All of us are connected to all others, so the death of one person affects all of humanity. Donne compares a death to the erosion of soil from the shore of a continent, in contrast to thinking of a man as a separate island.
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
Following a list of impossible tasks, Donne adds a more likely task: go and travel for years, and despite seeing all kinds of unusual things, you won't find a single faithful woman. At its root, this is less likely to be an example of misogyny or social commentary than a spiritual metaphor regarding the church and individuals within it: across the world, not one sinless person can be found, and even someone who seems spotless at the moment will not last that way for very long.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
This final couplet sums up the metaphysical paradox of the resurrection of the dead in the Christian tradition: death itself will die because the dead will be resurrected. In arguing that Death should not be "proud" of its ability to kill, Donne points out in the poem that Death is actually the slave of forces beyond its power. Not only that, but Death's supposed victory--the end of a human life--is ultimately a transition from one's temporary, mortal life to waking "eternally" in immortal form. This is why death is more like a "short sleep" than any kind of victory for Death.
They kill'd once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
Donne expresses his spiritual perspective on the work of Jesus Christ in his own (and every Christian's) life. Although "the Jews" are the ones who, in the Christian tradition of Donne's time, were said to have "kill'd" Jesus by handing him over for punishment, humbling him (making him seem "inglorious"), and then calling for his crucifixion, even worse is the person who sins, because that is the real reason why Jesus died on the Cross: to die for the sins of mankind. That is, those who saw Jesus in the flesh and called for his death were able to kill him only once, whereas Donne, being every day a sinner, crucifies Jesus daily through his sin. This is true even though Jesus has been resurrected and is "now glorified," because Jesus died for all of the past, present, and future sins of man.
And as to others' souls I preach'd Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”
While terribly ill, Donne composed this hymn. Since he himself preaches the Gospel, he wants his illness and death to make the occasion for a final sermon to his congregation. The message is the paradox that men must be "thrown down"--humbled unto death--in order to be glorified and reunited with Jesus. A person's weakness points out human weakness in general as well as God's strength. God is in control of sickness for the sake of redeeming it. Compare "Meditation 17," in which Donne reflects that the bell tolling for the dead is actually tolling as a lesson for the living.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Earlier in the poem, Donne made himself (or his soul) a city occupied by the enemy, which only God can siege and capture. In one of his famous metaphysical paradoxes, in the final stanza of this poem, Donne makes himself a woman who must be "ravished" by her lover in order to be chaste. Similarly, his freedom depends on imprisonment to God. Donne is expressing the Christian view that souls born into sin in a corrupt world spend their lives betrothed to Satan and caught up in their sinful natures. It is only by being conquered, kidnapped, imprisoned, or ravished by God that a person becomes free and pure. This feminine metaphor also evokes the idea that the Church is married to God.
Here upon earth we're kings, and none but we
Can be such kings, nor of such subjects be.
Who is so safe as we? where none can do
Treason to us, except one of us two.
In writing to his wife, Donne would often make use of his poetic powers of metaphysical conceit and paradox. In "The Anniversary," Donne considers his own and his wife's eventual death, taking it as a sign that they should enjoy their living moments together and look forward to an eventual intimacy that is as much spiritual as their current intimacy is physical. In these lines, Donne points out how unassailable their love is this side of the grave: here they are rulers, having one another as subjects, and no one can betray them save each other. Since their loves is greater than any treasonous thoughts of infidelity, they "rule" their own kingdom of love in peace even as they look forward to a more perfect union after death.
... 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.
The lover is persuading his beloved to yield to his advances, but she is concerned about her honor. Yet, just like killing the flea (which contained her blood) did not actually make her feel weaker, giving in to the beloved will not diminish her honor, according to him.
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 ;
The poet imagines that he and his beloved will become canonized as examples of great love. Each sonnet about their love is memorable like a room in a mansion, each with its special features, or like a well-designed urn or monument to their love, even though the lovers will eventually be dead. Just as the rooms are connected to a larger pattern, the memories in the urn are not permanently limited to the vessel; over time they are spread widely to as much as half an acre. As others encounter the stories of this love, they will agree that the stories are worthy to last, like hymns that last centuries or millennia.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Donne tells his wife that they are like the two legs (feet) of a compass, the tool for drawing circles. Although he is leaving for a trip, he eventually will come full circle and return to her. In order for this homecoming to work, she must remain firmly grounded, not wavering and avoiding infidelity, stable just like the center leg of a compass. The stronger she is as his center, the more perfect he can be as he travels in his circles.
... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
This extended metaphor sees a death as a "translation" or a carrying-across of a person's soul from the earthly to the spiritual realm. Each person who dies is carried across, his existence reinterpreted in the realm of spirit. The translation is initiated by a variety of means of death, all under God's control. Furthermore, each of us is like a chapter in a book authored by God, and we eventually will be gathered back together in God's divine order, like scattered pages of chapters that have finally been put into the right books in the divine library. Also, we will become fully known to one another, as though all of the books are open and available to everyone.
John Donne: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for John Donne: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.