The Significance of the Phoenix in John Donne's "The Canonization"

Updated on January 6, 2013

John Donne

The theme of “The Canonization” by John Donne revolves around the canonization process of a man into sainthood with the nature of his romantic relationship being justification of his right to this status. It is my understanding, however, that analysts of this work often focus on this theme to the point of neglecting the significance of the phoenix metaphor and its consistency throughout the poem.

An analysis by John A. Clair found in “John Donne’s Poetry” goes into great depth and detail regarding the phoenix metaphor. Clair draws parallels between the ability of the phoenix to burst into flame and then be reborn from the ashes and the lovers’ ability to satisfy their sexual urges and return to their former level of intimate passion. I agree with this interpretation, but it limits discussion of the phoenix’s relevance to only the third stanza, within which this is mentioned. Clair’s focus was with regards to how the elements of resurrection in the lover’s relationship, which allows them to restore the passion depleted by sexual expression, were perceived by those considering the lovers for sainthood as enough to fulfill the requirement of miraculous performance necessary to be declared canonized. It is reasonable to suggest that focus on the theme of canonization has drawn Clair’s attention away from the significance of the phoenix.

An analysis of the poem found in “Donne’s Poetry and Modern Criticism” by Leonard Unger also neglects the phoenix metaphor. Upon opening discussion of the fourth stanza, it is stated that “None of the earlier conceits is drawn upon in [it]” (Unger 28), but the link between the third and fourth stanza regarding the phoenix metaphor is very clear to me. The fourth stanza is a discussion of how the lovers will be represented in death. The mention of the urn and human remains in the form of ashes is an obvious link to the earlier “conceit” of the phoenix metaphor. The reason I believe the urn is considered to be greater than a large “half-acre” tomb (which would be more becoming for a deceased saint) is the nature of the remains within. No matter how simple and plain their resting place is, the fact that they are in the form of ashes symbolizes (by alluding to the phoenix myth) the greatest aspect of the lovers’

relationship, the ability to satisfy sexual desires and have such desires return to their former magnitude. On a more divine level, one might assert that human remains in the form of ashes also symbolizes the potential to be reborn; a notion not so for one entombed in one piece.

Phoenix rising from the ashes

Standing back and viewing the poem as a whole reveals something very interesting if you focus on the phoenix metaphor. What is apparent from this perspective is how the whole poem from beginning to end parallels the process of the phoenix’s death and rebirth. The speaker begins by revealing himself as a man who is of poor health and old age; much like the phoenix before bursting into flame. He expresses obvious desperation in the second stanza with ludicrous exaggerations, stating how his affair is not going to cause disaster and sickness on a large scale. This desperation indicates a sense of urgency commonly found in someone close to death, and in the case of the speaker, the urgency is the need to assure himself the declaration of sainthood. The third stanza introduces the notion of the phoenix, and this stanza in itself represents the process of death and rebirth (as discussed by John A. Clair), but from the perspective of the poem as a whole, this stanza is simply the climax of the phoenix’s death and rebirth process. The fourth stanza parallels the period of time between the phoenix bursting into flame and then rising from the ashes with discussion of the lovers’ funeral arrangements and then ending with their canonization. The final stanza picks up on the notion of being reborn by bringing the image of a hermitage into focus. The two lovers are now alone together and have passed the trials of the canonization process. They find complete bliss within the eyes of one another and are now reborn with a fresh, pure, and loving future ahead of them.

It is clear that critical analysts focus on the theme of canonization in this poem, which is logical and valid, but the point made here is that this theme often diverts necessary attention away from the phoenix metaphor. Despite running consistently through the entire poem, it is apparent that analysts often overlook this metaphor as a result of focus on the theme of canonization.

Works Cited

“Anniina Jokinen.” The Canonization. by John Donne. 2003. 22 Sep. 2008.

Dickson, Donald. John Donne’s Poetry. New York: Norton & Company, 2007.

Roston, Murray. The Soul of Wit: A Study of John Donne. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Unger, Leonard. Donne’s Poetry and Modern Criticism. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.


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