Songs and Sonnets

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Songs and Sonnets

by John Donne


A group of 55 love poems probably written between c. 1590 and c. 1617; first published in London in 1633.


Embodying a series of often contradictory statements about love, Donne’s poems express attitudes ranging from indifferent lust to transcendent marital devotion.

Events in History at the Time the Poems Were Written

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

John Donne (1572-1631) was born in London to Roman Catholic parents; his father, a successful hardware merchant, died when Donne was four, and Donne’s mother, who was descended from the English Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, married a doctor who raised the boy and his five brothers and sisters. After attending Oxford and probably Cambridge, Donne returned to London, converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and sought a career at court. He served on two privateering expeditions against the Spanish and in 1597 won a position as secretary to the English courtier Sir Thomas Egerton, a job that he performed successfully for several years and that promised a good chance of future advancement. In 1601, however, Donne secretly married 17-year-old Anne More, the niece of Egerton’s wife. This transgression cost him his job, his enraged employer’s trust, and ultimately the secular public career for which he had longed. Virtually unemployed thereafter, Donne became an Anglican priest in 1615. His literary skills soon made him one of England’s leading preachers, and in 1621 King James I appointed him dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Many of his sermons survive; aside from these prose works, Donne’s poetic writings include satires, elegies, and religious poems. Only two of the Songs and Sonnets were published during his lifetime, and few of them can be dated with confidence. They are thought to have been written starting sometime in the 1590s up to about 1617, when Donne’s wife died.

Events in History at the Time the Poems Were Written

Catholics in Elizabethan England

To be a Catholic in England in the 1590s was to belong to a persecuted minority among an Anglican majority. Conversely, to leave the Catholic Church for the Anglican Church was viewed by Catholics as damnable. Sometime in the 1590s, John Donne abandoned Catholicism, an event that critics generally view as central to Donne’s life and thought.

The Church of England or Anglican Church was founded in 1534, when Henry VIII (ruled 1509-47) removed the English Church from the control of the Pope in order to legitimize his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. During the long reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the Anglican Church was transformed from the immediate solution to a king’s marital problems into the centerpiece of a new Protestant English establishment. Yet many English clung to “the old faith,” or Catholicism, and decades of hostility between Catholics and their Protestant compatriots led to bloodshed on both sides. Under Elizabeth’s Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary (ruled 1553-58), some 300 Protestants had been burned at the stake, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” At the beginning of her own reign, the Protestant queen Elizabeth, tolerant by nature and hesitant to interfere in people’s beliefs, resisted calls from England’s by-then Protestant majority for anti-Catholic repression. In the 1570s and 1580s such calls became too strong for Elizabeth to defy, as an atmosphere of anti-Catholic hostility and fear came to dominate the land.

Indeed, this fear, while often exaggerated, reflected a genuine threat. In 1571, for example, the government uncovered the Ridolfi Plot, in which Spanish troops were to invade England and replace Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Also several Popes called on English Catholics to disobey their queen, and Jesuit priests infiltrated England with the aim of subverting English Catholics’ loyalty to Elizabeth. In the 1580s, such threats led the government to enact new anti-Catholic laws. An act of 1581 imposed the heavy fine of £20 (about a year’s wage for many families) on Catholics for each time they were absent from Anglican services, and an act of 1585 declared that any English Catholic priest who remained in the land was automatically guilty of treason and therefore liable to the death penalty.

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, 183 Catholics had been executed, most of them priests. In many cases, execution was preceded by torture and consisted of disemboweling the still living victim. Several of John Donne’s relatives were executed for their activity in the Catholic Church. Donne was just 12 years old when he visited one of them, his uncle Jasper Heywood, in prison at the Tower of London shortly before the execution. Like Donne’s maternal ancestor Sir Thomas More (executed in 1535), the victims of these grisly deaths were considered to be martyrs by their fellow Catholics. In families like Donne’s, martyrdom was viewed with pride and children were taught that it was a noble goal to be eagerly sought. Other laws, milder but still repressive, set out to prevent Catholics from taking part in public life or from obtaining the education necessary for doing so. One law required university students age 16 and up to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, which set out the beliefs of the Anglican Church. In order to evade the law, well-to-do Catholic families often sent their male children to university when very young. John Donne and his brother Henry, for example, went to Oxford at ages 12 and 11, respectively.

Despite such common everyday circumvention, brutality and terror remained simple facts of life for Catholics in England. By the early 1590s, when John Donne was about 20, he and Henry were studying law together in London. In 1593 a man named William Harrington was arrested in Henry’s rooms on suspicion of being a Catholic priest. Harrington denied it, but Henry was arrested as well. Under threat of torture he betrayed the man, confirming that Harrington was indeed a priest who had been hearing his confessions. Early the following year, Harrington was disemboweled alive. Henry Donne himself was sent to prison, where he died of plague before he could come to trial on the felony charge of harboring a priest. The events surrounding Henry Donne’s death must have heightened the pangs of conscience that John Donne would have felt as he wrestled with the idea of leaving the Catholic Church for the Church of England. The decision would help advance his career but leave him open to charges of self-interest and betrayal.

Rivalry with Catholic Spain

At the end of the sixteenth century, Spain, an aggressively Catholic nation, was Europe’s leading international power. Spanish participation in conspiracies like the Ridolfi Plot continually reinforced the link between Catholicism and Spanish domination in the English mind. In addition, the two powers had also become rivals on the high seas, where since the 1560s English privateers (pirates operating with royal approval) had raided Spanish ports and attacked ships loaded with treasure from Spain’s colonies in the Americas. In 1588 a large invasion force, the Spanish Armada, was launched from Spain and from the Spanish-controlled Netherlands to bring the English to heel. But after suffering defeat by the English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and others, the Armada was savaged by storms on its return voyage; consequently only about 80 of the original 130 ships reached home. The Armada was the great crisis of Elizabeth’s reign, and the English took the victory and its aftermath as a sign of God’s favor.

Yet English attempts in the 1590s to capitalize on the Armada’s defeat met with only mixed success. In 1596, the earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh led a successful raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz, hindering Spanish preparations for a second Armada. But Essex and Raleigh were less fortunate in a subsequent raid of 1597, encountering a storm in which many ships and lives were lost. Later that year their fleet nearly met with disaster when it was becalmed for two days off the Azore Islands midway across the Atlantic. John Donne served on the Cadiz expedition as well as that of 1597. In order to participate, he would probably have had to convert to Anglicanism, so his conversion, again an important event in Donne’s life, is likely to have occurred some time between his brother’s death in 1593 and the Cadiz expedition of 1596.

Donne recorded his shipboard experiences during this expedition in his descriptive poems “The Storme” and “The Calme.” Ships and nautical images figure prominently in the love poetry of “Songs and Sonnets” as well. In “Confined Love,” for example, the poet protests against the expectation that he will remain true to one love: “Who e’er rigged fair ship to lie in harbors, / And not to seek new lands … ?” (Donne, “Confined Love,” lines 15-16).

Elizabethan love poetry

The last decade of the sixteenth century and the first decade of the seventeenth were a period of unparalleled creativity in English letters. A major focus of this literary output was the love poem, whose English practitioners drew on and reacted against conventions established earlier by the Italian poet and humanist scholar Francesco Petrarca (“Petrarch” in English) (1304-74). Such conventions included flowery, extravagant language, lush praise of the beloved’s beauty, and a stock supply of metaphors and other images. Love, for example, might be likened to a storm-tossed ship at sea; the beloved’s cheeks bloom like roses and her teeth are like pearls; oceans of tears drown the poem’s speaker if his love is unrequited.

Elizabethan love poetry found its most characteristic expression in the sonnet, a 14-line poetic form made popular by Petrarch and adapted


Along with such maritime feats as Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world from 1577-80, Donne’s lifetime saw new advances in astronomy, map-making, medicine, anatomy, and other sciences. Donne was intensely interested in such intellectual matters and kept up to date on the latest ideas. He also incorporated his wide reading into the “Songs and Sonnets.” in “Love’s Alchemy,” for example, he pokes fun at alchemy (a blend of magic and science whose object was to turn base metals into gold), and dismisses it contemptuously. Similarly, in “The Sun Rising” he alludes to Copernicus’s heliocentric theory that the earth revolves around the sun, a theory that was slowly replacing the older geocentric model of the medieval Ptolemaic system.

by Elizabethan poets such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591, revived the Petrarchan tradition and inaugurated the sonnet’s popularity in England. By the time Donne was writing, scores of young upper-class and upper-middle-class Englishmen were composing sonnets in the Petrarchan vein. While accomplished poets such as Spenser and Shakespeare brought power and originality to their treatment of the sonnet, many other Elizabethan gentlemen who did not share their genius still produced competent verse. Until recently, most poems written by these young men were thought to have been intended for poetry lovers rather than for actual female addressees. Upper-class marriages were usually arranged by parents to ensure a financially or socially advantageous match, and therefore courtship seemed to be orchestrated by one’s elders rather than undertaken by a young man in love. But the fashion for writing love sonnets among upper-class young men has been adduced as evidence that some young men actually did use poetry to court women. Another probable venue for such poetry was the royal court. In an age where wit and verbal showmanship was highly prized, the ability to compose artful verse could be an important means to social and even political advancement.

John Donne’s courtship of Anne More, which lasted for several years before their marriage in 1601, was a secret love match that, far from being arranged, resulted in Donne’s disgrace. Whether Donne courted her with his poems remains unknown. Donne went against the grain in poetry as in love, for in contrast with the prevailing taste of the sonnet-writers, Donne’s language and tone tend to be conversational rather than flowery, and he eschews physical description, preferring instead to develop dramatic and intellectually elaborate arguments. His technique can be seen partly as a reaction against the poetic fashion: while Donne does use Petrarchan conventions, he most often undermines or distorts them in some way. For example, the poetic conceit (an extended metaphor; see below) is a Petrarchan element that Donne exaggerates to the point that it dominates his work.

Court life and patronage under James I

In 1603 the English throne passed to King James VI of Scotland, the Protestant son of Mary Queen of Scots, who became James I of England. Elizabeth’s expensive wars had left the Crown saddled with a huge debt of £400,000, so one of James’s first priorities was peace, which he concluded with Spain in 1604. However, savings brought by peace abroad were more than canceled by James’s lavish spending at home. In addition to the extravagant entertainments, banquets, and other expensive features of his court, James freely dispensed pensions and other subsidies to his personal favorites. By 1618, James’s debt stood at £900,000. Competition between favorites was nothing new to court life, but James’s largesse raised the stakes among the nobles who vied for royal patronage—and among those lower on the social scale who vied for the patronage of the royal favorites themselves.

As in Elizabeth’s reign, the problems with Spain and English Catholics continued to add to the complex mix of personal interest and kinship affiliation that determined the shape of court factions. A pro-Spanish faction, grouped around the influential Howard family, pressed for better relations with Spain and greater tolerance of English Catholics. Opposing the Howards was an anti-Spanish faction centered around James’s wife Queen Anne; George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and William Herbert, the earl of Pembroke. This faction desired a strongly Protestant foreign policy and generally supported stricter measures against English Catholics (though Anne herself was Catholic). In 1605, early in James’s reign, anti-Catholic feeling was roused to fever pitch by the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which a Catholic convert named Guy Fawkes was discovered in an attempt to blow up both Parliament and the entire royal family. For the rest of his reign, James’s natural sympathies toward the Catholics were to be sharply checked by the deep fears this episode aroused in the English people.

John Donne was among the ambitious who sought the patronage of both the king and others during these years. Having lost his position with Sir Thomas Egerton after his secret marriage to Egerton’s ward, Anne More, in 1601, Donne found himself at 30 with a rapidly growing family (his wife, Anne, would bear 12 children) and no means of support. Although he was able to obtain intermittent gifts from wealthy lovers of poetry, Egerton’s unremitting hostility prevented him from securing a permanent position at court. In 1610, Donne published a prose work called Pseudo-Martyr, in which he attacks those Catholics who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, as required since the Gunpowder Plot. James was pleased with the work, and commanded Oxford University to award Donne an honorary master of arts degree, but for the moment that was the extent of his appreciation. By 1614, Donne had managed to gain the support of Somerset, who reported back that the king insisted on Donne’s taking holy orders before any position would be forthcoming. Donne did so in early 1615, becoming an Anglican priest—only in time to see Somerset fall from power. Later, in 1621, he would approach George Villiers, the king’s new favorite, who interceded with the king to help Donne gain his post as dean of St. Paul’s.

The Poems in Focus

Contents summary

The 55 love poems that make up the “Songs and Sonnets” are technically neither songs nor sonnets; the title was a conventional one and simply meant a selection of short lyrical love poems. The poems have no clear logical sequence and were published in different orders in the earliest editions of Donne’s poetry. Rather than focusing simply on sexual love’s physical and aesthetic pleasures, or even on its emotional qualities, they explore as well its deeper intellectual, psychological, and moral ambiguities.


By Donne’s day, the body of Petrarchan imagery had become so commonplace that a vogue for “anti-Petrarchanism” set in. Such poetry was addressed to a Women characterized as unattractive, promiscuous, and so forth; in other words, she embodied the opposite qualities of the Petrarchan beloved. While Shakespeare’s sonnet “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is perhaps the best-known example of anti-Petrarchanism, many of Donne’s love poems also reflect its influence.

Despite wide variations, the poems share important features. The poet commonly addresses his lover directly, developing a detailed argument of some kind—whether he wants her to yield to him sexually or to celebrate their love’s spiritual purity. Also, his argument is often based on a “conceit,” an extended metaphorical comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects or ideas. Though other Elizabethan poets—like poets of other ages—employed the conceit, this literary device is Donne’s most distinctive stylistic mark, particularly in the extent to which he elaborates on his ornate comparisons.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning  
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“The breath goes now,” and some say, “No:”
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lover’s love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we, by a love so much refin’d
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do;
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the speaker tells his love not to be sad as they part, since their souls will remain connected by their love. “As virtuous men pass mildly away, / And whisper to their souls to go,” the speaker begins, so too should the lovers part quietly from each other, without “tear-floods” or “sigh-tempests” (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” lines 1-6). The lover’s souls expand as much as needed to fill the physical gap between them, just as beaten gold becomes a thin film under the hammer of a goldsmith. Their two souls, the speaker argues, are really one by virtue of this capacity for infinite expansion. The parting lover’s souls are then compared to the two legs of a drawing compass, which lean towards each other while one remains anchored in the center and the other circles it. However far into the world the speaker roams, his beloved will always remain fixed in the center, providing a point of orientation to which he can return. The dense and highly intellectual argument of the first six stanzas is thus brought to a climax by the extended conceit of the last three.

A Valediction: Of Weeping  
Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a
diverse shore.
On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Africa, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All;
So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mix’d with mine do overflow
This world; by waters sent from thee, my
heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea what it may do too soon;
Let not the wind
Example find,
To do me more harm than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Whoe’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes
the other’s death.

“A Valediction: Of Weeping” treats the same conventional subject—the lover’s parting—from a more pessimistic angle. “Let me pour forth / My tears before thy face” the speaker begins, “For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear” (“A Valediction: Of Weeping,” lines 1-3). The speaker’s tears are caused by his lover and carry her (reflected) image in them, like coins minted by a monarch. When one of them falls, the little image that it carries falls, too, bringing their relationship to nothing when they are apart. In the second stanza the speaker compares his tears to “a round ball” on which a workman can lay copies of maps to make a globe of the world—and thus “quickly make that, which was nothing, All” (“A Valediction: Of Weeping,” lines 10-13). The weeping speaker then likens his love to the moon, asking her to be merciful in restraining the sea of tears in which he might drown. By comparing his lover to the moon, a standard poetic symbol of inconstancy, Donne’s speaker also hints at a hidden fear that their parting will lead to her infidelity.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day  
‘This the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk; The general balm the hydroptic earth hath
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are

All others, from all things, draw all that’s
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbeck, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death (which word wrongs
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea
stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.
But I am none; nor will my Sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

In “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” set after sunset on the shortest day of the year, the speaker’s lover has died and he is completely overcome by despair. This speaker is even more negative than that of “A Valediction: Of Weeping.” In the Julian calendar (England did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1751), St. Lucy’s Day fell very close to the winter solstice (now December 21), and the poem’s nighttime setting immediately doubles this dark day’s darkness: “Tis the year’s midnight,” the speaker begins, “and it is the day’s” (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” line 1). Images of darkness and lifelessness fill the first stanza: exhausted sun, withered nature, dried up earth, even life itself is “Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh, / Compared with me, who am their epitaph” (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” lines 8-9). The second stanza focuses darkness as if through a lens and then projects it: “I am every dead thing,” the speaker declares, “a quintessence even from nothingness” that has been annihilated and “rebegot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not” (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” lines 12-18). Darkness thus takes on its own creative power, becoming not just the un-lit but almost a kind of anti-light in itself. It is love, the speaker says, that brought him to this state. His lover’s death, which he mentions almost casually at the beginning of the fourth stanza, has made him into the very essence of the first nothing from which God created the world. His sun (that is, his lover) will never return, but the “lesser sun” will bring a new lusty springtime to other lovers, who will then enjoy their summer. The speaker, though, will keep a vigil for his love on this shortest day, which “Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is” (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” lines 38-45).

The Good-Morrow  
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we lov’d? Were we not wean’d till
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir’d, and got, ’Twas but a dream
of thee.
And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room, an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and
is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

In stark contrast to the deep midnight of “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” stands the bright sunlit world of “The Good Morrow,” whose seemingly lighthearted speaker celebrates awakening with his beloved. In some ways the two poems are mirror images. Just as his loss has created the speaker’s nothingness in “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” so has the lover’s union created a constantly renewed world of fullness for the speaker in “The Good Morrow.” Even time itself seems not to have existed before their love: “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?” he begins (“The Good Morrow,” lines 1-2). Except for their love, all pleasures are imaginary; any other beauty the speaker has ever seen, desired, or possessed was only a dream of his lover.

The lover’s union awakens their souls and offers a world of discovery, yet as in “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” the speaker’s one-sided view is subtly undermined by the mention of its opposite; just as the downcast speaker in the former poem admits that a new summer of lust will come for other lovers, so the optimistic speaker in “The Good Morrow” brings fear to our attention by his very denial of it. The idea of the lovers watching each other out of fear suggests a need to monitor his lover’s loyalty that the speaker cannot admit openly. The third and final stanza cloaks a similar ambiguity. Anything that dies, the speaker concludes, was not balanced equally. (According to a Renaissance theory, decay occurs when elements are unequally mixed.) In other words, the speaker says, if our loves are one, or


The traditional view of Donne’s life was that as young man he was a Womenizing rake and love poet, while after becoming a priest he settled into a quiet, contemplative life and wrote religious poetry. Donne himself helped give rise to this interpretation, referring to his younger self as “Jack Donne” and his older self as “Dr. Donne” (Donne in Carey, p. xi). More recently, this division has been abandoned as simplistic, though it may reflect a gradual change in emphasis. A friend from Oxford, Sir Richard Baker, who also knew Donne as a young law student in London, describes him as “a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses” during this period (Baker in Bald, p. 72). (The word “conceited” refers to the literary device known as the conceit which Donne employs frequently.) Clearly, like most young students, Donne was also engaged in lighter pursuits, probably turning some of these experiences into the poems in Songs and Sonnets.

if we love each other equally, our love will never die.

Faith and fidelity in Donne’s life and poetry

As these readings of a few of the “Songs and Sonnets” indicate, anxiety over a lover’s fidelity is a major issue in Donne’s love poetry, even if it is often obscured by the poet’s subtlety and the range of the voices he adopts. At times, this anxiety is expressed openly: “Nowhere / Lives a Women true, and faire,” complains one speaker (“Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star,” lines 17-18). “She that, oh, broke her faith,” asserts another, “would soon break thee” (“A Jet Ring Sent,” line 12). The critic John Carey has argued that this preoccupation with betrayal, with broken faith, can be seen as springing at least partly from the circumstances of Donne’s life, specifically from his own abandonment of “the old faith” of his family, Roman Catholicism. “The love poems,” Carey suggests, “are a veil for religious perturbations” (Carey, p. 24).

Whether we see one as a “veil” for another, clearly love and religion are entwined in Donne’s work. On the most basic level, they are the two main subjects on which he was moved to write; and while Donne’s love poems brim with religious language and images, his religious verses often sound like love poems. Furthermore, poems like “The Canonization” and “The Relic” (both from the “Songs and Sonnets”) take their titles and central images from practices associated with Catholicism, not Protestantism—namely, the cultivation of saints and their relics. The religion that Donne left behind continued to inform his poetic imagination—but, as Carey points out, so did the uncomfortable fact that he had left it behind—by creating a general unease with the idea of betrayal that applied to personal relationships as well as to religion.

In a larger sense, Donne’s preoccupation with religious and personal fidelity was shared by his society, as shown by the Elizabethan and Jacobean laws that attempted to enforce either Anglican practice or personal loyalty to the monarch (for example, the oath of loyalty to James I after the Gunpowder Plot). Historical circumstances thus made the poet’s concerns those of his age.

Sources and literary context

Although none of the “Songs and Sonnets” can be firmly linked to events in Donne’s life, critics have engaged in plausible speculation. Donne’s first biographer, Izaak Walton, claims that “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” was composed when Donne traveled to France for an extended period in 1611-12. “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” may have been written for one of Donne’s patrons, Lucy, countess of Bedford, after either an illness in 1612-13 or her death in 1627; Anne Donne’s death in 1617 has also been suggested as a possible occasion for the poem. Similarly, critics have put forward Donne’s marriage and subsequent banishment from public life as a possible occasion for “The Canonization,” which seems to scorn the public world in favor of the private realm of love. On the testimony of his letters, Donne was deeply in love with his wife, and she may well have provided the inspiration for many of his poems, though they need not have been based on any actual incident or situation.

The Petrarchan tradition that dominated Elizabethan love poetry included works such as Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), Edmund Spencer’s sonnet sequence Amoretti (1595), and many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609). As discussed above, Donne’s love poetry often stands in contrast to this background. Rather than declaring his love and describing it or his lover’s beauty in smoothly metrical lines, Donne often jolts the reader with broken lines that reflect the emotional intensity of an immediate dramatic situation, and often the Women to whom the poem is addressed seems less than perfect. Where other Elizabethan love poets tend to write about their lovers, Donne almost always addresses his directly, plunging the reader into a confrontation of some sort. “For God’s sake, hold your tongue, and let me love,” the speaker of “The Canonization” bursts out at the beginning of the poem (“The Canonization,” line 1). Donne is also original in the use to which he puts such situations, taking them as a point of departure for an elaborate argument based on one or more conceits.

Publication and impact

Only two of the “Songs and Sonnets,” “The Expiration” and “Breake of Day,” were published during Donne’s lifetime, in poetry collections of 1609 and 1612, respectively. However, many of them circulated in manuscript form among his patrons and friends. The first collection of Donne’s poetry was published under the title Poems in 1633, with several new poems added in the second edition of 1635, when the heading Songs and Sonnets was first used for the love lyrics. Added to the group in the mid-seventeenth century were two poems, “The Token” and “Selfe-Love,” that may not have been written by Donne at all. The friends who read Donne’s work during his lifetime included the poet and playwright Ben Jonson. According to Jonson’s friend William Drummond, Jonson “esteemeth John Done [sic] the first poet of the world in some things” but found his rough meter deficient: “for not keeping of accent” Jonson thought that Donne “deserved hanging” (Drummond in Donne, p. 139). Donne helped give rise to a genre later called “metaphysical poetry,” in which religion and love are common themes and which rely heavily on conceits in the manner that Donne perfected. Donne’s contemporary Thomas Carew, considered one of the metaphysical poets, wrote an elegy praising Donne after Donne’s death in 1631.

Can we not force from widowed poetry,
Now thou art dead, great Donne, one elegy
To crown thy hearse? …
… Didst thou dispense
Through all our language both the words and sense?
               (Carew, p. 1640)

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Ashley, Maurice. England in the Seventeenth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Carew, Thomas. “An Elegy upon the Death of the Dean of Paul’s, Dr. John Donne.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Donne, John. John Donne’s Poetry. Ed. Arthur L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1996.

Leishman, J. B. The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

Lockyer, Roger. Tudor & Stuart Britain 1471-1714. Harlow, England: Longman, 1964.

Parfitt, George. John Donne: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Parker, Derek. John Donne and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.