John Donne's Songs and Sonnets

by John Donne

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The Canonization

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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 last lines of each stanza, resulting in a total of ten repetitions of the word. The rhyme scheme is complicated: abbacccaa; addaeeeaa; afagggaa; ahhaiiiaa; ajjakkkaa. The intricate pattern results in two words in the fourth and eighth line of each stanza rhyming with “love,” so that in all, twenty words in the poem are “love” or rhyme with “love,” creating a compelling argument on the topic. The meter is less regular, but the last line of every stanza repeats an iambic trimeter rhythm, which winds up the stanza conclusively, thus giving more emphasis to the argument of the poem.

The argument shifts with each stanza. The first opens with a playful impatience. “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,” says the speaker, implying to the person asking these bothersome questions that he should simply mind his own business: “Take you a course, get you a place, / Observe His Honor or His Grace.” Then...

(This entire section contains 1027 words.)

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the tone shifts in the second stanza, as the speaker uses (and parodies) the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry through hyperboles of emotion, each shaped in the form of a question. “Alas! alas! who’s injur’d by my love? / What merchant’s ships have my sighs drown’d?” the speaker rhetorically asks. Has his passion killed anyone? Has his love changed anything at all? No, in fact, it has not, he implies. Wars continue and lawyers still bring suits to court—the world goes on as usual, says he, “Though she and I do love.” Stanza three opens with a tone that challenges the interlocutor—“Call us what you will”—as if the speaker could not really care less what this man who questions him thinks. Using several conceits, the speaker stresses the sexual nature of his love for this woman: first, the lovers are flies (traditionally associated with lust); second, they are tapers (phallic in implication) whereby their passion burns them down; and third, they die, which is a seventeenth-century pun meaning sexual climax. Not letting up on wit, the stanza then presents the paradox that though he and the woman are two they are also one, so that in dying (or having sexual climax) they also rise like a phoenix, thus concluding with the image of this mythological bird to symbolize the union of the lovers.

Stanza four continues to play with the double meaning of “die,” and it is in that context that the speaker asserts that their love, which he argues is ideal because of its passion, will cause them to be canonized (like Catholic saints) by the lovers of the future. In making this argument, the speaker boldly transforms sexual passion, orgasms and all, as something worth dying for, in this way indicating the emotion shared by the lovers is equivalent to a religious experience—indeed, they are martyrs to the church of love. With the fifth and final stanza, the speaker expands his audience to speak to everyone who might have once complained about the inadequacy of their own love or the impropriety of his ideas. “And thus invoke us,” he says provocatively, “You, whom reverend love / Made one another’s hermitage.” In other words, all who have not found satisfaction in our love lives should turn to him and his lover (the “us”) and “beg” from them, now in heaven (“above”), a “pattern of [their] love!” The concluding exclamation point suggests the absolute envy the speaker imagines readers should feel when they understand the completeness of pleasure he and his lover share.

The Flea

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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 concede to do this with him through sexual intercourse. The second word in the stanza, “but,” immediately suggests neither the flea nor their blood inside it has much importance, his point being that if the flea has already figuratively had sex with them, they might as well literally have sex with each other. While the blood refers to bodily fluids in general, it also refers to the blood she would lose in giving him her virginity. The tercet rhyme of the last three lines of the stanza—“woo,” “two,” and “do”—summarizes the thrust of his opening argument, and the direct address with which he commences it (“Mark . . . this”) gives it added force.

“O stay,” the speaker pleads, again using direct address as he begins the second phase of his argument in the next stanza, where his pace increases. Perhaps she is just getting ready to leave, and so he complicates his reasons why she should give in to him. First he plainly tropes the flea as being both he and his companion, a type of marriage because it holds both of their blood. Going further, he offers a second metaphor that compares the “flea spare” to a “marriage bed, and marriage temple.” This emphasizes the intimate nature of the mingling of blood and also, in inverting the syntax of what would more naturally be “spare flea,” calls attention to the insignificance of the creature (and therefore conceding to his desire), a point similar to that which he made with “but” in the previous stanza. Although it might be “spare,” however, that flea is also a “temple,” says the speaker, in this way dressing it with religious connotations. The speaker also uses the motif of religion when he imagines the flea as “three lives in one,” not unlike the Holy Trinity, and by saying it would be a “sacrilege” to kill it. The flea is, in short, a site where the two lovers can have (because they have already metaphorically had) a marital relationship. If they are already married in the body of the flea, he suggests, why can they not also be married—that is, have a sexual relationship—in the real world of the bed?

Although he cautions the woman not to kill the flea, by the beginning of the third stanza, she has apparently done so anyway, and as a result the speaker now reverses his argument. He calls her “cruel and sudden” for killing it, likening her to Herod, wearing imperial “purple,” in slaughtering the innocent flea, the word “nail” conjuring images of the crucifixion. The implication might be that if she is so callous as to destroy innocence in this way, it is silly to make a big deal about destroying her own innocence through sex. While the first two stanzas more obliquely referred to the act of sex by construing it within the respectability of marriage, here, in seeing he has probably lost the argument, he uses the word “suck’d,” more powerfully sensual in its connotations. Losing patience and becoming testy with the woman, the speaker chides her by saying she thinks she has triumphed by killing the flea and thinks neither of them “weaker” for doing so, thus in her mind proving her own reasons for saying “no” to him. His tone is nothing if not patronizing, however, when he nods, “’Tis true,” giving her that point: they will survive even if they do not have sex. But the final tercet becomes condescendingly didactic as the speaker gives her the lesson she should learn from killing the flea—namely, that her fears (about losing her virginity) were “false” and the “honour” to which she clings in refusing him is simply wasted. The final line presents a simile that compares her honor to the life of the flea, in that holding onto it is foolish, for losing it would have no more effect on her than the destruction of their blood within the flea has had on her. In this way, the speaker dismisses the notion of her honor and her virginity as not in the least important, and so she is foolish to resist him. She might exercise power in saying no to him, but he certainly gets the last word in the discussion, throughout which, of course, she is silent.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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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 hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

This poem consists of nine quatrains, each with a fairly regular iambic tetrameter rhythm and abab rhyme scheme, providing a serious and steady tone that might result from the fact that a worried Donne wrote the poem to his pregnant wife while he was on a trip in Europe. Overall, the poem expresses a love that is so deep and powerful that a physical separation cannot interfere with it.

The first two stanzas present a simile in the form of an “as/so” clause, where the speaker tells his beloved that they should both “melt” quietly similar to the way “virtuous men” die. “Virtuous,” the second word in the poem, provides a religious connotation to their love, as if his faith in it is similar to a man’s faith in God. With such faith, it would be “profanation of our joys / To tell the laity our love,” these words making the speaker and his lover holy priests in their love for each other. Through a series of metaphors of physical catastrophes in stanzas two and three, the speaker advises that they need not be ostentatious in their sorrow: “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” are not necessary, and while some might fear earthquakes, which he implicitly compares to the difficulty of their separation, such “trepidations” are neither destructive nor sinister. Their love, he insists, cannot “admit / Of absence,” for they are too “assured” of each other to experience the grief of separation. Stanza six introduces a conceit that, like most conceits, contains a paradox. The speaker first says their two souls are one, and then by comparing their love to gold, asserts that as it is pounded it expands and strengthens rather than breaks. However, a more complex (and famous) conceit follows in the seventh stanza, which carries the rest of the poem. Returning to the image of their two souls, he compares them to a drawing compass, which is an emblem of constancy in change, for as one foot of it stays put, the other roams, the former leaning toward it to make its movement possible, so that together the lovers, like the compass, produce a circle, symbolizing both perfection and infinity. Unlike in many of Donne’s other poems, the speaker of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is not consumed with passion but instead shows a mature and spiritual relationship with his beloved.

Bibliography

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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.”

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