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4.2 John Donne (1572–1631)

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. List characteristics of metaphysical poetry and apply them to the poetry of John Donne.
  2. Define metaphysical conceit, paradox, apostrophe, and allusion, and identify examples in Donne’s poetry.


Born into a Catholic family at a time when it was illegal to openly practice the Roman Catholic faith, John Donne is the chief figure in a group that has come to be known as the Metaphysical Poets. Donne held a series of clerical positions and enjoyed a prosperous life until he secretly married a relative of his employer. Fired from his position and imprisoned, Donne pleaded with his father-in-law not to punish him and his new wife, but to no avail. Because of his father-in-law’s influence and because of his Catholic background, Donne and his wife lived in poverty for many years until reconciled with his father-in-law.

Donne’s effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Donne began to question his faith after his brother died while in prison for harboring a Roman Catholic priest, and he continued his struggle with his religious beliefs until he renounced his Roman Catholic faith. Two works in which Donne denounced Roman Catholicism caught the attention of King James I. Donne became an Anglican clergyman at the King’s insistence, later becoming the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a prestigious and well-paying position, but one in which Donne was never completely comfortable.

Video Clip 1

John Donne

(click to see video)

Also go to 1630s in the British Library’s English Language and Literature Timeline to read about John Donne.

Characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry

As previously noted, John Donne is the most noted member of a group of poets known as the Metaphysical Poetspoets whose work explores subjects beyond the physical world, including spiritual matters, poets whose work explores subjects beyond the physical world, including emotional and spiritual matters. They were not recognized as a group or given that name until Samuel Johnson applied it to them in the 18th century. Their poetry shares the following characteristics:

  • abrupt, dramatic openings, often with a vivid image or an exclamation
  • an argumentative construction
  • an introspective quality; an element of self-analysis
  • use of the metaphysical conceitan unusual, elaborate, and unexpected comparison, an unusual, elaborate, and unexpected comparison. For example, in his poem “The Bait“ the speaker compares the woman he loves to fish bait. We might expect a comparison to a rose or a beautiful summer’s day but not to fish bait.)
  • use of literary devices

    • paradoxan apparently self-contradictory statement—an apparently self-contradictory statement
    • apostrophean address to an inanimate object or abstract quality, for example speaking to the moon or to death—an address to an inanimate object or abstract quality, for example speaking to the moon or to death
    • allusiona reference to something from history, literature, or any other field that the writer assumes the reader will know—a reference to something from history, literature, or any other field that the writer assumes the reader will know; for example, when Donne refers to those destroyed by “the flood,” he assumes the reader will recognize the biblical allusion to Noah’s flood

“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
So let us melt, and make no noise, 5
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 ; 10
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ‘cause it doth remove 15
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss. 20
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so 25
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam, 30
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 35
And makes me end where I begun.

According to tradition, this poem has an autobiographical significance: that Donne wrote the poem to comfort his wife when he was planning to be away on a business trip for an extended time.

The word valediction means farewell. It shares the same Latin root as the term valedictorian, the person who traditionally gives a “farewell to high school” speech at graduation ceremonies. The title states that this is a farewell that forbids mourning—that the speaker does not want his beloved to mourn when he leaves.

The poem begins with a vivid image: a virtuous man dying so peacefully that the friends gathered around his bed aren’t sure when his breath ceases.

The entire poem is a series of images describing the lovers’ parting:

  • In stanza two the lovers part as silently and gently as ice melts; the speaker states there will be no floods of tears or storms of sighing; the sanctity of their love is compared to religious devotion which “laity” (those who don’t have the same degree of sanctified love) do not understand.
  • Stanza three pictures the fear caused by earthquakes. Then the speaker notes that the movement of the planets (“trepidation of the spheres”) is a far larger, more significant movement, but no one pays attention to the movement of the earth on its axis or around the sun. By implication, the speaker compares the significance of their parting to the movement of the planets but also wants their leave taking to be as calm.
  • Stanza four compares the couple to “sublunary” lovers. Sublunary (sub-lunar) means beneath the moon, suggesting normal, everyday lovers rather than those like the speaker and his beloved who have an elevated, sanctified level of love. Sublunary love can’t withstand parting.
  • In stanza five, the speaker claims that sublunary love depends on physical presence. His love, however, is not just a physical passion and therefore does not depend on “eyes, lips, and hands” to exist.
  • Stanza six begins with a biblical allusion, a reference to the biblical statement that in marriage, two become one. Even though the speaker is leaving, the bond of their souls will not be broken; instead it will expand as gold can be stretched so thinly that it becomes translucent. Comparing their love to gold also suggests a high value, compressing more meaning into the stanza by using an image rather than a direct statement.
  • The last three stanzas include one of the most famous of metaphysical conceits. The speaker compares the couple’s two souls to the two legs of a drafting compass. The speaker compares himself to the leg of the compass that moves to draw a circle and the wife to the stationary leg in the middle that brings the other leg back to the same spot where it began, thus suggesting that the speaker will return home.

God as Architect medieval image of a compass.

Holy Sonnets

“Holy Sonnet V”

I am a little world made cunningly

Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;

But black sin hath betray’d to endless night

My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high

Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,

Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might

Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,

Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.

But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire

Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,

And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

In the first two lines, the speaker compares himself to a “little world” made of the physical (“elements”) and the spiritual (“sprite”). Both parts, however, have been betrayed by sin, and the speaker will therefore die both physically and spiritually. In line 5, the speaker addresses God, asking him to pour “seas” of tears into his eyes that will drown or wash away his sin. In the last six lines, the speaker, addressing God, suggests an alternative to washing away his sin: to burn his sin away. The fires of lust and envy made his soul dirty, as smoke and flames leave stains, but paradoxically God’s fire will cleanse and heal his soul.

“Holy Sonnet VII”

At the round earth’s imagined corners blow

Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise

From death, you numberless infinities

Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;

All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,

All whom war, dea[r]th, age, agues, tyrannies,

Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes

Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.

But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space ;

For, if above all these my sins abound,

‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,

When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,

Teach me how to repent, for that’s as good

As if Thou hadst seal’d my pardon with Thy blood.

This sonnet begins with a biblical image, angels blowing their trumpets at the four corners of the world to announce the last judgment. The speaker pictures the souls of the dead throughout the ages rising and returning to their bodies. In the next four lines, the speaker recounts numerous ways in which these souls may have met their death: flood, fire, war, dearth (famine), age, sickness, tyrants (executions by tyrants), despair (a word which in the 16th and 17th centuries suggested suicide), law (executions ordered by the legal courts), and chance (accidents). Line 7 addresses one last group of people who will hear the trumpets: those who are still alive, whose “eyes shall behold God” even though they have never experienced death. In the last six lines, the speaker asks God to let the dead sleep awhile longer. His reason for this request is that he needs time to repent.

“Holy Sonnet X”

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;

For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,

Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke ; why swell’st thou then ?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.

Perhaps the most well-known of the Holy Sonnets, “Holy Sonnet X” begins with a statement to death personified, a forceful statement ordering death not to be proud. The speaker continues to address death, claiming that those death thinks it has conquered have not really died. Death, the speaker asserts, is subject to a list of causes: fate, chance, kings, suicide, poison, war, and sickness. In the last two lines, the speaker makes his final statement of victory over death. In line 2—”for thou art not so”—and in the final sentence—”Death, thou shalt die” the use of one-syllable words emphasizes the power of the words with an accent on each word.

Key Takeaways

  • John Donne is the chief figure of the Metaphysical Poets.
  • Metaphysical poetry is characterized by dramatic openings, argumentative construction, self-analysis, metaphysical conceits, and literary devices such as paradox, apostrophe, and allusion.


  1. The titles of metaphysical poems are often important indications of the content and main idea of the poem. What is a valediction? What does the title reveal about the attitude the speaker has toward his leave-taking?
  2. John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” like most metaphysical poems, is a series of comparisons (metaphysical conceits). The poem begins with an image—a comparison—as signaled by the word “As.” Assuming the biographical interpretation—that the speaker of the poem is addressing his wife—to what does the speaker compare their leave-taking?
  3. Why, according to stanza 4, does physical absence destroy some people’s love? How is this different from the speaker’s love (stanza 5)? Which type of love do you think was portrayed in Sidney’s sonnets?
  4. Unlike the usual Elizabethan sonnet sequences about human love, Donne’s Holy Sonnets trace his spiritual relationship with God. How would you describe the relationship in each of the sonnets discussed?
  5. Identify each of the Holy Sonnets discussed as English or Italian. What characteristics of structure and content affect your classification?
  6. Review the list of characteristics of metaphysical poetry. Identify characteristics in each of the sonnets discussed.





Metaphysical Poetry


  • John Donne.” Dr. Carol Lowe. McLennan Community College.