The exemplification of love, through
the use of geometric conceits
in the poetic works of Donne, Vaughan,
Marvell and Herbert.
"For the circular motion
is necessarily primary, and the
perfect is naturally
prior to the imperfect, so the circle is
a perfect thing. This
cannot be said for any straight line.
Not for an infinite nor
finite; for if it were perfect, it would
have a limit and an end."1
Since the origins of time, luminaries of the
philosophical, theological and literary worlds have been inspired by two
of the most elementary geometric figures, the circle and the straight line,
to formulate and express original abstractions on arguably life’s most
prevalent and powerful emotion, love. Through the poetic verse of John
Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ and Henry Vaughan’s ‘The
World’, an examination of circular conceits will demonstrate the nature
and perceptions of love in the context of the Renaissance. Juxtaposed with
these texts, ‘The
Definition of Love’ by Andrew Marvell and ‘The
Search’ by George Herbert will indicate, via the use of lineal conceits,
opposing sentiments on the characteristics of love, being a ‘strong and
passionate predilection of affection for another.’2
Whilst purists may argue that a consistent,
literal and specific definition of Metaphysical Poetry is non-existent,
numerous varying suppositions have been compiled over time to produce a
progressive interpretation of this seventeenth century style of verse.
While all contemporary theories on the nature of Metaphysical Poetry rest
on the essayists’ perceived understanding and commentary of distinct texts,
a firm article of consensus is often found amongst literary critics in
relation to the vital attributes of Metaphysical Poetry.
Throughout the seventeenth century English
Renaissance, spanning the years from 1570 through to 1660, the Metaphysical
Poets were often, and still are, distinguished by the complex level of
ingenuity, intellectuality and obscurity found in their work. Metaphysical
texts, primarily characterised through the conflation of traditional form
with seditious linguistic techniques such as satire, irony, witticism,
parody and rhetoric, generate a microcosmic emphasis in many of the texts.
Within the original Metaphysical context, highly innovative and revolutionary
attitudes pertaining to life, including aspects of faith, human frailty
and introspection were portrayed through lyric verse, to create an emotional
and devotive tone. Introspection, being ‘an examination of one’s own thoughts,
impressions and feelings’3 allowed the poet to create a certain atmosphere
in a text that acknowledges the acceptance of orderly systems of thought
and feeling, resulting in a direct and often austere manner of speech.
A strong emphasis on the contemplation of death, and a considerable interest
in the soul, both in a religious and philosophical domain, allowed the
Metaphysical Poets the use of the individual voice, especially evident
in Donne’s devotional sonnets. It is, however, the depiction of love that
unites all Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century.
Helen Gardner captures the essence of the
Metaphysical Poets’ vision when she describes love as explicitly being
‘the great Metaphysical question of the relation between the spirit and
the senses’ This is the prominent emotion that will be displayed, through
the use of the geometric conceit, in the following dissertation.
The extensive technical use of the conceit
in Seventeenth century verse immediately places any Metaphysical text in
its historical context amidst the development of canonical English literature.
The conceit’s subtle use of controlled connotation to enrich the meaning
of poems, with the associated dependence on the imaginative sensitivity
of the reader, and its consistent evocation of paradox, instills inthe
text numerous levels of meaning. The conceit, advocating an origin which
is specifically intellectual rather than sensuous, juxtaposes a number
of dissimilar images to establish a ‘marked discord in mood’,4 resulting
in the device functioning as a vehicle to allow numerous interpretations
Often when a conceit is to be defined,
Helen Gardner’s authoritative definition is commonly referred to:
A conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity
is more striking than its justness, or, at least, is more immediately striking…
It is used …to persuade, or it is used to define, or to prove a point…The
poem has something to say which the conceit explicates or something to
urge which the conceit helps forward.5
In recognising the conceit as being an intricate
and extended metaphor used frequently in Metaphysical Poetry, a geometric
conceit is based on this similar notion. However, this subset order of
conceit is specific to the use of elements from the scientific and mathematical
worlds to express particular emotional and passionate conditions of life.
Notably, Collins English Dictionary defines geometry, and hence geometric,
as being ‘the branch of mathematics immediately associated with points,
lines, curves, surfaces and shapes.’ (p.229).
For centuries lineal geometric figures,
being straight, and especially parallel lines, have been considered inferior
and imperfect objects, particularly in comparison to circular or spherical
figures. Both have numerous symbolic connotations in all expressions of
mathematics and literature that allow advanced and detailed examinations
of their use in diverse contexts. The motif of the circle, used extensively
in John Donne’s poetry, is particularly revealing when analysing the nature
and characteristics of love in one of his most famous texts, ‘A Valediction:
Presumed to be composed around the year
1611 as a parting dedication for his wife, Donne's ‘A Valediction: Forbidding
Mourning’ is arguably his most passionate and emotive piece and
certainly his most renowned. This poem urges that physical separation cannot
affect a love which is spiritual, perfect and endless, and therefore Donne’s
language turns a painful farewell into a magnificent affirmation of love.
Quintessentially, the geometric conceits
employed by Donne in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ can be
classified into three principal groups which make them individually different
from one another. However, in the same extent to which each conceit in
this text is different, all three have common fundamental principles and
attributes which immediately characterises them as being conceits. In Donne’s
attempt to depict the perfect and complete nature of his love, the recurring
motif of the circle is used in different forms.
The first of these circular geometric conceits
displaying love in Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ can be
found in stanzas three and four.
Donne’s extensive use of astrological allusions,
particularly in reference to the expansive universe, is evident in these
two stanzas as a means of representing a macrocosmic understanding of the
condition of human love. Further, in referring to ‘the spheres’ and ‘sublunary
lovers,’ both functioning as circular conceits in a metaphorical sense,
Donne proposes his love as being spiritual and perfect; starkly contrasted
with the simple and physical ‘things which elemented’ others.
Moving of Th’ Earth
brings harms and fears,
what it did and meant
But trepidation of the spheres
greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth
things which elemented it. (ll. 9-16)
The production of literature does not exist
in isolation, but rather is shaped by social and cultural change. In a
period where many traditions were being challenged and scientific and theocratic
functions were being vanquished, significantly new patterns of feeling
and thought emerged.6 This is especially true in regard to the astrological
discoveries concerning the Ptolemaic system. In the years just prior to
Donne’s composition of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding mourning’, this revolutionary
idea changed societal perceptions of the Earth and its newfound significance
in the universe. Therefore, Donne’s poem in its form, structure, content
and meaning, reflects the changes apparent in his society, while continually
promoting the perfection of personal love on a general scale.
In continuing the astrological conceit
through to the fourth stanza, ‘sublunary,’ meaning below the moon, is the
area in which all physical life exists and is subject to change. It was
thought that all life and love which existed below the moon was of an imperfect
nature as it only existed in the lineal path between the earth and the
moon. Therefore, Donne’s assertion of difference on the first line of stanza
five, ‘but we by a love so much refined,’ demonstrates the encircling patterns
of love that may only occur in the outer universe, above the moon.
The motif of the circle, consistently evoking
simple images of perfection through the use of the geometric conceit and
the cycling rhyme pattern of the poem, continues into the sixth stanza,
albeit in a more abstract fashion.
Here, Donne uses the conceit of alchemy, being
the ancient art of chemically altering basic elements into precious metals,
in order to display his fervent and spiritual love for his wife. This conceit
aids in explaining the strength of the couple’s love when one must leave
the other. When Donne writes ‘Like gold to aery thinness beat,’ he induces
thoughts of a love that is being stretched to span time and distance, and
a love that is too strong to be breached or broken. In utilising a conceit
which employs the most precious and perfect metal as its focus, Donne is
using the figure of a circle to convey such perfection in human love. Approximately
developed in 2600 B.C, the alchemical symbol for gold is a circle with
one point located in the exact center to demonstrate the complete solidarity
and taintless nature of the new element formed.7 This perfection, also reflected
in the Aristotelian theories of geometry, is continually manifested in
‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ and is evident as Donne’s pivotal
motivation and poetic strategy for composing this powerful representation
of sublime love.
Our two souls therefore,
which are one,
Though I must go, endure
A breach, but an expansion,-
Like gold to aery thinness
beat. (ll. 21-24)
Arguably however, it is Donne’s final conceit
employed in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ which emphasises
the specific functions of the geometric conceit as being a primary poetic
technique used to allude to spherical connotations of the physical world,
to capture the essence of the Metaphysical.
Donne’s famous ‘compass conceit’ initially
appears in the seventh stanza of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’and
explicitly demonstrates the ways in which a circle is representative of
pure and spiritual love. In idealising the circle as being the geometrical
figure of eternal perfection in a Renaissance period context, where ‘its
perfection is evident as its center is equidistant from every point on
its circumference,’8 this conceit entertains the notion that the personified
compass is indicative of, the separation that the two lovers’ souls will
endure over the course of time. ‘If they be two, they are two so/ As stiff
compasses are two’ (ll.25-26). The compass, commonly used as only as a mathematical
instrument to construct perfect circles, depicts the foreshadowing of the
perfect union of the couple’s souls when the fixed foot ‘makes thy circle
just/ And makes me end where I (began)’ (ll.35-36) The tone of Donne’s text moves
towards a sense of completion and finality, in a cyclic structure, primarily
through the use of the geometric, circular conceit. The numerous connotations
provoked by this basic mathematical figure, are employed successfully and
evocatively by Donne, in order to illustrate the perfection of human love
in its original seventeenth century context.
Composed some decades after Donne’s completion
of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, Henry Vaughan’s metaphysical poem,
‘The World’, may be regarded as simply an aspiring shadow of Donne’s eminent
poem. Vaughan’s poem, similar in nature and liberal contextual values,
uses the geometric conceit of the circle, as a profound and complex symbol,
to illustrate the perfect love between a human being and the divine God.
Unlike ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’where
the poet focuses primarily on the mortal affection between two human figures,
‘The World’ seeks to demonstrate the eternal love attainable between an
ephemeral and an omnipotent being. Furthermore, this poem explores the
notion that God’s perfect and heavenly love for the individual far exceeds
any mortal love attainable on Earth. In doing so, Vaughan successfully
uses the conceit of the ring throughout the poem to enhance his discussion.
In the first stanza of ‘The World’, Vaughan
introduces the geometric conceit of the ring to exemplify the perfection
of eternity, and immediately juxtaposes this with the adversities of the
The vision which the poet witnessed as ‘a
great ring of pure and endless light’ (l.2) and labeled as ‘Eternity,’ can be
interpreted as an illusion of the divinity of God in heaven. The poet emphasises
a sense of eternity that is described as radiant and joyful, yet the persona
never ceases to ignore the complexities of his ordinary life. In doing
so, the audience is shaped to recognise that in an imperfect world described
as ‘doting’ and ‘darksome,’ perfect human love is impossible, and therefore
insinuates that perfect love may only be achieved in a realm separated
from the physical Earth.
I saw Eternity the
Like a great ring of pure
and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time
in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d;
in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d. (ll.1-7)
In the first two stanza’s of ‘The World’,
symbol of the ring is representative of all manifestations of God, heaven
and a pure, unconditional love for an Earthly being. The geometric, circular
conceit of the ring is employed to successfully convey the sense of entire
and complete love, only available through God. As the poem progresses into
the third and fourth stanza, Vaughan promulgates a second geometric conceit,
whereby the circle or ring continues to promote the perfection of certain
forms of love.
These final lines of Vaughan’s poem convey
an epigrammatic tone. A responder’s first impression upon reading the second
last line of the text, may be to believe that the poem’s focus has changed
from a divine love to that of a love expressed between a bride and groom.
However, ‘Vaughan’s royalist, High-Church position’9 would indicate that
the persona’s bride is in fact Christ, and that the ring is not a wedding
band, but a metaphor for the persona’s perfect and sinless soul being offered
to God. At the original time of publication in the 1655 Silex Scintillans,
Vaughan inscribed the verse from 1 John 2: 17-18 at the conclusion of his
poem, ‘The World’.
“This ring the Bridegroom
did for none provide,
But for his bride.” (ll.59-60)
Upon reading this clause from the Bible, a
responder may understand why Vaughan chose a circular conceit to depict
the perfect love available between his persona and his God. The circle,
being a plane figure which rotates on an axis to produce a circular orbit,11
demonstrates a perpetual and comprehensive emotion, reciprocated by the
physical being and the spiritual God equally.
His Disciples remembered
that that the scriptures said,
"My devotion to your house,
O God, burns in me like a fire."10
In opposition to ‘A Valediction: Forbidding
Mourning’ by John Donne and ‘The World’ by Henry Vaughan, ‘The Definition
of Love’ by Andrew Marvell, demonstrates ‘how the course of true love never
did run smooth’,12 through the use of lineal, geometric conceits.
Composed in 1652, 'The Definition of Love'
by Andrew Marvell features a structured argument that conflates
intellect and passion in an attempt to define the nature of his own personal
love. The poetry of Marvell, marked by ‘extraordinary variety and range,’13
consistently makes extensive use of the Metaphysical element of the conceit,
and makes transitory allusion to the already discussed compass conceit
in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, to pronounce his thoughts on the
characteristics of love.
Marvell’s allusion to the geometric conceit
of the compass invented by Donne, begins in the third stanza of the poem.
This allusion was greatly influenced by, and then further developed, as
the literary context in which Marvell composed his poem progressed, and
therefore Donne’s established impression of style and technique became
evident throughout Marvell's later work.
In Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’,
the poet uses this circular conceit to demonstrate the perfect and complete
nature of love between two individual people. In ‘The Definition of Love’,
Marvell utilises this conceit only as a vehicle to illustrate the difference
between the perfect, unattainable love and the obscurities found in personal
relationships. To successfully convey this strong sense of the remote in
personal love, Marvell adopts the technique of the lineal conceit. Throughout
the poem, there are three separate instances in stanzas six, seven and
eight where Marvell uses the image of a line to convey his emotions.
And yet I quickly
my extended soul is fixed
But fake does iron wedges
crowds itself betwixt. (ll.9-12)
The initial introductory stanza of ‘The
Definition of Love’ establishes a belligerent tone where Marvell expresses
the couple’s love as being ‘strange and high’ and ‘begotten by despair
upon impossibility.’ This comprehension and understanding of an afflicted
love is embodied throughout the poem, and thus, the responder gains the
impression that the persona desires a stronger love consuming elements
of the body and soul. This excerpt from Andrew Marvell’s poignant poem
demonstrates, through the use of the planisphere functioning as a lineal
conceit, the tainted elements of human love.
A planisphere being ‘a flat two-dimensional
projection of the world,’14 is designed by ruling a series of collinear parallel
lines to accurately graph the topography of the Earth. The planisphere
instinctively conveys certain images to the responder of the lovers being
distanced, perhaps physically, but more predominantly spiritually. The
lines ruled on the planisphere separate the lovers ‘as the distant Poles
have placed’ them, and may only be reunited in both a physical and spiritual
domain if ‘the giddy heaven fall.’ Therefore, in this regard, the lineal
geometric conceit displays the imperfection of human love.
Unless the giddy
Earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world
into a planisphere. (ll.21-24)
Marvell’s generally abstract ideas pertaining
to the imperfection of human love are definitely stated in the seventh
stanza of the poem through the conceit of the parallel lines.
In this seventh stanza, Marvell compares his
love to ‘oblique’ or indirect running lines to convey a sense of deceit
in their love, therefore making it imperfect. Throughout this lineal conceit
however, Marvell summons the notion of infinity, usually an aspect associated
with the image of a circle, in an endeavor to convince himself, and perhaps
his audience, that his love is of a perfect nature. Observed in the final
line of this stanza, an apparent and sudden sense of resignation is evident
as the narrator concedes that their love ‘can never meet’ as it is so ‘truly
parallel’. Hence, Marvell’s use of the lineal conceit verifies to his persona,
the partner and his responding audience that love in all circumstances
is impossible. The clinical rather than emotive title of Marvell’s poem,
‘The definition of Love’, and ‘the shades of specialised
mathematical or geometric usage’15 contributes firmly to this interpretation.
As lines (so loves)
oblique may well
in every angle greet:
But ours so truly parallel,
infinite, can never meet. (ll.25-28)
The last of the geometric conceits practiced
by Marvell is found in the eighth and final stanza of the poem. Marvell’s
strong use of astrological allusions throughout the text culminates in
the closing verses of the poem, by using the lines and patterns of the
stars to describe fate’s opposition of their love.
Through the use of this astrological conceit,
the narrator is confidently arguing that the alignment of the stars is
in direct opposition to the love that the couple wishes to share. In Marvell’s,
British Renaissance context, a considerable emphasis was placed on astrology
when concluding the outcome of certain decisions, as the stars and planets
were often considered to be representations of Greek or Roman gods.16 In
this regard, the line of the stars and therefore the gods, predetermined
the imperfection of the couples love which is subsequently mirrored in
the line or opposition of the stars.
Is the conjunction
of the mind,
of the stars. (ll.31-32)
In a similar way to Andrew Marvell, George
Herbert employs various lineal geometric conceits to successfully convey
the notion of incomplete and imperfect love in the seventeenth century
Renaissance period. George Herbert’s poem ‘The Search’ differs from Marvell’s
poem in the same what that ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ by
Donne, differs from ‘The World’ by Henry Vaughan. As previously
noted, ‘The Definition of Love’ composed by Andrew Marvell, discusses
the imperfection of love between two human beings through the use of three
lineal conceits. However ‘The Search’, by adopting a similar use
of the geometric lineal conceit, displays the imperfect nature of love
between a mortal persona and a distanced God.
The opening three stanzas of George Herbert’s
poem ‘The Search’, depicts the persona questioning the love and
power instilled in God, and further seeks to search for these qualities
perceived to be embodied in a physical being. The reservations and doubts
which the persona holds towards his God are blatantly exposed when the
persona states ‘O whither art Thou fled, My Lord, my Love,’ (l.1) immediately
indicating the absence of pure and perfect love. This notion of imperfection
is strengthened further in the following stanzas through the use of the
lineal geometric conceits, which are then rigidly juxtaposed with the circular
conceits employed by Herbert, in order to demonstrate a sense of comparison.
Throughout the first few stanzas, a strong sense of selfishness and ignorance
on the persona’s part is portrayed, as he is unable to understand that
God is a spiritual being rather than a physical.
In the same way that Marvell employs the
circular conceit of Donne’s compass, Herbert adopts ‘Thy Ring’ to exemplify
and comment on the perfect nature of love. A circle or ring, being the
ultimate symbol for commitment and completeness is evident in stanza nine
and allows a powerful contrast in stanza eleven to follow.
O let not that of
Let rather brass,
Or steel, or mountains be
And I will pass. (ll.33-36)
Stanza eleven demonstrates the first
use of a lineal geometric conceit to convey notions of imperfection. The
lineal conceit utilised in this stanza has paradoxical undertones which,
to a certain extent, conceptualises an inversion of the natural order.
By describing East and West touching, the poles kissing and parallels meeting,
Herbert is physically illustrating a bizarre location where God apparently
is, and by doing so, emphasises the spiritual distance from the persona.
Thy will such a
As that to it
East and West touch, the
poles to kiss,
And parallels meet. (ll. 41-44)
Throughout stanza thirteen, Herbert
employs the second lineal conceit in his poem, ‘The Search’. Towards completion
of the poem, the persona in the text comes to realise the imperfections
of his relationship with his God, and therefore asks to be restored and
to take the bars and lengths away. By definition, a bar can be ‘a
long piece of rigid material, used especially as an obstruction, confinement,
fastening or weapon.’17 The use of these bars and lengths as lineal conceits
in Herbert’s work, demonstrates how the straight line can hinder and obstruct
love in even spiritual relationships, making this conceit particularly
O take these bars,
these lengths, away;
Turn, restore me:
‘Be not Almighty,’ let me
‘Against, but for me.’ (ll.49-52)
George Herbert’s poem, ‘The Search’,
through differing lineal geometric conceits, and the subsequent use of
specific circular conceits, the imperfect nature of love between a human
persona and the divine God. This imperfection of love, whilst ordinarily
seen in secular human interactions, may also be observed in religious relationships,
especially in a seventeenth century, British Renaissance context.
As is evident in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning’ and ‘The World’ by Henry Vaughan, the geometric
figure of the circle, adapted into the literary form of a conceit, is successful
in demonstrating the perfection of love in a British, seventeenth century
context. Adapted from Aristotelian times and developed through to the early
Renaissance period, this symbol of perfection conveys a sense of unity
and eternity in many varying forms of love affinities. Further, the use
of the geometric conceit in exemplifying this perfection is utilised not
only in mortal human love, but may also be adapted to encompass spiritual
and religious relationships accordingly. In contrast, Andrew Marvell’s
‘The Definition of Love’ and George Herbert’s ‘The Search’, offer
the lineal geometric conceit so as to demonstrate the imperfect qualities
of love in both human and spiritual relationships. These imperfections,
commonly attributed to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what primarily
constitutes the emotion of love, is frequently demonstrated through the
emergence of a circular, and thus perfect geometric conceit.
1 Hutchins, Robert Maynard, ed. The Great Books of the Western World: Aristotle, Section 269a, clause 15-20.
2 Freccero, p. 3.
3 Moore, p. 958.
4 Preminger, p. 148.
5 Gardner, p. 17.
6 "Reformation and Restoration". Encyclopedia Britannica.
7 "Gold: Historical Information." WebElements.
8 Martin, p. 44.
9 Van Emden, p. 71.
10 John 2: 17-18. (in Whealon).
11 Moore, p.175.
12 Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. I. i.
13 Eliot, p.56.
14 Blunden, p.36.
15 Cuthbert, Ch. 5.
16 Spurr, p.10.
16 Moore, p.137.
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This essay was written
in July 2002, while Natalie Sparke was
completing high school at Barker
College, Sydney Australia.
Text copyright ©2002 Natalie Sparke. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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