The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 7. His Love Poetry

It is not difficult to distinguish three strains in Donne’s love poetry, including both the powerful and enigmatical elegies and the strange and fascinating songs. The one prevails in all the elegies (except the famous Autumnal dedicated to Mrs. Herbert, and the seventeenth, the subject of which may have been his wife) and in the larger number of the lyrical pieces, in songs like “Go and catch a falling star,” “Send home my long stray’d eyes to me,” or such lyrics as Woman’s Constancy, The Indifferent, Aire and Angels, The Dreame, The Apparition, and many others. This is the most distinctive strain in Donne’s early poetry, and that which contrasts it markedly with the love poetry of his contemporaries, the sonneteers. There is no echo of Petrarch’s woes in Donne’s passionate and insolent, rapturous and angry, songs and elegies. The love which he portrays is not the impassioned yet intellectual idealism of Dante, nor the refined and adoring sentiment of Petrarch, nor the epicurean but courtly love of Ronsard, nor the passionate, chivalrous gallantry of Sidney. It is the love of the Latin lyrists and elegiasts, a feeling which is half rapture and half rage, for one who is never conceived of for a moment as standing to the poet in the ideal relationship of Beatrice to Dante or of Laura to Petrarch. Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan is not Donne’s sentiment in these poems, but rather

  • Hope not for mind in women; at their best
  • Sweetness and wit, they ’re but mummy possest.
  • But if Donne’s sentiment is derived rather from Latin than from Italian and courtly poetry, it was reinforced by his experience, and it is expressed with a wit and erudition that are all his own. And, in reading some, both of the elegies and the songs, one must not forget to make full allowance for the poet’s inexhaustible and astounding wit and fancy. “I did best,” he said later, “when I had least truth for my subject.” Realistic, Donne’s love poetry may be; it is not safe to accept it as a history of his experiences.

    The Elegies are the fullest record of Donne’s more cynical frame of mind and the conflicting moods which it generated. Some, and not the least brilliant in wit and execution, are frankly sensual, the model of poems such as Carew’s The Rapture; others, fiercely, almost brutally, cynical and satirical; others, as The Chain and The Perfume, more simply witty; a few, as The Picture, strike a purer note. A strain of impassioned paradox runs through them; they are charged with wit; the verse, though harsh at times, has more of the couplet cadence than the satires; the phrasing is full of startling felicities:

  • I taught my silks their rustlings to forbear,
  • Even my oppress’d shoes dumb and silent were;
  • and there are not wanting passages of pure and beautiful poetry:
  • I will not look upon the quickening sun
  • But straight her beauty to my sense shall run;
  • The air shall note her soft, the fire most pure,
  • Waters suggest her clear, and the earth sure.
  • This turbid, passionate yet cynical, vein is not the only one in Donne’s love poetry. Two others are readily distinguishable, and include some of his finest lyrics. In one, which is probably the latest, as that described is the earliest, Donne returns a little towards the sonneteers, especially the more Platonising among them. Poems like Twickenham Garden, The Funerall, The Blossom, The Primrose, were probably addressed neither to the mistresses of his youth, nor to the wife of his later years, but to the high-born lady friends, Mrs. Herbert and the countess of Bedford, for whom he composed the ingenious and erudite compliments of his verse letters. Towards them, he adopts the hopeless and adoring pose of Petrarchian flirtation (of Spenser towards lady Carew or Drayton towards mistress Anne Goodere) and, in high Platonic vein, boasts that,

  • Difference of sex no more we knew
  • Than our guardian angels do;
  • Coming and going we
  • Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
  • Our hands ne’er touched the seals
  • Which nature, injured by late law, sets free;
  • These miracles we did; but now alas!
  • All measure and all language I should pass,
  • Should I tell what a miracle she was.
  • Less artificial than this last strain, purer than the first, and simpler, though not less intense, than either, is the feeling of those lyrics which, in all probability, were addressed to his wife. To this class belongs the exquisite song:

  • Sweetest Love, I do not go
  • For weariness of thee,
  • Nor in hope the world can show
  • A fitter love for me.
  • In the same vein, and on the same theme, are the Valediction: of Weeping:
  • O more than moon,
  • Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere;
  • Weep me not dead in thine arms, but forbear
  • To teach the sea what it may do too soon;
  • and the more famous Valediction: forbidding Mourning, with its characteristic, fantastical yet felicitous, conceit of the compasses:
  • Such wilt thou be to me who must,
  • Like the other foot, obliquely run;
  • Thy firmness makes my circle just,
  • And makes me end where I begun.
  • The seventeenth elegy, “By our first strange and fatal interview,” may belong to the same group, and so, one would conjecture, do The Canonization, “For Godsake hold your tongue and let me love” and The Anniversary. In these, at any rate, Donne expresses a purer and more elevated strain of the same feeling as animates The Dream, The Sun-Rising and The Break of Day; and one not a whit less remote from the tenor of Petrarchian poetry. At first sight, there is not much in common between the erudite, dialectical Donne and the peasant-poet Burns, yet it is of Burns one is reminded rather than of the average Elizabethan by the truth and intensity with which Donne sings, in a more ingenious and closely woven strain than the Scottish poet’s, the joy of mutual and contented love:
  • All other things to their destruction draw,
  • Only our love hath no decay;
  • This no to-morrow hath nor yesterday.
  • Running it never runs from us away,
  • But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
  • Of the shadow of this joy, the pain of parting, Donne writes also with the intensity, if never with the simplicity, of Burns. The piercing simplicity of

  • Had we never loved sae kindly
  • was impossible to Donne’s temperament, in which feeling and intellect were inextricably blended, but the passion of The Expiration is the same in kind and in degree, however, elaborately and quaintly it may be phrased:
  • So, so, break off this last lamenting kiss,
  • Which sucks two souls, and vapours both away.
  • Turn thou ghost that way, and let me turn this,
  • And let ourselves benight our happiest day;
  • We ask’d none leave to love, nor will we owe
  • Any so cheap a death as saying “Go.”
  • The Ecstacy blends, and strives to reconcile, the material and the spiritual elements of his realistic and his Platonic strains. But, subtly and highly wrought as that poem is, its reconciliation is more metaphysical than satisfying. It is in the simpler poems from which quotations have been given that the diverse elements find their most natural and perfect union.