How would you analyze John Donne's "Negative Love"? I can obtain a simple meaning from my point of view, but obviously this does not have the color or meaning that Donne would have intended,...

How would you analyze John Donne's "Negative Love"?

I can obtain a simple meaning from my point of view, but obviously this does not have the color or meaning that Donne would have intended, writing from the perspective of his time and the material that he used for reference for his imagery... so I am looking for an explanation that would fit with how he wrote and saw the meaning of the language that he chose in this poem.

2 Answers

amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I think Donne was describing a way of loving that was more spiritual than material. He often compared loving the Ideal (religious/spiritual) to loving a woman. In other words, he'd say that loving a woman can be idealistic as well. Calling his love "more brave" because he doesn't fully understand it. Something so ideal would be more difficult to comprehend, it would be difficult to describe let alone understand: in fact, this way of loving he describes could only be depicted by saying what it is not ("perfect" as in "ideal"):

If that be simply perfectest,

Which can by no way be expresse'd

But negatives, my love is so.

Then he asks if anyone can describe this indescribable:

If any who deciphers best,

What we know not - ourselves - can know,

Let him teach me that nothing.

The "nothing" that he wants someone to teach him is what we don't know; in this case a way of loving all things as Ideally or as perfectly as one would most likely love perfect things like Heaven, God, or something akin to Plato's Ideal Forms. I guess that he's supposing that loving another person in this ideal way would elevate that love "soar higher."

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

John Donne was a metaphysical poet, which means going beyond or transcending the physical or material world. In terms of understanding his context or time period, Donne was a clergyman who believed in the afterlife and in a spiritual realm beyond this world. He was noted for sleeping in a coffin so that he would remember he was going to die. In this poem he leans into the idea of "negative theology" of Augustine and others, the idea that the Supreme Being can be defined not by what it is but what it is not. Donne applies this to romantic love. 

In the first stanza of this poem, addressing his beloved, the narrator scorns the typical lover (and/or poet), who focuses merely on the tangible qualities of the beloved: he says he never stooped so low in describing his love as to use merely physical terms, such as preying on "eye, lip, cheek." The word "prey" implies an animalistic kind of love that focuses on the carnal and wants to devour it. These lovers, like animals, "soar no higher" than to admire the looks or virtue (which we can define as both physical chastity and good behavior) of the beloved. In other words, these lovers do not think about the unseen, spiritual aspect of love.

In the second stanza the narrator expresses the impossibility of expressing this "more" or spiritual dimension of love in words. He rejects reducing love to mere physical attributes, writing:

 To all, which all love, I say no.

He asks anyone who can explain what this intangible aspect of love is to decipher it for him. Yet he ends by saying that even without words, he cannot "miss" or leave out this aspect of his love, this "nothing" part of love, for it is where his comfort is. He does not speed past it.

This is fascinating poem because we all know there is a part of love that cannot be explained through the looks and behavior of the beloved. This is the mystery at the heart of love. We do not all love the most objectively beautiful or virtuous person in the world, and as Shakespeare points out in A Midsummer's Night Dream, once we fall in love, we see that "nothing" in a lover that Donne is groping to describe, that spiritual, inexplicable aspect, as when (though comic) Titania sees beauty in Bottom with his ass's head. What we love in another is, in part, beyond words, beyond what can be explained.