John Donne, a Philosopher?

john-donneR.W. Emerson describes Donne and Cowley as a poet with philosophical insight —

‘ Cowley and Donne are philosophers. To their insight there is no trifle. But philosophy in insight is so much the habit of their minds that they can hardly see as a poet…’

This statement of Emerson certainly puts some of us in trouble, who formerly appreciated the view that a poet is essentially a philosopher as the explorer of new truths of life as suggested by Sidney in his Apology of poetry.  This problem is enhanced by the fact that in case of Donne, the excessiveness of philosophy surpassed the natural reaction of a poet’s emotion to the outside world and he ‘can hardly see as a poet should the beautiful forms and colours  of things, as a chemist may be less alive to the picturesque’.

The modern view, that a kind of indifference that was created in minds of the grave diggers towards the dead body of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, due to excessive philosophical nature in them, is developed in Donne. So, Donne has the bad reputation of intellectualizing the things that are the property of heart. Like Hermion (a character in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love) , Donne intellectualizes everything regarding love, sex, and the similar. This tendency of his is due to also reflected in his choice and use of words which according to Arthur Symons ‘mean things, and it is the things that matter’ (Fortnightly Review, 1899).

The result of this kind of philosophical bent of mind in Donne costed him to loose his point in ‘Poetic scale’ of Literary Magazine in 1758.

 “As a poet he was disparaged either indirectly, as in Pope’s ‘versifying’ of his satires, openly as in the ‘poetical scale’ given in the Literary magazine of  1758. the scale gave a possible eighty points to the poets for ‘Genius’, Judgment, Learning, Versification […] Donne was omitted from the scale because although a man of wit ‘he seems to have been at pains not to pass for a poet’ ” (Introduction to The Metaphysical Poets, Case Book Series).

Donne’s poetry when explored structurally, it exhibits the tendency of a philosopher’s thesis – every time an argument is made which is followed by a kind of analysis and interpretation that attempts to prove the argument for its support. Joan Bennett, for this reason writes: “[…] thought of a mind moving from the contemplation of fact to the deduction from a fact  and thence to a conclusion” (The Five Metaphysical poets, 1964).

In such a structure, every point follows logically ‘one by one’, ‘step by step’, which because the leading characterizing element in defining the whole metaphysical poetic movement:

“The peculiarity of the metaphysical poets is not that they relate, but that the relation they perceive are more often logical than sensuous or emotional” (Ibid)

for instance in ‘Extaise’ , Donne first gives the images of the two persons (one lover with his beloved) in one state at ‘one another’s best’ –

‘Our hander were firmly cimented’;

‘Our eyes upon one double thread’;

‘all our means to make us one’;

— all these are infact the argument on the statement which is analysed and proved like a philosophical treatise in the rest seventy lines; of the poem with the lines like

‘[…] good love here grow all minde’ or ‘A single violet transplant,’.

Through these arguments he proves another point that how body is an ‘allay’ in getting ‘extaise’. Even when one reads ‘The Flea’, he is sure to notice how Donne’s double edged logic is put to use.

Thus Donne’s pattern has a fix line of movement. This pattern is like the mosaic where each bit is chosen with the help of intellect and reason  to produce a colour of thought (which is evidently the product of mind rather than of heart) that has shades in black and white, unlike the emotion portrayed by the poets, that spreads to any shades and hues of the foresaid complementary colours. One of such mosaic is diction and imagery in Donne’s poems.

Every learned person knows that values can not be forced even if conveyed with good intentions, and  no real integration of values can be achieved unless the learner is conveyed through a proper mode of communication. This communication mode , the key factor of all, differs with the use of diction and image and hence different subjects need different kinds of use of such – the meaning of which Coleridge and Wordsworth understood in their own terms. In case of Donne, the diction got a new make up in poetry. In Donne’s case the diction was shaped according to his new need, to prove his hypothesis through poetry – which many of his time could not appreciate . In Hazilt’s view this un-acceptance can be seen perfectly:

“[…] they thought anything was poetry that differed from ordinary prose and the natural impression of things, by being intricate farfetched and improbable” (Rhetoric, 1828)

But later these so called ‘metaphorical jargon’ of Donne, which according to Eliot spread ‘from the geographers globe to the tear, and the tear to the deluge’, got recognition as not far fetched, but the common element seen through a different perspective, which we might take for the philosophical point of view affected by raising of Mathematics and Science :

“It seems illegitimate, for example to conjecture that Donne’s choice of a compass [in order to illuminate how ‘our two souls’ be one] has some equivocal force use of lovers, […] . it is to us rather than to Donne that compasses are part of the common place paraphernalia of high school mathematics”(Tuve, Rosemund  — ‘The Criterion of Decorum’ , 1947 ).

© Samir K. Dash, 2005

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One thought on “John Donne, a Philosopher?

  1. Donne’s poetry when explored structurally, it exhibits the tendency of a philosopher’s thesis – every time an argument is made which is followed by a kind of analysis and interpretation that attempts to prove the argument for its support. Joan Bennett, for this reason writes: “[…] thought of a mind moving from the contemplation of fact to the deduction from a fact and thence to a conclusion” (The Five Metaphysical poets, 1964).

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