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John Donne’s and Edmund Spenser’s Works Comparison Essay


Literary heritage of Edmund Spenser and John Donne is rich in sensual pieces of poetry dedicated to love and women. Even though not all of their works depict beauty, both authors show their views on female body in the following pieces. In Book I Canto 8 of “The Faerie Queen,” Spenser provides a grotesque description of stripping off the character while in “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” Donne pays tribute to the yet untouched beauty of the narrator’s beloved woman. Although the representation of the theme is different in two pieces, they both address the questions of human desire, pleasure, and shame.

Both pieces under analysis are focused on the theme of female body and the feelings evoked by it. “To His Mistress Going to Bed” may be considered as a highly erotic poem. In this piece, Donne describes the process of undressing of the narrator’s beloved woman in a delicate and refined manner. The woman’s beauty is depicted with the most gentle and soft words. The narrator invites his mistress to undress and join him “In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed” (Donne 18).

While Donne’s poem depicts female body as something beautiful and sensuous, Spenser’s piece talks about it as of an extremely hideous and unpleasant thing. Upon removing the clothes from the witch, spectators meet a horrifying scene of ugliness and unpleasantness. The body of Duessa appears not to be what everyone expected: “Such is the face of falshood, such the sight / Of fowle Duessa, when her borrowed light /Is laid away, and counterfesaunce knowne” (Spenser 49.4-6). Unlike Donne’s heroine whose stripping is impatiently expected by the narrator, Duessa’s process of undressing evokes the feelings of disgust and repulsion.

Although the theme of female body is disclosed differently in two poems, both authors resort to a variety of devices to make the idea clear and to engage the readers in the perception of it. Spenser uses rhetoric of revulsion to address the question of shame. The witch that is being undressed is entitled to a variety of disgusting features. Duessa’s “misshapèd parts did them appall / A loathly, wrinckled hag, ill favoured, old” (Spenser 46.7-8). The author draws attention to the fact that no outer beauty or ornaments can disguise the “secret filth” of a person, and sooner or later, everyone’s bad secrets will become known (Spenser 46. 9).

Spenser employs many similes such as “drièd dugs, like bladders lacking wind” (47.6), “wrizled skin as rough, as maple rind” (47.8). The author uses hyperbole when referring to Duessa’s ugly features as the most hideous in the whole female world: “More ugly shape yet never living creature saw” (Spenser 48.9). A set of synonyms related to the theme of hatred and disgust is used by Spenser throughout the poem to provide a deeper insight into the author’s attitude to the character of Duessa: “monstrous” (45.3), “despight” (45.7), “appall” (46.7), “loathly” (46.8), “filthy” (47.3; 49.8), “loathd” (47.9), “shame” (48.2), “greedy” (48.7), “ugly” (48.9), “falshood” (49.4).

In contrast to “The Faerie Queen,” “To His Mistress Going to Bed” depicts female body and the process of undressing as the most pleasant things. Donne uses exquisite epithets to describe the narrator’s awe: “harmonious chime” (9), “beauteous state” (13), “flowery meads” (14), “precious stones” (29), “mystic books” (41), “imputed grace” (42). As well as Spenser, Donne makes use of similes: “girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering” (5), “In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be / Received by men” (19-20), “Gems which you women use / Are like Atlanta’s balls” (35-36). The author employs metaphor when referring to the girl: “O my America! my new-found-land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, / My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie” (Donne 27-29). Another interesting device is paradox: “To enter in these bonds, is to be free” (Donne 31).

A variety of words describing beauty and pleasure are found in the text: “fairer” (Donne 6), “harmonious” (9), “happy” (11), “beauteous” (13), “soft” (18), “heaven” (21), “paradise” (21), “blest” (30), “joys” (33; 35), “grace” (42), “innocence” (46). Thus, both poems are dedicated to the theme of female body and nakedness, but authors approach the theme from different perspectives.

When analyzing Donne’s and Spenser’s works, it is crucial to pay attention to the style and genre of both pieces. Although Donne calls his poem en elegy, it cannot be regarded as such in the traditional understanding of an elegy. Rather, it is a celebration of the end of a female’s resistance to the narrator’s seduction techniques. However, elegy or not elegy, the poem belongs to a lyrical genre, as well as Spenser’s one does.

Both pieces focus on emotions and thoughts. Instead of telling a story as a narrative poem would do, these two poems emphasize the feelings and concentrate on descriptions. While authors depict female body in opposite ways, their approach to the process of depiction is quite similar. They employ many epithets, synonyms, and literary words in order to present the audience with the most comprehensive details about the main characters.

The form and meter of each poem also deserve particular attention. Donne’s form is metaphysical due to being concentrated on the wish to trespass the boundaries of the ordinary world and lead the audience into the world of fantasy. His poem speaks to the readers and encourages them for deep analysis and thoughts. Donne wrote many of his poems in iambic pentameter. In “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” this meter is also used. In iambic feet, each second syllable is stressed.

The stanza rhyme scheme is AABB, which means that each pair of lines end with similar sounds: “defy” – “lie” (Donne 1-2), “sight” – “fight” (3-4), “chime” – “time” (9-10), and so on. Three lines are indented to draw particular attention: 25, 33, and 47. By giving some lines their own stanzas, the author emphasizes their significance. Thus, the poem is roughly divided into three large parts, and one short concluding part: “To teach thee, I am naked first; why then / What needst thou have more covering than a man” (Donne 47-48).

In this part, the narrator suggests his dame to follow his example by emphasizing that both partners should be equal. What concerns form and meter in Spenser’s poem, it is more peculiar than in Donne’s one. The poem’s form is similar to “To His Mistress Going to Bed” because of the use of iambic pentameter. However, Spenser added some features to his poem. He employs a new form that is now known as the Spenserian stanza. In each stanza, lines 1-8 are written in iambic pentameter while line 9 is in iambic hexameter.

The stanza rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC. The peculiarity of such form is that there is a variety of rhyming elements: the ending sound in A lines is repeated twice in each stanza whereas the ending sounds in lines B and C are repeated four and three times accordingly. The meter and form in both Spenser’s and Donne’s poems are used to make the pieces more emphatic and draw the audience’s attention to some details.

Although John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed” and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” use different devices to describe the theme of female body, they do have a number of similarities. The style and form in literary pieces are similar. Both poems are considered as masterpieces of British literature because of the author’s talented way of addressing the issues of human desire, shame, and pleasure.

Works Cited

Donne, John. “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. B, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 1393-1394.

Spenser, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. B, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 878-879.

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IvyPanda. (2020, October 31). John Donne's and Edmund Spenser's Works Comparison. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/john-donnes-and-edmund-spensers-works-comparison/

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"John Donne's and Edmund Spenser's Works Comparison." IvyPanda, 31 Oct. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/john-donnes-and-edmund-spensers-works-comparison/.

1. IvyPanda. "John Donne's and Edmund Spenser's Works Comparison." October 31, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/john-donnes-and-edmund-spensers-works-comparison/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. "John Donne's and Edmund Spenser's Works Comparison." October 31, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/john-donnes-and-edmund-spensers-works-comparison/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'John Donne's and Edmund Spenser's Works Comparison'. 31 October.

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