What is a translation of the poem "Air and Angels" by John Donne into modern day English?

Expert Answers
karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I will paraphrase and also provide some possible interpretation of the meaning of Donne's lines in "Air and Angels."

The speaker begins: 
Twice or thrice had I lov'd thee, 
Before I knew thy face or name; 
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame 
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be; (1-4)
Here, Donne says, I have loved you two or three times before I saw your face or knew your name. This is how angels often affect us and how we worship them: we feel their presence without really physically seeing them. He also compares his beloved to an angel and implies that he "worships" her. 
 
Next, the speaker continues: 
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see. 
But since my soul, whose child love is, 
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do, 
More subtle than the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too; (5-10)
This basically means the following: when I came to see you, I also felt your presence or aura, and it was lovely. However, I also need a body combined with this soul to feel real love.
 
Next, he writes: 
 And therefore what thou wert, and who, 
 I bid Love ask, and now 
 That it assume thy body, I allow, 
 And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow. (11-14)
I asked Love who and what you were, and I asked Love to make your soul take the shape of your body. It almost sounds like the beloved was not a flesh and blood person but has to be made into one through Love's work. 
 
In the second section of the poem, the speaker writes, 
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone, 
With wares which would sink admiration, 
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught; (15-18)
Here, the speaker reflects on how hard it is for love to translate the soul, or transcendent love, into a physical body. He basically is saying that although he asked love to do this difficult work, he now realizes that he had given love too much work to do. 
 
He continues,
         Ev'ry thy hair for love to work upon 
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought; 
        For, nor in nothing, nor in things 
Extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere; (19-22)
The speaker is saying that to have love work meticulously on a physical body—hair by hair— is too demanding and that a better method needs to be found. He then admits that love cannot exist in "things" alone. In other words, love goes beyond the physical and is more abstract and/or spiritual.
 
Finally, the speaker concludes with these thoughts: 
 
         Then, as an angel, face, and wings 
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure, doth wear, 
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
          Just such disparity 
As is 'twixt air and angels' purity, 
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be. (23-28)
The speaker ends up saying that he will take his beloved as an angel that is almost as pure as the air itself. This airy or transcendent lover will become his "sphere," the place where he belongs and spends his time. He says that the "disparity" or difference between the purity of air and the purity of angels will be just like the difference between women's love and men's love.
profwelcher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Air and Angels
By John Donne

Twice or thrice had I lov'd thee,
I had already fallen in love with you two or three times,

Before I knew thy face or name;
Even before I had met you or learned your name.
 
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be;
Angels come to be worshipped by coming to us in a voice or shapeless flame in this way.
 
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.
Even when I met you, I still saw something glorious I couldn't identify.
         
But since my soul, whose child love is,
But because my soul, whose child is love,
 
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
Makes use of a body, and isn't capable of doing anything else,
 
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
And Love can't be more subtle than its parent (the soul), it takes a body, too.
 
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Therefore, I asked love to tell me what you were and who you were, and I believe Love took your very own body and made use of your lips, your eyes, and your brows.

Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
I thought (by doing this) I could weigh Love down,
 
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
And, in this way, would have been able to have more of something to possess than just admiration,
 
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught;
I saw that I had overburdened Love's vessel,
 
Ev'ry thy hair for love to work upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;
Love can't even manage working with your hair all at once,
 
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere;
For, Love can't reside in nothingness, nor in extremities, nor in things that are brightly scattered.
 
Then, as an angel, face, and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure, doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
Just as an angel's face and wings, made out of air, are not as pure as the angel itself, although they are pure, your Love can embody my Love.
 
Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air and angels' purity,
'Twixt women's love, and men's, will ever be.
Just like there are differences between air and the purity of angels,
there will also be the same between women's purity and men's purity.