English Literature » Notes » Metaphysical conceits in Donne’s Poetry
John Donne

Metaphysical conceits in Donne’s Poetry

A conceit is basically a simile of comparison between two dissimilar things. in a conceit the dissimilarity between the things is so great that the readers are taken aback. Dr. Samuel Johnson pointed out that in metaphysical poetry the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.

It is typical of Donne’s poems of use far-fetched image which is a clear departure from the conventional Elizabethan poetry. we can mention the poem a valediction forbidding mourning. in this poem the poet has compared the two lovers with the stiff twine compasses. the poet says that his beloved is the central foot of the compass and he himself is another foot. When the other foot of the compass goes to a distance both the feel lean at each other and when they get close, they become again erect. Thus, the poet compares themselves with the two legs of the compass only to show the firmness of their love. the poet says-

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

The metaphysical conceits of john Donne are learned because they are drawn from various subjects like science, bible, geography, astronomy and several others. in the poem the canonization we see a series of metaphysical conceits through which the poet expresses the intensity of love affair. he compares them with flies. he is a fly and his mistress is another fly. they are both drawn to the fire of love as the insects are naturally drawn to fire. then the poet lover compares him and his mistress with the burning candles. candles burn and end up. similarly, the poet and his mistress are burning in the fire of love. they are burning in the passion of love and advancing towards the age only to meet decay and death like the candles. Let us mention the lines-

Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
The Canonization

In the same poem the poet then compares him and his beloved with a single phoenix bird. a phoenix is a legendary bird that flies in the sky and when it gets maturity, he dies by burning. but again, from its ashes the bird gets life. Similarly, the poet wants to say that like the birth phoenix they are burning in the passion of love and dying and after a time they again revive. the poet says-

The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it.
The Canonization

John Donne has presented metaphysical conceits sometimes from geometry. in the poem the sun rising the poet compares his sweetheart with all the states of the world rolled into one and he compares him with all the princes of the world rolled into one. the poet lover wants to say that he is satisfied with his beloved because by possessing his mistress he has possessed the whole world. thus, their room is considered to be the epitome of the whole world. the expression of love of John Donne is striking. we can mention the lines-

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
The Sun Rising

Actually, Donne’s metaphysical conceits provide us brilliant images. at the prima facie, the images seem startling but the poet logically establishes their validity. imagery of Donne’s poetry diffuses emotional experience. In the poem Twickenham Garden, the poem compares the garden with paradise. he visits the garden to alleviate the torments of frustrated love with the beautiful sights and melodious sounds of the spring. but he cannot enjoy the joys of spring. the poet compares his frustrated love with a spider. As a spider poisons everything, his frustrated love poisons and destroys the joys of Twickenham garden. Again, he laments that he has brought a serpent with him. the poet compares his unfulfilled frustrated love with the serpent that destroys the joy of paradise. the poet has used the biblical reference. according to the bible, Satan cons to paradise and deceives Adam and eve and destroys their happiness. Similarly, the poet says that his frustrated love for Countess Lucy, the lady who rejected him, has destroyed his happiness.

In the poem Go and Catch a Falling Star, the poet speaks by presenting a series of images. the poet uses the conceit that getting a fair and faithful lady is similar to catching a falling star. even if catching a falling star is possible, it is impossible for a man to get at the same time a fair and faithful lady on this earth, the poet says by swearing–

And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.
Go and Catch a Falling Star

In a divine poem death be not proud, the poet compares with sleep. as sleep refreshes and invigorates a man, similarly death would provide more comfort and pleasure to a man. death is compared with a slave. the poet says that death has no reason to be proud. death comes to man for sickness and old age. so, death is subject to sickness and old age.

In fine, we can say, Donne’s use of conceit is ingenious. Helen Gardner rightly says –

The purpose of metaphysical conceit in Donne’s poetry is to express emotional experience by an intellectual parallel. Donne’s metaphysical conceits are the dazzling images which have enhanced the poetic value of his poetry in the true sense of the term.

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