In the first stanza, the speaker obliquely details his relationship to the world of politics, wealth, and nobility; by assuming that these are the concerns of his addressee, he indicates his own background amid such concerns, and he also indicates the extent to which he has moved beyond that background. He hopes that the listener will leave him alone and pursue a career in the court, toadying to aristocrats, preoccupied with favor (the King’s real face) and money (the King’s stamped face, as on a coin). In the second stanza, he parodies contemporary Petrarchan notions of love and continues to mock his addressee, making the point that his sighs have not drowned ships and his tears have not caused floods. (Petrarchan love-poems were full of claims like “My tears are rain, and my sighs storms.”) He also mocks the operations of the everyday world, saying that his love will not keep soldiers from fighting wars or lawyers from finding court cases—as though war and legal wrangling were the sole concerns of world outside the confines of his love affair.
In the third stanza, the speaker begins spinning off metaphors that will help explain the intensity and uniqueness of his love. First, he says that he and his lover are like moths drawn to a candle (“her one, me another fly”), then that they are like the candle itself. They embody the elements of the eagle (strong and masculine) and the dove (peaceful and feminine) bound up in the image of the phoenix, dying and rising by love. In the fourth stanza, the speaker explores the possibility of canonization in verse, and in the final stanza, he explores his and his lover’s roles as the saints of love, to whom generations of future lovers will appeal for help. Throughout, the tone of the poem is balanced between a kind of arch, sophisticated sensibility (“half-acre tombs”) and passionate amorous abandon (“We die and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love”).
“The Canonization” is one of Donne’s most famous and most written-about poems. Its criticism at the hands of Cleanth Brooks and others has made it a central topic in the argument between formalist critics and historicist critics; the former argue that the poem is what it seems to be, an anti-political love poem, while the latter argue, based on events in Donne’s life at the time of the poem’s composition, that it is actually a kind of coded, ironic rumination on the “ruined fortune” and dashed political hopes of the first stanza. The choice of which argument to follow is largely a matter of personal temperament. But unless one seeks a purely biographical understanding of Donne, it is probably best to understand the poem as the sort of droll, passionate speech-act it is, a highly sophisticated defense of love against the corrupting values of politics and privilege.