradox. Our prejudices force us to regard paradox as intellectual rather than emotional, clever rather than profound, rational rather than divinely irrational. It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purges from every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox. T.S. Eliot has commented upon 'that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations' which occurs in poetry. It is perpetual; it cannot be kept out of the poem; it can only be directed and controlled. The tendency of science is necessarily to stabilize terms, to freeze them into strict denotations; the poet's tendency is by contrast disruptive. The terms are continually modifying each other, and thus violating their dictionary meanings.
Even the apparently simple and straightforward poet is forced into paradox by the nature of his instrument. Seeing this, we should not be surprised to find poets who consciously employ t to gain a compression otherwise unobtainable. The method is an extension of the normal language of poetry, not a perversion (misinterpretation) of it.

The Metaphysical Poets

Poetry and mysticism have, to begin with, this in common, that both alike belong to the field of contemplation rather than of action. Both are concerned primarily with the recognition of pattern, of significance, ultimately of value, in the world about them and within them. As distinguished from the man of action, say, the contemplative is concerned not with the conquest of the external world but with the understanding of it. The hunger for God is the basic human hunger so every mystic of every tradition agrees. "Thou maddest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee," is the way saint Augustine puts it.

However, eight centuries ago the Moslem woman Rabi'a had prayed,"O God! If I worship Thee for of Hell; and if I worship Thee in hopes of paradise, withhold paradise from me, but I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me the Eternal Beauty." In addition, the story is told of mystic, Thomas Aquinas, that, as he knelt in the Church of Saint Dominic in Naples, weary from the labor of his great defense of the Real Presence in the Sacrament, he heard the voice of his Master speak from the crucifix before him. And the voice asked him what reward he would have fore the work he had done so well. The answer which the great theologian is said to have returned on that occasion is the one answer of which the mystic could approve, "I will have thyself."

The mystic and the poet are alike, also, in that neither is willing to remain passive. Thus, often unresisting submission to the flood of experience seems the sole alternative to the aggressive conquest of one's environment, to the imposition of one's own mood upon the offering of the day. The mystic has been striving for some time to focus all his resources upon his main purpose of coming into direct contact with his God. Mystics of all traditions have testified to the compulsive power of that attraction to God. That is why it is not easy for the mystic to content himself with flashes and glimpses of his goal. The goal of the mystic is not the expression of his experience in words or in any other medium, but the carrying on, the carrying through, of that seeking of God which he has begun. This does not mean that the mystic may not be moved to the expression of his experience. He often is and to impressive effect. For the mystic, that final satisfaction comes not through any expression of the fragments or stages of his experience but only through the completion of it. What, then, is the significance of the expression which the mystic sometimes gives to his experience? The expression of mystical experience usually does one of three things. At its simplest, it may bear witness to the goodness of Gods. Closely associated with this type is the narrative of the mystic's experiences. There is a third possible type, in which the expression becomes an instrument of mystical efforts, a prayer for help in the way to God.

Whatever their theories as to the origin or value of metaphysical poetry, all critics agreed that the distinctive characteristics of the genre is it's intellectual emphasis, an emphasis apparent both in the preoccupations of the poet and in his procedure. For Dr. Johnson, the fact that they overemphasized the intellectual element is the definitive element in their claims to literary immortality in poetry. As to Mr. T.S. Eliot the fact that they sometimes overdid it does not appear so much of a fault when you consider how the romantics, for instance, under did it.

Andrew Marvell's Poetry

The larger number of Marvell's modern admirers, I believe, have come to his poems with the assumption that the relatively short, supposedly 'private' poems, uncommitted to cause or action, is the most desirable or highest kind of poetry. But a number of Marvell's poems, may shock us with their kind of 'privacy'. But if these poems are in one way more 'private' than anything we can easily imagine today, they also use the rhetorical devices of an age supremely conscious of the powers and problems of the social, and particularly the persuasive, uses of language. Recently the conventional opinion has been clear about the contrast; Marvell's good poems were the 'private' ones, Marvell could even serve as the prime exemplary proof for the 'cultural break' the 'dissociation of sensibility ' which set in at 1660; before that date, supposedly, Marvell wrote the poems which we all admire; afterwards, he was the victim of politics, satire and an age, when thought and 'feelings' were hopelessly split apart.

Marvell seems to have been a gentleman who for a time wrote a kind of poetry that we have come to admire greatly. Although he was, with Ben Johnson and John Milton, one of the most 'literary' poets of the century, unlike them he conceived of himself neither as a professional nor as a dedicated poet. When the inspiration or the occasion  for a particular kind of verse was past, his choice seems to have been either to quit writing verse altogether or to turn to a new kind of poetry.Smoothness and polish might easily be preferred to roughness and 'strength'. We can tell that Marvell's practice differed from the normal responses of his age chiefly in agility and elegance.

The attempts to place Marvell in a specific 'school' of poetry have also occasionally misled or perplexed. A student who has learned that Marvell belongs to the 'School of John Donne' may be disconcerted when he discovers Marvell's concern for euphony, his usual rejection of impatient or impassioned speakers, and his preference for simple metrical schemes and Johnsonian diction. Marvel delighted in considering the meanings of overtones of another poet's phrases or images and in bending them to new and often surprising uses. When one comes to recognize some of the things Marvell took from Donne, Johnson, George Herbert, Crashaw, Dryden, and Milton. Marvell's lines may come to seem strewn with words and phrases so redolent of other contexts that they should properly be printed in Italics. And this is the same poet whom T.S. Eliot called the most Latin of all seventeenth-century poets.

The poems are considered in terms of their general subjects. Many can be described as predominantly concerned with love, or religion, or politics. The most popular of Marvell's poems today either clearly fit into one of the categories or mark the transitions from one to another. Frank Wranke has recently recently remarked that a large number of Marvell's lines or poems are literally playful. T.S. Eliot's memorable phrase about 'a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.'

The least and probably the most poorly read of Marvell's poems today are the fully public ones which Marvell wrote for anonymous publication and with which he meant to influence public opinion. Marvell devoted his major energies to public matters, and numbers of people knew it.

Political Poetry
Marvell used and mastered more than one style. When he wrote occasional poems, he was aware of a potential public audience and of immediate political possibilities. And he seems to have realized that political poems, like other poems, are less immediately effective and less ultimately interesting if the poet assumes that he is merely voicing common sentiment, formulated before his poem is written-or read.

Marvell and Milton

Marvell's association with Milton had been long: he had admired and used Milton's early verse soon after it was published; with the publication of Paradise Lost, Marvell may have recognized that, despite his use of Johnson's lyrics in his earlier poems, Milton was the first major poet after Donne and Johnson who was not primarily an heir of either. If Milton had a single important English ancestor, it was, of course, Spenser.Marvell clearly recognized and admired the miracle of Paradise Lost, but except in a few lines, he did not imitate it. Perhaps he recognized that Milton's combination of blank verse and high style, divorced from greatness of subject and greatness of spirit, was likely to result merely in windiness or bombast. And Marvell, ostentatiously staying with the couplets that had served him so well.