We see Donne’s playful use of witty and playful language in the poem ‘The Sun Rising’ wherein he delineates the all-consuming, self-sufficient of the couple’s love. He begins the poem wittingly personifying the sun whom he admonishes for the beginning of a new day: ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’. Donne is annoyed because he would rather stay in bed with his lover rather than get up and begin his daily grind. He petulantly asks the sun: ‘Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?’ Donne believes that his all-consuming passion transcends all other daily concerns. He believes in the power of love to transcend time and place: ‘Love, all alike, no season knows, no clime, nor hours, days, months which are the rags of time’. His love for his partner is empowering and emboldens him to state: ‘I could eclipse and cloud them [the sun’s rays] with a wink’. However, he feels that he cannot do this: ‘but I would not lose sight of her so long’. His love for his wife is everything and completely consumes him: ‘She is all states, and all princes, I, nothing else is’.
The all-encompassing nature of this love consumes Donne. He wittingly remarks that the sun is only half as happy as they are because he is singe: ‘Thou sun art half as happy as we in that world’s contracted thus’. He urges the sun to shine into their room because they are the world and all that matters: ‘Since thy duties be to warm the world, that’s done in warming us’. Donne’s witty use of hyperbole ‘All in one bed’ underscores the essentiality of the couple.
Another poem wherein we see Donne’s playful and witty use of language is ‘The Flea’. In this poem Donne takes a rather unusual approach to seduction. He addresses his lover: ‘Mark but this flea and mark in this how little thou doth denyst me is me it sucked first and now it sucks thee, and in this flea, our two bloods mingled be’. Donne argues that physical intimacy between himself and his lover is not immoral: ‘this cannot be said this to be a sin or a shame or loss of maidenhead’. Donne believes that he and his lover are already married: ‘This flea is you and me and this our marriage bed and this our marriage temple. Their relationship, Donne argues their union has been consecrated by the flea.
Donne’s lover remains unconvinced by Donne’s unusual and witty argument: ‘Though you apt to kill me, let not to this self-murder added be, and sacrilege, three sins in killing three’. Donne ultimately fails to convince his lover as she kills the flea: ‘Purpled thy nail in the blood of innocence’. Donne’s witty reference to the ‘blood of innocence’ is tantamount to emotional blackmail as he tries to make his lover feel guilty for what she has done and what she has not done. However, Donne is consummate in the art of seduction as he wittingly declares that his lover was right about killing the flea: ‘Thou findst not thyself, nor me the weaker now tis true, then learn, how false, fears be’.
Another poem that is demonstrative of Donne’s playful and witty use of language to convey the self-sufficiency of his relationship with his partner is ‘The Anniversary’. He describes how everything in the world is subject to the ravages of time, the sun, stars and moon: ‘Even the sun itself, which makes time as they pass, is elder by a year’. Everything is subject to death and decay. He declares that there is only one exception to the rule, their love: ‘Only our love doth know no decay’. He wittingly employs personification to describe the intensity of their passion: ‘Running it never runs from us away’. He feels completely empowered by love: ‘who is as safe as we? When none can do harm to us except one of us two?’ He feels that their transformative love is empowering and ennobling both of them on earth unlike the vast majority of people who must wait to be transformed like them after death: ‘Love increased there above when bodies to their graves’.
The holy sonnets are quite different to his uplifting and empowering love poems in that they address his relationship with God and how he is enfeebled by sin. Donne uses playful and witty language to underscore the enervating effects of sin. In ‘Batter my Heart’, Donne solemnly asks God to be made a better person: ‘Batter my heart, three personed God for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend that I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, bend your force to break, blow, burn and make me new’. Donne feels extremely self-conscious about his sinful state and wants to be redeemed by God.
However, we see in this rather serious prayer, evidence of Donne’s witticism in his use of the following simile: ‘I, like an usurped town to another due’. He self-deprecatorily remarks how he struggles with sin: ‘labour to admit you’.
His longing and desire to be reconciled with God is wittingly palpable: ‘I am betrothed unto your enemy’. He begs God to help him in his moral adversity: ‘Divorce me, untie or break that knot again’. Donne feels that unless God takes over him completely, he cannot helped succumbing to sin: ‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I, except you enthral me, never shall be free nor chaste except you ravish me’.
Another poem that we see Donne’s playful and witty use of language manifested is in ‘Thou hast made me Lord’ which is concerned with the theme of sin and redemption. Despite the poet’s anxious preoccupation with sin, this poem emanates a ghoulish playfulness. He employs personification to underscore his sense of despair with regards to his advancing years and encroaching death: ‘Repair me now for mine end doth make haste I run to death and death meets me fast’. Donne’s personification here symbolises the inexorable march of time and effectively delineate his anxiety. He employs language that is ghoulishly playful to depict his fear: ‘Despair behind and death before doth cast such terror and my feeble flesh doth waste by sin in it which it towards hell doth weigh’. Like ‘Batter my heart’, the reoccurring image of how Donne is seduced by sin finds expression in this poem also: ‘But our old subtle foe so tempth me that not one hour I can myself sustain’. Donne’s clever and witty use of hyperbole here ‘not one hour I can myself sustain’ illustrates his vulnerability and need for God’s grace.
In conclusion, John Donne uses language that is playful and witty in his discussion of issues of import. Whether discussing the passionate intensity of his relationship with his wife, or describing how encumbered by guilt, shame and fear he feels because of sin, Donne deftly injects his signature witticism. His language and imagery is startling and abounds in witticism. Donne’s themes have a universal significance, and the personal, direct manner in which he addresses both his lover and God is both appealing and engaging to modern readers. He adroitly explores the physical and spiritual aspects of life with logic and wit.