The Undertaking: by John Donne - Summary and Analysis

Also Read

The Undertaking

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.

It were but madness now t'impart
The skill of specular stone,
When he which can have learned the art
To cut it, can find none.

So, if I now should utter this,
Others (because no more
Such stuff to work upon, there is.)
Would love but as before.

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes
For he who colour loves, and skin,
Loves but their oldest clothes.

If, as I have, you also do
Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
And forget the He and She:

And if this love, though placed so,
From profane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this bestow,
Or, if they do, deride:

Then you have done a braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And a braver thence will spring
Which is, to keep that hid.

I have done one braver thing Than all the Worthies did, And yet a braver thence doth spring, Which is, to keep that hid.
The Undertaking


      The Undertaking is a poem of Platonic love, quite different from those on the physical enjoyment of women. Donne claims to have found a virtuous woman. He loves her not for the physical charms and graces but for her virtue. It may not be possible for others to find such a, woman. As such they will continue to remain addicted to sex and fleshly love. Those who understand the real mystery of love pay regard to the virtue in woman and not to her physical blandishments. They love the soul of the beloved rather than her body. But this secret should not be disclosed to common man because it would invite their ridicule. This should remain a closely guarded secret.

      In this poem, the poet mentions the spiritual side of love and the joy that it gives. True love is the love of virtue in woman. Love is the inner link between two souls. Real love is based on the qualities of a woman one loves and not on her physical features. It is the loveliness which brings joy and bliss to the ideal lover.


(This is a poem on Platonic love. The title The Undertaking means the achievement of the poet in unraveling the true nature of love).

      Stanza 1: I have done a finer task than all the achievements of the men of high moral character. There is still a greater achievement to my credit for I have kept this secret to myself and not declared it to the people.

       Stanza 2: It would be foolish to impart the skill of cutting the specular stone (a rare transparent crystal of which certain temples were made in ancient times) to any one, because one who has learnt it, will not be able to find the stone on which to practise this skill.

      Stanza 3: So if I were to disclose the secret of my love to others, it would be useless because they would not be able to find a beloved like the one I have and therefore they would continue to practice love as they did before.

      Stanza 4: He who has found the real loveliness of woman - her virtue - will hate the love of the body. He who loves the color of the beloved's complexion or her skin, loves merely the oldest clothes of the woman he loves as opposed to her real self.

      Stanza 5. If like me, you have achieved such love - perceived the virtue or the heroic soul in woman - and declared it to the woman, you would have forgotten the difference between man and woman - the sex which generally is the bond between the lover and the beloved.

      Stanza 6: You may hide this sort of Platonic love from worldly men who do not understand such mysteries and who consider love as sex and as such have no faith in higher love - the spiritual bonds between two souls. Such people will try to ridicule you for he pretense of making holy love.

      Stanza 7: Having done this, you have done something more glorious than what all the men of high worth ever did. There is a greater achievement to your credit for having conceded this secret from the common run of people.

Development of Thought:

      Great men of the past - men of heroic character and endurance - have great achievements to their credit. The poet is no less than the reputed worthies. His achievement is greater because he has kept his discovery to himself and not leaked it to the common run of men. It is a discovery of great substance and value. It is singular and original, because no one else has the privilege of knowing the lady he loves. So no one will be able to repeat that discovery. The achievement of the poet lies in knowing the real nature of love and keeping the secret to himself.

Critical Analysis

      The Undertaking appears to be a simple poem. It has seven regular quatrains. But it displays the usual features of Donne's learning. The reference to 'worthies' the great men of the past in different branches of art makes the poet's achievement truly great. The reference to 'specular stone' - a rare crystal glass - used in ancient times reveals the poet's knowledge of mythology and archaeology. Donne particularly mentions 'profane men' - the heretics in love - who will not believe in spiritual love. They profess to know or make love, but their love is a display of physical passion, the art of the exhibitionist and the hedonist.

      This is a poem in the Platonic tradition and shows the Renaissance background of the poet. The emphasis on real beauty, the inner spirit and virtue in women mark it out as a great poem of love.

The Discovery:

      What has the poet found which makes him feel that his achievement is greater than that of all the great men of the past? He has realized and experienced the quality of true love. Real love is spiritual, not physical. Love is not the body or sex, just as a woman is not the clothes she wears. True love depends on the mutuality between two souls - two hearts beating in unison. The poet loves his lady for her virtue, for the qualities of the head and heart. His love is not based on physical attraction of the lady, it is based on the spiritual bond - the echo between the souls of the lover and the beloved. For ordinary people, this kind of love does not exist. If you were to tell them of this kind of love, they would simply laugh at you. Therefore the greater achievement of the poet lies in keeping this discovery a secret - "to keep that hid".

Previous Post Next Post