Many of John Donne's poems contain metaphysical conceits and intellectual reasoning to build a deeper understanding of the speaker's emotional state. A metaphysical conceit can be defined as an extended, unconventional metaphor between objects that appear to be unrelated. Donne is exceptionally good at creating unusual unions between different elements in order to illustrate his point and form a persuasive argument in his poems.
By using metaphysical conceits in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne attempts to convince his love (presumably his wife) that parting is a positive experience which should not be looked upon with sadness. In the first stanza, Donne compares the speaker's departure to the mild death of virtuous men who pass on so peacefully that their loved ones find it difficult to detect the exact moment of their death. Their separation must be a calm transition like this form of death which Donne describes. The poet writes, "let us melt, and make no noise"(line 5). Cavanaugh explains that the word "melt" refers to a change in physical state and says that "the bond of the lovers will dissolve quietly like the soul of a dying man separating from his body"(par. 5). I do not entirely agree with Cavanaugh's idea that the lovers' bond will dissolve, but I do agree that there is a change in physical state. The bond will still be present, only altered because of the absence of a physical presence.
The next conceit that is used by Donne is based on the Ptolemaic view of the universe as being divided into moving spheres. This obsolete fact would only be known by individuals who were well educated, as Donne obviously was. Donne's allusion to the studies of the famous Greek thinker, Ptolemy, is an example of metaphysical poetry's "use of scholastic modes of reasoning" (Morgues, 9). The speaker compares a frightful earthquake to the "trepidation of the spheres," which is more powerful than an earthquake, but less harmful. The lovers' movement away from one another is like the motion of the spheres and therefore it should not be feared. Donne uses the astronomical term "sublunary" to describe normal love and contrast this type of mundane love to their own. Theirs is a divine love which is elevated beyond simple physical bonds. When they part, their souls remain as one without a "breach, but an expansion,/ Like gold to airy thinness beat" (lines 23-24). These lines support the idea that their bond does not dissolve, but only changes form.
Near the end of the poem, Donne makes an unlikely comparison between the couple and a draftsman's compass. This is one of his most famous metaphysical conceits because the two elements which are being compared appear completely different, and yet, amazingly, Donne is able to connect them. He explains that his wife is his "fixed foot" that leans towards him as he roams and straightens again as he returns, but remains his center. Her firmness is what makes his circle complete, "[a]nd makes [him] end where [he] begun"(line 36). The imagery of the circle and the spheres in this poem solidify the eternity of their love and the knowledge that the speaker will always return to the place where he began. Donne's comparisons create an image of celebration rather than mourning.
It appears that "A Valediction: Of Weeping" is a reversal of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," but in fact, these two poems are more similar than their titles suggest. In both of these poems, Donne urges his partner not to mourn valediction. However, "A Valediction: Of Weeping" has a different approach than "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in that it focuses on the negative aspects of grieving rather than the positive aspects of parting. The poem begins with a metaphor which compares the speaker's tears to coins with his lover's face imprinted on them. Like coins, his tears carry a symbolic value because they are a sign of his grief. Donne pictures the tears as being "pregnant" of her (line 6). This image of pregnancy shows the reader that the tears have been born out of great pain. The last lines of the stanza, the speaker explains that when he cries for her, it is an indication that their love is lost.
Donne uses the imagery of a sphere as he does in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." In this case, the "round ball" is a blank globe on which an artist can create the entire world out of nothingness. He compares this empty globe to a simple tear that can grow until her "tears mixed with [his] do overflow/ This world; by waters sent from [her, his] heaven dissolved so"(lines 17-18). When one of them begins to cry, the other one will cry until they are both overwhelmed with sadness. Donne's spherical imagery continues in the next stanza when he calls the woman "more than moon" and begs her not to draw the seas up to drown him in her sphere (line 19). The speaker tells his love not to weep for him as if he is dead, but to hope for his well-being. Her ideas of his death will only inspire the sea and wind to harm him. Like the speaker in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," this man believes that he and his partner are as one soul. They "sigh one another's breath," and so it would be cruel for one of them to grieve because it "only hastes the other's death"(lines 26-27). This poem is as persuasive as "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," and it uses similar metaphors to defend its point, but it has a much more somber mood.
"The Flea" is a playful and homourous form metaphysical poem, unlike the two valedictions which have a more serious tone. Donne takes the image of a flea and compares it to the love between the speaker and his mistress. This conceit is the theme of the entire poem rather than a series of metaphors as we see in "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" and "Valediction: Of Weeping." This poem also contains an interaction between the speaker and the woman, and an element of plot which the valediction poems lack. The speaker describes a flea that has sucked his blood and the blood of his mistress. There is no sin in this, but it "swells with one blood made of two," as though it is pregnant, like the tears in "A Valediction: of Weeping." The poet points out that "this, alas, is more than we would do"(line 9). It is clear that the speaker is trying to convince the woman that having sex with him is as harmless or even less harmless than a flea who sucks their blood.
In the next stanza, Donne uses religious imagery in his persuasion. The flea is described as having "three lives in one" like the holy trinity(line 10). In the flea's case, it is the flea's life and the lives of the two lovers which are as one. Donne continues to create a holy image of the flea as he explains that the flea is their "marriage temple" and they are "cloistered in these living walls of jet"(line 15). The woman wants to kill the flea, but the speaker argues that it would be sinful to kill this flea because this would mean killing him, the flea, and herself at the same time. Obviously, the speaker fails to appeal to the woman's religious morals and she kills the flea despite his witty persuasion.
Upon the flea's "cruel and sudden" death, the speaker acts quite upset at first, but in the end, he is able to use the flea's untimely death to prove his point. He defends the flea's innocence, asking his mistress, "[w]herin could this flea guilty be,/ Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?"(lines 21-22). Then, he notes that nothing bad has come from killing the flea, and therefore his fears were unwarranted as are her fears of sleeping with him. He insists that she will lose as little honour as she lost life from the flea. The reader can see that this speaker is very confident in his persuasive abilities because he says "when thou yield'st to me" instead of "if thou yield'st to me"(line 26). He knows that he will eventually win over his mistress because he is able to cleverly manipulate her actions and words to strengthen his point.
"The Indifferent" is a witty poem like "The Flea," but in this poem, Donne uses satire instead of conceit to communicate his message. Donne intentionally creates a speaker who does not share his opinion of love. This speaker can love any woman as long as she is not loyal. He boasts of the many different types of women that he can love, no matter how different they are from each other. There is one particular woman who is loyal, and this annoys him. Ironically, he thinks of her devotion as a vice instead of a virtuous quality. The speaker has difficulty understanding the motives behind this woman's faithfulness, so he asks her questions such as "doth a fear that men are true torment you?"(line 13). It is interesting that he would think that the woman is motivated by fear, because it is ultimately his fear of her truthfulness that torments him. He assures the woman that men are not loyal in order to ease his own conscience and not hers. If he believes that all men are like him, then he can take comfort in the knowledge that he is not alone. The speaker wants this woman to be free so that he may also be free. He asks the question, "[m]ust I, who came to travail thorough you,/ Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?" (lines 17-18). He is really directing this question to himself, not to the woman. The man is growing unsure of the morality of his promiscuity, and feels obligated by his conscience to be true to this woman.
Venus hears the words of the speaker and conveniently eases his troubled conscience. She says that variety is important in love. She investigates the speaker's claim that certain people believe in loyalty, and says "[a]las, some two or three/ Poor heretics in love there be,/ Which think to 'stablish dangerous constancy" (lines 23-24). Venus echoes the speaker's idea that faithfulness is a vice. She punishes these "heretics" by giving them nothing but betrayal in return for their loyalty. The speaker's moral dilemma is solved, but the reader is left feeling that the loyal woman is treated unjustly, which is the exact feeling that Donne is hoping to convey. It is interesting that Donne would choose Venus as the divine influence in this poem. Venus is associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, but she is also known as Venus Verticordia, the protector of female chastity (Canadian Encyclopedia). The character of Venus is similar to Donne in that there is a distinct difference between what they are saying and what they truly mean. This is another example of Donne's use of educated intellect to strengthen the meaning of his poem as he did in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" with the reference to Ptolemaic spheres. This satirical poem expresses the cruelty and indifference of people like the speaker who are unfaithful to the ones they love.
As we can see from "The Indifferent," Donne does not always employ metaphysical conceit to create a persuasive theme. In the case of "The Indifferent," Donne uses satire instead of conceit; however, there is still a balance of intellect and emotion that is so common is Donne's poetry. De Mourgues calls Donne's poetic blend of reason and feeling "a perfect poise between the play of intellect and the depth of emotion"(7). This technique works as a powerful method of persuasion by giving the reader a clear grasp of Donne's justification of his point while providing an emotional bond between the reader and the speaker. This bond does not necessarily have to be a positive bond, as is illustrated in "The Indifferent." Through this comparison of several poems by Donne, it can be seen that although every poem is unique, there are specific elements that are common in all of them.
Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Cavanaugh, Cynthia A. "The Circle of Souls in John Donne's A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The Luminarium. 1999. <http://luminarium.org> ( 3 December 1999)
Donne, John. "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." Abrams, 1093-1094.
Donne, John. "A Valediction: Of Weeping." Abrams, 1089.
Donne, John. "The Indifferent." Abrams, 1085-1086.
Donne, John. "The Flea." Abrams, 1090-1091.
Mourgues, Odette De. Metaphysical, Baroque and Precieux Poetry. Folcroft, PA: The Folcroft Press, Inc., 1969.
"Venus, of Greek Religion." The 1997 Canadian Encyclopedia Plus. CD-ROM. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1996.
By Megan Thomas