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.

Read more about the historical context Donne wrote in.