John Donne: Poems

John Donne: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How is Donne a Metaphysical poet?

    Answer: Metaphysical poetry is distinguished by several unique features; unique metaphors, large and cosmic themes, absence of narrative, and philosophical ideas. Donne invented or originated many of these features in his poetry, and he was a master of this type. Metaphysical poetry may be lyrical in its tone, but its driving force is not necessarily the emotion of the poet. The striving to understand the world and ideas through strange and sometimes strained comparisons, esoteric and philosophical abstract ideas, and paradoxes and heterogenous parallels are the main differences between metaphysical and other types of poetry. These are common in Donne.

  2. 2

    Choose a paradox in one of Donne's poems, and show how he puts two different ideas together to make a point or explain a idea.

    Answer: A good example of this would be "The Flea," in which Donne describes the combination of his and his lady-love's blood in the flea's body like the union of the two lovers in marriage. How Donne could convert the bite of a pest into a love poem shows his ability to create new thoughts by combining difficult ideas with each other in unusual ways.

  3. 3

    What is the basic point in "Death be not proud"?

    Answer: The poet is mocking and belittling death. Although many people fear death, in the Christian tradition death is but an entrance to another, better world, so it is not to be feared. A good essay on this topic will show the various ways that Death is weak rather than powerful. It also might draw on "Meditation 17," explaining how Donne views death as a "translation" to a spiritual life.

  4. 4

    How is Donne's life reflected in his poetry?

    Answer: Several major events in Donne's life--his marriage, his conversion to Anglicanism, his wife's early death, illness, and his elevation to the Deanship of St. Paul's--can be seen in his poetry. In a more complicated way, one can draw inferences about which religious doctrines Donne may have been most fascinated by or skeptical about, considering carefully what he writes when treating various doctrines.

  5. 5

    How is death treated in Donne's poetry?

    Answer: Death is treated both as a reality of life and as an abstract concept. For Donne death is not necessarily somber but provides a transition moment--often a climax--denoting a change of state. In a superficial instance, "The Flea," the woman's nonchalant killing of the flea ostensibly ruins his argument for their physical intimacy, but the poet turns it into a proof that there is nothing to fear from loving him, just as the loss of the blood she has just obliterated is minimal. Most directly, Holy Sonnet 10, commonly referred to as "Death Be Not Proud," personifies Death as a powerless being who cannot survive past the Resurrection; ultimately, all people will reach their metaphysical states. Sickness brings thoughts of death and the lesson to prepare well for that transition, while anyone's death also provides such a lesson.

  6. 6

    How does Donne treat physical and spiritual love in his works?

    Answer: As a Metaphysical poet, Donne often uses physical love to evoke spiritual love. Indeed, this metaphysical conceit in much of the love poetry is not explicitly spelled out. To this end, Donne's poetry often suggests that the love the poet has for a particular beloved is greatly superior to others’ loves. Loving someone is as much a religious experience as a physical one, and the best love transcends mere physicality. In this kind of love, the lovers share something of a higher order than that of more mundane lovers. In “Love’s Infiniteness,” for example, Donne begins with a traditional-sounding love poem, but by this third stanza he has transformed the love between himself and his beloved into an abstract ideal which can be possessed absolutely and completely. His later poetry (after he joined the ministry) maintains some of the carnal playfulness from earlier poetry, but transforms it into a celebration of union between soul and soul or soul and God.

  7. 7

    How is the individual connected with the whole of humanity in "Meditation 17"?

    Answer: One of Donne's most famous statements, "No man is an island complete unto himself," directs readers to see every person as spiritually interrelated to every other. The death of one person affects every person: the effect is immediate upon the deceased's circle of friends, family, and acquaintances, it is felt in the community as the funeral bells ring, and it is experienced across humanity, which is that much less substantial with the loss of each person. Just as grains of sand erode from the shores of Europe and diminish the continent, each person's life and death affects the rest of humanity, considering that all are equal under God.

  8. 8

    How does Donne use paradox to illustrate difficult metaphysical concepts?

    Answer: Consider the closing couplet of Holy Sonnet 14:

    Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

    Just as one often finds in Christian scripture, Donne here sums up a key part of the relationship between individuals and God by using a paradox. The conflict raging within himself consists in the weakness of his reason in cleaving to his love of God rather than indulging his sinful desires. The Christian tradition expresses this problem as the need to die with respect to oneself and then to be reborn with respect to a new spiritual life. Donne similarly argues that the freedom of a Christian comes with binding oneself to God's commandments rather than one's own conflicting desires. Likewise, Christian purity comes from being invaded by God with force and plundering the body by removing its selfish desires.

    Resolving this paradox is important for Donne's Christian metaphysics because it identifies a key problem of man: we live in a world so given over to evil that goodness and holiness are considered deviant by many. Donne uses paradoxical statements to get readers to think for themselves about how it could be true that there is radical value in being led by divine rationality rather than one's ungrounded motivations.

  9. 9

    How did Donne represent his marriage in his poetry?

    Answer: In "The Anniversary," Donne most directly addresses his marriage. When he considers his own and his wife's eventual deaths, he realizes that they should enjoy their living moments together while they are specifically together in this world. Later, their spiritual intimacy will be even more clearly secondary to their relationship toward God. Until then, Donne points out how unassailable their love is this side of the grave: here they are rulers, having one another as subjects, and no one can betray them save each other.

    Donne's "Valediction" is a similar promise of future union, this time in the context of Donne's earthly voyage without his wife and his promised return. He chooses the metaphysical conceit of a compass to illustrate their relationship. The joint holding them both together at the top, drawing the circles, is God. His wife is the straight leg of the compass, providing the center-point around which he will travel and eventually return home, and he trusts her to stand firm, even while she leans in his direction wherever he might be.

  10. 10

    Is Donne's poetry misogynistic? Does he get a pass because the metaphysical meaning of his poetry is more important than the literal meaning?

    Answer: On the spiritual level, Donne puts himself in the place of the feminine, such as when he writes that he must be ravished in order to become pure (if we grant that that the poet is the same as the persona of the poem). Also on the spiritual level, the Church is coded as feminine both in traditional Christianity and in Donne's poetry. Thus, negative lines about infidelity are best understood as Donne's critique of the Church and of humans' propensity to sin and reject God.

    Yet, should this interpretation permit the reader to ignore the literal meaning of a poem such as "Go and Catch a Falling Star," in which the poet states that one cannot find a single true woman--or else, if she is true, she will become false very soon? The spiritual meaning is still best; no human is sinless and fully true to God. The extreme hyperbole shows us not to take the conceit literally. Even so, Donne chose this conceit rather than a different one, and today's readers are easily led astray to think that Donne really intended a message about women's fickleness and infidelity.

    In "A Valediction," Donne's attention to the steadfastness of his wife seems to express, perhaps, a concern for her fidelity while he is gone, even if his overt message is that he fully expects her to be true to him during that time. Maybe he thought his wife needed a reminder that he would certainly return, yet when one reads "The Anniversary" and "The Canonization," it is difficult to see Donne as anything less than a sincere, loving, trusting husband.