Bring out the leading characteristics of John Donne’s poetry with suitable illustration

Introduction: Ben Jonson followed meticulously classical rules in his poetic and dramatic work. He was a classicist. He was a champion of decorum, discipline, symmetry, and regularity. So, he was not in favour of bold liberty as was taken up by John Donne in his poetical composition. But Jonson appreciated Donne as well for revolting against Petrarchan conventions in Elizabethan poetry. Like Donne, Ben Jonson revitalized English lyric poetry which had lost its glamour, vitality, and vigour because of its mere imitation of Petrarchan convention. Ben Jonson considers Donne as “a first poet in some things”. We have already discussed the greatness of Donne as a poet at various places in this book. We here elaborate in outline the various aspects of his poetry indicating his greatness.

Donne was the first poet who included thought and idea in poetry side by side. Donne neglected the Elizabethan conventions straight-  away. He expressed his varying personal moods and idiosyncrasies. He infused the realistic mode of personal urge and immediacy in his lyrics. In the Middle Ages, poetry was divorced from thought and reason. It was purely written for expressing emotions and feelings. Petrarchan influence was a predominating factor in Elizabethan because of the advent of the Renaissance. Thus, by and by, the lyric poetry of the Elizabethan era became vigourless and lifeless husks of mere conventions which were imitated without any symptom of personal urge. Donne’s lyric poetry is quite reverse to the prevailing traditions of the Elizabethan age.

Originality in diction marks Donne’s poetry. This originality in diction includes words not merely from the vocabulary of science but from colloquialism. He selected colloquial diction which has vigour, freshness and originality. He discarded literary words and phrases which became rusty because of repetition.

Donne repudiated Elizabethanism in lyric poetry: His rhythmical structure is governed by the nature of the passion, feeling and mood and at the same time it is in perfect accord with the diction, imagery, and attitude in a poem. His love poems are not concerned with limited number of moods of love as is the case with Elizabethan lyrics of love. While in Elizabethan lyric, there is the mood of despair and frustration in love and their themes are concerned with despondency and bewailing of the lover for the beloved, in the Donne lyric, there is the variety of moods, even, the mood of fulfillment and joy of consummated love. He is the first poet who has delineated the ecstatic joy of fulfilled love in The Sun Rising, The Anniversary, and The Good Morrow. Thus, everything contributes to the vigor and vitality of the poems. His songs are entirely different from those of the Elizabethan lyricists like Campion and Daniel.

Originality in imagery and use of sound: Donne was the first English poet who has used facts of scientific discoveries of his time in  poetry—the objects, which are utilized in the laboratories such as compasses, and the globe with the maps of earth pasted on it, and various other objects derived from various branches of science like biology, physics, and chemistry, etc. His vocabulary is rich and diversified. It scrupulously avoids hackneyed poetical and colorful words and expressions. He exploits the resources of the colloquial, trite, and plebian words which may be unhesitatingly yoked with a set of learned technical terms, with a generous vision of verbal eccentricities, ambiguity, and confusion. Consequently, there is the production of a bizarre effect. The vigour of colloquialism is evident in his poem The Good Morrow as the opening lines given below show:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we lov’d..

His poems have a unique clangor of poetic sounds now exquisitely melodious, now complicated and contorted almost beyond ready comprehension, but never really harsh, and always possessing, in actual presence or near suggestion, a poetical quality which no English poet has ever surpassed.

The complexity of Donne’s personality and the quick glancing flight of his fancy and the jagged gyrations of his vigorous and all-devouring wit bent and cracked not only the smooth surface of the conventional diction but also the rhythm of the conventional slow-moving and musical lines. He was creating the same revolution in the non-dramatic versification as was effected by the dramatists headed by Shakespeare in the structure of the blank verse. The form was subjected to the changing configuration of meaning and thought, and the rhythm of the lines was made to respond to the inflections of the speaking voice and the impassioned eloquence of dialectical reasoning. If we examine the single lines, the impression will be one of harshness and discord, but if we take the whole poem as a single entity it will be apparent that his discords are the ‘harmonies not understood’.

Donne’s rhythmical effect: Grierson has described him as one of “the first masters of an elaborate stanza or paragraph in which the discord of individual lines and phrases are resolved in the complex and rhetorically effective harmony of the whole group”. He plays with rhythmical effects as with ‘conceits’ and words and seems to be bent upon startling or even shocking the readers into alertness necessary for threading the labyrinth of his thoughts and arguments. His rhythm is an irritant or gadfly which goads the readers to continue to move forward and then, all of a sudden, pulls him up sharp with some arresting turn.

Various aspects of Donne’s imagery: Originality, novelty, and heterogeneous yoking together of the trite, the abstract, and the concrete, are the marks of his imagery which is drawn mostly from unexpected and unpoetical sources. His images are the manifestations of fantastic operations of his ‘wit’ to which feelings and passions are eventually subject. It may lead him to the hyperbole of imaging his mistress as more divine than an angel and a ‘bracelet of her hair as a holy relic apt to inspire idolatry and then descend to the level of anti- climax of comparing the lovers to compasses or making the flea a symbol of their hearts’ union. When this fantastic wit is supported by passion the result, though disconcerting, is unique; unsupported by strong emotion, it comes perilously near the ridiculous.

One peculiarity of Donne’s imagery calls for special notice. He was most sensitive to the factual effect and his poems abound in shapes that are sharp, solid, pointed, and immediately apprehensible by touch. He is sensitive to space, continuity, and linear movements. He was naturally attracted by mathematical analogies and or irregular geometrical and other scientific instruments which were calculated to reduce the mysterious universe to the solid and the tangible and make the infinity contract within a span.

Donne’s revival in the twentieth century: The poetry and criticism of T.S.Eliot has brought the revival of Donne to full flowering. Eliot ungrudgingly applied the poetic devices of Donne in his poetry of the Volumes of 1917 and 1920. He found his artistic devices indispensable for contemporary poetic practice. Thus, he has been considered “the poet’s poet” in the history of English poetry. Other critics like Richards, Leavis, Herbert Read, Empson, and Graves noted Donne’s poetry which possessed richness, vitality, and vigor of living poetry. These critics exalted Donne, while Dryden and Dr.Johnson condemned and degraded him by their critical dictums. The definition of great poetry in the present century is that it is an expression of the whole experience which is a mixture of contradictory and opposed thoughts, feelings, and sentiments. Donne’s rich imagery and conceits indicate his agility and vigilance of fertile mind which have deep-rooted association with his feelings and experience. They indicate his sharp, all-inclusive, and all-comprehensive wit. His poems, small as well as long, possess the unity which emerges out of the intensity of passion and of the conclusiveness of argumentation. He is a great metaphysical poet because of the rich themes of his poetry, as well as his treatment and structure. The themes of most of his poems are based upon religion and love and thereby indicate the deep-rooted relationship between body and soul and God, man, and his own self. His poetic artifice is to put forth arguments in a controversial manner. Thus he shines on the firmament of the history of poetry not only in England but in the whole of European poetry.

Conclusion: The besetting sin of Elizabethan lyricism, especially Spenserian, was its luxuriance and prolixity, the decorative, colorful, and meretricious dressing of simple and plain ideas, which were almost concealed under the weight of elaborate rhetoric like idols in temples under the layers of floral offerings. Donne rescued the lyric from this suffocating ornamentation by wedding it to a passionate speaker which cuts at once to the very heart of the meaning.

Also read: A short summary and critical analysis of Donne’s “The Ecstasy”