Symbolism and Meaning in John Donne's "The Canonization"

Symbolism and Meaning in John Donne's “The Canonization”

Starting in the late 16th Century and lasting throughout the 17th Century, was a form of poetry that has come to be known as Metaphysical. Though not a poetic movement in the sense of having a manifesto (as did the Romantics), these poets explored similar themes such as love and religion, approaching them in a practical yet transcendent manner. One of the greatest of these Metaphysical Poets was John Donne (1572-1631). Writing in a time of political, social and religious upheaval, his poetry is largely concerned with the enigmatic relationship between a person’s sexuality and spirituality. This question is raised in his poem “The Canonization”, in which the social stigma surrounding an overt love affair is compared to the martyrdom of saints. Many poetic techniques, characteristic of Metaphysical poetry, are used to develop this theme, as love is established as an alternative religion to Orthodox Christianity and the societal conventions it propagates.

The structure of “The Canonization” is an example of a love Lyric, and operating within considerable structural constraints. The poem consists of 5 stanzas, each of 9 lines, with a Rhyme scheme of ABBACCCAA. This could be described as an alternative Quatrain followed by a tercet and a rhyming couplet, thereby highlighting the epigrammatical origins of Metaphysical poetry, however none of these sections are separated by voltars to make this analysis explicit. This strict format can be understood as showing social constraints within which the persona must operate, and to whom the persona’s love is held accountable. The metre of the lines varies within individual stanzas, alternating between iambic Pentameter, tetrameter, and trimeter, often changing Foot as well. These various meters are, however, to some extent consistent between stanzas. This is a reflection of the Metaphysical attempts at a more conversational Rhythm, so as to be more accessible in meaning. This strict structure also allows for distinct stages in the development in the persona’s argument, however jumbled these stages may be in comparison to convention. The first Stanza describes the viewpoint of society (however briefly) and passes judgement on that viewpoint. The second stanza presents the case of the persona’s argument. A decision is therefore already made before the reader has heard all cases, forcing them to accept the message of the text, and allowing the following stanzas to operate on that assumption of agreement. The structure has thereby played a major role in the persuasion of readers, and manipulation of their reader position.

The first impressions of the meaning of any poem are given by the poem’s title. The title “The Canonization” has direct religious connotations; however, Donne manipulates reader preconceptions in order to generate meaning. Readers may think of canonization in terms of idyllic saints, given devotion by the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Donne, though originally a Roman Catholic himself, wrote much polemic poetry against Catholicism (following his switch to Protestantism), and is therefore critical of this romanticised view of saints. Instead, he contrasts these reader preconceptions with the actual struggle and torture of martyrdom that created these saints. The poem deals with this later view of canonization. In this title, Donne gives readers a potentially false sense of prior understanding of the poem’s message, a sense which is used to create a Paradox between readers’ understanding and the text’s message, a paradox used throughout the poem to persuade readers into Donne’s point of view.
The first stanza deals with the reaction of society to the persona’s love. No explanation is given of the details of the love affair, nor if there are any particular moral questions of which society could be critical. Instead, the persona lists society’s General complaints against the obsession of love. The poem begins in true Metaphysical form with:
For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,

This has a sense of immediacy and converstionalism, with the reference to a listener’s “…tongue…” creating an awareness of prior words in the conversation. Metaphysical poets strove for this more realistic representation of language (realistic in comparison to their contemporary poet’s, though perhaps not compared to modern standards) in order to affect the poem’s accessibility and high level of reader engagement. Immediately the reader is addressed and given the proposition to “…let me (the speaker) love…”. The opening line also establishes the dialectic of God (the conventions of religion and social decorousness) in contrast to love (more specifically a love affair, with some sexual aspect). The tension between these two powers is discussed throughout the poem. This line is followed by a listing of reasons against the overt love of the persona. These are almost given in the manner of an inverted blazon, with the listing of physical defects of the persona (“…palsie…gout…gray haires…”). Though no link is explicitly made, such catalogues of the problems of age were common in carpe diem poems, extolling the need to ‘make love while we may’. Reader’s at the time of the poem’s composition would have recognised this and possibly anticipated that genre of poetry to follow. However, again Donne challenges the preconceptions of readers by refusing to conform. Reference is next made to the Elizabethan belief in fate/fortune, emphasised by the alliteration “…ruined fortune flout…”. The reasons for not loving are that the persona is too old and that it will ruin his fortunes for the future. It should be noted that no mention is made of the persona’s love interest. The love remains a singular activity until the end of the second stanza. In the second half of the first stanza, the persona dismisses the criticisms of society, addressing the critics and prescribing for them a course of action. The treasures of wealth, education, destiny and rank are given to society, if the persona is allowed to love in return. The search for these commodities was expanding dramatically at the time of Donne, especially with the exploration of the New World and the precarious position of the British monarchy; however, here they are regarded as worthless in comparison to love. The tone in discussing them verges on mockery, it certainly demeans the value given to them by the era. In return for love, society is also given leave to honour an ambiguous ‘him’, either the monarchy, the King, or perhaps Christ. This section may possibly have biblical connotations to the questioning of Christ over taxes paid to Caesar (Christ pointing to the face of Caesar on the coins as warranting that they are given as tax). However, again the story is inverted, as God and the social conventions supported by religion take the role of Caesar, in contrast to love playing the role of God. In this extended judgement of a society critical of love, Donne confronts any readership in sympathy with that opinion, either antagonising such readers or persuading them into a less resistant reading of the poem.

In contrast to conventions of Rhetoric, judgement is passed on those in disagreement with the persona in stanza one, before the persona defends his case in stanza two. This is carried out through successive rhetorical questions:
Alas, alas, who’s injur’d by my love?

What merchants ships have my sighs drown’d?
Implicit descriptions of the tortures intrinsic to love (as opposed to being imposed by society) are made with reference to “…sighs…teares…colds…heats…”. These are linked with successive natural disasters, which may also be seen as acts of God, such as floods and diseases. With this interpretation, Donne can be viewed as verging on apostasy, as he discretely criticises God by pointing out that love has no hand in causing the disasters for which God can be viewed as responsible. Whereas God causes ten plagues of Egypt in the Bible, and strikes many people dead:

When did the heats which my veines fill
Adde one man to the plaguie Bill?

Love is thereby established as an alternative religion to Orthodox understandings of Christianity. The reference to soldiers and lawyers, towards the stanza’s conclusion, is again symptomatic of Metaphysical poetry. The Metaphysical poets often compared metaphysical themes such as love to more practical aspects of life, such as law and war. Though here the legal and military aspects do not play an active role in the poem’s imagery, their inclusion challenges readers. Readers are encouraged to acknowledge the practical applications of the poem’s message, as well as provided with an illustration of the harmless nature of love (whereas conventional religion often attacks the offices of war and law as sinful). The stanza is really concerned with proving that love in no way hurts the operations of society, and that there is therefore no need for society to hurt the operations of love. In the final lines of the stanza, a second lover enters the poem, a voiceless female figure. Gender studies of “The Canonization” and Metaphysical poetry in general, would argue that this is representative of a depersonalised and objectified view of women, that they are merely objects of love, rather than being active participants in the love affair. This is supported by the fact that in leading up to the introduction of the female, the love is owned by the male. This is not only in the fact that he provides the discourse about love, but that it is often referred to as “…my love…” and he as the only lover that needs release from the taunts of society. When the lady does enter, it is not as an equal to the male persona, but either separated from him (“…she and I do love…”) or spoken for by him. Love is a male dominated issue, which is revealed through the gaps and silences of the poem.
The third stanza focuses on the essence of the love itself. Though the male voice retains command of the discourse, the female is joined to him as an “…us…”. Little regard is given in this stanza, to the criticisms of society. The real issue is now the saintly nature of love, with criticisms of love becoming a side-point. The persona declares:
Call us what you will, wee’are made such by love;

confirming that it is their censure within society that makes them martyrs, effecting their canonisation. The two figures become meaningless as themselves (“…mee another flye…”) as the poem’s focus shifts to an intense view of their love as an entity. The condensed conceit:
We’are Tapers too, and at our own cost die,
again reflects the lovers’ martyrdom to the religion of love. Conventional symbols of the “…Eagle and the Dove…” are used to describe the relationship within the love affair. The eagle, as a conventional image of male strength, and the dove, representing female gentleness, juxta posed together, reveal the inequality between the partners (evidence of the Patriarchal system contemporary to the poet). These two binary opposites brought together can also be viewed as part of the Neoplatonic understanding, that the entire world is present within the two lovers, all the opposing forces (represented by the eagle and dove) brought together within them. The mythological Phoenix is next alluded to, bringing with it the religious connotations of resurrection awaiting the lovers. However, these spiritual understandings are called into question by sexual images that follow:
By us, we two being one, are it,
So, to one neutrall thing both sexes fit.
Wee dye and rise the same,…

It is again almost blasphemous the combination of such copulative images with the religious connotations of resurrection (“…dye and rise…). The final line of the stanza refers to the love as “…Mysterious…”. This has further religious overtones, with the understanding that the term ‘sacrament’ is derived from the Latin for ‘mystery’. The sexual act is transformed into a Sacrament, celebrated by two saints, in worship of the religion of love. By now the poem is not concerned with whether society should censure the persona’s love, but is instead occupied with evangelising in the name of the religion of love. Readers are moved through this change in issue of the poem, and are thereby prevented from forming any resistance to the original premise of the poem.
The fourth stanza begins with the proposition that love is intrinsic to life:
Wee can dye by it, if not live by love,
followed by a reflection on the fate of the lovers once their martyrdom is effected, that is, after their deaths. It is not debated whether the lovers will be remembered (the fact that both persona and reader agree over the lovers’ status as “…legend(s)…” is assumed by the text), instead the issue is in what form that memory will be recorded. The Historical form of “…Chronicle…” is juxta posed with the beautiful “…sonnets…”, transformed by Metaphor into religious “…hymnes…”. In this way, the lovers’ sexual understanding is enshrined in both secular and religious memory, a union of the spiritual and sexual which has been the aim of the poem. This remembrance is alluded to as a creation of Heaven, as “…pretty roomes…” may refer to Christ’s ‘many rooms in my father’s house’. The second half of the stanza employs conceits to further expound on the fate of the lovers’ “…legend…”. The lovers are compared to “…The greatest ashes…” and the poem which immortalises them “…a well wrought urn…”. The form of “…Chronicle…” is compared to “…half-acre tombes…” which wouldn’t suit the encasement of ashes. The specific compact conceit of “…ashes…” for the lovers is particularly appropriate, considering that burning at the stake was a common form of martyrdom. The image thereby provides a link with the stanza’s concluding line and the title of the poem, “…Canoniz’d for Love…”. At this stage, the argument is proven that the lovers are saints, and readings of the text have been limited so that no other empathy can be felt for any other viewpoint besides that of the persona. This has been achieved by the systematic expulsion of other voices from the text, first the female and by now the opinion of society. Readers are not provided any opportunity to see the issues from another light; therefore, their position on the issues of the text has been manipulated in compliance with the views of the persona and subsequently Donne.

With an argument already resolved and a readership in total sympathy for the persona, the final stanza opens instructing readers to “…thus invoke us…” (an instruction emphasised by assonance or in-rhyme). It is confirmed that the lovers are canonized martyrs, worthy of devotion. Ironically, this devotion would come from conventional religious, the very society that martyred the lovers in the poem’s beginning. The fifth stanza relies heavily on the Neoplatonic understanding that quintessence of the world can be found wholly within the two lovers. They are “…one anothers hermitage…” a message ironic within the poem’s historical context of world exploration and deeper understanding of the heavens (with Galileo giving credibility to Copernican theories of the solar system). This philosophical understanding is then applied to the intermingling of sexual and spiritual love:
You, to whom love was peace (religious, conventional), that now is rage (passionate, sexual);
This quintessential love is further explored with the scientific conceit, comparing lovemaking to the experiment in alchemy, extracting essences in “…glasses…”. Again, the practical scientific analogy combined with the metaphysical theme of love, acts as a persuasive tool in the ensuring of reader sympathy. The final statement in the poem:
…Beg from above
A patterne of your love!
though an unsatisfying rhyming couplet (as in its use in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it fails to summarise the thematic journey of the poem), does reveal the ultimate transformation of love. Love is not to be ridiculed, as in the poem’s opening; it is now a religion, martyrdom, a canonisation, and a grace to be evoked from above.

“The Canonization” by John Donne is a complex piece of rhetoric, which uses persuasive and poetic techniques to manipulate readers through different understandings of the place of love within society. Beginning with the condemnation of over love by society, the persona establishes an argument by which means love challenges conventional religion, before taking its place as religion, martyrdom, canonisation and grace. Different techniques are used to effect this transformation, including the metaphysical conceit, Irony, paradox, structure and sound devices. These are all performed within the metaphysical style, recognisable in its attempts at conversationalism, accessibility, refusal of convention, and witticisms. By creating this intricate forum of expression, John Donne has, to considerable extent, been able to link the enigmatic opposites of human sexuality and spirituality within the religion of love.

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