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The Metaphysical Poets - study guide (Part 2)
Stanzas and poetic form
Donne also establishes a pattern which the others emulate in his use of the stanza. He appears to love variety as a natural embellishment and (to borrow Milton's phrase)true ornament of verse. We can see this by comparing poems. The three stanza structure which carries the argument in The Good Morrow is used again in other poems. But the fluency of the stanza in The Good-Morrow leading to the brief penultimate line and final Alexandrine with its stately, measured quality, gives way in The Sunne Rising to a far more lively and varied stanza. The almost breathless colloquial lines are, however, qualified in each stanza by a wholly regular and fluent rhyming couplet which enables Donne to conclude with a rhetorical flourish (note, however, that the final pentameter line is divided - rather on the model of the Alexandrine - after the second iambic foot). In The Anniversarie the whole stanza is more measured and stately and the Alexandrine is restored as the final line. In A Nocturnall Upon S.Lucies Day Donne uses, again, predominantly the pentameter line, yet the whole effect is more laboured than the fluent Good-Morrow. This is achieved by repeated interruptions marked by the punctuation.
Herbert matches Donne for variety in the stanza, but is more aware of the appearance of the poem on the page, as well as the effect on the ear. Poems such as The Altar and Easter Wings are written almost wholly for the sake of appearance. In this selection we should note, especially, The Collar and Discipline. In Discipline the cramped, lean lines reflect the severity which the poet begs God to refrain from using. In The Collar, there is an apparent randomness, a lack of order on the page, which mirrors the disordered outburst the poet here records. the jerky quality which derives from rhetorical questions - frequent use of full-stop, colon and question-mark even in mid-line - gives way only in the final four lines to a fluent conclusion which comes with the poet's account of his submission to the divine pull on the collar.
In many of Marvell's poems we find the same eight-syllable iambic line, yet its effect can vary remarkably. In To His Coy Mistress the vigorousness of the argument appears in the breathless lines - few are end-stopped, and the lines have the rough power of speech.
In The Definition of Love the same line is used, but arranged in four line stanzas. These carry the argument in the same way in which Donne uses this stanza in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. Unlike Donne, who is prepared to allow some use of enjambement (between first and second stanzas and frequently within all the stanzas) Marvell's stanza here has a near metronomic quality - a punctuation mark at the end of the second line exaggerates the rhyming syllable, which is emphatically matched at the end of the stanza. There is a similar regularity in Bermudas but here, by arranging the lines as rhyming pairs, Marvell conveys something of the sense of the motion of the English boat through the water (as the poem's last line makes clear). This same line is used again, but arranged into eight line stanzas to develop the argument in The Garden, which is less slick but more profound and thoughtful than that in The Definition of Love.
Vaughan feels free to use variety in his stanza. Less spectacularly, perhaps, than Donne, he nonetheless suits form to content. So The Retreate is a fast-moving sustained meditation not divided into stanzas. The more contrived and ordered argument of The World or Man require much longer stanzas, but regular in form, while "They Are All Gone into the World of Light", with its shorter stanza, becomes, in effect, a long series of distinct observations on the poem's single subject.
Most of these comments are very general. Connections have been made which you should now exploit in relation to particular poems. Memorizing the text is not required but you must know your way around the poems. Trying, for the first time, to understand them in an exam is not wise.
It is therefore worth taking a poem, and deciding what you can usefully write about it, in terms of content, technique and points of reference to other poems.
Preparing for exams
Make your own idiot-guides or spider-charts to learn this stuff. Clearly, the greater the number of poems for which you can do this, the stronger will be your position in an exam. Make sure, in doing this, that your chosen poems are varied, in terms of author, subject and technique.
A good essay will contain some detailed analysis of some of the poems, but will show general understanding of all of the set poems unless the question explicitly limits you to a smaller selection.
You may find that a question obliges you to consider the work of each poet, or of all poets in relation to some theme or subject. Do NOT keep commentary on each poem separate; DO make comparisons and move freely between or among the poems.
Do NOT quote at length. In an "open book" exam, especially, there is no credit for this. You may need to quote briefly but should use " ... " to eliminate redundant matter.
The time allowed for exams enables you to plan properly; for these poems, planning is indispensable - any essay will require you to write widely; without planning, you will miss important material or points of commentary. Do not waste time labouring (or repeating) a few basic comments.
Most examiners are fair. A question may be off-putting because it contains difficult terms, but the questions which may be asked will usually be fairly straightforward. The questions set may be like these:
Essays which invite you to examine the poets' treatment of a given subject or theme. These may be limited to two or three of the poets. Possible subjects would include love, religious faith, or (as it includes both of these) the poets' attitude to experience. The examiners may give a subject which imposes a particular plan, but this is NOT likely. You should have an outline (NOT a prepared essay) of your own, for each possible subject.
Essays which ask what are the special characteristics of "metaphysical poetry". These will appear either as an "open" question ("what makes a metaphysical poem?", in effect) or a quotation, to which you should respond ('" The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together". How far is this an accurate assessment etc?') If you have a "quotation" question it is most unlikely that the statement will be one which merits complete agreement or disagreement. You are allowed to qualify your agreement or refutation. N.B. You will never be given a quotation that is stupid or utterly wrong. Generally, they are more or less sensible.
Such essays can work for you, if you know what to do. You should first state what the characteristics of metaphysical poetry are, then illustrate them by consideration of appropriate evidence from the poems. The important tricks here are:
1. Have a clear list of characteristics, ensuring both content and method are covered.
2. Introduce evidence by some formula such as "we find this quality in The Garden, where Marvell ..." or "Both Herbert and Vaughan, in their different ways, address this subject in ..."
3. Ensure that you use a wide range of poets and poems. Where possible, compare, even if briefly, in passing.
4. Keep your eye on the ball. When you have shown one characteristic to be present (and how), then move on to the next.
It is just possible that you may be given a question which requires you explicitly to examine (and compare) technique (the poets' method). You should be doing this, anyway, in a poetry essay, so don't be frightened. But you must before the exam have a clear mental checklist of the characteristics to be considered here.
For all of these poets, the method is closely bound up with the subject and mood, so some comment on these, if you make this point, will be allowed.
If you write about Donne (among others) why not put him last? The examiners will see any number of scripts which will begin with the (admittedly interesting) opening of The Good-Morrow. Don't let yours be among them!
The poems classified by subject - love
The Good-Morrow: New love celebrated.
The Sunne Rising: Love fulfilled and celebrated.
The Anniversarie: Love in relation to time.
The Canonization: Love as a new religion.
A Valediction: The consolation of love on parting.
A Nocturnall: A meditation on the lover's desolation.
Jordan: Religious devotion versus secular love.
The Pearl: God's love for man.
The Collar: The inevitability of God's love.
The Flower: The severity and grace of a loving God.
Discipline: The same.
Love: The love of Christ the Host.
The Coronet: Religious devotion versus secular love.
Bermudas: The mercy and bounty of God's love.
To His Coy Mistress: Sexual love and the brevity of life.
The Definition of Love: A display of the love of wit.
The Garden: Reasonable contemplation as a retreat from passion.
The Retreate: Love of holiness and loss of innocence.
The World: Love of God a mystery; divine election to grace.
Man: Man's purpose to find God beyond this life.
They Are All Gone into the World of Light: The saints' love of God as inspiration.
It will be seen that these descriptions enable you also to select poems which illustrate the general outlook and belief of the poet, or specifically religious questions. Though none of Donne's poems here is truly devotional, the idea of love as a kind of religion appears in places, notably in The Canonization.
Poems to compare
The poems are listed as they appear in the collection. Each is followed by the titles of poems which might helpfully be compared. Ensure you know why they can be compared.
The Good-Morrow: The Sunne Rising, The Anniversarie; A Nocturnall Upon S.Lucies Day.
The Canonization: Good-Morrow, Sunne Rising, Anniversarie; Jordan, The Coronet.
A Valediction Forbidding Mourning: A Nocturnall; The Definition of Love
A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day: The Sunne-Rising, The Good Morrow,The Anniversarie; A Valediction.
Generally compare his, Marvell's and Vaughan's devotional lyrics.
Jordan (I): The Coronet
The Pearl: The Flower; The World
The Collar: Discipline, The Flower.
The Flower: The Collar, Discipline; Man.
Discipline: The Collar, The Flower.
Love (III): Bermudas.
The Coronet: Jordan.
Bermudas: Love, The Flower.
To His Coy Mistress: The Anniversarie, The Canonization.
The Definition of Love: A Valediction.
The Garden: Bermudas; The Flower.
Generally contrast Vaughan's zeal and passion with Herbert's generosity and tolerance.
The Retreate: The Collar, The Flower.
The World: The Pearl; Bermudas.
Man: The Collar, The Flower.
They Are All Gone into the World of Light: The Retreate; The Flower; The Canonization.
Remember similarities may be of content, theme, mood or argument. Look out for contrasting approaches to the same subject or theme, too.
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English Club For Arab Students
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