The particular selection is somewhat misnamed. Songs there are many, but nary a true sonnet. There is one poem with two fourteen line stanzas, but it is not even close to a sonnet rhyme scheme. The one poem with “sonnet” in the title is not a true sonnet. This is particularly odd since Donne wrote a number of marvelous sonnets, including the “Holy Sonnets,” of which “Death be Not Proud” is probably the most famous. Despite this omission, this collection of poems on the theme of Love is some of Donne’s best and most human work.
I have noted before that I am a hopeless romantic, and mushy to the core. Contrary to popular gender stereotypes, I have always valued long-term commitment, I love to snuggle, and I can talk into the wee hours of the night with my beloved. Donne likewise felt things deeply. His poetry is a mixture of the sacred and profane, his devotion to God matched by passion for his wife, his doubt and questioning applying equally to the ways of God and the ways of Love. He could write transcendent musings on the nature of death and the resurrection, and also some of the most creative and memorable poems on sex and bodily fluids.
Some school curriculum, particularly the conservative Christian one that I used in high school, try to divide Donne’s writings into “before” and “after” periods. The historical fact, however, is that he wrote both types of poems throughout his life. He felt deeply, loved passionately, and sought divine perfection with the same fervor. While Donne’s writings have always resonated with me, I think I understand this paradox more now that I am in my thirties and have been married for over a decade.
I was struck by the range of Donne’s emotions and his completely contrasting views expressed throughout this collection. He praises love, then turns against it in the next poem. He rails against women and their inconstancy, but then praises the purity of the one he loves. He is tormented by love, he dismisses it as a trifle, he tries to escape it, but he is captured by it, and its grip on him is relentless.
The story of Donne’s life sheds and interesting light on his works. Donne was a young rising diplomat, educated and brilliant, if a bit profligate and quick to chase women. He appeared to have his future before him, when love stepped in to wreak havoc. He fell in love with the niece of his employer. They married against her family’s wishes, which resulted in Donne, the minister, and the witness at the wedding spending time in Fleet Prison until the marriage was proved valid. Donne lost his job, and Anne was not reconciled to her father until eight years later. The Donnes suffered from poverty, exacerbated by the fact that they had twelve children in sixteen years, only seven of which lived past age ten. (Donne, in a state of despair after one of the deaths remarked that although it was one less mouth to feed, he couldn’t afford to bury the child.) Anne died soon after the birth of the last child. Donne lived another fifteen years after this, but he never completely recovered emotionally from the loss of his true love, although his material fortunes improved.
The passion and pain run through the course of the poems, particularly the more personal ones. Donne also demonstrates his mastery of the “conceit,” an exaggerated and unusual metaphor wherein two unlike things are likened to each other in a striking and sometimes uncomfortable way. It is difficult to pick just a few to quote from the collection, as there are so many good ones.
For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honor, or his grace,
Or the king's real, or his stampèd face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
The phœnix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for Love.
And thus invoke us: "You, whom reverend love
Made one another's hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes
(So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
A pattern of your love!"
I love the reference to the “five gray hairs,” and, of course, to lawyers. This is Donne in his triumphant mood. He can laugh at the world, content in his experience of love. This next one is a complete contrast, and uses the poet’s dilemma to exaggerated effect.
The Triple Fool
I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry;
But where's that wiseman, that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain;
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increased by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.
The bitterest poem, I think, is this one. Bonus points for using legal language, and getting a dig in at, well, just about everyone.
BEFORE I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe,
Great Love, some legacies ; I here bequeath
Mine eyes to Argus, if mine eyes can see ;
If they be blind, then, Love, I give them thee ;
My tongue to Fame ; to ambassadors mine ears ;
To women, or the sea, my tears ;
Thou, Love, hast taught me heretofore
By making me serve her who had twenty more,
That I should give to none, but such as had too much before.
My constancy I to the planets give ;
My truth to them who at the court do live ;
My ingenuity and openness,
To Jesuits ; to buffoons my pensiveness ;
My silence to any, who abroad hath been ;
My money to a Capuchin :
Thou, Love, taught'st me, by appointing me
To love there, where no love received can be,
Only to give to such as have an incapacity.
My faith I give to Roman Catholics ;
All my good works unto the Schismatics
Of Amsterdam ; my best civility
And courtship to an University ;
My modesty I give to soldiers bare ;
My patience let gamesters share :
Thou, Love, taught'st me, by making me
Love her that holds my love disparity,
Only to give to those that count my gifts indignity.
I give my reputation to those
Which were my friends ; mine industry to foes ;
To schoolmen I bequeath my doubtfulness ;
My sickness to physicians, or excess ;
To nature all that I in rhyme have writ ;
And to my company my wit :
Thou, Love, by making me adore
Her, who begot this love in me before,
Taught'st me to make, as though I gave, when I do but restore.
To him for whom the passing-bell next tolls,
I give my physic books ; my written rolls
Of moral counsels I to Bedlam give ;
My brazen medals unto them which live
In want of bread ; to them which pass among
All foreigners, mine English tongue :
Though, Love, by making me love one
Who thinks her friendship a fit portion
For younger lovers, dost my gifts thus disproportion.
Therefore I'll give no more, but I'll undo
The world by dying, because love dies too.
Then all your beauties will be no more worth
Than gold in mines, where none doth draw it forth ;
And all your graces no more use shall have,
Than a sun-dial in a grave :
Thou, Love, taught'st me by making me
Love her who doth neglect both me and thee,
To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.
There are a number of quotable lines from several of the poems, although the entire poems are worthwhile as well. The first stanza from “Break of Day” is memorable:
‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down because ‘twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.
Also, the closing lines of “Love’s Growth,” a mediation on the evolution of a relationship, show that some things never change.
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.
This is one example of a conceit. After all, love isn’t much like ever-increasing taxation. But one one level, perhaps it is, and Donne leaves a memorable image.
Perhaps Donne’s best-known conceit, however, is his poem on attempted seduction, “The Flea.”
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Others that I wish I had space to quote are “Lovers' Infiniteness,” which seems to reveal further layers of meaning each time I read it; and “The Broken Heart,” lacerating and raw. “The Anniversary” is also excellent, with its simultaneous celebration of a milestone, and premonitions of separation by death.
My personal favorite of the poems Donne wrote regarding the death of his wife is this one, which captures more of the grief, if less of the hope, than the more famous sonnet, “Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt.”
She's dead; and all which die
To their first elements resolve;
And we were mutual elements to us,
And made of one another.
My body then doth hers involve,
And those things whereof I consist hereby
In me abundant grow, and burdenous,
And nourish not, but smother.
My fire of passion, sighs of air,
Water of tears, and earthly sad despair,
Which my materials be,
But near worn out by love's security,
She, to my loss, doth by her death repair.
And I might live long wretched so,
But that my fire doth with my fuel grow.
Now, as those active kings
Whose foreign conquest treasure brings,
Receive more, and spend more, and soonest break,
This —which I am amazed that I can speak—
This death, hath with my store
My use increased.
And so my soul, more earnestly released,
Will outstrip hers; as bullets flown before
A latter bullet may o'ertake, the powder being more.
Finally, and on a lighter note, this next poem speaks to my ongoing and evolving conviction that the mystery of love has been supplanted in many with a veneration of commitment. Surely true love requires commitment, but commitment isn’t love, and can never replace it. (I discussed this in more depth in my review of Sonnets from the Portuguese.)
Send me some token, that my hope may live,
Or that my easeless thoughts may sleep and rest;
Send me some honey to make sweet my hive,
That in my passions I may hope the best.
I beg no ribbon wrought with thine own hands,
To knit our loves in the fantastic strain
Of new-touched youth; nor ring to show the stands
Of our affection, that as that's round and plain,
So should our loves meet in simplicity;
No, nor the corals which thy wrist enfold,
Laced up together in congruity,
To show our thoughts should rest in the same hold;
No, nor thy picture, though most gracious,
And most desired, because best like the best;
Nor witty lines, which are most copious,
Within the writings which thou hast addressed.
Send me nor this, nor that, to increase my store,
But swear thou think'st 'I love thee,' and no more.