The “Elizabethanness” of Donne’s Imagery – Introduction
In this essay we are going to explain the figurative language of John Donne’s secular poetry – especially that of his amorous lyrics in ‘Songs and Sonnets’ – against the background of the poetic techniques of his time. Donne is viewed as a contemporary of the great Elizabethan sonneteers and it is conceded that his imagery has been molded by the traditional poetic theory and practice of the Renaissance. At the same time he is considered the most radical innovator of the short reflective lyric. The author tries to avoid the mechanistic approach to Donne’s poetry in its usual treatment as either a nihilistic rebellion against tradition, which was the predominant view till quite recently, or an essential compliance with it – a point made by such modern critics as Donald Guss, Rosamond Tuve, and Patric Cruttwell. The considerable differences between the imagery of the sonneteers and that of Donne are accounted for in an endeavor to understand the latter’s divergence from the general trend of the periods as a dialectical process of adjusting form to matter, both of which are treated dynamically. It is argued that Donne has pushed forward some latent development in Elizabethan imagery to make it match more closely the increasingly rational character of the short lyric. By doing this he has carried the system of imagery to its renunciation.
It is necessary to define what will be understood here by imagery. The connotations of this term are virtually boundless, ranging from their narrowest sense of a ‘picture made out of words’ to its broadest one embracing all forms of figurative language. Shurbanov prefers to stick to a structural understanding of the term, which he hopes will make the distinction between imagery and non-image less fortuitous and more objective. The image in the sense chosen by him (which I am going to use here) is a figure which, in the words of Austin Warrer, ‘is double in its reference, a composite of perception and conception’. This definition is useful because it comprises all tropes and all sorts of comparison, or in short, all figures consisting of two elements: something that is spoken about or meant and something else which embodies the meaning of the first and which the reader is supposed to decipher in order to get that meaning. In the terminology of the I. A. Richardson these two elements are called respectively tenor and vehicle, terms which Alexander Shurbanov has chosen to adopt. Tenor and vehicle, however, are not the exact counterparts of Warren’s perception and conception because ad he has noticed himself, an image can consist of two concretes, or of a concrete and an abstract, or of two abstracts. The poet, Warren says, can compare love to a rose, and a rose to a love, or a pine grove to a cathedral, or religious ecstasy to intoxication’. But what distinguishes an image from a statement is that the former always tries to lead us the concrete word of experience even when it is a composite of two abstracts. When coupled with ‘intoxication’, religious ecstasy becomes almost sensuous. Speaking of the magic of images Cecil Day Lewis says: “… it is in their power to make a spirit visible.” The poetic image is considered here both as a self-sufficient structural entity and as the element of larger formal constructions.