1. Donne’s two major modes are religious spiritualism and erotic amorousness. How does he combine those two modes in some of his poems? In which poems does he not combine them?
His principal method of combination is simply to mingle the discourses of spirituality and carnality—pleading with God to rape him in the fourteenth Divine Meditation or claiming to embody the sweat of Adam and the blood of Christ in the “Hymn to God my God.” In the “Valediction,” Donne describes an ideal of spiritual love that seems to unify the holy and the romantic but that consciously eschews erotic desire. Poems, such as “The Flea” and “The Sun Rising,” make little use of the spiritual mode beyond passing reference (such as Donne’s calling the flea his “marriage temple”); poems, such as “Death be not proud,” have little to do with the worldly or the erotic.
2. How does Donne distinguish between physical and spiritual love? Which does he prefer? (Think especially about “The Flea” and “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning.”)
“Physical love” is love that is primarily based upon the sensation or the presence of the beloved or that emphasizes sexuality; in “The Flea,” Donne celebrates the physical side of love when he tries to convince his beloved to sleep with him. In the “Valediction,” Donne describes a spiritual love, “Inter-assured of the mind,” which does not miss “eyes, lips, and hands” because it is based on higher and more refined feelings than sensation. In the “Valediction,” Donne is critical of “dull sublunary” physical love, which could not survive in the absence of the beloved, and expresses a profound preference for spiritual love, which is much rarer—it is not the love of the common men and women. But there are certainly erotic moments in Donne’s writing (The graphically sexual “To His Mistress, on Going to Bed” comes to mind) when he would seem to prefer the erotic to the intellectual.
3. Compare and contrast two of Donne’s most famous religious poems, the tenth and fourteenth Divine Meditations. How are they alike? How are they different? In what ways does Donne’s mode of address to Death and God differ from what you might expect?
The poems are similar in their use of the Shakespearean sonnet form, their spiritual-religious register, their expressed desire for salvation, and their apostrophic mode of address—the first poem speaks to Death, the second to God. The poems differ in intent (the first is a contemptuous critique of Death, the second a kind of plea or prayer asking for God’s aid) and in the tones of their moral positions (the first is confidently bound for heaven, the second deeply inclined toward sin). In each poem, Donne takes a surprisingly self-confident, even casual, tone toward awesome immortal powers: He does not cower before Death or plea for God’s forgiveness, he mocks Death and pleas for God to wreck him to the ground, imprison him, and ravish him—neither approach is the usual mode for addressing supernatural beings.
4. One of the main characteristics of metaphysical poetry is its reliance on bizarre and unexpected imagery and symbolism. What are some of Donne’s strangest or most surprising images and symbols? How does Donne use symbolism to advance his themes?
5. Compare and contrast two of Donne’s most famous metaphysical love poems, “The Canonization” and “The Sun Rising.” How are they alike? How are they different? Does Donne’s urbane, sophisticated treatment of love diminish the romantic passion in his poems?
6. Donne’s use of meter is frequently surprising; he will often apply a regular ABAB rhyme scheme to lines of wildly erratic tempo. What are some of the poems in which he uses this technique? What effect does it have on the poems, either aesthetically or thematically, or both?
7. Donne often uses humor in his poems: “The Flea” is an elaborate joke, “The Canonization” and “A Valediction” satirize Petrarchan love poems, and even a more serious poem, such as the “Hymn to God my God,” makes extensive use of a pun. What roles do wordplay and humor perform in Donne’s poems?