Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While Donne’s “On His Mistress” is seemingly straightforward in its meanings, there are several aspects of Donne’s life that may provide more background and add to the understanding of the poem. The elegiac conventions, here somewhat altered, are usually used as a form to express the poet’s love. This is accomplished in “On His Mistress” in a backhanded way. Further, the poem contains a distinct nationalistic attack on the Continent on the part of the narrator.

Donne, while in the employ of Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, became enamored of Egerton’s young niece, Ann More. In 1601, Donne and More were secretly married, much to the dismay of Egerton, who had Donne dismissed from his estate and briefly imprisoned. For the next fourteen years, Donne was somewhat blacklisted and had a terrible time finding permanent employment. He ended up living off the good graces of his friends and patrons. This incident suggests the possibility that when Donne writes of covert affairs and their implications, he does so from experience. It may also help explain the manly tone and attitude that becomes a major theme in “On His Mistress.”

The poem also is notable for its prominent disconcerting attacks on other nationalities, attacks which show the increased nationalism among Englishmen in the wake of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Donne himself sailed with the Earl of Essex in 1596 to sack the Spanish...

(The entire section is 459 words.)