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Erlich, A. (1979). Ambivalence in John Donne's Forbidding Mourning. Am. Imago, 36(4):357-372.

(1979). American Imago, 36(4):357-372

Ambivalence in John Donne's Forbidding Mourning

Avi Erlich

Paradoxical as it may seem, Donne's poetry is too simple to satisfy. Its complexity is all on the surface—an intellectual and fully conscious complexity that we soon come to the end of…. There are puzzles in his work, but we can solve them all if we are clever enough; there is none of the depth and ambiguity of real experience in him….

—C. S. Lewis

The stuff of literature is conflict, all kinds of conflict, from the daring fight over Helen to Prufrock's self-dared and selfchecked desire for a peach. Conflict is turned loose in poetry precisely because, in its carefully crafted orderliness, it can assuage the worst tempests. As John Donne puts it in “The triple Foole”:

I thought, if I could draw my paines Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay, Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.


Historically, the critics' responses to conflict in Donne's poetry have been circumscribed by the need to be morally uplifting; this remains so despite our present emphasis on the poetic modes of conflict, on ambiguity and irony; it is always tempting to talk about the modes of conflict while ignoring part if its substance, no matter what the poem itself suggests. Though Donne often seems to deny his own ambivalence, he nevertheless lets it obliquely into his poems, trusting that poetry has the power to civilize all conflict.


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