(with reference to the poems: The Canonization, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, The Sunne Rising, and The Ecstasy)
John Donne revolted against the Petrarchan tradition in love poetry, with its lovers in flower gardens; its smooth lawns (grass) and gentle and murmuring streams; its goddesses of mythological and pastoral imagery; and its conventions of chivalry. From the time to Wyatt, Surrey, and their contemporaries, English lyrical and amatory poetry had been flowing continuously in the Petrarchan channel. Now, instead, we have a violent assertion of sexual realism. Donne is neither Platonic nor ascetic, but frankly and honestly sensuous. His interest is in his experience of love, and his endeavor (attempt) is to understand it, not to deny or suppress it, and still less to present it untruthfully.
Donne’s reputation as a love poet rest on his fifty-five lyrics written at different periods of his life, but were published for the time in 1633 in one volume called Songs and Sonnets. Donne’s love poem cover a wide range of feeling from extreme physical passion to spiritual love, and express varied moods ranging from a mood of cynicism and contempt to one of faith and acceptance. His love experiences were wide and varied and so is the emotions range of his love poetry. He had love affairs with a number of women, some of them lasting and permanent, others only of a short duration. It would seem that Donne has given as exhaustive an analysis of the psychology of love as he possibly could. He insists that love is properly fulfilled only when it embraces both body and soul. He images the future canonization of himself and his mistress as saints of a new religion of love.
According to Grierson “there is the strain of conjugal love to be noticed in Donne’s Valediction: Forbidding Mourning addressed to his wife, Anne Moore whom he loved passionately and in his relationship with her he attained spiritual peace and serenity.” In the poem, addressed to his wife at the moment of separation, the well-known conceit of the compass has been brought in to prove that physical separation does not affect the union of spirits. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” shows a combination of passion, tenderness, and intellectual content, as perfect as anything in Browning:
Such wilt be thou to mee, who must
Like the’ other foot obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begunne.
(A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, lines 33-36)
Donne’s treatment of love is both sensuous and realistic. He does not completely reject the pleasure of the body even in poems where love is treated as the highest spiritual passion. This emphasis on the claims of the body is another feature which distinguish Donne from the poets both Petrarchan and Platonic schools. Donne claims that love, merely of the body, is not love but lust. But he is realistic enough to realize that it cannot also be of the soul alone; it must partake both of the soul and the body. It is the body which brings the souls together, and so the claims of the body must not be ignored. The beloved must not hesitate to give herself body and soul to her lover even though they have not got married yet. In The Canonization, the lovers unite body and soul to form a ‘neutral sex’ while in The Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, the poet does not consider physical contact as necessary for the continuation of spiritual love. Thus Grierson rightly points out, “neither sensual passion, nor gay and cynical wit, nor scorn and anger, is the dominant note in Donne’s love poetry.”
Donne’s tells us very little about the beauty of the women he loves. He writes exclusively about the emotion of love and not about its cause. He describes and analyses the experience of being in love and the charm of his mistress are either not mentioned at all or can only be guessed from the stray hints that happen to drop.
Neither does Donne accept the contemporary view that marriage alone sanctifies the sexual act, nor the medieval view that sex is alike sinful within or without the marriage bond. According to his view, the purity of the sexual act depends on the quality of the relation between the lovers. If delight in one another is mutual, physical union is its proper consummation, but if the lovers are not inter-assured of the mind, then “the sport” is, “but a winter-seeming, summer’s night”. He may sometimes accept the human laws, which forbid the consummation of love outside marriage, but he does so with great reluctance. Indeed, he often makes the woman’s readiness to give herself entirely, body and soul, to her lover as the test of her love for him. As Joan Bennet puts it, “Donne’s love poetry is not about the difference between marriage and adultery, but about the difference between lust and love.” Further Donne asserts that the sexual act without love is merely lust whether within or outside marriage.
The last stanza of the Canonization admirably sumps up Donne’s sexual metaphysic; that the really valid and complete relationship between man and woman fuses their soul into a complete whole, and they become a microcosm of the loving world. This very attitude is expressed in a number of his other poems. For true lovers the entire world is contracted into the eyes of each other and this world is better because it is not subject to decay and dissolution.
Donne rebelled not only against the sugared sonnets in which the Petrarchan convention found expression, but also against the whole creed of chivalry and woman-worship. For the sugary language, he substituted a more realistic use of words “such as men do use”, and a more dramatic and passionate lyrical verse. As for woman-worship, he looked upon woman as not a goddess but a creature, desirable indeed, though not adorable. However, no poet has at times used the language of adoration more daringly to express the feeling of the moment (The Sun Rising).
There are, indeed, several strands in Donne’s songs and elegies. Some of the love-poems are frankly, even arrogantly, sensual. In others the tears of passion are touched with shame and scorn. Others again are directly and splendidly passionate, like the following: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” (The Canonization). But there are still other poems in which Donne rises to a purer conception of love, neither Petrarchan nor Platonic, but something more concrete than either, compounded of passion and tenderness, mutual trust and entire affection. In The Ecstasy, he sings of the inter-dependence of soul and body.
The dominant note in Donne’s love poetry is neither sensual passion, nor gay and cynical wit, nor scorn and anger. The finest note here is the note of joy, the joy of mutual and contented passion. His heart might be subtle to torment itself, but its capacity for joy is even more obvious. It is only in the songs of Burns that we shall find the sheer (pure) joy of loving and being loved finding expression in the same direct and simple language as in some of Donne’s songs, and only in Browning that we shall find the same simplicity of feeling combined with a similar swift and subtle dialectic: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” (The Canonization).
But Donne does not write only love poems dealing with the heart and the senses. He writes purer poems, in more complex moods. The Ecstasy is a metaphysical poem, not only in the sense of being erudite (learned) and witty, but also in the proper sense of being reflective a d philosophical. The Ecstasy makes us realize fully what Ben Jonson meant by calling Donne “the fist poet in the world for some things”.
Donne’s contribution to love-poetry may then be summed up thus: He introduced a new realism in love-poetry, revolting against the Petrarchan tradition. His poems are an attempt to deal exhaustively with the psychology of love. That accounts for the variety of mood and tone in his love poetry. Some of his love poems cynical (pessimistic) and he mocks at women and at love. Some poems sing of the joy of love and contented mutual passion. He also introduced colloquial language in love-poetry.