Argument and rhetoric

The shock of the new

John Donne was an iconoclast. In his case it meant knocking down preconceptions of what poetry should be. Some modern poets are similar, intending their readers to laugh at poetic absurdity. A good deal of Donne's early work is designed to make us laugh too. However we may have to work quite hard sometimes to understand the joke.

Getting the joke

Usually, the joke lies in one of two things:

  • The clever way Donne constructs an argument to lead to the most bizarre conclusions, as if proving black is white, or that the moon is made of blue cheese. He often applies this to love poetry.
  • The way he uses images, bringing in highly unusual images that seem to have nothing to do with the subject matter.

The art of persuasion

We sometimes miss Metaphysical humour because we are not familiar with what is called rhetoric. In Elizabethan and seventeenth-century higher education, everyone studied rhetoric, devised, in the first instance, to help lawyers present a good argument. It listed all the ways to persuade people to believe your case. Some of the cleverness of Metaphysical poetry lies in the use of these devices and often gives them a sense of eccentric logic.

A personal voice

The sense of argument creates a speaking voice. It is as if we overhear the debate going on as it is happening. Obviously the speaking voice does not speak smoothly or in regular metric patterns; speech rhythms are rougher and readier. So it is with Donne especially. Some of his followers preferred to go back to a neater, more ordered style. But Donne lived in an age of theatre, and often went to see plays. His poetry is often close to the dialogue of the theatre.

Not all Metaphysical poets were as clever as Donne. Nor was Donne always joking. Sometimes he was deadly serious, but he still used the same methods. Nor were all post-Elizabethan poets Metaphysicals. Poets such as Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick continued the tradition of the ‘sweet line'. They were sometimes known as the ‘Cavalier Poets'. Some, like Richard Lovelace, moved between the two styles. If we look at Donne's prose, we can see that he could apply his cleverness to prose as well, including sermons.

  • Compare the following two extracts. One is Elizabethan and one is by Donne.
    • Can you see how Donne makes fun of the Elizabethan conventions of love poetry?

The Passionate Shepherd to his Love

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods or sleepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle,
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle …

The Baite

Come live with me, and bee my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and christall brookes,
With silken lines, and silver hookes.

There will the river whispering runne
Warm'd by thy eyes, more then the Sunne.
And there th'inamor'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swimme in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channell hath,
Will amorously to thee swimme,
Gladder to catch thee, then thou him …

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