How to Write like John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631) is perhaps one of the most famous “Renaissance Men”. Born in London, the apple did not fall too far from the tree, so to speak. After struggling to find prominence as a poet for several decades, he ended up joining the Church of England, and became one of the most vocal and popular speakers at St.Paul’s Cathedral, where he became the dean near the end of his life.

Donne can teach you a lot about poetry. He’s clever, witty, erotic and bawdy, a romantic and a rake, a philosopher and a philanderer. I want you to learn how to write like him because he was one of the first to bring an almost scientific complexity to his work, even if most of his poems were fairly low-brow verses of seduction . In this article, you’ll recognize some of his more famous sayings, and hopefully I can teach you how to create words of the same magnitude someday. Here are seven tips for writing like Donne .

1. Make really elaborate metaphors.

Sometimes the metaphors are so crazy they are ridiculous, but that’s the point. The attempt to connect the dots is not only a sign of your wit, but a sign of your courage as a poet.Consider perhaps his most famous analogy, that of the “compass” from “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

His compass (More akin to a modern day protractor) is a perfect analogy because it suggests that one’s soul will only move if the “fix’d foot” of the other person does. And the further one moves away from the other, the more desirous they become. Don’t revert to the sensitive flower or the mighty lion. Challenge yourself to be bold and complex and your readers will become more devoted.

2. You must be wicked, biting, and even a little erotic.

People did not only enjoy Donne because of his cleverness, but also his bravado. He starts many of his poems with bold statements that grab the reader’s attention, and often will continue with them until you’re convinced he’s suggesting something dirty. But as his lines in  “To His Mistress Going To Bed” demonstrate, he’s only being overt to play with you:

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,

While I won’t go as far as comparing it to “Blurred Lines”, Donne is by trade a seduction poet. While I would argue that he does objectify and does engage in the “male gaze”, his poetry is meant to be inflammatory. The point is that, as a listener, you should see through his BS if you read it close enough. Only the naive reader will overlook the deliberate flaws of his analogies.

3. Force your reader to follow you.

Donne does this in several ways, but perhaps the most effective thing you can do is tell a story with your visuals. In “The Sunne Rising”, Donne uses his elaborate image of the sun to lead his reader for an adventure and back again:

Thy beams so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and, tomorrow late, tell me
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear ‘All here in one bed lay’.

Donne is arguing that his subject shouldn’t leave him because, like the sun, the world of pleasure and opulence is captured within his eyes (aka she is the world to him). More importantly, though, it’s about using the eyes and visual markers to guide your reader forth.

4. Find your images first. A train. A house. A tank full of piranhas. Then figure out what to do.

Donne’s most famous example of the image-before-idea can be found in his poem, “The Flea”, where an aberrant bug becomes a way to convince his subject to get closer to him:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

The flea represents nature’s way of acting out the amourous and the erotic. If their blood can mix in it, why can’t they mix in other ways? As Judith Scherer Herz explains in her essay, “Rereading Donne’s Poetry ,”Donne seems more interested in finding what he could do with the flea than what the flea could do for him. The figure is often more important than what it illustrates. It is precisely this quality that the often-invoked word, wit, identifies.”

5. Your poem is not a statement. It’s a science experiment.

During John Donne’s time, Europe was experiencing the Copernican Revolution, the rise of the scientific method, as well as the beginning of overseas exploration. As a true Renaissance man, Donne used all of the knowledge at his disposal to formulate his poems. in Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud, he puts ‘death’ under the microscope and scrutinizes it to its bitter end. While the poem begins in despair, he realizes that even death cannot survive:

Thou [Death] art 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.

As  Herz puts it,”Once an argument begins to take shape, it is examined closely, put under pressure, sometimes discarded, sometimes triumphantly reasserted, the intellect engaged along with the emotions.” Never take a simplistic idea for granted–work with it until its bitter end.

6.Mix the high with the low. 

As critic Andrew Hadfield puts it, “Donne’s best poetry is adept at relating the superficial to the profound, connecting the demotic and the philosophical.”In many of Donne’s poems, he uses this tool as an act of conviction–when his listener thinks him lewd, he becomes philosophical. When esoteric, he lowers his subject matter. In “To His Mistress Going To Bed”, he tries to convince a woman to sleep with him by associating her clothes to the celestial heavens:

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.

It’s a bit crude, yes, but the poem is more about how he can relate the high with the bawdy, even if it may seem impossible.

7. No matter what or who you’re writing about, every poem that you write must be an act of conviction and not just a passing thought.

One of his most famous works, ‘No Man is an Island’, has since become an idiomatic celebration of human unity. The last lines were also the inspiration for Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Here you can see the elaborate  metaphor, the guiding of the audience with its complexity, the land becoming not just a metaphor but an active, flowing expression of life and death. Remember that, as poets, it may be difficult to have the ear of every keen listener, but sometimes, the right words and the right argument will leave an imprint in the coldest of hearts.

2 thoughts on “How to Write like John Donne

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