What is the tone of John Donne's poem "The Good Morrow"?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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John Donne's poem "The Good-Morrow" is part of his Songs and Sonnets published in 1633, and although he called this a sonnet, the poem is 21 lines long rather than 14 and is a mix of iambic pentameter (5 lines of unstressed/stressed syllables) and iambic hexameter (6 lines).  This poem, like many poems written by other metaphysical poets, centers on love, both physical and spiritual, and is presented as a dramatic monologue.  The tone is light, informal, and highly intimate, with imagery drawn from religion (Donne was a great preacher), science, and, most interestingly, cartography.  Above all, Donne speaks to his lover about physical love and its transformation to an undying spiritual love, very reminiscent of one of his later poems to his wife, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning."  Many metaphysical poems are framed on the if . . . then construct--that is, if this is true, then this must be the case, a very simple argument.  Although framed as a monologue, the poem assumes the assent or agreement of the listener.

Donne's light, conversational tone, fostered by Anglo-Saxon-based language, begins to develop his theme from the first line:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I/Did, till we loved?  Were we not wean'd till then?/But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?

With a wonderful example of hyperbole--that they began to exist only as couple--Donne's rhetorical question establishes the quietly joyous tone and using the familiar thou rather than a more formal you.  We are silent witnesses to a private (but one-sided) conversation between two lovers whose intimacy is comfortable and deeply rooted.

The conversational tone continues in Donne's first allusion:

Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?/'Twas so, but this, all pleasures fancy be.

Donne refers to the story of seven young Christians on the run from Roman persecution who took refuge in a cave, the entrance of which was then sealed. The young people then miraculously feel asleep for almost 200 years and awoke when the cave was opened.  The allusion, however,  is less important than Donne's choice of words to describe the sleeping--"snorted we."  Normally, a poet would describe sleeping more formally, elegantly, but, in Donne's case, he is speaking to his lover with whom he has just slept.  An apt choice between intimate friends is, of course, "snorted," probably a sound they both made and heard.

In the second stanza, Donne begins the transformation of physical to spiritual love, but with a very intimate image, when he tells his lover

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,/Which watch not one another out of fear; For love all love of other sights controls,/And makes one little room of everywhere.

If we felt like we were eaves-dropping in Stanza 1, then we have left hearing behind and are watching the two lovers waking up and looking at each other. But Donne argues here that their bodies and souls are one and, more important, that fear is not part of their relationship because love, true love, has created their universe within the compass of a room.

The tone of "The Good-Morrow," then, reflects the joyous intimacy of the two lovers, so comfortable with each other that the speaker has no qualms about the somewhat inelegant "snorted we" image.  The monologue derives its immediacy from its comfortable, conversational speech, characterized by its Anglo-Saxon rather than latinate diction, and imagery grounded in the intimacy between the speaker and his silent, but undoubtedly smiling, listener. 

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