Donne’s Poetry

Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols

Angels

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.

The Compass

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.

Blood

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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