The speaker asks his addressee to be quiet, and let him love. If the addressee cannot hold his tongue, the speaker tells him to criticize him for other shortcomings (other than his tendency to love): his palsy, his gout, his “five grey hairs,” or his ruined fortune. He admonishes the addressee to look to his own mind and his own wealth and to think of his position and copy the other nobles (“Observe his Honour, or his Grace, / Or the King’s real, or his stamped face / Contemplate.”) The speaker does not care what the addressee says or does, as long as he lets him love.
The speaker asks rhetorically, “Who’s injured by my love?” He says that his sighs have not drowned ships, his tears have not flooded land, his colds have not chilled spring, and the heat of his veins has not added to the list of those killed by the plague. Soldiers still find wars and lawyers still find litigious men, regardless of the emotions of the speaker and his lover.
The speaker tells his addressee to “Call us what you will,” for it is love that makes them so. He says that the addressee can “Call her one, me another fly,” and that they are also like candles (“tapers”), which burn by feeding upon their own selves (“and at our own cost die”). In each other, the lovers find the eagle and the dove, and together (“we two being one”) they illuminate the riddle of the phoenix, for they “die and rise the same,” just as the phoenix does—though unlike the phoenix, it is love that slays and resurrects them.
He says that they can die by love if they are not able to live by it, and if their legend is not fit “for tombs and hearse,” it will be fit for poetry, and “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” A well-wrought urn does as much justice to a dead man’s ashes as does a gigantic tomb; and by the same token, the poems about the speaker and his lover will cause them to be “canonized,” admitted to the sainthood of love. All those who hear their story will invoke the lovers, saying that countries, towns, and courts “beg from above / A pattern of your love!”
The five stanzas of “The Canonization” are metered in iambic lines ranging from trimeter to pentameter; in each of the nine-line stanzas, the first, third, fourth, and seventh lines are in pentameter, the second, fifth, sixth, and eighth in tetrameter, and the ninth in trimeter. (The stress pattern in each stanza is 545544543.) The rhyme scheme in each stanza is ABBACCCDD.
This complicated poem, spoken ostensibly to someone who disapproves of the speaker’s love affair, is written in the voice of a world-wise, sardonic courtier who is nevertheless utterly caught up in his love. The poem simultaneously parodies old notions of love and coins elaborate new ones, eventually concluding that even if the love affair is impossible in the real world, it can become legendary through poetry, and the speaker and his lover will be like saints to later generations of lovers. (Hence the title: “The Canonization” refers to the process by which people are inducted into the canon of saints).