This famously erotic poem celebrates physical love but also has a sense of the underlying relationship between the two. It starts with an imperative attack and an immediacy of desire in which he declares that his virility cannot rest until she joins him in bed. The situation is almost visually clear and imbued with passion although there is very soon an intellectual paradox: he is like an opposing waiting army: “tir’d with standing [erect], though they never fight.” He is watching her undress, ready for sex. Her undergarments are described in lingering detail as part of her beauty even though what lies beneath is a “farre fairer world.”
Cosmological imagery does not hold back the vigour of the lines and their impetuous rhythm: here we have Donne’s capacity to combine intellectual processes with emotion. She is wearing a jewelled stomacher over her breast to stop “busy fools” from gazing: the density of thought continues as her little watch rings to tell them it is time for her to enter the bed. Every small incident leads to the onward pulse of argument and the inclusion of conceits such as his hyperbolic attribution of desire to the “buske”. The phrase “Off with” is repeated as his desire grows and her loveliness further inflames him: she must remove her clothes to show her natural beauty, the band of metal from around her brow and her shoes before entering the bed like an Angel received by men. The ideas are exaggerated but not insincere and the references are wide, “Mahomets Paradise” being a heaven of sensual discovery. Quite suddenly the physical re-enters with the explicit words: “these the flesh upright” and the eroticism continues with the vaguer but highly suggestive instructions: “licence my roving hands …” where the rhythm slows to imply the caresses. He uses apostrophe “Oh, my America” and more geographical imagery with typical contemporary references and paradoxes: “safeliest when with one man man’d.” There is a vituoso triple pun here on “manned”: inhabited, used by man and fortified. The imagery accumulates with short bursts of varied metaphor and another contradiction resolved by love: “To enter in these bonds [fetters or arms] is to be free” as he sets his seal by placing his hand where the reader must guess.
He advocates nakedness in an apparently logical argument: as the soul must shed the body after death, so must the body lose its clothes to experience true bliss. The myth of Atalanta is twisted so that she threw the golden ball whereas it was Hippomenes who did so but the inaccuracy is lost in the pressure of persuasion. Jewels and gowns are covetable distractions for fools and “laymen”, here meaning the uninitiated in religious terms or those who admire outward forms. Donne frequently praises the love between the couple as hallowed and unavailable to those outside and here he is privileged to see her nakedness as if removing the cover from a sacred book: he is the one elected to see her body by “imputed grace.” Their love is sacrosanct although profoundly physical. The final image in this section suggests innocence as in the reference to a midwife and yet the white clothing must be removed.
By the concluding couplet we imagine that she has now taken off almost all her garments as the tone lightens with an erotic pun:
To teach thee, I am naked first: Why then
What need’st thou have more covering than a man.
The last line can mean “Why do you need more covering than this man needs?” or “Why do you need any other covering than a man on top of you?”
The entire poem is intelligent, dense, swiftly changing in reference, full of passion, both physical and emotional, but never loses track of its main objective: it must be one of the most persuasive seduction poems ever written, except that we may feel the woman is compliant from the start and that the inducement could be a game.
“Elegie: On his Mistris”
Whereas the situation in the poem analysed above is one within the experience of most adults, this poem deals with an unusual, if not unique, circumstance: his mistress (or wife-to-be as may be the case in many of these love poems) wants to go with him on a journey dressed as his page boy and he needs to discourage her. He starts in untypical fashion by postponing the main verb for several lines until it emerges quietly to show how serious he is: “I calmely beg”. Before that he lists the items of reference giving weight to his plea: their “first strange and fatal interview” [fateful meeting], their mutual desires, their struggling hopes, the “remorse” [pity] he has stirred in her by his “words masculine perswasive force” (an example of which we have just read) and the memory of threats by others to him. After that he evokes the anger of her parents and the suffering caused by separation: he is not denying the anguish that will follow. “I conjure thee” is grammatically parallel to “I calmely beg” and he mentions their vows which he can now override as her proposed action is too dangerous. The situation is dramatic as we can visualise the two of them: he speaking passionately and she listening and reacting. This is underlined by the imperatives which prevail throughout, some directly referring to her mood: “Temper, oh faire Love, loves impetuous rage” has a near pun in its use of love as the god of love and her earthly variety. Some lines are bluntly clear and stand out from the previous more complicated syntax: “Be my true mistis still, not my feign’d page.” The reader, the second listener, is kept in the dark until this point adding mystery and tension to the opening lines.
He is resolute on going but will leave her behind the “onely worthy” [the only one who can] give him the thirst and motive to return. With passion he refers to myths of Boreas and Orithea (inaccurately as the maiden is safe in all known versions) and insists that even her beauty cannot soften the destructive elements. His characteristic accuracy and density of thought does not intrude on the pulse of emotion when he adds “(else Almighty)” to reassure her that her loveliness can do everything else, a quick hyperbolic compliment. We are not given her response but can imagine the impact of his words. His mood is fatalistic: “Fall ill or good” and does not offer false promises but insists there is no virtue in courting danger and that lovers “one in th’other bee.” He returns to the mode of pragmatic command at: “Dissemble nothing, not a boy” – he seems to be unable to bear her not being herself in any way quite apart from the risk – moving on with a forecast that her disguise will be uncovered and that everyone will see “A blushing womanly discovering [revealing] grace.” The long line dwells on her charms but quickly returns to argument, that apes are apes however dressed and the moon is the moon, even eclipsed. Perhaps she is not yet convinced, as he now tries to frighten her by threatening particular danger from man as well as Nature: the wicked French, “spittles [hospitals] of diseases”, will “knowe” her as a woman, meaning “recognise”, probably with the sexual sense also.
The Italian – we note how the proposed journey is embedded in the dramatic monologue – will accept her as a boy but will desire her as such and the drunken Dutchman will annoy her if she goes with her lover. The diction is strong and ominous but gives way to a more gently persuasive: “Oh stay here” urging England as the only worthy “gallerie” [waiting room] for her until she is called, by the King/God to leave.
At this point he is asking her to readjust her way of looking at the situation and accept it truly. He begs her to dream of good fortune for him but not betray their love by her manner, not to talk too much of love nor wake with nightmares. Here Donne shows both his capacity to imagine her mood and behaviour but also to incorporate another dramatic situation within the original: it is so visually and poetically startling with its assonance of “Oh … goe … alone” that we can imagine the nurse and the woman awake in fear in the night. A list of violent verbs reveals more of his own hidden dreads than he admits openly: “Assayled, fight, takn, stabb’d, bleede, fall, and dye.” Unreason has overcome him as he is now suggesting to her fears she might not have otherwise thought of because he is alarmed himself. The sudden reversal in the final couplet is far from reassuring or convincing:
Augure me better chance, except dread Jove
Think it enough for mee, to’have had thy love.
The rhythm is more hesitant and the qualification implies that they may never see each other again if Fate decrees that he has had sufficient happiness in her love already, another hasty but sincere compliment.
The poem is a masterpiece of conflicting emotions covered by an apparent certainty: he is convinced she must not accompany him but he elicits her and our sympathies by stressing the dangers he must undergo. By the end she has clearly agreed as he tells her how to behave in his absence but her reactions are not made explicit: it is a highly particularised situation yet one made universal by the recognisable passion involved. Conceits, references, varied syntax, persuasions all move in one direction but the mood changes as the verse progresses and the residual feeling is of fear and foreboding.
“A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day”
It is tempting to become embroiled in references and biography with this poem but it stands firm without that (though it is written at midnight on the 12/13th December, the winter solstice depending which calendar is used, when the sun enters Capricorn, the sign of the goat, and the name Lucy had connotations of ‘light’ as well as being the name of his daughter and the Countess of Bedford, his patroness, who may have been very ill at the time).
It is primarily a poem of despair and negation whilst maintaining a severe line of argument. The moment is the midnight of the day aa well as the year in that daylight is a mere seven hours long. The lines are of varying lengths according to a strict pattern but the opening rhythms are slowly protracted in addition to the lines being lengthened. The world is devitalised and the sun now is apparent only through its “flasks” [stars – thought to store up light from the sun], sap has sunk into the thirsty earth – we note the impact of the short line – just as a dying man moves towards towards the foot of his bed. All this dejection leads to a climax before Donne claims that it is laughter compared to his despondency as he is the epitaph of all, both in his summing up and his mood. Neither is he capable of resurrection.
Other lovers, who will rise from death in the Spring, must take note of the phenomenon by which he is the fifth and purest distillation, “quintessence”, by a novel alchemy and now comprises “every dead thing”: love is the alchemist but there is nothing sensual in it. He is formed [“express” means squeezed out] from “privations” [a philosophical word meaning the absence of a quality] which involved a reduction and a recreation in terms of absence, darkness and death, which in themselves are negations. The references are learned and the argument dense and yet the verse is imbued with musicality and powerful emotion.
In stanza three he feels separate and alienated from the world, having no “Life, soule, forme, spirit” to give him a being: by a process through “loves limbeck” [chemical retort] he is the tomb of all nothingness. Now, with intellectual austerity and discipline, he picks up the ideas at the end of stanza two: the floods of tears they have shed which, by hyperbole, have drowned the world, are connected to death; Chaos is allied to darkness and has been induced when they gave their attention to anything other than themselves; and frequent absences took away their souls (as absence separates the bodies but not the souls of lovers) and therefore made their physical entities into “carcasses”, also a reference to death.
“But”, at the start of stanza four, reminds us that the poem is an argument as well as an expression of extreme mood and, characteristically, he slips in a quickly accurate compliment “which word wrongs her” before claiming again that he is the Elixir of the first death or nothingness. He claims that if he did exist as a man, he would know it through consciousness of his own being and therefore he cannot be one; nor can he be a beast or else he would have means and ends; he is not even a stone or plant as these can hate or love [not a modern idea] and he is incapable. Now he is not even a negative “an ordinary nothing” as he would then have a “shadow, a light, and body” which he contends he does not have. He is drawing a philosophical distinction between nothing as the absence of something positive and a state of nothingness which has no attributes or reference to its opposite. The diction is simple, the rhythm is slow but the thought process is profound and complex.
“But I am none” he summarises as the light of his life, the woman in question, his “Sunne”, will not return as the natural sun would tomorrow and with further strength in the Spring. The poem begins to exhibit a circular form in its discourse as the demonstration of the first claim is the point and motive of the whole. Another hyperbolic compliment places the woman as superior to the “lesser Sunne” which is at this time seen as drawing “new lust” from the sign of the Zodiac, Capricorn, the lecherous goat. St Lucy is enjoying her own festival on this night as lovers will indulge themselves in the summer to come but he will move towards Lucy, saint and woman we presume, as this is her vigil and “Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is”, a modified repetition of the first line of the poem.
The poem presents difficulties in interpretation and mood as the despair it communicates is so different from what we have encountered so far. But it has the same characteristics of intelligence, argument, feeling, references, density, simplicity of diction, variety of structure and use of science and astronomy as images to make the feelings more immense and profound and to help him express abstract ideas. It is less dramatic than some and does not employ colloquialism though there is some forceful and direct language. The love is spiritual although its reality is shown in the descriptons of parting and the emotion as strong as in the sensual poems.
This poem is capable of being decoded in two different ways: it is either a celebration of a spiritual love in a concentrated meditation which becomes physical or it is a concealed and calculated seduction poem. The title term denotes a state in which the souls of the lovers (or it can be religious worshippers) are taken out of the body so that they can apprehend truths not normally accessible. The setting is the conventional pastoral (although a reference is made to an indoor bed) where the violet is an emblem of faithful love. The lovers represent the best in each other – a thought slipped in with typical brief precision. The second stanza has a strange, almost surreal quality, as their hands are held so tightly that they are “firmely cimented” with a “fast balm” emanating from them and their eyeballs are as if doubly threaded together on the gaze which unites them. There is a violence in the imagery which belies the apparent peace, but this kind of dislocation is not untypical of Donne. The complexity of ideas and the spiritual nature of the experience is conveyed in brief and regular stanzas with simple diction.
There is no sexual contact here except the grafting of hands and no attempt at reproduction except in the portraits reflected in each other’s eyes.
By stanza four imagery of warfare intrudes as the disembodied souls are compared to Fate waiting above two armies to decide the winner: the mood is not straightforward and we wonder if she is in complete agreement with him. The lovers lie still and silent for an entire day in this paranormal state whilst their “soules negotiate”: the poem is as intense as the more physical ones. Now he introduces a third person, a potential onlooker with the possibility of identification with the reader who, by means of a speedy qualification, must also be able to understand the langauage of love as well as being spiritually receptive and within “convenient distance” (a slightly odd modification which makes the scene strange to imagine). This person, who can hear their souls although he does not know which speaks as they are saying the same thing, will take away a new “concoction” [refinement] and depart in a purified stae. Between these two stanzas, the syntax is disrupted and approaches anacoluthon with the word “He” barely bringing the smooth sentence together again.
After this interlude the lovers conclude that the separation of soul from body in the extasy has revealed the nature of their love, “what we love”, and they contend that it cannot be sex. This diction is particulaly simple here, almost entirely monosyllabic, but a change of mood is signalled by the disclaimer that physical love is involved: why, we ask, does it therefore come to mind? Since a particular woman is addressed rather than generalised womankind and since the seeing each other in the eyes is typical of physical lovers we now wonder if this is a dramatised seduction. They do not understand “what did move” [motivate] their love even if we suspect that we do.
A certain rationalisation enters when he argues that (as in Aristotelian metaphysics) the soul is mixed, so love confuses them further: although learning and argument predominate, the rhythms are quickening and the pulse is towards a different resolution. The image of the violet is now an analogy for revigoration as it is transplanted just as two souls are strengthened through union with each other: the long Latinate word “interinanimates” underlines the argument that each soul can heal the “defects of lonelinesse” [shortcomings of the soul on its own] of the other. The argument becomes so increasingly abstract and difficult to follow when he accounts for the “new souls” made up from of “Atomies” [components] that the reader may be forgiven for losing the thread and wondering if the obscurity is deliberate and will quickly lead to a change of topic – and sex.
This comes with “But O alas, so long so farre …” where the intensity and urgency of physical love bursts through. However, there is also sense that this is not so premeditated and that the poet feels a sudden impulse of desire: we certainly have the impression of the situation developing along with the progress of the stanzas. The souls, by astronomical imagery, are now seen as “intelligences” or angels moving a “spheare”, the astral entity. The body deserves gratitude since it conveys one lover towards the other and allows them sensuality and so bodies are not “drosse” but an alloy, or welcome mixture of base and spiritual qualities. These abstract forces sometimes need to work through a less pure medium: one soul may flow into another soul “though it to body first repair.” How else but through sex?
The twists and turns of argument and dialectic suggest a complex and restless mind arising from a static situation. The “spirits” in the next stanza are vapours produced by the blood and are a necessary link or knot between the dissimilar components of body and soul. Now lovers must think of descending to “affections” [feelings] and “faculties” [bodily powers] which are within capacity. If not – and the image is sudden, unprovoked and wordly – ” a great Prince in prison lies.” It is difficult to tell if he is now speaking tongue-in-cheek as there is such an obvious rationalisation in the stanza where he claims they will make love in order to educate “weake men” and show them that the mysteries of love may grow in souls but that the body is where they are written. “To’our bodies turne wee then” has such impetus that it suggests that the extasy has been a forerunner to sensuality although we may not go as far as to argue it was contrived from the start. The final stanza re-introduces, quite suddenly, an onlooker, a third lover, possibly the reader, and we become aware at the phrase “dialogue of one” that the woman has neither answered nor responded although he claims throughout that their thoughts are in unison. The last line is a final rationalisation as, presumably, he embraces her in passion, whilst claiming it makes no difference. This contradicts everything he has stated earlier but is human and sympathetic.
Although the poem is not easy to interpret in one way only, it is a virtuoso piece in which Donne holds our attention with feeling and abstract argument combined with learning. The simplicity is only apparent as the situation has a memorable strangeness and the logic is dense for such a spiritual experience and atmosphere.