Explore the theme of ‘love’ within the poems written by John Donne Essay
John Donne describes love as a binding force, and one which completes both the persona’s and his lover’s lives. The Romantic poets, such as Keats’ and Wordsworth’s style of verse is much more descriptive of the physical reality with which they deal, whereas Donne ignores the reality and writes about what is beyond reality; the metaphysical.In ‘The Good Morrow’, one of Donne’s abstract love poems, he describes love as something which flourishes to provide immortality and eternal being.
To him, love enraptures its beholders and devours their senses before enhancing them and turning them around completely. Using the ‘two halves’ description, he can convey one of the most sage and discerning statements in his works; that both of their halves join together as a singularity and are then immortal and a complete state of euphoria is gained between them. In the first verse, Donne says that what they have done before they are in love was only pretence and untrue to what their lives’ purposes really are, and that is to find happiness in someone else forever.
”I wonder by my troth, what thou, and IDid, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then,But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?”Of course, this is not really true, but Donne is arguing, not describing or reviewing, and in doing so he creates a much more vivid image of their love.
Throughout the poem, he puts forward the idea that the room they are in is “an every where”, and that is because of the love that they share together. Donne says that if they keep their love for each other equal; “Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.” then they would be able to live happily forever. It was believed at Donne’s time of writing that death was caused by an imbalance in the elements which made up people, such as love and hate, and care and disregard.
He meant that if two lovers’ feelings for each other were even and mutual, then they would live forever as immortal beings.”Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”The persona does not want to leave where he is; he has everything, and he shares it all with his lover. What he has is enough, and it could be just her that would keep him happy.
The poem has a very defined rhythm to it that can be felt by the reader if read at the correct tempo. This rhythm is used for emphasis, and it works very well along side the theme and the language.In ‘The Sun Rising’, another of Donne’s love poems, Donne reinforces what he set out to express in ‘The Good Morrow’, but this time he takes a physical object, the Sun, and argues against it! Of all things he could have chosen he chose one of the most omnipotent and followed objects in any culture. The Sun has been worshipped and followed by countless advanced cultures and religions, yet he would banish it if he could because it disturbs him whilst he is sleeping with his lover!”Busy old fool, unruly sun,Why dost thou thus,Through windows, and through curtains call on us?”He calls it a “Saucy pedantic wretch”, as if it is sentient and knows of its effects on him.
It is scientifically sound that life on Earth has evolved and developed because of the effects of the Sun, and many religions (both ancient and modern) are based on the fact that the Sun is a holy being, and yet ‘The Sun Rising’ uses it to argue that nothing, even the basic elements and functions of life, can interfere with the love they have for each other. The Sun’s rays are so dim to him metaphysically, although they may have been very bright physically.Donne’s love poems are all well argumentatively structured persuasions, as he is aiming to enforce a message so profound that simply describing it would not arouse enough emotion to be successful. He argues his point of view instead of simply describing it.
This ‘offensive’ style is most pronounced in ‘The Flea’, where he is trying to seduce a coy lady to sleep with him. He uses three separate verses to emphasise three different but adjoining arguments. Quite ironically, he uses the most ill-favoured, noisome pest as a parallel for the binding of their blood and therefore, he argues, their beings. Donne envies the flea for its audacity to just jump up and suck the blood of the woman he is trying to seduce, and he is clear about this:”In what could this flea guilty be,Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?”In verse one, Donne starts his argument with the fact that what she is denying him is so little, and whilst the flea has just bitten them both and mixed their blood to form a bond, quite discreetly and effortlessly, he has to painstakingly pull down her defences, and that he is becoming distraught about it.
He says what they would do is not a sin at all:”Confess it, this cannot be saidA sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,”Then, in verse two, he uses the flea to his advantage against her. He envies the flea for what he himself cannot seem to do, and he boldly uses it as a third party, a vector, for their marital bonding. Donne says that because their two bloods are mingled in the flea, they are as good as married.”Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,Where we almost, nay more than married are.
“He considers the flea to be their “marriage temple” and he knows this might be the only way to get away with it, as their parents are not at ease with each other.”Though parents grudge, and you, we’are met,And cloistered in these living walls of jet.”The living walls of jet are the black body of the flea.The language that he uses is so strong and unforgiving, and his argument is so faultless and clever, that he even manages to imply that by killing the flea she has destroyed their “marriage temple”, and so she must oblige to sleep with him now because there is no problem in doing so:”‘Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;Just so much honour when thou yield’st to me,Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
“What may superficially look like an immature and far too literal argument is very deep and metaphorical indeed. It looks at seduction from a strange angle, and the idea that just by mixing their bloods in the flea they become family does go into the realms of the metaphysical argument, which is ultimately what Donne was aiming to do.Looking at those three poems by John Donne which were written in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and comparing them with two modern poems (i.e.
ones written in the twentieth century), it is evident that the approach towards love in poetry and the style in which the poetry has been written has changed quite dramatically over time.John Donne writes poetry in a very argumentative, persuasive fashion, and because of it his poems are most effective at conveying what he wants to. The modern love poems which I am comparing his works with are ‘My Box’ and ‘Valentine’, by Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy respectively. The modern poems are exactly what Donne’s are not in this respect.
They do not argue very much at all. Instead, the poets take a normal object, such as a wooden box and an onion, and describe them in intense detail.They then link these seemingly trivial details to things much more profound and metaphorical, but rarely do they touch on the metaphysical as much as Donne does. This large difference in approach to the theme of love between the eras shows that the modern poets are much more descriptive of it, whilst Donne preferred to apply his knowledge to concoct a strong argument or persuasion.
I believe that this change was largely brought on by the changes in views towards poetry in the Romantic Period, where influential poets such as Wordsworth and Keats wrote poems so well that they affected poems even up until this day. There are traces of Wordsworth style in the modern poems, and this shows how dependent modern poems are on what was written in the Romantic Period.The modern poems are also more assertive than Donne’s poems. Between ‘My Box’ and ‘Valentine’, there are literally no questions asked at all.
Between any combination of two of Donne’s three poems being discussed here, the least amount of questions asked would be six. This fact highlights an obvious difference in the style and approach to which the theme of love is dealt with in the two eras of poems. John Donne pushed at questioning our reality, such as:”Why shouldst thou think?”when questioning the Sun in ‘The Sun Rising’ and:”Without sharp north, without declining west?”when questioning the corruption of the world in ‘The Good Morrow’. The modern poems shy away from asking questions about reality and what is beyond it, instead, the poets seem to be more secure with their reality and question lifeless objects instead.
A style common to Donne’s poems and the two modern poems is that they use common objects that normally wouldn’t be given a second thought and turn them into a metaphorical object for love, such as the flea in ‘The Flea’ and the onion in ‘Valentine’. But still, Donne insists on discarding the description of the object and linking it to abstract meanings, and concentrates on discussing the object’s immediate and distant metaphysical implications.In a sense, it seems as though Donne was one of the last of a dying line of poets. Since the Romantic Period in poetry, the shift in approach there has echoed through the nineteenth century to influence how modern poets write.
Romantic and Modern poetry is about linking physical objects such as gardens, eggs, onions, boxes and trees to metaphorical meanings, whereas Donne took his feelings and wrote them down, providing argument and scope for it too.Donne’s style is much more persuasive than some of the more recent poems, and the poets who largely brought about this change were undoubtedly the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, who expressed that the language used by the poets of his day (admittedly not specifically John Donne – he had died more than one hundred years before) was literary and dead. By expressing and thus acting upon this, he brought upon a paradigm shift in the approach to themes such as love in poetry, and he effectively started the Romantic Period himself, which brought much more descriptive poems than argumentative ones.