The Power of John Donne’s Poetry
John Carey’s description of Donne’s “power” is laudable, and to a certain extent, accurate. Carey captures the masculine nature of Donne’s tone; the vividness of Donne’s imagery; the subtle coercion of Donne’s metaphor. Carey also notes Donne’s application of syntax and rhythms, writing that Donne’s words, “are packed into the poems like boulders… Inversions and interjections fracture the run of the lines, necessitating a strenuous advance.” Carey is right to recognize Donne’s “powerful” manipulation of the language – not only the wit of his diction, but the sounds, and for lack of a better term, the flow of his poetry. However, Carey is wrong in his description of the overall manner of Donne’s poetry. Carey uses harsh language to describe Donne’s work, words and phrases such as, “dictatorial attitudes,” “unrelenting argumentativeness,” and “violent,” as if he feels that Donne grabs his readers by the wrist and drags them into submission. This is hardly the case. Donne does not rape his audience; he seduces them. Donne does not demand; he persuades, and in the process, empowers his reader with tangible emotion. Such empowerment might feel like a “sensation of pressure” if misunderstood or denied. But there-in lies Donne’s power: his ability to convey the matter of his poetry and invoke feeling in his reader by applying a masterful combination of diction, imagery, metaphor, and perhaps most importantly, pace and sound. Donne’s orchestration of language, or his “power,” is audible in the poem, “Air and Angels,” in which Donne explores the connection between two of his favorite subjects, love and the divine.
Twice or thrice had I love thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
Already in the first two lines, Donne sets the general tone of the poem. There is a sense of modesty in the notion of loving some nameless, faceless being. The humility that Donne immediately establishes might strike one as similar to that of a devout Christian readying for prayer. The parallel is subtle but intentional, as Donne wants to convey his feeling of awe regarding matters of love and spirituality – a stark contrast in personality compared to the villain depicted by Carey in his critique.
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came;
Some lovely glorious nothing did I see.
Although Carey claimed that, “Inversions and interjections fracture the run of the lines, necessitating a strenuous advance,” in the lines listed above, an advance hardly seems appropriate. The commas between the lines, in this case, do not represent interjections to trample upon but spaces at which to pause and allow the words to glide forward. The comma usage in the first two lines (“So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame”) affects the gradual descent of heavenly influence, like an angel that gently flutters towards earth. The pauses in the third line (Still when, to where thou wert, I came;”) are even more compelling, as these commas convey not only hesitance, but also anticipation, as the writer approaches something mystical and unknown. Furthermore, the pauses cause the line to lengthen, adding subliminal meaning by indicating that the writer steadily searched for love, and did not merely stumble upon it. Of course, all the anticipation and curiosity resolves in one of Donne’s signature paradoxes, as what the writer finally does see is “some lovely glorious nothing,” meaning that love, although found, was not visible in a physical or material form. This final line also sheds light on Donne’s tremendous touch for human feelings, even those which are hard to describe in words, like the feeling that one gets upon seeing “some lovely glorious nothing” in one’s soul mate.
Donne’s use of sound and metaphor is also important to note. Having established a calm tone in the first two lines of the poem, Donne takes...
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