Themes and Meanings
The sexual imagery that concludes the poem does not contradict the pervasive spirituality of the piece, but complements it. John Donne has been called the poet of mutual love, and though he may play diverse roles—the cynical lover of “The Indifferent,” the Platonic lover in “The Relic”—he is also the advocate of physical and spiritual love united. “Dull, sublunary lovers” rely totally on the physical, so their love cannot survive absence. Donne and his beloved may “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss,” but they do care. The need for both types of love is evident in the metaphor of the twin compasses. The circular motion of the compasses, like the circular orbits of the planets in Aristotelian physics, symbolizes heavenly love, since all movement above the moon takes this shape. Sublunary motion is linear, and that is the figure the two points of the compass describe when they move together in a plane. Together, the divine circle and animal line create the human spiral. Donne rejects the duality of body and soul: Love for him is not one or the other, but both—a single, indivisible entity.
Hence, Donne rejects the Petrarchan idealization of the beloved as untouchable and godlike. He employs the imagery of Petrarch in the second stanza when he speaks of “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests,” but in forbidding such forms of mourning the poem distances itself from the philosophy that relies on such metaphors. Donne’s love is human, as is his beloved. The opening lines may imply that she is body and he soul, thereby suggesting that he is purer than she; the second stanza dispels such a reading, linking the lovers in the pronoun “us.” In the third stanza, each is a planet, and later their souls are one. The twin compasses may be understood as portraying that same fusion, one foot being the will, the other reason. As body and soul require each other for life, so will and reason cannot operate independently. The sexual reversal of the last stanza corresponds to the beloved’s assuming the controlling role of reason, which guides the errant will; its fixedness converts the will’s centrifugal force into the circle, a pattern of constancy. Love reconciles opposites and accepts no mastery of one party over the other.
In chapter 12 of La vita nuova (c. 1292; The New Life), Dante writes, speaking as love, “I am as the center of a circle, to which all parts of the circumference stand in equal relation.” This passage may have provided Donne with the idea for his famous conceit of the twin compasses; it certainly expresses the same vision of love’s unifying and godlike power, of love as the still center around which the world revolves and to which all things return to find that rest that they can experience nowhere else.
The image of the dying men that introduces the piece indicates the fusion of Donne and his beloved as body and soul and promises resurrection, but the focus on death is too gloomy for the purpose the author intends. The planets have much to recommend them as a metaphor: Again the imagery promises return, and the orbits of the planets in Donne’s Ptolemaic system describe circles. Yet if the first metaphor falls short because of its rootedness in mortality, the second proves equally unsatisfactory because it divorces itself from humanity. Only with the twin compasses does the poet find that perfect fusion of human and divine, flesh and spirit, line and circle, that constitutes true love. The author has succeeded in his quest for the correct language in which to couch his meaning, and in the process of creating his poem he has moved from death and separation to life and reunion, imitating the experience the verses promise.