It is unsurprising that the poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell is often compared.

It is not simply their classification as ‘metaphysical’ poets, but similar interests, intent, structures, and techniques which unite their respective works How far do you agree? There are unavoidable cultural tendencies to attempt to categorise works of art, to apply labels, genres and sub-genres and to invest these groups and genres with rules and definitions. Thus, contemporary readers of poetry find that individual poems are often not simply appraised on individual terms, as complete and singularly whole pieces of work, or that the works of a particular poet are not only evaluated within the context of their producer’s artistic catalogue, but that either individual poems, or the combined works of a particular poet, are also appraised and criticised as ‘examples’ of their imposed genre, within the confines and the context of this supposed classification. Hence, particular poets’ works are judged in terms of the ‘contribution’ the work makes to, as an example, ‘Modernism’ or that a particular poet’s work is compared and contrasted with, and judged against, those of their contemporaries on the grounds that their respective creators are, for example, ‘Romantics’ or ‘Modernists’. As ‘Metaphysical’ poets, then, it is not surprising that Donne and Marvell are, critically speaking, often compared, contrasted and thought of together. T.S Eliot, whose advocacy of Donne’s work was largely responsible for a resurgence in interest, defines metaphysical poetry1 as work which seeks to elaborate simile to the farthest possible extent, demonstrates rapid association of thought, contains sudden contrasts of images and by the ‘unification of sensibility’, that is, the ability to think and feel and the ability to relate and recreate that which is only ordinarily felt in accessible language. If these factors are sought, they are undeniably to be found in the work of both poets. Both Donne and Marvell were members of the clergy and devoted many lines to both religious and divine poetic meditations and to prose sermons, they both wrote extensively not only of lovers, but of experiences with lovers which recreate sense and sensuality, and physical contact, to breathlessly exhilarating effect and they both write of death to remarkable effect. That the poetry of these men contains parallels is irrefutable, that they share poetic aims and intentions and thematic concerns is undeniable, yet, close reading and detailed analysis betrays that their techniques are very different and poems which appear to share similarities prove under examination to be dissimilar indeed, as close reading of Donne’s A Valediction: forbidding mourning and Marvell’s Definition of Love demonstrates. Both works demonstrate similarities, they are of a similar length, Donne’s being nine stanzas in length, Marvell’s eight. Each stanza is octosyllabic, four – lines long and written in an alternate line end – rhyme pattern. Both poems speak of a lover with whom the narrator is prevented in some manner from becoming wholly ‘joined’ with and the way in which each of these poems intellectualises feeling and sensation and transforms them into conceptions, into abstract ideas, whilst still investing them with the vividness and personal experience of

The Metaphysical Poets, TLS, (1921)

perception marks them as remarkably similar, as reading the first three stanzas of both poems in parallel shows: As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls to go, Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The breath goes now, and some say, no: So let us melt, and make no noise, No tear- floods, nor sigh – tempests move, ‘Twere profanation of our joys To tell the laity our love. Moving of th’earth brings harms and fears, Men reckon what it did and meant, But trepidation of the spheres, Though greater Far, is innocent. ( Donne) And: My love is of a birth as rare As ‘tis for object strange and high: It was begotten by despair Upon Impossibility Magnanimous Despair alone Could show me so divine a thing, Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing. And yet I quickly might arrive Where my extended Soul is fixt, But Fate does Iron wedges drive, And always crouds it self betwixt.


These stanzas make use of similar imagery. The souls which ‘go’ of Donne’s opening stanza echo Marvell’s ‘fixt’ soul of his third, as does a pervading sense of resignation to fate. Donne’s imploration to ‘melt’ with his lover into their shared fate with no resistance, no railing, has similar connotations to Marvell’s ‘magnanimous Despair’; the reader is aware that these are desperately sad characters, yet there is no conflict, the surrender is absolute. The emotions are painful, yet there is nobility and even reward and generosity in them, thus demonstrating the intellectualisation of emotion into that which is perceivable, knowable and even manageable. Both poets here also refer to the impossible. Donne’s ‘tear floods’, ‘sigh tempests’ along with Marvell’s ‘Iron wedges’ of fate and ‘feeble Hope’ flapping its ‘tinsel wing’ are all impossible metaphors, and all attempting, in Eliot’s words, the ‘unification of sensibility’ that is, to convey that which can only ever be felt by using images and words. The third stanza of each of these poems ends on an almost identical

note; In Donne’s, the images of ‘moving’ ‘earth’ and in Marvell’s the ‘Iron wedges’ introduce resolute physical obstructions. So we see, both men write of a love. There is impossibility, futility and resignation at work in each. ‘Tempests’ of tears and ‘magnanimous’ despair emphasise the emotion and portray them as respectively massive and the introductory stanzas conclude with a sense of enormous obstruction. However, as the poems progress, we see that there are fundamentally different things happening in each Dull sublunary lovers’ love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence, because it doth remove Those things which elemented it. But we by a love, so much refined, That ourselves know not what it is, Inter- assured of the mind, Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss. Our two souls therefore, which are one, Though I must go, endure not yet A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to airy thinness beat. (Donne) And: For fate with jealous Eye does see Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close: Their union would her ruine be, And her Tyrrannick pow’r depose. And therefore her decrees of steel Us as the distant poles have plac’d (Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel) Not by themselves to be embrac’d Unless the giddy Heaven fall, And Earth some new convulsion tear; And, us to joyn, the World should all Be cramp’d into a planisphere. (Marvell) I these stanzas, Donne, as he does in the first excerpt with his imploration ‘let us melt/ and make no noise’ and ‘the breath goes now’, and as he does in many of the Songs and Sonnets analyses the immediate experience of the narrator’s situation, he does not relate the relationship between the characters as wholly defined by a particular aspect of their situation, that they are impeded in their union, but explores this relationship in terms which are much more subjective to the particular characters in the situation. With Donne, we are permitted to identify the ‘how’s and the ‘why’s. Not only do we know that these lovers cannot be together, but that they cannot accept it because to accept separation is to deny the circumstances and occurrences which nurtured

their love ‘because it doth remove those things which elemented it’. We read that Donne’s love is ‘refined’, by his repudiation that it is their respective lover’s bodies which will be missed, the reader gets the sense that this love transcends physical longing. It is not simply the union of bodies which is prohibited for Donne, it is the union of minds. He creates a paradox

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