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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  John Donne’s metaphysical poetry

John Donne’s metaphysical poetry

By Laís Dalsoquio (X) | Published  05/9/2008 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
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Laís Dalsoquio (X)
angielski > portugalski translator

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John Donne was a brilliant poet who lived in England in the seventeenth century. He is a great representative of metaphysical poets. In this essay, I will analyze how we can notice the influence of metaphysical concepts on Donne’s poetry, using two of his poems: “Holy Sonnets” and “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning”. After this, I will examine Margareth Edison’s appropriation of Donne’s poems in the play “Wit”.
First of all, we have to understand what a metaphysical poem is. Metaphysic is a branch of philosophy that tries to investigate the origin of life, God, etc. According to the Britain encyclopedia, metaphysics is “the philosophical study whose object is to determine the real nature of things—to determine the meaning, structure, and principles of whatever is insofar as it is.” So, the object of the study is to analyze things beyond their logic and palpable reality. Donne’s poems are based on simple things; its images are about normal things and activities. The matter was not to construct perfect rhymed verses. He used these simple ideas and images to talk about deep things.
Based on this explanation, we can detain our attention to the “Holy Sonnets”. Donne presents a sinner about to die in this poem. Trough the stanzas, we can note a description of the sinner. He acts as a desperate, annoyed person. “I dare not move my dimme eyes”. (v.5). The eyes were dimme because the sinner knew that he was going to die. The lyric eye is characterized as a depressed, disgusted person.
The atmosphere of this poem is dark, obscure. It produces the image of suffering, agony and affliction. This atmosphere contributes to the intensity of the poem. Verse after verse, we see a more tormented person, increasing the deepness of the poem.
He feels miserable in relation to God. But God don’t answer his humble petition. In the other hand, the Devil, his foe, is doing some “arts’ to him. The sins resulting of these “arts” can make him feel less worthy of god’s salvation. But God can purify his heart against the Devil’s arts.
The lyric eye believes that only God can help him providing his salvation. He believes that God can save him, sending angles to protect him from death. “At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow/ Your trumpets angels, and arise, arise.” Because he is a sinner, only God can forgive him. The lyric eye knows that is necessary suffer to obtain salvation from God.
Metaphysical poetry involves two relevant concepts: death and hurt. Death is personified in “Holy sonnets”. It seemed terrible. It is called, in the poem, as mighty, very powerful, and dreadful. We can conclude that the lyric eye was very frightened. After in the poem, the lyric eye says that death is a “slave” to “Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men”, because death depends on human being to exist. Death is going to kill itself killing him.
One typical characterization of Donne’s poems is the use of dramatic situations. In “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, we can see a man suffering because he does not want to be separated from his lover.
Firstly, the speaker proposes contention in relation to his beloved’s feelings. The man is going to travel because he has to do it. So, he stimulates the woman to be strong, firm. The lyric-eye says to her to do not make “tear-floods” (v.6), it means, to do not be desperate. It shows that he expects her to comprehend and accept the distance. He encourages her to show to everybody that does not believe in love that their love is true and endless. So, this is a kind of profanation. The lyric-eye negates to his beloved the right of demonstrating her feelings. He does not want to see her expressing the sadness there is on her soul.
At first view, we can consider that the poem is only about a man traveling and leaving his lady behind. But based on the succeed facts portrayed on the poem we can notice an ambiguity. As the man in the poem, Donne had to travel in a particular occasion, leaving his wife at home. His wife was pregnant and sick and Donne suffered because he had to leave her. Certain night, while he was sleeping, Donne had a dream. In this dream, his son was dead. And it has really happened. The same day Donne had the dream, his son died. So, it can be an autobiographical poem. On the other hand, the poem can represent the suffering of Donne and his wife when he had to travel and they were separated. It can represent his wife’s feelings of sadness and their true love.
In the poem, the lyric-eye talks about the confrontation between physical and metaphysical worlds. He says: “Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, / Men reckon what it did and meant; / But trepidation of the spheres, / through greater far, is innocent.” We remember that, at Donne’s time, people believe that the “Moving of th’ earth”, the earthquakes, were considered as a presage that something really bad would happen. We can say that we can try, but we can not preview what is going to happen. Death could happen instantaneously. The term “trepidation of the spheres” can refer to the contrast between metaphysical and physical worlds. According to the concepts of metaphysics, our physical body and our spirit, when we are going to die, are between the mortal and the spiritual sphere. Our spirit, according to this idea, is between two different “worlds”. To the lyric-eye, this confrontation is something pleasant. He feels very cheerful because he wants to see and feel this passage between the two worlds.
By comparing the two souls as two halves of the same compass, the lyric-eye emphasizes that the lovers are parts of the same soul. In the compass, there is only one center for the two feet. They are different but they form only one object. Lovers are in the same situation. They have two different bodies but a unique soul. The concept, in fact, is that the love is immortal. As the compass, the two people could be separated for a time but when there is true love they find themselves again. So, according to metaphysical poetry, the bible passage “till death parts” is not true. Death can not separate people that really love each other, is transcends mortality. Death can separates the bodies but there is still memory to keep the loved alive.
In the last stanza of the poem, the lyric-eye demonstrates a feeling of safety by knowing his beloved cares for him. The speaker says that the woman is like “the other foot”, referring to the compass. While the man “flies”, as the foot of the compass, the woman is “firmness” (v.35). It means the woman is waiting for her loved faithfully. It makes “the circle” of the man just. The word “circle” can refer to the wedding ring. It is make just because the man know that the woman cares about him and is keeping her love for him. So, the result is that the man returns to see his loved again.
We can now analyze the appropriation of some metaphysical concepts of Donne in Margareth Edison’s play “Wit”. In the play, Vivian Bearing is a Ph. D. on Donne’s poetry. She is very perfectionist and is a very strict person. She discovers that she had an incurable tumor that is going to kill her. So, she begins to see life in another perspective.
In the juxtaposition of the poems in the play we can say that “pain and death” are presented as “aesthetic abstract concepts” when they appeared in the poems. The two poems, according to metaphysical ideas use these two important abstract concepts. In “Holy sonnets”, the sinner is about to die and he is suffering. He feels desperate. In “Valediction: Forbidden mourning”, the man is suffering because he has to leave his beloved. But these two examples illustrate an aesthetic concept only. When we analyze Edison’s play, we can see these concepts applied in reality. Vivian Bearing was really feeling hurt. She dealt with Donne’s poetry and passed all her life analyzing “pain and death”, but now she was feeling these things inside her. So, we can conclude that in the play there is “lived experience”.
Vivian’s last name, Bearing, means suffer with something. Vivian was all her life a self-confidence person. She felt as if she was superior. Now, she is suffering and feeling hurt. She is not “in control”, she is like a live sample. This situation makes Vivian sees things in other way. Having cancer is harder than studying Donne’s poetry.
We can notice that in the two poems: “Valediction: Forbidden mourning” and “Holy sonnets” the poet begins relating his hurt and uses some images to make us see the suffering. Donne writes "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in quatrains, using almost all time iambic verses. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is in couplets. In “Holy sonnets”, the sonority of the poem interferes in our perception. Reading the poem, we feel a tense, sad atmosphere that motivates us to face the poem in this way.
In conclusion, we can say that the appropriation of Donne’s poems in the play “Witt” makes them have other meaning. The “holly sonnets” that shows a sinner dying, can be now compared to Vivian’s suffering. “Valediction” presents suffering in another way. Man and woman are suffering because the man was leaving. But we can compare this suffering to Vivian’s one. Vivian is about to die. Now, she feels totally different and life has another meaning.


• ANDERSON et al. Elements of literature: Literature of Britain – 6th course. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1989.
• DONNE, John. “Holy Sonnets”. In: DALGUISH, Jack. (ed.) Eight metaphysical pots. London: Heinemam, 1961. P.28-29.
• EDISON, Margaret. Wit: a play. New York: Faber & Faber, 1993.
• Acceded in April 22nd, 2008.

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