Comparing Metaphysical Poems: Donne and Marvell
Both of these poems are Metaphysical in many ways. The term ‘Metaphysical’ refers to matters that are literally ‘beyond the physical’ – this is things such as God, heaven and hell, the soul and the meaning of life. They looked past visible life to discover the concealed beauty beneath. Much of their work contained an underlying Neoplatonist philosophy; they took the view that everything was an imperfect copy of something perfect, so in a way they shared that perfection and became beautiful.
The Metaphysical poets were a group of British poets around the 1600s, who shared a similar way of investigating metaphysical concerns. These poets, however, did not label themselves as Metaphysical – most of them didn’t even know each other. The writer Samuel Johnson gave them this title a lot later on, in his book ‘Life of Cowley’, where he recognised their style through subtle and sophisticated arguments, strange similes and metaphors, and their use of wit. Two notable poets from this group are Andrew Marvell and John Donne.
Andrew Marvell was the son of a Church of England clergyman, and John Donne was a preacher from a Roman Catholic family. The two men were both very intelligent – Marvell went to university in Cambridge at the age of twelve, and Donne also attended university at a very early age, being just eleven when he began his studies at Oxford; going to university at such a young age, however, was much more common in the 17th century than it is nowadays. Marvell later served as a tutor to Lord General Thomas Fairfax’s daughter. It was during this time that he wrote To His Coy Mistress.
The poem is about a man who desires to sleep with a woman. Throughout the poem, he tries to persuade the woman to do so, constantly referring to the fact that one day they will both be dead so it is best to cease the day while it is there and therefore she should just sleep with him. It is thought that this was not written to a particular person, but is simply about an imaginary man and woman. Due to the fact that he was of a very respectable position at this time, it would have been quite unexpected of him to write a poem about a man wishing to sleep with someone.
It may have been that he was trying to express himself in the poem in a way he could not do in real life. Around the age of 25, Donne was appointed chief secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, and over the next 4 years he fell in love with Egerton’s 17 year old neice, Anne Moore. It is her that The Flea was written to. In The Flea, Donne, like Marvell, tries to persuade the subject of the poem to sleep with him. Both poems seem very physical as oppose to Metaphysical, as although they both refer to religion, it seems that this could just be to manipulate and persuade innocent women into succumbing to them.
The fact that these two poets’ lifestyles both bore some relation to religion however, influences the theory that they did in fact have Metaphysical views on life, therefore making the poems seeming more purposely Metaphysical as oppose to just making it seem that way to persuade other religious women to sleep with them. As with the authors, there are many similarities between the two poems. Both of them are about a man trying to seduce a woman. We see this in The Flea, where Donne refers to ‘how little that which thou deniest me’ and ‘loss of maidenhead’.
We assume she is a virgin because of her Catholic background, but Donne’s attempts to describe her virginity as ‘little’ is not metaphysical as he does not make any reference to religion. In To His Coy Mistress, Marvell says had they ‘world enough, and time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime’, indicating that if they had forever then they could wait forever to get together, but then talks of ‘time’s winged chariot coming near’, meaning that time is running out so she should just sleep with him.
Although the use of the word ‘winged’ makes the description seem holy and godlike, this is not a metaphysical description as he is just trying to woo her into bed with him. Although in To His Coy Mistress Marvell is telling the woman she should sleep with him, he has a fairly convincing argument to make her do so, making reference to many images of eternity and talking about forever, then turning to say that there is no such thing as eternity so they should live in the moment and get together.
He says that ‘yonder all before us lie/ deserts of vast eternity’, so he is trying to tell her that God will not reward if she keeps her virginity as he is not real. This is not metaphysical; he is simply trying to scare her into sleeping with him. It is a lot more effective than Donne’s argument, however, as his attempt of persuasion is nothing but sophistry. An example of this is where he says ‘mark but this flea’, emphasising how small and insignificant the flea is. He then goes on to say ‘mark in this how little that which thou deniest me is’.
This quote is referring to her virginity, which she will not allow him to take, so he is basically saying that her virginity is only as significant as a tiny flea. This is obvious nonsense, as virginity is clearly a big thing, and it mattered even more around the time these poems were written than nowadays. Also, the two objects are completely unrelated, as there is really no link between loss of virginity and a flea. This shows how nonsensical Donne’s argument really is. This is not Metaphysical is there is no reference, or hidden reference, to anything non-physical.
Out of the two poems, To His Coy Mistress is seemingly much more non-specific. In The Flea, Donne keeps the same theme all the way throughout the poem, making constant reference to the metaphorical flea, right from the first line ‘Mark but this flea’ all the way through to the last line ‘as this flea’s death took life from thee. It would be thought that the same theme of argument all the way through would be a better way of persuasion as the argument is being constantly developed, so it should in theory end up very convincing by the end.
With an argument like in The Flea however, there isn’t really much point to the comparisons made and it is a pretty unconvincing theme for persuasion. In To His Coy Mistress however, deep down it is actually a lot more specific than The Flea, because although Donne refers to the flea all the way through, his argument does not really develop over the poem; he is just throwing in random statements and justifying them by comparing them to a characteristic of a flea. The argument in To His Coy Mistress seems to work a lot better, though this may be because Marvell uses a much more convincing argument than ridiculous comparisons to fleas.
He keeps the theme of images of eternity throughout, starting by saying ‘Had we but world enough, and time/ This coyness lady, were no crime’, meaning that if they had forever then her being too shy to sleep with him would not be a problem, as they could wait. Near the end of the poem he says ‘Rather at once our time devour/ Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power/ Let us roll all our strength, and all/ Our sweetness, up into one ball’ meaning that since they don’t have forever, they should eat time and have fun all at once rather than waiting for time to eat them.
This shows how the argument is in fact developed, as oppose to in The Flea where Donne starts by describing a flea, and finishes by ‘killing’ said flea. The specific approach seems to work a lot better, but this may just be because To His Coy Mistress contains a better quality of argument. There is use of many poetic techniques throughout the poems. In The Flea, there is use of enjambment, end-stopped lines, rhyme and stanzas, all of which lie within To His Coy Mistress.
The Flea, however, also uses stronger images of figurative language, as there is a metaphorical flea being referred to all the way through. Also, the use of premises and conclusions is very effective in To His Coy Mistress. In the second stanza is the major premise, where he is referring to how he would admire each of her body parts if he had forever by saying: ‘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. ‘ (It may seem strange that he wanted to admire her forehead, but foreheads were actually considered a very beautiful part of females around the time the poem was written. ) This means that if he had forever, he would spend an age admiring each part of her. However he later mentions that ‘while the youthful hue sits on thy skin like morning dew/ And while thy willing soul transpires/ At every pore with instant fires/now let us sport while we may’.
This is the minor premise and conclusion, as he is saying that they don’t have forever, so they should just sleep together while they are young. These major and minor premises are effective because they give a good argument, and they make an argument much more persuasive by making a point and then justifying it. In The Flea, we notice that the woman in the poem is a lot more argumentative against Donne’s argument than the subject of To His Coy Mistress is towards Marvell.
This may be because Donne insults the woman throughout the poem, calling her ‘cruel and sodaine’. At first it seems as if she is genuinely annoyed, however if looked at in more detail, we can see that maybe he is just criticising her in a playful flirty way, and her response may be a playful way of replying. Marvell, however, uses flattery to persuade his lady, by referring to her as ‘lady’ and states that he would spend thousands of years admiring each part of her if he could, which is obviously very flattering towards the subject.
This seems more effective than Donne’s argument, but in fact The Flea is probably more persuasive in this sense as there is a kind of teasing and joking essence about the poem. Overall, I do not think that the poems are really metaphysical at all. There are metaphysical aspects on the surface, but these seem to only be there to cover up the fact that the two men want the women to sleep with them, and they think that using metaphysical imagery is the best way to persuade them because they are both seemingly religious women.
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