Last Updated on September 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
John Donne's "Lovers' Infiniteness," consisting of three eleven-line stanzas, begins as a rather unconventional love poem. The speaker is telling his lady-love that he cannot weep or plead with her anymore to gain her affection. Paradoxically, Donne says in the first two lines, "If yet I have not all thy love, / Dear, I shall...
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John Donne's "Lovers' Infiniteness," consisting of three eleven-line stanzas, begins as a rather unconventional love poem. The speaker is telling his lady-love that he cannot weep or plead with her anymore to gain her affection. Paradoxically, Donne says in the first two lines, "If yet I have not all thy love, / Dear, I shall never have it all." He is, unlike the conventional poetic lover, giving up on his lady. He has no faith in her ability love him, and he is getting tired of all the work he has done to try to convince her to do so. The speaker, too, is convinced that, because she does not love him totally, she must love others: "If then thy gift of lover were partiall, / That some to me, some should to others fall." The play on "all" and "infinitenesse" starts in this first stanza, and goes throughout the poem. Donne is saying that love must be all, like the infiniteness of God's love, and cannot be partial. Any partition of love makes it less.
There is also a play on the standard all/nothing sexual pun, present in English since at least Shakespeare's time, beginning the next stanza "Or if then thou gavest me all, / All was but All...", but the speaker is also talking about the totality of love, and his unwillingness to accept less than that. This three-part argument, a standard pattern for Donne, addresses first the lover's failure, then a hypothetical expression of what could happen, and finally a poetic refusal: "Yet I would not have all yet, / He that hath all can have no more." The lover cannot bring himself to have "all" (which could mean her virginity, or, conversely, a pure and total love) from her "since my love doth every day admit / New growth." In a typical Donnean logical twist, the lover cannot stop the growth of his love, and, if he did have the "all" he demands from his lady, then the growth of love must stop. These are not just pretty phrases and clever twists of the mind, but a reflection of the real suffering of the unrequited lover.
The poem ends on a somewhat philosophical, though still anguished, note. Again the lover acknowledges the paradox involved in "all" or "total" love, because it cannot be sustained, or even really possible, because in the giving of it love becomes diminished. Donne uses a scriptural reference, Matthew 16:25, ("whosoever will save his life shall lose it") which not only sharpens and defines the paradox and makes its meaning all the more grave, but also alludes obliquely to the "die" sexual pun. Donne's ability to combine both sacred and profane metaphors is perhaps unparalleled in English literature; in "Lovers' Infiniteness" he uses them to great effect. The ability of human lovers to match the infiniteness of God's love will always be hampered by their existence as temporal beings, Donne is saying. While the lover may strive desperately for it, it will never be attained: the "all" is really nothing but a dream or a desire, rather than a reality.