John Donne’s poems

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Many of John Donne’s poems are on the subject of love and equally as many on the subject of sex. As a love poet, especially when Donne writes vividly on his wife he is very much concerned with his subject (his wife) however he can appear selfish and cold in the more sexual referenced poems. To fully make my point I have studied two poems, which I believe show his character as less self-absorbed as in the sexual referenced poems.

The Song

This poem is written for his wife and is essentially saying goodbye as he is leaving her ‘physically’ but arguing that she mustn’t be sad of his departure and instead arguing that they are not really parting and each verse is a different ‘image’ or argument for this.

I feel that this poem shows distinctly the love that John Donne had for his wife. This poem, as well as having a very good use of words and imagery shows to me true feelings of love for his wife. The lines such as

But since that I

Must die at last, ’tis best

to use myself in jest

Thus by feign’d deaths to die

May be misinterpreted as selfish and self-obsessed comments. In comforting his wife, who appears to be upset that he is leaving, and concerned that he is going ‘in weariness for thee’, he says that as he will die eventually anyway, it is good practice (‘jest’) being apart for when they will be separated by death. Although it may appear that he thinks that his wife loves him so much that she needs practice for when he dies, in other words he is fond of himself and that his wife loves him so much, he simply accepts that she loves him and is making this point purely to reassure her and make amends for his reluctant absence from her life.

Yesternight the sun went hence,

And yet is here today;

He hath no desire nor sense,

Nor half so short a way:

Then fear not me,

But believe that I shall make

Speedier journeys, since I take

More wings and spurs than he

This is another compensating verse to comfort her that he would return as the sun does and that he would not be even going as far as the sun and he had all the love and feelings for felt for her to bring him back whereas the sun had nothing and still came back, proving his love and feelings and that he would return. This is an effective metaphor as when compared to the distance of the world that the sun has to travel to return, his distance seems small and therefore not as bad, and combining his feelings with the relatively small distance, this reassures that there is every chance of him returning.

When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,

But sigh’st my soul away;

When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,

my life’s blood doth decay.

When she sighs or weeps, he says he feels worse. This is his way of asking her to not be sad at his leaving and uses the paradox unkindly kind, which means that she is being cruel to him by being upset as it is hurting him inside (his blood doth decay – decaying away inside, the blood). In a way he is selfish in his love, as he doesn’t like to see her upset over him so uses his ‘power’ he has over her to stop her from making him feel worse. If she really loved him then she would not break him up as she is and waste his life. (It cannot be, that thou lov’st me, as thou say’st, If in thine my life thou waste)

Let not thy divining heart

Forethink me any ill;

Destiny may take thy part,

And may thy fears fulfil

But think that we

Are but turn’d aside to sleep;

they who one another keep

Alive, ne’er parted be.

He does not want her to think about the bad things that may happen to him or else destiny may make them come true and make her tears be tears of grief rather than of love. Instead, they must think that they are together really just as they are when they are sleeping aside each other and cannot see them but are thinking of them and know they are there.

This poem is beautiful and it is far easier to see a mans love for his wife and his being strong for her in reassuring and comforting her when he is leaving than a selfish man enjoying his wife doting on him leaving. It is a very sincere poem to raise her spirits and help her when he is not there.

A Fever

In this poem, it is almost the situation in the poem above reversed. In Song, Donne has to leave his wife and telling her not to worry but in a fever, his wife is ill and in a fever and he is begging her not to leave him and worrying about her dying and leaving him alone. Song, he argues why she should not worry or be upset and in this he argues why she should not die in begging and flattering talk. Through the poem the tone lowers, presumably as the fever worsens and he becomes more calm within it and begins to get sentimental about her rather than anger at the fever and her for being ill.

Oh do not die, for I shall hate

All women so, when thou art gone,

that thee I shall not celebrate,

When I remember, thou wast one

If she was to die, he could never love or indeed at all like another woman again but if I was to have to do that then I wouldn’t be able to ‘celebrate’ or love the memory of her because he would only remember her as a woman, who we then hate. This is a somewhat twisting contention which is rather rambling but reflects his feeling of confusion and desperation at the prospect of losing one whom he loves so dearly.

But yet thou canst not die, I know;

to leave this world behind, is death,

but when thou from this world wilt go,

the whole world vapours with thy breath

But when she dies and stops to breath, the whole world cannot exist without her and it will all go. He is arguing that she couldn’t possibly die for the benefit of mankind as she could take the world with her; this is a way of saying that she is his world and he couldn’t imagine anything again without her.

Or if, when thou, the world’s soul, go`st,

it stay, ’tis but thy carcase then,

the fairest woman, but thy ghost,

but corrupt worms, the worthiest men

This metaphor assumes the above has happened but the world remains as a dead carcase of what it had once been as she ‘the fairest woman’ would be just a ghost as she had died and all that would be left would be men like worms crawling around the world like maggots on a real dead carcase. This is quite a horrific metaphor but continues with the theme of she being his world and if she went the world would not be the same and no where near as beautiful and comparing the present beauty with her in it to what could happen if she went which is a gruesome and horrific real image.

Oh wrangling schools, that search what fire

Shall burn this world, had none the wit

Unto this knowledge to aspire,

That this her fever might be it?

Schools and universities always search for the thing that will end the world but have they never thought that she might be it and that this fever may end the world? To me this verse is for humour rather than to show his love and affection. However, it is a poem written for eventual publishing so some source of humour may be added for those purposes.

And yet she cannot waste by this,

nor long bear this torturing wrong,

for much corruption needful is

to fuel such a fever long

If fire burns off corruption then this fever cannot last long for she is too pure and does not have enough corruption to ‘fuel’ such a long fever. This line is like a monologue in that he says it to himself rather than her, to comfort himself for the reason she fevers and assuring himself for whatever reason that it will not last long.

These burning fits but meteors be,

Whose matter in thee is soon spent.

Thy beauty, and all parts, which are thee,

Are unchangeable firmament

By saying the burning fits that she appears to be experiencing are like meteors is a clever metaphor to use as meteors are surrounded by fire which are is the burning aspect of the fit but inside that it is still beautiful and whatever happens on the outside, inside she is still beautiful and that cannot be changed by anything.

Yet ’twas of my mind, seizing thee,

Though it in thee cannot persever.

For I had rather owner be

of thee one hour, than all else ever

It was my mind trying to save you and I know I cannot save you really and I am glad that I have known you and have had you than to have had anything else ever. The tone in the poem has gradually softened, from the original anger he has come to this where it seems he has accepted her state and she seems to be worsening and nearer death or perhaps he has only just realised it.

This poem could perhaps be referred to as a truer method of judging his love for his wife than Song. Song is written when he is leaving her and it doesn’t tell of his feelings, only those to reassure her. This poem, he is trying to stop her from leaving by talking to her and asking her. However, they both tell of their relationship and of their love.

In answer to my beginning statement that I do not think that John Donne is more concerned with writing about himself than with adoring his mistress, I still believe that. In his sexual poems such as The Apparition, The Flea and Going to bed he seems only concerned with sex and himself and I would agree in those contexts he seems selfish and uninterested in anything else the mistresses have to offer. However, when he is a love poet and he is writing about and to his wife, he still writes with the same wit and cleverness but the writing flows and sounds so beautiful. He is very much concerned with his wife more than himself as every image of her leaves us with an angelic image of her and his love for her.

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