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Both John Donne (1572 - 1631) and Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678) use themes and images that are typically characteristic of the time in which their poems were written, in particular expressing the attitudes held towards women during this period.
One of many themes used in these poems are the narrator's attempts to persuade the woman to sleep with him. Both Marvell and Donne use this, in their respective poems, 'To His Coy Mistress' and 'The Sun Rising'.
Both of these poems capture the frustration felt by the narrator, as for one reason or another he cannot get what he wants. In 'To His Coy Mistress', the frustration felt is due to the reluctance of the woman. He feels that the coyness felt by the woman would be immaterial, should they have infinite amounts of time, but he describes time as
' at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near.
This pre-occupation with time is characteristic of the metaphysical poets of the time, and many adopted a more carpe diem mentality as a result of this. The metaphor for time as a chariot at one's back is interesting as it gives the impression that time is always catching up with you, and you are never rid of it. This can be linked to Donne's 'The Sun Rising', in which the narrator's initial anger towards the sun is due to his reluctance to accept that it is already morning, and that time hasn't done what he has wanted it to do,
Marvell uses hyperbole in the first stanza of 'To His Coy Mistress', saying that
' An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; '
Marvell uses this example to exemplify the narrator's case; if he had infinite time, he would have no hesitation in spending one hundred years to admire her beauty, but, as it is, he has no control over their short lives and therefore would prefer the woman to become a little less reluctant. The flattering of the woman's beauty becomes particularly obvious during ll. 13 - 17, and yet, the entire first stanza of this poem is based on an impossible premise of one having infinite amounts of time.
The narrator also uses time in the third stanza, but instead of pretending to have infinite amounts of time, the narrator seems to take a more desperate tone and uses the idea of time running out. He points out that one day, the attraction between them will end and so they should enjoy what they have while it lasts.
Marvell links time, flattery of the woman's beauty and religious imagery in this poem. In line 8, the narrator says how he would love her 'ten years before the flood', which clearly shows us the religious imagery; many people believed that the Bible was historically accurate, and that the Earth's age could be dated through the Bible. Therefore, the narrator is flattering the woman by saying that, in effect, he had been loving the woman for longer than the existence of the Earth.
An obvious theme common to most of the poems is the beauty of the woman itself. Many of the poems describe in great detail the woman's appearance, perhaps in order to flatter the woman so that she might take notice of the narrator.
For example, in 'The Fair Singer' by Andrew Marvell, the woman's beauty is almost unavoidable for the narrator; he does not want to fall in love with the woman, but cannot help himself due to her physical beauty and the beauty of her voice. This is how the narrator feels in 'The Fair Singer', that he is powerless against the beauty of this woman. However, the negative attitude portrayed by the male narrator in this poem is very unusual, as metaphysical poetry normally consists of the yearning male and the reluctant female.
Marvell uses metonymy in this poem, using the sun to represent her physical beauty and the wind to represent the beauty of her singing voice. The narrator feels as if the beautiful voice of the woman is entangling and trapping him,
'Whose subtle art invisibly can wreathe
My fetters of the very air I breathe?'
This idea is very interesting, as at the time of writing, sound waves had not yet been discovered. From the language and imagery Marvell uses, it appears that he is using the idea of the vibrations in the air from her voice trapping him and not letting him escape. 'The Fair Singer' mainly comprises of the narrator watching the woman from a distance, not wanting to get involved with her but finding his resistance futile.
The narrator also admires the woman's beauty in 'To His Coy Mistress', although this praise is not there just for admiration of the woman; the flattery of the woman is intended to make her relent and agree to sleep with the narrator. In the fifth line of this poem, the narrator flatters the woman by placing her by the side of the river Ganges, somewhere exotic and romantic, and at the time this poem was written, it would have been like a place of myth. Whilst there, he says she shall find rubies, again emphasising her beauty and almost saying that her beauty requires such a setting.
The idea of two people in love creating a private world for themselves is a main theme in John Donne's 'The Sun Rising'. This poem expresses the idea that when people are so in love, the outside world does not matter, and that the whole world is just you and your lover.
'She is all States, and all Princes, I
Nothing else is.'
This is a typically characteristic quote, as it encompasses both the idea of the private world and the geographical imagery, and also the views about women at the time. The idea that the woman is all the states of the world, and he King of them, shows us that they have created their own world in which she is the land and he rules over her. This, therefore, also shows us how women were perceived at the time; the man was always the one to rule over the woman.
The narrator initially feels negatively towards the sun, saying that it is a 'busy old fool'. However, by the beginning of the third stanza, his opinion of the sun has softened and the narrator recognises that the sun is getting old, and if its duty is to shine on the world, it is carrying that out very well by shining on just the two of them, and that with the sun's growing age, it would be much easier for it to orbit just the two lovers:
'Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done by warming us.'
Donne also uses the Ptolemaic model of the universe in this poem; the idea that the sun is attached to a crystalline sphere which orbits around the Earth, which was believed to have been the centre of the universe. This can be clearly seen in the last two lines of the poem,
'Since here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed they centre is, these walls thy sphere.'
A typical characteristic of these poems are the conceits: unusual comparisons or metaphors. Also very common are the use of paradox and oxymoron, and both of these characteristics often come hand in hand. Both Andrew Marvell and John Donne use conceits extremely frequently, not only in the poems studied. For example, Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' even has a paradoxical title, whilst in 'The Fair Singer', the beginning of the poem contains a paradox,
'Love did compose so sweet an enemy'
'The Sun Rising' also contains a paradox in the very first line of the poem, as the narrator calls the sun 'unruly', which is completely incorrect as the sun follows a very regular pattern indeed.
Donne uses paradox in quite a few of his poems, in order to create the effect of impossibility and flattery.
Many of the metaphysical poems also have a song-like rhythm, due to the majority of the poems comprising of a regular rhyme scheme and stanza length, with some resulting in an iambic pentameter, 'The Fair Singer' for example. However, this can also be used in reverse, and in some cases, due to irregular stanza length and no rhyme scheme, the poems can give the impression of being spoken aloud, which helps to create a good atmosphere in the poems with a more argumentative tone.
The use of military imagery is quite common of the metaphysical poems, which, again, seems to contradict the overall theme of the poem; it is unusual to use images of death and pain in a poem about love. However, at the time these poems were written, it was considered commonplace.
In Marvell's 'The Fair Singer', the use of military imagery is particularly prominent, and is used to emphasise the feeling of the narrator being conquered by the beauty of the woman. For example, the very first few lines of the poem contain strong military imagery:
'To make a final conquest of all me,
Love did compose so sweet an enemy,'
In the second stanza, some interesting military imagery is used:
'My disentangled soul might save,
Breaking the curled trammels of her hair.'
This imagery is interesting as trammels were nets used in combat to trap the enemy, and in later times used to catch fish. The use of a weapon to describe an object of beauty is entirely unique to this type of poetry.
The last stanza of the poem brings the most interesting imagery of the poem, comparing her beauty to an army, which, due to her physical beauty and the beauty of her voice, has gained all possible advantages in battle:
'It had been easy fighting in some plain,
Where victory might hang in equal choice,
But all resistance against her is vain,
Who has the advantage of both eyes and voice,
And all my forces needs must be undone,
She having gained both the wind and sun.'
The last line is particularly interesting, as it couples both as a compliment to the woman's beauty, but also as a metaphor for war; as the woman has gained both the wind and the sun, she would have the advantage during battle, as having the wind in your back helps with the arrows and the sun in your enemies face hinders sight.
'To His Coy Mistress' only contains one instance of military imagery, in which the feelings between the narrator and the woman are 'rolled' into a cannonball, to be fired through the restrictions of love:
'Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.'
The lack of military imagery in this poem is probably due to the general tone of the poem; it is not intended to be just an admiration of the woman's beauty, but rather an impatient argument and plea by the narrator for the woman to sleep with him, so therefore the military imagery of the man being conquered by the woman does not apply.
Due to the extremely religious beliefs of the majority of society during the seventeenth century, religious imagery is also used in metaphysical poetry. Both John Donne and Andrew Marvell were born to religious families, with Marvell's father being a reverend and Donne's family being devout Catholics.
In Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', there is one example of religious imagery, in which the 'marble vault' creates a sepulchral atmosphere. It is used to add strength to the narrator's argument against the woman - once she has died, they will no longer be able to be together;
'Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song;'