The forty-five lines of John Donne’s “The Canonization” are divided into five nine-line stanzas, a form that suggests a five-act play. The title reflects the speaker’s conviction that in opposing the claims of the world (business, courtly ambitions), he and his beloved have become love’s martyrs, and therefore saints.
The first-person speaker appears to be addressing an outsider who is unsympathetic to his romantic involvement and who has said as much prior to the first line. The poem, then, is a type of dramatic monologue, in which the speaker defends and later celebrates his love against the outsider’s objection. In the first stanza, he commands the outsider to hold his tongue and tells him to scold him about being too old for love if he wishes, but not about being in love. He suggests that the outsider pursue his own ambitions or do whatever he likes, so long as he leaves him alone to love.
In the second stanza, the speaker adopts a defensive tone, arguing that no one is “injured” by his love, as the outsider may have charged. Donne employs several conventional Petrarchan metaphors (poetic clichés by that time), insisting that his lover’s sighs have not sunk any merchant ships, nor has his heated passion caused an early spring to be delayed. He concludes that argumentative soldiers and lawyers can still bicker even though he finds contentment in love.
In the third stanza, the speaker reacts to apparent name-calling on the part of the outsider, insisting that he and his beloved are “flies” (in the diction of his age, moths or butterflies) or “tapers” (candles), which gain fullness of life even as they consume themselves. (Renaissance English poets commonly employed the word “die” as a sexual pun, based on the folk belief that each orgasm shortened one’s life by a day.) Likening the physically and spiritually united lovers to the phoenix, a mythical bird that was thought to erupt into flame and then be resurrected from its own ashes, the speaker claims that they are proven “mysterious” (in the spiritual sense) by this ideal love. This constitutes the climax or turning point of this small drama.
In the fourth stanza the speaker explains that if they do literally die from their love, it will be a martyrdom, and their saints’ legend will be an appropriate subject for poetry (as this poem itself proves), so they will also live because of their love. He expands his point metaphorically by suggesting that if their love is not suitable for chronicles, it will do for sonnets, and that a carefully made funeral urn is as suitable for famous personages as “half-acre tombs” like the pyramids.
The last stanza amounts to an imagined prayer of intercession. In short, the busy world will request a “pattern” or model of ideal love from these martyrs, who have found in each other a peaceful “hermitage.”
This poem is a triumph in the “complex stanza” form, which derives from the classical ode and which requires that the poet contrive a fresh rhyme scheme (abbaccca in the present case) and use a variable line length as well. Donne employs a free iambic foot and a meter that varies from pentameter (ten syllables per line) in the first, third, fourth, and seventh lines to trimeter (six syllables) in the last line of each stanza. The remaining lines are in tetrameter (eight syllables). Donne frames each stanza by closing off the first and ninth lines with the word “love,” which accordingly echoes throughout the poem.
Within the formal structure, Donne uses...
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frequent balance and antithesis (as in line 2, in which “my palsy” is balanced with “my gout”). Occasionally this binary pattern, which operates throughout the poem, leads to paradox, for the speaker argues that the apparent dangers of passionate love actually sustain life in the best sense. The paradoxical pairing of the lover’s “colds” (chills) and “heats” (fevers) in the second stanza are conventional and even somewhat playful, but the pairing of dying and rising later in the poem is more profound. Antitheses abound in the poem: chronicles/sonnets, well-wrought urn/half-acre tombs, peace/rage. These tend to counter the more obviously balanced pairs in the first stanza: “With wealth your state”/ “your mind with arts,” a course/a place (in court, presumably), His Honor/ His Grace, “the King’s real”/ “or his stamped face” (on a coin).
The metaphorical play in this poem can be confusing to those who are unaware of the traditions and conventions of Renaissance poetry. The typical Petrarchan lover, for example, who is teased in the second stanza, was pictured as an unfortunate man who was spurned by his mistress and who consequently sighed up a storm, wept floods, and alternately suffered chills and fevers. Donne’s lover is beloved in turn, so he does not suffer such maladies.
Donne draws on the emblem tradition for conventional metaphors in the second stanza. Emblem books in that era provided woodcuts or engravings that had moralizing mottoes and poems. The moth drawn to a deadly candle was one such emblem, as was the image of the eagle (representing physical power, often that of the male) and the dove (representing peace or spirituality). The phoenix was also a popular emblem.
Donne concludes his poem with a metaphor in which the lovers, staring into each other’s eyes, reflect themselves and indeed the whole world, as represented by “Countries, towns, courts.” They become, then, the epitome or summation of the universe.