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'Between un-being and being' : vision and method in selected poems of John Donne and T.S. Eliot Phillips, Donna Carolyn

Abstract

Common to certain poems of John Donne and T. S. Eliot is the expression of a desire for a unity of experience which will involve a reconciliation of the apparently contradictory demands of flesh and spirit. In an early poem, Eliot aligns himself with the poetic sensibility he perceives in Donne, a spiritual suffering expressed in sensory terms in the image of “the anguish of the marrow". The poetry of each poet develops the analysis of thought and feeling involved in the search for unifying, transcendent experience: in the poems of Donne dealing with profane and divine love, the relationships between man and woman, and man and God, are explored with wit and dramatic fervour; in the dramatic dialogues of the early poems of Eliot, the poetic persona seeks spiritual purpose in a world apparently devoid of belief and meaning. Comparison of poetic vision and method in Donne and Eliot is most valid in examination of the two long poems, Donne's Anniversaries and Eliot’s Four Quartets. In these poems, an anatomization of the mutable, spiritually dead world is contrasted with the progress of the poet's own soul toward an understanding of divine love; divine love is seen to demand imitation of the suffering incarnate principle of virtue, symbolized by Donne as the maiden Elizabeth Drury, and by Eliot as the Incarnation of God. Similarity of technique in each poem consists in the use of a dialectical method of developing themes and definitions of "death", "birth", "wisdom", "love" and "joy". The imagery used by both poets involves paradoxes basic to Christian theodicy: death-as-life, darkness-as-light, ignorance-as-wisdom, suffering-as-love. The expression of his belief is seen by each poet as a holy task, in which the drawing of all experience into a new unity is imitative of the divine unifying order.

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