Editing Internet Texts/Theatrical Elements in John Donne’s Poetry


The aim of the Wikiversity project “Theatrical Elements in John Donne’s Poetry” is to present and analyse the features typical for drama and theatre in the selected poems of the most famous Metaphysical Poet. The features associated with theatre, i.e. the protagonist, the setting, the in medias res technique and the audience, are observable in Donne’s poems and therefore the verses may be read as mini plays ready to be performed on stage. The project includes the analyses of “Twicknam Garden” and “The Good Morrow” as the poems reflecting the dramatic quality of Donne’s poems. The Wikiversity users are invited to trace and list the theatrical aspects in “Sweetest love I do not go” and justify their choices. The project includes information about John Donne as the representative of experimental poetry in the 17th century as well as descriptions of theatrical elements and their role in a play. One section of the project is devoted to the translations of “The Flea” in order to check whether its dramatic elements are applicable in other languages as well. The section also encourages the readers to upload their native language translations and list their dramatic features, and then write whether the particular translation managed to retain the dramatic quality observed in the original.


John Donne’s poems could be considered as dramatic as they were created in the 17th (“mature Shakespearean” period) when along with poetry drama was a dominant genre. Therefore, many well-known and respected literary critics put forward comprehensive theories about the dramatic quality of Donne’s works with in-depth analyses of theatrical elements in poems that have the “dramatic potential”. Thus, in order to classify a poem as dramatic some formal and critical requirements must be fulfilled (along with historical context taken into account).

John Donne by Isaac Oliver

John Donne as an experimentalistEdit

John Donne was the most prominent representative of a new style of poetry that came into being in the last ten years of the 17th century. It was called "metaphysical" or "mature Shakespearean" since it employed satirical, dramatic, complex and unconventional stylistics methods. [1] Donne's poetry reflects the most important characteristics of metaphysical poetry, i.e. wit, stylistic experiments, blending together themes of love and hate, life and death, body and soul as well as using science-inspired imagery and metaphysial conceit. One of the most popular anthologists and propagators of Donne's works in Poland, Stanisław Barańczak, created the notion of "Donne's man" that would reflect the philosophy of his poetry: a man who is emotionally distorted, full of paradoxes, with turbulent life, not knowing what his place on Earth is. [2] However, the most experimental aspect of his poetry was theatricality of his works, therefore they were very often called "dramatic poems" i.e. mini-plays ready to be performed on stage.

Features typical for theatrical playsEdit


A protagonist is a main character in a text. His/her decisions are crucial in the development of the action. He/she plays the key role in a story.

Coup de theatreEdit

According to the Wiktionary coup de theatre is a sudden or unexpected event in a play which aim is to create the dramatic effect in order to make it more dynamic.[3]


What is understood by the term setting is time and place of a particular action. It is a significant element of the play as it very often determines the characters' behaviour and, sometimes, becomes the character itself. In drama setting is usually described through stage directions. However, stage directions are very often hidden in the characters' words.

Dramatic personaeEdit

Dramatic personae (Latin: persons of the drama) is a list of characters that take part in a play.

World-as-theatre motifEdit

World-as-thetre motif (theatrum mundi) is a literary motif depicting world as a stage and people as actors who perform.

Dramatic monologueEdit

Dramatic monologue is a speech of one character usually of a reflective character. M.H. Abrams who saw dramatic monologue as a part of poetry listed its most important features:

  1. A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment […].
  2. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
  3. The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character. [4]

In medias res techniqueEdit

The literary technique which aim is to the present a given action in the middle of things. Properly applied in medias res technique make the reader aware of the fact the presented action is an extension of the previous events.

Critical concepts of dramatic quality in John Donne's poetryEdit

Literary critics of the 20th century examined Donne's poems in terms of their dramatic quality and put forward some concepts that would support their views. Below, there is an outline of critical concepts in search for the dramatic quality in John Donne's poetry found in the most credible sources.

H.J.C. Grierson, The Poems of John Donne, 1912

"In Donne's love poetry there is a certain "dramatic intensity" resulting from a conflict, feeling and intellect & a rejection of Petrarchan convention and language of courtly love poetry in favour of ordinary experiences and diction." (p.xlv)[5]

Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets, 1962

"...desire to make poems out of particular moments, made imaginatively present rather than remembered... The sense of the moment gives Donne's wit its briliance and verve, the aptness and incongruity of the comparisons being created by their contexts."(p.40)

"...his strong dramatic imagination of particular situations transforms the lyric and makes a metaphysical poem more than an epigram expanded by conceits." (p.40)

"...the poems are dramatic in the sense that they are single and complete as a play is single and complete." (p.41)[6]

Patrick Crutwell, The Shakespearean Moment..., 1960

"Donne's natural metaphor is the image of the play; Donne's multiple personality gives rise to an interplay of ever-changing moods and these moods constitute the poem' dramatis personae." (p.42)

Frank J. Wranke, John Donne, 1987

"The dramatic, indeed the theatrical, is perhaps the major constituent of the baroque imagination. For Donne, as for Shakespeare, the venerable topos of the world and theatre, the theatrum mundi, had an obsessive status - in life as well as in art. To see the world as a stage is not to reflect flee reality but rather to find a means of engaging reality as fully as possible. This conception - theatre-is-world and world-is-theatre - dominates and virtually defines the baroque imagination". (p.10)[7]

D.R. Watkins, Inferring the Dramatic in Donne, 2000

"I conclude that Donne is dramatic primarily because his most effective work is presented like little plays, indeed little theatres, to which the reader-cum-audience is drawn upon entrance cast into an active role that is co-creative as opposed to strictly interpretative. On all of the truly dramatic lyrics this effect is achieved largely through implicature - that which is not explicitly stated within the context of the surrounding poetic utterance - whereby the poetic audience is coerced into imaginative participation in the form of guided inference in the play of words into which it is drawn. [...] The great poems, the ones he will always be remembered for [...] are rightly to be thought of as performance texts, playing spaces, or 'theatres of mind'" (pp. 162-163)[8]

The Good-MorrowEdit

The poemEdit

I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then ?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die. [9]


Type of dramatic element Dramatic element Quote
Protagonist The speaker addressing the lady thanks to whom he discovered real love. He is an active figure who creates the episode. He compares the time spent without the beloved to the story of seven sleepers to emphasize his long loneliness.

 I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?

Setting Although not directly marked, the setting can be understood metaphorically, i.e. in a larger, cosmic scale which is the centre of the universe the lovers inhabit.

 For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

In medias res technique The reader is a witness of a newly born love between the protagonist and the speaker. More importantly, the protagonist compares his life without the lady (past) and his happiness now.

 I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then ?
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear [...]

Twickenham GardenEdit

The poemEdit

BLASTED with sighs, and surrounded with tears,
    Hither I come to seek the spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,
    Receive such balms as else cure every thing.
    But O ! self-traitor, I do bring
The spider Love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert manna to gall ;
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.

'Twere wholesomer for me that winter did
    Benight the glory of this place,
And that a grave frost did forbid
    These trees to laugh and mock me to my face ;
    But that I may not this disgrace
Endure, nor yet leave loving, Love, let me
Some senseless piece of this place be ;
Make me a mandrake, so I may grow here,
Or a stone fountain weeping out my year.

Hither with crystal phials, lovers, come,
    And take my tears, which are love's wine,
And try your mistress' tears at home,
    For all are false, that taste not just like mine.
    Alas ! hearts do not in eyes shine,
Nor can you more judge women's thoughts by tears,
Than by her shadow what she wears.
O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who's therefore true, because her truth kills me. [10]


Type of dramatic element Dramatic element Quote
Protagonist A male speaker who feels miserable and laments over his grief caused by the unattainable lady. He comes to the beautiful garden to find alleviation from pain in nature but, paradoxically, he himself destroys the blissful atmosphere of the spring.

 BLASTED with sighs, and surrounded with tears,
    Hither I come to seek the spring [...]

Setting Twickenham Garden; setting depicted with the use of deictic expressions.

 Hither I come to seek the spring [...]

In medias res technique The reader sees the protagonist in the middle of the turbulent period of his life. The lady he is in love with rejects him and kills by telling him the truth: she does not share his feelings.

O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who's therefore true, because her truth kills me.

Dramatic monologue The poem is consistent with the features of the monologue provided by M.A. Abrams: a single man comes to the garden and utters his speech full of sorrow, which gives inside to his mental state and attitude towards love; in the last stanza of the poem there are signals of the audience.

And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.[...]

Hither with crystal phials, lovers, come,
And take my tears, which are love's wine [...]

Sweetest love I do not goEdit

The poemEdit

Sweetest love, I do not go,
         For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
         A fitter love for me;
                But since that I
Must die at last, 'tis best
To use myself in jest
         Thus by feign'd deaths to die.

Yesternight the sun went hence,
         And yet is here today;
He hath no desire nor sense,
         Nor half so short a way:
                Then fear not me,
But believe that I shall make
Speedier journeys, since I take
         More wings and spurs than he.

O how feeble is man's power,
         That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
         Nor a lost hour recall!
                But come bad chance,
And we join to'it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
         Itself o'er us to'advance.

When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind,
         But sigh'st my soul away;
When thou weep'st, unkindly kind,
         My life's blood doth decay.
                It cannot be
That thou lov'st me, as thou say'st,
If in thine my life thou waste,
         That art the best of me.

Let not thy divining heart
         Forethink me any ill;
Destiny may take thy part,
         And may thy fears fulfil;
                But think that we
Are but turn'd aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
         Alive, ne'er parted be. [11]

Educational part: the reader's analysisEdit

Your task is to find and list at least three dramatic elements observable in the given poem. You should also justify your choices analogically to the previous analyses.

Type of dramatic element Dramatic element Quote
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The Flea in translationsEdit

Polish translationEdit

Pchła [12]
Spójrz, pchła: ten widok opór twój pokona -
To, czego pragnę, małe jest jak ona.
Ssała krew z mego, teraz z twego ciała;
Obie krwie nasze w sobie więc zmieszała
Wcale się wszakże nie obruszysz na to,
Nie nazwiesz grzechem, hańbą, czci utratą;
A jednak insekt, nim kto go rozgniecie
Krwią napęczniały, użył sobie przecie:
Więcej dokonał niż my na tym świecie.

Nie, puść ją; po co życiom trzem nieść zgubę?
Ta pchła nas wiąże niźli ślubem,
Jest mną i tobą, nazwać ją też możem
Ślubną świątynią i małżeńskim łożem;
Mimo twe dąsy, rodziców sprzeciwy,
Już nas otoczył mur czarny i żywy.
Zabij mnie w owej pchle, o to nie stoję;
Lecz będzie i w tym samobójstwo twoje,
I świętokradztwo: zatem przestępstw troje.

Och, więc jednak, okrutnico miła,
Niewinna krew twój paznokieć splamiła?
I w czymże wina nieszczęsnej istotki?
Że ci upiła kropelkę krwi słodkiej?
Sama wszak widzisz, że nic to nie zmienia:
Nie widać po nas oznak osłabienia.
Więc porzuć trwogę, nie wzbraniaj mi ciała:
Oteyle tylko mniej czci będziesz miała,
Ilci życia śmierć tej pchły zabrała.

translated by: Stanisław Barańczak

Analysis of dramatic elements in Polish translationEdit

Type of dramatic element Analysis Quote
Coup de theatre Barańczak clearly marked a sudden event in a play i.e. killing the flea by the mistress. Thanks to the protagonist's exclamation "Och" [Eng. Oh] the reader sees a turning/crucial point in the quasi-play which makes it more dynamic and marks the dramatic effect of the poem i.e. by killing the flea the lady signals her unwillingness to have a sexual intercourse with the man. Additionally, the words "więc jednak" are formal markers of the change of events [Eng. and yet].

 Och, więc jednak, okrutnico miła,
Niewinna krew twój paznokieć splamiła? (19-20)

The protagonist The protagonist appears in the first couplet and his presence is observable throughout the whole poem. He is a male speaker who tries to seduce a lady using witty language and arguments. Watkins suggests that the protagonist is rather in the background even though he is the only one who is talking in the poem (2002, 120). The critic also suggest that the use of pronouns corresponding to the protagonist in accusative or objective case stresses the fact that he is only "the passive subject of the actions of the addressee" (Watkins 2002, 120): the first couplet in the original reads "Marke, but this flea, and marke in this,/ How little that which thou deny'st me is" (1-2). Barańczak's first couple has no pronouns (the speaker is revealed in the verb "pragnę" [Eng. I desire] and shows the protagonist as the one who is very determined to get what he wants rather than the passive subject. In Polish translation the protagonist figure is like a catalyst that makes the episode dynamic (what he desires to get is as small as the flea).

 Spójrz, pchła: ten widok opór twój pokona -
To, czego pragnę, małe jest jak ona. (1-2)

Dialogical quality Even if the voice of the lady is not present her presence is marked thanks to the opening of the stanzas. There are undoubtedly responses to her actions or words. Watkins suggests that the empty spaces between stanzas are like stage directions or mistress's lines (2002,120). The openings of the stanzas in Barańczak's translations retained the dialogical quality as the reader finds apostrophes i.e. "spójrz" in the first one [Eng. look]; "nie, puść ją" in the second one[Eng no, leave it] and "okrutnico miła" in the final one[Eng. sweet brute]

  Spójrz, pchła: ten widok opór twój pokona (1)

  Nie, puść ją; po co życiom trzem nieść zgubę? (10)

 Och, więc jednak, okrutnico miła (19)

Educational part: other translations: analysesEdit

This section is devoted to the translation of "The Flea" in your native language. If such a translation exist, feel free to upload it in The poem in translation section and analyse it in order to check if dramatic elements have been retained. If the table has been already completed, feel free the use the script in order to create another table for the sake of your analysis.

The poem in translationEdit

The analysisEdit

Type of dramatic element Analysis Quote
Example Example Example
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1 The style of poetry that came into being in the 17th century is called

mature Shakespearean.

2 Which dramatic element means "in the middle of things"?

coup de theatre
in medias res
dramatic personae

3 Which poems is known most for its dialogical quality?

Twickenham Garden
The Good-morrow
The Flea

4 John Donne is not known for

using metaphysical conceit
creating shape poems
using witty language

5 Which literary critic called Donne's poems "little theatres" ?

D.R. Watkins
Helen Gardner
Patrick Cruttwell

See alsoEdit


  1. Cruttwell, Patrick. 1960. The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century, New York, NY: Random House. p. 40.
  2. Barańczak, Stanisław. John Donne. 77 wierszy. 1998. Kraków: Znak. p. 14.
  3. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/coup_de_th%C3%A9%C3%A2tre
  4. Abrams, M.H. gen. ed. 2005. "Dramatic Monologue." A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth. pp.70-71.
  5. Grierson, H.J.C. (ed.). 1957. "Indtoruction." The Poems of John Donne. London: Oxford University Press. pp. xiii-xlvii.
  6. Gardner, Helen. 1962. "Introduction." The Metaphysical Poets. London: Penguin Books. pp. 15-30.
  7. Wranke, Frank. 1987. John Donne. Macmillan Publishing Company.
  8. Watkins, David Ralston. 2002. Inferring the Dramatic in Donne: A Metacritical Study. PhD Dissertation retrieved from: http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/4613 (accessed 26 February 2016).
  9. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/goodmorrow.php
  10. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/twickenham.php
  11. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/goodmorrow.php
  12. Barańczak, Stanisław. 1984. John Donne. Wiersze Wybrane. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie. p.5