GSI: Rachel Beck
14 April 2008
Though an apt and discerning reader will find the entirety of Donne’s poetic works to be
fraught with flourishes of wit, it seems to be most appropriate to begin an academic survey of wit
in Donne with his elegies. It must be noted that beginning here is not an attempt to marginalize
the utility of studying Donne’s remaining verse—as an analysis of it seems to prove quite useful
in comprehending what Donne seeks to achieve in exploiting wit—but rather that the elegies
provide the most pristine demonstrations of Donne’s purpose, for it is only in his elegiac verse
that wit seems to appear for wit’s sake alone, unadulterated by the thematic distractions of
romanticism and theology that pervade his other poetry.
Of all these witty performances, perhaps none is more successful and evidentiary of his
skill than “The Anagram,” a poem in which Donne utilizes wit to defend the seemingly
indefensible and paradoxical proposition that ugliness is of more value than beauty. It is crucial
to identify, when approaching this poem, that “The Anagram” is not intended to be a venue for
the presentation of such a position, nor is its ultimate goal to convince the reader of the validity
of that position. Rather, Donne’s poem is a stage, buttressed by the fallaciousness of its own
argument, on which Donne has set his wit to play with the logistics of argument itself. The sheer
intellectual depth of Donne’s own verse presupposes this context; it is intentionally deceitful and
specious, masking the erroneous nature of its points with the impressiveness of its scholarly
presentation. This trick proves to be insurmountable to the reader, whose capacity to disrobe
each line of its poetic sleight of hand and assess its logical validity is quickly outpaced by the
poem’s narrative progress. For instance, when Donne attempts to account for the uniqueness of
how ugly his Flavia is, he states that, “She’s fair as any, if all be like her, // And if none be, then
she is singular” (Ln 23-24). Donne’s phrasing of these lines deliberately provides the reader with
two imperfect options: count Flavia as among those with a semblance of beauty, or ascribe
singularity to her, even though Donne knows full well that singularity bears flattering
connotations which the reader does not intend to grant her.
The extensiveness of this game even challenges Donne to hide his disfigurement of
syllogistic form, as is seen when he makes another attempt to mitigate Flavia’s homeliness. As
he suggests to the reader, “All love is wonder; if we justly do // Accompt her wonderful, why not
lovely too?” (Ln 25-26). The fallacy present in the trickery of Donne’s conveyance can be more
clearly recognized, however, if his lines are paraphrased in terms of the syllogistic argument they
imply (Major Premise: All lovely things are wonderful. Minor Premise: Flavia is wonderful.
Conclusion: Flavia is lovely) (Bates 1). The fact that all lovely things are wonderful does not
mean that all wonderful things are lovely. The limited hypothetical usefulness of Flavia’s
hideousness does not compensate for her lack of beauty. And as the reader falls further and
further behind the unrelenting torrent of witty exercises such as these, it isn’t long before his
intellectual flood gates are rendered completely inoperable in an attempt to simply catch up to
the speed of his own reading.
Additionally, though Donne’s objectives are markedly different in elegizing his lover’s
lost jewelry, “The Bracelet” still serves as both a superb example of the masterful command
Donne possesses over the faculties of wit as well as another demonstration of wit being utilized
for little except Donne’s own scholarly amusement. The primary distinction between the
application of wit in the two poems does not seem to be derived from a reevaluation of the
relationship between the poet and his plaything. This remains a partnership characterized by an
acute sense of intellectual hedonism, with wit still appearing to function less as a pathway for
meaning than an aggrandizement of Donne’s ego. No, the difference between the two poems
seems to originate from the fact that, in the elegies, Donne has set his wit to run an Olympic
gamut—where “The Anagram” sought to test wit’s persuasive strength, “The Bracelet” tests its
The most immediately recognizable instance of this, which also serves as the poem’s
central narrative vehicle, is Donne’s repeated punning on the theological and monetary
connotations of the word “angel.” Even before he begins to aimlessly explore the sustainability
of his wit further on in the poem, Donne mercilessly exploits this pun as he explains to the reader
the feelings of despair he possesses regarding his “Angels, which heaven commanded to provide
// All things to me, and be my faithful guide,” which shall “by thy severe // Sentence, dread
Judge, my sin’s great burden bear?” (Ln 13-14, 17-18). The flawless balance between the
availability of the monetary and theological interpretations is only compounded by the fact that
Donne initially maintains this unblemished parallel for an impressive twelve consecutive lines
and returns to it with such great frequency that the actual content of his subsequent puns
becomes less impressive than the mere fact that Donne has executed a successful pun once again.
In the same vein, Donne’s distortion of the language of proportion through the epic
telling of such a trivial matter, s
The worth for the reader found in Donne’s scholarly performance of wit, outside of the
novelty of a retrospective academic analysis of it, then, is not entirely self evident. Looking to
find meaning and autobiographical authenticity in Donne’s elegies will inevitably leave a reader
confounded and misled, for it is exactly these things which Donne’s indulgence in intellectual
grandstanding prohibits. In fact, the way in which Donne addresses the subject matter of his
poetry forcibly takes away the opportunity for personal parallel which a more pragmatic
approach would have provided. It is precisely this extravagance of Donne’s wit that devoids his
verse of a certain personal verisimilitude; it suffers too much from its artificiality to be true, and
appears far too premeditated to be sincere. The grandeur of his method, however, does not create
an impression of emotional detachment on Donne’s part but rather generates a sense that poetry
dealing primarily with the private sector of the self simply cannot accommodate the ambition
with which Donne attempts to FILL IN HEREEEEE of wit.
The same holds true in Donne’s “songs and sonnets” and “holy sonnets,” even though the
institution of pervasively autobiographical contexts has changed the venue for the game slightly.
It is imperative, however, to discern between these new autobiographical contexts and the sense
of autobiographical authenticity which still remains absent from Donne’s poetry. This
inescapable sense that, even in poems ostensibly about his own sentiments, Donne is still being
untrue, is begot of the overwhelming reliance on wit as a method of conveying meaning. Be it
the flea in “The Flea,” the window in “A Valediction of My Name in the Window,” the
personification of death in “Holy Sonnet VI,” shadows in “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” the
primrose in “The Primrose” or a staggering number of Donne’s other poems, meaning is
dependent upon Donne’s fanciful use of wit (98, 86, 138, 70, 109). And it is in this facilitation of
emotion by manifestations of Donne’s wit that we are reminded that Donne is playing a game for
his own amusement. There is something habitually self-sustaining and potent in concepts like
love, longing, and loss that is abrogated by Donne’s forcing them to rely on wit to exist in his
poetry. What remains, as a result, are shells of these emotions, bereft of the colossal vitality of
their own independence. Therefore, if Donne is not seeking to relate that same vitality in his lust
for his mistress or love of his wife, then the simple presence of emotional ideas is inevitably
rendered subordinate to the clever representation of them in poetry.
Though Donne’s performance of wit serves as an impetus for the appreciation of
aesthetic intellectualism rather than the creation of autonomous content, it would be
inappropriate to say that this appreciation does not produce formative effects, even if these
effects appear to be symptomatic of the poetic circumstance generated by, not the goals of,
Donne’s use of wit. As is apparent, the near excessiveness to which Donne commits himself to
the suffusion of wit in his verse seems to act as one of the fundamental creative forces in his
poetry. Rather than allow the poetic utility of wit to shape and modify the existing narration of a
poem, entirely original premises are generated from it. As can be seen in works like “The
Bracelet,” settings and contexts spring from wit’s seemingly inexhaustible well. Though the
overt purpose of “The Bracelet” is to provide Donne with an arena to showcase and test the
sustainability of his wit, the actual practice of doing so actualizes conceits, laughable hyperboles,
characters, and allusions while driving narratives with a reckless disregard for adherence to a
conservative or intuitive narrative path. For instance, Donne pens the dualism of his angels’
being condemned to their respective furnaces before immediately making allusions to French
currency just so as to be able to slight French royalty in an off-color joke regarding circumcision
(Ln 19-28). Though these shifts in focus are not impelled by any sort of logical imperative
whatsoever, they are rendered comprehensible by Donne’s ability to shadow peripheral ideas
under the umbrella of wit. In much the same way, “The Anagram” employs wit for naught but
the facilitation of Donne’s exploration of the faculties of language to manipulate and obscure
argument. Despite this, however, elements not beholden to his purpose, such as the actual
defense of a paradoxical position he does not support and the animation of a narrative voice that
endorses that defense, are effected by the generic necessity of their presence to create a
Even Donne’s non-elegiac works are influenced by wit’s latent predisposition to create.
Though the emotive poignancy of the songs and sonnets and holy sonnets has been stripped by
its reliance on the rigid formulations of wit, the precision with which Donne crafts his conceits
implies an irrefutable forward looking care toward, at least, the subject matter that his wit
symptomatically generates. This isn’t to say, however, that
Bates, David. "Rhetoric 10." University of California Berkeley, Berkeley.
Dickson, Donald R., ed. John Donne's Poetry.1st ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2007.
by John Donne
MARRY, and love thy Flavia, for she Women are all like angels ; the fair be
Hath all things, whereby others beauteous be ; Like those which fell to worse ; but such as she,
For, though her eyes be small, her mouth is great ; Like to good angels, nothing can impair :
Though they be ivory, yet her teeth be jet ; 'Tis less grief to be foul, than to have been fair.
Though they be dim, yet she is light enough ; For one night's revels, silk and gold we choose,
And though her harsh hair fall, her skin is tough ; But, in long journeys, cloth and leather use.
What though her cheeks be yellow, her hair's red, Beauty is barren oft ; best husbands say,
Give her thine, and she hath a maidenhead. There is best land, where there is foulest way.
These things are beauty's elements ; where these Oh, what a sovereign plaster will she be,
Meet in one, that one must, as perfect, please. If thy past sins have taught thee jealousy!
If red and white, and each good quality Here needs no spies, nor eunuchs ; her commit
Be in thy wench, ne'er ask where it doth lie. Safe to thy foes, yea, to a marmoset.
In buying things perfumed, we ask, if there When Belgia's cities the round country drowns,
Be musk and amber in it, but not where. That dirty foulness guards and arms the towns,
Though all her parts be not in th' usual place, So doth her face guard her ; and so, for thee,
She hath yet an anagram of a good face. Which forced by business, absent oft must be,
If we might put the letters but one way, She, whose face, like clouds, turns the day to night ;
In that lean dearth of words, what could we say? Who,mightier than the sea, makes Moors seem white;
When by the gamut some musicians make Who, though seven years she in the stews had laid,
A perfect song, others will undertake, A nunnery durst receive, and think a maid ;
By the same gamut changed, to equal it. And though in childbed's labour she did lie,
Things simply good can never be unfit ; Midwives would swear 'twere but a tympany ;
She's fair as any, if all be like her ; Whom, if she accuse herself, I credit less
And if none be, then she is singular. Than witches, which impossibles confess ;
All love is wonder ; if we justly do One like none, and liked of none, fittest were ;
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too? For things in fashion every man will wear.
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies ;
Choose this face, changed by no deformities.
UPON THE LOSS OF HIS MISTRESS' CHAIN, FOR
WHICH HE MADE SATISFACTION.
by John Donne
NOT that in colour it was like thy hair, Like many-angled figures in the book
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear ; Of some great conjurer that would enforce
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss'd, Nature, so these do justice, from her course ;
For so it had that good, which oft I miss'd ; Which, as the soul quickens head, feet and heart,
Nor for that silly old morality, As streams, like veins, run through th' earth's every
That, as these links were knit, our love should be, part,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost ; Visit all countries, and have slily made
Nor for the luck sake ; but the bitter cost. Gorgeous France, ruin'd, ragged and decay'd,
O, shall twelve righteous angels, which as yet Scotland, which knew no state, proud in one day,
No leaven of vile solder did admit ; And mangled seventeen-headed Belgia.
Nor yet by any way have stray'd or gone Or were it such gold as that wherewithal
From the first state of their creation ; Almighty chemics, from each mineral
Angels, which heaven commanded to provide Having by subtle fire a soul out-pull'd,
All things to me, and be my faithful guide ; Are dirtily and desperately gull'd ;
To gain new friends, to appease great enemies ; I would not spit to quench the fire they're in,
To comfort my soul, when I lie or rise ; For they are guilty of much heinous sin.
Shall these twelve innocents, by thy severe But shall my harmless angels perish? Shall
Sentence, dread judge, my sin's great burden bear? I lose my guard, my ease, my food, my all?
Shall they be damn'd, and in the furnace thrown, Much hope which they would nourish will be dead.
And punish'd for offenses not their own? Much of my able youth, and lustihead
They save not me, they do not ease my pains, Will vanish ; if thou love, let them alone,
When in that hell they're burnt and tied in chains. For thou wilt love me less when they are gone ;
Were they but crowns of France, I carèd not, And be content that some loud squeaking crier,
For most of these their country's natural rot, Well-pleas'd with one lean threadbare groat, for hire,
I think, possesseth ; they come here to us May like a devil roar through every street,
So pale, so lame, so lean, so ruinous. And gall the finder's conscience, if he meet.
And howsoe'er French kings most Christian be, Or let me creep to some dread conjurer,
Their crowns are circumcised most Jewishly. That with fantastic schemes fills full much paper ;
Or were they Spanish stamps, still travelling, Which hath divided heaven in tenements,
That are become as Catholic as their king ; And with whores, thieves, and murderers stuff'd his
These unlick'd bear-whelps, unfiled pistolets, rents
That—more than cannon shot—avails or lets ; So full, that though he pass them all in sin,
Which, negligently left unrounded, look He leaves himself no room to enter in.
M a i n | 10
But if, when all his art and time is spent, May your few fellows longer with me stay.
He say 'twill ne'er be found ; yet be content ; But O ! thou wretched finder whom I hate
Receive from him that doom ungrudgingly, So, that I almost pity thy estate,
Because he is the mouth of destiny. Gold being the heaviest metal amongst all,
Thou say'st, alas ! the gold doth still remain, May my most heavy curse upon thee fall.
Though it be changed, and put into a chain. Here fetter'd, manacled, and hang'd in chains,
So in the first fallen angels resteth still First mayst thou be ; then chain'd to hellish pains ;
Wisdom and knowledge, but 'tis turn'd to ill ; Or be with foreign gold bribed to betray
As these should do good works, and should provide Thy country, and fail both of it and thy pay.
Necessities ; but now must nurse thy pride. May the next thing thou stoop'st to reach, contain
And they are still bad angels ; mine are none ; Poison, whose nimble fume rot thy moist brain ;
For form gives being, and their form is gone. Or libels, or some interdicted thing,
Pity these angels yet ; their dignities Which negligently kept thy ruin bring.
Pass Virtues, Powers, and Principalities. Lust-bred diseases rot thee ; and dwell with thee
But thou art resolute ; thy will be done ; Itching desire, and no ability.
Yet with such anguish, as her only son May all the evils that gold ever wrought ;
The mother in the hungry grave doth lay, All mischief that all devils ever thought ;
Unto the fire these martyrs I betray. Want after plenty, poor and gouty age,
Good souls—for you give life to everything— The plagues of travellers, love, marriage
Good angels—for good messages you bring— Afflict thee, and at thy life's last moment,
Destined you might have been to such an one, May thy swollen sins themselves to thee present.
As would have loved and worshipp'd you alone ; But, I forgive ; repent thee, honest man !
One that would suffer hunger, nakedness, Gold is restorative ; restore it then :
Yea death, ere he would make your number less ; But if from it thou be'st loth to depart,
But, I am guilty of your sad decay ; Because 'tis cordial, would 'twere at thy heart.
M a i n | 11
by John Donne
MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.
O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
M a i n | 12
A VALEDICTION OF MY NAME, IN THE WINDOW.
by John Donne
MY name engraved herein Till my return repair
Doth contribute my firmness to this glass, And recompact my scatter'd body so,
Which ever since that charm hath been As all the virtuous powers which are
As hard, as that which graved it was ; Fix'd in the stars are said to flow
Thine eye will give it price enough, to mock Into such characters as gravèd be
The diamonds of either rock. When these stars have supremacy.
'Tis much that glass should be So since this name was cut,
As all-confessing, and through-shine as I ; When love and grief their exaltation had,
'Tis more that it shows thee to thee, No door 'gainst this name's influence shut.
And clear reflects thee to thine eye. As much more loving, as more sad,
But all such rules love's magic can undo ; 'Twill make thee ; and thou shouldst, till I return,
Here you see me, and I am you. Since I die daily, daily mourn.
As no one point, nor dash, When thy inconsiderate hand
Which are but accessories to this name, Flings open this casement, with my trembling name,
The showers and tempests can outwash To look on one, whose wit or land
So shall all times find me the same ; New battery to thy heart may frame,
You this entireness better may fulfill, Then think this name alive, and that thou thus
Who have the pattern with you still. In it offend'st my Genius.
Or if too hard and deep And when thy melted maid,
This learning be, for a scratch'd name to teach, Corrupted by thy lover's gold and page,
It as a given death's head keep, His letter at thy pillow hath laid,
Lovers' mortality to preach ; Disputed it, and tamed thy rage,
Or think this ragged bony name to be And thou begin'st to thaw towards him, for this,
My ruinous anatomy. May my name step in, and hide his.
Then, as all my souls be And if this treason go
Emparadised in you—in whom alone To an overt act and that thou write again,
I understand, and grow, and see— In superscribing, this name flow
The rafters of my body, bone, Into thy fancy from the pane ;
Being still with you, the muscle, sinew, and vein So, in forgetting thou rememb'rest right,
Which tile this house, will come again. And unaware to me shalt write.
M a i n | 13
XI. Near death inflicts this lethargy,
And this I murmur in my sleep ;
But glass and lines must be Inpute this idle talk, to that I go,
No means our firm substantial love to keep ; For dying men talk often so.
HOLY SONNET VI.
By John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell'st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.
M a i n | 14
A LECTURE UPON THE SHADOW.
by John Donne
STAND still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in Love's philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduced.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us and our cares ; but now 'tis not so.
That love hath not attain'd the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.
Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westerwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day ;
But O ! love's day is short, if love decay.
Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his short minute, after noon, is night.
M a i n | 15
by John Donne
UPON this Primrose hill,
Where, if heaven would distil
A shower of rain, each several drop might go
To his own primrose, and grow manna so ;
And where their form, and their infinity
Make a terrestrial galaxy,
As the small stars do in the sky ;
I walk to find a true love ; and I see
That 'tis not a mere woman, that is she,
But must or more or less than woman be.
Yet know I not, which flower
I wish ; a six, or four ;
For should my true-love less than woman be,
She were scarce anything ; and then, should she
Be more than woman, she would get above
All thought of sex, and think to move
My heart to study her, and not to love.
Both these were monsters ; since there must reside
Falsehood in woman, I could more abide,
She were by art, than nature falsified.
Live, primrose, then, and thrive
With thy true number five ;
And, woman, whom this flower doth represent,
With this mysterious number be content ;
Ten is the farthest number ; if half ten
Belongs to each woman, then
Each woman may take half us men ;
Or—if this will not serve their turn—since all
Numbers are odd, or even, and they fall
First into five, women may take us all.