John Donne: An English Poet
John Donne was an English poet, a soldier, and a scholar. He was born on January 22, 1572, in London. His family was recusant Roman Catholic, and at that time, that religion was illegal in UK. His father’s name was same as him. Donne received his early education privately. He joined Hertford College, Oxford at 11. He studied for three years at University of Cambridge. He couldn’t get a degree from these institutions because of his religion. He didn’t take Oath of Supremacy that was requirement for graduation. He also studied at Thavies Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. Donne began questioning his faith after death of his brother in prison due to protecting a Catholic priest. Donne travelled across Europe and fought alongside Earl of Essex. He became secretary of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, but lost his post when he married his niece of Sir Thomas Egerton secretly.
He had twelve children of which five died. His life circumstances were bad and he considered suicide but wrote Biathanatos, in his defence of not committing suicide. His wife died in 1617 after giving birth to a stillborn child. He wrote about loss of his love in his 17th Holy Sonnet. Cambridge University gave Donne an honorary doctorate in divinity in 1615. In 1623, he faced an almost fatal illness and wrote many meditations and prayers for health and sickness. He delivered his famous sermon Death’s Duel before King Charles I, at Palace of Whitehall in February 1631. John Donne died on March 31, 1631 and buried at St Paul’s Cathedral in London where he was a dean. (1) John Donne’s was most prominent of the metaphysical poets of 17th century. His contemporaries include Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Richard Crashaw, etc.
Now let us discuss about the most important metaphysical poet of that time, John Donne.
John Donne as a Metaphysical poet
John Donne is the most prominent of the metaphysical poets. The metaphysical poets were the people of learning. Donne, in his early poems, has also expressed his knowledge of society. He has presented the problems in it using criticism and satire. However, the subject of religion was the most important to Donne. He also wrote erotic poetry in his early career with unusual use of metaphors. His life has an obvious impact on his poetry and we can see him making references to his life, in his poetry. It is also believed that the death of his wife and friends made his poetry style kind of sombre and gloomy.
Characteristics of John Donne’s poetry
John Donne’s poetry is metaphysical because of uniqueness in his poetry and his search for questions. Wit is dominant in his poetry, and it is vague and makes use of improbable conceits. The themes of his poems include, paradoxes, fidelity, religion, Death and the Hereafter, both physical and spiritual Love, Interconnection between humanity, etc. Let us look at the unique and interesting characteristics of Donne’s poetry.
Donne was an intellectual and he has always used unique and new concepts in his poetry. He would ask questions in his poetry that people would not normally think about and prompt the reader to open his mind. In his ‘Death Be Not Proud’, he has talked to death as if it was a person and asked death upon death.
Because Donne provided such new philosophical ideas in his poetry, vagueness has become a prominent characteristic of his poetry too. There is no clear right or wrong, it is just that he would provide with an idea, and it depends on the reader now, how he perceives it. Due to this, most part of his poetry is obscure. One must read his writings several times to grasp a concept.
As wit is most important part of metaphysical poetry, so it is of Donne’s poetry too. He, in fact in metaphysical poetry, is called the “Monarch of Wit”. (2) His wit goes in all directions, from seriousness to humour. His intellectual abilities, syllogism, exaggeration, and irony also made wit in his poetry great.
Conceit is plentiful in John Donne’s poetry. Conceit is a comparison of most improbable things. John Donne has compared two lovers to two opposite sides of a compass in his poetry. In his ‘The Flea’, he has compared a flea to a marriage bed. In his, ‘The Sun Rising’, he has said that he could eclipse the Sun, as if he was a star. In his, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, he says that parting should be happy, and it should not be a cause of sadness, and death should be calm.
John Donne was the person to introduce sayings and maxims into metaphysical poetry. He, flouting the maxim of quality said that death gives peace to people, whereas it is looked upon as evil.
As we have seen above, John Donne is a metaphysical poet at its finest. The subject matter he selected for his poems, the use of imagery, irony, farfetched concepts and all, contributes in making him a great metaphysical poet. He used his poetry to search for himself and the questions he had. His poetry is more of a journey for him, a journey of love, self-discovery, understanding, and spirituality.
Prominent works of John Donne include Sweetest Love, The Dream, The Ecstasy, Batter my heart, three person’d God, No Man is an Island, The Canonization, The Good Morrow, etc.