John Donne's Songs and Sonnets Analysis

John Donne

The Canonization

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout;
My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe His Honour, or His Grace;
Or the King’s real, or his stamp’d face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
Alas! alas! who’s injur’d by my love?
What merchant’s ships have my sighs drown’d?
Who says my tears have overflow’d his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th’ eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love;
And thus invoke us, You, whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes;
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
Countries, towns, courts beg from above
A pattern of your love!

In this poem, Donne displays the complexity and variety of emotions involved in sexual love, building on the idea that sexual love makes possible a transcendence of something merely physical to something holy. In asserting this, however, the poem also mocks those who diminish sex as trivial or immoral. It is a form of a dramatic monologue, with a speaker addressing an unspecified person (probably a man) who has apparently been nagging him that his amorous commitment to a woman is excessive, impractical, or perhaps plain stupid. As readers, we listen in on his response.

The five stanzas contain nine lines each, with “love” as the final word of the first and...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas! is more than we would do.
O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
’Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

A flea might seem a rather unpleasant thing with which to seduce a woman, but such is what the speaker in this poem sets out to do. Sanitary conditions being rather deplorable in late sixteenth-century England, which is when Donne probably wrote this poem, fleas were a common insect, likely to be found everywhere and especially in beds. Poets at this time often used fleas in their love verse because, as the story goes, once at a literary salon a flea landed upon a lady’s breast, which caused the poets attending the affair to identify with the insect’s boldness and thereafter write poetry about it.

In Donne’s “The Flea,” one can imagine the speaker and a woman lying in bed, he holding a flea between his fingers as he says to her, “Mark but this flea, and mark in this,” using it to begin his arguments for why she should have sex with him. Most likely the flea had already bitten them both, and he uses the fact that their “two bloods mingled be” inside the insect as his point of departure in convincing her why she should give up to him her “maidenhead,” an archaic reference to virginity. Each of the three stanzas develops a different aspect of his argument. With three rhyming couplets and one tercet in each stanza, the rhyme scheme is tightly constructed, both enhancing the points of his arguments and adding a playful tone to them. In each stanza, the speaker directly addresses the woman.

In the first stanza, after pointing out to her that the flea has sucked from both of them and therefore contains blood from both of their bodies, the speaker reflects that the flea has already experienced a consummation of sorts and, “pamper’d,” it “swells” with their blood, an allusion to pregnancy. “And this, alas! is more than we would do,” he playfully adds, suggesting that the flea has already mixed their fluids even though she, his mistress-to-be, will not...

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
The breath goes now, and some say, no:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
’Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we, by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips and...

(The entire section is 621 words.)


Abrams, M. D., et al., ed. 1986. “John Donne.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton. This anthology provides helpful footnotes that explain some of the language in the poems.

Beliles, David Buck. 1999. “Donne and Feminist Critics.” Theoretically Informed Criticism of Donne’s Love Poetry: Toward Pluralist Hermeneutics of Faith. New York: Peter Lang. Beliles provides an introduction to several feminist responses to Donne’s Songs and Sonnets and Eligies.

Gardner, Helen, ed. 1961. John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Although current only up to the mid–twentieth century, the collection traces and clarifies the changing literary attitudes toward Donne.

Levchuck, Caroline M. 2001. “Critical Essay on ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.’” Poetry for Students, Vol. 11. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. Levchuck places this poem within the context of Donne’s life, namely his marriage to Anne More. He adds, “There is a certain degree of irony surrounding” the poem because “Anne died after giving birth to the couples’ twelfth child while Donne was on one of his many business excursions.”