Metaphysical Poetry on Love John Donne and Andrew Marvell

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Metaphysical Poetry on Love

  • John Donne and Andrew Marvell


  • An Example first: “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” –Watch out for logical transition, original figurative language (conceit)

  • Platonic Love

  • Metaphysical Poetry Defined

  • Metaphysical Poetry in Context


  • 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,       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 ;                   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  

  • 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.                          


  • 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    

  •     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,       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,  

  •     And makes me end where I begun.

"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" : Platonic Love

  • Form: nine four-line tetrameter stanzas, rhyming abab, cdcd, and so on.

  •   How does the speaker compare the love of him and his lover with that of "laity" (l. 8) or "dull sublunary lovers" (13)?

  • e.g. the difference of their parting movements like those of earthquake and the movement of heavenly spheres (stanza 3);

  • the difference of their attitudes toward parting (stanzas 4 and 5).

    • Out of sight, out of mind;
    • Departure as expansion, love made truer through trials.

"Valediction“ (告別辭) = farewell utterances

  • Parting compared to –

    • death of virtuous men,
    • movement of heavenly spheres,
    • the beating of gold foil
    • The two feet of a compass What do you think about the idea of having one foot fixed in the center, while the other making a circle around?

Donne’s Neo-Platonic Love

  • the preeminence of soul over body, the distinction between love and lust, and the goodness of striving for perfection through devotion to a woman's beauty.

  • Source (1) Plato–

  • beauty proceeds in a series of steps

    • from the love of one beautiful body
    • to that of two,
    • to the love of physical beauty in general, and ultimately to beauty absolute “the source and cause of all that perishing beauty of all other things." 

Donne’s Neo-Platonic Love

  • Source (2) the Renaissance Platonic lover–

    • Christianized by equating this ultimate beauty with the Divine Beauty of God,
    • move in stages through the desire for his mistress, whose beauty he recognizes as an emanation of God's, to the worship of the Divine itself. 
    • embraces sexuality (the mystical union of souls) which is directed to an ideal end.

John Donne (1572-1631)

  • Having inherited a considerable fortune, young "Jack Donne" spent his money on womanizing, on books, at the theatre, and on travels.

  • Secret marriage in 1601, which got him imprisoned.

The Flea: Starting Questions

  • (note)

  • How is the flea used in the speaker’s persuasion of his lady to go to bed? Describe the speaker's tone.

  • Why does the speaker say that to kill the flea would be "three sins in killing three"?

  • In the third stanza, the woman has killed the flea. What is the speaker's response to that? Does he change his position?

  • How would you argue against the speaker if you were the lady?

The Flea

  • MARK but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is ; It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be. Thou know'st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;     Yet this enjoys before it woo,     And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;     And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

The Flea (2)

  • O stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, yea, more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is. Though parents grudge, and you, we're met, And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.     Though use make you apt to kill me,     Let not to that self-murder added be,     And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

The Flea

  • Cruel and sudden, hast thou since Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence? Wherein could this flea guilty be, Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee? Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now. 'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ; Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me, Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

The Flea -- Notes:

  • the 17-century idea was of sex as a "mingling of the blood“: It was believed that women became pregnant when the blood of the man (present in his semen) mixed with her blood during sexual intercourse.

  • The Flea -- "Fleas were a popular subject for jocose [humorous] and amatory [love] poetry in all countries at the Renaissance". Their popularity stems from an event that happened in a literary salon (a place where poets and others came to recite poetry and converse). The salon was run by two ladies, and on an occasion a flea happened to land upon one lady's breast. The poets were amazed at the creature's audacity, and were inspired to write poetry about the beast. (source)

The Flea -- as a Metaphysical Conceit

  • The Flea: Flea= sex as no loss > Flea = Church, etc. > Flea = no loss

    • this mingling of blood, causing a “swell”  3 lives
    • more than married  the flea as their temple and bed; we “cloister'd in these living walls of jet”
    • Killing the flea: 1) kill three lives, a "sacrilege" ; 2) kill/lose nothing, just as your losing your virginity

The Flea -- the other poetic device

  • Iambic, three nine-line stanzas, identical in form. . (The first six lines alternate, triameter, then tetrameter, rhyming aabbcc. The seventh line is trimeter, the eighth and ninth, tetrameter. ddd).

  • Direct address and Casual tone: Mark but this flea...

  • Repetition: And mark in this

  • Imagery: religious (church, cloysterd, sacrilege, three sins in killing three - more holy trinity imagery blood of innocence ) and sexual (mingle)

  • Argument: sophistry-- Circular argument. The flea starts and ends as nothing.

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

  • Marvell was engaged in political activities, taking part in embassies to Holland and Russia and writing political pamphlets and satires.

  • A controversial person (one with a sense of balance and fairness; a bad-tempered, hard-drinking lifelong bachelor) and an unclassifiable poet

“To his Coy Mistress”

  • HAD we but world enough, and time,

  • This coyness, Lady, were no crime

  • We would sit down and think which way

  • To walk and pass our long love's day.

  • Thou by the Indian Ganges' side

  • Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

  • Of Humber would complain. I would

  • Love you ten years before the Flood,

  • And you should, if you please, refuse

“To his Coy Mistress”

  •  But at my back I always hear

  • Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;

  • And yonder all before us lie

  • Deserts of vast eternity.

  • Thy beauty shall no more be found,

  • Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

  • My echoing song: then worms shall try

  • That long preserved virginity,

  • And your quaint honour turn to dust,

  • And into ashes all my lust:

  • The grave 's a fine and private place,

  • But none, I think, do there embrace.


  • What is the main argument and how is it developed?

  • What conceits and other poetic devices are used?

Argument: carpe diem

  • or "seize the day" --

    • a very common literary motif in poetry.
    • emphasizes that life is short and time is fleeting as the speaker attempts to entice his listener, a young lady usually described as a virgin.
    • frequently use the rose as a symbol of transient physical beauty and the finality of death.
    • e.g.

Argument: carpe diem

  • To Virgins, To Make Much Of Time Robert Herrick

  • Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,     Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today,     To-morrow will be dying.

  • [. . .]

Argument and Imagery

  • Argument -- If we lived forever there would be no need to hurry. However, we do not live forever. Therefore we must seize the day.

Imagery of action

  • Rather at once our time devour

  • Than languish in his slow-chapt power.

  • Let us roll all our strength and all

  • Our sweetness up into one ball,

  • And tear our pleasures with rough strife

  • Thorough the iron gates of life

Metaphors and Conceits

  • Metaphors

  • vegetable love –slow and quiet.

  • Time’s wing’s chariot

  • Gates of life

Metaphysical Poetry Defined

  • Spirit + Matter

  • The exaltation of wit, which in the 17th century meant a nimbleness of thought; a sense of fancy (imagination of a fantastic or whimsical nature); and originality in figures of speech

  • Often poems are presented in the form of an argument

  • In love poetry, the metaphysical poets often draw on ideas from Renaissance Neo-Platonism to show the relationship between the soul and body and the union of lovers' souls

  • They also try to show a psychological realism when describing the tensions of love.

Metaphysical Poetry Defined

  • 5. Use of ordinary speech mixed with puns, paradoxes and conceits

    • Metaphysical Conceit: a paradoxical and extended metaphor
    • causing a shock to the reader by the strangeness of the objects compared; e.g: departure and death, beating of gold foil, lovers and a compass)
    • Abstruse terminology often drawn from science or law

Metaphysical Poetry in Context

  • The European baroque period (1580 to approximately 1680): extravagance, psychological tension, theatricality, eccentricity, and originality of its creations (in all artistic media), as well as for the quirkiness and intricacy of its thought

  • the seventeenth century in England, a time of radical changes in politics (e.g. Puritan revolution, Civil war, execution of Charles I  Restoration ) and modes of literary expression. For a while during the Commonwealth Period (1649-1660), drama disappeared, public theaters closed because of fears of immoral influences, and incendiary (煽動者 ) political pamphlets circulated.

Metaphysical Poetry in Context

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