Introduction: The variety and scope of Donne’s love poetry is really remarkable. He hinges between physical and holy love, between cynicism and faith in love and above all the sanctity of married life. He was born at the time when writing 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 and charm and depth of feeling.
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
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. 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. Donne in Lover’s Infinitenesse, pleads with his beloved that she should give him a part of her heart. After she has given him the part, he demands the whole heart. This is the goal and consummation of love. He then startles and outrages the expectations of his readers.
I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost;
Who died before that God of love was born,
Twice or thrive had I loved thee,
Before I knew they face or name.
Donne’s love poems can be divided under three heads.
Poems of moods of lovers, seduction and free love or fanciful relationship
Poems addressed to his wife Anne More (his wife) before and after his marriage.
Poems addressed to other noble ladies.
Three Strands of his poetry. Firstly, there is the cynical which anti-woman and hostile to the fair-sex. The theme is the frailty 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. Thirdly, there is the Platonic strand, as in The Canonization where love is regarded as a holy emotion like the worship of a devotee to God. Donne’s treatment of love-poems is realistic and not idealistic because he knows the weakness of the flesh, pleasures of sex, the joy of secret meetings. However, he tries to establish the relationship between body and soul. True love doesn’t pertain to the body; it is the relationship of body and soul to the other soul. Physical union may not be necessary as in A Valediction: a forbidding mourning. However, in the Relic, the poet regarded physical union as the necessary complement. Despite the realistic touches, Donne nowhere seems to draw the physical beauty or contours of the female body. Rather, he describes its reaction on the lover’s heart. It is highly surprising that a poet so fond of sex, be restrained from describing the physical patterns of the female body.
True Sex is holy: That sex is holy whether inside or outside marriage is declared by Donne in his love-poems. If love is mutual, physical union even outside marriage cannot be condemned. As a Christian, he may not justify extra-marital relationships, but as a lover and poet, he does accept and enjoy this reality. Donne feels that love-bond is necessary for sexual union otherwise mere sex without any spiritual love for the partner is degrading and mean. However, true love can exist outside marriage, though moralists may sneer at this idea of Donne. He doesn’t feel that woman is a sex-doll or a goddess. She is essentially a bundle of contradictions. He believes in ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’. His contempt for woman is compensated by his respect for conjugal love. At times, he regards woman as the angel who can give him ultimate bliss. This two-fold attitude is Donne’s typical quality as the poet. The poems referring to his wife, Anne More reflect true serenity and consummation of love.
Donne’s uniqueness: While the Elizabethan lyrics are, by large limitations of Petrarchan traditions, Donne’s poems stand in a class by themselves. He broke away from the traditional concept of poetry as was Petrarchan in nature. The concept of woman in Petrarchan and in that of Donne is totally different. Another quality is his passion and though, he doesn’t allow his passion to run away with him. Grierson writes: Donne’s 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 and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism and a record of passion. Donne shows the supremacy of love.
Love, all like, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time, in fact true love is the merger of two souls. Donne has certainly been an innovator of a new kind of love-poetry. What surprises the reader is the variety of different moods and situations of the theme of love – sensual, violent, and full of vivacity of life. There is scorn, cynicism, bitterness and sarcasm but the force of love is genuine and unquestionable. Donne is one of the greatest English love-poets. In fact, among all the English love-poets, he is the complete amongst them.