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The Love Poetry of John Donne: Part 2 of 3

by Ian Mackean

The scientific framework of Donne's view of love is seen here:

But as all severall soules containe
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, these mixt soules, doth mixe againe,
And makes both one, each this and that.

Just as the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water were supposed to combine to form new substances, so two souls mix to form a new unity. The strength and durability of this new unit is dependent upon how well the elements of the two souls are balanced, as we see from these lines from The Good-Morrow:

What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;
It our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.

A good example of this state, where two lovers' souls cannot be separated, even when they are physically far apart, is seen in A Valediction: forbidding mourning:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin encompasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th'other doe.

The idea of two coming together to form one is very important in Donne's view of love. When a couple find perfect love together they become all-sufficient to one another, forming a world of their own, which has no need of the outside world. This idea is expressed in these lines from The Sunne Rising:

She'is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy spheare.

And again it in The Good-Morrow:

For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an everywhere.

For Donne love transcends all worldly values. As we see in The Canonization, values such as wealth and glory have no place in the world of love.

With wealth your state, your minde with Arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honour, or his grace,
Or the Kings reall, or his stamped face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

Like love itself, the women to whom Donne's verses are addressed are usually praised in hyperbolic terms. In The Sunne Rising her eyes shine brighter than the sun. And in The Dreame she is praised as a being above the level of angels.

Yet I thought thee
(For thou lov'st truth) an Angell, at first sight,
But when I saw thou saw'st my heart,
And knew'st my thoughts, beyond an Angels art,
When thou knew'st what I dreamt, when thou knew'st when
Excess of joy would wake me, and cam'st then,
I do confesse, it could not chuse but bee
Profane, to thinke thee any thing but thee.

This reverence for woman sometimes leads Donne close to adopting the traditional attitude of the courtly lover, who suffers through being in love with a woman, usually already married, who scorns him. An example of this kind of love is suggested by the references to the symptoms of love in The Canonization:

Alas, alas, who's injur'd by my love?
What merchant ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who saies my teares have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veines fill
Adde one man to the plaguie Bill?

The courtly love ideal, however, is in conflict with Donne's ideal of two well-matched and well-balanced lovers whose souls unite to form one. In the poem Loves Deitie he expresses his contempt for the courtly ideal, which he sees as a corruption of the true nature of love.

I cannot thinke that hee, who then lov'd most,
Sunke so low, as to love one which did scorne,
. . . It cannot bee
Love, till I love her, that loves mee.

Copyright: Ian Mackean

Ian Mackean runs the sites, which features a substantial collection of Resources and Essays, (and where his site on Short Story Writing can also be found,) and He is the editor of The Essentials of Literature in English post-1914, ISBN 0340882689, which was published by Hodder Arnold in 2005. When not writing about literature or short story writing he is a keen amateur photographer, and has made a site of his photography at

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Book: Shattered Sighs