John Donne: Poems

Major Themes

Buy Study Guide

Paradoxes

Nowhere is Donne's love of paradox more apparent than in the closing couplet of Holy Sonnet 14:

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Here he sums up the conflict raging within himself as well as the only means of resolving this conflict he can determine. The sonnet describes a man given over completely to God's enemy, Satan. The man is portrayed successively as a damaged pot, a captured town, and a bride engaged to her lover's enemy. The speaker cannot free himself from Satan's influence, and so must rely on God to do the work. Although he sees himself as trapped by Satan, he prefers thralldom to God, for only this will make hiim (morally, spiritually) free, just as the paradox works in Christianity. Similarly, Donne plays upon the image of the chaste bride to say he will only be pure and virginal (again, spiritually) if God ravishes (perhaps metaphorically rapes) him.

Paradox is important to Donne because in it he sees the resolution of the problem of man: we live in a world wholly given over to evil, so much so that goodness and holiness are considered deviant from the norm. Donne uses paradoxical statements to get his reader's minds to jump from their usual tracks to consider the lies we believe to be true, while offering us truths we we would tend to dismiss as false.

Belittling cosmic forces

Donne's poetry sometimes seems to relish in belittling great or cosmic forces. "Death be not proud," for example, shows how the poet feels about death: it is to be neither loathed nor feared, as it is simply the gateway to another life. "The Sunne Rising" denigrates the sun as simply a lesser light compared to his lover, and their love is portrayed as more important than the whole world. These extravagant takedowns are in keeping with his extreme comparisons and sometimes strange metaphors. In so many things, Donne's work pushes the boundaries of comparison and logic, creating poetic figures that are unique and memorable.

Religion

A great deal of Donne's poetry is exclusively divine, and even the more secular poems often contain a heavy dose of religious thought and meaning. Donne saw his Creator as central to his world, and thus he had no good reason to escape the influence of the Divine on his work. His love poetry moves from physical attraction to spiritual unity most of the time. To Donne, religion was not a separate part of life, but the wellspring from which one's every day drew sustenance.

Death and the Hereafter

Death is a common image in Donne's poetry. However, for Donne death is not so much a somber subject producing gloomy thoughts, but a transition moment--often a climax--denoting a change of state. In "The Flea," for example, the woman's killing of the flea ostensibly ruins his argument for their physical intimacy, but from this death he is able to form a positive proof that their union would not have any greater effect than the loss of the blood she has just obliterated. In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," Donne refers to his impending departure and absence from his wife as a form of death, suggesting that his separation from her is a form of emotional obliteration (although he states that the physical distance cannot alter their ubiquitous love).

Holy Sonnet 10, commonly referred to as "Death Be Not Proud," is perhaps Donne's most blatant statement of his philosophy of life and death. Here, a personified Death cannot boast in its power, for death merely transitions the soul from a physical state to a spiritual one. Ultimately, all people will reach their metaphysical state, and thus, "Death, Thou shalt die."

Love as both physical and spiritual

Donne equates physical love and spiritual love in many of his works. To this end, Donne often suggests that the love he has for a particular beloved in a particular poem is superior to that of others’ loves. In Donne, loving someone is as much a religious experience as a physical one. His love transcends mere physicality, and thus it is of a higher order than that of more mundane lovers. In “Love’s Infiniteness,” for example, Donne begins with a traditional-sounding love poem, but by the third stanza the lover has transformed the love between himself and his beloved into an abstract ideal which can be possessed absolutely and completely.

In Donne, physical union and religious ecstasy are either identical or analogous. His later poetry (following his joining the ministry) maintains some of his carnal playfulness from earlier poetry, but transforms it into a celebration of union between soul and soul, or soul and God.

Interconnectedness of humanity

One of Donne's most famous statements, "No man is an island complete unto himself," directs his readers to an often overlooked aspect of Donne's metaphysical thinking. He sees every man and woman as spiritually interrelated, noting that the death of one person affects every other. A death quickly affects the deceased's circle of friends, family, and acquaintances, and it is generally felt by the majority of humanity, even those who had no personal interaction with the deceased. Just as grains of sand that have eroded from the shores of Europe diminish the continent's land mass--however infinitesimally--the life and death of an individual affect the rest of humanity in the larger scope of the world.

Fidelity

Writers in Donne's time often expressed negative views of women, and some of Donne's poems seem to express such views with biting force. One corollary to seeing divine and physical love as coming forth from the same source is the almost obsessive focus on fidelity in Donne's works. In "Go and Catch a Falling Star," for example, the reader is asked to travel for ten thousand days and then confirm:

No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

He then asks his reader to inform him "if thou find'st one" who is faithful after all, but immediately changes his mind:

Though she were true, when you met her,
And last till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Read literally, the poem seems sexist, suggesting women's universal fickleness and susceptibility to straying from true love. Read as more broadly about fidelity, however, the poem may suggest mankind's propensity to stray from dedication to God.