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The Computation by John Donne: Easiest Explanation & Meaning

The Computation by John Donne is a poem that’s bound to confuse the readers, taking them to a metaphysical realm where the concept of time is as broken as the logic in this poem. And yet this poem captures something beautiful, something that is present in everyone’s lives. What is the meaning of this poem, and why is it so confusing?

Every doubt and question about The Computation will be cleared in this article. We’ll provide a detailed analysis of the poem, with the summary and the meaning so that this meandering path that can confuse even the most firmly-rooted literature student becomes easily understandable.

Let’s take a look at the poem first and then at the summary and analysis. Here’s The Computation by John Donne.

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.
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.
Yet call not this long life, but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal. Can ghosts die?
- John Donne

Summary and Meaning

A 10-line poem that is far from anything simple, the complication of The Computation comes from the concept of time. The poet seems to be in some limbo where the time is completely different from our time, the time in this physical world. Here, a day comes after each day. There, it could be years or decades.

But that’s the point of this poem. The term “computation” means the action of mathematical calculation, which Donne seems to be doing here. The only difference is that it is incorrect. But since this poem is not about a calendar or a clock, time is all jumbled up. So what is this poem about?

The poem is about love, and the metaphysical realm it exists in. It is about death, but it deals with the finality of it. Is death final? Are the feelings and love one has for someone dying with the person? The poet says that by being dead, he has become immortal, for what is dead once cannot die again. This is where time comes in.

Since the speaker is dead, he has no concept of time. He is stuck in a limbo where the inhabitants are only his thoughts and the memories of the person he loved. He spends his time with memories, expectations, and thoughts. There’s a reason why he lost the concept of time. That reason is there is no end of time for the speaker.

We have a concept of tomorrow and the day after that because we know what day yesterday was, and what day it will be five days from now. But if we had no idea what day today is, what year it is, or what day it’s going to be three months from now, time will lose the man-made concept and eternity will replace it. This is why he has no idea of time, and he never can understand how many days have passed.

Analysis of the Poem

For the first twenty years since yesterday
I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away;

This is perhaps the most confusing line, just as a reader begins the poem. It completely jumbles their brain as to what the poet is trying to say. How can the “first twenty years pass” since yesterday? Perhaps the poet is saying that even though twenty years have passed, it still feels like yesterday.

The speaker is saying that he had never believed that the person he loves could ever go away. But it has been over twenty years since he came to realize that he was wrong. She indeed went away.

For forty more I fed on favors past,
And forty on hopes that thou wouldst they might last.

Now we get to know that for forty years the speaker just lived in memories of his loved ones. This could be all the cherishable memories of being together, of loving each other. For another forty years, he thought these memories would last.

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.

For a hundred years he kept weeping for her absence and sighed for two hundred years. For a thousand years he did nothing or thought about anything else other than the thought of his loved one. She had his undivided attention. Every thought he had, she lived in them.

Yet call not this long life, but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal. Can ghosts die?

Even though he has spent thousands of years just thinking about her, it is still not long enough. Now we get to know that the speaker is dead, and considers himself immortal. This is an oxymoron. How can someone be immortal when they are already dead? But then we get to the answer.

The speaker says that “Can ghosts die?” meaning that he has not gone away from this world. He resides in another world, somewhere between the world of the living and the dead, holding the memories of his loved one, ready to spend eternity in this limbo, in this dull and frightening paradise, just to be with the memories of his loved one.

Literary Devices in the Poem

Metaphor: There are a lot of metaphors in the poem. In a way, the entire poem is a metaphor for the persistence of memories, even after the death of the body. Here are the examples.

Tears drowned one hundred, and sighs blew out two,
Yet call not this long life, but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal. Can ghosts die?

Alliteration: Here are the examples of alliterations in the poem:

For the first twenty years since yesterday
For forty more I fed on favors past,
And forty on hopes that thou wouldst they might last.
A thousand, I did neither think nor do,
Yet call not this long life, but think that I

Theme: The theme of this poem is love, the persistence of memories, time, immortality, and reality.

Rhyming Scheme: The Computation has a rhyming scheme of AABB

Hyperbole: The exaggeration of time represents hyperbole.

This was all for the summary, meaning, analysis, and aliterary devices used in the poem The Computation by John Donne. We hope that this article helped in understanding the seemingly complicated poem.

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