Donn Is Successful and Well Known For Creating Paradoxes Within These Metaphors

John Donne is talented with words and uses them to construct extended metaphors, also known as metaphysical conceit, throughout many of his works. These conceits often involve comparisons between religious ideas and worldly things, which sometimes results in, what many consider to be, scandalous writing. Donne is also successful and well known for creating paradoxes within these metaphors. Paradoxical literature combines contradictory elements that often result in being true or at least logical. Readers constantly find pieces of Donne’s literature that do not seem to make sense when first read and may even appear unsolvable.

Random situations, objects, or characters are often placed together for comparison, and many readers are left scratching their heads. Meticulous readers, however, tend to find the deeper meaning placed within the lines that resolves the confusion.

Donne uses paradoxes in many of his works, especially in his religious and love poems. Two of his more religious poems where the use of paradoxes is evident include, “Holy Sonnet X” and “Holy Sonnet XIV”, and “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” and “The Sun Rising” are two of Donne’s love poems that exhibit many examples of paradoxical literature as well.

Although, these poems were written at different times throughout Donne’s life, his style appears to have been signature and unwavering, during both happy times and when he faced hardships and suffering.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are believed to have been written during a period when he was extremely ill, and possibly thought to be near death. This idea is especially evident in his “Holy Sonnet X”.

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Donne creates a paradox here with the first few lines when he writes, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for, thou, are not so,/ For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,/ Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;” . These lines tell readers that death is not as “mighty and dreadful” as people likely assume it to be, because even when death takes someone, they may be gone from this physical world, but they are not truly dead. Of course, the reader then asks how someone can die but not really be dead and is left to wonder about the answer until the end of the sonnet.

Donne uses the last two lines to answer the question. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,  And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die” (Donne, p.123). He solves the paradox from a religious point of view. His faith obviously made him keenly aware of the Biblical teachings concerning eternal life. If one is a believer and has accepted Christ’s invitation to be saved, then even when they die on earth, they will wake up in heaven where they will live eternally. This paradox could be tricky for someone that is not familiar with Donne’s religious beliefs and could only be merely “grazed” until they were to dig a little deeper.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” is scandalous and paradoxical due to the metaphors and language he chose to use to describe his personal relationship with God. The Holy Bible refers to God knocking on the doors of humans’ hearts and if they open the door, He will come in and they will be changed (Rev. 3:20 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.) Many believe Donne is referencing this verse and, like many others, admits that sometimes that simple knock is not enough for God to be able to come in remain in control. Donne found it difficult to cut ties with the world and the sin that consumes it, therefore he pleads to God to do more than necessary to completely conquer his heart, even if it means He must do it by force. Donne uses interesting language from the very beginning of the poem, and then introduces the paradox in line 10. “But am betroth’d unto your enemy, / Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, For I / Except you enthral me, never shall be free,”.

This poses the question for the reader, “How can someone need to be held captive in order to be free?”. Donne gives the solution by describing the incredible hold that Satan (God’s enemy) and sin have on his life and pleads for God to do away with it by basically “divorcing” him from Satan and then “imprisoning” him so that Satan can no longer reach him. This contradiction, like the one in “Holy Sonnet X”, could be considered “unsolvable” by readers if they are not familiar with Donne’s religious beliefs. Literary scholars believe many of Donne’s love poems were likely written before becoming a leader in the church, but it is not completely out of the question for Donne to have written about love and sex while ministering. The Bible tells husbands and wives repeatedly throughout its books how important intimacy is within a relationship, and with how much Donne loved Anne, it can be assumed they followed those commands.

“The Sun Rising” is one of Donne’s more paradoxical love poems and was likely written for Anne. He begins the contradictions in the very first line when he refers to the sun as a, “Busy old fool, unruly Sun” (Donne, p. 106). Readers may find that line to be humorous since, the sun is not unruly, and determines most of Earth’s normal processes. Donne responds to the obvious paradox a few lines later when he writes, “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time”. Here readers learn that although Donne likely knows the sun is in control of everything, he believes that love is the actual center of the universe and will outlast the things he listed. Another paradoxical section in this poem comes at the end and begins in line 27 when he tells the sun, “Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.” The reader may ask how the sun is expected to perform its “duties” and “warm the world” if Donne is asking it to only warm, he and his lover. This contradiction requires readers to realize that Donne believes he and his lover, and the love they share between them, to be so important and special that it could act as the center of the universe. Therefore, if the sun were to warm their bed with them in it, their love would enable the warmth to radiate out into the rest of the world. This solution is possibly easier to uncover than his religious poems for those that are not familiar with Biblical teachings, especially since many people can relate to the feeling of being in love and believing that the world revolves around them and their lover.

Another Donne love poem that exhibits usage of paradoxes is, “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning”. This poem tells of two lovers that will soon be separated because of one leaving for an extended journey and the speaker is trying his best to keep his lover from being sad about the departure. Within the last three stanzas of the poem, Donne introduces an odd conceit that compares the two lovers to a compass. Here, in line 25, we find a paradox that Donne has added into the conceit. “If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two, Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show  To move, but doth, if th’other do.” (Donne, p. 112). Donne compares the speaker and his lover to the two feet of a compass, and he refers to the lover as the “fixed foot”. The paradox is that the lover is expected to remain still where they are, but also move with the speaker as he travels. How is that possible? People can not be in two places at one time.

Thankfully, Donne provides a resolution in the following stanza. “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.” (Donne, p. 112). Donne continues the comparison of the lovers to the compass to explain the contradiction. He tells us that one of the two feet always remains stationary but is still connected to the compass regardless of where the other foot is moved. This is the same with the lovers. They will always be connected through their love for one another, so no matter where the speaker travels, he will carry his lover in his heart and maintain that connection. This paradox presents as a knotty problem that is easily untangled as the reader reads through to the end of the poem.

John Donne’s talent and exceptional usage of diction resulted in many sensational works. Although, his pieces require readers use analytical thinking to process the many metaphysical conceits and paradoxes that he uses, they can still be enjoyed even if they cannot be interpreted exactly how Donne intended. Many people are simply drawn to the often-scandalous imagery and the challenge of making sense of his clever contradictions. The variety of his poems, ranging from tales of travel and sewing wild oats, true love, and eventually religious conversations, will continue to offer something for everyone, regardless of their level of comprehension.

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