Air and Angels : by John Donne || Analysis

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Air and Angels

Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
Sill when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too,
And therefore what thou wert, and who
I bid love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye and brow.

Whilst thus to ballast love, I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw, I had love's pinnace overfraught,
Every thy hair for love to work upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought,
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere;
Then as an angel, face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere;
Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air and angels' purity,
Twixt women's love, and men's will ever be.

Twice or thrice had I loved thee, Before I knew thy face or name; So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be; Sill when, to where thou wert, I came, Some lovely glorious nothing I did see. But since my soul, whose child love is, Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do, More subtle than the parent is, Love must not be, but take a body too, And therefore what thou wert, and who I bid love ask, and now That it assume thy body, allow, And fix itself in thy lip, eye and brow.
Air and Angels

Critical Analysis

      This is a poem of love and has little to do with air and angels. The poet is fed up with the Platonic idea of love - love as something holy and spiritual. He is also not happy with the worship of the beloved and the admiration of her beauty which the Petrarchan poets did. He realizes uhe hollowness and hypocrisy of the idealization of love. Love demands something concrete. It must have a physical base. Love can grow only by mutuality and co-operation.

Development of Thought:

      The poet discusses the soul-body relationship. Just as the angels manifest themselves in the air by a voice or light, in the same way love which is something idealistic, must express itself through some concrete medium. In the beginning he thought love was like a spirit or an angel, but subsequently he realised that love must be expressed through a medium, namely the human body. The beloved is the body of the soul of love. Love has now been concretized in the beloved and as such she has become the cynosure of his eyes. He appreciates the beauty of her lips, eyes and brow.

The Steadiness of Love:

      Love cannot exist in a vacuum. It must have a concrete expression. Just as a ballast (heavy load) is necessary to steady the movement of a ship, in the same way, something more important than the appreciation of the bodily beauty is necessary to stabilise love. Mere admiration of her hair or some aspect of her beauty is not enough. There must be a substantial and objective expression of love. What Donne wants is physical union which can give both continuity and stability to man-woman relationship.

Man's Active Love:

      Just as angels need the cover of air in order to be recognisable, so the lover must have the love of the beloved as a sphere for his love. There is, however, a difference between man's love and woman's love. Man's love may be compared to an angel and woman's love to air. This implies that man is generally more active than woman in the game of love making. The traditional concept of woman's coyness and modesty does make one feel that she plays the second fiddle in the orchestra of love. But just as there is harmony in the angel-air relationship, there should be mutuality and response in man-woman relationship.

Critical Remarks:

      This is one of the 'highly intellectualised' of Donne's love poems. The title does not suggest the subject of love. Even so, the poet describes divine love in terms of the flesh. He borrows images and concepts from metaphysics, navigation and scholasticism in order to prove the point that both physical base and mutuality are essential for the experience of love. The idea of using ballast to the ship of love for its smooth sailing is original and so is the concept of the disparity between man's passion and woman's response. That man's love is an angel and woman's love the air, and the harmony of the two is necessary for the concretization and consummation of love provides a sane and fitting conclusion to the poem.

Paraphrase:

      (The poem is an address of the poet to his beloved). I had loved you (the beloved) twice or thrice in spirit, before I saw your face or knew your name. Just as angels are recognised through their voice or through a halo or ball of fire and then worshipped, in the same way, you are known as a spirit. When I came to see you, I saw something vague or nebulous glorious nothing. Love is a child of the soul and has taken the limbs of flesh or else it cannot function. Similarly, the soul-the parent of love must need a body. (The lover finds the body of love in the beloved). When I ask love, it points to your body and as such I fix my attention on your lips, eyes and brow.

      This is the way I concretize and steady my love just as ballast (neavy load in the hold) is used for stabilizing the ship. I would go out in the ship's boat to collect small items of load (like the beautiful hair etc.) which deserve admiration. But by collecting such items I was only overloading the boat with a risk of capsizing (sinking). Even the praise of your beauty would overload the boat. I must find out some beter item or admiration. Love cannot rest content with the enumeration of the different points of beauty of the beloved. Love must have a functional outlet for its physical expression. Just as angels must clothe themselves in air - an inferior medium - in order to be seen, in the same way the lover must have the love of the beloved as his sphere of love. Such is the difference between the love of man (compared to an angel) and the love of woman (compared to air). This kind of disparity, namely the active love of man and passive love of woman will always persist.

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