Use of Conceits in Donne’s Poetry

Posted on September 29, 2009


Clearly the seventeenth century had the courage of its metaphors and they made them the organic parts of its staple, imposed them on the nearest and the farthest things with equal vigour as clearly as the nineteenth century lacked this courage and was half-heartedly metaphorical or content with similes. The difference between the literary qualities of the two periods is not the difference in degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the Age of Donne, Crashaw, Lord Herbert and the time of Tennyson and Browning. It is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are the poets who think, but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.

A thought to Donne was an experience, it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is equipped perfectly for its work, it is constantly amalgamating the disparate experiences. The ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, fragmentary and irregular. The latter cooks something or reads about cooking, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of the rose. In the mind of the poet, these experiences are always forming new wholes. Donne had this unique genius, which T.S. Eliot calls ‘unification of sensibility’.

The metaphysical poetry abounds in conceits. A conceit is a far-fetched comparison, a comparison between dissimilar things, a comparison between objects which have little in common with each other. Dr. Johnson called it “the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together”. A conceit may be brief or it may be elaborate. The conceits used by Donne are learned. They are drawn from a wide range of subjects such as science exploration, medieval philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and others. Conceits impart an intellectual tone to the poetry. The intellectual conceits add weight and illustrate the feeling giving rise to the impression of ‘unification of sensibility’. Ransom states, “To define a conceit is to define a small-scale metaphysical poetry.” A conceit is actually a comparison, whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness, that is, when two things which appear to be completely different from one another, are stated to be similar that one can be used to explain and analyze the other. Helen Gardener says, “A brief comparison can be a conceit, if two things patently unlike or which we should never think of together, are shown to be alike in single point in such a way or in such a context that we feel their incongruity.” Here a conceit is like a spark made by striking two stones together. After the flash the stones are just two stones.

Conceits in Donne’s poetry are not a piece of decoration, they are functional. They are used to persuade, define, illustrate or prove a point. A poem has something to say which the conceit explicates, or something to urge which the conceit helps to forward. They are the most effective vehicles of Donne’s mode of perception. Their farfetchedness adds a touch of miraculous to his poetry. In the words of Joan Bennett, “The purpose of an image in Donne’s poetry is to diffuse the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel.”

Another significant aspect of Donne’s metaphysical conceit is that it cannot be isolated from its context, the whole poem. Like the conceits of Shakespeare, Donne’s are born of the given dramatic movement to illustrate the relationship of characters and relationships of ideas. The conceits of Donne have an organic growth and proliferation, receiving sustenance from the intensity and complexity of the given experience. That is why even though far-fetched, they have an astonishing clarity.

It remains to be seen how Donne rushes from one intellectual hyperbole to another, including as a habit, a vivid range of speculation within a single example. In ‘The Canonization’ the two lovers moving round each other like flies or consuming themselves like tapers; or the images of the eagle and dove – the violent preying on the weak, and ultimately the riddle of the phoenix indicate the whole process of love from courtship to consummation of love. Because of sheer force of love ‘they die and rise the same’. The poem then leads to the lovers being regarded as the martyrs; saints of love will make them model of love.

To express the comprehensive nature of love, Donne makes a scintillating use of Elizabethan circle imagery and encompasses infinitude harmony like the two concentric spheres of the Ptolemic universe. Such an idea underlies the beautiful ‘A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning’. He argues and gives a proof by analogy in the most famous conceit of “the two legs of a compass”. Donne’s beloved is the fixed foot around which he moves and hence persuades his wife or beloved not to mourn.

In the poem ‘Good Morrow’ the two lovers are compared to two hemispheres which unite to form an ideal and a better world than the two hemispheres of the earth itself. They are ‘without sharp north, without declining west’. This perfect and ideal union they achieve through the eyes of each other. The sharp North implies coldness and indifference to which their love is not subject and declining West symbolizes decay and death from which lovers are free.

In ‘Batter my Heart’ Donne compares himself to a usurped town. At the same time there is an image drawn from the purification of metal, by knocking, blowing and shining it. He has referred to God as a tinker (a mender of old pots). The third conceit he uses is the portrayal of man-God relationship through lover-beloved relationship. In this poem that poet addresses God in His three-fold capacity as Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. He calls the Reasoning faculty, the Viceroy of God. In ‘The Extasie’ the souls of the lovers are compared to two equal armies confronting and negotiating with each other. Again love without an outlet in physical expression is like a Prince languishing in prison says Donne. In ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’, unconventional imagery is used to convey the view that there is no woman in the world who is both beautiful and true.

In ‘The Flea’, the flea is a symbol of the poet’s passionate plea for physical and sensuous love. Donne compares the flea to a temple and to a marriage bed. Just as the two lovers are united in the temple into a bond of marriage, so the two bloods have been united in the body of flea. Its body is a sacred temple where their marriage has taken place. The killing of the flea would be an act of triple murder – murder of the flea, murder of the lover and her own murder. This is a sin and so she must spare the flea.

In ‘The Sunne Rising’, there is the same outburst of pride in his discovery of a new world richer than any of the Elizabethan voyagers since it is ‘both the India’s spice and Myne’. The last stanza begins with Donne’s favourite antithesis: the nullity of worldly riches as contrasted with the wealth of love. This idea links naturally with the circle imagery so that the lyric ends with the thought of the eternal union of two hemispheres, which are perfect, infinite and indestructible – like the world of love.

In the poem ‘A Valediction of Weeping’, Donne employs images from a variety of sources. The lover’s tears are like precious coins because they bear the stamp of the beloved (an image drawn from mintage). The tears are ‘pregnant of thee’ – a complex image, conveying the impression of the beloved’s reflection in the drop of tear. In ‘Good Friday’ the soul is compared to a sphere, and Donne treats the metaphor elaborately. Planetary motions are brought into the poem to illustrate feelings.

Donne has made a remarkable use of conceits in his poems. His conceits are learned, which are drawn from a wide range of subjects. His conceits impart intellectual tone to his poetry. They are not decorative but functional. They are used to illustrate or to convince. They cannot be isolated.