The Computation by John Donne

‘The Computation’ is a clever and often confusing poem that taps into themes of love, dedication/obsession, and the afterlife. The speaker, who is at the end of the poem revealed to be a ghost, travels through hours as if they were hundreds and thousands of years seeking out his lover. The mood and tone are dark, downtrodden, but also determined as the speaker sets his mind to reuniting with his beloved. 

 

Summary of The Computation 

‘The Computation’ by John Donne is a complex poem that conveys the thoughts of a speaker unlimited by time and obsessed with his lover.

The poem takes the reader through tens of years, then hundreds, and then thousands. All together the poem spans an unimaginable 2,400 years in which the speaker mourns for his lover. It is unclear until the last lines why the two are separated. Donne eventually reveals that the speaker is in fact dead and is spending his time as a ghost haunting the earth looking for his lost lover. 

 

Structure of The Computation 

‘The Computation’ by John Donne is a ten-line poem that uses a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCC, and so on, throughout. These rhyming couplets are the perfect addition to a poem that is chaotic in its depiction of time and obsessive in its speaker’s understanding of love. Donne uses complex, old fashioned syntax throughout that makes this poem hard to decipher. Several lines have multiple meanings but it is not until the end of the poem, the final couplet, that the true nature of the speaker and his existence is revealed. 

The first six syllables of ‘The Computation’ contain two anapaests. This is a type of metrical foot in which there are two short, or unstressed, beats followed by one long or stressed beat. After this point, there are a few examples of iambic pentameter but the meter is not consistently structured. 

 

Literary Devices in The Computation 

Donne makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Computation’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and hyperbole. The latter, hyperbole, is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader. In this case, the hyperboles are clearly scattered throughout this poem as the speaker compares the passage of hours to thousands of years. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. For example, in the fifth line the speaker compares the years that pass by in sorrow to candles that he blows or drowns out with sighs and tears. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “forty,” “fed,” and “favors” in line three. 

 

Analysis of The Computation

Lines 1-4

For the first twenty years since yesterday

I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away;

For forty more I fed on favors past,

And forty on hopes that thou wouldst they might last.

In the first lines of ‘The Computation,’ Donne’s speaker makes a statement, albeit a confusing one, about the passage of time. He is addressing “thou,” someone who is very likely his lover. This person’s absence from his life has deeply influenced him. The first line suggests that the speaker’s lover has either been gone for one day, and it felt like twenty years or has been gone for twenty years and it feels as fresh as though they left yesterday. In one way or another, Donne’s speaker is emphasizing the experience of this loss. 

Time expands in the next lines, confusing the timeline further. He says that its hard for him to believe, he can “scarce” believe that “forty more” years have passed since then. This figurative language should be quite obvious at this point. There is no chance that this speaker has been without his lover for sixty-some years, age, and limits of the time period make this quite unlikely. Rather, time itself is the thing in question. Donne is manipulating it for his own purposes. 

He also describes how he “fed” on the “favors past,” meaning that he subsisted emotionally on the times his love showed his favor. He concludes these four lines by saying that he hopes she continues to favor him. This suggests that she is neither dead nor so separate from him that he sees no possibility of them being together again. The reality of their separation is revealed at the end of the poem.

 

Lines 5-8

Tears drowned one hundred, and sighs blew out two,

A thousand, I did neither think nor do,

Or not divide, all being one thought of you,

Or in a thousand more forgot that too.

Time, which was already disrupted in the first few lines of ‘The Computation’ is abstracted further in the next four lines. He considers the next three hundred years and compares them to candles that are put out by his tears. “Tears,” are going to be responsible for drowning out one hundred years and then “sighs” for blowing out “two” hundred more. Time is passing quickly, with no boundaries or limits. 

Suddenly thousands of years are going by. The speaker is unable to move, make decisions, or move on with his life. He is completely controlled by “one thought of you”. The speaker is unable to “divide” himself into different purposes as his whole being is united in one common obsession.

The complex syntax that Donne is known for continues into the next lines as he moves forward another thousand years and becomes even less than he was before. His mind is a mess, taken over and destroyed by these thoughts of love. He expresses, hyperbolically, that he has been so overcome with love that he even forgot that love. But, since he’s writing this poem it’s unlikely that this is really the case.

 

Lines 9-10

Yet call not this long life, but think that I

Am, by being dead, immortal. Can ghosts die?

In the final two lines of ‘The Computation,’ which make up the last in the series of rhyming couplets, Donne transforms the poem. This “long life” that he’s been describing has spanned 2,400 years in the last eight lines (coincidentally (or not) this number can be divided by 100 to get the total number of hours in one day). 

All of a sudden the speaker throws a twist into the poem. He tells the reader, and the intended listener, that he is “dead”. But, not lost forever. He believes in his own immortality which is going to benefit him in his quest to reunite with his lover. The last line is a rhetorical question that allows the reader to ponder the nature of the speaker’s existence and the passage of time. He asks if “ghosts,” of which he is one, “Can…die”. The answer to this question is, of course, no. So, Donne’s speaker is trapped in this liminal space between life and death, wandering the earth looking for his lover. 

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