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.