How do Donne’s sonnets differ from Shakespeare’s sonnets
Both William Shakespeare and John Donne wrote sonnets at around the same time as each other. However, both of them wrote very differently yet still deciding to write about philosophical topics. They are different because Shakespeare decides to calm the reader; Donne uses powerful words which make the reader very aware of what they are reading about.
“Death be not proud” by Donne is more unnerving to readers than “Shall I compare thee” by Shakespeare. For some people, death is a taboo subject so Donne writes about death in such a way as to give hope to the reader. He suggests that “some have called thee (death) mighty and dreadful”. This is a good way of starting his argument because he gives the other sides view and then moves straight on to diminishing that argument.
On the other hand, “Shall I compare thee” is a lot more different from “Death be not proud” as Shakespeare’s sonnet is about love and beauty which have a calming effect on the reader. A lot of this is due to how the poem starts. The word “shall” is a more soothing word than “death”; the reader instantly knows that there is not going to be much to think hard about while reading the poem. For example, when Donne writes that death is a “slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”, the reader becomes confused because it is usually humans who try to enjoy their lives before dying, thus being a slave to death.
Furthermore, Donne also confuses the reader in “Holy Sonnet” where he writes that God should “bend [his] force, to breake, blowe, burn and make [him] new”; the reader is unsure whether being destroyed would make someone better. “Shall I compare thee” is a lot more straightforward because the reader can easily associate summer as having “too short a date” or having its “gold complexion dimmed”.
In his sonnets, Donne writes much more powerfully than Shakespeare. He starts off with the phrases “Batter my heart” and “Death be not proud” which are commanding phrases. These phrases shock the reader, which is exactly what Donne tries to do in his poems. For example, in “Holy Sonnet”, Donne writes that he is “betroth’d unto your (God’s) enemie”. Donne uses the powerful concept of marriage to illustrate his unlawful life because it suggests that it is almost impossible to escape from it. Furthermore, at the time when Donne was writing the poem, divorce was almost unthinkable so readers at that time would have been shocked to read about him wanting to be divorced. Additionally, marriage was also thought to save men and women from being sinful, so readers would have been confused to read about Donne being married to an enemy; it would not have been thought of as the right way to describe his corruptness. This could also suggest that Donne thought people were so corrupt at the time; they would need to go to great lengths to improve themselves.
On the contrary, Shakespeare’s poem is a lot less powerful that Donne’s. This is because Shakespeare writes about a completely different topic. Shakespeare does not use any commanding phrases in his poem and instead the tone of his poem is peaceful. This becomes obvious when he is describing his “lover”. For example, when he describes his lover as not losing “possession of that fair thou ow’st”, he uses “soft” words such as “fair” and “ow’st”.
On the contrary, Shakespeare’s poem could also be as powerful as Donne’s because of the last two lines. When Donne is commanding God, he still recognizes that he can overpower him. When talking to God, Donne asks him to “Take mee to you, imprison mee”, which suggests that God is still in control of him. However, Shakespeare makes a very bold claim in his sonnet, where he claims that for as long as the sonnet is read, it “gives life to thee (his lover)” which defies the common belief that everything will soon succumb to time. This suggests that his poem is also very powerful, because it surprises a reader just as Donne’s poems also do.
However, it could also be argued that Donne’s claims are even more audacious than Shakespeare’s as he is not just defying time, but also death which includes both time and decay. The majority of people believe that humans cannot escape from time, and that it soon catches up with everyone. Yet Donne still writes that whoever “dost (death) overthrow, die not”, which suggests that not only will humans live on, but they will conquer time as well, and instead “Death thou shalt die.” This paradox is extremely defiant, as death is the cause of people dying, and instead death will kill itself.
In all three sonnets, both Donne and Shakespeare talk to someone or something. However, both of their approaches of how they talk to their subject matter are very unusual. When someone is talking to God, they are usually humble and they feel afraid to talk to God. Donne, on the other hand, talks to God as if he has been brought down to his level. He uses commanding words such as “batter”, “divorce mee” and “ravish mee” to make the reader feel as if he/she can relate to God, which generally, most people find hard to do. In the same poem, Donne also seems to suggest that when God is reprimanding him, he will be doing it himself, for example to “ravish mee (Donne)”, which is contrary to the popular view that sinful people will be sent to hell.
Conversely, Shakespeare talks to his lover in kind terms and over-praises her. In general, when people are describing someone they love, they are very informal; Shakespeare writes about his lover in formal terms. For example, when he puts the point across that his lover’s “eternal summer shall not fade”, he uses the very formal word “shall”, whereas usually someone would say “will not”. This way of writing about his lover is odd, because it is unusual. Similarly, Donne also talks to death in a bizarre way. If death was alive, then when anyone would talk to it, they would be very cautious with what they would say. Donne is bitter towards death, and is impolite, which is unusual to the reader.
However, the way that he is different from Shakespeare is that Donne mentions himself in both of his poems, while Shakespeare does not. In “Holy Sonnet”, he is asking God to “batter my heart”, “o’erthrow mee”, and “divorce mee”. Due to this, the reader can relate to what Donne writes about more easily, because they can imagine it happening to someone. Shakespeare uses abstract diction for his comparison, which are “a summer’s day” and his lover. The lover is abstract because the reader is unsure of who this person is. By comparing two abstract objects, Shakespeare makes it harder for the reader to create the comparison in his/her head. The idea of his lover’s “eternal summer” further confuses the reader as Shakespeare criticizes the summer, and then relates it to his lover. This suggests that Shakespeare does not view his lover as perfect but just eternal. This is especially obvious due to Shakespeare’s continuous use of the word “eternal” and the idea of time, for example a lease, is more apparent in the poem than of beauty.
Another way that Donne differs to Shakespeare is that he is more hopeful. Shakespeare hopes that his lover will live on, but he needs “men [that] can breathe and eyes [that] can see” for it to happen. This suggests that Shakespeare is relying on people for his wish to happen. However, when Donne writes about something happening, he is certain that it will happen, whereas Shakespeare is also confident but his use of the phrase “so long as” gives away the fact that it may stop happening.
On the other hand, when Donne writes about death, he is certain that people who are killed by death “die not”, and Donne shows his confidence straight after it by referring to death as “poore death”, and then finally concluding the quatrain by boasting that “nor yet canst thou kill mee”. This goes a step further than just hoping that death is not the end, because of his use of definite language, for example “not” and “nor”.
However, in his other poem Donne is definitely more hopeful than certain. One reason for this is his use of hopeful language, such as “may rise” and “except you”. Yet Donne may still be more hopeful than Shakespeare because he is relying on God, who would definitely be more reliable than men. However, Donne still feels the need to reassure God that he “dearly” loves him and that he “would be lov’d faine”. This would also suggest Donne’s uncertainty because he needs to change the subject slightly to make his argument better.
Ultimately, I think that Donne is more effective than Shakespeare in putting his views across. Shakespeare makes the reader feel very calm while Donne brings the reality to the reader while still comforting him/her. This means that Donne also has a purpose to his poems. They both write on philosophical topics but Donne is a lot more straightforward in his poems while Shakespeare is more thoughtful.
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