Although designated an elegy in its original title, “The Perfume” is really better considered a seventy-two-line Renaissance imitation of a classical form. John Donne called it an elegy because he composed it in closed couplets, consecutive lines of end-stopped iambic pentameter, a verse pattern that roughly corresponds to the Latin elegia. He used the same pattern for his satires, but unlike those, this is addressed to a particular lover, as a commentary on their relationship: The two lovers are being separated by the girl’s parents, and this poem is written after the two had been caught together.
The poem is in two parts: The first part details the lovers’ attempts to avoid the parents’ vigilance; the second investigates the properties of perfume, the agent that gave them away. The speaker begins by complaining that ever since their detection, her father has blamed him for all her escapades. Still, despite the father’s close supervision and his threats (even to cast her out of the will), they usually have been successful in their deceit. They even have managed to escape the scrutiny of her mother, ancient in the lore of female wiles. The girl’s parents bribed her brothers and sisters to spy on them, but to no avail. The couple also managed to elude the serving man who was commissioned to shadow her. One thing alone betrayed them: They were smelled out by the perfume he was wearing.
To be betrayed by a fragrance was...
(The entire section is 510 words.)