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 sexual indulgence. Donne’s deeper theme thus focuses on the incompatibility of sex and love and on the differences between male and female attitudes toward relationships. The lover brings the serpent of sex into paradise: However pure his love, his body is also engaged in love, requiring satisfaction of its own—except that this satisfaction is impossible. The lady lives, acts, and moves on a higher plane of being; only thus can she inspire love. The idea of her condescending to become sexual is almost sacrilegious. True love is doomed to frustration.
Observing that it would be healthier for him if winter were to take over permanently, the poet-lover muses that he would then not have to endure this constant torture of life in death, this state in which even the trees mock him—for they are fertile and flowering, and, metaphorically, are the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil, which humankind inherited in the Fall. By the Fall, humankind became aware of sin, and, in Donne’s time, sex was considered inherently sinful. The lover could evade this only by being transformed to something less than man—“some senseless piece of this place.” In the final stanza, women consequently become the “perverse sex,” because they evoke love but reject its basis in sexuality.