The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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.

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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 ironic and unjust. Had it been an evil odor, her father never would have noticed it, assuming that it was merely his feet or breath. Just as everyone becomes suspicious of things not native to his or her environment, though, so her father immediately detected something that smelled good. Notwithstanding all his precautions with all other possible giveaways, the lover forgot the one thing that would at once proceed from and be traced back to him.

The speaker proceeds to revile perfume. Compounded of the excretions of plants and animals, it is, like cosmetics, used to disguise the real physical state of the user. Prostitutes concealed infections with it and thus spread them through the population. When men used it, they ran the risk of being labeled effeminate. It was treasured only by courtiers and placeseekers, those who dealt primarily with the insubstantial and the apparent rather than the real. The use of perfume as incense and burnt offerings offers little evidence of intrinsic excellence; the gods simply are flattered by the act of sacrifice.

Furthermore, all perfumes are blended, suggesting that the individual ingredients, taken separately, are offensive. How can a health-giving whole be made out of un-wholesome parts, though? Even if one concedes that perfumes are intrinsically good, they vanish, so that they are not good for long. The speaker offers to donate all of his perfumes as embalming fluids for her father—and then suddenly realizes that there is hope of his death, for in noticing a scent he is giving signs of erratic behavior, perhaps a sign of impending collapse.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

The principal device used by Donne in this poem is the Metaphysical conceit, a kind of forced metaphor joining two terms by exploiting an otherwise obscure relationship that turns out unexpectedly to be illuminating, often on different levels of meaning. In many of his poems, Donne uses this technique to fuse widely separated orders of experience, for example, by linking the sacred with the profane. Here he simply is demonstrating wit, the kind of intellectual and imaginative agility highly prized in fashionable Elizabethan-Jacobean circles. On the simplest level, it is merely clever wordplay, the kind reflected in puns; but with Donne, it is usually much more sophisticated, involving irony, multiple ambiguity, and paradox.

This device first appears in “The Perfume” when the writer refers to his lover’s father as “hydroptique,” referring simultaneously to bloated, swollen, dropsical; unsatisfied, like an unsaturated sponge; alcoholic; and suspicious, not easily satisfied. The first and third meanings then are reinforced by his “glazed eyes,” which glare “as though he came to kill a Cockatrice.” This is a fabulous monster with a death-dealing glance; supposedly the glazed eyes will like a mirror reflect the deadly look back to its source. In a similar vein, her mother is described as “immortal” because she spends so much time in bed that she might as well be dead, but resolutely refuses to die. She also proves immortal in her encyclopedic knowledge of female deviousness, which she tests by “sorceries” that suggest she really is a witch.

Donne also uses more conventional devices, especially through the central part of the poem. A significant one is hyperbole, not usually considered part of Donne’s repertoire. Hyperbole appears in “the grim eight-foot-high iron-bound serving-man,” who appears to be the Colossus of Rhodes to the less formidable suitor, but who will not really be the worst punishment of hell. Donne also employs synesthesia, or the representation of one sense by another: The traitorous “loud” perfume “cryed” at the father’s nose; and the “opprest” shoes—because they both are walked on and muffled—are rendered “dumbe and speechlesse.” He even anticipates modern marketing strategy and twentieth century taste in coining the phrase “bitter sweet.”

Donne returns to more complex figures, especially paradox, toward the end of the poem. The perfume, for example, has at once “fled unto him, and staid with me.” Deceived by it into confusing the sweet-smelling with the wholesome, the “seely Amorous”—where “seely” means simultaneously silly, innocent, and gullible—finds death where he should find life; he “suckes his death/ by drawing in a leprous harlots breath.” At court, “things that seem, exceed substantiall”—appearance, pretense, and gesture count more than competent performance.

A series of paradoxes ends the poem. The gods accepted burnt offerings simply because they were offerings; they were indifferent to smells, as gods should be. Perfumes defy logic: A combination of independently offensive scents should not be sweet smelling. Their cost exceeds the value of the benefit they provide. Finally, the lover voices a paradoxical hope: Perhaps the perfume that undid him will be the agent of the father’s death.

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Themes