Elegy: On His Mistress by John Donne: Summary & Analysis

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Elegy: On His Mistress

By our first strange and fatal interview,
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my word's masculine persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts, which spies and rivals threatened me,
I calmly beg: but by thy father's wrath,
By all pains, which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee; and all the oaths which I
And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy.
Here I unswear, and overswear them thus,
Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.

Temper, O fair love, love's impetuous rage,
Be my true mistress still, not my feigned page;
I'll go, and by thy kind leave, leave behind
Thee, only worthy to nurse in my mind
Thirst to come back; oh, if thou die before
From other lands my soul towards thee shall soar,

Thy (else almighty) beauty cannot move
Rage from the seas, nor thy love teach them love,
Nor tame wild Borea's harshness; thou hast read
How roughly he in pieces shivered
Fair Orithea, whom he swore he loved.
Fall ill or good, 'tis madness to have proved
Dangers unurged; feed on this flattery,
That absent lovers one in th' other be.

Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change
Thy body's habit, nor mind's, be not strange
To thy self only; all will spy in thy face
A blushing womanly discovering grace
Richly clothed apes, are called apes, and as soon
Eclipsed as bright we call the moon the moon.

Men of France, changeable chameleons,
Spitals of diseases, shops of fashions,
Love's fuellers, and the rightest company
Of players, which upon the world's stage be,
Will quickly know thee, and know thee; and alas
Th' indifferent Italian, as we pass
His warm land well content to think thee page.
Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage,
As Lot's fair guests were vexed. But none of these
Nor spongy hydroptic Dutch shall thee displease,
If thou stay here. Oh stay here, for, for thee

England is only a worthy gallery,
To walk in expectation, till from thence
Our greatest King call thee to his presence.
When I am gone, dream me some happiness,
Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess,
Nor praise, nor dispraise me, nor bless nor curse
Openly love's force, nor in bed fright thy nurse
With midnight's startings, crying out, 'Oh, oh
Nurse, O my love is slain, I saw him go
O'er the white Alps alone: I saw him, I,
Assailed, fight, taken, stabbed, bleed, fall, and die.
Augur me better chance, except dread Jove
Think it enough for me to have had thy love.

By our first strange and fatal interview, By all desires which thereof did ensue, By our long starving hopes, by that remorse Which my word's masculine persuasive force Begot in thee, and by the memory Of hurts, which spies and rivals threatened me, I calmly beg: but by thy father's wrath, By all pains, which want and divorcement hath, I conjure thee; and all the oaths which I And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy. Here I unswear, and overswear them thus, Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.
Elegy: On His Mistress


(This poem is addressed by the poet to his wife on the eve of his departure to the continent, some time in 1611. He requests her to stay in England and not to take the risk of accompanying him disguised as a boy.)

      Line. 1-12: I beg of you (Anne More), swearing by the first usual but ordained interview with you with which began my passion of love, and by our long but deferred hope of marriage, by the pity roused in your heart by my persuasive words, and by the memory of injuries threatened by the spies and rivals. I request you by reminding you of the anger of your father at the discovery of our love, by the pain and suffering caused by separation, and by the oaths which we took at the time of marriage. Now I recall those vows and swear them again and insist that you shall not express your love for me in so dangerous a manner.

      Line. 13-18: Oh my beloved try to pacify the fury of your great love. Continue to be my true wife and not my disguised page. I will go with your permission and leave you here to remember me in your heart so that I come back soon. If, however, you die before my return, my soul shall fly to meet you from foreign lands.

      Line. 19-26: Your beauty cannot control the fury of the seas nor can your love teach them to be mild or tame the fury of Boreas the wind that brings storms at sea. You have read the story of Boreas and Orithea (The North wind), how Boreas took away Orithea to the mountains and shivered in his love. Be it good luck or ill-luck, it is sheer madness to invite unnecessary dangers. You must console yourself with the thought that in spite or separation, the lovers remember each other in their hearts.

      Line. 27-32: Do not disguise yourself as a boy; do not change your dress or mind; do not be different from what you really are. All people will be able to see a pleasing feminine grace in you. Apes will be apes though dressed differently; the moon though eclipsed will still be the moon.

      Line. 33-43: Men of France who change colors like the chameleon ( a kind of lizard) who are the vessels of diseases and fond of fashions, who add fuel to the fire and who play the different roles on the stage of the world will quickly recognize you and even so the indifferent Italian, as we pass through this hot land, may outwardly think of you as a boy but will pursue you with such violent lust and hateful fury, as the guests of Lot, the Hebrew Patriarch who were troubled by vice in Sodom. However, none of these, nor the tipsy Dutch shall trouble you, if you stay in England.

      Line. 43-56: Please stay here, for England is the only fitting antechamber of safety for you (to move as you like) till God, the greatest king, calls you to His Court. When l have gone abroad, send me some dreams of happiness and do not reveal our secret love through your looks. Do not praise or blame me, bless or curse me (for my absence) nor frighten your nurse in bed with mid-night hysterics, crying loudly that you saw me slain. Do not say that you saw me to go over the White Alps mountains alone and that you saw me attacked, then fighting, captured, stabbed, bleed and fall dead. Think of some better future for me, except dreadful Jove. Nourish my love in your heart and all will be well.

Critical Analysis

      This elegy is entirely different from the other elegy entitled "To His Mistress going to Bed." The latter is addressed to a casual mistress asking her to come to bed for the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The discovery of the parts of the body of the mistress will be like the exploration of unknown and uncharted lands. This discovery will increase his sexual appetite.

      The poem Elegy: On His Mistress under consideration is, however, addressed to his wife Anne More when the poet was about to leave for France and Italy for a short assignment in 1611. He tells her not to accompany him as a boy-servant; because sooner or later her beauty and charm will disclose her identity and then there will be trouble for both of them. People of the continent are sex-hungry and will never spare a beautiful lady. He wants his wife to stay at home for his sake and live on the memories of past love. England is a safe place and the home is a sort of sacred caste where no one can trespass. The temporary separation is a test of the sincerity and depth of their mutual love. Let her constantly think of him and wish him prosperity and good luck. Let her not feel panicky about his safety and welfare. He will soon return to enjoy her love. This is a sincere and personal poem showing the poet's deep affection for his wife. K.W. Gransden observes: "It is the poems personal tone and certain details probably the result of actual experience, which make it more than a literary exercise on a set theme." The sustaining and compensatory power of absentee love is described here realistically and frankly.

Development of Thought:

      The poet entreats his wife swearing on the vows of love and their previous trials and hardships, not to insist on her accompanying him on a foreign assignment. This will be too great a risk. It is much better that she stay at home. Her beauty cannot change the laws of Nature and make the sea-travel less irksome. She must therefore listen to his advice and stay at home. Her proposal to accompany her husband as a boy-servant is rejected by the poet.

The Lusty Europeans:

      It is no use taking unnecessary risks. Certain calamities are man-made and they should be avoided. After all, her womanly charm and grace cannot remain hidden from public gaze all the time. Inspite of her disguise, her identity will be known indirectly through her manners and speech. Her womanliness will come out inspite of her disguise. Just as apes will be apes though dressed differently, in the same way, a woman will remain a woman inspite of any dissimulation. Moreover, women on the continent are not safe. The merry and lusty Frenchmen will soon find out that she is a lady and will chase her. Similarly, the happy-go-lucky Italian will not spare her. The drunkard-Dutch will also go after her. Therefore, the most sensible course of action is to stay at home and love him in her mind. This will bring solace and peace of mind to both of them.

The Horrible Dream:

      In the absence of the poet, his beloved should not praise or blame him for his absence. She should not openly express her love or show her anxiety or loneliness. She should appear level-headed and not reveal her true love to anyone. He imagines that perhaps one night she may have a horrible dream and cry and wake up her nurse. The horrible would pertain to her husband - how she saw him attacked, stabbed and finally dead. Such horrible dreams are a result of nervousness and fear. She should have such a composure of mind that' such dreams should never come to her. She should always think of his welfare and nourish love for him in her heart.

Critical Remarks:

      This poem is in the form of continuous couplets; split up into stanzas of different lengths. In the beginning, the poet gives reasons and piles up his pleas for dissuading his beloved from going to the continent with him. He refers to all the vows and intimacies to prevail upon her to stay in her home, The poet displays his scholarly learning by referring to the mythical story of Boreas and Orithea. He also uses very strong and deprecatory words for the French and the Italians. He has known them well enough and therefore his criticism cannot be frowned upon. However, Grierson points out the want of delicacy in the description of foreigners. The detail of the horrible dream of the beloved is a figment of the poet's imagination The poet gives a detailed and vivid picture of the whole life of his wife right from the day of the first meeting, through courtship, marriage and happy married life to the imagined day when she will enter the court of God after death. This is a great poem of love and the eventful course of married life of the poet.

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