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John Donne's "The Apparition"

John Donne's early poems focus on secular topics, while his Holy Sonnets enlighten and enliven the beautiful tradition in spiritual writing.

John Donne

John Donne

Introduction and Text of "The Apparition"

John Donne's seventeen-line poem, "The Apparition" offers up a rime scheme of ABBABCDCDCEFFGGG. Similar thematically to "The Flea," this poem dramatizes the exploits that young men have used to seduce young women over the centuries.

The originality of this seduction poem is, however, quite shocking. Frequent readers of Donne may be shocked to learn the diversity of the poet's outpourings from early emphasis on lustful endeavors to later spiritual ardor.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir'd before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath'd in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat'nings rest still innocent.

Reading of "The Apparition"

John Donne

John Donne

Commentary

This poem offers a stunningly original metaphor (conceit) for a poem of seduction.

First Movement: Murder by Lustless

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,

The speaker labels the young lady a murderer for refusing to satisfy his lust. The notion that not giving in to his sexual urges will kill a man has remained an ignorant superstition since the Renaissance times and quite likely even earlier.

The speaker employs this absurd notion, anticipating that the young woman will be exploitable and therefore accept his ludicrous drivel. Therefore, he labels her a murderer because he is "dying" to have sex with her.

The speaker has obviously tried more than once to seduce this lady, but thus far she has succeeded in evading his advances. Therefore, he cooks up this ghost/murder scheme to try to scare her in to bedding with him; in other words, she is killing him now, but his ghost will kill her later.

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After the speaker has died, his target lady will, at first, think she is free of him and his constant urgings. However, he lets her know that his urges are so strong that even his neutered ghost will appear to her to continue his desired ravishment.

Second Movement: No Investment in Virginity

And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir'd before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call'st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;

The clever, though mightily deluded, speaker then flings at the woman the term "feign’d vestal." He is not, however, shaming her for not being a virgin. He has no investment in virginity, hers, his, or anyone else's.

The speaker is merely insulting her intelligence again, asserting that she is pretending. He is convinced that she will not remain a virgin, as the original Roman Vestal Virgin priestesses did for thirty years. He assumes that it logically follows that if she will not remain a virgin, she should not worry about her virginal status now that she has this horny bastard before her raging to get into her pants.

Therefore, after she has seen his ghost, after she has killed him, she will be sore afraid. She will try to awaken her sleeping bed partner, who will fail to pay any attention to her. The bed partner will have been worn out from earlier love-making and merely think she wants it again. Thus he will just sluff her off. This speaker's penchant for the gross and obnoxious knows no bounds.

Third Movement: Sweaty Ghost Fear

And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath'd in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat'nings rest still innocent.

The speaker finally makes the prediction that the object of his lust will transform into a "poor aspen wretch." She will turn pale from the fear of this poor bastard's ghost; thus, she will be "Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat." She will become all sweaty because of her fear of the ghost, the "Apparition."

The speaker reports to her that the words his ghost will utter to her when the time comes will make her even more fearful. He refuses to tell her now what he will say. He wants the shock and awe value to be greater later at the time they occur. He figures that if he told her now, she could somehow steel herself, and the shock value would be lost. We wants her to suffer mightily for not letting him relieve his lust at the expense of her virginity.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Reading of "Death's Duel"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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