We do not know for sure when John Donne wrote his love poetry, because although it circulated in manuscripts during his lifetime, it was not published until two years after his death in Songs and Sonnets (1633). Confusingly, the collection does not contain sonnets as one would typically define them; rather, during Donne’s time the term was used more loosely to mean “love lyric.” Most likely he wrote many of them in the 1590s, before he married Anne More in 1601, and then some of the more serious love poems after his marriage. In a letter to a friend, Donne distinguished “Jack Done,” the persona of these love poems, from “Dr. John Donne,” the religious man who became Dean of St. Paul’s and wrote the Holy Sonnets later in his life after his wife died. Many of his love poems show the poet chasing pretty women, trying to seduce them through wit and promises of pleasure, while others explore more profound meanings of spiritual love and commitment. The poetry usually mocks traditional images of love or uses surprising and dense metaphors called “conceits,” which compare two very dissimilar things, to describe it. Regardless of the treatment of love, all of the poems present a man who loves deeply. The intensity of the emotions in the sonnets as well as their brilliance have caused many critics to argue that Donne is one of the greatest love poets in the English language.
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