The exam asks you to read two of Donne’s poems, using the skeptical claims of one poem,
which condemn the lovers’ relationship, to comment on the transcendental claims of the other
poem which celebrates their relationship.
Usually, the speaker’s skepticism, like Montaigne’s, will emphasize the body and change, which
is itself the consequence of embodiment (as time passes, so the body changes: it is born, grows,
decays and dies). The poem will focus on such gendered themes as woman’s mutability /
inconstancy, while at the same time implying man’s sexual promiscuity (“loved, got, told”); the
uses of the speaker’s “masculine persuasive force” to achieve the beloved’s sexual seduction /
possession; the speaker’s desire to free himself from any commitment to the beloved (“feed on
this flattery”); the notional opposition between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nature (“look not for
mind in woman”).
What Montaigne calls the speaker’s “transcendental humours” will emphasize soul / mind over
body, and thus the lovers’ transcendence of gender, space and time (over the mutability of the
phenomenal world). It will focus on such metaphysical themes as the union of the lovers’ minds
/ souls; the religion of love in which the lovers reject worldly or conventional notions of value in
favor of their own private world of love; the speaker’s claim that lovers “one in the other be,”
with their spiritual unity or identity eclipsing distance / absence; and in “A Nocturnal,” how the
catastrophe of the beloved’s death reduces the lover to effective nonexistence, non-entity.
Skeptical (blame) Transcendental (praise)
Elegy 3 A Valediction, forbidding mourning
Elegy 7 Air and Angels
Elegy 16 The Canonization
Woman’s Constancy The Sun Rising
Love’s Alchemy The Good Morrow
The Flea The Ecstasy
Lover’s Infiniteness A Nocturnal upon S. Lucies Day
Do not seek outside sources: use the handouts, especially those on Gender Ideology and the
Cult of Modesty. Feel free to quote Montaigne: use the Skepticism and Montaigne handout to
organize your understanding of the speaker’s position and nature, given Montaigne’s
argument in “Of experience” and its account of human nature, reason, language and
DO NOT CONFUSE THE SPEAKER WITH JOHN DONNE THE POET. The poet usually
ironizes his speaker by the extremity or contradictory nature of the latter’s claims. The
watchwords are: subjectivity / (self-) delusion / denial / deception.
QUOTE the text from start to finish because figurative logic is linear, with a beginning and an
end, just as we do in class. Don’t miss one link, one metaphor, in the poem’s logic.
Focus on the critical passages / lines of verse that support your contentions. The text is your
evidence that your reading is justified, a valid interpretation. Your job is to make your reader see
the poem the way you do, and that means arguing your case by quoting and analyzing Donne’s
You should give a full reading of both poems, working through the dramatic (scenario, motive),
poetic (formal) and rhetorical (argument) implications of their imagery. Start with a reading of
the skeptical poem, and then turn to the transcendental one, showing how one poetic
argument undercuts the other. To do so, you should use the Donne handouts to organize your
interpretation of each poem’s features: the Donne Narratives handout organizes various poetic
features listed in the Erotic Guide into possible narratives implying the poem’s scenario and the
speaker’s motives. The Donne Parody handout alerts you to the poet’s probable satire / ironizing
of the speaker’s words.
Remember that each poem is an argument meant to persuade / deceive the beloved, not to
mention the reader and even the speaker himself. You must work through the imagistic logic of
that argument in your reading of both poems. So use the Explication Aids to help describe the
quality and effect of individual images.
Read each poem aloud to figure out how lines of verse should be inflected and thereby the
speaker’s emphases and tone—angry, frustrated, wistful, impassioned, rapturous, exultant, and
so forth. Note caesura or full stops within lines; enjambment of one line of verse to the next;
other uses of punctuation to direct how we should read a line. Donne’s rhythms are those of
colloquial early modern speech, which means that he creates the contractions we make in
conversation, eliding sounds and slurring words together like “th’usual” or “fall’n” or “thou’rt.”
Try to scan the lines, taking note of the marked elisions while remembering that others occur
without marking, usually to secure the iambic meter. His accents are not always ours: sometimes
they are marked, sometimes not. All of which is to say, the only purpose for YOUR scanning is
to get a sense of the poem’s emphases and tone. You needn’t mention metrical or stanzaic form
in your reading unless it supports a claim you want to make about the poem’s sense.
The exam should be a MINIMUM of six pages in length. *****If you write fewer than six
pages, then you will not have sufficiently demonstrated your thesis, and will not receive a
passing grade (no triple spacing unless your software does it between paragraphs—my mama
raised no fools).
Your essay should have a thesis paragraph that you compose AFTER you’ve written your
argument, when you know what that argument is (having read over your essay to find out). The
paragraph will summarize the major points of your argument; and of course follow standard
paper format, with proofing. DO NOT HAND IN A PAPER THAT HAS NOT BEEN
PROOFREAD: you will irritate your reader, which is neither wise nor politic.
Vaya con Dios
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