Begin understanding early 17th-century concerns
The readings listed above will be the subject of our discussion for the next two weeks. You may use some
discretion in spacing out the readings, but you will be responsible for all of them. For Thursday, I would like
to focus on the introduction to the early 17th century in the NAEL vol. B, the literary terminology in the appendix to
the NAEL, and the poetry of John Donne. Please read the headnote to the author as well. For class, be prepared to discuss
Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," (1275)
One of the poetic traits that unifies the works I have selected is the use of elaborate and difficult
metaphors, or conceits, a characteristic sometimes connected with the "metaphysical" style of poetry.
While the term "metaphysical" has limited value, we will be exploring the texture and
complex meanings created by this type of metaphor in these poems.
It is also significant that these prominent 17th-century poets did not choose to circulate their poems in print. Rather
each developed a coterie audience for their works in handwriting. The development of a print culture is one of the most
significant changes taking place in the seventeenth century, and the decision to publish in manuscript carried important
implications that we will discuss.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. General Notes on Reading Poetry
For those of you new to poetry, please take some time to learn the art of reading poetry.
It is different from prose, and there are certain stages in reading poetry that you need
to move through in order to appreciate it. For more information on reading poetry, please
refer either to the "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology" in the back of the NAEL (pp.
A41-A62) or see the Holman and Harmon Handbook, or another poetic handbook, such as
Perrine's Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry 11th edition.
The first thing you should strive for is an understanding of the poem on the denotative
level, that is, what the poem says. (This may be difficult for the poems for today, because
they seem to challenge sense by suggesting strange and elaborate comparisons.) You should
be able to summarize what the poem is about and to paraphrase the lines.
The second level of meaning arises when we examine the use of figurative language, sound
and other types of poetic technique. You should be able to understand what the poem
suggests -- or its connotation. This becomes easier as we discuss the poems in class.
Finally, ALWAYS read the poems more than once. At least once read the poem aloud.
Perrine offers (pp. 27-31) some important questions to address when we read a poem. These are
questions to which we will return again and again for every poem. Let's get used
to answering them:
By what means is that purpose achieved?
2. Donne: "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
As with each of the poems, attempt to paraphrase each stanza. What is being said in
the first stanza? What is being said in the second?
After you paraphrase the poem (Or try to; it is difficult), attempt to answer the questions:
who is the speaker? What is the occasion?
These questions relate directly to the title of the poem. What is a "Valediction"? who
is saying it and why?
What is the central purpose of the poem? How do you know? By what means does the poem
achieve this purpose? What are its dominant characteristics?
HINT: Focus on the images Donne uses to convey his sense of love for his partner. What
images does he use and what connotations do they convey? Are they appropriate images for
the purpose of the poem? Is this a love poem or an astronomy / geometry lesson?
Discussion question: Based on your background reading in the history and culture of the
time, what seventeenth-century concerns are apparent in this poem? Could
it have been written at earlier time? At a later time?
Discussion question: How does this poem compare with "The Flea"? With The Holy Sonnets?
What similarities can you find?
Discussion question: Based on the information in the author headnote, why might Donne choose to publish
his poetry (such as this one) in manuscript as opposed to print?
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