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John Donne: a love poet

Donne was the first English poet to challenge and break the supremacy of Petrarchan tradition.
Though at times he adopts the Petrarchan devices, yet his imagery and rhythm, texture and colour
of his love poetry is different. There are three distinct strains of his love poetry – Cynical, Platonic
and Conjugal love.

Giving an allusion to Donne’s originality as the poet of love, Grierson makes the following
observation: “His genius temperament and learning gave a certain qualities to his love poems …
which arrest our attention immediately. His love poems, for instance, do have a power which is at
once realistic and distracting.”

Donne’s greatness as a love-poet arises from the fact that this poetry covers a wider range of
emotions than that of any previous poet. His poetry is not bookish but is rooted in his personal
experiences. Is love experience were wide and varied and so is the emotional range of his love-
poetry. He had love affairs with a number of women. Some of them were lasting and permanent,
other were only of a short duration.

Donne is quite original in presenting the love situations and moods. The “experience of love” must
produce a “sense of connection” in both the lovers. This “sense of connection” must be based on
equal urge and longing on both the sides.

“The room of love” must be shared equally by the two partners.

Donne magnifies the ideal of “Sense of connection” into the physical fulfillment of love.

"My face in thine eyes thine in mime appears"

This aspect of love helps him in the virtual analysis of the experience of love. Donne was a shrewd
observer who had first hand knowledge of “love and related affairs. That is why in almost all his
poems, he has a deep insight.

His love as expressed in his poetry was based not on conventions but on his own experiences. He
experienced all phase of love – platonic, sensuous, serene, cynical, conjugal, illicit, lusty,
picturesque and sensual. He could also be grotesque blending thought with passion.

Another peculiar quality of Donne’s love lyrics is its “metaphysical strain”. His poems are sensuous
and fantastic. Donne’s metaphysical strain made his reader confused his sincerity.

Donne’s genius temperament and learning gave to his love poems power and fascination. There is
a depth and rang of feeling unknown to the majority of Elizabethan poets. Donne’s poetry is
startlingly unconventional even when he dallies, half ironically, with the hyperboles of petrarch.

Donne is realistic not an idealistic. He knows the weakness of Flesh, the pleasure of sex, the joy
of secret meeting. However he tries to establish a relationship between the body and the soul.
Donne is very realistic poet.

Grierson distinguished three distinct strains in it. First there is the cynical strain. Secondly, there
is the strain f conjugal love to be noticed in poems like “valediction: forbidding mourning”. Thirdly,
there is platonic strain. The platonic strain is to b found in poems like “Twicknam Garden”, “The
Funeral”, “The Blossoms”, and “The Primroses”. These poems were probably addressed to the
high-born lady friends. Towards them he adopts the helpless pose of flirtations and in high platonic
vein boasts that:

Different of sex no more we know

Than our Guardian Anglles doe
In between the cynical realistic strain and the highest spiritual strain, there are a number of poems
which show an endless variety of mood and tone. Thus thee are poems in which the tone is harsh,
others which are coarse and brutal, still other in which he holds out a making threat to his faithless
mistress and still others in which he is in a reflective mood. More often that not, a number of
strains and moods are mixed up in the same poem. This makes Donne as a love poet singularly,
original, unconventional and realistic.

Whatever may be the tone or mood of a particular poem, it is always an expression of some
personal experience and is, therefore, presented with remarkable force, sincerity and seriousness.
Each poem deals with a love situation which is intellectually analyzed with the skill of an
experienced lawyer.

Hence the difficult nature of his poetry and the charge of obscurity have been brought against him.
The difficulty of the readers is further increased by the extreme condensation and destiny of
Donne’s poetry.

The fantastic nature of the metaphysical conceits and poetry would become clear even we examine
a few examples. In “Valediction: Forbidden Mourning” true lovers now parted are likened to the
legs of a compass. The image is elaborated at length. The lovers are spiritually one, just as the
head of the compass is one even when the legs are apart. One leg remains fixed and the other
moves round it. The lover cannot forget the beloved even when separated from her. The two loves
meet together in the end just as the two legs of the compass are together again, as soon as circle
has been drawn.

At other times, he uses equally extravagated hyperboles. For example, he mistakes his beloved to
an angel, for to imagine her less than an angle would be profanity.

In Donne’s poetry, there is always an “intellectual analysis” of emotion. Like a clever lawyer, Donne
gives arguments after arguments in support of his points of view. Thus in “Valediction: Forbidden
Mourning” he proves that true lovers need not mourn at the time of parting. In “Canonization” he
establishes that lovers are saints of love and in “The Blossome” he argues against the petrarchan
love tradition. In all this Donne is a realistic love poet.

John Donne as a metaphysical poet

Metaphysical poetry, in an etymological sense, is poetry on subjects which exist beyond the
physical world. In other words, it is a type of poetry dealing with abstract or philosophical subjects
such as love, religion, God, beauty, faith and so on. But in reality the poetry which comprises the
ideas or aspects that – physical love leading to spiritual union or religious, argumentative
presentation of emotion, terseness of expression, use of conceit and wit in profusion, skillful use
of colloquial language instead of Elizabethan lucid diction with the abrupt opening can be
considered to be metaphysical. Originally the term ‘Metaphysical Poetry’ was coined by John
Dryden and later popularised by Samuel Johnson and the features of the school which unite the
various authors are quite numerous. As well as making widespread use of conceit, paradox and
punning, the metaphysical poets drew their imagery from all sources of knowledge particularly
from science, theology, geography and philosophy. However, John Donne is the founder of the
school of metaphysical poetry and the other practitioners of the type of poetry are Crashaw,
Cowley, Denham, Davenant, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan and Waller.

The most striking quality of Donne’s poetry is the use of metaphysical conceit which is a figure of
speech in which two far-fetched objects or images of very different nature are compared. It
surprises its readers by its ingenious discovery and delights them by its intellectual quality. Such
conceits are available in his poetry. Such a famous conceit occurs in the poem titled “A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning”. The conceit reads as:

“If they be two, they are two so

A stiff twin compasses are two;
They soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.”
Here in the poem the two lovers are compared to the two feet of a compass. The lover is compared
to the moving foot and the beloved to the fixed foot consecutively to show the ideal relationship
between them. It is made clear that in this relationship the woman’s part is passive and her place
is in the home, while the man’s duty is to move in the world of affairs. She stays in the centre
apparently unmoving, but certainly as the outer foot moves around describing the circle, the inner
foot moves too, revolving on the point which is the centre. The two, in fact, move in harmony and
neither is unaffected by the movement of the other. At first sight such a comparison seems to be
impossible but after the discovery of the underlying meaning it delights the readers.

Another leading feature of Donne’s poetry is his dramatic presentation that arrests the attention
of the readers very quickly. Like other famous poets, Donne has the capacity of opening a poem
abruptly adding a dramatic quality to the poem. As we find such abruptness in opening the poem
“The Canonization”. The line goes as:

“For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love, Or chide
my palsy, or my gout,”
Upon reading or hearing those opening lines, we can easily understand that the poem begins
somewhat in the middle of a conversation. Now the more we advance, the more clear it becomes
that why the speaker of the poem makes such a request to the unidentified listener.

Closely related to the dramatic directness and abruptness of opening is Donne’s dexterous use of
colloquial speech. This dramatic quality is strengthened by its colloquial tone. In the song: “Go and
Catch a Falling Star” we can trace such a quality:

“Go, and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,”
On perusing the two lines we will see that like many other poems Donne has employed colloquial
language to make the poem more lifelike. From the lines it is clear that a conversation is going on
between two people.

Through all the love poems of Donne, there runs a belief that physical passion is a good thing and
he recognises the claim of body side by side with the souls. His love poems enhance its attraction
and novelty by blending physical, spiritual and mystical love. Although there is a complexity in the
poem, “The Ecstasy” Donne deals twin aspects of love - physical and spiritual; love here is
concretised through physical enjoyment of sex and then turns in its pure essence, spiritual. The
setting of the two lovers provides the physical closeness by their love is enriched by the mutual
understanding of their souls and like heavenly beings that influence the actions of men through
manifestation. The soul must express themselves through the bodies. The greatness of the poem
lies in reconciling the opposites – physical love and spiritual love, the physical aspects of love must
precede the spiritual union. Donne’s poetry lies far reconciling dichotomy between psychical and
spiritual shifting quickly from the physical to the spiritual fashion.

“The Sun Rising” is another poem illustrating the peculiar blend of passion and thought, feeling
and ratiocination. The delight of satisfied love is the feeling in the poem, but it is expressed in
intellectual terms and not merely in an emotional tone. How well the fusion of feeling and thought
is expressed in the finality of:

“She is all States, and all Princes, I

Nothing else is.”
Passion is conveyed in images which are erudite, logical and of an intellectual nature. In the poem,
we again see Donne’s ratiocinative style, reasoning step by step towards his conclusion, which in
this case, is that love is self-sufficient and unaffected by outside force.

Terseness is another characteristic of all the metaphysical poets. It is true in the case of Donne in
particular. And the use of such terseness results in obscurity. Such compactness is traceable in
“Go and Catch a Falling Star”.

“No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.”
In the compact idea Donne wants to show that just as it is impossible to catch a falling star in the
sky, so a woman with both honesty and fairness is rare to find out as they first seem to be honest
but later they are found to be different.

In addition to that, the poems “The Canonization”, “Twicknam Garden”, “A Valediction: Forbidding
Mourning”, “Go and Catch a Falling Star” and “The Sun Rising” in one or other way deal with the
abstract idea which is most dominating feature of the metaphysical poetry and is a must for this
type of poetry.

Donne was the greatest of the metaphysical poets. In some of their poems he was equalled by
Vaughan and Marvell and in religious poetry by Herbert. But the body of his work is poetry of a
quality which, when compared with that of any other of these poets, is unsurpassed. When his
images are understood in their function of communicating a state of mind, and his ideas in their
power to give expression to emotion, Donne’s poetry is appreciated for its wit, beauty and
perception. In conclusion, considering all the characteristics of Donne’s poetry as discussed above,
Donne can be regarded as a true metaphysical poet. Although he was considered a minor poet till
the 20th century, he is regarded as one of the major English poets by T.S. Eliot and other major
modern poets.


Donne was essentially a religious man, though he moved from one denomination to another. His
spirit of rational faith continued throughout his life. The following are the main aspects of Donne’s
religious poetry:

Conflict and doubt: - As a man of the Renaissance, he could not but question the assumptions
and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Being born in a particular religion is one proposition and
being convinced of the Tightness of one’s faith, is quite another. As he was sceptical of the religious
dogmas of the Catholic Church, he adopted the Anglican faith, but even so his mind was not at
peace. He could not reconcile the inner conflicts and as such he prayed for God’s mercy and grace,
so that he might be able to build his faith on a sound foundation. In his A Hymn to God the Father,
he ultimately arrives at a firm faith. It is perhaps the culmination of his spiritual quest.

Note of introspection: - The metaphysical clement which is so evident in his love poems, finds
expression of an inner heart searching. He digs deep within himself in order to measure his sincerity
and devotion to God and above all his consciousness of sin and the need of penitence. His fear of
death—Donne must have seen many of his friends on their death-beds and their last struggles—
makes him repent for his past follies and hence his prayer to God for His mercy and compassion.
The Holy Sonets particularly maybe regarded as poems of repentance, and supplications for divine
grace. Donne’s intention is not to preach morality or to turn men to virtue. Grierson writes in this
connection: “To be didactic is never the first intention of Donne’s religious poems, but rather, to
express himself, to analyse and lay bare his own moods of agitation, of aspiration and of
humiliation, in the quest of God, and the surrender of his soul to Him. The same erudite and
surprising imagery, the same passionate, and reasoning strain, meet us in both”.

The themes of his religious poetry: - Donne found the contemporary world dry and corrupt. He
felt that its degeneration would lead to untold human misery. The main theme of his religious
poems is the transitoriness of this world, the fleeting nature of physical joys and earthly happiness,
the sufferings of the soul imprisoned in the body and the pettiness and insignificance of man.
Above all, the shadow of death is all pervasiveand this makes him turn to Christ as the Saviour.
Even so, his metaphysical craftsmanship treats God as ‘ravisher’ who saves him from the clutches
of the Devil. Though Donne regarded the world a vanity of vanities, he could not completely detach
himself from the joys of the world and there is a turn from other-worldliness to worldliness.
However, we cannot doubt the sincerity of his religious feelings and his earnest prayer to God for
deliverance. His moral earnestness is reflected in his consciousness of sin and unworthiness for
deserving the grace of Christ He uses the images of Christ as a lover who will woo his soul.

Parallelism with love poetry: - There is a great similarity of thought and treatment between the
love poems and holy sonnets, though the theme is different. The spirit behind the two categories
of poems is the same. There is the same subtle spirit which analyses the inner experiences like
the experiences of love. The same kind of learned and shocking imagery is found in the love poems:

Is the Pacific sea my home? or are The

Eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar.
All straits (and none but straits) are ways to them.
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Ham, or Shem.
Similarly in his treatment of divine love, the poet uses sexual images in holy situations. As for

Betray kind husband thy spouse to cur sights,

And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove Who is
most true, and pleasing to thee then When she’s
embraced and open to most men.

There are two notes in Donne’s religious poems—the Catholic and the Anglican. The Progress of
the Soul leans towards Catholicism and it records the doubts and longings of a troubled subtle
soul. The following lines show the working of the mind and are full of bold and echoing vowel

O might those sights and tears return again Into my

breast and eyes, which I have spent.
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain;
In mine Idolatory what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste? What griefs my heart did vent?
That sufferance was my sin; now I repent.
Cause I ‘did suffer I must suffer pain.
The Progress of the Soul, though written in 1601 was published after his death, in 1633. Ben
Jonson called it “the conceit of Donne’s transformation.” Donne describes his theme in the very
first stanza.

I sing the progress of a deathless soul

Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control
Pla’d in most shapes; all lines before the low Yok’d us,
and when; and since, in this I sing.
He describes the soul of heresy which began in paradise (in the apple) and roamed through souls
of Luther, Mahomed and Calvin and is now at rest in England:

The great soul which here among us now

Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue and brow, Which as the
moon the sea moves us.
Donne moves from the aesthetic to the ethical plane of existence. His curiosity about the
microcosm and his scepticism find expression here:

There’s nothing simply good, nor all alone,

Of every quality comparison,
The only measure is, and judge, opinion.
The poem was written soon after the inner crisis and his conversion:

For though through many straits and lands I roam, I

launch at Paradise and I sail towards home.
The psychological problem finds its solution in a spiritual reintegration.

The Divine Poems include ‘La Corona’ and six holy sonnets on Annunciation, Nativity, Temple
Crucifying, Ressurrection and Ascenstion. Donne seeks divine grace to crown his efforts:

But do not with a vile crown of frail bays,

Reward my muses white sincerity,
But what thy thorny crown gain’d, that gives me A crown
of glory, which doth flower always.
The other, group of sonnets also entitled Holy Sonnets contains 19 sacred poems. They belong to
the period of doubt and intense inner struggle which preceded Donne’s entry into the Church of
England. Here is a mood of melancholy and despair.

This is my play’s last scene here heavens appoint.

My pilgrimage’s last mile. (Sonnet VI)
Despair behind and death before doth caste
Such terror and my feeble flesh doth waste.
In sonnet II, Christ appears as a lover and Donne as a temple usurped by the Devil.

Myself a temple of thy spirit divine

Why doth the devil then usurp on me…

In Sonnet III, Donne is sincerely repentant for his past sins:

That I might in this holy discontent

Mourn with some fruit, as I have moum’d in vain…. No
ease, for long, yet vehement grief hath been The effect
and cause, the punishment and sin.
In Sonnet IV, Donne compares himself to a felon charged with treason, and yet he cannot resist

Christ’s blood, though red, will whiten the souls stained and polluted with sin.
Oh make thyself with holy mourning black
And red with blushing, as them an with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might That being
red, it dyes red souls to white.
Sonnet V shows Donne’s Renaissance-spirit–his wander-lust:

You which beyond that heaven which was most high

Have found new spheres, and of new lands, can write, Power
new seas in ruined eyes, that so I might Drown my world with my
weeping earnestly. Donne prays sincerely for pardon for his misdeeds:

Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good As if thou

hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.
The pilgrim-soul is not afraid of death.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and
dreadful, for thou art not so.
In Sonnet XIII, Donne brings forward the argument that because beautiful women have liked him
in his youth, so Christ, the Incarnation of Beauty, should be kind to him:

No, no; but as in my idolatry,

I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pity, foulness only is A sign of
rigour: so 1 say to thee.
In Sonnet XVII, Donne refers to the death of his wife which has now made him turn his attention
to spiritual attainment:

Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt To

Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead.
In Sonnet XVIII, Donne expresses his desire to see the true church (England, Rome, Geneva)
undivided, because it is indivisible. The bride of Christ is the mistress of the whole world.

Who is most true, and pleasing to thee then

When she is embrac’d and open to most men.

The Hymn to God, written during his serious illness in 1623, is a sincere prayer to God to receive
him in His grace:

So, in his purple wrapp’d receive me Lord,

By these his thorns give me his other Crown,
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word
Be this my Text my sermon to mine own,
Therefore that he may arise the lord throws down.
The Divine Poems contain a vivid and moving record of a brilliant mind struggling towards God.
Truth, is the goal but there are hurdles and temptations in the way. Donne is not afraid of analysing
the appalling difficulties of faith. The vacillations, the doubts, of this imperfect but sincere man are
reflected in all their passion. Donne’s aim is not didactic or moral; he wishes to lay bare his own
moods, his aspirations, his sins, his humiliation in the quest of God. He is the most sincere and
introspective Anglican poet of the seventeenth century. He had experienced the intensification of
religious feeling mentioned in the holy sonnets. Walton writes: “His aspect was cheerful and such
as gave a silent testimony of a clear knowing soul, of a conscience at peace with itself. His melting
eye showed that he had a soft heart full of noble compassion, of too brave a soul to offer injuries
and too much a Christian not to pardon them in others.” W.B. Yeats, a mystic poet, writes of
Donne, “his pedantries and his obscenities, the rock and loam of his Eden, but make us the more
certain that one who is but a man like us all has seen God!”

Conclusion: - Some critics question use of the metaphysical method in holy sonnets and religious
poems. Grierson, however, justifies use of the metaphysical method in these serious poems. He
writes: “Here, he recaptures the peculiar charm of his early love verse their best, the unique blend
of passionate feelings and rapid subtle thinking, the strange sense that his verse gives of a certain
conflict between the passionate thought and the varied and often elaborate pattern into which he
moulds its expression, resulting in a strange blend of harshness and constraint with reverberating
and penetrating harmony. No poems give more…the sense of conflict of soul, of faith and hope
snatched and held desperately….”

Donne’s religious poetry cannot be called mystical poetry. Donne does not forget his self as the
mystics do. His is always conscious of his environment, of the world in which he lives and of his
passionate friendships. As such his religious poetry lacks the transparent ecstacy found in great
religious poetry. Helen White writes in this connection: “There was something in Donne’s
imagination that drove it out in those magnificent figures that sweep earth and sky, but whatever
emotion such passages arouse in us, Donne was not the man to lose himself. In another world
beyond the release of death, he hoped to see his God face to face, and without end. But he was
not disposed to anticipate the privileges of that world in this, nor even in general try to do so… The
result is that in most of the mystical passages in both his poetry and his prose, the marvellous
thrust into the ineffable is followed by a quick pull-back into the world of there-and-now with its
lucid sense-detail and its ineluctable common sense.”

Donne’s holy sonnets are deservedly famous and are remarkable. They embody his deeply felt
emotions in a language reflecting conscious craftsmanship.