The speaker declares that any man who claims he has been in love for an hour is insane; not because love “decays” in so short a time, but because, in an hour, love can “devour” ten men—in other words, not because love itself is destroyed in an hour, but because it will destroy the lover in much less time than that. To explain himself, the speaker uses an analogy: He says that anyone who heard him claim to have had the plague for an entire year would disbelieve him because the plague would have killed him in much less time than that. He also says that anyone who heard him claim to have seen a flask of gunpowder burn for an entire day would laugh at him because the flask would have exploded immediately. Like the plague and the powder-flask, love works violently and swiftly.
“What a trifle is a heart,” the speaker says, “If once into Love’s hands it come!” Unlike love, other feelings and “other griefs” do not demand the entire heart, only a part of it. Other griefs “come to us” but Love draws us to it, swallowing us whole. Masses of people are felled by Love as ranks of soldiers are felled by chain-shot. Love is like a ravenous pike, and our hearts are like the small fish it feasts on.
Addressing his beloved, the speaker asks her a question: If what he says about love is false, then what happened to his heart the first time he saw her? He says that he entered the room with a heart, and left the room without one. If his heart had been captured whole by his beloved, he says, it would have taught her to treat him more kindly; instead, the impact of love shattered his heart “as glass.”
Still, he says, a thing cannot be so utterly destroyed that it becomes nothing; the pieces of his shattered heart are still in his breast. In the same way that a broken mirror reflects “a hundred lesser faces,” the speaker says that his “rags of heart” can “like, wish, and adore”; but after experiencing the shock of “one such love,” they can never love again.
The four regular stanzas of “The Broken Heart” utilize Donne’s characteristically angular iambic meters; each stanza is eight lines long, with lines one, two, three, five, and six in iambic tetrameter, and lines four, seven, and eight in iambic pentameter. (The line-stress pattern, therefore, is 44454455 in each stanza.) Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD.
“The Broken Heart” is an excellent example of Donne’s style in his metaphysical mode, transforming a relatively simple idea (that love destroys the hearts that feel it) into an oblique, elaborate meditation full of startling images (the burning powder-flask, love as a carnivorous fish) and implications. Structurally, the poem looks at its theme from a different angle in each of its stanzas. The first stanza is metaphorical and explanatory, establishing the basic idea of the poem by showing that to be in love for an entire hour would be like having the plague for a year or seeing a flask of gunpowder burn for an entire day; love is instant, like the explosion of the flask. The second stanza personifies love as a kind of monster that destroys human beings, trifling with hearts, swallowing men whole (he “never chaws”), killing whole ranks, and devouring men as a pike devours smaller fish (“He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry”).
In the third stanza, the speaker departs from the general and enters the specific, addressing his beloved and recalling the moment when love destroyed his heart, enabling him to understand that which he now writes in his poem; the instant he saw his beloved, love shattered his heart like glass. The final stanza offers a kind of moral for the poem, opening in a homiletic tone (“nothing can to nothing fall, / Nor any place be empty quite”) and detailing what happens to a heart after it has been shattered by the force of love. The heart remains, the speaker claims, in the breast, like shards of a broken mirror, able to reflect lesser emotions, such as hope and affection, but never again to love.
Throughout, “The Broken Heart” typifies the quality of Donne’s metaphysical poems. It is often difficult to understand the speaker’s language or to see quite where he is coming from (the opening of the poem is particularly difficult), but once the basic idea is grasped, most of the conceptual elements of the poem fall easily into place. It is remarkable for its unusual conception of love—not many poets would compare love to death by a violent disease—and for the surprising angles from which the speaker approaches that conception.