English Literature: John Donne – Analysis

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John Donne, whose poetic reputation languished before he was rediscovered in the early part of the twentieth century, is remembered today as the leading exponent of a style of verse known as “metaphysical poetry,” which flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (Other great metaphysical poets include Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick, and George Herbert.) Metaphysical poetry typically employs unusual verse forms, complex figures of speech applied to elaborate and surprising metaphorical conceits, and learned themes discussed according to eccentric and unexpected chains of reasoning. Donne’s poetry exhibits each of these characteristics. His jarring, unusual meters; his proclivity for abstract puns and double entendres; his often bizarre metaphors (in one poem he compares love to a carnivorous fish; in another he pleads with God to make him pure by raping him); and his process of oblique reasoning are all characteristic traits of the metaphysicals, unified in Donne as in no other poet.
Donne is valuable not simply as a representative writer but also as a highly unique one. He was a man of contradictions: As a minister in the Anglican Church, Donne possessed a deep spirituality that informed his writing throughout his life; but as a man, Donne possessed a carnal lust for life, sensation, and experience. He is both a great religious poet and a great erotic poet, and perhaps no other writer (with the possible exception of Herbert) strove as hard to unify and express such incongruous, mutually discordant passions. In his best poems, Donne mixes the discourses of the physical and the spiritual; over the course of his career, Donne gave sublime expression to both realms.
His conflicting proclivities often cause Donne to contradict himself. (For example, in one poem he writes, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Yet in another, he writes, “Death I recant, and say, unsaid by me / Whate’er hath slipped, that might diminish thee.”) However, his contradictions are representative of the powerful contrary forces at work in his poetry and in his soul, rather than of sloppy thinking or inconsistency. Donne, who lived a generation after Shakespeare, took advantage of his divided nature to become the greatest metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century; among the poets of inner conflict, he is one of the greatest of all time.

John Donne – “The Canonization”

The speaker asks his addressee to be quiet, and let him love. If the addressee cannot hold his tongue, the speaker tells him to criticize him for other shortcomings (other than his tendency to love): his palsy, his gout, his “five grey hairs,” or his ruined fortune. He admonishes the addressee to look to his own mind and his own wealth and to think of his position and copy the other nobles (“Observe his Honour, or his Grace, / Or the King’s real, or his stamped face / Contemplate.”) The speaker does not care what the addressee says or does, as long as he lets him love.
The speaker asks rhetorically, “Who’s injured by my love?” He says that his sighs have not drowned ships, his tears have not flooded land, his colds have not chilled spring, and the heat of his veins has not added to the list of those killed by the plague. Soldiers still find wars and lawyers still find litigious men, regardless of the emotions of the speaker and his lover.
The speaker tells his addressee to “Call us what you will,” for it is love that makes them so. He says that the addressee can “Call her one, me another fly,” and that they are also like candles (“tapers”), which burn by feeding upon their own selves (“and at our own cost die”). In each other, the lovers find the eagle and the dove, and together (“we two being one”) they illuminate the riddle of the phoenix, for they “die and rise the same,” just as the phoenix does–though unlike the phoenix, it is love that slays and resurrects them.
He says that they can die by love if they are not able to live by it, and if their legend is not fit “for tombs and hearse,” it will be fit for poetry, and “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” A well-wrought urn does as much justice to a dead man’s ashes as does a gigantic tomb; and by the same token, the poems about the speaker and his lover will cause them to be “canonized,” admitted to the sainthood of love. All those who hear their story will invoke the lovers, saying that countries, towns, and courts “beg from above / A pattern of your love!”

The five stanzas of “The Canonization” are metered in iambic lines ranging from trimeter to pentameter; in each of the nine-line stanzas, the first, third, fourth, and seventh lines are in pentameter, the second, fifth, sixth, and eighth in tetrameter, and the ninth in trimeter. (The stress pattern in each stanza is 545544543.) The rhyme scheme in each stanza is ABBACCCDD.

This complicated poem, spoken ostensibly to someone who disapproves of the speaker’s love affair, is written in the voice of a world-wise, sardonic courtier who is nevertheless utterly caught up in his love. The poem simultaneously parodies old notions of love and coins elaborate new ones, eventually concluding that even if the love affair is impossible in the real world, it can become legendary through poetry, and the speaker and his lover will be like saints to later generations of lovers. (Hence the title: “The Canonization” refers to the process by which people are inducted into the canon of saints).
In the first stanza, the speaker obliquely details his relationship to the world of politics, wealth, and nobility; by assuming that these are the concerns of his addressee, he indicates his own background amid such concerns, and he also indicates the extent to which he has moved beyond that background. He hopes that the listener will leave him alone and pursue a career in the court, toadying to aristocrats, preoccupied with favor (the King’s real face) and money (the King’s stamped face, as on a coin). In the second stanza, he parodies contemporary Petrarchan notions of love and continues to mock his addressee, making the point that his sighs have not drowned ships and his tears have not caused floods. (Petrarchan love-poems were full of claims like “My tears are rain, and my sighs storms.”) He also mocks the operations of the everyday world, saying that his love will not keep soldiers from fighting wars or lawyers from finding court cases–as though war and legal wrangling were the sole concerns of world outside the confines of his love affair.

In the third stanza, the speaker begins spinning off metaphors that will help explain the intensity and uniqueness of his love. First, he says that he and his lover are like moths drawn to a candle (“her one, me another fly”), then that they are like the candle itself. They embody the elements of the eagle (strong and masculine) and the dove (peaceful and feminine) bound up in the image of the phoenix, dying and rising by love. In the fourth stanza, the speaker explores the possibility of canonization in verse, and in the final stanza, he explores his and his lover’s roles as the saints of love, to whom generations of future lovers will appeal for help. Throughout, the tone of the poem is balanced between a kind of arch, sophisticated sensibility (“half-acre tombs”) and passionate amorous abandon (“We die and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love”).

“The Canonization” is one of Donne’s most famous and most written-about poems. Its criticism at the hands of Cleanth Brooks and others has made it a central topic in the argument between formalist critics and historicist critics; the former argue that the poem is what it seems to be, an anti-political love poem, while the latter argue, based on events in Donne’s life at the time of the poem’s composition, that it is actually a kind of coded, ironic rumination on the “ruined fortune” and dashed political hopes of the first stanza. The choice of which argument to follow is largely a matter of personal temperament. But unless one seeks a purely biographical understanding of Donne, it is probably best to understand the poem as the sort of droll, passionate speech-act it is, a highly sophisticated defense of love against the corrupting values of politics and privilege.

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