Exploring Donne’s attitudes to love and relationships in his poetry. 

Explore the attitudes towards love and relationships in two or three poems of your choice, and analyse some of the ways that Donne presents these attitudes.

In all of his poems, there is a ‘strikingly similar’ audacity with which Donne conveys his feelings about love and relationships, whether those be poems about his life experiences, or simply ideas created in his mind. His poetry is mostly directed at two ‘people’: God, and women. Although there is a blurred line between whether the love he seeks is spiritual or sexual, with both beings, he conveys a desperation for a love-filled relationship.

Ironically, it is his poetry concerning women (often Anne) in which he talks about a spiritual and ethereal love with – not God. It could be said that he argues that a love soul-deep, gives the lovers a new status as people, both in society as well as among the Gods. The Good Morrow portrays love as something of the soul, using hyperboles and imagery to signify their emotional and physical connections. In the aubade, Donne present their love as immortal because their soulful connection has guaranteed their immortality, as the soul ‘none can die’. In his imagery of the ‘two better hemispheres’, Donne is perhaps alluding to the Neo-Platonic idea of finding your ‘other half’ in order to form the perfect form. Therefore, in ‘which watch not one another out of fear’, Donne is insinuating that if you find your ‘soulmate’, everyday things like jealousy are not important and cannot taint your love. This can also be seen in A Valediction: forbidding Mourning, where Donne ‘forbids’ Anne from mourning their separation through the conceit of a compass. The comparison of the lovers to a compass, depicts that no matter how far they are from each other, they are always connected through their love: ‘Our two souls therefore, which are one’. Donne also argues that because he and Anne have the opposite of a ‘dull sublunary lovers’ love’ which depends on physical touch only, they can ‘admit / Absence’ because they have a soulful connection although they themselves ‘know not what it is’. 

Love and relationships however, are far from perfect in some of Donne’s poems. From the title and the first line of The Expiration, Donne sets a solemn mood for the poem. The sibilance on the first two lines, as well his use of the adjective ‘lamenting’ to describe the lovers’ kiss, adds to the mournful tone. Bitterly, through the harsh alliteration of ‘d’, the speaker implies that their parting has caused his death, saying that if the woman killed him he’d be ‘double dead’. Throughout the poem, there is a bitterness and resignation in Donne’s tone, but not directed at the woman. In Song: Go and catch a falling star however, the animosity of the speaker towards women is clear. He say that you can search for a woman who is both beautiful and faithful until ‘age snow white hair on thee’. One critic has described Donne as a ‘misogynist who loathed girls’ bodies and scorned their minds’, which – to some extent – applies to this poem. He implies that women do not have an ‘honest mind’, and that their beauty corrupts goodness. However, we cannot assume that the view of the speaker in Donne’s poetry is always the same as Donne’s personal one. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to judge Donne based on some of his poetry alone, especially considering the majority of his Songs and Sonnets is in praise of women. 

One of the attitudes in several of Donne’s more tempestuous and audacious poems, is that in some relationships there is desperation. In The Flea, a ‘carpe diem’ poem, the speaker is desperate and ruthless in his attempts at seducing a woman. Throughout, he argues that their union has already happened inside a flea, and that it is legitimate in the eyes of the church – a notion important to the society of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century. He goes to extreme measures in saying that killing the symbol of their union (the flea), would be like committing ‘self-murder’: considered a sin in Christianity. There is also another type of desperation – one for a good relationship with God in Holy Sonnet XIV. In what appears to be a frantic manner, he begins to allude to having a sexual relations with God, in order to convince Him to ‘free’ him and ‘make [him] new’. The violent, active, and unsettling(in a religious poem) verbs – ‘break, blow, burn’ – convey a sense of urgency and anxiousness in which he wants God to save him. In the last two stanzas, it is unclear what Donne wants from God. He wants Him to ‘enthral’ (enslave) him, whilst wanting to ‘be free’; he want to be ‘chaste’, but wants God to ‘ravish’ him. The implication of this is that he wants to change and be ‘chaste’ – but he cannot be if he wants God too ‘ravish’ him. In Holy Sonnet XVII however, Donne appears to be anxious to fill the hole left inside him by Anne’ death, with God. He uses the metaphor of being thirsty to portray his ‘thirst’ for love, and addresses God in ‘Thou my thirst hast fed’. 

As a Catholic-at-heart and a lover of women, Donne often deals with the conflict between ‘sacred and profane love’ in his poems. The dispute inside Donne about these two notions is more apparent in his later poems, particularly in The Holy Sonnets. For instance, in Holy Sonnet I, he acknowledges his promiscuity as a sin, and asks God to ‘repair’ him before it weighs him down ‘towards hell’, realising that he has to atone for his mistakes in order to become closer to Him – a clear image of confession. Holy Sonnet XVII is most undeniably a reflection of Donne’s emotional turmoil after losing his wife. Boldly, Donne accuses God of feeling a ‘tender jealousy’ of Donne’s love for Anne, perhaps hinting at some bitterness and confusion Donne might be feeling towards God, who ‘ravished’ Anne’s ‘soul early into heaven’. However, this is only brief, as he then confesses that because his ‘profane love’ is gone, he can focus ‘wholly in heavenly things’ (his sacred love).


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