John Donne’s Use of Metaphorical Conceit

John Donne uses metaphysical conceit in his poems, sermons, and passages to communicate a message to the reader. There are numerous examples of his use of metaphors as well his conveyance of ideas through imagery and alternate ways of thought. The following will illustrate out some poignant metaphors Donne used in some of his many works.

In his poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning (Valediction), John Donne relates his views on the human condition of love and its relationship to the soul through the self-importance of drawing compasses. Donne shows the reader a separation of body and soul in his first stanza: “As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls to go,/ Whilst some of their sad friends do say/ The breath goes now, and some say, No;” (Donne). This seems to say that the soul is not a part of the body, and it is only combined with the body until death, when it “goes”. The use of the word “whisper” suggests that the soul and body can communicate with each other. Furthermore, the word “virtuous” implies that “un-virtuous” men may not be able to whisper to their souls. The separation of body and soul is an essential concept to the poem as it continues on. Donne explains this in later stanzas. The fact that the “friends” disagree on this separation of body and soul requires more explanation, but maybe Donne is showing that people do not generally agree with his assumptions.

In The Flea, Donne uses a flea as a metaphor for intercourse resulting in conception, a marriage bed, a sacred site, a sacrificial victim, and the lover, himself “Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, / Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” (Donne). Metaphors are also evident in A Nocturnal Upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day, where the winter solstice, which the poem celebrates, serves as a metaphor for the poet’s hopes. The sun is also compared, in a metaphorical sense, to a “gun shooting powder from powder flasks”(footnote 2), in small intervals like firecrackers; “The sun is spent, and now his flasks/Send forth light squibs” (Donne).

In Holy Sonnet #14, Donne uses metaphors to compare the reader to an “unsurped town”, meaning something like a rebel group of people in a city being taken over by the lord. He uses this perhaps to show that God will come and save the reader and that the reader should welcome God to take him. One of the most prevalent works in which metaphysical conceit is used is in John Donne’s Meditation 17. In this work, Donne compares human life to a chapter in a book. “âÂ?¦all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated”. This is a clear comparison to death; when we die, he compares our death or passing to a language simply being translated. He also says that “God employs several translators”, meaning that there are many ways that death occurs. “Some pieces are translated by age, some by sicknessâÂ?¦”.

Another metaphor in Meditation 17 is when Donne compares a man to an island, insisting that man is not an island; “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. Donne is saying that no person is its own entity, but that a person is a part of “society”, which is represented as the continent in the passage.

Ultimately, John Donne expresses his ideas via metaphysical conceit in order to have the reader think about what he is saying as well as try to relate his message to the reader on a semi-personal basis. Not all people during Donne’s time period were educated, or could read for that matter. By using metaphors and comparing ideas to simple things such as books, compasses, the sun, etc., Donne is possibly expressing his idea to the reader in a more simplified form. His metaphors are comprehensible as well as literal expressions of his religious and moral beliefs, his beliefs as a preacher as well as a man.

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