Love's Alchemy : poem by John Donne || Analysis

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Love's Alchemy

Some that have deeper digged love's mine than I,
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie:
I have loved, and got, and told,
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
I should not find that hidden mystery;
Oh, 'tis imposture all:
And as no chemic yet the elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So, lovers dream a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summer's night.

Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day?
Shall we, for this vain bubble's shadow pay?
Ends love in this, that my man,
Can be as happy as I can; if he can
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom's play?
That loving wretch that swears,
'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
Which he in her angelic finds,
Would swear as justly, that he hears
In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
Hope not for mind in women; at their best
Sweetness and wit, they are but mummy, possessed.

Love's Alchemy Some that have deeper digged love's mine than I, Say, where his centric happiness doth lie: I have loved, and got, and told, But should I love, get, tell, till I were old, I should not find that hidden mystery; Oh, 'tis imposture all: And as no chemic yet the elixir got, But glorifies his pregnant pot, If by the way to him befall Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal, So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, But get a winter-seeming summer's night.
Love's Alchemy

Critical Analysis

      Alchemy was an early form of chemistry studied. in the Middle Ages, the aim of which was to discover the elixir of perpetual youth, a mixture which would prevent the process of ageing and decay. However, in spite of the experiments conducted by alchemists no one has so far been able to find the, elixir of life. It remains a mystery upto this day. Similarly, in spite of the efforts of poet and lovers, no one has yet been able to discover the true nature and composition of love. John Donne has also tried his best to dig deep in the mine and mystery of love in the poem Love's Alchemy but inspite of his knowledge and experience, so far and all that is to be gained by love in the future, he confesses his inability to unravel that hidden mystery. Those, who claim to, have, understood the mystery of love, are all, frauds and imposters, Love; is such a complex and multidimensional experience that no one has been truly able to fathom it's secrets. Some regard it as physical, others regard it as spiritual. Some people think that 'marriage is he goal of love, and women are angels. These are just fancies of romantic lovers. They engage in day-dreaming and seem to know love in a superficial way. The poet comes to the conclusion in a fit of frustration that it is the bodies that mary and not the minds, and that women at their best are 'Mummy possessed'. The poet criticises both the Platonic and Petrarchan views of love as wholly inadequate and unrealistic.

Development of Thought:

      Donne accepts that love is a mystery, but he does not accept the claims of poets and lovers that they know everything about it. He feels that this mystery can never be unravelled fully. Those who say that they have solved this mystery, are only deceiving themselves.

The Real Mystery:

      What is this mystery of love? Is it physical or spiritual? Does it relate to the body or to the mind? Is the joy of sex a sort of heavenly pleasure? Are marriages made in heaven? Are women angels? Are they intellectual giants? All these questions are baffling and need to be answered.. There are no solutions and no short cuts. One must go deeper into these questions in order to understand the essence and secret of love.

Its Complexity:

      To say that love is sex is just an over-simplification. To keep on singing the joys and glories of love is equally fantastic. Love is a complex matter. Donne rejects both the Platonic and Petrarchan concepts of love as inadequate and unsatisfying. The goal of love is not realistic. Love claims to accomplish the impossible - a perfect union of two bodies and souls. The joys of love are as temporary, and as good as shadows and bubbles. Donne asks if it is worthwhile to stake one's honour, pleasure and youth for this illusion of love? At best it can lead to a formal marriage and not an understanding between two minds or souls.

Critical Remarks:

      The cynical and negative mood of the poet which led to his censure of womankind at the end of the poem needs to be noted. The poem consists of four regular stanzas of six lines each. There is a rhyme-scheme and the poem reads simply but is full of many conceits and images. Love is a mine, a mystery, a shadow, and a bubble, and elixir and a marriage oath. It is difficult to know precisely Donne's attitude to love, as in some poems, he makes a heaven of love, and in others, he makes a hell of it. In this poem, however, his atitude to love is one of scon and ridicule.

      Whereas in Love's Alchemy and in many similar poems he is being mainly witty and paradoxical and insisting, partly in reaction against that Platonic and Petrarchan idealization which, had degenerated into a mere fashion, or only one aspect of the truth, an aspect which he deliberately exaggerates and distorts and presents as though it were, the whole truth. He confronts, as it were, agreeable but exaggerated half-truth, expressed in elaborate and sugared language, with disagreeable, though equally exaggerated, half-truths, expressed as directly and bluntly as possible.

      The impulse behind such a poem as Love's Alchemy, seems to me to be rather negative than positive, reactionary rather than doctrinal, destructive rather than constructive; Donne is moved, I think, not so much by a desire to express what he believes to be the whole truth, or even the half-truth about love,' as by a desire to shock, pillory and expose, for the delectation of himself and his friends, those loving wretches who swear in sugared sonnets that, 'not the bodies marry, but the mind'.

      The sting of the poem lies in its last line where women are compared to corpses without minds and souls. 'Mummies' are mere lumps of dead flesh. It is difficult to find another line which can touch the lowest point about woman, as compared to the last line of the poem. Perhaps the poem was a hurried reaction to an unpleasant experience in love on the part of the poet.

Paraphrase:

      Stanza 1 : Some people who have gone deeper into the mine of love than I have done have come out with the essential secret of love (what is love?). I have enjoyed love, learnt from it and told my experiences to others. Were I to gain more experience of love, learn new lessons from it and tell it to others all my life, I would not be able to find out the hidden secret of love. I believe love is a fraud.

      Just as no alchemist has so far discovered an elixir of life (a medicine to prolong life or cure all diseases) though he may feel satisfied if during his experiments, he stumbles on some sweet - smelling or healing drug (not the real elixir of life) in the same way lovers may dream of great and lasting joys though they may only experience a joyless and wintry night in place of the pleasures of a summer night.

      Stanza 2 : Is it proper to exchange our comfort, our savings, our honour and our vitality for the flimsy sexual love which is as flinching as the shadow of a bubble? Does love only mean that my servant can derive as much joy out of it as I do, if my servant endures the short humiliation of a wedding ceremony ?

      The lover who swears that marriage is a union of minds and not of bodies and who hopes to find a pure angelic soul in his beloved is amply justified in declaring that he hears the music of the heavenly spheres in the jarring and shrill noise made by the brass band at the marriage ceremony. It is impossible to find an angelic mind in a woman. At their best, women have sweetness, but no minds. But once they have been sexually enjoyed, they are no better than 'mummy' - dead flesh without mind or soul.

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