The speaker has a broken heart. He 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 can reflect minor feelings such as adoration, but his breast “can love no more.”
“The Broken Heart” has four octets following an ababccdd rhyme scheme. Although the key image in the poem is a heart broken into a hundred pieces, the poem has a well-ordered pattern.
The poet begins with the strong statement that anyone who disagrees with his argument about love is “stark mad” (line 1). The “mad” view is that love cannot wane quickly even though it can be sparked quickly. The poet, in contrast, claims that anyone who has been in love even an hour cannot help but notice how much more quickly love can turn to pain and loss. The proper thing is to know that a person cannot really have the plague for a year, unless he means the plague of love—and that a flash of gunpowder cannot last for a whole day. The suggestion here is that the poet’s heart has burned for a year while his beloved’s attentions burned away in merely a moment.
The second stanza moves to the all-consuming nature of love (like burning up, as hinted at the end of the first stanza). The poet compares love to “other griefs” (line 11), thus characterizing the longing of love pains as negative. Other griefs allow other sorrows to coexist within the sufferer (lines 11-12), but love does not. Also, these other griefs are figured as happening to people—they come to us through the course of living—whereas love “draws” us to itself (line 13). In line 14 Donne uses personification to make love a “he,” a devouring monster who “swallows us and never chaws” (line 14). Love is a warlike destroyer, like cannonballs connected by a chain (“chain’d shot,” line 15) that kill entire rows of enemy soldiers, or like the large fish (a pike) that swallows massive numbers of small-fry fish (line 16). In these images, the lover has little or no agency, totally consumed by love.
The third stanza becomes more personal, addressing the one who broke his heart. He describes walking into a room and seeing someone with whom he fell in love at first sight. In the conceit in which a heart represents love, he argues that he lost his heart to the beloved, but not because it was taken up by the beloved. That is, the beloved would have shown him pity as the lover, but instead she shattered it in a single blow, demonstrating that she did not love him in return.
Thus, the final stanza considers the pieces of this broken heart. Since “nothing can to nothing fall” (line 25), his heart’s pieces have not simply disappeared; he now carries “Those pieces still” in his breast (lines 27-28). The fragments are like a broken mirror, reflecting a “hundred lesser faces” (line 30), as though he still has feelings for his beloved. Yet, his heart can only feel lesser emotions now that it is in pieces. It can “like, wish, and adore,” but it can “love no more” (lines 31-32). His heart has become irreparably damaged “after one such love,” scarring him for life and leaving his feelings metaphorically in rags, diminishing his capacity to ever love again.
This poem has little if any hyperbole in it. It does not seem strange to think that one’s heart is in just a hundred pieces rather than, say, a billion like the stars scattered across the sky. It also does not seem unusual to say that chains of cannonballs could kill whole ranks of soldiers at once, rather than whole armies. The measured imagery in this poem—after all, the first paragraph argues that exaggerating about love is madness—suggests that the reader should take the poem as really about a broken heart rather than looking for a metaphysical meaning. For this reason the poem seems purely secular, considering the feelings of romantic love and loss rather than spiritual love. Perhaps, however, we might see in this poem a divine complaint about God giving his all, his only son, to show love to mankind, yet being rejected.