Obedience or Rebellion?

How English Poet John Donne used powerful and striking analogies to protest against the world of ridicule that he found himself within.

(links to referenced poems/writings at the end of this post)

The various poems of John Donne are peculiar and strange compared to many of the works of his contemporaries. While writers like Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, and Walter Raleigh all write beautiful poems with exquisite images and wonderful meanings about love and life, John Donne addresses these topics in a completely different and almost abnormal way. One can quite simply pick up a poem by any of the figures mentioned above and share it with a friend or colleague with no hesitation at all. Regarding Donne’s writings, though, there seems to be a disconnect between the topics he is writing about and the way in which he describes those topics. Yet, once studied thoroughly, Donne’s abnormal poems address these familiar topics in fascinating and new ways that can be even more substantial than the words by other poets of this time. The question is why is this so? It is through studying the life of John Donne that an answer becomes clear. In writing about such familiar topics in truly unfamiliar and bizarre ways, John Donne is rebelling against the accepted ideas and realities of the world around him in a bid to better explain the bounds of reality and the unexplainable things of the universe that he believes in at his core.

William Giraldi in his essay titled “The Art of Reading John Donne” states that, “Donne is the most conflicted of the English poets–perhaps the most conflicted poet, period–and his work, from the poems to the sermons, is fraught with contradiction and confusion…Donne was self-consumed because he was so urgently seeking relief from the bewilderment of being alive, from the severity of vision his faith forced upon him.” This fact is clear in all of John Donne’s writings; in his metaphysical comparisons on the topics of love, death, and religion. Here is a man who was born Roman Catholic in a time when such a thing was ridiculed and frowned upon in society. Due to this fact, it was clear that Donne himself would never have an acceptable and high position in English society. Yet, in order to achieve this, he turned his back on his family’s religion and joined the Church of England. Finally, he had the acceptance he wanted; yet soon that was taken away from him due to how he fell in love with Ann More, to the anger of her uncle who was Donne’s employer. Donne was not content with this fact, with the struggle of money and scorn from those around him, and so he continued to press so that he could be accepted, leading him to eventually being talked into becoming a court preacher at St. Paul’s. 

For a man so determined to be accepted by society, you would expect his writings to follow the similar patterns that all his contemporaries write with. Yet, his writings seem to be completely against that very idea with the use of images such as fleas to the physicality of love, bait to women, death to love, and battles to religion. With his poem The Flea, there is a clear satirical and snide tone to it regarding the typical actions and views of love and courtship that existed at this time. “The flea is you and I”(923); logically, no woman is going to swoon and accept someone’s love due to the comparison of a flea to their love and Donne himself knows this, considering how successful he was with gaining the affections of women in his life before his marriage to Anne More. A similar situation is occurring with his poem The Bait in which he states, “For thou thyself art thine own bait”(934)- truly such divergence from typical comparison of love has to have some origin. This could possibly have some connection to his own marriage and the unfortunate circumstances that happened to Donne due to his falling in love and secretly marrying his employer’s niece. On all accounts, John and Ann had a wonderful marriage, Ann giving birth to twelve children before her death, and yet it had been so scorned by those around him and in her family. These two poems, published more than 30 years after their marriage and years after both of their deaths, very well could have been Donne’s own attacks on the imprisonment and expulsion he experienced due to his actions towards Ann when their secret marriage was revealed and the ‘ridiculous’ laws of courtship that existed at the time. 

With Go and catch a falling star, this once again seems to have a different view on women and their fidelity to men. “No where/Lives a woman true, and fair/If thou find’st one, let me know…Yet she/Will be/False, ere I come, to two, or three”(924-925); this poem has a cynical and biting tone to it in regards to the women of the world. He is completely disapproving of women and looks down on them based on the idea that a woman cannot be both loyal and beautiful. This possibly was written during his youth, before he met Ann- when he was a womanizer. It truly is different from the poems of The Flea and The Bait in its debasement of women and their infidelity as he seems to push against the very idea of the loyal and obedient woman and wife that existed in this time, maybe due to his own youthful experiences in love.

In his poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Donne is once again going against accepted ideas of the relationship between a husband and wife. This poem is truly a powerful expression of his devotion to his wife and to the power of their love. “Our two souls therefore, which are one/though I must go, endure not yet/A breach, but an expansion”(936); he is saying that their love has gone beyond the physicality of love(as spoken of before in The Flea). It truly is a departure from what most poets are writing in this time about their lovers and muses- in terms of its words about their connection and how it defies the expectations of the world. He truly is rebelling against the accepted ideas of reality and of the relationship between a married couple in this. There is truly an equality that exists in this poem between John and Ann in terms of how they rely on one another in both rational and spiritual ways- something that is not often spoken about in this time period, yet Donne is happy to go against that here in this poem.

In Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10, he is truly laughing in the face of death and shows no fear towards it, even though it is often seen as this great unknown that controls the lives of many. “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”(962) Donne remarks firmly, arguing that soon death will be conquered as well while humanity will continue to live on. In Holy Sonnet 14, Donne is comparing the human souls role between God and the Devil to a battle “I, like an usurped town, to another due/Labor to admit you, but O, to now end”(963); this poem almost seems to focus more on the role that humans play in this religious debate, its language truly shocking in its call to God to act and “ravish” humanity. Donne is truly demanding and forceful in his words in this poem, instead of the typical response of humble obedience and questions- instead here Donne seems to be rebelling against that and instead pushed that humanity must be demanding and forceful, pretty much giving God an ultimatum.

All of these poems truly fight against what is expected for poets of this time period when speaking about love, marriage, death, and religion- and yet in its divergence there seems to be a power to it unlike other poems. John Donne is truly forceful in his words, rebelling against all that is acceptable in the world of literature that surrounded him. He compares courtly love traditions to a disgusting flea, women to bait that is there to attract men, marriage to the ptolemaic universe, death to a doomed slave, and the religious situation between Satan and God to a battle over mortal souls who are crying out an ultimatum to God. To echo William Giraldi in his essay again, “We are privy to the poet’s process of working through the fog, the fear, and the doubt. Affection and hatred, creation and destruction, irreverence and subjugation, flesh and spirit: All exist in one breath for Donne; all are products of the same damaged heart and magisterial mind.” There truly is this dichotomy in his writings that was also paralleled in John Donne’s life what with his obedient actions to society and to King James alongside his determination to marry the woman he loved even though it would not be accepted by those surrounding them.

John Donne is truly a conundrum of a person; here is a man born into a life of ridicule and scorn due to his religion who then changes that so as to gain acceptance, yet is still scorned for ‘daring’ to secretly marry his employer’s niece. After being imprisoned and losing his job, he still continues to fight and in the end relents to King James’ demands by becoming a court preacher at St. Paul’s. Yet, his life of obedience and determination to be accepted is sharply contrasted by the abnormal comparisons written of in his poems; each a true expression of rebellion towards the traditional ideals of the world that he was surrounded by and forced to follow. He is truly using his writing as a way to escape and rebel against the world around him, creating with his own hands the power and divergence that he was not able to achieve in life due to his determination to be accepted. And I, for one, found myself deeply invested in his words and analogies. Though at first I was taken aback, by the end of it all I found myself loving his writing and even seeing it as a breath of fresh air as it brought new perspectives and views to often written and discussed topics like love, death, and religion. He truly is a master poet.

Links to referenced John Donne Poem’s







Works Cited

Giraldi, William. “The Art of Reading John Donne.” Poets & Writers Magazine, vol. 38, no. 2, 2010, p. 31+. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link-gale-com.byui.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A241946746/LitRC?u=byuidaho&sid=LitRC&xid=05f49b87.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. pp. 920-925, 934-936, and 962-963. New York: Norton, 2012.