John Donne
(& his Followers)

Although he later became an Anglican and died Dean of St. Paul's, John Donne (1572-1631) was born and reared a Catholic, and his training as a Catholic in religious polemic--along with the sort of scholastic training that formed the basis of the typical Renaissance university education--helped determine the sharply analytical set of his mind.

Donne's poetry marks sharp stylistic and thematic breaks from the sort of verse written by his predecessors and indeed most of his contemporaries.

For example, while a good deal of Elizabethan poetry is flowery and decorative--at times laden with Petrarchan conceits and a song-like rhythm--Donne focused his work around highly concentrated images which often involved a dramatic contrast or are notable for their hard intellectualism. When typical Petrarchan conceits--bleeding hearts, cheeks like roses, lips like cherries--appear in Donne, they are soundly mocked. Donne liked to twist and distort not only images and ideas, but also traditional rhythmic and stanzaic patterns.

Characteristic of Donne's Poetry

Donne set what has come to be known as the pattern for metaphysical poetry [see below]. His poetry can be characterized by the following attributes:

  • It is sharply opposed to the
  • rich mellifluousness,
  • the sense of human dignity, and
  • the idealized view of sexual love
  • which constituted the central tradition of Elizabethan poetry, especially in writers like the Petrarchan sonneteers and Spenser.
  • It adopts a diction and meter modeled on the rough give-and-take of actual speech.
  • It is usually organized in the dramatic or rhetorical form of an urgent or heated argument (first drawing in the reader and then launching the argument).
  • It puts to use a subtle and often outrageous logic.
  • It is marked by realism, irony and often a cynicism in its treatment of the complexity of human motives.
  • It reveals a persistent wittiness, making use of paradox, puns, and startling parallels.

His career--actually, his life--can be viewed as having two phases:

Phase I: "Jack Donne" of Lincoln's Inn

When young and at his studies, Donne combined the gaiety and sophistication of the urban wit with the sort of heavy immersion in reading that lent his later work its intellectual strain but gave his earlier poetry a sort of jaded, witty tone.

This poetry--not published during his lifetime, but circulated in manuscript through a small circle of readers--consists of

In these earliest poems, Donne's openings project the reader into the poem in a way that is new in English poetry for the time; once in the poem, the readers is held by a complex development of thought, which twists this way and that.

Donne's chief quality in the early work is the union of passion and ratiocination or argument.


Phase II: John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's

Although it changes in focus and theme, Donne's later poetry remains as complex and dense as his earliest endeavors. The later work reflects his religious tension and his poetic exploration of man's relationship with God.

Most but not all of Donne's Divine Poems were written during the last phase of his life, when the young and sophistiscated scholar had grown into the grave and philosophical divine. The texts tend to maintain traditional attitudes about their subjects, but they also generally incorporate a new subtlety into their study of "hard" topics and often explore controversial or tough questions about religion with startling directness.

In the best of the Divine Poems, the paradoxes of artistic production reflect with intensity the paradoxes involved in man's relation with God.

These poems were largely written after the death of Donne's wife, when he had effectively abandoned the worldly, sensuous life behind him and was searching insted for a "right relationship" with God.

The 19 Holy Sonnets contain Donne's finest examples of religious poetry. Ironically, these poems are marked by the same intensity, the same combination, of passion and argument that can be found in Songs and Sonets, although the object of the passion has now changed. Donne's later passion is more complex than that explored in his youth: it is a blend of the hope and anguish that marks the religious man's search for the right relationship with his God, when he is aware not only of God's greatness but also of his own comparative unworthiness.

To read about Donne's sonnets,
please visit the sonnets page:

Like Ben Jonson, Donne inspired his own followers, who in the eighteenth century were finally dubbed the "metaphysical poets." Donne's style and theirs is one.


Donne & the Metaphysical Poets

Eighteenth century poetic/novelist/essayist/critic Samuel Johnson coined the term ""metaphysical poets" to describe Donne and his poetic descendants when he wrote of Abraham Cowley in the Lives of the English Poets that

the metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show learning was their whole endeavor.

There was, however, no tightly organized group of poets who imitated Donne, as some had with Jonson; nevertheless, his impact on their work is evident.

To Read About
the Metaphysical Poets,
please click

As practiced by Donne and his successors, the distinguishing feature of metaphysical poetry is not just philosophical subtlety or intellectual rigor--since these elements are found in all good moral and didactic poetry--but a peculiar blend of

The metaphysical poets turned to the medieval scholastic philsophers for stylistic inspiration, borrowing from them the terminology and the difficulty of their style of argument.

The Two Developments of
the Metaphysical Movement

The metaphysical movement had two distinct developments:

  • Secular poetry, as practiced by
    • Cleveland
    • *Marvell
    • Cowley
  • Religious poetry, as practiced by
    • Herbert
    • Vaughan
    • Crashaw

*Marvell is a tough one: often he is considered neither Metaphysical nor Cavalier, because his work shows evidence of both strains.

Using the term "Metaphysical Poets" to describe these very diverse writers doesn't necessarily mean they shared a common world view--only that they held in common a poetic style and a way of organizing thought.

The Metaphysical Conceit

Just as did the Petrarchan sonneteers, Donne and his followers had their own metaphysical conceits.

Samuel Johnson described their conceits as

a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. The most heterogeneous ideas are yokedby violence together.

Put more simply, a metaphysical conceit is what we would call an extended metaphor, a comparison between two relatively unlike entities.

The most famous sustained conceit is Donne's drawing of parallels between

  • the continuing relationship of his persona's soul with that of his beloved's (despite their physical parting) and
  • the coordinated movements of the two feet of a compass.