JOHN DONNE: SELECTED POEMS
Notes and prompts, with extracts from the
Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, by
Donne was born in 1572 and raised in a Catholic
family - when this was highly dangerous!
He studied law and was appointed secretary to Sir
Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great
At 29, he secretly married his lover, Anne More –
who was the niece of his employer – for which he
was briefly imprisoned. The marriage was
eventually declared valid – but Donne lost his job.
He moved to the country and had 12 children with
Anne – though only 6 survived.
He became an Anglican minister, and after Anne
died, he became the Dean of St Paul’s.
RELIGIOUS ATTITUDES– AO4
“Donne came of age during a time when religious
belief was passionately debated and politically
fraught. Within two generations the government
had abandoned Roman Catholicism under Henry
V111 (r 1509-47) and institutionalised the
Protestant Reformation under Edward VI (r 154753), only to return to Catholicism with Queen Mary
(r 1553-58) and back again to Protestantism with
Queen Elizabeth (r 1558-1603).
The law required monthly attendance at the
services of the Church of England, but dissent was
“Donne sharpened his poetic skills in an era when
harbouring a Catholic priest could cost you your
life, in a world where wooing, seducing and
marrying a young heiress could either secure your
future or land you in prison and destroy your
career, and in a patronage culture where writing is
brilliant, delicately veiled poems of praise could
win valuable support.”
The Metaphysical poets were writing during the
first half of the 17th Century.
They were famous for combining explorations of
passion with clever intellectual arguments.
The characteristic tone of persuasion
Use of the conceit – an extended metaphor that
intends to surprise and delight by its wit and
ingenuity – an intellectual rather than sensory
Considerable flexibility of rhyme and metre
A love of paradox
Double-meanings and puns
Donne’s poems were not intended for the general
public – they were addressed to an exclusive
private audience – sometimes even individuals.
“In early modern England, plays and printed books
were subject to government censorship. Donne
could speak more openly about sex, morality,
religion and politics by writing for a carefully
chosen private audience.”
This collection is a core text for the exam.
You will need to answer a question on Donne, from
a choice of five.
You will also need to connect Donne’s poetry to an
unseen poem, from a choice of five. This unseen
poem becomes the partner text.
Remember that this is a closed-book exam.
Introduction to the conceit
The flea works as an extended metaphor in each
stanza, and its meaning adapts as Donne’s argument
What does the flea mean in each stanza?
Is it an effective conceit?
Remember that the idea here was to be striking,
unusual and witty!
The jokes of ‘The Flea’ work on different
levels for different readers!
What do you make of the woman that the speaker of the
poem is addressing?
‘THE GOOD MORROW’
What are the lovers waking from, symbolically?
How does Donne portray his love?
‘GO AND CATCH A FALLING STAR’
In the first two stanzas, what is Donne urging his
reader/s to do?
What is he comparing these tasks to in the third
What would you say is the tone of the poem? Is it
sexist or playful? Misogynistic or mischievous?
‘SWEETEST LOVE, I DO NOT GO’
‘It’s not you, it’s me…’
Explore Donne’s presentation of leaving his lover
in the poem.
Find evidence to support your interpretation, and
prepare to argue your case:
Team 1: this poem is reassuring and romantic – it’s a
promise to return
Team 2: this poem is insincere and manipulative – it’s
about a break-up
‘THE SUN RISING’
Explore Donne’s presentation of:
His relationship with his lover
‘A VALEDICTION FORBIDDING MOURNING’
What does he compare the ideal parting to in the
Does stanza two sound like he wants the parting to
be dignified, or like the relationship is a secret?
How does Donne portray his relationship with his
lover as different and more profound than other
Explore Donne’s use of imagery in the last four
Donne “mocks the futility of the conventional
Petrarchan lover, stuck in a stock conceit and
frozen in a static love for an inaccessible, heavenly
‘Canonisation’ is the process of transforming a
person into a saint – i.e. the decision that a person
merits the status of saint.
Stanza 1: Donne’s presentation of politics, wealth &
Stanza 2: Donne parodies Petrarchan ideas and
classic romantic hyperbole
Stanza 3: Donne uses metaphors to describe the
intensity and uniqueness of his love
Stanza 4: Donne presents himself and his lover as
the ‘saints’ of love
‘THE CANONISATION’ - INTERPRETATIONS
Discuss and debate the following:
This is an “anti-political love poem”
The poem is a “coded, ironic rumination on the
‘ruined fortune’ and dashed political hopes of the
The poem is a “defence of love against the
corrupting values of politics and privilege”
This poem was inspired by Marlowe’s ‘The
Passionate Shepherd to His Love’, which was
parodied by other writers for its overblown pastoral
In it, the shepherd promises his love an idyllic life
with him, if she chooses to “live with me and be my
There are different interpretations of the poem –
one is that this pastoral ideal is innocent and
beautiful, and another is that it is calculated and
manipulative – designed to seduce.
EXTRACT FROM MARLOWE’S POEM
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant poises,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
Is the speaker male or female?
How does Donne transform the pastoral imagery of
What view of the original do you think Donne had?.
How is Donne’s relationship with his lover different
from everything else in stanza one?
What effect does Donne imagine death will have on
Explore Donne’s presentation of the relationship in
stanza three, focusing on his comparison to royalty.
Work through the following four poems on your
own or with your table group:
‘The Triple Fool’
‘Air and Angels’
Approach these as unseen poems, and make sure
you collect plenty of detailed notes for revision.
FURTHER READING: SONGS & SONNETS
Read ten more poems from this section. Apply
your practical criticism skills, and try to figure
You may wish to divide these poems up in your
groups, so that you can trade notes.
As a form, elegies are often mournful poems
lamenting the loss of a loved one
A typical feature is ‘elegaic couplets’
Elegies can also used for witty, humorous and
satiric ideas – and Donne’s elegies fit more neatly
into this definition.
Some of Donne’s poems are classified as ‘funeral
elegies’ to distinguish them from his other
elegies. You may wish to work through these
‘TO HIS MISTRESS GOING TO BED’
“Donne is less an idealist or an aesthete than a
builder, an explorer, a sceptic, a sensualist.”
“He writes with remarkable frankness about sex”
Explore Donne’s presentation of sex and
relationships in the poem.
You can also see this in ‘Elegy: Love’s Progress’, and ‘Sappho
to Philaenis’, the latter of which “also gives female creative
and female sexuality a voice”.
Explore Donne’s presentation of parting in the
poem, focusing on:
How Donne uses the picture of himself
How Donne compares young love to adult love
How this poem compares to ‘A Valediction
Explore Donne’s presentation of mature love in the
How does this poem compare to ‘His Picture’?
“The witty turn of the ending sends us back to the
beginning to rethink what we thought we
Read through 5 epigrams from this section. Use the
notes at the back of the book to help you with the
classical references if necessary.
Can you write some of your own?
“The famously knotty satires mock stupidity,
deride self-indulgence, and attack corruption. They
also seek the one true Church.”
“Donne’s third satire scorns the fictitious Graius for
accepting the state church simply because
some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws,
Still like new fashions, bid him think that she
Which dwells with us is only perfect.
Donne’s search for the one true Church soon turns into
a search for truth itself, a pursuit so rigorous that it
requires the fearless perseverance of a mountain
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and must about go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
For Donne, the road to knowledge, whether secular or
religious, is always a ‘strange way’, circuitous but
Explore Donne’s presentation of faith in the poem.
“Donne’s divine poems are filled with images of
erotic, secular love, just as his love poems are
permeated with references to exalted spiritual love,
because the dynamic is strikingly similar.”
THE HOLY SONNETS
These were written towards the end of Donne’s life.
What is a sonnet?
What sort of sonnets are these?
Shakespearian, Petrarchan, Spenserian…?
‘HOLY SONNET II’
Explore Donne’s presentation of God and the Devil
in the poem.
How would you describe the tone of the poem?
‘HOLY SONNET V’
How does this poem develop the contrast between
good and evil that we saw in Holy Sonnet II?
How is the tone of this poem different to Holy
Explore the imagery or drowning and burning in
‘HOLY SONNET X’
This is one of Donne’s most famous divine poems.
Explore Donne’s presentation of death in the poem.
‘HOLY SONNET XIV’
In this poem, Donne calls for God to “batter” his
heart rather than “knock”.
How does the presentation of God compare to the
other Holy Sonnets we have read so far?
Explore Donne’s use of romantic and sexual
language in the poem.
‘HOLY SONNET XIX’
Explore Donne’s presentation of his faith in the
How does this compare to the other Holy Sonnets
we have read?
Read through the remaining Holy Sonnets – apply
your poetry-deciphering skills and make detailed
notes for your revision.