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Metaphysical Poetry

The term metaphysical doesn't have to do with philosophy, but it means that it's concerned with the fundamental problems of the nature of the universe and men's function in life. Metaphysical poets wrote during the 17th century and the main representative one was John Donne. They reflected the spiritual crisis of their age, the transition between Renaissance and modern age.
Before poets were scholars and wrote for who they were hosted by but in the 17th century there is a break with previous literature. The poet was supposed to be a man of wit and show his sensitivity, knowledge and cleverness, indeed metaphysical poets made references to religious debates, astrology, geography, alchemy and the new sciences. Wit was the ability to create unusual metaphors arranged in an unexpected way in order to surprise the reader. This unusual, intellectual metaphor is called conceit and it's the most distinguishing feature of metaphysical poetry, along with paradox and the dramatic quality given by the beginning in medias res. Moreover its diction is very rich and varied. Metaphysical poets didn't have a convention and wrote in different types of verse-forms. They were forgotten during the 18th century and their reputation was revived in the 20th century by T.S.Eliot in his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, because he understood their affinities, they both lived in an age of transition, that is to say first between renaissance and modern age, then in the first world war.

John Donne

John Donne was born in 1572 in London into a wealthy Roman Catholic family, but later converted to Anglicanism. In studied at Oxford for three years and then he attended the Inns of Court in London, a law school. In 1598 he became the private secretary of one of the most powerful men in England, Sir Thomas Egerton, the highest official in Queen Elizabeth's government. His career was ruined in 1601 by the secret marriage between him and Sir Egerton's 17 year old niece, Ann More, who bore him 12 children, 5 of whom died either young or at birth. Even though he lost his job, he travelled in other countries on diplomatic missions with Sir Robert Drury. In 1615 King James I recognised his potential in literature and asked him to take holy orders in the Anglican Church, and then he became dean of St Paul's Cathedral. After his wife died in 1617 he stopped writing love poems, but continued writing sermons. John Donne died in 1631 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. He wrote different kinds of works. During the last decade of 1500 he wrote Songs and Sonnets, satires and love lyrics which was published in 1633, then he wrote Divine Poems in 1607 and two anti-Catholic pamphlets which were his public renunciation of the Catholic faith, and lastly he wrote Holy Sonnets in 1618, which sometimes praise and sometimes struggle with God's transcendent perfection. The features of his poetry are the dramatic quality, conceits, varied tone and register and the employ of a speaking voice which takes on many reflections and intonations.

Go and catch a falling star

In this poem John Donne is addressing to a friend of his, asking him to perform a list of impossible things, for example catching a falling star or being able to hear a mermaid singing without getting mad, emphasizing that the last request, that is to say finding a faithful woman, is impossible too. The layout of this song is unregular, the lines are of a different length and the register is informal, although the rhyme scheme is regular. In this poem John Donne uses all of the characteristic features of metaphysical poetry: the song begins in medias res and it's a dramatic monologue, then a lot of conceits and paradox are used, moreover the actions described belong to the fields of astronomy, mythology, superstition and alchemy. The poet has a very cynical view of women, indeed he asks the addressee to find a faithful one after listing impossible things. He expresses that women are unfaithful, dishonest, unreliable and deceptive. Even if some aren't, whenever he gets to know them, they change into unfair. He's desecrating the previous love poems, those according to the courtly love convention, he presents the woman without idealising her, according to her imperfections.

Batter My Heart

Batter My Heart is a holy sonnet which deals with the poet's love for God. It has both a Shakespearean and Petrarchan layout, because it is divided into an octave and a sestet but we are also given a couplet. This sonnet begins in medias res, giving the effect of loss, the poet needs strength and emphasizes his desperate feelings, its aim is to impress the reader, who is shocked by the beginning of this poem, understanding the state of mind of the poet, who is at a loss.
In the first quatrain he explains how God's action is not strong enough, saying that instead of breathing, he should be blowing, instead of knocking he should break the door down, etc bringing every action to extreme. In the second quatrain he expresses his spiritual crisis by comparing his soul to a territory which should belong to God, but he's being a sinner and now inside of his soul there's the Devil. Reason is God's substitute, God's viceroy, it should defend him because it's our highest faculty, and it's almost divine. He can't resist temptation, he understands that his behaviour his wrong, but he can't help it. His reason can't help him from avoiding temptations. The sestet represents the turning point, indeed it becomes with “yet” creating a division between the octave and the sestet, tipically Petrarchan. The two tercets consist in two conceits. In the first it can be found the semantic area of love and marriage, indeed John Donne explains that he loves God, but is promised to the Devil, therefore he needs to divorce him in order to be fully God's and break the knot between him and the Devil, that is to say the original sin: men aren't pure, they are sinners and even thought when they are baptised they're freed from the original sin, during their lives they sin again. In the last conceit this love between the poet and God becomes physical and paradoxical, John Donne asks God to imprison him in order to make him free, and lastly he asks his to rape him in order to make him chaste.

The Sun Rising

The Sun Rising is a poem in which John Donne celebrates his lover. The poet uses two different tones: a scornful and contemptuous one towards the sun, who he rebukes for having woken them up, and an admiring one towards his lover. The poet asks the sun to wake up all those people who haste, like pupils and farmers, because they are less important than the two lovers, moreover he considers his love free, claiming that love doesn't know neither season nor clime, which is very unconventional. In the second stanza the poet mocks the sun for considering his beams so bright, when actually closing his eyes he would eclipse them, but he would also stop seeing his lover, therefore he won't do it. By asserting that, he admits that his lover's eyes blind the sun, whose beams aren't as bright as her eyes. The poet also uses conceits, he wrote that both India and America lie in bed with him, considering his lover a land of exotic treasures, then he claims that she is all the states and he is all the princes, which again is very unconventional. In the last stanza the poet uses personifications and hyperboles claiming that the sun is half as happy as them, and then he says that since he has to warm the world, that is done in warming them, because the two lovers are the whole world. Finally he implies a Ptolemaic view of the universe by saying that the bed is its centre, therefore the sun should revolve around the two lovers.

No Man Is An Island

No Man Is An Island is a religious preacher that deals with the relationship between men, death and the poet's desire for ultimate union. In this poem Donne reflects the rebellions of the 17th century and the problems of the human condition. The setting of the poem is a funeral, while the bells are tolling. John Donne develops a few points in this preacher. The first is the selfishness of human beings, indeed the image of the bell tolling is used to remind us that the destiny of men is always the same, we are all going to die, but there are some people, who are so self centered that they don't understand that the bell is tolling for them. The second point is the position of men in the world, John Donne, in order to explain this, implies three metaphors which have the function of a plea to every men's sensitivity towards the others. The first metaphor deals with the role of mankind in God's plan, that is to say God is the author of a huge volume, symbolizing humanity, in which every man is a chapter, which will be translated when that man will pass away, that's because his soul won't die, but will go to another dimension, and start a new life. The second metaphor implies the fact that mankind is a body made of many limbs, that is to say men, just like every man is a chapter of the volume, indeed the meaning is always the same. In the third metaphor the community of Christians is described as a continent composed by clods, symbolized by men. These metaphors have the same meaning: John Donne's aim is a plea to every man's sensitivity, in order to make everybody understand that we are bond together and we need to stay united, everything that happens to one man falls to the others, that's why we should care about one another and stop being selfish. That's why he states that every death diminishes him, because Church is universal and Christians constitute a community, everything that happens concerns everyone, when a man dies the community is deprived of an individual. The author feels smaller when someone dies because its's like a part of him died too. Our society is based on selfishness but the teaching here is that we shouldn't only care about ourselves and be united with the others.
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