"The Lady" or the beloved who often shows up in Donne's poems is typically a beautiful woman who is coy about an emotional or physical attachment to the speaker. Donne generally spends the bulk of the poem engaging in an argument to woo her (see, for example, "The Flea")--but seldom with a resolution.
In his later poetry, the lady addressed is an ideal woman who loves the speaker with a spiritual love commingled with physical passion. In these cases we usually can take his own wife as the model for the beloved.
The poet or speaker of Donne's poetry is often a man intent on convincing his beloved of the necessity of their love. In Donne's earlier poetry, this conviction is generally limited to an argument to get the woman in question to commit to a physical relationship; in his later works, he addresses his ideal beloved in order to convince her of the holiness of their union.
God is omnipresent in Donne's work, particularly his later works, which he penned while a minister of the Church of England. Donne often attempts to approach the character and nature of God in unusual ways through his imagery. For example, "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God" depicts God's relationship to the believer as one of aggression and--in a famous passage--even rape. Donne wanted his readers to see the incomprehensible holiness of God as well as the paradoxical relationship between a fallen creation and its willing, wooing Creator.
Also called Christ, Jesus is central to Donne's metaphysical poetry. In Christ, Donne saw the ultimate paradox: God, who is spirit, taking on the form of man, who is flesh. It is this central paradox--one which Donne finds crucial to man's relationship with God--which informs Donne's own love of paradox in his work. It is also this union of God and Man which gives Donne the poetic leeway to connect physical love and spiritual love between man and woman in his works.
the "untrue woman"
In contrast to "the Lady," the woman whose great sin is infidelity occurs on occasion in Donne's work. Her most notable appearance is in "Catch a Falling Star," Donne's scathing critique of the fickleness of women. An unwritten paradox of Donne's was his double suggestion that women were analogous to the human soul in its relationship with God (as in "Batter My Heart") and yet also were possible temptresses and ephemeral lovers.
Donne's work is often preoccupied with Death, both as a personified force of nature and as a transitional moment in the experience of humanity. His famous Holy Sonnet 10 ("Death Be Not Proud") gives Donne's most complete view of the nature of death in the universe: Death is an instrument of God to move his people from frail earthly existence to glorified eternity with Him. Thus, Donne sees Death as having an unwarranted reputation of terror among humans.
John Donne: Poems Questions and Answers
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