John Donne vs. The Elizabethan Lyric
John Donne delivered, like all of the other great poets of the renaissance era, an invaluable contribution to English literature. However, it is the uniqueness of this contribution that sets him apart from the rest. This statement seems somewhat ironic when one analyses the context of his life and the nature of his writing, for Donne is clearly the rebel in English poetry. He is the one poet that deliberately turned his back to the customs and trends of the time to deliver something so different to the reader that he will be remembered forever as a radical and unconventional genius. This is most probably the way that he would have liked to be remembered.
John Donne lived in an era when the lyric was at its pinnacle. Poets were writing well-rounded, almost musical poetry on subjects that ranged from all kinds of love to enchantment with nature. Donne could not help but revolt against this excess of fluency and melody. John Donne's style stands in such sharp contrast to the accepted Elizabethan lyrical style that it becomes difficult to accept the fact that his works date from the same era. To highlight this statement, one has to compare a typical Elizabethan lyric to one of Donne's works.
In Damelus' Song to His Diaphenia, by Henry Constable, the typical characteristics of the Elizabethan lyric are abundant. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with a solid, almost musical rhythm throughout the poem. The musical quality is reinforced by the prominent AABCCB rhyme scheme in each of the three equal length stanzas. The language is adapted especially for the poem to accommodate the unyielding rhythm and rhyme scheme. All of these mentioned characteristics speak of a set of concrete rules and guidelines that the poet had followed when he was writing this lyric. The tone that is set is one of joy and delight in love and life another characteristic of Elizabethan lyrics. The anonymous speaker is experiencing a buoyant feeling and he communicates this through the lyric. The repetition of "how I do love thee!" in lines three, nine and fifteen summarises the message of this poem: The speaker is using basic images in nature in a simple manner to state how much he loves his "Diaphenia." It is dreadfully predictable and very easy to interpret and it is these characteristics that give the Elizabethan lyrics their instantaneous appeal.
On the other side of the spectrum resides John Donne. The first and foremost difference between his works and the Elizabethan lyrics is his use of language. In The Good-Morrow Donne opens with simple, everyday language. It sounds like a monologue and it is immediately apparent that there is no set rhythm that the poet is adhering to. Rather Donne imitates normal speech with straightforward, colloquial language. He succeeds in bringing forward a feeling of someone actually talking or opening up their thoughts, compared to the Elizabethan lyric that is a polished and over produced rendition of the poet's feelings. Comparing the opening lines of both poems here reveals another difference in the use of alliteration in Constable's lyric. The repetition of the voiced d-sound brings an immediate unity to the line. It sounds soft and gentle compared to the opening line of Donne's poem, which does not attribute any significant internal rhyme. The first stanza consists of four separate questions which immediately draws the readers' attention. This in itself is very unconventional. It sets the tone of the poem without any delay. It also reveals that the speaker is not a universal anonymous lover without any personality but is rather a person with realistic emotions and views who is exposing his thoughts to the reader.
Donne "uses hyperbole to contrast their states before and after their discovery of love" (Tate, 1966:1), compared to Constable who only employs the use of similes in Damelus' Song to His Diaphenia. In the four questions in the first stanza, Donne...
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