Sample Literary Analysis: John Donne's Poem "A Lecture Upon The Shadow"

EssayLiterature
Jan 1, 2007

Some of the best and most popular poems throughout history are love poems. People have often turned to poetry for insight, especially on love—from William Shakespeare to Percy Bysshe Shelley to Pablo Neruda. John Donne is perhaps one of the less popular poets today, but during the 16 th century, he was popular as the forefather of metaphysical poetry and considered a great love poet (Sohrabi and Pirnajmuddin 14). One of his most well-known love poems is “A Lecture Upon The Shadow,” published in 1615 (Lintang 20). The poem “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” is both a metaphysical poem and a Shakespearean Sonnet, which means that it uses a conceit in its metaphor to convey its theme of the cycle of love—that love affairs decline but true love is eternal and constant despite ups and downs. Through the conceit of light and shadows, John Donne describes the complexity of love and reveals his own contradictory approach to love wherein he is aware that love could end after reaching its peak but also could grow and last.

Summary of “A Lecture Upon The Shadow”

John Donne’s “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” is written in the form of a dramatic monologue meant for the speaker’s lover and the reader. It begins with an instruction to stand still and listen. The poet then begins to narrate the occurrences between the poet and his lover—they have spent three hours together, presumably walking under the sun. He describes that they have formed shadows, which the poet equates with the beginnings of love which is still full of disguises and shadows. According to the speaker, love has not attained its peak, however, it is still growing. 

The second stanza of the poem describes love as noon, the time of day when the sun is at its peak, when it is revealed and has no secrets. The speaker’s outlook shifts. The first line of the stanza expresses hope that “our loves at this noon stay”—without secrets. The speaker prefaces the incoming pessimism with hope. In this stanza, the shadows transfer to the front of the pair and grow longer. The shadows that initially protected their love from the public now blind the couple. With the shadows growing longer, the couple starts keeping secrets from each other. As the poem nears its end, before the last couplet, as is customary in  writing a Shakespearean Sonnet , the reader encounters the volta wherein the speaker shows that he is not fully confident in the strength and longevity of love. The last couplet, thus, concludes that love is both a fleeting moment as well as an everlasting emotion.

Analysis of “A Lecture Upon The Shadow”

Throughout the poem, Donne uses the metaphor of day and shadow to represent the various stages of love. In this metaphysical poem, the metaphor, a type of literary device , is extended into a conceit, an elaborate metaphor that connects objects that are not conventionally associated with each other (Li and Ce 95) (See how to cite in MLA citation style here ). In the poem, Donne uses an innovative image to describe love. Whereas love is often associated with summer months, as Shakespeare did, or flowers, Donne used the movement of shadows throughout the day as a metaphor. At the beginning of the first stanza, the speaker is confident in his metaphor, explaining the positive aspects of walking in the morning and the beginnings of a love affair. Here, shadows, which readers may expect to be given a negative connotation, provided a positive meaning—they symbolized the privacy that lovers prefer when their relationship is still in its first stages. The disappearance of the shadow at noon, then, symbolizes the peak of love, when couples reveal their love and have no secrets. The speaker describes this period as the highest point of love. 

However, as the speaker and the reader know, the sun sets every day as it rises. This would signal the speaker’s pessimistic view of love given the choice of metaphor. Donne’s wit becomes evident in the second stanza for this is where the conceit becomes evident. He does not simply follow the flow of the metaphor, of love blooming and declining as the sun rises and sets; rather, Donne prefaces this continuity of the metaphor with the word “except,” which reveals that while the speaker knows the possibility of love declining, he does not believe that it is the only possible course for love. Nevertheless, the speaker continues to describe the decline of love just as the sun sets and shadows precede the lovers, implying that disguises overshadow their love.

The second stanza offers a grim but realistic description of the latter stages of love:

Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.

If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,

         To me thou, falsely, thine,

         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.

Although the speaker maintains a positive view of love, as is evident in the first line of the stanza, to decline is one of the real possibilities of any affair. The line “[e]xcept our loves at this noon stay,” serves as the volta in this sonnet. The volta in sonnets signals the shift in the speaker’s perspective. However, Donne subverts this function of the volta, and instead of expressing a 180-degree turn, expresses the contradiction within the speaker’s philosophy. Whereas the speaker is aware of the fleeting nature of love and is indeed thinking about this, he still hopes that their love will withstand it. This theme is a common theme in Donne’s love poems wherein he usually contends between the desire to be detached and preserve his individuality from his lover and the urge to be part of a union (Sohrabi and Pirnajmuddin 21). In “A Lecture Upon The Shadow,” Donne evidently jumps from one to the other as he goes from the first to the second stanza. 

Conclusion

John Donne’s “A Lecture Upon Shadows” is a poem that contains numerous layers. On the surface level, it appears to be a poem with a negative approach to love. However, upon further analysis of the poem, as conducted to complete the steps to write this literary essay , Donne explores the complex nature of love. Because love is difficult to capture with metaphors and even conceits, Donne’s decision to explore this concept closely with his own hopes and hesitations about love, he manages to present a more accurate depiction of love.  


Works Cited

Donne, John. “A Lecture Upon the Shadow.” Poetry Foundationhttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44118/a-lecture-upon-the-shadow 

Li, Zhang, and Wang Ce. “Analysis on the Metaphorical Conceit in John Donne’s Poems.” SSRG International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences,  vol. 6, no. 5, Sept – Oct 2019, pp. 95-98. https://www.internationaljournalssrg.org/IJHSS/2019/Volume6-Issue5/IJHSS-V6I5P114.pdf

Lintang, Akbar. “A Symbol Analysis on John Donne’s Poems; A Lecture Upon The Shadow and The Prohibition.” English Letters Department Adab and Humanities Faculty – Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, 2010, pp. 1-42. https://repository.uinjkt.ac.id/dspace/bitstream/123456789/21505/1/AKBAR%20LINTANG-FAH.pdf

Sohrabi, Zohreh, and Hossein Pirnajmuddin. “John Donne’s Metaphors of Self and Empire: A Cognitive Analysis.” 3L: The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies , vol. 23, no.1, 2017, pp. 14-26. http://doi.org/10.17576/3L-2017-2302-02

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