June 3, 2010

The literature of the 17th century is rife with conflicting as well as novel poetic ideas. Being the major metaphysical poet of that era, John Donne contributed much in the escalation of the flow of that literary transformation. In his poetry he sought to establish a view of love and women that was diametrically opposite to the conventional philosophy of courtly love of the great poetic personalities like Sidney and Petrarch. From this point of view, his approach to love was much brave and original than the poets of the preceding generations.

The most original contribution of John Donne in love poetry is perhaps the blending of thought with imagination, passion with intellect. This intellectuality is expressed in the conceits he frequently employs in his poems. His conceits are based on the similes and metaphors drawn from all branches of knowledge such as theology, cosmology, philosophy, medicine, chemistry, law, etc. The Elizabethan poets based their conceits on the conventional physical comparisons, but Donne, on the other hand, moulded his ones by scholastic and fanciful comparisons. He is exceptionally good at creating unusual unions between different elements in order to illustrate his point and form a convincing argument in his poems. His most outstanding and striking example of conceit appears in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, where the poet compares the two lovers’ souls to a draftsman’s compass:
“If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin copmpasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the ’other doe.”
Donne looked upon the relationship of love between man and woman from both sensuous and realistic standpoints. In scrutinising the pragmatic sides of love Donne supports the necessity of both the body and the soul. This attitude is another aspect that distinguishes Donne from both the Petrarchan and the Platonic school of thoughts. In his poems Donne seeks to establish the relationship between the body and the soul. He assumed that physical intercourse without spiritual union cannot be considered as love; such passion is nothing but momentary attraction. Again, true spiritual union cannot be accomplished without the union of the bodies. Thus true love is engendered by the mating of both the bodies and the souls, and such a love lasts long. For example, in the poem The Canonization physical love is regarded as a holy emotion like the worship of devotee of God. After physical intercourse the lovers feel a strong emotional passion for each other, and it is this fire of passion that unites their souls together. Thus physical love helps to form a spiritual bond between the lovers. However, in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Donne’s treatment of love is sensuous. In this poem his statement reverberates the Platonic assertion that physical contact is unnecessary for the formation of spiritual love. A truer and more refined love, Donne explains comes from a connection at the mind, the union of two souls as one. The Physical presence is irrelevant if a true bond of the minds has occurred, joining a pair of lovers’ souls eternally.

Another novel aspect in Donne’s poetry was the difference in angle in which he looked at womankind. The followers of Petrarchan tradition depicted women as deities. They only portrayed their beauty and positive sides. But with a sharp contrast to the Petrarchan followers, Donne was bold enough to expose the negative sides of women. He sceptically believes that women are neither deities nor fully honest; they possess all the human shortcomings. Thus Donne’s attitude towards women is materialistic, pessimistic, and occasionally misogynistic. For example, in the poem Goe, and Catche a Falling Starre Donne comments on the faithlessness of women. He ironically remarks that it is totally impossible to find a constant woman in this world. However, he is not always cynical towards women, because when he finds a woman really honest and faithful he deeply admires her virtues. For instance, in the poem Twicknam Garden he cynically says that all women are false; they cannot remain faithful to a single lover. But he shows a ray of optimism when he says that only his beloved is true, since she is faithful to a single lover. He greatly admires her for this particular quality, which is, undoubtedly, a rare virtue in womanhood.

The Petrarchan poets sang about the pains and sorrows of love, the sorrows of detachment, and the pains of rejection by the cruel mistress. But Donne, in sharp contrast to the Petrarchan poets, considered love to be mutual and self-sufficient. In the poems The Canonization and The Sunne Rising, he expresses the delight of mutual love-making, without reference to outside interference, and with no hint of inadequacy in the beloved. Donne often tells about separation but in an unconventional way. For example, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Donne tells us about the mystical union between him and his beloved despite their discreet position.

John Donne’s Treatment of Love and Women
Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


  1. Was donne truly a misogynist or he just looks at women differently?

  2. In my opinion, he was a realist.


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