Explain Love in John Donne's Poetry

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      Donne's reputation as a love poet rests on the lyrics lyrics written at several periods of his life but published in 1635 in the single volume called Songs and Sonnets. It would not be easy to extract a simple definition of love from Donne's poems, for they present a surprising variety of mood and attitude to the emotion or feeling. The poems are at times frankly sensual, at other times splendidly passionate, all yet other times cynical and touched with scorn and bitterness.

Donne's reputation as a love poet rests on the lyrics lyrics written at several periods of his life but published in 1635 in the single volume called Songs and Sonnets. It would not be easy to extract a simple definition of love from Donne's poems, for they present a surprising variety of mood and attitude to the emotion or feeling. The poems are at times frankly sensual, at other times splendidly passionate, all yet other times cynical and touched with scorn and bitterness.
Love Poetry

      Passion marks much of the love poetry of Donne. The opening of many a poem is dramatic in its passion. The Canonization comes immediately to mind:

For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love.

Or we have:

I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did till we loved?

(The Good-Morrow)

Whoever comes to shroud me do not harm.

(The Funeral)

      There are poems marked by cynicism and scorn. In these poems, John Donne seems to be expressing contempt towards love itself. Even here, however, we have variety. In some of the poems, for instance, Woman's Constancy and Go and catch a falling star, there is a gaiety and playfulness. But there are other poems such as The Apparition where the theme of womat's faithlessness in love becomes a hymn of hate. The poet's own fickleness in love may get a playful treatment as in The Indifferent or a much more serious handling as in Love's Usury.

      Several of the love poems are marked by simple, pure affection. Here the conception of love rises to something concrete, tender and affectionate; here Donne is neither Petrarchan nor Platonic. In these poems Donne celebrates the best in conjugal love. The song Sweetest love I do not go, The Anniversary and A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning are examples expressing the sweet contentment of love. The Sun Rising, The Good-Morrow, The, Dream are poems recording the delight, of mutual love-making, without outside interference, and with no hint of any inadequacy in the beloved.

      Donne's poems also present sensual love in all its aspects - from the bitterness of love thwarted, to the fleeting paradise of desire fulfilled. Elegy: On Going to Bed may almost be called a pornographic poem for the frankness with which it describes the sensuous aspect of love. Donne did not consider bodily love to be impure. It was as important to him as the spiritual attraction between two souls. It is only through the bodies that the souls meet, as he says in The Ecstasy.

      On the whole, one can discern five major themes in Donne's love poetry: There is the sorrow of parting, the misery of secrecy, the falseness of the mistress, the fickleness of the lover, and finally a contempt for love itself. However, we have to differentiate between the nuances of love in Donne's poetry. Love in one sense is a holy passion, and in this sense it is irrespective of whether it is within marriage or outside it. In another sense, it is purely physical, in which case it is nothing better than lust. Love which partakes of the body and the soul is best. Perhaps the last stanza of The Canonization aptly sums up Donne's philosophy of love, that a complete relationship between man and woman fuses their souls into a complete whole, and thus they become a world in themselves. In The Sun Rising too Donne expresses the same idea. As Grierson remarks, "neither sensual passion, nor gay and cynical wit, nor Scorn and anger, is the dominant note in Donne's love poetry". Bennett is right when she observes that Donne's love poetry is not about the difference, between marriage and adultery, but about the difference between love and lust.

      It is not easy to extract a definition of love from poems which deal with so many attitudes to the emotion. However, whether dealing with sensual or spiritual love, or the complex combination of both, Donne is always passionate. The problem which forms the basic theme of Donne's love poetry is the place of love in this world of change and death. The problem is viewed from different angles; as a result, love is sometimes seen as immortal, and sometimes as futile. The poems thus express a surprising variety of atitude. Love threatened by change is at times seen in a cynical light, at times with bitter disillusionment, as in Farewell to Love where the poet asks whether love is nothing more than a ginger-bread king discarded at a fair. But then love is also seen as the one thing which remains immortal. On the whole, one might say that Donne's poems celebrate love in both its physical as well as its spiritual aspects. Love is properly fulfilled only when it embraces both body and soul - that, one might say, is the definition of love we may extract from the mature love poems of Donne.

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