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The Ways to Interpret Love: Donne vs. Blake. A Poetic Duel Essay

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Updated: May 3rd, 2019

Introduction: The Ways to View Love

In the entire poetic world of elevated tone and spirituality, there is hardly a single topic which has been beaten as much as the idea of love has.

Indeed, being the issue that rules the lives of the adult people, love and its secrets is a frequent visitor of the world’s most famous poems and the favorite topic for a number of poets. It seems that whenever the Muse does not have any better idea to offer, love is what she comes up with. However, even though the issue has been discussed over and over again for centuries, there are some fresh and actually unique ways to express it.

Although searching for these ways used to be much easier in the times of the Enlightenment, when the topic has not been beaten to death yet, one still must give credit to the poets who managed to express the given idea in a unique and original way. Although the idea of love which John Donne and William Blake convey in their poems seem absolutely different and are composed of different elements, there are a number of issues which both ideas, as well as the means of their expression, have in common.

Watching the Sunrise: John Donne and His Interpretation of Love

John Donne’s famous The Sun Rising is one of those poems that manage to convey the key idea merely with the help of several lines. Despite its relative shortness, the poem actually offers a plethora of unique ideas.

Back to the Realm of Nature

What strikes immensely about the given poem is the delicate balance between the people and the nature in it. In fact, Donne actually takes the reader back to the times when nature was considered something more than beautiful scenery and represented a mysterious force, a weird deity that people could actually speak and relate to.

To be more particular, the poet animates the sun, breathing a soul and even some human characteristics into it: “Busy old fool, unruly Sun” (Donne). Thus, it becomes obvious that Donne’s idea of love is intertwined with nature; the poet makes it obvious that love is rather a feeling which is caused by the forces by far more powerful than a human will. Portrayed, therefore, as a peculiar “call of the wild”, love in Donne’s vision is closely related to nature.

A Trail of Metaphors Passing by

It is also quite peculiar that Donne’s poem is packed with metaphors which help the poet express his idea of love in a much more explicit and at the same time subtle way.

For instance, with the help of the phrase “the rags of time”, which is also an obvious metaphor, Donne makes it clear that true love never dies. Another peculiar metaphor which the poet uses in his creation, “Th’ Indias of spice” (Donne) can be considered a metaphor for the riches of the world, which the author is willing to give for the sake of a single moment with the beloved one.

Needless to mention, the Sun itself is a big metaphor which the entire poem revolves around. Although, as it has been mentioned previously, Sun can be considered the impersonation of the nature, it can also be viewed as the real world, which is contrasted to the fantastic world of love.

The Alchemy of Love: In Search for the Sorcerer’s Stone

Another interpretation of Donne’s ideas which can be possibly suggested is that for the poet love is a thing in itself – it does not need any additional elements. Those who are in love complete each other and do to care the least about the rest of the world, which is the sweet and innocent egoism of love: “She’s all states, and all princes I/ Nothing else is” (Donne). Hence, in Donne’s interpretation, love is a kind of essence of being, the sorcerer’s stone which can turn everything that those in love see into gold.

Therefore, Donne’s idea of what love is that love conquers all and is the continuous source of happiness and content. When being with the beloved one, people are perfectly happy, and they can hardly care if the world which they live in leaves much to be desired – even all the riches of the world will not make for the feeling of love: “Princes do but play us; compared to this/ All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy” (Donne).

A Little Clod of Clay: William Blake’s Vision of the Mysterious Feeling

Quite different from the previous work, the given poem is not as eloquent as the previous one, yet it offers the reader a lot of ideas to consider and provides its own interpretation of what love is.

Brevity as the Soul of Wit

It is quite remarkable that Blake’s poem is quite short. With only three stanzas in it, it yet manages to convey a number of issues, which makes the given work of art completely unique. The Clod and the Pebble is exactly the case when every single word is worth its weight in gold.

Feet of Clay, Heart of Gold

The first and the foremost thing that crosses one’s mind as the poem unfolds is that the key message is conveyed without the help of any lead character or any human impersonation whatsoever. At the first glance, the very idea of using clay and a pebble as the However, Blake breathes life into these objects and turns them into the symbols of relationships between people and the many shapes which loves can take.

Starting with the most elevated feelings which a human being can experience: “Love seeketh not itself to please” (Blake), Blake describes the lowest of the low, the absolute downgrade in human relationships: “Love seeketh only Self to please” (Blake), moving from altruism to egotism. However, it is still clear that the author’s idea of love is that it “builds a heaven in hell’s despair” (Blake).

When Words Cease: The Power of a Song

It is also quite unusual that in Blake’s poem, it is mentioned that one of the characters sings a song. To be more exact, what Clay is saying is referred to as a “song” by the Pebble: “So sung a little clod of clay” (Blake). Hence, it can be considered that Blake’s vision of love is that this feeling is expressed not in prose, but in singing.

The given viewpoint is quite peculiar, since it presupposes that love and music are somewhat related. Thus, Blake leads the reader to the conclusion that poetry is not the ultimate means to express love; the essence of the latter comes in the form of a melody and begins where words cease.

The Two Poems, Back to Back: There is More than Meets the Eye

Concerning the Technical Issues

It goes without saying that the poems have a lot of differences between them despite the common theme. As a matter of fact, the structural peculiarities of the poems also help to convey the authors’ ideas a what love is to a considerable extent. For instance, the rhyme can tell quite much; in Blake’s poem, it is an explicit alternate ABAB rhyme: “please – care – ease – despair” (Blake), which occasionally turns into a simple four-line rhyme: “clay – feet – brook – meet” (Blake).

The given feature of Blake’s poem contributes to the fluency and ease, emphasizing the simple settings and characters. Meanwhile, Donne’s rhyme is more unusual and sophisticated: starting with the enclosed ABBA rhyme: “Sun – thus – us – run” (Donne), it continues in an ABABCC manner: “Thine – me – mine – me – yesterday – lay” (Donne), thus, stressing the fact that the poem has a number of hidden innuendoes, and making Donne’s idea of love more complicated.

Imagery and Stylistics, Back to Back

The images and the overall tone of the poems is the point at which one can see clearly that the two poems are written by completely different people. Even though the poems share certain common features, images make a huge gap between the two.

First of all, it is necessary to mention that The Clod and the Pebble offers only few images. The most memorable one is definitely a clod of clay which has been stepped on with the feet of the cattle: “Trodden with the cattle’s feet” (Blake). With the help of the given image, the author makes the reader sympathize with the characters which are, in fact, inanimate and are supposed to represent people.

Moreover, the image of a clod of clay which was almost destroyed accidentally reminds much of a person who has suffered the tortures of unrequited love. All in all, the images in the poem, including the clay and the pebble, are quite down-to-earth, which contrasts with the high-flown issue of the poem.

Quite contrary, the poem by Donne is of a somewhat elevating tone. Also setting the reader in the realm of inanimate world, it yet offers much more refined imagery; for instance, the previously mentioned Sun offers a much more grandeur picture: “Thy beams so reverend, and strong” (Donne).

In addition, Donne compares the characters in the poem to royalty, adding even more pomposity to the poem: “Ask for those kings whom you saw’st yesterday/ And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay’” (Donne). Because of the difference in the images which the authors of the poems crate, the latter seem so different and bear such distinction.

It All Boils Down to the Meaning

Unlike Donne’s understanding of love as a feeling that is inspired by the forces far more powerful than a human being can ever be, Blake’s vision of what love is caused by is way more sober. According to the author, love is inspired by the desire to give rather than to take; hence, love is portrayed as the state of ultimate altruism.

Instead of focusing on one’s own wishes and ambitions: “Love seeketh not itself to please/ Nor for itself hath any care” (Blake), a true love actually means caring for one’s beloved one: “But for another gives its ease” (Blake). Hence, Blake’s idea of love can be opposed to Donne’s one.

While the latter makes it obvious that love is a feeling which a human being cannot control and which comes rather from hear than from one’s mind, Blake makes it clear that love can actually be controlled, and a person in love can actually make a conscious effort when focusing his/her love on a certain person.

In addition, there is no need to mention that, unlike Donne’s anthem to Love and for Love, Blake’s poem has a rather gloomy and unexpected twist. The latter offers two opinions of what love actually is, and the most controversial and negative one is voiced in the end of the poem, thus, making Blake’s writing rather dark.

Despite the fact that Blake’s poem is far shorter than Donne’s one, it still manages to offer much more ideas to the reader, and even make the latter consider two opposite opinions, i.e., the altruistic and the egotistic aspects of love. Hence, it can be considered that in the given case, Blake’s brevity makes the poem more expressive and the idea more poignant, thus, shocking the reader into paying attention and analyzing it. Therefore, it can be considered that the meaning of the poems is actually quite different.

However, there are also several similarities between the poets’ idea of love, which are actually worth taking a closer look at. To start with, both poems refer to the idea that the true meaning of love is beyond any secular values.

While Donne expresses the given idea in a rather clear manner: “Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we” (Donne), Blake gets the given message across in a much more subtle way – the idea of love as Blake sees it is voiced by a Clod of Clay and a Pebble, rather insignificant things, which creates rather scarce setting and, therefore, presupposes that love does not shun even the poor and the desperate: “So sung a little Clod of Clay/ Trodden with the cattle’s feet” (Blake).

Conclusion: When Words Are not Enough

Though clearly representing completely different styles, both Donne and Blake obviously speak on the same issue and, weirdly enough, choose quite different means to express their ideas about the given issue. Each offering their interpretation of love, the poets take the reader into a different world, with its own interpretation of love.

It goes without saying that each of the poems offers a different vision of love. With the help of completely different means and stylistic devices, the poets create unique sets of images which help to build a very specific atmosphere.

It is obvious that Donne’s poem tends to convey a love-in-a-cottage principle, keeping the original naïve flair of the message; meanwhile, Blake’s idea of love is much more bitter, with distinctively downgrading imagery which serves to contrast with the loftiness of the topic and, therefore, create a much more powerful, even though quite upsetting, message. Each of the poems representing a very specific universe, they both offer a unique idea to ponder over.

Works Cited

Blake, William. n.d. The Clod and the Pebble. n.d. Web. <>.

Donne, John. n.d. The Sun Rising. n.d. Web. <>.

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