Dramatic Monologue: Illustrated in John Donne's Poetry

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      Donne was born late in the Elizabethan age. If he had been born, say twenty years earlier, he would have taken to drama, as did Shakespeare and Marlowe. Donne was very fond of the theatre but the best in drama had already been achieved by Shakespeare. He, therefore, thought of lyric poetry which was artificial and weak. Why not resurrect it with new blood and new vitality? So, he decided to introduce dramatic elements in lyric poetry in order to make it lively and vigorous. His service to lyrical poetry was as valuable as that of Shakespeare to drama.

Donne was very fond of the theatre but the best in drama had already been achieved by Shakespeare. He, therefore, thought of lyric poetry which was artificial and weak.
Dramatic Element in Poetry

The Essence of Drama lies in Conflict:

      So, John Donne introduces the clash of opposite ideas and emotions in his lyrics. We find a certain statement in the opening stanza. A contradictory statement is given in the next stanza. So, the two statements struggle for mastery; there is some sort of resolution at the end. Take for example The Flea. The beloved wants to kill the flea because it has bitten her. The lover argues that she should not kill the lea because it has brought about the union of the blood of the two. The flea should be regarded as a marriage temple. But the beloved is adamant and kills the flea. The poet argues that just as the sucking of the blood by the flea has not made her any weaker, similarly her union with him will not make her less honorable. The poet's plea for sex with the beloved is an apt answer to the murder of the flea. The poet proves his point that sex will not make her less weak or less honorable. So, the conflict of ideas is followed by a resolution at the end of the poem.

Donne uses Dramatic Elements like:

      Sudden beginnings, dramatic speeches, colloquial words, and rhetorical devices so as to arouse the interest of the reader. Almost each of his poems is a speech made by one character to another who is either present or imagined. Even the Song - Go and Catch a Falling Star is addressed to the reader challenging him to find out an honest woman. The opening lines immediately arrest the attention of the reader and apprise him of the situation or the problem. They reveal the mood and set the tone of the diction and rhythm. Moreover, there is hardly any sameness or monotony in mood or situation.

      The dramatic atmosphere differs from poem to poem and there is a great variety of moods even in the love poems. Perhaps Donne's fondness for women and sex and his love of a variety of physical intimacy makes him throw up a challenge any time. Look at The Undertaking:

If as I have, you also do
Virtue attir'd in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too
And forget He and she.

      Sometimes, as in the Expiration, there is anger and snubbing in the very beginning:

So so break off this last lamenting kiss,
Which sucks two souls, and vapors both away.

      Where does the eternal mystery of love lie? Such a mystery cannot be unraveled and those who claim to know it are all imposters:

I should not find that hidden mystery;
Oh, 'tis imposture all:
And as no chemique yet the Elix'r got.

      The last line has a great fling at women in general:

Hope not for mind in woman, at their best
Sweetness and wit, they are but mummy possest.

      The Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed presents a real scene, but without a description of the beloved. The setting is the bedroom. The two lovers are alone; the lover wants freedom to feel the body of the beloved as she was born. The last two lines have a logic of their own:

To teach thee, I am naked first: Why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.

      Here is not only a dramatic situation, but also a dramatic setting. Similarly, in The Sun Rising and A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, we have a vivid and actual setting - as if the dramatis personae with all their furniture and paraphernalia are on the stage.

Donne and Robert Browning:

      It is Browning whom Donne, the poetic artist, resembles most in several respects - in the creation of a dramatic situation in lyrical poetry, in the blending of passion and dialectical rhetoric, in the use of a realistic and colloquial style in which the common words are combined with leaned and technical terminology and in the display of obscure and various leaning. Like him, again, he is a prolific metrist, with a disconcerting penchant for breaking the flow of a regular rhythm by a sudden discharge of tangled and discordant terms, which, however, does not prevent him from turning out lines of pellucid purity and penetrating music when he so desires. His occasional obscurity also springs from similar causes i.e. elliptical language, out-of-the-way terms, strange learning, and lightning speed of the nimble mind which glances from one point to another with a clarity which leaves the reader dazzled and confounded. Sometimes the sentences also are fashioned to objectify the jagged and angled processes of thought and become contorted and confused like threads in a skein of silk which the reader has to sort out with patient and painstaking intellectual tight-rope walking.


       It would be correct to state that Donne enriched lyric poetry with dramatic elements and as such his poetry has a freshness and vitality of its own. We can easily call his poems dramatic monologues spoken in a mood at once passionate and intellectually conscious.

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