CONCEITS & IMAGES IN JOHN DONNE’S POETRY
One of the important features of metaphysical poetry is use of conceits and images. This quality distinguishes metaphysical poets from the others. An image employed by the poets is just and natural. On the other hand, a conceit is a figure of speech in which two vastly different objects are linked together with the help of similes or metaphors. Actually, a conceit is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. It is actually a set up of an analogy between one entity’s spiritual qualities and an object in the physical world. Sometimes, it controls the whole structure of the poem. For example, it will not be surprising for us if we hear someone saying, “You are a snail”, or “You are as slow as a snail” because we understand that the similarity is drawn on a common quality i.e. slowness. We, however, will definitely be surprised to hear someone comparing “Two lovers with the two legs of a draftsman’s compass.” Thus, we can say that conceits have surprising as well as shocking effect on the readers because they are comparisons which are novel in nature unlike the conventional comparisons made in similes and metaphors. Except the metaphysical poets two other literary artists, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot came forward and used conceits in their writings.
First quality of conceits used by Donne is that they are based on metaphysical concepts. They are taken from a wide range of world of knowledge, from science, astrology, astronomy and scholastic philosophy, etc. These conceits are far-fetched, elaborate and complex in their nature. A very famous conceit used by the poet is the conceit of two lovers being compared to a pair of compasses. Here, we see the poet saying that one leg remains fixed at the centre and the other rotates. It can be called an elaborate and extended conceit used by the poet. Another beautiful example can be given in this regard. The flea is compared to a bridal bed or a marriage temple. Similarly, sometimes in a single poem, we may see Donne drawing images from cartography, geography, myth, and natural science. In “A Valediction: Of Weeping”, Donne draws images from many sources. He compares the lover’s tears with precious coins because they bear the stamp of the beloved. This is the image drawn from “Mintage.” Similarly, he compares the beloved’s tears with the moon which draws up seas to drown the lover in her sphere. This image is drawn from geography.
Second quality of conceits used by Donne is that there is always some force which always holds the apparently dissimilar objects in a conceit. However, even in the presence of this force, the things maintain their identities separately. A. J. Smith writes: “Metaphysical problems rise out of pairs of opposites that behave almost exactly as do the elements of a metaphysical conceit. Take multiplicity and unity or reality.”
Third quality of Donne’s conceits is that these conceits are not used for the decoration; rather they are used as an important part of the poetic process. We see that the Elizabethan conceits are traditional and ornamental. However, the metaphysical conceits are basic and structural. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, the separation of husband and wife is the movement of one leg of the compass. However the other leg is fixed at the centre. The drawing of the circle symbolizes the journey of the poet to a foreign country and the stay of his wife symbolizes the fixed side of the compass and these are the basic theme of the poem.
Fourth quality of conceits used by Donne is that the conceits used by Donne are a blend of unity and thought. He does so just to achieve the “Unification of Sensibility.” Situation is emotional but the description is intellectual. In “The Second Anniversary”, let us observe the description of the cheeks.
“Her sure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks and so distinctly wrought
That one might almost say her body thought.”
Fifth quality of conceits used by Donne is that these conceits have been drawn from many sources. First, he is original in thinking and using conceits. He does not follow the Petrarchan or Pastoral tradition. He finds these conceits from the personal experiences of his life and the widening horizons of his knowledge. Joan Bennett remarks: “His images are drawn from his own interests, so that he is always illustrating one fact of his experience by another.”He also uses conceits making various references to alchemy. He makes use of latest scientific theories and current superstitions for ornamentation of his poems. Geographical images have been used frequently and show his learning and knowledge. The First Anniversary, Hymn to God and The Good Morrow are the best examples and show Donne’s craze for using the contemporary ideas related to geography. Another source of conceits used by Donne is that he uses conceits from everyday industry, trade and commerce. Another source of taking conceits is Donne’s disease and poverty. He had an ardent desire to learn medicine. His knowledge of medicine makes him able to take images from disease and death. A critic observes: “Donne was writing in an age when Death lurked round the corner, and plague, famine and violence were an everyday occurrence.” Another source of conceits for Donne is war and military affairs. We see him using these conceits and images in his love as well as divine poetry. In “The Ecstasy”, several startling and unconventional images have been used. The souls of two lovers have been compared to two equal armies confronting and negotiating with each other. In “Batter My Heart”, there is an image which has been drawn from the purification of metals by knocking, blowing and shining it.
Sixth quality of conceits and images used by Donne is that they are not isolated from the context. Although they are coarse and far-fetched, they give pleasure and exaltation as they have astonishing link with the whole poem. This quality of creating conceits having relation with the context can also be seen in Shakespeare’s works.
Seventh major quality of conceits and images used by Donne is that they are obscure and complex. That’s why, the modern readers are confused sometimes due to the intricacy of these images and conceits. A considerable demand on the part of the reader is required to understand the images and conceits used by Donne. According to J.C. Grierson “It brings together the opposite forces of life i.e. body and soul, earth and heaven, the bed of lovers and the universe, life and death and microcosm and macrocosm in one breath.”
Eighth quality of conceits used by Donne is that his conceits are functional and are used to illustrate and persuade. They are as Helen Gardner remarks: “Instruments of definition in an argument or instruments to persuade.” So, they should not be condemned for being far-fetched or sometimes irrelevant in the context in which they are used. There is hardly any conceit which has been used irrelevantly by Donne in his poems. They bring new variety and awareness of the new angles from which we can get new experiences. They always stimulate one to think. They bring awareness of the new angles from which one can get new experience. In “The Sun Rising”, Donne declares the sun a ‘saucy pedantic wretch.’ He asks it to go and scold late schoolboys, the court huntsmen and country ants and to leave the lovers alone. Similarly, in “Go and Catch a Falling Star”, the imagery used stresses the idea that in the world, there is no woman who may be beautiful as well as true.
To sum up, the use of conceits and images used by Donne is ingenious and remarkable. T.S. Eliot appreciates Donne highly because of this trait in his poetry. The definition of poetry given by Coleridge is also applicable to Donne’s imagery and conceits when he says: “Judgment ever awake and steady, self-possession with enthusiasm, and feeling profound or vehement.” John Bennett has also compared the poetry of Donne with that of Keats. Keats’s sensuous impression is identified with the things he wants to express. On the other hand, Donne’s intellectual analogy is attached to his emotions. In the end, we can say that however far-fetched these images and conceits are in Donne’s poetry, we cannot deplore them. We can only admire them for their novelty, realism, justness and a variety of range they cover. (Words: 1412)