William Shakespeare and John Donne are early masters of the English verse. We see their textual dexterity, skilful turn of phrase and creative metaphor in their body of work. The two poems chosen for this essay are about love. But what makes them stand out from conventional love poetry is that they project praise of a lover in reference to commonplace objects of nature. This essay will argue the thesis that the genius of the two poems lie in their application of imaginative metaphor in praise of the lover, albeit with creative adaptation of commonplace and ordinary objects to poetic imagery.
Shall I Compare Thee is a testimony to unadulterated love, whereby the love-smitten author is in total and unconditional admiration of his object of love. Shakespeare employs all commonplace occurrences and conditions of nature such as a “summer’s day”, “rough winds”, “too hot”, “gold complexion”, “eternal summer”, “rest in his shade”, etc. These references to nature underscore the controlled use of metaphor while expressing genuine love. That the poem is an ode to love as much as it is to the lover is evidenced in the final couplet of the sonnet: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. (lines 13-14) Commenting on the simplistic beauty of the poem, scholar Sean French observes,
“Shakespeare is saying that certain feelings of love and lust remind us of the pleasure we take in perfume, flowers, nature, music, religion, and it is so tempting to confuse the two that whole traditions of art, music and poetry are built on that confusion. Then you discover the way you look in the morning and watch each other growing old and feel you are failing to live up to the ideal.” (French, 1997, p.26)
John Donne’s poem The Flea, in comparison, takes a slightly more playful attitude in depicting a longing for intimacy on part of the author. Since nothing could be done about fleas, over the evolution of English verse, they became regularly featured as objects of jest and verse. The poem by Donne is an entreaty to an unnamed Virgin. It uses the symbol of the pest flea to depict the power and necessity of intimacy between a man and his amour. These lines in the first stanza capture the sufferance for intimacy on part of the author “Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;” (lines 3-4) Seeing the lighter side of the poem, critic Ernest Furgurson notes that the poem is
“the erotic aped of the literary flea…because of its size, its leap, its graft and its want of shame, it has seen a good deal more than any butler. And because the flea tends to seek the warmest folds and crevices, these literary ventures often start with an eager swain volunteering to relieve the victim of her itch by personally searching out the little pest and proceeding from there.” (Furgurson, 2011, p.92)
In this respect, John Donne’s popular poem joins the ranks of similar flea-inspired ribald poetry, prose and illustrated jollity representing English light verse. And its tone is markedly less sober than that of Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee. Even in terms of creativity, Donne’s poem is superior to that of the Bard’s.
French, Sean. “Shall I Compare Thee to a Reeking Corpse? Good Old Shakespeare, He Knew a Thing or Two about Mature Love and Desire (and Teenage Fantasies).” New Statesman (1996) 5 Dec. 1997: 26.
Furgurson, Ernest B. “A Speck of Showmanship: Is That a Pulex Irritans Pulling That Carriage, or Is Someone Just Pulling Our Leg?” American Scholar Summer 2011: 92+.