Comparative analysis of John Donne and Edward Herbert
(A Valediction forbidding Mourning and to her Eyes)
It was Dryden who first used the term Metaphysics in 17th century. He mentioned that the purpose of metaphysical poet was to “perplex the mind of fair sex” and win their heart with soft love. The metaphysical poets are a group of poets of 17th century who shared similar interest in the metaphysical concern by investigating them. The reason for being called metaphysical is that the writers of metaphysical poetry describe far fetched images of nature with dissimilar combinations which appeals only to the mind. The metaphysical poetry chief characteristic is its use of metaphysical conceits. For example Marvel compares soul with a drop of dew or Donne comparison of compass with lovers.
Metaphysical poetry started as a reaction to the sweet and smooth poetry of 16th century where bards chased the damsel. The reaction is a poetic style which is intellectual and rigorous and is often called as the unification of thought and feeling, but separated with a “dissociation of sensibility”. Thus we can say that metaphysical poetry is inspired by a philosophical conception. Despite all the conceits and symbolism, metaphysical poetry themes are simple experiences of life, such as sorrow, joy and love which even though intellectualized still carry its charms. It would be wrong to assume that the purpose of metaphysical poetry is to perplex the mind or speculate the nature of things only. Instead metaphysical poets channeled their energies and combined love with mysticism to find truth in life. The following discussion will look at such issues in detail by doing comparative analysis of Edward Herbert and John Donne.
Edward Herbert (1583)-1648) was an English poet, diplomat and the elder brother of George Herbert. Herbert sought to determine the nature and standard of truth (truth within religion). He believed that man is complex, consisting of mind and body; which can be observed in the following poem “To Her Eyes”. Even though it’s a love poem, but intertwined with religion makes it an ideal metaphysical poem. It is not only romantic and sensual in wording, but it also shows a relationship with God making it a spiritual poem.
Edward Herbert: To her Eyes
BLACK eyes if you seem dark,
It is because your beams are deep,
And with your soul united keep:
The name of the poem is enough for readers to consider it as a romantic poem; however the poem is symbolic and rather a combination of spiritual and mundane love; which is an essential feature of metaphysical poetry. The black eyes in Herbert’s times were considered beautiful; and end even still considered beautiful in the East. Herbert was basically an intellectual and critics mention his attitude towards religion quite negative. The use of word dark is perhaps symbolic to defy light which stands for truth or in religious sense means faith. Here the concept of darkness is tied with beauty linking it to the soul “soul united keep”. In medieval times soul and body were considered two different things. A person was considered either worldly or religious; instead Edward combines the worldly and mundane in one (his beloved); and the reason for this unification of faith and beauty lies in the dark eyes.
Who could discern
Enough into them, there might learn
Whence (from what place) they derive that mark;
Mark: boundary, frontier or limit
And how their power is such
As you then joined are
Unto the Soul, so it again
By its connexion doth pertain
To that first cause
The ideal beauty is not mere satisfying, but it also captivating. Like William Blake, who questions the strength of Tiger, Herbert questions the source and power of beauty. At times he cannot understand (discern), “whence they derive that mark”, feeling himself overpowered by the sight of his beloved beauty. However being a true metaphysical Herbert consciously uses the words “mark”, “boundary”, “frontier”, and “limit” with mysteriousness to increase the effect of the wording. He believes that it is this mysterious power that creates a sense of religiosity or holiness (while looking into the deep eyes).
Like a true mystic; Edward is following his belief in divinity and the concept of supreme God which exists in all of us. Even though the first lines defy such belief; but he is coming back to God through the power of beauty. Edward is tilting towards Pantheism; where God is all, and all is God. Like a true pantheist he is advocating the idea that God can personify an image; an argument which he confirms in the last stanza. However here he mentions connection to God can be formed through a medium and that medium is beauty of his beloved which can link normal mortals to the “first cause”.
He speaks of a connection between the mind and soul; where eyes become that medium to attain truth. The conventional religions follow strict rules to establish a hierarchy with definite creed with an approved set of texts and rituals followed by all. However mystical paths follow their own ways; instead the relation in mysticism is formed between the God and worshiper as lover and beloved. Edward is also speaking of a mystical path where truth can be attained beloved eyes.
By you doth best declare (declare: make clear)
How he at first being hid
Within the veil of an eternal night,
Being hid within an eternal night
“Did frame for us a second light,
And after bid presenting one with something
God existence is mysterious and no one can know his true essence. His truth is shadowed “Within the veil of an eternal night”. The eternal night refers not only to darkness and mystery, but to the timelessness which is an essential attribute of God. However that perpetual mystery has been unveiled by looking to the dark eyes, which shines like sun and “Did frame for us a second light”. In a Biblical rhetoric he finally concludes that she (her love) is the true image of God.
His image then you are.
You are the image of God
If there be any yet who doubt
What power it is that doth look out
Through that your black,
He will not an example lack,
If he suppose that there
Were grey, (in between black and white “a shady area”) or hazel Glass,
And that through them, though sight or soul
He must yet at the last define,
That beams which pass
Through black, cannot be but divine.
The comparison of beloved with God carry double meaning; on one side it represents truth and on the other it represents beauty. For those “who doubt” the existence” of God cannot doubt it any more because God’s true “example” can be found in beloved beauty. The reason for such strong faith is that “black, cannot be but divine”. Like God existence is mysterious and cannot be seen through normal ways, his beloved is also divine. Her true existence cannot be known, but can only be felt through her dark eyes which “beam” the light of God on all humanity because she is the “image of God”. Thus we can say that in the poem, “Her Eyes”, Herbert is able to form a connection between love, beauty and religion successfully.
John Donne: A Valediction forbidding Mourning
John Donne (1572-1631) is considered the representative of the metaphysical poets. Donne is master of conceit and extended metaphor through the use of various kind of imagery which critics refer as cliché or conceits. His poetry revolves around love, life, life after death and religion.
A Valediction is farewell poem set in dark and mysterious environment on the topic of love. Donne constructs the poem in nine four stanzas in a four beat iambic meter, where each line has its alternating abab. The poem is built on simple format which allows the reader to follow the complex argument which Donne creates throughout the poem.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The
breath goes now, 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.
The poet introduces extended similes which encompass two stanzas. The use of word whisper suggests that soul and body can communicate with one another as separate entities. The speaker (Donne) being virtuous, argues that body and soul are two separate entities, an assumption which is explained in the later stanza. For mystics death is in fact union with the beloved (God). Donne being religious man knew the meaning of death; his death and separation imagery is meant to create a cycle or perfection in love rather than pain and suffering. Separation for lovers has always been unimaginable dilemma .Poets often wail the pain of separation; Donne instead takes the stance of stoics.
The world “melt” refers to the change in psychical state or being. Donne asks his lover to dissolve in the state of love. Death for normal men is fearful thing, but for virtuous its painless; rather a swift change of being from one state to another. By making comparison with a dying (virtuous) man may seems dark and ominous, but in reality Donne comparison is more of making his point clear, demanding his lover to remain stoic in the wake of separation. He implores not to show pain or “tear flood”, (hyperbole imagery) and asks her to remain clam.
Moving of the’ 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
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
According to the medieval astronomy, every thing in the universe is in harmony. The “trepidation of the spheres” which is referred as vibration of the outermost sphere of the Ptolemaic universe is not matter of concern for the people of understanding, but for laymen it brings fear. The lover (Donne) considers themselves special therefore this departure is not a matter of fear, but rather an “innocent” concern. Donne as usual has made unusual comparison through the word “trepidation” as it implies the moving of planets and earth. The metaphor of earthquakes and celestial spheres provides the insight into magnitude of lovers. The moving of earth and the planets “trepidation of spheres” depicts love as a force of nature which is grand and powerful and beyond human understanding. The contrast between earthquakes and planetary movement is beautifully linked to create a grand effect where; love is shown superior to the movement of the planets.
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 airy thinness beat.
Any separation is not a separation; he adds the beautiful simile of “gold to airy thinness beat”. As gold expands by beating and separation; so is love; and this pain of separation is essential to reach perfection.. Donne places lovers to a greater state; some thing higher like superior priesthood. The idea is tied with the notion that lovers themselves are planets above the earth and are more pure than the (impure) emotions. In medieval Christianity emotions or passions were considered evil. Donne moves to become pure substance (together) mentioned through the word “refined” which refers to gold. In medieval times gold was considered the pure of all substance, truing into gold means becoming ultra pure.
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 center 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.
He adds, if their two souls are not one, still their souls are connected like twin compass. Donne beautifully compares compass with soul, which cannot go farther from each other. No matter how far they travel; they circle each other. He compares her (love) soul to a fixed foot joined together; a constant reminder that love is a spiritual union.
The poem main theme is though separation, but Donne argues that separation of lovers is not an end, but a cycle or rebirth of the love. His use of image of compass (circle) represents union or depicting perfection in love. This union of circle also refers to the Chakra in Hinduism and life and death cycle of ancient Greek and Egyptian religions including the modern day Christianity; where death is not the end of life, but life beyond death is certain and true (joyful for virtuous men).
Both John Donne and Herbert poems theme is love. Herbert idea of beauty is eyes of his beloved, which he believes are the channel which can take him to the heights of spiritual love. Donne also thinks on the similar lines but with a difference; he talks about his real wife; while Herbert lover is unknown or could be an imaginative love. Herbert is vague in reference; until he reaches to the end of poem, where he compares his love with the image of God. For Donne it is more of weaving a story; his conceits are more far fetched and intellectual. In the first simile departure from his love is compared with dying man, but this dying is not fearful death, instead a saint dying in peace. The simile even shows pain of the lover, but in a detached manner, where hope of salvation is reasoned.
Herbert on the other side starts from glorification of his lover parsing her black (eyes) beauty; which at once are beautiful and mysterious and keep her united with the God. Donne on the other side talks of finding God together with his love. He considers “Our two souls therefore, which are one”. For him the way to truth is in togetherness; this togetherness is unlike any other lovers who cannot endure, “eyes, lips and hands”. For Donne love is much stronger than senses. It’s the spirit of lovers which bind them together and ties them in the bondage of love beyond space and time. Thus we may say that both Donne and Herbert have tried to find spirituality through love.
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Harold Bloom, (1986). John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets. Chelsea House.
Harry Kemp, (1927). The Bronze Treasury: An Anthology of 81 Obscure English Poets Together with Their Biographical Portraits. Macaulay Company.