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John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis

by John Donne

"The Canonization"

The poet demands that some complainer leave him alone to love. The complainer should turn his attention elsewhere, and nobody is hurt by the love. They are not sinking ships or causing floods, delaying spring or causing others to die, or supporting wars or lawsuits. The poet and his lover take their own chances together; they are unified in their love. They are like candles that will burn out on their own, yet they have been reborn together in fire like the fabled Phoenix. On the other hand, their love is a beautiful example for the world that will be immortalized, canonized, a pattern for all other love in the world.


In “The Canonization,” Donne sets up a five-stanza argument to demonstrate the purity and power of his love for another. Each stanza begins and ends with the word “love.” The fourth and eighth lines of each stanza end with a word also ending -ove (the pattern is consistently abbacccaa), all of which unifies the poem around a central theme.

The title leads the reader to expect a poem concerned with saints and holy practices, but the very first lines sound more like a line delivered on stage. “For God’s sake hold your tongue” is nearly blasphemous when following the sacred title. By the end of the poem, the reader determines that “canonization” refers to the way that the poet’s love will enter the canon of true love, becoming the pattern by which others judge their own love. As usual, this hyperbole also leads the reader to find a spiritual or metaphysical meaning in the poem, and as usual, this will lead us to see that Donne sets out the perfection of divine love as the only realistic model for all others.

In the first stanza the poet complains that his verbal assailant is misguided. Has he no more important work to do than criticize others’ love? He could just as easily attack Donne’s “gout” or “palsy” (line 2) or even his “five gray hairs” (line 3), but he should get a job or go to school or enter a profession, so long as he leaves the poet alone. The king’s “stamp'd face” (line 7) most likely refers to coinage with the king’s likeness. The things of the world can be left to the critic and the world, so long as the critic “will let me love (line 9).

The second stanza takes a live-and-let-live individual rights perspective: “who's injured by my love?” (line 10). The lovers are not making war, fighting lawsuits, interfering with commerce, or spreading disease. They respect others’ property; his tears do not trespass. They take their own chances together in their fleeting lives, as the third paragraph notes. To the rest of the world, they are tiny flies, or candles that will burn together in peace.

They may destroy themselves in the act of burning with passion for one another, yet by the middle of the poem, Donne translates their love to a higher plane. First he compares himself and his beloved to the eagle and dove, a reference to the Renaissance idea in which the eagle flies in the sky above the earth while the dove transcends the skies to reach heaven. He immediately shifts to the image of the Phoenix, another death-by-fire symbol (the Phoenix is a bird that repeatedly burns in fire and comes back to life out of the ashes), suggesting that even though their flames of passion will consume them, the poet and his beloved will be reborn from the ashes of their love.

In their resurrection, their relationship has become a paradox. The key paradox of love is that two individuals become one. By uniting in this way, they “prove/Mysterious by this love” (lines 26-27). These words may imply the mystery of marriage as it reflects the relationship of Jesus and his church, as stated by Paul in I Corinthians. Indeed, the new union is unsexed even though it incorporates both sexes: “to one neutral thing both sexes fit,” just like in Christ there is no longer any male or female (Galatians 3:28). Compare the story of love in Plato’s Symposium where the original human beings had the marks of both sexes before they were split into male and female, each person being left to seek his or her other half.

The fourth stanza opens out to consider the legacy of the poet’s love with his beloved. Their love will endure in legend; the language of “verse” and “chronicle” suggests canonization at nearly the level of Scripture, which is counted by verses and has books called Chronicles. Even if their love is not quite at that level, songs will be sung and sonnets composed commemorating their romance.

On the one hand, their love is self-contained and perfect, like a “well-wrought urn.” (This is a phrase that would become famous after poet John Keats wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and critic Cleanth Brooks wrote a book treating each poem like its own beautifully and carefully crafted urn, full unto itself.) On the other hand, the ashes in this urn are meant to spread, in this case covering half an acre but symbolic of spreading the tale of perfect love throughout the world.

The final stanza voices the poet’s sense of future vindication over the critic. The poet expects that the rest of the world will “invoke” himself and his beloved, similar to the way Catholics invoke saints in their prayers. In this vision of the future, the lovers’ legend has grown, and they have reached a kind of sainthood. They are role models for all the world, because “Countries, towns, courts beg from above/A pattern of your love” (lines 44-45). From the lovers’ perspective, the whole world is present as they look into each other’s eyes; this sets the pattern of love that the world can follow.

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