John Donne as an Innovative Poet

Published: 2021-07-23 22:45:06
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Category: Poetry, John Donne

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John Donne's position as a revered and respected poet is not unjustified. The depth and breath of literary works written about him along with the esteemed position he held among his comtemporaries is evidence of his popularity. As a metaphysical poet his poetry was frequently abstract and theoritical and he utilised poetry to display his learning and above all his wit. He was most certainly an innovative love poet who moved away from the Shakespearian focus on form intensely literary style. He was an expert in argument and often used exr=tended conceits to put forward these arguments.
The drama in his poetry and his use of language all serve to highlight his skills as an innovative and creative poet. In order to examine Donne's innovative style I will discuss five of his poems, A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, The Flea, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, The Sunne Rising and The Anniversarie. Donne was frequently classed as the first and greatest of the metaphysical poets. This group of writers were classed together, not because of any historical connection, but largely due to their similiarity of style. The term metaphysical could be classed in a number of ways the work of these poets was both celebrated and criticised.
For many metaphysics was a branch of philosophical speculation concerned with questions of our being and existence. It was often characterised by the se of inventive conceits and speculation on topics such as love or religion. For Samuel Johnson, who coined the term the metaphysical poets, they were overly comcerned with style and the demonstration of learning. He believed these poets, who included George Herbert and Andrew Marvel as well as Donne, were simply using this style of poetry to show off their intelligence, 'The metaphysical poets were men of learning and to show their learning was their whole endeavour'. Johnson, 1876: 48]. The impact Donne and his innovative style made on his contemporaries is evidenced further when we look at the reaction of his contemporaries to his death. Such was their grief at his passing that a book of elegies dedicated to his was published two years after his death. Among these was Thomas Carew's An Elegie Upon the Death of the Deane of Paul's Dr John Donne. In this Carew laments the passing of Donne and believes that his death will hinder other poets as he was their inspiration. For Carew, Donne's inovation ay in his use of the English llanguage and he described him as having freed the English language from the 'weeds' which had grown all over it. Carew also suggests that other poets are indebted to Donne as he created a style that was a source of inspoiration for many other poets. This stance in reaction to his death further reinforces the idea that Donne was an innovative love poet and not one who writes with an awareness of tradition of earlier love poetry. William Shakespeare was the Elizabethan era's most prolific love poet. He employed a highly literary style in his writing and a rigid structure in much of his poetry.

A comparison between Donne's work and Shakespeare's traditional love poetry effectively highlights Donne's innovation in the field. Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis and Donne's poem A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy's Day are love poems that employ similar arguments to advance their themes. Donne's innovation becomes obvious however in the style and diffuculty of his argument. In Shakespeares's verse his heroine refuses to believe that her lover has died based on the argument that if he was dead then the whole world would be in chaos and she too would be dead, 'to wail his death who lives and must not die/ Till mutual overthrow of mortal kind! [Shakespeare 1015 – 1020]. Once the point has been made the poem moves on. In Donne's poem on the other hand his argument on the liklihood of proving his death continues for many lines and utilises comparisons to many scientific points. For Donne it is not the logic of the argument that counts but the argument itself and he continues to press the argument until he can go no further. This poem is also evidence of Donne's focus on metaphysics. He uses the unfeeling language of philosophy and science to advance his arguments. Intellectual argument and attempts to persuade are a frequent feature of Donne's poetry.
Many of them are exercises in the use and abuse of logic. His poem The Flea contains twenty seven lines of witty closely-knit argument on the significance for two lovers of a flea bite. The poem contains three connecteded arguments; the first it that the flea, who has bitten both the speaker and his lover, now contains the blood of each and so they are mingled withing the body of the flea in which they have effectively made their marriage bed. The second is that by killing the flea, she will be committing murder (killing him), suicide (killing herself) and sacrilege (destroying the 'temple' which was their marriage bed).
The final segment of the argument takes place after his lover has killed the flea. The speaker reasons that as neither he nor she has suffered from the death of the flea, if she yields to him, she will lose no more honour than when 'this flea's death took life from her'. [Donne line 27]. Donne pursues his argument in a reasoned logical fashion and in this poem in particular the argument carries an irreverent tone and through its ludicrousness and wit Donne demonstrates both his intellect and ingenuity.
Another of Donne's poem which employs a reasoned argument is Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Unlike the irreverent tones of The Flea however this poem's argument is filled with emotional intensity as Donne assures his wife that the physical distance between them as he undertakes a long journey to Europe with his patron Sir Robert Drury will not alter their relationship. He makes the unusual argument that their separation is not only unimportant but in fact impossible.

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