John Donne was a metaphysical poet. His poetry attempts to "go beyond" human sensibility into realms of conceptual thinking. As a student of metaphysics, his works use conceits, metaphors that refer to abstract ideas with concrete symbols -- the classic Donne conceit is "No man is an island." His poetry was widely varied: He wrote sonnets and love poems, sermons and religious poetry, songs and elegies.
Donne and Metaphysical Poets
The metaphysical poets were English writers in the 17th century who were, in many cases, not even aware of each other's existence. Unlike Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, the metaphysics did not correspond or form clubs or sponsor one another. They gained their name from the eminent critic Dr. Samuel Johnson who, in "Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets," spoke of a "race" of such writers. Donne, whose range of metaphysical topics went from sensuality to spirituality, has survived as the erstwhile leader of the metaphysical pack.
Donne and Love Conceits
Donne's conceits are fascinating in their blending of abstract and ordinary. In the love poem "The Flea," he uses a blood-sucking insect as a symbol for relations between the poet -- presumably Donne himself -- and a young lady. The flea has bitten both, and "in this flea our two bloods mingled be." He extends the metaphor to make the insect their mutual "marriage bed and marriage temple." When the lady swats the flea, he continues, saying that sexual joining will waste no more honor than a flea's life. One must admire his persistence.
Donne's Unloving Conceits
Donne reverses romantic gears in the morose song "Go and Catch a Falling Star," which sets impossible tasks for the listener such as impregnating mandrake roots. Donne sends the reader on a life-long pilgrimage to find a beautiful, honest woman who, once discovered, will quickly turn dishonest. His point is that "nowhere lives a woman true and fair," as beauty and truth in females do not co-exist. He reinforces this idea with the elegy "Jealousy," a poem about the death of jealousy in a wife when, her husband dead, she finds another man.
Donne's works also include songs to commemorate marriages, such as "Epithalamion Made at Lincoln's Inn," epigrams such as "Pyramus and Thisbe," satirical works, Latin translations and, most tellingly, poems he called "divine and holy sonnets" such as "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions." The latter contains his most often quoted line, a concept that runs through fully half his works, the reminder of mortality: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." If Donne's metaphysical theme was mortality, certainly his canon demonstrates the theme of versatility.