Love in Donne's Songs and Sonnets

Categories: John Donne

The presence of love is thematically interwoven into all of John Donne's Songs and Sonnets. Confronting the ideas of both the eroticism of physical love and the purity and intellectualism of spiritual love, Donne creates a world in which the reader is able to glimpse into the psyche of the poet. It is significant to understand that Donne does not attempt to describe a single and unchanging view of love. Rather, his poetry expresses a variety of emotions and attitudes. Throughout his Songs and Sonnets, Donne toys with the conflicting concepts of love, its flaws, as well as inherent values to humanity.

Love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or merely a sexual one, resulting in emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. Therefore, taking any one poem in isolation will give us a limited view of Donne's attitude towards love. The reader must treat each poem as part of a collectivity of the maturation process; represented by all the Songs and Sonnets, the poems give insight into the complex range of experiences that can be grouped under the single heading of "love".

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The ideal of the spiritual love is one in which Donne consistently utilizes in his poetry.

By implementing metaphors of religious iconography into his verse, he creates a beautifully spun web of intricate imagery that helps convey his message to the reader. A primary example of this technique is achieved in "A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning" in which two lovers are physically separated from each other for an unknown period of time.

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The male forbids his female lover to mourn his departure, citing, "No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move, /'Twere profanation of our joys/To tell the laity our love"(Donne 120, lines 6-8).

By invoking the spiritual side of love, he is able to coax his lover into not causing a scene when they say goodbye to one another. Particularly, the words "profanation" and "laity" exemplify the idea that their love transcends the physical realm (Martz 47). It is emphasized that the love they share is rare and extraordinary enough that it would be almost blasphemous to parallel the common lovers to their higher caliber of love. In accordance with this notion of spiritual love, the subsequent stanzas deal with the cosmic ramifications of the spiritual love.

Donne juxtaposes the earth quaking and "trepidation of the spheres" with the raw act that physical lovers engage in. In the book The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, A. J. Smith argues that, "The best love is the love of souls so complete as to make one new and superior soul, which is then better than either was singly, and exempt from change; and this is a reciprocity which in fact guarantees mutual truth and stability even in physical separation (Smith 58). " According to A. J. Smith, the issue presented in this poem is "... the interinvolvement of mutual lovers... hey have been fused by love into a new and superior soul, which is their whole being, so that separately they have no existence; from which it follows at one time that they have being only when they are together, as one entity, and at another time that their oneness is essentially undisturbed by mere physical separation...

The lover is so involved with his mistress that he is dependent upon her for existence, understanding, growth; he dies in absence from her; and his being is violently dissolved, annihilated, made nothing and the quintessence of nothing, by her death. This aspect of love insinuates that the male lover's heart will perish with the death of his female counterpart. Unable to endure the separation, he will be mentally and physically drained of love by her departure from the physical realm of existence. Conversely, lovers who are able to look past the superficial and one-dimensional aspect of love realize that their love will be better able to endure the test of time. Expounded in the following verse, "But we by a love, so much refined/...

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss" (Donne 120, lines 17,20), the concept candidly means the lovers are not concerned with the arbitrary influences physical love might bear on their relationship. One of the more significant and memorable metaphors in the poem reveals itself in one of the latter stanzas. By implementing the compass metaphor into his verse, Donne effectively portrays the stability of spiritual love. Donne writes, "If they be two, they are two so/ As stiff twin compasses are two, / Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show/ To move, but doth, if th' other do" (Donne 121, lines 25-28).

Therefore, if she stays in place, like the compass, he will be true and return to her. The theme of spiritual love presented in this poem stresses that in order for love to withstand the test of time and space the lovers must be more than physical lovers. Smith reconciles the general theme of this poem as one, "whose crux is the persuasion that physical separation is not separation at all, and whose overall sense should seem to be served by the unqualifying urge of the pure union of minds... Physical contact thus is demonstrably not essential to it" (Smith 61).

Their souls needed to have connected on a higher, more intellectual plane of existence to remain constant to each other. Furthermore, the poem's portrayal of love through incongruous elements is significant in the overall understanding of the mutual love between the lovers. Without such metaphysical conceits as the "other meanings when juxtaposed with them, as the fixed foot of the "stiffe twin compasses" changes in connection with the roving foot", Donne's position would lose its effectiveness and meaning (Belilies 135).

The spiritual side of love utilized in Donne's poetry can also be expressed as a type of religion. Specifically, true spiritual love should be defended against corrupting societal influences. As Smith eloquently expresses, "Such lovers must and do renounce the world and their won lives, for each other; love denies them the prizes of the world, but it gives them another superior world, with its own conditions and laws" (Smith 55). This idea is prominently expressed throughout the poem "The Canonization", in which the love is defended against the insidious values of politics and privilege.

In the first stanza, the speaker goes into personal details about his relationship with the aristocratic upper crust of society. Rebuking the listener for not letting him love who he wants, the speaker advises the listener to go and work for one of the aristocrats he admires so much. Donne states, "Take you a course, get you a place/ Observe his Honor or his Grace/ Or the King's real, or his stamped face" (Donne 95, lines5-7). Therefore, if the listener heeds his advice, he would be choosing wealth and status over true love. The speaker goes on to mock the notion that his love will affect the world at all.

Corthell hypothesizes that at this point in the poem, "... Donne misrepresents both the public domain he claims to have renounced and the erotic life he claims to embrace by denying any possible connection between them" (Corthell 90). In the second stanza, the speaker's sardonic tone conveys the ridiculousness that his love will bring life-altering repercussions to the outside world. He sarcastically states, "Alas, alas, who's injured by my love? / What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned? " (Donne 95, lines 10-11).

Criticism of this poem expresses the ideology in which, "... he subject of love takes shape between misrepresentations of political and sexual pursuits that are aligned with scenes of public achievement and private retreat. While acknowledging the importance of Donne's coterie audience to his handling of this conflict, I would like to consider both Donne and the coterie on this matter in the light of contemporary perceptions of the problematic relationship between public and private" (Corthell 89). The mood and tone then shift from one of sarcastic rhetoric to making passionately bold claims in defense of his love.

By using metaphorical devices to explain the depth and uniqueness of his love, Donne is able to further his argument in favor of spiritual love. Corthell notes that, "As many commentators have noted, Donne transforms the phoenix from Petrarch's image of the uniqueness of his love for Laura into a representation of both the lovers... The "one neutrall thing" is one of the most striking of Donne's assertions of oneness as a mysterious aspect of mutual love, and I think it harmonizes with several other poems of mutuality in its aim to dissolve difference.

As a result, the poem is focussed not on the relation between the lovers and their critics or their devotees"(Corthell 93). He compares the lovers to moths inexplicably drawn to the same candle. The speaker furthers his point by using the metaphors of the eagle and dove as symbolizing eachother. The eagle represents the strength and masculinity of the male lover, while the dove embodies the delicate and peaceful female characteristics. The final metaphor in that stanza makes a passionate reference to the phoenix and how it dies and rises out of the ashes of love as lovers do when they make love.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker explores the possibility that the lovers can be forever immortalized, or "canonized" in verse. According to Corthell, "In Donne's version love and poetry are bound up with each other in the sense that the lovers construct an ideal imitation of life. However, by also characterizing the relation between lovers and world as a form of spying, Donne registers the sense of an unstable, even dangerous connection between this ideal imitation and the original" (Corthell 98). Therefore, there is a historical significance to this literary work's relation to history.

On this level, Donne suggests that there is a social world beyond the imaginary world the lovers are attempting to create. This association between love and poetry lyrics is illustrated in the following quote, "Our legends be, it will be fit for verse; / And if no piece of chronicle we prove, /We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms;... /And by these hymns, all shall approve/ Us canonized for love"(Donne 96, lines 30-32, 35-36). The speaker passionately advocates that if we cannot live by this belief in the power love, it would not affect their love if they died by it.

Death would only cement their love and proclaim it to the world through the beautiful sensibilities of verse in sonnets. Ultimately, spiritual love conquers all when the speaker applies the images of saints interceding for lovers on earth in this religion known as love. Both him and his lover will serve as the saints to help future generations of lovers from the persecution he is experiencing now. The ideology that spiritual love will exceed the physical through verse is another example of how Donne advocates the importance of the connection transfixed between the souls of two lovers.

Contrary to the spiritual aspect of love is the realm of the purely physical, passionate expression of loven. The application of this theme is depicted in the poem "Love's Usury". In this particular poem, the speaker is more interested in the bodily pleasures associated with lovemaking rather than emotional fidelity. Donne uses dynamic and intense words to convey his message of a man who drifts in and out of love. According to A. J. Smith, "... love is a contract imposed by the exigencies of the chase, to be evaded by legal quibbling like any other contract.

The mutual instability os any sexual relationship may be taken for granted; as may the ephermeralness of women, and the palpable speciousness of the highflown principles the profess- mere special pleadings, excuses for change which one pretends to indulge only because it suits one's own purpose. Exemplifying this point in the first stanza, the speaker states, "Till then, Love, let my body reign, and let/ Me travel, sojourn, snatch, plot, have, forget, / Resume my last year's relict: think that yet/ We had never met" (Donne 94, lines 5-8). In this stanza, the poetic device of personification is given when describing love.

The speaker appears to be engaging in a private conversation with "Love", bargaining and arguing the point that once he reaches old age he will finally put an end to his promiscuity. In the next stanza, the lines become more passionate and adamant about not succumbing to true love until he is older. He briefly catalogues different types of women he wants to physically conquer, and confidently asserts that he will be strong enough to evade love's potency. The speaker finally concludes his point by speaking of how he will surrender to the confinement of love in his golden years.

At that time, he will have found an appreciation and respect for love and become faithful to one woman. The physical love displayed in this poem appears to speak from the author's own heart and mind. Donne seems to disapprove of the notion that a man can go his entire life without becoming emotionally attached to one woman. In accord with this notion Smith dictates, "This is a young man's world, in which women are merely objects, to be tried, enjoyed, and lightheartedly discarded; and the worst indignity it offers is that which diminishes a man's self-sufficiency by reducing him to a humiliating slavery and so sapping his independence.

Hence faithful love is unnatural, restrictive, an indignity of middle-age, and fidelity itself a heresy... "(Smith 47). Furthermore, the cynical tone of the speaker on love as burdensome gives credence to the idea that spiritual love is a better way to make a durable connection between two people. In contrast with the concept that spiritual love has a more lasting impression on the lovers is in the erotically charged poem "The Flea". This poem deals with the yearning for physical pleasures when two people are in love (Martz 49). The first stanza begins with two lovers who unexpectedly encounter a flea.

The male lover, as an argumentative tool for sexual conquest, exploits the flea. The speaker notes to his beloved about how small and insignificant the flea is. Comparing this aspect of the flea to the act of premarital sex, the speaker's desire grows more intense with each passing line. The idea of sexual deprivation is illustrated in the following quote, "And in this flea, out two bloods mingled be;/ Thou knowest that this cannot be said/ A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead, /Yet this enjoys before it woo, / And pampered swells with one blood made of two,/ And this, alas, is more than we would do" (Donne 89, lines 4-9).

The male lover employs elaborate symbols of love to plead with his lover to stop denying him his carnal desire. In its simplest form, the speaker is saying that they are almost married, so why delay the inevitable? In the final stanza, the speaker makes a final and valiant attempt to coax his lover into engaging in sex. She kills the flea, turning his argument in favor of preserving her honor. Although she killed this innocent and tiny creature, her integrity is still in tact.

Basically, she would not lose any more honor by sleeping with him than she did by killing the flea. The contradictory natures of spiritual love versus physical love portrayed in Donne's Songs and Sonnets sends the reader on emotional highs and lows throughout his poetry. This specific compilation of his literary works conveys a significant message that in order for love to last, the lover's relationship cannot be based entirely on physical lust. True love is love for the person's soul and inner essence, which transcends the mortal coil of existence.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Love in Donne's Songs and Sonnets. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Love in Donne's Songs and Sonnets essay
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