Sunday, November 7, 2010

AIR AND ANGELS by John Donne

This is a poem of love and has little to do with air and angels. The poet is fed up with the Platonic idea of love—love as something holy and spiritual. He is also not happy with the worship of the beloved and the admiration of her beauty which the Petrarchan poets did. He realizes the hollowness and hypocrisy of the idealization of love. Love demands something concrete. It must have a physical base. Love can grow only by mutuality and co-operation.

The poet discusses the soul-body relationship. Just as the angels manifest themselves in the air by a voice or light, in the same way love which is something idealistic, must express itself through some concrete medium. In the beginning he thought love was like a spirit or an angel, but subsequently he realised that love must be expressed through a medium, namely the human body. The beloved is the body of the soul of love. Love has now been concretized in the beloved and as such she has become the cynosure of his eyes. He appreciates the beauty of her lips, eyes and brow.
The steadiness of love
Love cannot exist in a vacuum. It must have a concrete expression. Just as a ballast (heavy load) is necessary to steady the movement of a ship, in the same way, something more important than the appreciation of the bodily beauty is necessary to stabilise love. Mere admiration of her hair or some aspect of her beamy is not enough. There must be a substantial and objective expression of love. What Donne wants is physical union which can give both continuity and stability to man-woman relationship.
Man’s active love
Just as angels need the cover of air in order to be recognisable, so the lover must have the love of the beloved as a sphere for his love. There is, however, a difference between man’s love, and woman’s love. Man’s love may be compared to an angel and woman’s love to air. This implies that man is generally more active than woman in the game of love-making. The traditional concept of woman’s coyness and modesty does make one feel that she plays the second fiddle in the orchestra of love. But just as there is harmony in the angel-air relationship, there should be mutuality and response in man-woman relationship.
This is one of the ‘highly intellectualised’ of Donne’s love poems. The title does not suggest the subject of love. Even so, the poet describes divine love in terms of the flesh. He borrows images and concepts from metaphysics, navigation and scholasticism in order to prove the point that both physical base and mutuality ate essential for the experience of love. The idea of using ballast to the ship of love for its smooth sailing is original and so is the concept of the disparity between man’s passion and woman’s response. That man’s love is an angel and woman’s love the air, and the harmony of the two is necessary for the concretization and consummation of love provides a sane and fitting conclusion to the poem.

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