What are some common themes in the poems of John Donne?
Please discuss in particular the following poems: "The Good-morrow," "The Sunne rising," "The Canonization," "The Anniversarie," "The Flea," "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," "The Extasie," "Loves Deitie," "The Relique," "To his Mistris going to Bed," "Holy Sonnets vii ("At the round earth's"), x ("Death be not proud") , xiv ("Batter my heart"), and "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward."
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One theme found in many of the poems of John Donne, both the secular and religious, is the theme of love. However, love in Donne’s day was often divided into two kinds. True, selfless, and godly love was often called caritas, or charity. False, selfish, and ungodly desire was often called cupiditas. Caritas meant loving God and God’s creatures as God would love. Cupiditas was often mere lust rather than genuine affection.
Using this broad theme as a way of examining some of the poems you mention, one might say the following:
- “The Good-Morrow” celebrates and exemplifies caritas, or true love, as the reference to the lovers’ “waking souls” (8) suggests.
- The kind of love depicted in “The Sun Rising” is more difficult to determine. A case can be made that this poem depicts a mild form of cupiditas, especially since the speaker seems self-absorbed and also since he disparages honor (24). Donne may be mocking the narcissism of this speaker.
- Once again, the kind of love depicted in “The Canonization” is not obviously either caritas or cupiditas. Cases can be – and have been – made for both of these possibilities.
- In “The Flea,” the love depicted is almost certainly mere sexual lust – that is, cupiditas. The speaker merely seems to want the woman’s body, and the woman’s rejection of him (along with her desire not to engage in “A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead”), supports this argument. At the end of the poem, the speaker has not achieved his objective, having been continuously and successfully rebuffed by the virtuous woman. In poems such as this one, Donne seems to mock his cocky speakers and have fun at their expense.
- “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” quite unambiguously celebrates caritas. It celebrates a love anchored in the souls of the two lovers, and it announces that since the love these two share is
Inter-assurèd of the mind, [these lovers]
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss. (19-20)
- “To His Mistress Going to Bed” seems quite clearly a poem emphasizing cupiditas and featuring a speaker whose lust becomes almost blasphemous by the end of the poem. It seems safe to assume that Donne is satirizing this speaker by letting him show his extreme pride.
- “The Relic” is in some ways one of the most interesting poems Donne ever wrote, because it begins by presenting a speaker who seems cynical and misogynistic (that is, woman-hating), but it ends by revealing that this speaker once shared genuine love, rooted in caritas, with a woman who is now dead.
- “The Holy Sonnets” and the other religious poems, almost by definition, feature caritas. Thus in sonnet 7, the speaker shows true love of God when he asks God, “Teach me how to repent” (13). In sonnet 10, the speaker expresses faith that God can defeat death:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
- “The Ecstasy” seems to celebrate caritas (because of all its language emphasizing a connection of souls).
- “Love’s Deity” seems a meditation on cupiditas (especially because of the references to “rage” and to “lust” (17).
Love, then, is a central theme of Donne's works; the key question, however, is which kind of love.
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