John Donne is one of many poets of his time who wrote love poetry. The thing that sets him apart from the others is that he manages to successfully subvert the traditional conventions to his own ends. Each of the secular poems “The Flea”, “The Sunne Rising” and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” shows Donne’s verbal dexterity, manipulation of the conventional form and the use of a variety of textual features.
For the secular love poem “The Flea” the conventional form is that the flea is to be used as a symbolism of love. Donne subverts this form and uses the flea for the key point to his argument and to symbolise sex/marriage.
In the poem Donne conveys meaning through the rhyming and structure. In each of the three stanza’s the first six lines hold three sets of two rhyming couplets that symbolises the couple (the male and female lover). At the end of stanza’s there is set of three rhymes that is slightly indented which symbolises the union of the flea with the couple.
Donne uses hyperbole in line 1, stanza 2 “…three lives in one flea spare…” and again in line 7, stanza 2 where he begins the argument that in killing the flea she commits murder, suicide and sacrilege. This extreme argumentative, exaggeration creates a flow and pace throughout his sustained arguments.
The use of religious terminology eg. Cloistered, three live in one flea -holy trinity, sacrilege etc. helps to add an authority from god to the poem and it also elevates the language.
Donne also uses repetition line 1, stanza 1″…Marke but this flea, and marke in this…” to create a commanding, direct address to the audience. It gives the poem an imperative tone. In this poem the use of rhetorical questions conveys an argumentative tone and in stanza 3, lines 1 and 2 the use of emotive imagery changes the pace of the argument and makes it more personal.
Another secular poem, not unlike “the Flea”, that Donne subverts is called “The Sunne Rising”. This poem is a “dawn poem” and the conventional form for such a poem is that the minstrel or lover is sitting outside by the girl’s house serenading the situation of the two lovers as the day breaks. Donne manipulates this form as he places the lover in the girls room and instead of serenading the sun, he curses it.
Donne conveys meaning through the structure of the poem. In each stanza the lines are indented or left normal according to what the line talks about. If the lover is talking about things outside the room then the lines are indented. If the lover talks about something inside the room then the lines are left as normal. This creates an expectation as to what will happen in those lines.
The last two of the last three stanzas’ has a rhyming couplet symbolising the two lovers.
The use of monosyllabic words creates an intense, assertive, masculine tone. The extreme hyperbole and metaphor from stanza 4 lines 1 and 2 “…She is all states, and all princes, I…”supports the tone set by the arrogance used. The pun in line 10, stanza 3
“.. and thou shalt heare all, here in one bed lay…” assists with a flow for the poem and the argument.
“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is yet another diverse secular poem by Donne that has been subverted, just as ” The Flea” and the ” Sunne Rising” had been. The conventional form for a farewell speech is that it should be emotional. Donne manipulates the form by not indulging outbursts or saddens and emotion.
The long vowels used eg “virtuous men…twere profanation” subdue the poem and give it a slower pace. The quiet opening of the poem displays alliteration using ms, ns and ss. The light vowels eg. men, friends, breath, meet etc. go further in subduing the poem.
In this poem Donne uses many similes to make his point. In the first stanza he likens the lover’s departure to a death of a virtuous man. This begins his argument convincing his lover that a scene isn’t needed, that their love is beyond separation.
Donne contrasts “the dull sublunary lovers” with his relationship in order to further his argument and create flow for the poem. He also likens their love to gold, the most valuable of the metals. This simile is used to further show the value of their love and to further the argument.
The likening of the lovers to a compass is both a paradox and a hyperbole that catches the audience’s attention and creates a startling image. This clever analogy dazzles the audience by its wit and pushes the argument into its last stages. The last analogy of their love is to a circle drawn by the compass. It suggests continuity, perfection, renewal and marriage and finishes the argument with the idea that like the circle that doesn’t end neither will their love.
Even within a conventional form it is possible for a clever poet to subvert the conventions. John Donne has done that in three of secular love poems “the Flea”, “the Sunne Rising” and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”.
Courtney from Study Moose
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