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English 11-12

HSC English Module A: John Donne Textual Analysis

Textual analysis of the poetry of John Donne.

Module A – Exploring Connections: John Donne Poems

Aim of the Module: to explore the way two texts from different contexts, composed in different forms, give varied treatment to a number of themes with enduring relevance.

Poetry of John Donne (1572 – 1631)

  • Death be not proud (c.1610)
  • This is my playes last scene
  • At the round earths imagin’d corners blow
  • If poisonous minerals
  • Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse
  • A Valediction: forbidding mourning
  • The Apparition
  • The Relique
  • The Sunne Rising


The Metaphysical poets were a group of British lyric poets whose work was characterised by inventive use of conceits, thematic concerns such as love or religion. However, it is important to note that this label was coined after the movement had ended, and most of the writers had never heard of each other. As their poetry did not deal with images of nature or recollections of classical mythology, as was common at the time, they were little read and were not brought into favour until TS Eliot’s essay The Metaphysical Poets was published in 1921.

The simple focus of this movement was to redefine and explore man’s relationship with God. It is important to consider this when reading Donne’s poetry.

Key Concepts

Cartesian Duality (mind-body-flesh problem):

In philosophy, Dualism is the belief that the soul and the body are separate entities, composed of different ‘stuff’, and that it is possible to separate the two completely without damaging either, or destroying the identity of the individual in question. Donne’s poetry deals with this in its inability to separate the desire for transcendentalism through death from the pleasures of the flesh.

Example: ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sicknesse’ uses the extended metaphor of the body as a map in order to draw parallels to the need for a “quest” in order to best understand and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. This is further dealt with in ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’, where the need for a tangible connection to the body even whilst searching for transcendentalism is shown through the similar extended metaphor of two lovers as the legs of a compass. The crux of Donne’s Cartesian Dualism is centred around his fear of and desire for death, and this conflict, as demonstrated below, is ultimately what controls his poetry and metaphysics.



Nearly all of Donne’s poetry deals with the overwhelming immediacy of death, which was an ever-present force in 17th century life. In Donne’s poetry, he is torn between a fear of death and a desire for the life to come, where he would be united with God. Donne’s littoral nature allows for the connection with his obsession with death to the issue of Cartesian Duality (see above).

Example: ‘Death Be Not Proud’ places the persona at the crux of denial of and acceptance of death, and uses this to present the two different interpretations of the act: one of unnatural ending (which should be feared) and one of salvation (which should be revered). This is shown through the use of the sonnet form to mimic the formal argument of the persona. Lines 1-4 present a negative view of death through the modifiers such as “dreadfull”, and the imperative tone, which shows man’s triumph over and ability to control death. However, at the end of the fourth line, there is a turn which presents a more balanced and, indeed, desirable view of death. This is established in lines 5-8 through the religious imagery of “soules deliverie” and the use of assonance and alliteration within clauses to slow the rhythm, creating a more tempered tone than the dissonance and imperative nature of the first four lines.

At the end of line 8 there is another turn, this one moving backwards to the distress of the first section, showing the way in which the positive qualities of death remain unpalatable to the persona. Here, the use of assonance and extra rhyme allows the tempered tone of the previous section to remain, yet also draws on the critical views raised in the original section and allows them to be furthered. At the end of line 13 there is a drastic and critical turn, which moves away from any tempered understanding of the nature of death, using a declarative statement and personification “thou shalt die” to show that, for the persona, fear has won out over the possible religious pleasure.



Specifically, salvation from death through love or God. This, as a crucial concern in the 17th century, is at play throughout the poetry of Donne. For Donne, love’s true nature is found in its connection with the divine.

Example: ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’ shows that a transcendental love is necessary in order to be truly saved. This is evident in the use of ABAB rhyme scheme in the second stanza. The B rhyme is created through “move/love”, which is a half-rhyme, and thus stands out from the perfect use of the scheme elsewhere. By juxtaposing moving and loving, and thus tying them together, Donne shows the need for physical and emotional distance to be travelled in order to transcend the confines of the flesh (see Cartesian Duality above).

The repeated references to religious iconography and expressions in the later stanzas of the poem show the need for this movement to have a religious element to it. The enduring metaphor of man and woman as the two legs of a compass, drawn together by their relationship provides again an interesting dimension to the Cartesian Duality problem in Donne’s poetry, whereby the poems stand on the edge between flesh and soul, and use elements of each to add to the other.

Religious iconography refers to symbols and images that are commonly associated with a particular religion.


Critical Readings:

  • Gendered: particularly in “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”, the interplay of the body and the soul can be read as an interaction between the masculine and the feminine. (Mintz, S. B. 2001. “‘Forget the Hee and Shee’: Gender and Play in John Donne” Modern Philology 98.4: 577-603 for more information.)
  • General: Targoff, R. 2005. “Facing Death” The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge).
  • Cartesian Dualism: Zeman, C. 2012. “Finding Humor in Selfhood: The Permeability of Body and Soul in the Works of John Donne” University of California at Berkely Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal 2.3: pages unknown.

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