John Donne

I am finding it hard to really say much about life at present. I seem to snap out of it periodically and look back at a reasonably indistinct past made up of a montage of , Ultimate, work and the odd bit of roleplaying. I recently browsed back over the archives of my journal, and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of careful thought, a bit of spurious academia and a lot of memes. Oh, happy times with the quiz memes.

They say that hindsight is 20/20, but honestly, with a bit of distance everything seems to get a bit blurry. I re-read my Phaistos essay recently, and with a bit of smear on my glasses there were a few places where I lost myself. It often happens, I guess. That’s why some poems and works were revised time and again by their authors. Pope’s The Dunciad, for example, was heavily edited 4 or 5 times, and a whole new book chucked onto the end 20 years after the original was published.

Well, I have assiduously kept all of my important and interesting writings from the age of about 15. Those of you who’ve been to my house will have seen the large stack of foolscap envelopes: this is principally what they contain. My output has been large, thanks largely due to a habit of writing a lot of practice essays for exams. Oh yes, I do exam prep. Or at least, I used to. This didn’t really happen my last time out.

Anyway, with such a huge wealth of wisdom on-tap, as it were, there seems no point in reinventing the wheel and writing anything new. So, I’ve picked an example at random of my 7th form English preparatory material, for a poetry answer on John Donne. He was an author I enjoyed immensely, and looking back, I can see that I lacked the broadness of experience to properly understand both his meta-physical writing, and his later sonnets:

John Donne, the first of the metaphysical poets, was an unusual poet. He differed from his contemporaries both in content and style. His content is generally argumentative and has been characterized as witty, with a liberal use of metaphors, puns and complex rhyme schemes. His style, closely linked with his content is conversational, almost prosaic, very different from the highly structured and artificial petrarchan conventions which prevailed in his life.

What modern readers of Donne are most often impressed by are his “metaphysical conceits”: a particularly unhelpful term coined by Dryden. Conceits are essentially the metaphorical equivalent of Homeric Similes, they are long and complex, often striking in nature and form aprt of an argument put forward by Donne. In The Flea the major conceit is the likening of a flea to a marriage temple, joining of souls and loss of chastity all at once. Donne has been trying to convince a woman to sleep with him. By likening the flea which bit both of them to these his is able to accuse her of committing murder and sacrilege when she kills it. The image is remarkable, extended as it is over the entire poem, and aids him in constructing his argument.

Donne’s virtuosity did not restrict itself to conceits. He was equally fond of clarity in through through paradox and puns. A Hymn to God the Father contains none of his characteristic conceits, but does feature a play on the word “done” which is a homonym for “Donne”: ‘when thou hast done, thou hast not done| for I have more.’ He has asked god for redemption of his sins, but acknowledges that should god forgive him, god will neither have finished (for he has more sin) not have Donne in his domain, for the same reason. This interpretation is aided by the impression that Donne is speaking, rather than writing, given by the poem.

Paradox also abounds in Woman’s Constancy. Donne complains that women have no way but ‘falsehood to be true’, a seemingly silly assertion. However, with some thought it becomes clear that Donne is claiming women are by nature false, and so they must lie and be false.

Stylistically, Donne broke new ground. The Petrarchan concept of a virginal pure love was a dominant feature of the poetic landscape, but most of Donne’s early work is in the same vein as the flea, mocking this tradition. The lack of women’s fidelity seems to have preoccupied him somewhat; Goe catch a falling starre is one of these more flippant examples. Donne lists a set of Herculean tasks, but says all of them are easier than finding a pure woman. This cynicism and argumentative writing distinguished Donne from others.

Ultimately, Donne’s work still impresses people today mainly because Donne’s work had rich intellectual properties which are still not commonly found; his many-layered “conceits” which hold more meaning than simple metaphors; his adroit use of paradoxical statements to encourage his audience to think; witty use of puns, both for amusement and for a serious point; and the well-reasoned (if contrived) arguments presented in his works are a display of intelligence.

It’s hard to self-analyse actually, even after more than 10 years. I was given an A- for it at the time, which I think is a little generous given how one-dimensional this analysis is. Yes Alasdair, Donne was clever, what else did you notice?

And yet, I suppose, as everyone naturally increases their store of knowledge, all previous work can only be looked at in the light of shortfalls in comparison to current capabilities. Perhaps old-age is the point where you look back and realize that your best work is behind you. Not for me, hurrah!

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2 Responses to John Donne

  1. I’d probably give that some sort of B at the stage one level (so I can definitely imagine that as an A- at 7th form), depending on what the exact question was. People often underestimate the quality of their own writing when they have no comparative basis except for published works.

    And yet, I suppose, as everyone naturally increases their store of knowledge, all previous work can only be looked at in the light of shortfalls in comparison to current capabilities.

    How many established academics are keen to display their thesis? 🙂

    • mashugenah says:

      What the exact question was, I did not record. The stuff I was churning out in stage I was considerably better. 🙂 Looking at this essay though, like almost all my school essays, the only comment is “par” written next to the penultimate paragraph and the A-.

      Mostly this essay suffers from trying to be too grand in the second paragraph: too sweeping are the generalizations. But there are some interesting ideas not really carried far enough, such as the comparison with Homer’s similes.

      Oh well, Bursary is a long time ago now.

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