John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis
by John Donne
"Song: Sweetest love, I do not goe"
The poet tells his beloved that he is not leaving because he is tired of the relationship—instead, he must go as a duty. After all, the sun departs each night but returns every morning, and he has a much shorter distance to travel. The third stanza suggests that his duty to leave is unstoppable; man’s power is so feeble that good fortune cannot lengthen his life, while bad fortune will shorten it. Indeed, fighting bad fortune only shares one’s strength with it. As the beloved sighs and cries, the lover complains that if he is really within her, she is the one letting him go because he is part of her tears and breath. He asks her not to fear any evil that may befall him while he is gone, and besides, they keep each other alive in their hearts and therefore are never truly parted.
“Sweetest love” is a lyric made up of five stanzas each with the same rhyme scheme (ababcddc). Each stanza develops an aspect of the problem of separation from one’s beloved.
In the first stanza the lover wards off any fear of a weakened love on his part. He does not leave “for weariness” of the beloved (line 2), nor does he go looking for a “fitter love” for himself (line 4). He instead compares his departure to death, saying that since he “Must die at last” (line 5), it is better for him to practice dying by “feign’d deaths” (line 8), those short times when he is separated from his love. Thus, he turns her fears about losing him into an assurance that she is the very source of his existence; when he is not with her, it is like being dead.
In the second stanza, Donne uses the sun as a metaphor for his fidelity and desire to return. He compares his leaving to the sun’s setting “Yesternight” (line 9). It left darkness behind, “yet is here today” (line 10). If the sun can return each day, despite its lengthy journey around the world, then the beloved can trust that the lover will return since his journey is shorter (line 12). Besides, he will make “speedier journeys” since he has more reason to go and return than does the sun (lines 15-16).
In the third stanza, the poet turns to contemplating larger problems beyond merely being separated from a loved one. He notes how “feeble is man’s power” (line 17) that one is unable to add more time to his life during periods of “good fortune” (line 18). Ironically, the poet notes, we instead add “our strength” (line 22) to misfortune and “teach it art and length” (line 23), thereby giving bad situations power over our lives. We are so powerless that even the power we have turns against us in bad fortune. Perhaps the suggestion here is that the lover has no choice but to go, not having enough strength to overcome fate.
This stanza also serves as a turning point in the song. The two prior stanzas are assurances that the lover will return quickly and faithfully. The final two stanzas focus on the harms his beloved may cause or fear.
“When thou sigh'st, thou sigh'st not wind,/But sigh'st my soul away” he says in the first line of the fourth stanza. The beloved’s expressions of despair cause harm to her lover, he argues, because he is so much a part of her that he is in her breath. He may also mean that her sighs demonstrate her lack of trust in him. The same argument applies to her tears; she depletes his “life’s blood” (line 16) when she cries. This is why she said to be “unkindly kind” with her tears (line 15); this oxymoron emphasizes the lover’s pain in seeing the extent of her need to be with him. He concludes the stanza complaining that “It cannot be/That thou lov’st me” (lines 21-22), since she appears willing to “waste” his best parts (perhaps the beloved herself as she pines for him).
In the final stanza, the lover warning his beloved against future ills she may bring upon him if she continues to fear a future without him. He urges her “divining heart” (line 25) to avoid predicting him harm; it is possible that “Destiny may take thy part” and fulfill her fears (lines 27-28) by leading to true dangers. He prefers that she instead see his absence as a moment in the night when the two of them are in bed together, merely “turn’d aside to sleep” (line 30). He leaves her with the encouragement that two people whose love is their very lifeblood can “ne’er parted be” (line 32); they are always together in spirit.
This poem bears similarities to Donne’s other work about departure from his loved one, “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” The tone of the song considered here is lighter, however, and the imagery not so controlled, poignant, or unexpected as that latter work. Nevertheless, it is worth attempting to read this poem, like so many others of Donne’s, as a spiritual allegory. Perhaps one again can see the lover as God and the beloved as the Church, in which case one might find a resonance with the promised second coming of Jesus in the Christian tradition; in this tradition he will soon return to the world even though he was crucified.
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