Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central theme of the poem emerges from the metaphor of love as a spider, transforming everything and ultimately bringing death. Love becomes the ultimate paradox: The lover cannot survive out of the sight of the beloved, but the only response he gets from her is disdain. Part of this problem is simply the conventional pose of the Petrarchan lover, whose mistress, placed on a pedestal, cannot lower herself to notice him; if she could so lower herself, she would no longer be the perfect woman. The only perfect love is the eternally unrequited variety.

Part of Donne’s concept, however, penetrates to a deeper level. The persona concludes the first stanza with this figure: “And that this place may thoroughly be thought/ True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.” Again, the figure begins simply, then becomes complex. The concept of paradise comes easily to mind. Winter and spring coexist here; therefore, paradise must be timeless, beyond the sphere of the temporal. Therefore, this must be the paradise of yet unfallen humankind. The Garden of Eden—the original paradise—also contained the serpent, however; therefore, the snake has to be here, since this is both the lover’s paradise and the place from which he will be driven by the disdain of his mistress.

The serpent here is directly associated with sex, partly because of the phallic associations of the snake, but also because in the popular mind the cause of humankind’s Fall was...

(The entire section is 463 words.)