John Donne: Poems

John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis of "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.


This poem, titled variously as “Lovers' Infiniteness”, “Love's Infiniteness,” or “Lovers Infinitenesse” depending on the edition, is a three-part argument in three stanzas. This type of poem, in which the lover is arguing with his beloved and trying to convince her of something (as in “The Flea”), is common with Donne. Appeals to reason, often combined with non-rational assertions, are common in Donne's shorter poems (Dean 11).

With three eleven-line stanzas, the form of “Lovers' Infiniteness” is unusual for Donne. Each stanza contains ten lines of four to five feet plus an eleventh line incorporating a different meaning of the word “all.” There is a sense of refrain in the end of each stanza (lines, 11, 22, and 33): “Deare, I shall never have Thee All./.../Grow there, deare, I shoud have it all./.../Be one, and one anothers All.” The refrain recalls the more musical of Donne's poems, such as “Song” (“Sweetest love, I do not goe”).

The subject of the poem, at least on the surface, is the poet addressing his beloved, but it is important to remember that Donne, a metaphysical poet, often includes a deeper meaning in his discussions of love. The puns, metaphors, and allusions can point toward a more philosophical meaning.

Donne begins with “If yet I have not all thy love,/Deare, I shall never have it all.” The tone suggests gentleness, but the lover also seems jealous: he wants claim to “all” of this woman's love. He has been her suitor; he has tried to “purchase” her with “Sighs, teares, and oathes, and letters.” He has not yet been wholly successful, and he seems to think that he is entitled to the lady's love because of his efforts, rather than because he has fully persuaded her. Even if he has been mostly successful, he is creating the paradoxical metaphysical situation of giving herself entirely while remaining herself.

For the lover to demand this much from his lady is against poetic conventions, but Donne, unconventionally, is not asking for simply a marriage union. He also has abstract ideas about what love is, and, particularly, what is the totality of love. As is so often in Donne, he is aware of the paradox. He wants a totality of love, but he has also reached the limit of his capacity to feel (Stein 33); he wants more to look forward to. We will see in the third stanza how Donne resolves the paradox.

The theme of possession and, specifically, commercial transactions underscores the inadequacy the lover feels when he thinks of or discusses the “all” of love that he requires from the lady. He talks of “purchase” and what he has “spent” and is therefore “due.” He has spent his emotional capital, and he worries that new suitors have their own “stock” to cash in as they “outbid” him. In the third stanza, he imagines their growing love as a kind of deposit with interest.

Yet, he knows that love cannot literally be bought. While the poem may strike the reader as a straightforward courtship plea, the paradoxes show how inadequate stock phrases such as “winning love” or “giving one's heart” are. The poet is humbled before the inadequacy of his understanding of love, and by his limitless desire for it. The comparison between love via finance and true love opens up a higher comparison, that between earthly love and divine love. Lines 29-30, “Love's riddles are that though thy heart depart/It stays at home, and thou with losing savest it,” allude to Matthew 16, “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it.” The paradox of love remains on the theological level; somehow we must fully love the divine without giving up ourselves as the ones who love.

Despite love’s paradoxes, the poem affirms its mysteries with reverence and celebration. If desire is infinite, it cannot be satisfied on a finite earth. “Thou canst not every day give me thy heart” because in a financial transaction, the property is lost once it is given away. How can the lover get her heart back in order to give it again? Only if he returns it back to her with interest, perhaps. Yet, the lover himself does not have an infinite love, and he has used up his stock of resources for wooing. He is human and thus lives within the rules of the finite world. No matter how idealized the love, the love is still human; it must have a limit.

The third stanza unravels the paradox with “But we will have a way more liberall.” On the human level, he suggests marriage and sexual union. The physical and mystical union of himself and his lover helps them share together as “one, and one another's all.” This is concrete and understandable and, at least in one aspect, satisfies the longing of the lover for infinity. They can merge into one another and yet leave room to grow together, increasing the area of the circle of their union.

On the spiritual level, beyond the roles of lover and beloved, Donne, a devout Protestant and the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, suggests a similar growth in the spiritual devotion of a person for the divine. Since we are creatures of God, we may participate in the love of God even if we do not understand it. Donne was fond of expounding in his sermons not only on the nature of God, but also the impossibility of understanding certain divine mysteries. It is a common tenet of faith that the divine is in key ways unknowable, being infinite and eternal (outside of time) and ineffable. Donne’s poems, such as this one, even though they may not at first appear to be religious, often express such spiritual themes.