Conceit in Donne's poetry
Many of John Donne's poems contain metaphysical conceits and intellectual reasoning to build a deeper understanding of the speaker's emotional state. A conceit can be defined as an extended, unconventional metaphor between objects that appear to be unrelated. Metaphysical conceit is a highly ingenious kind of conceit widely used by the metaphysical poets. It often exploits verbal logic to the point of the grotesque and sometimes creates such extravagant turns on meaning that they become absurd. The metaphysical conceit is characteristic of seventeenth century writers influence by John Donne, and became popular again in this century after the revival of the metaphysical poets. However, Donne is exceptionally good at creating unusual unions between different elements in order to illustrate his point and form a persuasive argument in his poems.
By using metaphysical conceits in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", Donne attempts to convince his beloved (presumably his wife) that parting is a positive experience which should not be looked upon with sadness. In the first stanza, Donne compares the speaker's departure to the mild death of virtuous men who pass on so peacefully that their loved ones find it difficult to detect the exact moment of their death. Their separation must be a calm transition like this form of death which Donne describes. The poet writes,
"Let us melt, and make no noise"
Then we find another example of conceit which was not found in any poems of any poets before. Here he compares the two lovers to the pair of legs of compass. Like the compass they have one central point (love) and two sides (bodies) which note in a circle. Here he says,
"If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fix foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the 'other doe"
Similarly, in the poem, "The Good-Morrow", we find some startling and shocking or fantastic conceits which had never before found. Here he says, the lover is a whole world to his beloved and she is a whole world to him, not only that they are two better hemispheres who constitute the whole world. Here the poet says,
"Where can we finde two better hemispheres,
Without sharpe North, without declining West?"
Again he says that as the four elements, earth, air, fire and water were supposed to combine to form new substance, so two souls mix to form a new unity. The strength and durability of this new unit is dependent upon how well the elements of the two souls are balanced, as we see from these lines from The Good-Morrow:
What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;
It our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.
In the poem "The sunne Rising" there are a lot of conceits in almost every stanza. The poet says that the lover can eclipse and cloud the sun with a wink . He says,
"I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke"
Again he says that the beloved lying in the bed by the lover's side is to his both west and East Indies; the beloved is all states and the lover is all princes. He says,
She's all states, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is"
In the poem, "The Canonization", we find the use of conceit. Organic imagery is a strong point of this poem. In the second stanza, the poet says,
"Alas, alas. who's injur'd by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?"
The poet assumes that a lover. ship have the power to drown ships, that his tears may flood the grounds, that his "colds" may bring about the season of winter, and that his "heats" may bed to the list of deaths by plague. (These are all fantastic hyperboles. The poet is, of course, mocking at the Petrarchan exaggeration). Then he says,
"We' are Tapers too and at our own cost die"
The beloved is one fly, the lover is another fly. And they are tapers too. In then are to be found the Eagle and the Dove. They provide a clue to the riddle of the phoenix because they are one representing both sexes. These are all fantastic conceits.
In the poem "The Extasie", we find conceits. Here he says that the souls of the lovers have left their bodies temporarily and are communicating with each other (like two armies facing each other). And the images of the two lovers in each other's eyes are regarded as the lovers "propagation" or the issue which they have produced. And the two souls of the lovers have become one and the resultant soul is abler or finer than each taken singly. Moreover, the bodies are spheres, and the lovers' minds or souls the intelligences which move the sphere.
In the poem "The Flea", we find another use of conceit where the Flea is thought to be their marriage temple as well as their marriage bed because it sucks a tiny drop of blood from the lover's and the beloved's body. And according to the poet it means that they two have got married. Here he says,
"Marke but this flea ,and marke in this,
Low little that which thou deny'st me is;
Mee it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;"
The killing of the flea will mean destroying three lives- those of the poet, his beloved and the insect. It will also be an act of sacrilege because a temple will be destroyed. He says that the beloved should surrender her body to the poet because she will, by doing so, lose just as little honour as the life she has lost by a drop of her blood having been sucked by the flea.
In summing up we can say that John Donne's poetry is abound with metaphysical conceits. Conceits are the effortless creation of John Donne. To him, conceits come to his poetry as leaves come to the tree. And for the use of conceits he stands supreme and mostly for such uses of conceit, he becomes the best metaphysical poet.