Themes, Motifs and Symbols
Lovers as Microcosms
Donne incorporates the Renaissance notion of the human body as a microcosm into his love poetry. During the Renaissance, many people believed that the microcosmic human body mirrored the macrocosmic physical world. According to this belief, the intellect governs the body, much like a king or queen governs the land. Many of Donne’s poems—most notably “The Sun Rising” (1633), “The Good-Morrow” (1633), and “A Valediction: Of Weeping” (1633)—envision a lover or pair of lovers as being entire worlds unto themselves. But rather than use the analogy to imply that the whole world can be compressed into a small space, Donne uses it to show how lovers become so enraptured with each other that they believe they are the only beings in existence. The lovers are so in love that nothing else matters. For example, in “The Sun Rising,” the speaker concludes the poem by telling the sun to shine exclusively on himself and his beloved. By doing so, he says, the sun will be shining on the entire world.
The Neoplatonic Conception of Love
Donne draws on the Neoplatonic conception of physical love and religious love as being two manifestations of the same impulse. In the Symposium (ca. third or fourth century b.c.e.), Plato describes physical love as the lowest rung of a ladder. According to the Platonic formulation, we are attracted first to a single beautiful person, then to beautiful people generally, then to beautiful minds, then to beautiful ideas, and, ultimately, to beauty itself, the highest rung of the ladder. Centuries later, Christian Neoplatonists adapted this idea such that the progression of love culminates in a love of God, or spiritual beauty. Naturally, Donne used his religious poetry to idealize the Christian love for God, but the Neoplatonic conception of love also appears in his love poetry, albeit slightly tweaked. For instance, in the bawdy “Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed” (1669), the speaker claims that his love for a naked woman surpasses pictorial representations of biblical scenes. Many love poems assert the superiority of the speakers’ love to quotidian, ordinary love by presenting the speakers’ love as a manifestation of purer, Neoplatonic feeling, which resembles the sentiment felt for the divine.
Religious Enlightenment as Sexual Ecstasy
Throughout his poetry, Donne imagines religious enlightenment as a form of sexual ecstasy. He parallels the sense of fulfillment to be derived from religious worship to the pleasure derived from sexual activity—a shocking, revolutionary comparison, for his time. In Holy Sonnet 14 (1633), for example, the speaker asks God to rape him, thereby freeing the speaker from worldly concerns. Through the act of rape, paradoxically, the speaker will be rendered chaste. In Holy Sonnet 18 (1899), the speaker draws an analogy between entering the one true church and entering a woman during intercourse. Here, the speaker explains that Christ will be pleased if the speaker sleeps with Christ’s wife, who is “embraced and open to most men” (14). Although these poems seem profane, their religious fervor saves them from sacrilege or scandal. Filled with religious passion, people have the potential to be as pleasurably sated as they are after sexual activity.
The Search for the One True Religion
Donne’s speakers frequently wonder which religion to choose when confronted with so many churches that claim to be the one true religion. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in Germany named Martin Luther set off a number of debates that eventually led to the founding of Protestantism, which, at the time, was considered to be a reformed version of Catholicism. England developed Anglicanism in 1534, another reformed version of Catholicism. This period was thus dubbed the Reformation. Because so many sects and churches developed from these religions, theologians and laypeople began to wonder which religion was true or right. Written while Donne was abandoning Catholicism for Anglicanism, “Satire 3” reflects these concerns. Here, the speaker wonders how one might discover the right church when so many churches make the same claim. The speaker of Holy Sonnet 18 asks Christ to explain which bride, or church, belongs to Christ. Neither poem forthrightly proposes one church as representing the true religion, but nor does either poem reject outright the notion of one true church or religion.
Donne’s fascination with spheres rests partly on the perfection of these shapes and partly on the near-infinite associations that can be drawn from them. Like other metaphysical poets, Donne used conceits to extend analogies and to make thematic connections between otherwise dissimilar objects. For instance, in “The Good-Morrow,” the speaker, through brilliant metaphorical leaps, uses the motif of spheres to move from a description of the world to a description of globes to a description of his beloved’s eyes to a description of their perfect love. Rather than simply praise his beloved, the speaker compares her to a faultless shape, the sphere, which contains neither corners nor edges. The comparison to a sphere also emphasizes the way in which his beloved’s face has become the world, as far as the speaker is concerned. In “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” the speaker uses the spherical shape of tears to draw out associations with pregnancy, globes, the world, and the moon. As the speaker cries, each tear contains a miniature reflection of the beloved, yet another instance in which the sphere demonstrates the idealized personality and physicality of the person being addressed.
Discovery and Conquest
Particularly in Donne’s love poetry, voyages of discovery and conquest illustrate the mystery and magnificence of the speakers’ love affairs. European explorers began arriving in the Americas in the fifteenth century, returning to England and the Continent with previously unimagined treasures and stories. By Donne’s lifetime, colonies had been established in North and South America, and the riches that flowed back to England dramatically transformed English society. In “The Good-Morrow” and “The Sun Rising,” the speakers express indifference toward recent voyages of discovery and conquest, preferring to seek adventure in bed with their beloveds. This comparison demonstrates the way in which the beloved’s body and personality prove endlessly fascinating to a person falling in love. The speaker of “Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed” calls his beloved’s body “my America! my new-found land” (27), thereby linking the conquest of exploration to the conquest of seduction. To convince his beloved to make love, he compares the sexual act to a voyage of discovery. The comparison also serves as the speaker’s attempt to convince his beloved of both the naturalness and the inevitability of sex. Like the Americas, the speaker explains, she too will eventually be discovered and conquered.
Throughout his love poetry, Donne makes reference to the reflections that appear in eyes and tears. With this motif, Donne emphasizes the way in which beloveds and their perfect love might contain one another, forming complete, whole worlds. “A Valediction: Of Weeping” portrays the process of leave-taking occurring between the two lovers. As the speaker cries, he knows that the image of his beloved is reflected in his tears. And as the tear falls away, so too will the speaker move farther away from his beloved until they are separated at last. The reflections in their eyes indicate the strong bond between the lovers in “The Good-Morrow” and “The Ecstasy” (1633). The lovers in these poems look into one another’s eyes and see themselves contained there, whole and perfect and present. The act of staring into each other’s eyes leads to a profound mingling of souls in “The Ecstasy,” as if reflections alone provided the gateway into a person’s innermost being.
Angels symbolize the almost-divine status attained by beloveds in Donne’s love poetry. As divine messengers, angels mediate between God and humans, helping humans become closer to the divine. The speaker compares his beloved to an angel in “Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed.” Here, the beloved, as well as his love for her, brings the speaker closer to God because with her, he attains paradise on earth. According to Ptolemaic astronomy, angels governed the spheres, which rotated around the earth, or the center of the universe. In “Air and Angels” (1633), the speaker draws on Ptolemaic concepts to compare his beloved to the aerial form assumed by angels when they appear to humans. Her love governs him, much as angels govern spheres. At the end of the poem, the speaker notes that a slight difference exists between the love a woman feels and the love a man feels, a difference comparable to that between ordinary air and the airy aerial form assumed by angels.
Perhaps the most famous conceit in all of metaphysical poetry, the compass symbolizes the relationship between lovers: two separate but joined bodies. The symbol of the compass is another instance of Donne’s using the language of voyage and conquest to describe relationships between and feelings of those in love. Compasses help sailors navigate the sea, and, metaphorically, they help lovers stay linked across physical distances or absences. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the speaker compares his soul and the soul of his beloved to a so-called twin compass. Also known as a draftsman’s compass, a twin compass has two legs, one that stays fixed and one that moves. In the poem, the speaker becomes the movable leg, while his beloved becomes the fixed leg. According to the poem, the jointure between them, and the steadiness of the beloved, allows the speaker to trace a perfect circle while he is apart from her. Although the speaker can only trace this circle when the two legs of the compass are separated, the compass can eventually be closed up, and the two legs pressed together again, after the circle has been traced.
Generally blood symbolizes life, and Donne uses blood to symbolize different experiences in life, from erotic passion to religious devotion. In “The Flea” (1633), a flea crawls over a pair of would-be lovers, biting and drawing blood from both. As the speaker imagines it, the blood of the pair has become intermingled, and thus the two should become sexually involved, since they are already married in the body of the flea. Throughout the Holy Sonnets, blood symbolizes passionate dedication to God and Christ. According to Christian belief, Christ lost blood on the cross and died so that humankind might be pardoned and saved. Begging for guidance, the speaker in Holy Sonnet 7 (1633) asks Christ to teach him to be penitent, such that he will be made worthy of Christ’s blood. Donne’s religious poetry also underscores the Christian relationship between violence, or bloodshed, and purity. For instance, the speaker of Holy Sonnet 9 (1633) pleads that Christ’s blood might wash away the memory of his sin and render him pure again.
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