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, thinking she just wants to cuddle more, thus leaving her alone to fear the ghost. He hints that he will say something to her, but refuses to tell her ahead of time so that anxiety about it will remain with her if she does not give in to him now. He urges her to repent now rather than face his wrath later.
“The Apparition” is a 17-line poem written in varying meter and with an unusual rhyme scheme. It thus is disconcerting as a poem, reflecting the odd and alarming content of the poet’s threat. The first four lines seem to set up a sonnet, abba, but then the fifth line is another b, followed by five lines cdcdc, then seven lines effe followed by a triplet ggg.
This is essentially a revenge fantasy. By making the speaker a man who may one day act as a ghost, killed by the woman’s scorn, Donne immediately forces the reader out of normal realism, so once again the reader knows to look for a spiritual metaphor in the poem.
The spurned lover (or at least his ghost) intends to come upon his former love when she feels “free/From all solicitation from mee” (lines 2-3), so that he may catch her unready and make his presence most frightening. He plans to haunt her in her bed, the place where he probably lay with her before. He insults her by calling her a “fain’d vestal,” suggesting her claims to virginal purity are fake. That her former lover’s ghost finds her in the “worse armes” of another man also points to her promiscuity. On the spiritual level, the speaker is God, whom humankind (in the image of the woman) has rejected, but God warns that he will come back and catch humankind in the arms of the secular world.
Indeed, the poet claims that the woman’s current lover is “worse” than himself, and this lover proves it with his refusal to comfort the frightened woman when she will turn to him in bed. The poet describes the current lover as “being tired before,” hinting that the two have already made love that night and the man thinks the woman is waking him to engage in sex once more. Donne’s conceit is in a little trouble because stereotypically (and in the context of the poem) it is usually the reluctant woman who resists the lascivious man, but he has resolved it by suggesting that the man is too tired to keep performing for her.
The ghost will curse his murderess with fright that will make her sweat “cold quicksilver,” an image of freezing liquid combined with the poisonous nature of mercury. His warning is severe; she will turn white as a ghost herself in fear. He will be so skilled at haunting that he only need appear once to deliver his message, such that the woman will be tormented into repentance. The alternative for her is to repent now and become “innocent,” but in the poet’s anger, he withholds what he will say on the night he reappears. He prefers to let her guilty conscience ponder the possible terrors which await her upon his appearance. On a spiritual level, again, this is God’s warning of the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment after which people become innocent only after their sins are painfully burned away.