Teaching in the School of Donne:
Metaphysical Poetry and English Composition

Steven Marx
Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo CA

Approaches to Teaching the Metaphysical Poets
Edited By Sidney Gottlieb (New York:MLA, 1990)

What is the practical application of metaphysical wit? Can Donne, Herbert, and Marvell help students learn to write? Is there a place for seventeenth century poetry in the composition curriculum? A number of years ago those questions would have been supererogatory. Teachers of college writing courses assigned essays on literary works of their own preference, assuming that exercise in critical analysis would eventually improve their students' reading, writing, and thinking skills. The metaphysical poets ranked high on the list of subjects for English composition because, in addition to affording aesthetic gratification, they provided unequaled opportunities to display mental gymnastics.

However, since the emergence of composition and rhetoric as an independent, fully articulated discipline, the metaphysical poets rarely make an appearance in the freshman-English classroom. In contrast to the classic essay, the modern short story, or even yesterday's newspaper editorial, abstruse Iyric poetry doesn't seem to fit into the standard writing curriculum. I would suggest, however, at least one element of the curriculum, the subject of diction and style, is uniquely enriched by the study of metaphysical poetry. And I would further argue that an approach to literary interpretation through the rhetorical topics of diction and the use of the dictionary can lead students to original critical insights, specifically into the metaphysical poets and into other literature as well.

I came to that conclusion after designing materials for a program that integrates two first-year requirements at Stanford: a writing course and an introduction to literature, philosophy, and the arts in Western culture. Our approach to these familiar requirements is distinguished by an emphasis on mutually reinforcing objectives. To improve the quality of writing, we provide appropriate subject matter, and, to improve the quality of reading, we demand continual written responses. Classes and assignments are organized around those objectives. Students attend formal lectures about the Western culture on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings. On Wednesday afternoons they divide into small groups to discuss the lectures and readings. On Thursday and Friday mornings they meet with their discussion group leaders for composition classes centered on assignments dealing with the week's Western culture text. In each assignment we stress a specific rhetorical topic - one that fits into an overall sequence of skill development and that correlates with a feature of the week's reading. For example, students focus on the topic of invention by comparing and contrasting Hebrew and Greek versions of creation; they model personal essays on Augustine's Confessions; they uncover hidden assumptions and rationalizations in the process of writing appeals of Dante's last judgments.

According to the sequence prescribed by standard rhetoric curricula, after students become familiar with the large-scale elements of English composition - thesis, paragraph construction, and essay organization - they review sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. Then, before tackling the analysis of persuasive language and the production of a research paper, they examine the microlevel of linguistic organization - diction and style. The purpose of such study is to purge prolixity and vagueness and to teach concision. Under diction and style, we classify the topics of semantics, figurative language, the interplay between sound and sense, denotation and connotation, etymology, and the use of the dictionary.

Through a happy coincidence, our composition course reaches those topics at the same time that the Western culture survey arrives at the seventeenth century. The week's lectures treat aspects of baroque style. One lecture analyzes a Bach cantata, another compares Rembrandt and Bernini, the third contrasts the plain style of Ben Jonson's poetry with the aureate mannerism of John Donne. Discussion groups synthesize the three lectures, relating forms of emotional expression to Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation attitudes. We consider style itself as a function of changing social fashion and as a means of expressing personal identity through the display of posture and ornament. The class analyzes individual poems - Donne's "Canonization" and "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" and Herbert's "Paradise" -primarily with reference to stylistic effects produced by diction: puns, conceits, tone shifts, imagery, sound effects, hieroglyphic devices.

The following day's composition class draws student writing into the discussion of metaphysical diction and style. We choose examples from the poetry for several practical applications:

1. The examples demonstrate that selecting the right word conveys precise denotative and appropriate connotative meanings. I contrast examples of inexact or vague diction from student papers with Donne's use of litigious in the phrase "Lawyers find out still / Litigious men'' ("The Canonization," lines 17-18) to illustrate the power of the mot juste. After searching for synonyms, the students realize that the only denotative alternative would be some awkward circumlocution lacking the wrangling and niggling connotations evoked by the sound of litigious.

2. The poetry examples differentiate the virtues from the vices of ambiguity. To elucidate the richness of a line like "Contemplate, what you will, approve" ("The Canonization," 8), I ask the students to delineate its multiple meanings with unambiguous paraphrases.

3. The examples supply models of writing with stylistic flair. After the students analyze some devices of metaphysical wit, they are willing to play and experiment in their own prose. Having been drilled in the virtues of the plain style throughout their writing course, they are encouraged to use pun (if only in their titles), figurative language, and analogies.

4. The examples occasion the creative use of the dictionary. To achieve even surface comprehension of metaphysical poetry, the students must look up unfamiliar words and usages. That activity can become a rewarding exploration, rather than an onerous routine.

I introduce these applications of the metaphysical poets to English composition with a one-page handout. At its center is a reproduction of the title and final stanza of "The Canonization":

And thus invoke us: You whom reverend love
Made one anothers hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world's soule contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes
(So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize,)
Countries, Townes, Courts: Beg from above
A patterne of your love! (37-45)

Surrounding it like a scriptural commentary are three columns of minuscule print photocopied from the Oxford English Dictionary's entries for pattern and patron. I circle the word patterne in the last line of the poem with a dark handwritten loop from which ten arrows extend in different directions, targeting specific locations in the nest of gloss. The arrow that leads to the upper left part of the page points to the etymology of pattern:

[ME. patron, a., F. patron, which still means both "patron" and "pattern." In 16th c., pa*tron, with shifted accent, evidently began to be pronounced (pa*t'rn) as in apron and spelt patarne, paterne, pattern. By 1700 the original form ceased to be used of things, and patron and pattern became differentiated in form and sense.]

The arrow leading to the upper right part of the page points to the etymology of patron. The remaining arrows lead to distinct definitions of both pattern and patron relevant to a reading of the poem. At the bottom of the handout appears the instruction, "See also entries for canonization, canon, mystery, phoenix, epitomize, glasse." At the top appear the course title, the paper topic, the number of words required, and the date due.

When the students first see the handout, with its multiple typefaces, its mysterious abbreviations, and its strange spellings, they are as bewildered by it as by a recondite Donnean conceit. Deciphering its dense code of information serves as a vehicle for discussion and an in-class start on a writing assignment; it works as an introduction to the OED and as an explication of part of a poem; and it initiates students into the methods and the rewards of literary scholarship.

After explaining the connection between patterne's seventeenth-century double meaning and the Neoplatonic and feudal backgrounds of the poem, I ask the students to discover how the listed variant meanings affect the denotation and the connotations of the concluding line. If everything goes according to plan, they end up marveling at the way each referent - founder of a religious order, protector, advocate, guardian saint, exemplar, paradigm, and specimen - amplifies the speaker's compliment and alludes to a previous image in the poem. The next day the class meets in the reference section of the library. The students bring several key words to look up from the poems they have chosen to write about. Working in pairs and consulting with me or a librarian for help, they carry out their detective work in the OED and in slang dictionaries, reporting their findings to the whole class at the end of the hour. Though their papers need not center on lexical research, the requirement that students include at least three citations from a dictionary virtually eliminates the problem of plagiarism while encouraging the experience of original scholarly discovery. One sort of discovery concerns the iconographical allusions of key words, as in this paper about Herbert's "Easter-Wings":

As the second section begins, the narrator prays for his soul to "rise as larks" in harmony with God. The lark image is symbolic of man's soul, for lark is defined in the OED as "with allusion to the lark's habits; e.g. early song and the height it attains in contrast with the low position of its nest." The soul, like the lark, has a low nest‹earth, and the ability to fly much higher than its nest into heaven. Also, in the next line, the narrator wishes to become one with Christ and to sing praises as the lark sings.

The OED's terse enumeration of the word's connotative reference sheds light on the poem and allows the student credit for a primary find. Further dictionary research leads to a deeper discovery:

The last five-line section is another plea to Christ. The narrator desires to become one with Him by "imp[ing] my wing on shine." Imp is defined in the OED as "to engraft feathers in the wing of a bird so as to make good losses or deficiencies and thus restore or improve the powers of flight." Accordingly, the narrator attempts to improve his powers of flight by having his wings incorporated by Christ's.... Herbert carries the imping method one step further by actually grafting key words and phrases from one set of wings to the other. Examples are victories and the flight in me. It is as if he were imping the first pair of wings onto the second in order to create unity between the two. (Kelly Kodama)

Finding the meaning of an obscure word has not only explicated an image but revealed a distinctive feature of metaphysical style - the imitative form, which displays the correspondence between signifier and signified. The structure of the poem, both verbal and visual, embodies its central action of "imping." Metaphor metamorphoses first into icon and then into concept. Herbert's trick inspires the student, who imps his own figure of speech - grafting key words - on the poet's.

Attention to connotation can also unearth a poem's patterns of organization. Here a student outlines the arrangement of contraries created by connotative diction in Donne's "The Flea":

A tension between greatness and littleness prevails throughout the poem. The title itself, "The Flea," has an alternative explicit meaning of "a type of anything small or contemptible" (OED 4: 305). Mingling three bloods (Donne's, his mistress', and the flea's), the tiny flea "swells" or tends "to magnify . . . exalt" their love (OED 10: 317). Despite its greatness as the embodiment of their love, this blood can be belittled for its "innocence," its "harmlessness, innocuousness" (OED 5: 312). Finally the "drop," as "the smallest quantity of liquid that falls or detaches itself," (OED 3: 678) indicates minuteness. Yet it is this minute drop of blood that Donne aggrandizes as his marriage with his mistress. The contrast between great and small . . . gives rise to the underlying strain of tension throughout the poem; though Donne is constantly playful, he is at the same time unrelenting in his determination to gain dominance over his lover.

Her investigation of Donne's microscopic subtlety inspires the student to compose with analogous precision. Using few words, she elaborates a complex design, adduces examples, and incorporates citations in antithetically balanced sentences that mirror the paradoxes of her model. Her own exercise in diction and style concludes with a fittingly mannered arabesque:

Thus, Donne adheres strictly to the unconventional conventions of the metaphysical poets in "The Flea." Through style, he maintains the metaphysical conceit, comparing his love with a flea. Through paradox, he shocks with the novelty of his comparison. Through diction, he juxtaposes sex and religion. Through structure, he frames his carpe diem appeal with a battle between her honor and his hankering. Throughout, he trifles, exhorts, besieges and assails, determined to conquer. (Elaine Lu)

Having completed that unit on diction and style, I pass from the four applications mentioned earlier to subsequent topics in English composition that also dovetail with metaphysical poetry. Newly heightened awareness of the emotional effects of verbal connotation prepares the students to analyze and practice persuasive rhetoric. The seduction poems of Donne, Marvell, and Carew supply skilled examples of the use and the abuse of wit to manipulate a reader. Juxtaposing those examples with modern seductive advertisements makes for a provocative inquiry into the language of exploitation. And the metaphysical poets are excellent subjects for projects in library research, to which the students have been introduced through their etymological investigations.

In addition to preparing the ground for subsequent lessons in composition, the exercise has yielded fruit in unexpected contexts:

The first paragraph of Great Expectations is devoted solely to introducing the story's narrator and principal character, Pip. As Pip states his full name, Phillip Pirrip, and traces his family background, we become aware that he is trying to establish an identity for himself. Pip's sense of his own insignificance is marked by one meaning of the word pip, "a spot or a speck." (OED 7: 892) Pip's attempt to find his place in the world is much like a young bird's first attempt at flight. Just as a young bird is hesitant to fly until he is sure of his surroundings, Pip fears entering the world without a sure knowledge of who he is. This bird imagery is reflected in Pip's name. Not only does Pirrip sound like the chirp of a small bird, but "Pip" means "to chirp as a young bird" (OED 7: 893) and Philip is "a name formerly given to a sparrow" (OED 7: 775). (Gretchen Rodkey)

Dense textual analysis, rich critical insight, concise yet elegant style - that is what one hopes for toward the end of the freshman year. Getting it suggests to me that students learn something from analyzing metaphysical diction that they can put to use long after their requirements have been fulfilled.


Using the Oxford English Dictionary as your principal research tool, analyze one or two poems from your anthology. Draw upon techniques employed in lecture and discussion as well as in your sonnet writing exercise to elucidate the way the poet stretches the resources of language.

The central objective of this paper is to arrive at an illuminating, original and convincing interpretation of specific poems. The interpretation should demonstrate interrelations between words and meaning, form and content, medium and message throughout the poem. Include a discussion of whatever is applicable among the following:

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