The Love Poetry of John Donne

by Ian Mackean

John Donne's Songs and Sonnets do not describe a single unchanging view of love; they express a wide variety of emotions and attitudes, as if Donne himself were trying to define his experience of love through his poetry. Love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or merely a sensual one, and it can give rise to emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. Taking any one poem in isolation will give us a limited view of Donne's attitude to love, but treating each poem as part of a totality of experience, represented by all the Songs and Sonnets, it gives us an insight into the complex range of experiences that can be grouped under the single heading 'Love'.

In 'To his Mistris Going to Bed' we see how highly Donne can praise sensual pleasure. He addresses the woman as:

Oh my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree [1]


The images are of physical, material wealth, and anyone reading this poem alone would think Donne's interest in women was limited to the sexual level. He describes sex in terms of a religious experience; the woman is an 'Angel', she provides 'A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise', and the bed is 'loves hallow'd temple'. But although erotic, this is not a love poem; nowhere does he say that he loves the woman, or that sex is part of a deeper relationship.

In The Extasie Donne conveys a very different and more complex attitude to erotic pleasure, when it is just one part of the experience of love.

This Extasie doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love,
Wee see by this, it was not sexe,
Wee see, we saw not what did move . . .

Love's mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke.

The body and the soul are distinct, but related aspects of the totality of love. The uniting of souls is the purest and highest form of love, but this can only be attained through the uniting of bodies.

Soe soule into the soule may flow,
Though it to body first repaire.

This focus on the soul leads Donne to express a condescending attitude towards physical love in this poem which is in marked contrast to the attitude he expressed in To his Mistris Going to Bed.

But O alas, so long, so farre
Our bodies why doe wee forbeare?
They'are ours, the though they'are not wee. Wee are
Th'intelligences, they the spheare.

But in reading Donne one soon learns that an attitude expressed in one poem is not to be taken as absolute and exclusive. One of Donne's characteristics is that he freely contradicts himself from one poem to another. The title of this poem, The Extasie, implies that love is a religious experience, just as the diction of To his Mistris Going to Bed conveyed sex as a religious experience. The religious metaphors give a hyperbolic intensity to his imagery, but the ideas expressed in The Extasie are firmly rooted in the scientific theories of his day.

Donne's view that spiritual love can be attained through physical love ties in with the contemporary theory of the 'chain of being' [2]. Angels, presumably, could experience a totally spiritual love, unadulterated by the physical. But man, being part divine and part animal, can only reach the spiritual level through the sensual.

So must pure lovers soules descend
T'affections, and to faculties,
That sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.

The inherent superiority of the spiritual level, and the part love can play in refining man's nature towards the spiritual, is expressed in these lines:

If any, so by love refin'd,
That he soules language understood,
And by good love were grown all minde

The scientific framework of Donne's view of love is also seen here:

But as all severall soules containe
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, these mixt soules, doth mixe againe,
And makes both one, each this and that.

Just as the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water were supposed to combine to form new substances, so two souls mix to form a new unity. The strength and durability of this new unit is dependent upon how well the elements of the two souls are balanced, as we see from these lines from The Good-Morrow:

What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;
It our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.

A good example of this state, where two lovers' souls cannot be separated, even when they are physically far apart, is seen in A Valediction: forbidding mourning:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin encompasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th'other doe.

The idea of two coming together to form one is very important in Donne's view of love. When a couple find perfect love together they become all-sufficient to one another, forming a world of their own, which has no need of the outside world. This idea is expressed in these lines from The Sunne Rising:

She'is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy spheare.

And again it in The Good-Morrow:

For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an everywhere.

For Donne love transcends all worldly values. As we see in The Canonization, values such as wealth and glory have no place in the world of love.

With wealth your state, your minde with Arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honour, or his grace,
Or the Kings reall, or his stamped face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

Like love itself, the women to whom Donne's verses are addressed are usually praised in hyperbolic terms. In The Sunne Rising her eyes shine brighter than the sun. And in The Dreame she is praised as a being above the level of angels.

Yet I thought thee
(For thou lov'st truth) an Angell, at first sight,
But when I saw thou saw'st my heart,
And knew'st my thoughts, beyond an Angels art,
When thou knew'st what I dreamt, when thou knew'st when
Excess of joy would wake me, and cam'st then,
I do confesse, it could not chuse but bee
Profane, to thinke thee any thing but thee.

This reverence for woman sometimes leads Donne close to adopting the traditional attitude of the courtly lover [3], who suffers through being in love with a woman, usually already married, who scorns him. An example of this kind of love is suggested by the references to the symptoms of love in The Canonization:

Alas, alas, who's injur'd by my love?
What merchant ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who saies my teares have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veines fill
Adde one man to the plaguie Bill?

The courtly love ideal, however, is in conflict with Donne's ideal of two well-matched and well-balanced lovers whose souls unite to form one. In the poem Loves Deitie he expresses his contempt for the courtly ideal, which he sees as a corruption of the true nature of love.

I cannot thinke that hee, who then lov'd most,
Sunke so low, as to love one which did scorne,
. . . It cannot bee
Love, till I love her, that loves mee.

In fact Donne is unusual, if not unique, for his era in that courtly love hardly appears in his poetry at all. Courtly love seems to depend on the lover being unsuccessful, whereas Donne rejoices in success at every level. And the courtly love poet always expresses the same experience of love, the range of situations and emotions dealt with being very limited. In contrast Donne expresses an enormously wide range of feelings in his Songs and Sonnets, all relating to the experience of love, but varying from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. This variety of feeling lends Donne's poetry much of its impact, for we seem to be reading an individual's personal experience of love, and not just a poet's contribution to a long-standing tradition of poetic love.

We have seen how in The Extasie Donne describes love as a sublime union of two souls. This, perhaps is the highest form of love, but by no means the only one. The Dreame expresses a passionate mood of a more down-to-earth nature.

Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best,
Not to dreame all my dreame, let's do the rest.

The Sunne Rising expresses the reckless pride and satisfaction felt by the lover in bed with his mistress.

Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?

In The Flea Donne adopts a cynical and rather flippant tone towards his woman, using his wit to try to belittle and overcome her moral arguments, in favour of immediate pleasure.

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is

For Donne, love can lead to suffering and disillusionment as well as to ecstasy. A Nocturnall upon S. Lucie's day, Being the shortest day is an extremely powerful evocation of the suffering caused by the death of a loved one, an experience which takes him beyond suffering to a state of absolute nothingness.

. . . Yea plants, yea stones detest
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, 'a light, and body must be here.

But I am none;

In Twicknam Garden Donne expresses extremes of disillusionment, his view of love here being totally opposed to his view in The Extasie:

The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert Manna to gall,

And his view of woman is totally opposed to the view expressed in most of his love poems:

Nor can you more judge womans thought by teares,
Than by her shadow, her what she weares.
O perverse sexe, where none is true but shee,
Who's therefore true, because her truth kills mee.

Perhaps the most extreme anti-love poem of Donne's, and certainly the most un-courtly, is The Apparition. The bitterness expressed here is so intense that it is surely a hate poem; it opens:

When by thy scorne, O murdress, I am dead,

And continues with the lover threatening to haunt his mistress after his death.

Finally we ought to consider whether Donne's poetry expresses real love at all, or whether, as some critics suggest, he was merely a talented poet using his wit and ingenuity to create clever poems. Johnson said of the Metaphysical poets: 'Their courtship was void of fondness and their lamentation of sorrow.' He did not feel that Donne's poetry moved the affections, or that Donne had necessarily felt the emotions in order to write the poems.

Donne's poems are extraordinarily witty and ingenious, but this does not exclude the possibility that they also contain strong emotion. Donne's poems are quite capable of stirring the emotions, and no matter how clever his conceits, or revolutionary his thought, his poems would not work without a seed of genuine feeling at their centre.

1 All quotes taken from: The Metaphysical Poets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1957 (revised 1972)
2 Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Harmondsworth: Pelican. 1972
3 Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. OUP 1973

See also:
John Donne. A Valediction: of Weeping and A Valediction: forbidding mourning. Metaphysical Love Poems
John Donne. Religious poetry. Holy Sonnet (Batter my Heart) and A Hymn to God the Father
John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan: Religious Metaphysical poetry

© Ian Mackean, February 2001


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