Thursday, 19 May 2011

Donne’s attitude of love is neither Petrarchan nor Platonic because he is a poet of experience. Discuss.

John Donne, the pioneer of metaphysical poetry, is highly acclaimed for his grandiose and idiosyncratic conceits, his ambivalence concerning love and death, and his excessive reverence to religion. His work introduced a completely new world of poetic possibilities. He broke away from the shackles of Elizabethan conventions and the Platonic love that had been expounded for centuries. The first part of his poetry is essentially based on love while the latter, on religion. The semblance of love in his poetry is anti-Petrarchan and anti-Platonic. There is a plethora of different attitudes towards love that he describes in his poetry. His experience that is wrought in each one of his poems delineates his impression of love.
The term “Petrarchan” has been derived from Petrarch, an Italian poet who introduced a certain type of sonnets written for his lover, Laura. These sonnets had a certain quality that was so resounding that they came to be known as Petrarchan sonnets. The Petrarchan poetry is about the miseries of love, the beloved’s cruelty and her unadorned, exquisite beauty. The imagery was replete with seasonal nature especially the different forms of natural elements, i.e. rain, wind, fire, ice and storm. Donne crossed borders and freed himself of the repetitive, unoriginal and passionless representation of love. He produced a kind of poetry that did not worship the beloved but showed a mutual dependence of the lover and the beloved on each other unlike Astrophil and Stella. This beautiful idea of the universality of love is expressed in his poem The Sun Rising in these lines:
“She'is all States, and all Princes, I,”
In The Funeral, Donne alludes to this in a different conceit,
“The mystery, the signe you must not touch,
For ‘tis my outward soule,
Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone,
Will leave this to controule,
And keep these limbes, her Provinces, from dissolution.”
In the same poem The Funeral, Donne explains the many different ways in which he feels about his beloved. Initially, it is the assurance that the beloved owns his body after he is dead. Then, he goes on to say that, maybe it is just imprisonment and not ownership. In the end, he is confused as to the real reason behind the wreath of hair bound around his arm. This inconsistency is open negation of the Petrarchan style of writing that was sure as to the feelings of the lover and the beloved.
Donne mocks the Petrarchan style of writing sonnets, the sighs and the melancholia of the poets in The Canonization in the following lines:
“Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one man to the plaguy bill?”
Donne is never seen praising or revering a woman like his contemporaries. If he likens women’s love to “Angels,” he also derides them for “force fashions and false passions.” Where he praises women by comparing them to the impeccable, edgeless sphere, he also denounces them for infidelity in Goe and Catche a Falling Starre by saying:
“And swear
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.”
He refutes the idea of a woman who is unattainable. Rather, at times he even considers her as a commodity and rejects the traditional gender roles. In his poem The Indifferent by saying,
“I can love her, and her, and you, and you
I can love any so she be not true.”
This theme is repeated in The Apparition where the beloved is called a “murd’ress” and “perverse sex” in Twicknam Garden. In both the poems, he also rejects the false tears of the beloved and impresses upon their unreliability. This is miles away from the typical Petrarchan tradition of an idyllic, subservient woman. This means that Donne was very much aware of the deception and true nature of people and did not blindly believe in what he saw. He also believed in the equality of men and women in a relationship. His experience preceded the idealist in him.
The Petrarchan poets’ love was also never fulfilled and they burnt in the fire of refusal, solitude and distance. Donne, on the other hand, in many a poems rejoices his union with his beloved. The Good Morrow is one of the finest examples of this merger:
“My face in thine eyes, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;”
Donne’s initial poetic work concentrates on the physical love. In the Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, he defines his lust through material wealth America signified in those days:
“Oh my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree”
However, his treatment of love is not limited to physical pleasures. He goes on to call the experience of making love as something holy also. In The Flea, he calls the bed that he and his beloved are sharing “loves hallow’d temple.”
Other poems that boast of this unification are The Sunne Rising, The Anniversarie, The Canonization, etc. Donne flaunts of the spiritual and physical satisfaction that he derives from his beloved and how the rest of the world is insignificant while his whole world lies in the beloved herself. Donne himself eloped and secretly married the love of his life, Anne More. Apart from the difficulties they had to suffer initially, they were eventually united. Hence, he spoke from his own example that love was not always rejected.
Another concept of the Petrarchan poetry was the association of love with absolute spirituality with a complete absence of the element of bodies in it. This is also known as the Platonic love, the chaste, sublime kind of love that is above the lowly desires of the body. Donne, on the other hand, is a huge proponent of the physical unification. Although he stresses equally on the spiritual aspect of love, he never denies the physicality of it. In fact, he in many of his poems stresses upon the importance of physical love. He impresses upon this in Aire and Angles in the following lines:
“But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh and else could nothing do;
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;”
Donne condemns the Medieval philosophy of courtly love because according to him it is a kind of impure love. He defies the Petrarchan customs and delves into a more realistic and permanent love. In the poem Loves Deitie, he says:
“I cannot thinke that hee, who then lov'd most,
Sunke so low, as to love one which did scorne,
. . . It cannot bee
Love, till I love her, that loves mee.”
Donne’s use of sensual language and sexual implications also go against the Petrarchan and Platonic values. The latter held the high but unrealistic moral values of keeping love and sex apart. However, Donne can be praised for the bold step of introducing sex as means of expressing or rather completing love. In the elegy To the Mistress Going to Bed, Donne says,
“Full nakedness; all joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied bodies unclothes must be,
To taste whole joys.”
In The Extasie, Donne says that a soul without a body is like a “Prince in prison lies.” He also uses religious metaphors to give hyperbolic intensity to his imagery in the same poem. Again, in his famous poem The Flea, Donne in the following lines is seducing the beloved to lose her virginity with him:
“Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,”
Moreover, Donne’s use of imagery concerning love is not pastoral or mythological as the Petrarchans. The conceits he chooses to use are from Science, Geography, Astronomy, Alchemy, Philosophy, etc and is therefore, intellectual. This is not only uncharacteristic of the Petrarchan style but also a commendable attempt at something so diverse and new. Since, Donne belonged to the Age of Reason, his poetry reflected that through and through. In The Good Morrow, he uses geography to express love:
“Where can we finde two better hemispheares
Without sharpe North, without declining West?”
In The Sunne Rising, he uses political philosophy:
“She'is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is;”
In this context, Helen Gardner says, “The purpose of an image in Donne’s poetry is to define the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel.”
Donne also uses ugly images as that of the “The spider love … can convert Manna to gall” in Twickenham Garden and a “Flea” to describe the sexual act in his poem The Flea. In doing this also, he goes completely against the Petrarchan and Platonic norms established in that era to describe love.
Hence, Donne very beautifully combined the spirit and the body in the expression of love. He broke his ties with the Petrarchan and Platonic school of thought in articulating love. He was a man of experience and as most of his poetry reflects some part of personality, his expression of love is also a manifesto of his personal understanding. His belief in the sexual act being as significant as the spiritual aspect of love is exhibited by the fact that his wife gave birth to twelve children in sixteen years of marriage. He was also a very practical man and instead of finding love in the highest, most beautiful plains and maids, found it in the simplicity and truth of his surroundings. This is also what makes Donne’s poems a reflection of the society in the Age of Renaissance. He had experienced the natural physical needs of humans and thus did not deny them in his poetry. He also believed that instead of living in a utopian world, love could be related to the trivial, ugly and unimaginative things also, things that would not appeal to the human mind otherwise.

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