John Donne is unusual, if not unique, for his era in that courtly love hardly appears in his poetry at all. Courtly love seems to depend on the lover being unsuccessful, whereas Donne rejoices in success at every level. And the courtly love poet always expresses the same aspects of love, the range of experiences and emotions dealt with being very limited. In contrast Donne expresses an enormously wide range of feelings in his Songs and Sonnets, all relating to the experience of love, but varying from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. This variety of feeling lends Donne's poetry much of its impact, for we seem to be reading an individual's personal experience of love, and not just a poet's contribution to a long-standing tradition of poetic love.
We have seen how in The Extasie Donne describes love as a sublime union of two souls. This, perhaps is the highest form of love, but by no means the only one. The Dreame expresses a passionate mood of a more down-to-earth nature.
Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best,
Not to dreame all my dreame, let's do the rest.
The Sunne Rising expresses the reckless pride and satisfaction felt by the lover in bed with his mistress.
Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
In The Flea Donne adopts a cynical and rather flippant tone towards his woman, using his wit to try to belittle and overcome her moral arguments, in favour of immediate pleasure.
Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is
For Donne, love can lead to suffering and disillusionment as well as to ecstasy. A Nocturnall upon S. Lucie's day, Being the shortest day is an extremely powerful evocation of the suffering caused by the death of a loved one, an experience which takes him beyond suffering to a state of absolute nothingness.
. . . Yea plants, yea stones detest
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, 'a light, and body must be here.
But I am none;
In Twicknam Garden Donne expresses extremes of disillusionment, his view of love here being totally opposed to his view in The Extasie:
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert Manna to gall,
And his view of woman is totally opposed to the view expressed in most of his love poems:
Nor can you more judge womans thought by teares,
Than by her shadow, her what she weares.
O perverse sexe, where none is true but shee,
Who's therefore true, because her truth kills mee.
Perhaps the most extreme anti-love poem of Donne's, and certainly the most un-courtly, is The Apparition. The bitterness expressed here is so intense that it is surely a hate poem; it opens:
When by thy scorne, O murdress, I am dead,
And continues with the lover threatening to haunt his mistress after his death.
Finally we ought to consider whether Donne's poetry expresses real love at all, or whether, as some critics suggest, he was merely a talented poet using his wit and ingenuity to create clever poems. Johnson said of the Metaphysical poets: 'Their courtship was void of fondness and their lamentation of sorrow.' He did not feel that Donne's poetry moved the affections, or that Donne had necessarily felt the emotions in order to write the poems.
Donne's poems are extraordinarily witty and ingenious, but this does not exclude the possibility that they also contain strong emotion. Donne's poems are quite capable of stirring the emotions, and no matter how clever his conceits, or revolutionary his thought, his poems would not work without a seed of genuine feeling at their centre.
Copyright: Ian Mackean