It’s a thing of the past: John Donne’s methaphysical poetry
Literary critics define him as the most important and most significant Metaphysical poet. But what does “metaphysical” really mean?
The sixteenth century witnessed a real rupture in the European socio-cultural fabric: geographical discoveries marked the isolation of Europe, the Reformation initiated the fracture of European Christianity, Roman Catholic liturgy was retained in Southern Europe, and Northern countries (from Germany to Scandinavia) introduced vernacular services and vernacular Bibles.
The seventeenth century further deepened the scope of the breach up and down Europe and its most vociferous representative was the English poet and priest John Donne (1572-1631), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Despite his Roman Catholic family background, he was forced to convert to Anglicanism and took up diverse posts till he became a preacher in London. Literary critics define him as the most important and most significant Metaphysical poet. But what does “metaphysical” really mean? It means a poetic diction and style which addresses the most urgent and contingent issues of European history after the revolutions in the sixteenth century. Donne’s style is deliberately convoluted, difficult, and rich in metaphors and paradoxical, witty conclusions.
Such features clearly emerge in poems such as The Good Morrow, where readers see the unfolding of events in medias res, with a colloquial tone, or in the famous A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning, where the lovers unexpectedly become two legs of a compass, symbolising the perfect bond of the couple.
But John Donne, as I have already said, was a celebrated priest. He wrote Holy Sonnets where the metaphysical rhetorical structure includes Christian reflections. In What if this Present were the World’s last Night, the hyperbolical title unfolds a reflection on Donne’s past life: the seducer and libertine Jack Donne (author of a pamphlet on suicide, Biathanatos) has now turned into the austere and stern Dr John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, who has refused his former idolatry (the love of women) and seeks solace in the suffering image of the Crucifix (the paradox: how can such an image be of any comfort?).
In 1611, Donne wrote An Anatomy of the World, an elegiac poem describing the collapse of long-held beliefs, like the geocentric system, then being substituted by a new sky and a new sun, therefore a heliocentric one.
Donne’s name rests on No Man is an Island (1617), a consideration whereby the poet urges mankind to co-operate in such a difficult time: a request which is still valid today, where the same difficulties experienced then are very much still alive.