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John Donne, in his love poetry, can be seen as both a conformist and a rebel in several senses. A particularly interesting example of both tendencies occurs in his famous poem “Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed.”
In this poem, a male speaker apparently lies naked in bed and tries to convince a woman, whom he desires sexually, to join him. This poem would have seemed shocking to many readers of Donne’s era, and it still has the power to shock today.
One aspect of the poem that makes it somewhat shocking is its relative sexual explicitness. For example, three times in a few lines, the speaker jokes about male erections (4, 12, 24). Other language in the poem is, if anything, even more overtly suggestive sexually, such as the speaker’s exclamation, “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below” (25-26). Another sexual joke appears in the reference to “whole joys” in line 35. Finally, the speaker’s reference to his own nakedness (47) comes as one last surprise. Many readers would have seen (and still do see) this poem as an example of Donne’s daring, of his rebellious nonconformity to the generally decorous standards of much love poetry of his day. If Donne can be classified as a “rebel” in his love poetry, poems such as “Elegy 19” seem to offer convincing evidence to support that label.
On the other hand, it is possible to argue that even such a poem as “Elegy 19” is fundamentally conformist. It is possible to argue that even this apparently shocking text conforms to the religious standards of the day if the presentation of the speaker is read ironically. In other words, if the poem is read as an implied satire of the foolishness, presumption, and pride of the speaker, as a mockery of his shallow lust rather than as an endorsement of it, then the poem conforms quite nicely to standard Christian ideals of the era.
It is possible to read this poem as an increasingly biting satire of the cocky speaker, whose own use of religious language becomes almost blasphemous by the end of the poem, as in lines 39-43. In those lines, the speaker compares women’s bodies to the Bible in ways that would have struck many readers of Donne’s era as almost sacrilegious. Did Donne, a genuinely devout Christian, sympathize with speakers such as this one? This seems unlikely, although the claim has certainly been made. Perhaps it makes more sense to read “Elegy 19” and poems like it as implied satires of their highly flawed speakers.
If poems such as this one (poems including “The Flea”) are read ironically, then Donne can justly be called a rebel in his subject matter but a conformist in the attitudes he implies toward such subjects. Another way to make the same point is to argue that Donne’s speakers may be rebels, but that Donne himself is quite orthodox in his own underlying attitudes.
For a superb development of this basic attitude toward Donne’s love poems, see especially N. J. C. Andreasen, John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
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