After John Donnes poetry became prominent again in the 20th century, many critics have tried to identify the source of Donnes persuasiveness throughout his poems. Some related this to his masculine expression. Some others related it to the manly culture of the speakers. Others still believed in the idea that Donne has reached to this level of persuasiveness through manipulation of language. But it seems that Donne's convincing power cannot be attributed to these techniques alone. This paper will briefly introduce three major techniques which can be considered as the source of his persuasiveness.
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If we want to categorize Donne's poetry into some groups, two groups surely will constitute his argumentative and seductive poems. In the first one, the speaker tries to persuade someone to take a specific action or to adopt a certain point of view or at least has an appreciation for the speaker's argumentative skill. The speakers in the argumentative poems have different aims: one tries to stop people from criticizing his love, while another tries to get the sun to stop shining into his room. The convincing power of an argumentative poem is determined by whether or not the reader side with the speaker at the end of the poem rather than the speaker's opponent. The listeners can be referred to as witnesses than a participant in this debate and in this position they can evaluate the persuasiveness of the poem by determining the effect of the poem on them. In the other group which is seductive poems, the speaker shares a common purpose in making his arguments: to get a woman to sleep with him. The approach that Donne is using here to persuade his loves is to construct logical arguments. So the seductive poems can also be considered as pieces of persuasion because the speaker's success is based on the strength of the argument.
Analyzing Donne's argumentative and seductive poems makes it clear that there are some repeated techniques at work in these poems. These techniques help the speakers create powerful arguments that persuade the readers.
One technique that is found in almost all of Donne's persuasive poems is that his speakers systematically prove each claim. This is clearly achieved by his great ability in using wit and reason even in his most sensuous poems that is called the association sensibility. Even his most passionate poems work by reason and logic. This logic can be seen when Donne's speakers give examples and evidence to support their claims.
The other persuasive technique found in many of Donne's poems is using vivid metaphors and similes to ground the arguments in a pleasing and convincing way. Donne's speakers use these poetic devices not for decoration but to help explain abstract concepts of love. This practical use of literary devices can be seen clearly in the fact that many of Donne's metaphors come from ordinary objects that are familiar. Many of Donne's images come from business or are objects that can be found in urban settings. This familiarity makes the metaphors easy to understand, which is useful in persuading a reader.
And the last repeated technique used in most of Donne's argumentative and seductive poems is that his speakers use a bold and direct manner of expression. In this delivery technique, Donne includes lines that contain especially loaded words delivered in a straightforward manner which in turn gives it a tremendous force. This force helps persuade the readers by adding emotional power to the logic of the argument.
This paper attempts to show the application of aforementioned techniques, through a detailed analysis, in three of Donne's most famous persuasive poems: 'The Apparition', 'Sun Rising', and 'The Flea'.
In 'The Apparition', Donne's speaker employs very unconventional methods to seduce a woman. Instead of using flattery or romantic lines, the speaker uses frightening words in order to get the woman to be with him. This method is so unconventional that many readers do not read 'The Apparition' as a seductive poem.
While the majority of readers do not consider 'The Apparition' to be a seductive poem, there is textual evidence to the contrary. Early in the poem, the speaker alludes to past attempts to seduce the woman when he says, "And that thou thinkst thee free/From all solicitation from mee" (1-2). The word solicitation indicates that the speaker has been romantically interested in the woman. This interest introduces the idea that the speaker's ultimate goal may be to seduce the woman.
The idea that the speaker's aim is seduction is confirmed at the poem's conclusion when the speaker says, "I had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,/Than by my threatnings rest still innocent" (16-17). The crime the woman needs to repent for is revealed earlier in the poem when the speaker says the woman is killing him by refusing his advances. The woman can be innocent if she accepts the speaker's solicitations and thus ceases to kill him. This conclusion shows that the speaker's aim all along has been for the woman to sleep with him. This intent characterizes 'The Apparition' as a seductive poem. The technique the speaker uses to seduce the woman is to frighten her into being with him. The speaker hopes that if he scares the woman enough, she will choose to be with him to avoid facing the grim future that awaits her if she rejects him.
While this approach is unconventional, the speaker has tried seducing the woman through conventional approaches that have failed. Frightening the woman is a way for the speaker to try a new technique since his old techniques are not working. The first fear technique employed by the speaker is a strong line at the beginning of the poem. The speaker opens by saying, "When by thy scorne, O murdresse, I am dead" (1). This line is strongly worded in that it uses words loaded with negative connotations like murdresse and dead. By accusing the woman of murder at the beginning, the speaker is establishing an aggressive tone that carries an emotional force throughout the rest of the poem. This emotional force puts the woman in a vulnerable position, and sets her up to be persuaded.
The predominant fear strategy employed by the speaker is to threaten the woman. The threat takes the form of a ghost that will haunt her as the speaker reveals when saying, "Then shall my ghost come to thy bed" (4). This threat is consistent with the claim that the woman is killing the speaker since ghosts are thought to avenge undeserved deaths. Being haunted by a ghost is a frightening prospect that the woman would want to avoid. If the ghost's presence is not intimidating enough, the speaker claims that the ghost will issue a frightening proclamation. The speaker says, "What I will say, I will not tell thee now,/Lest that preserve thee'" (14-15). The I the speaker refers to is his ghost. There are many painful utterances the ghost can make, such as cursing the woman or damning her, but the speaker does not reveal what will be said.
Not revealing what the ghost will say is another way in which the speaker further frightens the woman. The final way in which the speaker frightens the woman into being with him is by negatively depicting the alternative. The speaker gives a grim portrait of the man she will be with if she does not accept him when he says: "And he, whose thou art then, being tyr'd before, Will, if you stirre, or pinch to wake him, thinke Thou call'st for more, And in false sleepe will from thee shrinke, And then poore Aspen wretch, neglected thou Bath'd in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lye" (7-12). The woman's future lover is presented as pathetic. He does not have much ability in bed since he pretends to be sleeping to avoid having sex. He also is not protective since he does not come to the woman's aid when she is confronted by the ghost. With this description, the speaker tries to convince the woman into thinking that she would be better off had she accepted him. This is a type of threat since the speaker presents a scene of future misery if she does not accept him. By threatening, the speaker tries to get the woman to be with him out of fear of the alternatives.
Through using strongly worded lines, threatening the woman, and negatively depicting the competition, Donne's speaker makes the unusual attempt at seducing the woman through fear. It is safe to say that the speaker is very effective in frightening the woman, but it is unknown whether this approach will cause the lady to accept him. This approach certainly has the advantage of novelty, and since standard seduction techniques were not working on the woman, maybe a novel approach will.
The Sun Rising
'The Sunne Rising' is one of Donne's most popular poems. It is unique among Donne's argumentative poems in that the speaker addresses an inanimate object, the Sun. In the poem, the speaker is lying in bed with his lover and is upset that sunlight is shining through the window. The speaker makes an argument to try to get the Sun to leave so he and his lover can stay in bed.
The poem is not truly argumentative, however, because in the middle of the poem the speaker turns from arguing with the Sun to praising the woman he is with. Until the focus shifts, the persuasive technique found in the poem is a personal attack through insulting the Sun, challenging its power, and giving it commands. These techniques give force to the speaker's delivery and lower the audience's impression of the Sun. The persuasive force of the poem comes from the angry tone the speaker uses when talking to the Sun. From the start of the poem, the speaker establishes his angry tone by insulting the Sun. Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us? Must to thy motions lovers seasons run (1-4). In a formal argument, it would be unmannerly to insult an opponent. By insulting the Sun, the speaker shows that he is so overcome with anger that he is unable to restrain himself. This emotion carries over through the rest of the poem and gives the speaker's words additional force.
Additionally, insults diminish the power and the importance of the Sun by generating the idea that the Sunne does not need to be respected. In arguments, if one person, or the Sun, is well respected, they have credibility with the audience. By insulting the Sun, the speaker eliminates this advantage. The speaker further diminishes the importance of the Sun by questioning the power it possesses. At one point, the speaker challenges the Sun's brightness by saying: Thy beames, so reverend, and strong Why shouldst thou thinke? I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke, But that I would not lose her sight so long (11-14). The speaker is not impressed by the Sun's brightness since he can close his eyes if he chooses. This attack severely challenges the Sun's power since brightness is the most important attribute of the Sun. If the Sun's brightness is not respected, then there is no reason to respect the Sun.
Another way the speaker diminishes the importance of the Sunne is by giving it orders. The speaker suggests that the Sun take alternative actions: "Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide Late schoole boyes and sowre prentices, Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride, Call countrey ants to harvest offices" (5-8). These suggestions take the form of direct commands. By giving orders to the Sun, the speaker asserts that he has the power. The unconcerned content of the orders reinforces the speaker's power by portraying the Sun as merely a nuisance the speaker wants to be rid of. By diminishing the Sun and establishing that he is the one with power, the speaker gains credibility with the audience.
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While argumentative elements and persuasive techniques are present in the first part of the poem, they are absent later on. Instead of arguing with the Sun, the speaker turns his attention to praising the woman that he is with. Romantic lines abound as when the speaker says "She'is all States, and all Princes, I,/Nothing else is" (21-22). The speaker is consumed by the woman. This change of purpose is characterized when the speaker tells the Sun to stay in the room and just to shine on them: "Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee To warme the world, that's done in warming us. Shine here to us, and thou art every where; this bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare" (27-30). Telling the Sun to stay in the room is the complete opposite of what the speaker wanted in the first half of the poem. The speaker becomes so focused on his love that he forgets his initial argument.
While parts of the poem are extremely argumentative, 'The Sun Rising' is not a complete argumentative poem since the argument does not carry through till the end. While the poem may not truly be argumentative, it certainly is persuasive. By personally attacking the Sun through insults, challenging its power, and giving orders, the speaker crafts a forceful delivery and causes the audience to transfer any importance and reverence for the Sun to himself. The speaker possesses influence with readers, which causes them to side with him. Noticeably, the speaker does not rely on logic to make his argument. 'The Sun Rising' shows how a speaker can craft a persuasive argument solely with a forceful delivery and personal attacks.
The persuasive techniques Donne includes in his persuasion poems culminate in 'The Flea'. In addition to being Donne's most popular poem, 'The Flea' is the ultimate seductive poem. No matter how little success he has, Donne's speaker refuses to give up and keeps trying to win over the woman.
Many persuasive techniques are found in 'The Flea', including the use of a common metaphor, vigorously presenting the argument of the speaker, and adapting the argument's logic to fit the situation. By basing the argument on a flea, Donne's speaker uses the persuasive technique of employing a common metaphor.
The speaker establishes the metaphor at the beginning of the poem by saying, "Marke but this flea, and marke in this,/How little that which thou deny'st me is" (1-2). By examining the flea, the speaker intends to show the woman that having sex is not a big deal. The flea is significant because it sucks blood. The speaker says, "It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,/And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee" (3-4). In Donne's time, sex was thought to involve the mixing of blood, so the flea biting the man and woman is a metaphor for sex. Although this is the reason the flea was chosen as a metaphor, it has other persuasive benefits.
A flea is an ordinary object that is familiar. This familiarity makes it a good choice as a metaphor, since it is able to be understood to the connections that Donne draws. The metaphor is also a good choice because the flea is a natural object. Metaphors drawn from natural occurrences are the most credible. They represent an ideal state because they are free from human intervention. People are more willing to apply the lessons of such metaphors to their own lives. For these reasons, using the flea as a metaphor is a good persuasive strategy.
A second persuasive technique employed by the speaker is to vigorously present the speaker's argument at the expense of the woman's. 'The Flea' is a dramatic argument in that both sides argue their point of view. The woman's reactions, however, are not revealed in the lines, but rather take place in the stanza breaks. The reader learns about the woman's response in the opening lines of the second and third stanzas. In the second stanza, the reader learns that the woman is getting ready to smash the flea when the speaker says, "Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare" ( 10). In the third stanza, the reader learns that the woman has killed the flea when the speaker says, "Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since/Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence" (19- 20). With these lines, the speaker makes the woman seem cruel for taking such harsh actions against the flea. Since these actions represent the woman's response, this characterization articulates the woman's argument.
The only reference to the woman's argument comes near the end of the poem when the speaker says, "Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou/Find'st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now" (23-24). The speaker's prior coloring makes the act seem like needless aggression rather than a triumph. Her claim similarly lacks the argument. The disparity in presenting the two arguments causes the speaker to have the persuasive advantage over the woman.
In 'The Flea', the speaker's most noteworthy technique is adjusting his arguments in response to the situation. The speaker goes through a variety of logical approaches in attempting to win over the woman. Initially, the speaker tries to argue that having sex is not a big deal. He uses a proof by definition to show that the flea sucking blood from the two of them is the equivalent of sex. If sex consists of the mixing of blood, then the flea biting both of them can be thought of as sex. This approach is persuasive since proofs by definitions are logically sound. Once the speaker establishes that the flea bite resembles sex, the speaker minimizes the scale of the act by saying, "Thou know'st that this cannot be said/A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead" (5-6). The flea bite does not carry all of the negative ramifications associated with sex. The speaker implies that since the acts are equal, then sex similarly should not carry with it all of the negative connotations. Those ramifications are presumably why the woman does not want to have sex with the speaker. The speaker uses the metaphor of a flea to alleviate the woman's fears.
Ultimately, this approach does not work; the woman not only denies sex with the speaker, but she also makes a move to smash the flea. When the speaker's initial approach fails, he adjusts his argument. The second stanza is not as much about getting the woman to have sex as it is stopping her from killing the flea. The speaker attempts to prevent her from killing the flea by giving much greater importance to the flea bite, such as when he says, "where we almost, yea more than married are./This flea is you and I, and this/Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is" (11-13). Since parts of themselves share such close quarters in the flea, the speaker equates that to marriage. While in the first stanza downplays the significance of the flea bite, the second stanza builds up the importance of the act.
Since the first approach failed, the speaker attempts a different strategy. This argument is not as strong as the first. Comparing the meaning of their blood in the flea to marriage is a stretch, but the situation meets some of the requirements that define marriage. The speaker additionally tries to convince the woman not to kill the flea by raising moral issues. The speaker says, "Though use make you apt to kill mee,/Let not to that, selfe murder added bee,/And sacrilege, three sins in killing three" (16-18). The three sins the woman would commit if she killed the flea would be murdering the speaker, suicide, and committing disrespect against their marriage temple. Appealing to the woman's morality is a good tactic because she is concerned with sin, since that is one of her fears regarding sex. This line of reasoning is another example of the speaker fitting his argument to the situation.
The speaker's persuasive techniques once again fail as, despite his efforts, the woman kills the flea. This occurs in the break between stanzas two and three. Killing the flea is the woman's way of refuting the notion that the flea has the importance that the speaker gives it in stanza two. By killing the flea, the woman also communicates that the speaker's plan to use the metaphor of the flea to persuade her into having sex will not work. The speaker responds to the woman by once again changing his argument. First, he calls the woman cruel for killing the flea. Claiming that the violence is unnecessary, he says, "Wherein could this flea guilty bee,/Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?". (21-22). The speaker tries to get the woman to recognize that she was wrong in her actions and, by extension, in her argument. The speaker then tries to minimize the significance of her killing the flea and uses it to convince her to have sex with him. The speaker says, "Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;/Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,/Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee" (25-27). The speaker reverses the argument he made in stanza two to once again show the importance of the flea. He argues that as much honor will be lost in having sex as life was lost by being bitten by the flea. This is the weakest argument in the poem, since the connection between blood loss and honor does not make much sense.
With this argument, the speaker is making one last attempt at seducing the woman. The speaker adapts his argument a great deal in 'The Flea'. When his initial plan of minimizing the flea to subsequently showing the magnitude of sex fails, he completely reverses his approach to elevating the importance of the flea. His attention also shifts from trying to get the woman to sleep with him to trying to stop her from killing the flea. When the woman kills the flea, the speaker shifts his argument again. He shows the significance of the flea to minimize the woman's response. He also returns his focus to trying to get the woman to sleep with him. Ultimately the speaker's seduction efforts probably fail. His logic gets progressively weaker as the poem progresses. Since the woman rejects his initial arguments, it is unlikely that she will be swayed by the inferior arguments he makes later. Although the speaker fails to seduce the woman, his effort is admirable. His techniques of basing his argument on a common, natural object and vigorously presenting his own arguments give him a persuasive advantage. He then shows great skill and persistence in molding his arguments throughout the poem. The speaker's failure cannot be blamed on his approach or his amount of effort.
In examining these poems, it is clear that more than any other factor, the persuasive techniques that Donne's speakers employ make the arguments in his poems convincing. Donne uses a variety of techniques to help his speakers either win an argument or seduce a woman. The techniques found most often in Donne's persuasive poems are 1) systematically proving each claim, 2) employing vivid metaphors and similes to ground the arguments in a pleasing and convincing fashion, and 3) using a bold and direct manner of expression. There are also numerous techniques specific to individual poems that aid in convincing an audience. These persuasive techniques are not exclusive to Donne's poems, and can be found in many pieces of writing in which the speaker attempts to persuade his audience. Studying a master of rhetoric like Donne provides persuasive skills that can be used in everyday life.
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