Sunday, November 7, 2010

John Donne: A Poet of Love

The variety and scope of Donne’s love lyrics is truly remarkable. He oscillates between physical love and holy love, between cynicism and faith in love and above all the sanctity and dignity of married life. His earlier love-poems are rather erotic and sensual and deal with the real escapades and intrigues of lovers. Moreover, he is quite original in presenting love-situations and moods. Partly they are based on common experiences of his contemporaries and partly on his own experiences. In the gay and fashionable life of London of his time, Donne had ample opportunities of establishing both casual and lasting love-relationships.

Born at a time when the writing of love poems was both a fashionable and literary exercise, Donne showed his talent in this genre. His poems are entirely different from the Elizabethan love lyrics. They are singular for their fascination, charm and depth of feeling. His contemporaries wrote love-lyrics after the` manner of Petrarch and Ronsard. But Donne dallies half-ironically with the convention of Petrarch. His love songs are unconventional and original, both in form and content. Here is a blend of sensibility and wit, of joy and scorn, of beauty and repulsion. Look at the scornful anger of the jilted lover:
When by thy scorn, o murderess,
                        I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitations from me.
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed.
Another peculiar quality of Donne’s love poems is its metaphysical strain. Donne does not lay stress on beauty or rather the aesthetic element in passion. His poems are sensuous and fantastic. He goes through the whole gamut of passion from its lowest to its highest forms. Had he had a greater sense of beauty and intensity of feeling, he would have ranked as one of the greatest love poets of the world. His metaphysical wit makes his readers doubt his sincerity and earnestness. Dryden writes: “Donne affects the metaphysics not only in his satires but in his amorous verses where nature only should reign. He perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softness of love.” Tenderness and sentiment are not the qualities to be found in Donne’s poetry. The metaphysical strain is evident in his scholasticism, his game of elaborating fantastic conceits, his hyperboles, and paradoxes. Donne uses the common emblem of perfection and intensity of love by means of the circle. In his poem Love’s Growth, love is symbolised by the growing circles of water stirred by a pebble.
If as in water stirred more circles be,
Produc’d by one, love such additions take.
The lover’s feelings resemble, by their harmony, the concentric spheres of the Ptolemaic universe. Love is infinite like God’s creation.
Donne in Love’s Infiniteness, pleads with his beloved that she should give him a part of her heart. After she has given him a part, he demands the whole heart. When she has given him the entire heart, he feels that his love must grow and have a hope for the future.
Love’s riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing sav’st it;
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them, so we shall
Be one, and one another’s all.
This is the goal and consummation of love. He then startles and outrages the expectations of his readers. Similarly, in the matter of expression, he is rugged and rhetorical. No doubt by bringing in the personal element, his verses become impressive and arresting:
For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love.
I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost
Who died before the God of love was born,
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name.
I am two fools, 1 know,
For loving and for saying so.
In whining poetry.
I fix mine eye on thine and there
Pity my picture burning in thine eye,
My picture drowned in a transparent tear,
When I look lower I espy.
Donne’s love poems can be divided under three heads—
(i) Poems of moods of lovers, seduction and free love or fanciful relationship.
(ii) Poems addressed to Anne More (his wife) both before and after marriage.
(iii) Poems addressed to noble ladies of his acquaintance and compliments to wives and daughters of citizens.
Three strands
There are mainly three strands in his love poems. Firstly, there is the cynical which is anti-woman and hostile to the fair sex. The theme is the fraility of man—a matter of advantage for lovers who liked casual and extra-marital relations with ladies. Secondly, there is the strand of happy married life, the joy of conjugal love in poems like A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning addressed to his wife and Elegy on His Mistress—where temporary absence will only whet the appetite of love:
When I am gone, dream me some happiness,
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess.
These poems are dedicated to the peace and fulfilment to be found in a happy marriage. Thirdly, there is the Platonic strand, as in The Canonization, where love is regarded as a holy emotion like the worship of a devotee of God. There are, however, certain poems where the sentiment oscillates between the first and the third strands—where sexual love is treated as holy love and vice versa. In some poems the tone is rugged, harsh and aggressive as in The Apparition. Much depends on the situation selected and the mood of the poet.
Realism
Donne’s treatment is realistic and not idealistic. He knows the weaknesses of the flesh, the pleasures of sex, the joy of secret meetings. However, he tries to establish the relationship between the body and the soul. True love does not pertain to the body; it is the relationship of one soul to another soul. Physical union may not be necessary as in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. However, in another poem, The Relic, the poet regards physical union as necessary. Such contradictions, however, do not mar the value of his poetry. They only tend to emphasise the dichotomy between the claims of the body and need of the soul.
In spite of the realistic touches and descriptions in the love-poems, Donne does not take pains to detail the beauty and fascination of any part of the female body. Rather he describes its effect on the lover’s heart. Here and there, he allows himself freedom to wander over the different parts of female anatomy, but like the earlier poems, he does not dwell on the charms of the lips, eyes, teeth or cheeks of a handsome mistress. It is rather surprising that a poet who is so fond of sex should abstain so totally from the temptation to dwell on the physical structure or charm of any part of the female body.
Extra-marital love
That sex is holy whether within or outside marriage is declared by Donne in his love poems. If love is mutual, physical union even outside marriage cannot be condemned. Though as a Christian he may not justify extra-marital relationship, as a lover and as a poet, he does accept its reality and joy. He would not scorn such relationship as adultery. What Donne feels is that the love-bond is essential for sexual union. Without love, any act of sex is mean and degrading. However, true love can exist outside marriage, though moralists may sneer at it.
Attitude to woman
Donne does not feel that woman is a sex-doll or a goddess. She is essentially a bundle of contradictions. As such he laughs at her inconstancy and faithlessness. He believes in ‘Fraility, thy name is woman”. His contempt for woman is more than compensated by his respect for conjugal love. At times, he regards the beloved as an angel who can offer him heavenly inspiration and bliss. This two-fold attitude to woman— woman as a butterfly, and woman as an angel—depends on the situation and the mood of the poet.
In the poems addressed to his wife—Anne More—the poet deals primarily with the joys of fulfilled and consummated love. Here is a total experience of the triumph of serenity and mutual love which brings with itself a sense of serenity and bliss. Moreover, these poems (Valediction : Forbidding Mourning and A Valediction: of Weeping reveal the poet’s eternal faith in life. Conjugal love, at its best is more rewarding and meaningful than weeping in unfulfilled love. The best love poems are, indeed, those which show the fulfilment of a happy married life.
Petrarchanism with a difference
While the Elizabethan love lyrics are, by and large, imitations of the Petrarchan traditions, Donne’s love poems stand in a class by themselves. Donne’s love poems are entirely unconventional except when he “chose to dally half-ironically with the conventions of Petrarchan tradition.” Donne is fully acquainted with the Petrarchan model where woman is an object of beauty, love and perfection. The lover’s entreaties to his lady, his courtly wooing, the beloved’s indifference and the self-pity of the lover are common themes of Petrarchan poems. Such set themes are treated differently by Donne, because he has no own intimate experience to guide him. His utter realism makes him debunk the idea of woman as a personfication of virtue and chastity; woman is made of flesh and blood and she loves sex as much as man. In The Indifferent, Donne openly declares that he does not mind the complexion or proportions of any girl. All that he wants is sexual intimacy. However, he establishes a metaphysical relationship between body and soul—namely that physical love leads to spiritual love as in The Ecstasy:
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
Donne is different from Petrarch in his attitude to love. Here is wooing, but it is of a different type. The plea is a marriage bed and a holy temple of love. His courtship is aggressive, compelling and violent; there is no trace of self-pity in it. Rather there is a threat of revenge declared openly by the lover:
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed.
The lover’s ghost watching the beloved enjoying with another lover will cause a shiver in the beloved and she herself will turn into a ghost. The theme of death as in The Relic, The Funeral, and The Apparition is given a realistic and vivid interpretation.
Undoubtedly, Donne adopted the important characteristics of Petrarch, namely his use of images and conceits, and his dramatic approach. He, however, transformed them so rigorously by his intellect that they appear to be quite original. The hyperboles of Petrarch are farfetched while those of Donne are not so. His conceits are not decorative but functional. Take the conceit of the pair of compasses in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. How factual and how convincing is love that must return to its base after it has gone full circle. Secondly, mark the dramatic way in which the lover addresses the beloved in harsh and rhetorical language:
When by thy scorn, O murderess I am dead....
I am two fools, I know
For loving and for saying so....
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we lov’d? Were we not wean’d till then?...
The conceit becomes a blend of levity and seriousness, of mockery and wisdom, of physical passion and higher love.
Passion and thought
The fact is that Donne does not allow his passion to run way with him. He holds it in check with his reason. When the beloved wants to crush the flea who has bitten her, the poet argues with her dissuading her from what he calls triple murder of the lover, the beloved and the flea.
Similarly, Donne moderates the intensity of passion with his life as in The Canonization. The lovers will be regarded as saints of love and worshipped accordingly. Donne’s achievement lies in wedding thought to emotion, and argument to personal passion. In this connection, Grierson writes: “Donne’s love poetry is a very complex phenomenon, but the two dominant strains in it are just these : the strains of dialectic, subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism, and the record of a passion which is not ideal or conventional, neither recollected in tranquility nor a pure product of literary fashion, but love as an actual, and immediate experience in all its moods, gay and angry, scornful and rapturous with joy, touched with tenderness and darkened with sorrow.” Dryden, too, comments on the intellectual and metaphysical element of his love poetry thus: “He perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts and entertain with softness of love.”
Supremacy of love
Mutuality of love is the secret of penance and bliss in conjugal life. Love is not subject to change on account of the passage of time or difference in enviornment:
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
The total fulfilment and glory of love is echoed in The Sun Rising:
She is all states, and all Princes I,
Nothing else is.
In fact true love is the merger of two souls—two bodies with one life:
Our two souls therefore, which are one.
The poems like Good Morrow, Valediction and Ecstasy represent oneness of the souls of real lovers—the joy of contented passion, where love has been sublimated into holy affection.
Donne: an innovator of a new kind of love poetry
Donne was an innovator of a new kind of love poetry. Elizabethan love poetry was written on the Petrarchan model following the pattern set by the Italian poets like Dante, Ariostio and Petrarch. The love songs and sonnet sequences of Spenser, Sydney, Wabon, Davidson and Drummond described the pains and sorrows of love—the sorrow of absence, the pain of rejection, the incomparable beauty of the lady and her unwavering cruelty. They seldom (except some of the Finest of Shakespeare’s sonnets) dealt with the joy of love, and the deep contentment of mutual passion. Moreover, they made use of a series of constantly recurring images, of “rain, of wind, of fire, of ice, of storm and of warfare; comparisons and allusions of Venus and Cupid, Cynthia and Apollo etc. as well as abstractions such as Love and Fortune, Beauty and Disdain.
Donne’s attitude towards love is intellectual
John Donne was the first English poet to challenge and break the supremacy of Petrarchan tradition. Though at times he adopts the Petrarchan devices, yet the imagery and rhythm, the texture and the colour of the bulk of his love-poetry are different. Moreover, there are three distinct strains in his love poetry-cynical, the Platonic, and of conjugal love. A number of his popular songs as Go and catch a falling star, Send home by my long stray’d eyes to me, or such lyrics as Women’s Constancy, The Indifferent, Aire and Angels. The Dream, The Apparition and many others, are written in a cynical strain. The love which he portrays is not impassioned, courtly or chivalric, but intellectual love in which art plays a predominent part.
Classification of Donne’s Love-Poems
First group: Most of the poems in Songs and Sonets and Elegies belong to the first group. Donne analyses the attitudes and moods of love. The majority of the poems belongs to the dark period of 1590. Donne frequently dwells on the fickleness of woman. No woman is capable of faith and virtue. His songs, beginning with Go and catch a falling star, end with a bitter mocking, cynicism and denunciation of the fair sex. Nowhere can one find a true woman if one travels the whole globe. Even assuming that a faithful woman has been found, that woman will prove faithless even before the poet is able to visit her
Yet she,
Will be,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
There is no Platonism here, but bitter satire against woman:
Hope not for mind in woman; at their best
Sweetness and wit, they’re but mummy possest.
Sometimes Donne is extremely sensuous and even indelicate:
As the sweet sweat of roses in a still,
As that which from chafed musk cat’s pores doth trill,
As the ‘almighty balm of th’ early East,
Such are the sweet drops of my mistress’ breast,
And on her neck her skin such lustre sets.
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl coronets:
Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles.
Donne is even more passionate and sensual in Elegie XIX entitled To His Mistress Going to Bed:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned
To teach thee, I am naked first, why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.
After the night of love, the sun warns the lovers. In The Sun Rising the lover rebukes the sun for disturbing the lovers. The sun should not call on lovers but on school-boys, hunters and farmers. Love is beyond time and space.
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time
...
The lover seeks to kill the flea which has bitten him, but on second thoughts forbears, because it has also bitten the beloved and has brought about the union of lovers in its body:
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Confess it, this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead      
Let not to this, self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
The lover thinks that killing the flea will amount to a triple murder (shedding the blood of the lover, the beloved and the flea).
In The Funeral, the lover warns the undertaker not to remove the hair of his beloved tied to his arm.
Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm,
                        Nor question much
That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm;
The mystery, the sign you must not touch.
Ironically, the lover has a fling at his beloved in the last lines:
So, its some bravery,
That since you would have none of me I bury some of you.
Donne challenges Platonic love by dwelling on his frank delight in physical love. The Ecstasy shows that body and soul are mutually dependent and that one soul cannot unite with the other soul except through the medium of physical love. The lover has fooled the girl by his philosophy and got his way:
To our bodies turn we then that so
Weak men on love revealed my look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow.
But yet the body is his book.
In The Relic, the lover plays with the idea that the grave hides more than one person, as woman plays the trick of being bad with more than one person. This is the lover’s device to stay together with his beloved in the grave, just as they stayed together while living.
It is difficult to say whether these love-situations found parallels in Donne’s life. It may be that like the young templer of his age, he may have had a liaison with a married woman, or an intrigue with an unmarried girl as in The Perfume. In the first elegy, Jealousy the lover acts prudently so as not to rouse the suspicion of the jealous husband.
Nor when he swoll’n and pampered with great fare,
Sits down, and snorts, caged in his basket chair,
Must we usurp his own bed any more,
Nor kiss and play in his house, as before.
All these early poems shows his delight in shocking people, in enlarging on the folly of confining love by rules and conventions, in emphasising the physical basis of love. Possibly, some of them reflect the moods of Donne as lover.
Second Group: The second category of love poems is sincere, dignified and grand. The songs are intensely personal, taken from his diary. They are addressed to his wife Anne More. Many of them were written after marriage. The Anniversary was written to celebrate the second anniversary of his wedding. It gives a fine picture of domestic bliss. Married love knows no change or decay. It is immortal and must continue even in the grave.
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday.
According to Grierson, The Anniversary (specially the second), “remains, despite all its faults, one of the greatest poems on love in the language, the fullest record of the disintegrating collision in a sensitive mind of the old tradition and the new learning.”
Similarly the song beginning with “Sweetest Love” is addressed to his wife when the poet had to undertake foreign travel for a short period. He bids farewell to his wife cheerfully, because this separation is only temporary. Love triumphs over the idea of parting. This separation is like a short sleep:
But think that we
Are who but turned aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
Alive, ne’er parted be.
Another poem—A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning also refers to a temporary separation when Donne was called from home. The poet compares the journey to the two legs of a compass, one remaining fixed and the other moving to complete the circle.
Such wilt thou be to me who must
Like the other fool, obliquely ran;
Thy firmness mike my circle just,
And mikes me end, where I begun.
These love lyrics are inspired by a depth and sweetness of affection and offer a contrast to the trival and ‘conceited’ poems of the early period.
Third group: There is a third category of love poems which is partly Petrarchan and partly Ovidian in tone. These songs and poems are written as conventional exercises in praise of certain ladies whom Donne knew. Some of them were addressed to the Countess of Bedford and some to Mrs. Magdalene Herbert. Twicknam Garden refers to the poet’s friendship with the Countess of Bedford, a cultured and accomplished lady of the seventeenth century. It is not known weather this lady, in any way, responded to the love of the poet Possibly Donne misconstrued her friendly regard for him as a son, Love converts joy into sorrow. Even spring cannot bring happiness to the poet’s heart. Though women in general are false and faithless, the poet’s sweet heart is an exception. The “poet desires that lovers should judge their mistresses” love by comparing the taste of her tears with that of their tears. The poet feels drawn to her on account of her sincerity and faithfulness.
O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who’s therefore true because her truth kills me.
In A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day, Donne brings forward the argument that whereas in nature, love brings life to a dead world every spring, his love cannot be revived after his beloved’s death.
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy
.
The Relic is addressed to Mrs. Herbert:
All measures and all language I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.
Similar compliments were paid to the Countess of Huntingdon and others. This was a fashionable literary pastime. As Grierson puts it: “It is after all convention that regulates both the length of a lady” skirt and the kind of compliments one may pay her” So these pieces do not express the true sentiments of the poet.
Donne’s love poetry is a record of moods, of the conflict between emotion and intellect, of the war between sense and spirit, body and soul. Donne wanted to embrace the totality of experience--not a slice of life, but life in all its entirety. So his experiences are both good and bad, bitter as well as sweet. After the storm of passion subsided, Donne returned to his spiritual and ascetic self. His thought developed as he grew. He refused to accept the dualism of the body and the soul. In love, too, it is heresy to separate the body from the soul. Strangely enough, love and death are brought together, because they release man from human limitations and inhibitions. Death will open a way to the infinitude of love which is not possible in physical existence. Ordinarily it is thought that death cheats the lovers of their joy, turning to defeat their feat of victory:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so.
In the later poems, Donne achieves the peace that passes understanding through divine love. From physical love to spiritual love--this is the way of the mystics. So real and passionate love is the path of a self-discovery, the finding of the Universal soul:
where no one but thee, th’ Eternal root,
Of true love I may know.
Conclusion
What surprises the reader, is the variety of moods, situation and treatment of the theme of love-sensual, realistic, violent and full of vivacity of life. There is scorn, sarcasm, bitterness and cynicism at times, but the genuineness and force of love is unquestionable. George Saintsbury writes in this connection: “To some natures, love comes as above all things, a force quickening the mind, intensifying its purely intellectual energy, opening new vistas of thought, abstract and subtle, making the soul intensely wondrously alive. Of such were Donne and Browning.
Donne is one of the greatest of English love-poets. In fact, among all the English love poets, he is the only complete amorist. His capacity for experience is unique, and his conscience as a writer towards every kind of it allows of no compromise in the duty of doing justice to each. The poetry of lust has never been written with more minute truth, but then neither has the poetry of love transcending sex.

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