Donne is firmly within the camp of metaphysical poets--those poets for whom considerations of the spiritual world were paramount compared to all earthly considerations. While a master of metaphysical expression, Donne achieves this mastery by refusing to deny the place of the physical world and its passions. He often begins with a seemingly carnal image only to turn it into an argument for the supremacy of God and the immortality of the soul.
Donne's poetry falls most simply into two categories: those works composed and published prior to his entering the ministry, and those which follow his taking up the call to serve God. While many of his later poems are certainly more in the metaphysical vein that Donne has become famous for, it is nonetheless a matter of little debate that his work has a certain continuity. There is no sharp division of style or poetic ability between the two phases of Donne's literary career. Instead, it is only the emphasis of subject matter that changes. Donne is ever concerned with matters of the heart, be they between a man and a woman or between a man and his Creator. It is in his later poetry that Donne most often fuses the two into a seemingly paradoxical combination of physical and spiritual that gives light to our understanding of both.
"The Flea": A flea has bitten both lovers, and now the flea marks their union because it has both of their blood. The poet asks his lover not to kill it, but the lover does, and finds herself not diminished. When she yields to her lover, he says, her honor likewise will not be diminished, so there's nothing to fear by going for it.
"Lovers' Infiniteness": The poet complains that he does not yet have “all” of his beloved’s love, despite using all of his resources to woo her. She should not leave some love for others, nor should she leave herself open to wooing by others later. Yet, he also wants her to keep some of her love for him in reserve so that they can enjoy a constantly growing relationship.
"Litanie": This poem follows the Order of Mass in that it mimics the order in which the congregation asks the various divine and holy entities to pray for them: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the angels, the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, the virgins, and the doctors. The poet prays to be free from anxiety, temptation, vanity, misdirection, sin and, ultimately, death.
"The Sunne Rising": The poet asks the sun why it is shining in and disturbing him and his lover in bed. The sun should go away and do other things rather than disturb them, like wake up ants or rush late schoolboys to start their day. Lovers should be permitted to make their own time as they see fit. After all, sunbeams are nothing compared to the power of love, and everything the sun might see around the world pales in comparison to the beloved’s beauty, which encompasses it all. The bedroom is the whole world.
"Song" ("Goe, and catche a falling starre"): The reader is told to do impossible things like catch a meteor or find a "true and fair" woman after a lifetime of travels. The poet wishes he could go and see such a woman if she existed, but he knows that she would turn false by the time he got there.
"The Indifferent": The poet will willingly have an affair with any woman, so long as she isn’t trying to be faithful to her current lover or to him. Don’t plan on a man being faithful to you either, the poet tells the woman he is now wooing; just about everyone plays around. Don’t bind a man; he will stray. Even Venus investigated the issue and verified that virtually everyone is false.
“Death Be Not Proud" (Holy Sonnet 10) presents an argument against the power of death. Addressing Death as a person, the speaker warns Death against pride in his power. Such power is merely an illusion, and the end Death thinks it brings to men and women is in fact a rest from world-weariness for its alleged “victims.” The poet criticizes Death as a slave to other forces: fate, chance, kings, and desperate men. Death is not in control, for a variety of other powers exercise their volition in taking lives. Even in the rest it brings, Death is inferior to drugs. Finally, the speaker predicts the end of Death itself, stating “Death, thou shalt die.”
"The Anniversary": A year has passed, and everything has grown older, drawing closer to their end. In contrast, the one ageless thing is the unchanging love the poet shares with his lover. Although their bodies will be in separate graves when they die, their eternal souls will be reunited when they are resurrected. For now, the two are kings in their world of love, secure in their faithfulness, and he hopes that they will be together for 60 anniversaries.
“Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”: On the day that Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus, the poet is traveling west but thinks of the Holy Land to the east. He can hardly imagine seeing Jesus die on the cross with his own eyes, so he turns his thoughts to Mary for a moment. Traveling west, his back faces east, and he calls upon divine mercy and grace to cleanse him of his sin so that he feels able to turn his face back towards God.
“Sweetest love, I do not go”: 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. 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.
"Meditation 17": Donne is approaching death. Hearing a church bell signifying a funeral, he observes that every death diminishes the large fabric of humanity. We are all in this world together, and we ought to use the suffering of others to learn how to live better so that we are better prepared for our own death, which is merely a translation to another world.
"The Bait": The speaker addresses his beloved as one whose beauty naturally attracts others, like a fisherman who attracts fish while hardly even trying. While others may catch fish in slimy, hurtful, deceiving ways, the beloved is her “own bait.”
“The Apparition”: The beloved has scorned the poet, and he tells her that once he is dead, he will visit her bed later as a ghost. She will ask her living lover for help, but he will turn away, leaving her alone to fear him. He urges her to repent now rather than face his wrath later.
"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. The poet and his lover take their own chances together; they are unified in their love. 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.
"The Broken Heart": The speaker says that it is ludicrous to argue that someone can’t fall out of love quickly, although he himself has felt the plague of a broken heart for a year. A broken heart is an overwhelming grief. In a single blow, his beloved shattered his heart. Now, like a broken mirror, the many pieces of his heart are too weak for love again.
"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning": The beloved should not openly mourn being separated from the poet. Their love is spiritual, like the legs of a compass that are joined together at the top even if one moves around while the other stays in the center. She should remain firm and not stray so that he can return home to find her again.
“Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”: The speaker faces the possibility of his own death by focusing on his preparation for Heaven. He must tune himself in order to become God’s musical instrument. Or, he is like a map, where the westernmost and easternmost points are the same and his death will be transfigured into resurrection.
Holy Sonnet 14 ("Batter my heart"): The speaker asks God to intensify the effort to restore the speaker’s soul. God should overthrow him like a besieged town. He asks God to break the knots holding him back, imprisoning him in order to free him, and taking him by force in order to purify him.
Holy Sonnet 11 ("Spit in my face"): While heretics might scourge the poet as they did Jesus due to his faith, the poet is far from blameless. He is re-crucifying Jesus daily because of his sins. While other kings enact mercy by pardoning criminals, Jesus actually bore the punishment, making himself suffer as a human so as to redeem sinful humanity.