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John Donne

Stick a fork in us—we're Donne.

John Donne (pronounced: done) is tricky, that's for sure.

But he's also mysterious, alchemical, erotic, violent, scientific, obsessive, startling, religious, enchanting, confusing, and seriously weird. We guess that's what you get when you cross a 17th-century smart-alecky ladies' man with an uptight death-fearing preacher: some of the strangest, most exciting poetry and prose in the English language.

This course will guide you through the best of John Donne, from his playful and painful love poems to his solemn religious prose where he dishes about sickness and death. We'll unravel his extended metaphors, examine his views on women and God, figure out how the soul and body are connected, bone up on some 17th-century scientific and religious context, and sort through his hamper of figurative imagery.

Who knows, we may even catch a falling star—stick around and see.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Love Songs

In this unit, you'll get every variety of Donne's woman-obsession. We'll read poems about casual lust and ones about sad longing. We'll read verses of passionate misogyny, followed by philosophical meditations on how two souls can become one. What can we say? Donne was never one to play just one note.

Unit 2. Death, Sickness, and Other Uplifting Things

This unit gets down and dirty in the most morbid, hyperbolic, decay-and-death-obsessed of Donnedom. Hearts and flowers? Love and sex? Not so much.

Unit 3. Gimme that Old-Time Religion

In the religious works we'll read in this unit, Donne unleashes the complexity and violence of his theological thoughts and fears. This is the dark side of religion: we've got sickness, death, sin, pain, and Christ's crucifixion, all wrapped up in some of Donne's wildest metaphors.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 1: Sexy Bedbugs

The flea. Doesn't it just make you swoon-woozy and heart-tickled down to your toes?

"O no, you don't! Donne isn't here yet!"


Yeah, we thought so. On a list of best love poem titles of all time, "The Flea" checks in right about last. But that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of the hottest tickets in the Donne repertoire, arguably the most famous of his many love poems.

Sexy, tricky, and packed full of surprises, this playful piece of poetic seduction is the perfect place to start thinking about metaphysical poetry and what makes it so goshdarned weird and so doggone wonderful.

For starters, Donne did not shy away from the grossness of life. "The Flea" is a rowdy, dirty, pretty disgusting comedic poem that celebrates the physicality of love. Where are our lutes and doves? Folks demanded a world used to gentle adoring sonnets. Donne answered them with this comic ditty about a blood-sucking insect. Talk about a slap upside the head.

But "The Flea" is definitely more than just dirty jokes. It's also about the heavy hitting themes of seduction, virginity, power, and courtship. Plus, since the poem's told from a male point of view, we only get the man's perspective. What are we supposed to infer about her views on sexuality and marriage? Is the object of the speaker's affection's reluctance religious or cultural or just plain personal? Add in some 17th-century theology and imagery galore and you've got yourself way more than an intro to bed bug collection.

This is hard stuff, Shmoopers. The extended metaphor or conceit that Donne uses here is downright bizarre, and the twists and turns of his logic are as jumpy and hard to pin down as a flea hopping in your bed. But worries avast, fearless fellow flea-hunters! In this lesson we're going to catch the heck out of that flea.