Donne Essay, Research Paper
Donne is more concerned with wit and conceit than with meaning and sincerity
That Donne is concerned with wit is scarcely deniable. The imagery used in The Legacie is incredibly complicated, and he seems to be demonstrating his intelligence. In the opening two lines, “When I dyed last, and, Deare, I dye/ As often as from thee I goe,” the narrator both implies that leaving his lover is immensely painful, and uses “dye” in a sexual sense. This might imply that they practice the withdrawal method of contraception, and that their relationship is therefore neither long-term nor particularly significant to either of them. Donne thus uses two lines to express what would usually take much longer, proclaiming his intellect to the reader, although he avoids being ostentatious. Later in the poem, it takes ages to work out whether the narrator is referring to himself (alive or dead) or his mistress, whenever he uses first person pronouns: “I heard mee say, Tell her anon,/ That my selfe, (that is you, not I,)/ Did kill me”. This forces the reader to experience the confusion and anguish of the persona, instead of simply reading about them. In this case, Donne uses his intelligence to improve the reader’s perception of the emotions described in the poem.
He continues, using the complex idea of the narrator’s spirit searching for his heart inside the body of his former self, thus demonstrating his wit. That he is able to think in such a way shows just how clever he is. Throughout this poem, although at times he seems conceited, I think that he is merely using his insight to make a valid and meaningful point. He describes the persona’s emotions in a way “As good as could be made by art”, thus accepting that the sentiments expressed in the poem are never going to be conveyed perfectly. In spite of this, he succeeds in communicating them quite effectively to the reader. This is surely a sign of his intellect. The persona’s feelings towards his lover seem to be genuine, and driven by passion for her. He cleverly explains how much he wants her to pledge her heart to him, although he suggests that it is flawed: “colours it and corners had”.
Donne accepts that his poem is imperfect, since a logical medium like words will never be able to express such an illogical feeling as love. He thus acknowledges that the persona’s desire for his mistress is wholly unjustifiable. However, as we have no idea as to the identity of the persona, there is no way of telling whether Donne is being conceited. If the Donne is persona, one can assume that he is writing about his own emotions, and thus being sincere. Unfortunately, as there is no guarantee of this, it is impossible to know if he is writing about genuine feelings.
Similarly, in The Flea, Donne manages to make an intricate and complex argument from an ordinary occurrence. He succeeds in glorifying the importance of a flea, saying “This flea is you and I, and this/ Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is”. He continues, comparing it to God (”three lives in one”, referring to the trinity,) and calling it “these living walls of Jet.” Here he is certainly demonstrating his wit by making his argument seem valid, although it clearly is not. The significance that attributes to the flea is undeserved. The reasons given why his mistress should not kill the flea are based on its religious importance: “three lives in one flea spare,” and “w’are…cloysterd in these living walls”. However, the flea only has this significance because of his argument, so it is invalid. Although he says that the flea represents God, it is not necessarily the case.
Clever argument seems to recur in this poem. At the end of the poem, the persona manages to turn his mistress’s reasoning on its head. He appears to have conceded that he has lost the debate (”Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou/ Finds not thy selfe, nor me the weaker now;”) but uses her own proposition to make his point. He says that “Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,/ Will wast, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” However, although he seems to be cleverly refuting her argument, he ignores the fact that his logic is again invalid. He says that she would not be any weaker if she were to submit to him, simply because she did not feel any pain when she killed the flea. Although this is clearly invalid, Donne’s triumph is that he manages to make it seem like clever reasoning.
During this poem, it seems clear that Donne is not being genuine. Assuming that he appreciates the flaws in his argument, he does not seriously believe that his mistress should “yeeld… to [him]” simply because the flea has bitten both of them. The persona in the poem is trying to persuade her to sleep with him, and is using his wit to do this. As previously, the reader has no way of being aware of the persona’s identity. It is therefore difficult to know whether he is being sincere, or simply being witty for the sake of showing how he can comprehend complex reasoning. This case, however, is more clearly defined than The Legacie, since in that poem it is plausible that the persona was being sincere in what he said. This is much less likely in The Flea, because the flaws in the argument are more obvious, and the persona is trying to get his mistress to submit to his wishes. This suggests that he neither respects her opinion nor genuinely cares about her, whereas in The Legacie, the narrator addresses his feelings concerning her.
By contrast, in Holy Sonnet XIV, it is much easier to assume that the persona is Donne himself. Because of the number of poems he wrote dedicated to God; and because he decided to devote a large portion of his life to serving Him, one can assume that he is writing about his own feelings, and thus being sincere. His imagery, while very effective, seems somewhat blasphemous, as he is commanding Him, saying “Batter my heart, three person’d God”, drawing attention to the illogicality of the Trinity. The plosive “Batter” emphasises this by changing the metre of the first line. The Trinity is a theme to which he often refers in the poem, by using groups of three in his imagery: “you/ As yet but knocke, breathe, shine,” (the three verbs representing the Son, Holy spirit and Father respectively), while the use of three strong syllables disrupts the metre again. He uses this technique again later, with “Your force, to breake, blow, burn,” and “Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe”. He also uses three main images in the poem, portraying himself as a piece of metal, “an usurpt town”, and God’s lover.
While it might seem that Donne is commanding God, the effect is more pious than profane. By demanding that God make him more reverent, he shows that he is striving to allow himself to do God’s will. He is, in effect, asking God to make the other paths less desirable and remove temptation. Saying that “Reason[,] your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,/ But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue” implies that he knows what is right, but cannot resist the temptation provided by the alternatives. He thus admits to having little strength of mind, and wanting to change. However, although by doing this he shows his good intentions, he wants to find an easier option, and not have to make any difficult choices.
Donne sees reason as “Your viceroy in mee,” but reason was the very tool used by the serpent before The Fall. He admits to being both “captiv’d” (by Satan) and “betroth’d unto your enemie”. The use of “your” instead of “thy” implies that Donne perceives some distance between himself and God. Although pious and admitting his faults, by commanding God to make him more virtuous, he is being selfish, because He would have to “bend/ [His] force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.” Despite the fact that “dearely’I love you, and would be loved faine,” Donne attempts to hinder God’s work by asking him to concentrate all his efforts on him.
Whatever it is that he wants to say, I think that in this case, Donne is being genuine. I can see no reason to question his motive for writing this poem, which is to communicate with God. As this is the case, he would have no reason to be delusive, as God would know exactly what he was thinking. He would therefore gain nothing by being insincere, so I accept that he is not. Donne thus uses his wit to communicate with God. He is using the gifts and virtues given to him by God to plead Him to make him into a better person.
The complexity of La Corona also shows Donne’s ability. Immense skill is needed to write an interlocking cycle of seven sonnets, in which the first line of each poem is the same as the final line of the previous one. Similarly, he uses the many ambiguities in the poems to tremendous effect. For example, the final line of Crucifying and first line of Resurrection, “Moyst(,) with one drop of thy blood, my dry soule” (the first comma occurring only in Crucifying) take on two totally different meanings. In Crucifying, it is an imperative used as a request with “my dry soule” as the direct object, whereas it is the subject in Resurrection, described by “Moyst with one drop of thy blood”. There is also a large number of biblical references in the poem. Both the title, “La Corona”, and “A crowne of Glory,” allude to the crown of thorns put on Jesus’s head at His crucifixion. The titles of each individual sonnet reflect stages of His life.
Donne glorifies both God and Christianity in the poems. Despite the illogicality of Christianity, to which he draws the reader’s attention: “faithful Virgin…thou art now/ Thy Makers maker, and thy Father’s mother”, he states that it is the only path. “In both affections [faith and envie] many to him ran,/ but Oh! the worst are most, they…now prescribe a fate,/ Measuring selfe-lifes infinity to’a span, nay to an inch.” Donne is saying that “the worst” deny their own eternal lives by refusing to accept Christianity and trying to dictate the future themselves.
In La Corona, it is clear to me that Donne is being sincere. This is because, even more than in Holy Sonnet XIV, he praises God throughout the poem. Whereas in Sonnet XIV he wrote of his personal faults, in this case he exalts Him. He asks for nothing in return, except that God should “Deigne at my hands this crowne of prayer and praise.” It is difficult to conceive that he could have written the poem without being genuine, as only a committed Christian would have the desire to write such a poem in this manner.
In the poems discussed, Donne seems genuine in two, whereas in the other two it is impossible to know his motives. Because of the many different personae that he adopts, the reader can never be sure of his intentions, and therefore whether or not he is being sincere, until one has determined the identity of the appropriate persona. This is difficult, as although it is sometimes relatively clear that he is writing from his own point of view, (in the Divine Poems, for example;) at other times it is much harder to ascertain whose perspective he is embracing. It is therefore more difficult to deduce whether or not he is being sincere. In the Divine Poems, however, when it is easier to establish that he has written about his own feelings, it appears that he uses wit to emphasise his sincerity.