What are the similarities/differences between Donne's love lyrics and his religious poems?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Donne's "love lyrics" were not published until after his death. It is assumed that they were written before he married Anne More. These poems are sometimes what one would expect of a more wild young man:

Many of his love poems show the poet chasing pretty women, trying to seduce them through wit and promises of pleasure...

It is hard to reconcile these with the man who was to become the Dean of St. Paul's, and the man who would also write the much more serious Holy Sonnets. However, it is easier to find a correlation between these two personas if we remember that while he wrote "wild" love poetry, he also wrote serious love poetry that dealt with the more sincere aspects of love: "spiritual love and commitment."

Some of Donne's [most likely early] love poetry did not convey a generous or caring regard for the topic of love: Donne wrote what were referred to as conceits. Metaphysical conceits used extended metaphors. A metaphor, of course, is when two dissimilar things are compared that share similar characteristics. However, the conceit used the metaphor where the similarities between the two objects were tenuous at best.

Helen Gardner notes:

...a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness....

This was a sophisticated use of the language, and this was a popular pastime of the era. One of John Donne's famous (and often referenced) conceits is called "The Flea." The speaker is trying to seduce a young woman: his logic is that since the same flea has bitten them both and mingled their blood, the poet and "the object of his affection" are as good as married, so she should give in to his sexual advances. It seems that reasoning was rather clever, but not enough to make a "believer" out of her:

Oh stay! three lives in one flea spar

Where we almost, yea more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.

It is easy to see that this "poem" is not one that speaks to the spirituality or sacred state of love. This does not, however, infer that there is a lack of love, just a very different way to express it.

The tone of Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" has a more somber tone. He wrote the poem as his pregnant wife was traveling, and it reveals his love, concern and worry for her, seeming to compare his love to a compass that seeks its true North (his wife):

Yet, when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

The tone of Donne's Holy Sonnets is quite dissimilar. In fact, it is easy to believe that these were written after he took his position at St. Paul's. For instance, in Holy Sonnet 14, Donne implores God to take him and change him: that while he loves God, sin too easily makes him forget reason. He asks that God does not ask admittance to his heart, but comes in, alters him, forces his spirit to turn away from sin, and creates in him a new person as only God can do. Only by being transformed by God and "captured" by Him, can the speaker be free. (This is a paradox.) In his religious poetry, Donne's focus as a poet rests on his relationship with God rather than his relationship with a woman.

Perhaps it can safely be said that Donne's poetry mirrors life: "love lyrics" defined the poetry of his youth, becoming more serious in marriage, and turning toward spiritual matters in his later years.