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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #7: John Donne

In this blog you will be learning some hard words to pronounce, but I think they are words that you can all understand. They include metaphysical and paradox. Metaphysical means abstract. Abstract things are not things that we can touch, taste, hear, smell or see. You will learn about the word paradox later in this blog.

In the last few Poetry Bee Blogs we have been talking about clergymen poets. The first poet that we discussed at length in this series was Isaac Watts. We learned some fascinating things about him, particularly the enormous influence that he has had on English psalmody and poetry in general. We was also learned that he was the author of one of the most commonly recognized Christmas hymns of all time, “Joy to the World.” Today we are going to talk about another clergyman poet in more detail, namely the 17th-century Anglican priest John Donne.

John Donne was a metaphysical poet. The term metaphysical when it is was first used to describe poets and their poetry was not a compliment because in poetry you want images to seem real, not abstract. Concrete images can create sensory impressions that carry with them a kind of emotion. When a poet compares love to concrete images like a rose, we immediately understand the comparison and appreciate it. Why compare love to a rose? Because a rose has a pleasant scent and looks beautiful. We can see the rose and smell it in our imagination, and it fills us with a sort of happy feeling. What if I compare, however, love to an eyeball. "An eyeball?" you say. Yes, that is the sort of thing that metaphysical poets did. Many readers, like the famous critic and dictionary writer Samuel Johnson, did not like this kind of comparison. They thought that such comparisons were weird, too "brainy" and did not convey any emotion.

Metaphysical poems also have a lot of wordplay, paradoxes, and strange conceits (or extended metaphors). As you learned already, one of the greatest metaphysical poets of the period was John Donne, an Anglican priest who in the early part of life wrote love poetry. (Some of the most respected metaphysical poets also include George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan, who are not as commonly known.) Donne's later poetry is deeply religious, such as his famous sonnet series La Carona, in which he explores the profound paradoxes of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Let us look at one of the poems in this series and talk about one of the traits of metaphysical poetry—paradox.

Some of you younger students may have never heard this word paradox before. Have you? A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, and in doing so, sounds like nonsense. For example, if I said to you that the best students often are the worst students, that would sound odd, wouldn’t it? But though paradoxes seem like nonsense, they really are not. The paradox that I just mentioned can be explained. Some very good students become too proud of their achievements, and their character turns sour. They look down on other students who don’t do as well and so become very bad. Although this doesn’t happen to all students, it does happen. Do you understand the paradox now? Let us now look at the first lines of a famous sonnet in the sonnet series titled La Carona by John Donne.

Salvation to all that will is nigh;

That All, which always is all everywhere,

Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,

Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,

Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie

In prison, in thy womb….

You can see that in the first lines the poem talks about Jesus as That All, who is everywhere at all times. That means that he is infinite God that cannot be contained in one place at one time. And yet, Jesus was in the womb of Mary. How can that be? The answer is that it is a paradox.

The poet draws our attention to two other paradoxes: 1) Jesus did not sin and yet has to pay for sin with his death. 2) Jesus could not die, but could not “choose but die.” (Jesus died on the cross for the sins of mankind, and yet he is God and so cannot die.) These paradoxes have an effect on the reader, which would take me too long to explain in detail in one poetry blog. I will, then, keep it short and just say that paradoxes encourage us to think about these very deep spiritual things, and that’s exactly what John Donne wanted his readers to do, and what I want you to do.

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