Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

The dramatic situation Donne chooses here, that of young lovers separated by protective parents, is easy for most readers to identify with, as are the emotions of the male persona. The young lovers embody the urge to generation, fertility, and the hope of the future. Opposed to them is the old-fashioned, obsolete, repressive world of the parents, dedicated to maintaining order and controlling the rate of change. Since parents basically attempt to preserve the past and prevent change, they furiously work to keep things the way they are. Looking only ahead, the lovers in no way can see through their parents’ eyes. In fact, the parents become foreign, alien, even monstrous.

This accounts for the hostility of tone and the distorted characterization of the parents: the hydroptique father and immortal mother. Yet it is far short of being rancorous. In fact, the focus on witty phrasing and verbal dexterity mutes the hostility, diverting it toward playfulness. This competition between generations is far from final or deadly. Although it is waged with intensity and urgency on both sides, some of the apparent seriousness merely is assumed.

The recognition that humor tempers intensity is the central focus of the poem. Nothing is quite as it seems here. The contest is only semiserious. When the lover teases about the old lady’s refusal to die, or when he breaks off the poem at the end with the abrupt “What? Will hee die?,” he actually is not contemplating their death. He is merely voicing the lover’s final consolation: The old man and woman cannot live forever. Yet those deaths are in the background of the action; in fact, they create much of the tension in this situation because he will die. The older generation must give way, if only at death. Normally, and more beneficially, it occurs earlier. Furthermore, easing the transition benefits both generations, hence the function of humor here. Humor lubricates transitions.

At the core of the poem, the lover declares his commitment to his mistress, despite the temporary setback of his discovery and ejection. By rallying her spirits and expressing his antagonism, he indicates his intention to stay the course, regardless of the opposition he must overcome. He is confirming the pact they have made already. His humor also cements and reinforces his decision. He shows his recognition that he occupies the favored position. He can afford to wait, and thus he can afford to make fun. In this poem, Donne makes splendid fun.

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