Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

While Donne’s “On His Mistress” is seemingly straightforward in its meanings, there are several aspects of Donne’s life that may provide more background and add to the understanding of the poem. The elegiac conventions, here somewhat altered, are usually used as a form to express the poet’s love. This is accomplished in “On His Mistress” in a backhanded way. Further, the poem contains a distinct nationalistic attack on the Continent on the part of the narrator.

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Donne, while in the employ of Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, became enamored of Egerton’s young niece, Ann More. In 1601, Donne and More were secretly married, much to the dismay of Egerton, who had Donne dismissed from his estate and briefly imprisoned. For the next fourteen years, Donne was somewhat blacklisted and had a terrible time finding permanent employment. He ended up living off the good graces of his friends and patrons. This incident suggests the possibility that when Donne writes of covert affairs and their implications, he does so from experience. It may also help explain the manly tone and attitude that becomes a major theme in “On His Mistress.”

The poem also is notable for its prominent disconcerting attacks on other nationalities, attacks which show the increased nationalism among Englishmen in the wake of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Donne himself sailed with the Earl of Essex in 1596 to sack the Spanish coastal city of Cadiz; he also accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh in 1597 on an expedition to hunt Spanish treasure ships off the Azores. Given the success of these ventures, it is evident that Donne is again speaking from personal experience as he degrades the men of continental Europe; his manliness, in a sense, has been earned.

What is surprising, however, is the seemingly indignant nature with which the narrator seems to treat his beloved. He comments on the difficult nature of their relationship, scoffs at her proposal to join him on the journey, and then plants seeds of fear in her concerning his departure and the potential perils that await him. This may be explained, at least partly, by remembering the audience to which Donne directed many of his poems. He would commonly write them to be shared with his friends in the inns and alehouses of England; the men would share camaraderie while reading one another’s literary works. It is not too farfetched to suggest that this may be the reason for both the nationalism and the ironic degradation of his mistress that occur in Elegy 18. Part of the enjoyment of gathering to read one another’s works, or to hear them read aloud, may simply have involved the reiteration of the writers’ and listeners’ masculinity.

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