Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

John Donne / The Canonization./ Com.


The Canonization (Songs and Sonnets)




The Canonization belongs to the Donne canon and has been widely and thoroughly analyzed. Scholars have particularly explored the autobiographical and historical sources of the poem, and argued about what importance Donne's unhappy marriage with Anne More or his relationship with his time might have had on the text. As it is most often the case in literary analysis, the best track is the text itself. As John Barth puts it, the key to the treasure is the treasure.

A first reading reveals the energetic qualities of The Canonization, indissociable from the paradox that is also revealed, almost instantly: it is a love poem, and yet, it does not quite sound like a love poem. Since John Donne is the author of Paradoxes, an exploration of the text's paradoxes and oppositions, antinomies and contrasting figures seems the most relevant approach.



The five stanzas are metered in iambic verses ranging from trimeter to pentameter. The first, third, fourth and seventh verses of each stanza are pentameters, the second, fifth, sixth and eighth are tetrameters, and the ninth, and last, a trimeter. The stress pattern is thus 545544543, and the rhyme scheme is ABBACCCAA. A further examination reveals that the A-rhyme is sustained throughout the poem, quite pertinently, since the poem is about love and all the A-rhymes rhyme with love.



The themes present in the poem can help the reader in his quest for composition: love and worldly affairs are opposed in the first and second stanzas, love is the only theme in the third stanza, but associated to death, a figure that is sustained through the fourth stanza, with the return of the secular. The last stanza develops the main idea of canonization, somehow prepared by the fourth, and unites the first three themes with the addition of the religious. It is interesting to note the consistency of the poem's thematic backbone, and its essentiality, since it condenses the main questions that can be found in literature.


 The energy conveyed by the first stanza is essentially the result of the number of imperatives it contains: ten to be precise, all addressed to an unknown addressee, whose identity is paradoxically not that of the loved one. The first verse is a key in itself: it starts with a blunt injunction to the addressee, for God's sake hold your tongue, which introduces through the almost-rude imperative the impetus that runs all through the text, and the ingenuity that can be found in the use of pronouns. As a matter of fact, this your tongue is not the loved woman's as she is never referred to as your or you, but only once as she and once again as her. That makes the amount of we, us and our even more potent: a total of thirteen occurrences, notwithstanding the second use of you in the last stanza, which refers to the couple and, if one adds the relatives, amounts to eight occurrences. Pronoun statistics already show to what extent one of the main issues of the poem, i.e. the opposition between the lovers and the rest of the world, love and all worldly business, is exploited.

The first stanza is explicit on that point: the speaker presents himself as a sophisticated person who has turned his back to the world, and he does it with a good deal of humour, mentioning his gout, his five grey hairs (why five?) and concludes with a flourish, using an alliteration: fortune flout, the onomatopeian quality of which is obviously self-derisive. He then urges the addressee to turn to worldly affairs, knowledge, power and wealth, using various figures of speech to render the tone even more energetic: an inversion, (improve) two ellipses (course, place) two synecdoches, (Honour, Grace) and a figure that is half-way between a metaphor and a syllepsis, and therefore very powerful : the King's real, or his stamped face.

Representatives of the secular reappear at the end of the second stanza, but not at random: if the educational, the executive and the financial had been evoked, there were two missing departments. The military and the judicial. Power also reappears briefly in the fourth stanza, with the mention of greatest ashes, and half-acre tombs, always with a tinge of humour and impertinence.

The rest of the world eventually joins in unison in the last stanza, discreetly introduced by all in the penultimate verse of the fourth: the whole world, and countries, towns, courts, yet this time not opposed to the lovers, but submitted and devoted to them.


The treatment of love in the poem is at the beginning a trifle aggressive, appearing first through the reiterated request of the speaker: let me love / so you will let me love. It becomes ironical in the second stanza, for the poet chooses to consider the Petrarchan conceits literally, and to deconstruct their exaggeration by turning them inside out. It is remarkable in itself, since those conceits were still very much in favour at the time, (my tears are rain and my sighs storms) and it demonstrates Donne's detachment from fashion and conformity, yet, and it is even more remarkable, Donne mocks exaggeration in the expression of love just in order to produce an even greater exaggeration. Note that in this second stanza, the imperative pattern present in the first is replaced by an other recurrence: interrogative forms, reiterated five times.

An invention marks the beginning of the second stanza, a two-faced metaphor that first equates the tenors (the lovers) to moths, lured by the flame, then to the flame itself, as tapers. That is a rare figure, and Done reinforces it by the use of an ellipsis, once again: Call her one, without getting rid of the pervading humorous tone: me another fly. More, there is some self-reference in that verse, to the poem The Flea, which already made use of an insect to celebrate the perfect union of the lovers. (and the rash behaviour of the woman as well…)

Metaphors abound in the stanza, but always with that aim at deconstructing and using the paradox as chief device: a near-oxymoron in the union of the eagle and the dove, which goes much further than the mere harmony between the male and the female elements, only because of the overpowering presence of the second-person-plural markers, and the shift from real-symbolic birds to another, mythic one, the phoenix, which introduces the theme of death and, naturally of the Eros/Thanatos relationship.

The fourth stanza deliberately flattens Eros/Thanatos to a very simple statement, which contrasts with the complexity of the poem: We can die by  it, if not live by love. That statement then triggers what is probably the most remarkable figure of the text: the one that links the poem to the grave: We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms; / As well a well-wrought urn becomes / The greatest ashes. The metaphor of the poem as an urn has been widely expatiated upon; it can remind of Shakespeare's eternal lines, but it goes further, because it does not present writing as a response to death, and why not, as a sort of remedy, a roadmap to eternal life, but as a grave indeed.


The main paradox of the text is certainly to actually present love as being closely related to death, but in a very original way. Most of the time, the Eros/Thanatos relationship has something to do with sex. Here, the dimension is different, no longer physical or psychological, but mystical, and the use of terms such as hymns, canonized, invoke, reverend, hermitage and soul leave no room for doubt. Love is presented as divine, and lovers as saints, whose eyes may remind of God's and whose power did the whole world's soul contract. The poem is in end quite symphonic, unifying the themes of love, death, religion and the whole world into one final exclamation, yet prudently mentioning an above, perhaps in an attempt to tone down the almost-blasphemous incantation.


One paradox still remains and floats at the surface of this glorification of love, one word: rage. It seems pertinent at this stage to highlight it as, probably, the poets' resistance to analysis, as if there always had to be one question unanswered, as if, in the words of Ted Hughes, something was here to start the writing machine again: At the end of the ritual comes another goblin...

...or simply perhaps because the course of true love never did run smooth.


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