The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)