The Metaphysical Poets: John Donne and Andrew Marvell

October 6, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

All three poems are about love, passion and romance; they are by two metaphysical poets, Andrew Marvell and John Donne. Both these poets wrote their poems to try and successfully seduce a woman. All three poems have different styles and techniques that the poets think will appeal to the woman of their lust and desire. The poems that I have chosen to compare are, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell and ‘The Good-Morrow’ by John Donne. The first poem I will study will be Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’.

Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, uses flattery throughout the first stanza, for example he begins by trying to gently ease his beautiful lady ‘out of her shell’, for she is young, timid and shy. Shyness is shown in the title of the poem ‘To his ‘Coy’ Mistress’, coy meaning shy, and she is also still a virgin so Marvell uses a ‘softly softly’ approach trying to cajole his fair dame. He knows if he opens softly and slowly he can build up to the climax of his flattery as he slowly does throughout the poem.

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In lines 5,6 and 7 Marvell talks about two rivers, “Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain…”

He is talking about the Humber and then the Ganges, the Humber being dull and plain and the Ganges being holy and exotic. Marvell compares the woman of his desire to the rivers saying that she can only be compared to the Ganges because of her exotic beauty. He compares her uniqueness to that of the Ganges.

In line 8 Marvell says, “I would love you ten years before the flood”, what I think he means by this is that he knew he loved her before he met her. The flood is a metaphor for the period of time when she was to come into his life.

From line 11 onwards Marvell is complimenting her beauty using metaphors to help assimilate her wondrous splendour and beauty. The metaphor that he uses is time, for example from line 13 to18 he says, and I quote, “An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze,

Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart…”

At the start of the second stanza he interrupts his praises and adorations, saying that he has no time to be complimenting and romancing her. If he were to do everything he said in lines 13 to 18, as I have quoted above then there would be no time for them to make love and be passionate for she would already be in her grave, having never lost her virginity. There are many references in this second stanza to time running out. An example of this is in line 22 where he says, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…”

I can also see references to her dying having never made love. The example of this, is in lines 23 and 24 where Marvell says, “And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity…”

What I make out from lines 26 to 28 where Marvell says, “Nor in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long preserv’d virginity…” is that Marvell is saying she will die before losing her maiden-like status in this world. ‘Thy marble vault’ is her sarcophagus or her tomb; his ‘echoing song’ is the compliments he has paid to her all her life; and the ‘worms trying that long preserv’d virginity’ are the worms eating her pure, untouched body, her virginity is being ‘stolen’ from her in the grave by creatures whereas it should be Marvell she should be giving her virginity to. Another reference to her death before the two of them have engaged in the act of love is when Marvell says in lines 28 and 29, and I quote, “And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust…”

This is referring to her in the grave having turned into ashes, and her ‘honour’, that is her virginity has turned to dust, in other words she has lost her virginity, her upheld honour throughout life has been taken away from her. So what Marvell is trying to say is that she may as well give it up willingly to him rather than to the worms in her grave unwillingly. This is where I would say Marvell begins to reason with her. He is saying I will compliment her for perpetuity, if she will grant him his wish. He is sort of saying, ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’!

In the third and final stanza he begins to talk about the two of them making love. He uses some strong imagery to really instil the image of the two of them as one. Marvell probably thought that if he could get her to imagine, maybe even ‘fantasise’ about the two of them making love then maybe she would feel better about doing it, maybe she would even want to do it. The example where Marvell begins create images is in lines 33-43 and they say, “Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

35 And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

40 Than languish in his slow-chapt power.

Let us roll all our strength and all our

Our sweetness up into one ball,

And tear our pleasures with rough strife…”

Line 33 and 34 is the first image that Marvell wants to conjure up in the mind of his beauty. It is the image of the two of them having the incandescent glow of beads of perspiration, sitting on their skin. He also uses a simile to make a vivid image in her mind’s eye, and that is in line 34, “Sits on thy skin like ‘morning dew'”. He also refers to their hot passion in line 36 where he says, ” At every pore with instant fires”. Perspiration comes from the pores, and he says that every pore is on fire. In line 38 Marvell says, “Like amorous birds of prey…” This is a simile and what I think he means by this is that birds of prey swoop in for the kill without a second thought, and where he adds the amorous it indicates that he would swoop in for her love without a second thought. This relates to his ‘coy mistress’, saying that they shouldn’t think about making love, they should just do it, without a second thought, like the birds go in for the kill. In line 41 and 42 Marvell refers to them rolling all their strength and sweetness into a ball. He is referring to himself and his coy mistress making love. He uses the image rolling up into a ball to epitomize the two of them having sex. And in line 43 he says, “And tear our pleasures with rough strife…” What I think he means by this line is that they should stop the romancing and pleasantries and just ‘get down to it’. He wants to tear away from the leisurely pleasures of romance make love to her ‘with rough strife’!

And in the final three lines I think Marvell is giving in. He is saying that they are happy and contented when they’re together. Lines 45 and 46 demonstrate this point, where Marvell says, and I

quote from lines 45 and 46, “Thus, we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

“Thus…” in line 45, is the point at which Marvell is indicating he has given up trying to persuade his coy mistress to make love with him. He continues by saying they cannot stop time, “we cannot make our sun stand still…” through making love, so they will make him run by being happy together, “yet we will make him run.” He says the sun will run because when you are happy and enjoying yourself then time will go quicker. I also think that he has realised something, that before he couldn’t for the reason that he was blinded by his passion. I think he realised that if they were to make love then that could ruin it for the two of them. He realises that he would rather have her as his dame than just a ‘toy’, if you will.

Some of the techniques that Marvell has used include: Enjambment, personification, imagery and rhyme scheme.

I will first talk about the use of enjambment and quote a few examples of when in the poem he uses this. He uses enjambment to allow the rhyming virtues of the poem to flow into one another; otherwise words in the poem would be in the wrong position and would not rhyme. For example, in lines 9 and 10 Marvell uses enjambment to allow the rhyming to happen. I will indicate where the enjambment has occurred and also indicate how it has helped the poem to rhyme. The line says,

“My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow…”

No comma after the word ‘grow’ allows the line to continue onto the next line, so that the words ‘grow’ and ‘slow’ rhyme, otherwise the two words would be in the wrong position and wouldn’t rhyme. Enjambment also allows a sentence to flow over more than one line, without being broken by a pause.

The second technique that I noticed Marvell used was personification. Some examples are more conspicuous than others. An example of one of the less obvious lines where Marvell uses personification is in line 22, he says “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…” Time has been given an image of a winged chariot and so I consider this to be an example of both personification and imagery, which I will come onto next. The most obvious example of personification is in lines 45 and 46, where Marvell talks about the sun standing still, and running. I believe he uses personification to conjure up images in his mistress’s head, to make it clearer for her to imagine what he is saying.

Imagery is a key part of Marvell’s poem, especially in the final stanza. He says things like, “amorous birds of prey…”, “Youthful hue sits on thy skin like morning dew…”, “at every pore with instant fires…”, “Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball…” Marvell’s sole purpose of this imagery technique is to make what he is saying clearer for his mistress, the same as personification.

He uses the same rhyme scheme throughout the poem to give the poem some sort of order and substance. The rhyme scheme he uses is AABB. What this means is that lines 1 and 2 rhyme, then 3 and 4, then 5 and 6 etc…

The second poem that I will look at is John Donne’s ‘The Good-Morrow’.

This is a brief but quite complex poem. It is centred on two metaphors, the first of these being a pair of lovers waking into a new life together and the second about a new world created by the couple’s mutual love. What gives this poem its characteristics are its use of imagery, such as the metaphors I have mentioned above, not just to decorate the poem and give visual clues, but also the way they are used to argumentatively to reveal more about the experience of love than was at first evident.

The central image in ‘The Good-Morrow’ and the one that gives the poem its title, is, as I have mentioned above, that of the two young lovers waking up into a new world of love. It is a brave image, and there is much that is brave and exciting about this poem. Notably, the courage with which Donne seeks to acknowledge the past and the future, as well as the present reality of their love, and the ambition which leads him to include so wide a range of feeling and mood in the short space of twenty-one lines. How far the courage and the ambition are eventually justified by the success of the poem as a poem, that is, a piece of art and moving account of human trials and tribulations, is, however an open question.

The first few lines of ‘The Good-Morrow’ are often cited, quite justly, to illustrate the remarkable directness of Donne’s poetic voice, “I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I

Did till we lov’d? Were we not wean’d till then?

But suck’d on countrey pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?

T’was so;”

John Donne has two related tasks here: firstly, to recognise the fact that both he and his lover have loved before, “what thou and I did…” and secondly, to insist that what they are now discovering together is at last the real world of love, and not merely another realm of ‘fancies’. It would be dishonest to ignore the past; indecent to dwell on it unduly. Donne accepts it, as he must, but without alarm, and deprives it of any power to harm them by converting it into a series of comic affairs marked by hopeful enthusiasm and graceless incompetence in about equal measure. The vocabulary is at once affectionate and dismissive: “not wean’d”, “suck’d”, “childishly”, “snorted”. The bungled “countrey pleasures” of the past, which might have become a barrier between them, provide instead an opportunity for them to express their love in shared laughter.

But it is not easy to make the transition from laughter to affirmation. Donne is attempting, after all, to say what not only every lover but also every libertine would say: that his other woman meant nothing to him in comparison with his love for her. The problem is to make the claim carry some conviction, “T’was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dreame of thee.” We can probably pass over the rather disparaging “any beauty”, but it is more difficult to know how to respond to “and got”, an unnecessary and almost brutal aside, which seems rather to flaunt his past loves than simply to acknowledge them. What purports to be sexual honesty looks disagreeably like sexual showing-off, “Whenever I wanted a beautiful woman, I always had her…” Such showing-off is not readily compatible with honesty, and coming where it does the smoothly reassuring “t’was but a dreame of thee…” in line 7, is perhaps too smooth to be very convincing. There is a hint of aggression here, which clashes uncomfortably with the shared amusement of the opening lines.

In the second stanza Donne turns from the past to the present. It was “feare”, we now understand, which marred the earlier effort at candour, and gave rise to the harshness of tone at the close of the first stanza. In this poem Donne shows himself acutely aware of the possibility that love will be invaded by fear. At the same time, he seems instinctively to recognise that while we cannot banish fear, we can nonetheless rise free of it. The effect of this recognition, wherever it comes, is profoundly moving. Here, the lovely movement of the verse signals the lovers’ sudden emergence from a state of suspicious watchfulness into a world of mutual contemplation, both delighted and delighting:

“And now good morrow to our waking soules,

Which watch not one another out of feare;

For love, all love of other sights controules,

And makes one little roome, an every where.”

By the most natural and unobtrusive of images, their literal awakening after, we assume, a night of passion and lovemaking, is made to suggest the awakening of their souls into a new clarity of feeling, a new certainty. It comes to them almost as a gift, to which they can respond only with wonderment, expressed in the simplest of greetings, “And now good morrow to our waking soules…” The love of other sights’, which might have been so damaging, has been brought calmly under control by the power of ‘love’ itself; so what the lovers experience is not self-denial, or a willed limitation of self, but release, and the liberating discovery of the other.

“Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,

Let us possesse our world, each hath one, and is one…”

There is a wealth of meaning here in the word ‘possesse’. It carries the suggestion both of ‘self-possession’, the state of mind most unlike ‘feare’, and of ‘sexual possession’, which is so much more than the mere squandering of sexual energies the lovers had known previously “I wonder… What thou and I did”. There is, too, the further suggestion that the lovers have progressed from a lower to a higher level of existence. They ‘possesse’ their world, an ‘every where’ found without struggle in “one little roome”, and in doing so they have reached a goal denied to the explorers and astronomers who voyage across the seas or scan the heavens in search of remote ‘new world’s’ they can conquer or study, but never in any full sense ‘possesse’. The explorers and astronomers, we may say, remain trapped in the realm of Action, while the lovers have, as if by miracle, moved beyond them into the realm of Being.

Such terms seem especially appropriate at the beginning of the third stanza, where the mood of the lovers is one of trance-like stillness, “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appeares,

And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest…” The deep mutual gaze, in which they find themselves in the eyes of the other, and then the growing certainty that here at last is the complete candour, which could not quite be achieved earlier in the poem. The lovers, their fears and their false starts now behind them, appear to have arrived at a point of ‘rest’ as it were, where all further struggle is unnecessary. But, movingly, the poem is not allowed to ‘rest’ here. The promise of an ideal stability leads Donne to think about the future, and immediately the note of

doubt and uncertainty begins to reappear, “Where can we finde two better hemispheares

Without sharpe North, without declining West?” The argument that their world of love will be exempt from any coldness of feeling “sharpe North”, or any falling off of attachment “declining West”, is made to depend upon the obvious logical absurdity of a sphere consisting solely of the South and the East; the effect of this imagery is to suggest that permanency in love is not a real possibility, as if the world they have discovered together, “our world”, were, after all, only an illusion. Donne tries an alternative argument, borrowing this time from medieval doctrines, both scientific and religious, as to the causes of disease and decay,

“What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die…”

The theory behind these lines is that whatever dies or decays does so because of a lack of unity or balance in the elements of which it was composed. If, therefore, the lovers do make up one world, or if at least their two loves are so exactly matched that there can be no decay, then there can be no death of love for them. The logic of this is, however, decidedly strained, and the possibility of a punning reference to the male climax “slacken” and “die”, only complicates the lines further still. It is a strange way to conclude a poem with such an optimistic title I know.

“Love is a growing, or full constant light;

And his first minute, after noone, is night.”

The power of love to irradiate the whole experience of the lovers provides the occasion for some of the most memorable of the Songs & Sonnets. But if it is true that few English poets have so movingly celebrated the joys of a fulfilled love, it is also true that few others-perhaps only Shakespeare and Hardy-have been so conscious of how easily a single ‘minute’ of doubt can darken all the midday brightness of love, transforming joy into despair, and mutual confidence into suspicion.

The vulnerability of human love in a world dominated by time and change is a recurrent theme in the Songs & Sonnets, and the essential subject of ‘The Good-Morrow’. None of the moods expressed in the poem is entirely stable, not even the quiet serenity of the central section. There is a brave attempt in the first stanza to dispel the fears arising from the recognition that the lovers have not always possessed their world of love, but it is only partly successful, and the poem concludes with their newly discovered clarity of feeling under threat from the fear that this world may one day be lost to them. They have not always loved each other; there may come a time when they no longer do so: this is the thought that hovers behind the last five lines of the poem. The whole conclusion is shot through with uncertainty. This is most obvious to me in the final two lines, where Donne is apparently unable to decide whether their ‘two loves’ are ‘one love’, or merely ‘alike’, but there is uncertainty too in the melancholy echoing of ‘none… none’, and in the rhythm of the final line, which carries the poem haltingly to a stop on the word “die”. Donne puts forward arguments to prove that their world of love is secure, but his arguments serve only to reveal that there can be no such proofs of security, and the poem closes on a note far removed from the vigorous confidence of the opening lines.

The reason that I chose Marvell’s poem as the one that I think is the most likely to win over the lady of the poets’ desire is for the following reasons. He uses three main techniques. Each technique is different. It changes with the stanza. The first is flattery. Marvell uses flattery in the first stanza to let the lady know what he thinks of her. For example in lines 13 to 18 he is saying how long he would need to praise her beauty, “An hundred years should go to praise,

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze,

Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest…” This, would initially flatter the lady obviously, but after too much flattery she may feel he is becoming tedious and she would lose eventually lose interest in him, which isn’t good.

So in the second stanza he begins reasoning with her and being frank, blunt and to the point. Marvell tells her that he can’t praise her forever for they will die. Life is short and as such should be fulfilled. He says in lines 31 and 32, “The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace…” He is saying that when you are dead you are in your grave, quite a private and fine place, for a dead person anyway, but no one can make love there, so they must do it, if they are going to, while still alive.

The third technique that he uses in the final stanza is imagery. He tries to get the lady to picture herself in the embrace. He tries to use passionate images that could ‘get her going’, as it were. The best example I can pick out from the final stanza is in lines 41 and 42, this is the strongest image, and it says, “Let us roll all our strength and all

Our sweetness up into one ball…” It is an image of the two of them making love with all their strengths and sweetness connected. This image may make the lady feel she would want to try it now that she can see it in her head.

Donne doesn’t seem to have the confidence that Marvell does. Through the middle section of his poem ‘The Good-Morrow’, it appears that he has the confidence but the doubt creeps into his mind when he looks forward to the future, and all his built up confidence is lost.

I also thought that Donne’s poem was difficult to comprehend as a poem to ‘woo’ a lady. It was a poem more directly linked to the trials and tribulations of love itself rather than the initial attracting of a mate.

I also found Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ the easiest to understand in the sense of a love poem, so maybe that would make it easier for the receiving lady to understand it also. It uses the most clich�s and innuendo, and has some of the best ‘wooing’ techniques of the two poems that I have studied. So in conclusion Marvell’s poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, is the best love poem from the two metaphysical poets, John Donne and Andrew Marvell.


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