John Donne's Songs and Sonnets

by John Donne

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Some of John Donne’s love sonnets describe an exalted love that insists on and celebrates the body. Sexual love, expressed through metaphysical conceits (a type of extended metaphor), enables a union that mind alone cannot achieve. “The Canonization,” for example, suggests that the physical union of true lovers raises them to sainthood because the experience exceeds anything else offered on earth. Thus, the mutual pleasure in physical union transforms love into a religious experience, transgressing the conventional moral attitudes of Donne’s day in very explicit ways.

A second treatment of love can be found in the four “Valedictory Poems” in Songs and Sonnets, all of which Donne probably composed while married to Anne More but separated from her as a result of his frequent travels. These poems present love as intense and passionate, even tender at times—an emotion strengthened by the separation of the speaker from the woman he loves. It is not that these poems do not invoke physical love, for they might, but what predominates is the longing for the lover and the insistence that the lovers be united as one or, alternatively, that their separation paradoxically increases their oneness. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a good example of a poem that embodies the theme of this sort of love. By using a conceit that compares his love to a compass, the speaker reminds his absent beloved that the further they grow apart physically, the deeper and more expansive their love becomes spiritually.

Some poems treat love as a pleasure that does not last, where the speaker blames either himself or the woman, sometimes neither, and other times both. In “Woman’s Constancy,” the speaker complains to his lover that she will undoubtedly leave him and is therefore guilty of “falsehood,” only to call himself at the end of the poem a “vain lunatic...for by tomorrow” he too will be ready to call it quits. On the other hand, in “The Indifferent,” the speaker boasts that he can love all sorts of women, that he is “indifferent” to whom he loves because physical pleasure exists—and is wonderful—for its own sake.

In short, Donne treats just about every type of love possible. And for every type of love a poem imagines, a different type of woman exists. Some poems such as “The Canonization” and “The Ecstasy” present women as human beings who participate in love in a mutual way, where there is a sense of equality between the speaker and the woman, and in this way give a “voice” to the woman in the poem. However, even in poems such as these, some feminist critics argue that a tone of male superiority undercuts this sense of equality: at key points in the poem the speaker, who is a man, casts himself as the persuader and possessor and the woman as the persuaded and possessed. Because the man speaks, the woman must remain silent, her voice filtered only through his attitude toward her.

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