Love Religion Paradox in John Donne Poetry

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Ashvamegh : Issue X : November 2015 : ISSN : 2454-4574

Love, Religion and Paradox in John Donne’s Three Poems: An Approach

by – Mithun Dutta



The poetry of John Donne particularly his early poetry generally portrays love and religion as its basic concerns. An attempt to juxtapose physical love with the sacredness of religion through a series of occult resemblances makes his poetry distinct and divergent from the conventional love poetry that dominated the preceding Elizabethan age. His poetry is not approved by his peers because of his deliberate departure from the traditional norms and expectations that cannot accept the possibility of a close proximity between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the mundane and the spiritual. All these issues in Donne’s poetry lead to certain circumstances that may be outwardly contradictory or even paradoxical, but it is the heterogeneous juxtaposition that enriches Donne’s poetry and sometimes anticipates certain important characteristics of modern poetry. Donne’s uniqueness as a poet in handling the theme of love in most unfamiliar way is obvious in his mostly discussed three poems “The Flea”, The Good Morrow” and “The Canonization”.

Keywords: love, religion, juxtaposition, paradoxical, heterogeneous etc.



John Donne is considered as the most prominent poet of the school of metaphysical poetry that had flourished in the first half of the seventeen century England. But he is never recognised by the contemporary poets and readers as a major voice of English poetry until a vested interest is bestowed by Doctor Johnson in the eighteen century and its modern revival in the twentieth century by T.S Eliot and Herbert Grierson with their essays on Metaphysical poets. From the 1920s onward Metaphysical poetry especially the love poetry of John Donne is incessantly taken for scholarly analysis to investigate an underlying pattern that establishes the nature of various complex issues inherent in the poetic world of John Donne. In short, Donne was born and brought up amidst high Catholicism when it was prohibited, undergoing a secret love marriage without proper consent, turned towards Anglican priesthood and finally became the Dean of St. Paul Cathedral in the Church of England. It becomes quite natural that Donne’s first-hand experiences of love and several conflicts of religious faith are transformed into the pieces of poetry by a highly poetic intellectual.  Thus love and religion have some autobiographical references to be employed in Donne’s poetry. But, as a true metaphysical poet, Donne treats love and religion in such way that is strangely unusual and different from its previous representations in Elizabethan poetry. While the Petrarchan sonnet with its overflowing emotions dominated the preceding age, the approach in metaphysical poetry is changed to bring a fusion between thought and intellect, between faith and reason that appears extremely contradictory. Paradoxes are the outcome of such conflicts that remain too complex to decipher but intensify the inherent meanings within such apparent contradictions. A paradoxical relationship between love and religion embodies the core issue in Donne’s poems like “The Sun Rising”, “The Good Morrow” and “The Canonization”.

One of the most important characteristics of metaphysical poetry is the use of conceits that are fully exploited by Donne in most unusual way that makes him the seminal figure of the Metaphysical school. Donne has successfully combined the most “heterogeneous ideas” with a certain force that makes his poems differ from other poets. Johnson’s notion of discordia concors that he describes as “a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances of things apparently alike” (Johnson: Selected Writings) is convincingly explored in the poetry of John Donne. Besides his abrupt opening with “strong lines”, his lyricism and dramaticality, his eroticism for a spiritual union, his intellectual parallelism, his priority of reason over emotion, his choice of paradox, ironies and his colloquialism are the hallmarks to understand the unification of various sensibilities that Donne’s poetry offers. The three poems mentioned above are a part of his early writings that also reflect the conflicts of traditional attitude towards love and religion that Donne has tried to homogenize but with a completely different approach. A critical reading of these poems establishes multiple viewpoints that truly suggest the relevance of Donne’s poetry and its influence since the early decades of twentieth century.

The poem “The Flea” primarily deals with the pleading of the speaker lover to his beloved for her denial in mingling the blood that implies a sexual intercourse. He complains her attitude towards his proposal of instant mingling. To validate his argument, as typical in Donne’s poetry, he gives an analogy of sucking their blood by a little worm called “the flea” in which their blood has already mixed up before their actual marriage: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be” (“The Flea” 3-4). The male lover thinks that if such mingling is so innocuous in which they do not share any liabilities, their physical union will maintain the same innocence that cannot be considered “A sin, a shame, nor loss of maidenhead” (The Flea 6). He thinks that the flea has mixed the blood of the two in its swelling stomach in such a manner that “alas is more than we would do” (9). The very first stanza shows the attitude of the male speaker to convince his beloved through his argument that seems apparently odd and disharmonious but quite apt for his intention. It also suggests the medieval notion of sex in which the bloods of two opposites are mingled.

As the beloved moves to kill the flea the speaker begs her to spare the flea that carries three lives now and in which they live more than married. So the killing of the flea would simply be self-destructive as the body of the flea has become a sacred place in which the bloods of the lovers are glorified: “The flea is you and I, and this/ Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is” (12-13). He can see that her parents might grudge to their romance and refuse to support a valid mingling through marriage, but they are already united and cloistered in the “living walls” of the flea. The reference of parents grudging a marriage is strictly autobiographical as Donne’s own relationship with Anne More suffered because her father didn’t give his consent for years even after their marriage. So at this moment the murder of the flea will be a sacrilege, a heinous crime that will do “three sins in killing three” (18). But as his beloved has committed “cruel and sudden” (19) by killing the flea, he now asks her “what could this flea guilty be / Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?” (21-22). Yet it is she who ultimately wins by killing the flea as a deliberate attempt on her part to discard his views on the flea. Now he begins to justify her act by turning his previous argument down. He admits that it proves her fears as mere imaginative. He then argues that any fear she might possess for the loss of her honour will be equally false. The act of physical intimacy will not cause any damage to her reputation: “Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me / Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee” (26-27). He thus comes to his original argument that a physical encounter with him will do no harm to her like the flea.

The poem “The Flea” seems to be apparently seductive but it is truly metaphysical in its particular treatment of love that makes the poem very unconventional. By comparing the body of a worm (the flea) to a sacred place that demands contemplation. When the killing of the flea is estimated as a sinful act – a sacrilege, it surprises the readers as it is equated with the murder of the physical union of the lovers in flea’s body before their actual marriage. Such a juxtaposition of the religious and the profane to bring the desired effect is a technique employed by Donne throughout his poetic career. Religion he uses as a resource to justify his metaphysical views of love. Some feminist scholars have found his use of phrase “when thou yield’st to me” as highly derogatory and patriarchal to women who are represented as the objects of male desires. But a close reading of the poem shows that the man is powerless until the woman gives her consent. He can merely provide some argument but she can raise her hand and kill he flea – she exercises her power by continuously rejecting his proposal of physical advancement. Until the poem ends the speaker has not been successful in his scheme to appease the beloved, but nobody knows what is going to happen next.

“The Good Morrow” is a typical Donne’s poem that opens with a question in quite a self-introspective manner: “I wonder by my troth, what thou and I /Did, till we loved?” (1-2). The speaker asks what he and his beloved have done before they fell in love with each other. It was to him mere a waste of time “But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly? (3). He feels that before he could recognise his true love all his activities were immature and rustic done for immediate gratification. The words like ‘sucked’ and ‘country pleasures’ have certain implied overtones that are used to intensify the contrast in the next line “Or snorted in the Seven Sleeper’s den?” (4). The reference of Seven Sleepers alludes to the Catholic legend of Seven Christians who fled away to escape a persecution for their faith and took shelter in a cave where they fell asleep and woke up two centuries later. The adherence to a biblical analogy reflects Donne’s own inner conflicts of his earlier faith during a time when anti-Catholic sentiments were strongly prevalent in the early seventeen century England. But the speaker at present experiences the power of true love that not only wakes their bodies up from the previous sleep of ordinary existence with some bucolic pleasures but offers a feeling of spiritual awakening: “And now good-morrow to our waking souls” (8). He now realizes “For love all love of other sights controls /And makes one little room an everywhere” (10-11). After an experience of true love he now understands that lover’s room, however tiny it may be, is the microcosm of the macro world outside. The depiction of lover’s bed as the centre for all worldly affairs is very typical in Donne’s poetry.

The speaker is not worried about the discoveries of new worlds that will ultimately change the present map of the world by widening its horizon. Rather he is obsessed with his own world – the world of love: “Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one” (14). Although the lover and the beloved hold two different worlds because of their individual identities but it is love that leads both of them to converge into a single one. He aspires to have such a union in which each of their worlds will be reflected in the eyes of the other. Their union will be so perfect like the two hemispheres of the globe but that will be “without sharp north, without declining west?” (18). This particular map with a sharp north and declining west refers to the heart shaped map of the earth known as a cordiform map that was very familiar at that time. It also shows the interest in sea voyages and expedition to discover new worlds to increase the boundaries of human knowledge as a typical characteristic of Renaissance England. But their union will be pure and perfect without the presence of any impurities because “Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally” (19). This line has multiple connotations. It is derived from the St. Thomas Aquinas’s scholastic philosophy that has an influence on Donne’s theological conception of the world and his mysticism reared in the neo-Platonic tradition. It also indicates the contemporary practice and belief in the process of alchemy for an elixir that can do miracles by converting every impure element into a pure and heavenly substance. According to the male speaker, only true love has such miraculous power that can bring an epiphany – the spiritual revelation to the waking souls. Only a perfect union of the two can make their love immortal:  “If our two loves be one, or thou and I /Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die” (20–21). The entire poem is a process through which the earthly and sensual love is transformed into a divine and agapic love.

 The poem also reads as an evolution of mind like Wordsworth who speaks about the spiritual attainment of an experienced age that comes through “the coarser pleasures of my boyish days/And their glad animal movements” (Tintern Abbey 74-75). Similarly, “The Good Morrow” is a poem of spiritual awakening from the childish coarseness as depicted in the first stanza when the lovers “sucked in country pleasures, childishly?”(3) towards a more consummate form of love that completes the evolution through a perfect union. Although the poem has been identified as a sonnet in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets (1633), it never maintains the traditional form of a sonnet that consists fourteen lines with various structures and rhyme schemes. Rather the poem is a typical piece of Donne’s love poetry that comprises twenty one irregular lines divided into three stanzas.

“The Canonization” is more explicit in its treatment of love and religion. The title of the poem itself suggests that the theme of the poem might be somewhat theological. But as the poet tries to establish a relationship between love and religious faith and gives a central focus of how lovers are canonized as saints, the entire debate is problematized. It seems paradoxical when a sacred ritual like canonization is equated with the act of love-making.  Physical love has no place in the scriptures of Christian theology that never permits to be involved in any kind of conjugal relationship.  Rather sex is repressed and treated as a taboo – an act of profanity. So when the speaker of the poem, often merges with the poetic persona, invites the readers to justify his arguments that he puts forward in favour of  his views of love that appear very odd and unconventional as the theme of traditional love poetry. But the speaker has emblematically established the possibility of a co-existence between love and religion that deconstructs man’s understanding of the concept of love and religion. The poem, in its unorthodox treatment, is truly a representative of metaphysical poetry and sometimes goes beyond any such classification.

It appears that the speaker addresses another person who is virtually present and perhaps do not approve his love affair: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love” (1). The poem is a kind of impassioned monologue through which the speaker defends his act of love against the outsider’s objection. The speaker asks him to keep quiet and not to interfere in the matter of his love. But the poem from its very beginning becomes provocative as the mention of “For God’s sake” refers to ironic overtones for the speaker’s intention to defend his love. He can allow him to comment in some other things that are insignificant when compared to love like his palsy, his gout, his five grey hairs and even his ruined fortune. The speaker advises him to pursue his own ambitions or improve his mind by studying arts. Instead of showing interest on other’s personal affairs, he should concentrate his own choices as the speaker suggests him “Take you a course, get you a place / Observe his honor, or his grace /Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face/ Contemplate; what you will, approve” (5-8). He may choose anything he likes and the speaker doesn’t care whatever he opts. The speaker asserts that the addressee should restrict himself to his own matters and therefore let him love without further interference. Besides the poem as a form of monologue, the presence of an interlocutor, a mixture of lyricism with drama and many other features is often suggested as an earlier form of ‘dramatic monologue’ and Donne is sometimes called a Jacobean Browning.

In the next stanza he goes to defend his amorous life that doesn’t affect the outside world: “Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love? (10). The irony goes deeper in the second stanza where the harmless gestures of the lover – sighs, colds, heats and so on are sarcastically pitted against a bleak, contaminated and exploitive world. The tendency to show his feeling of love in hyperboles also suggests a satirical dig towards the familiar courtly tradition of love:

What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?

Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?

When did my colds a forward spring remove?

When did the heats which my veins fill

Add one more to the plaguy bill?

Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still

Litigious men, which quarrels move,

Though she and I do love. (11-18)


While in the stanza two the speaker intends to silence the implied listener through a series of hyperbolic clichés, he remains bold for his love in the third stanza trying to manipulate the situation with his use of certain emblematic metaphors that are very heterogeneous in nature. The speaker claims that he doesn’t bother what others think of them, even if they “Call her one, me another fly” (20). People can try to belittle him by considering him a small and insignificant like a fly, but he knows that they are also tapers who at their own cost consume themselves. They are not worried what others say or think rather they can make their own estimation as they find themselves as both “the eagle and the dove” (22). They possess the qualities of both the innocence and softness of a dove as well as the fierceness and force of an eagle. In their dedication and commitment towards love they have such mysterious power that can illuminate the legendary phoenix riddle – by their perfect union to “one neutral both sexes fit” (25).  The speaker claims that as the lovers rise again after they die, they possess something miraculous, mysterious about themselves that will justify the lovers as canon of sainthood – the central argument of the poem. And through their resurrection out of the ashes of love, their amorous relationship becomes a paradox.

The fourth stanza opens with the celebration of the legacy of the love that is in no way inferior to become a legendary as the speaker feels “We can die by it, if not live by love” (28). If their love is found unfit for tombs or hearse to be commemorated, it will definitely find a place in verse. And even if there will be no historical record of their love in chronicles, the emotional impulse of their love will encourage the poets to compose sonnets where they will find “pretty rooms” (32). Here the “rooms” is used as pun that not only means a place but refers to Italian stanzas. Their love is so self-contained that it will be like the ashes of some greatest person preserved in a “well-wrought urn” (33). The urn by keeping the ashes does a justice to the memory of a dead man in the same way a tomb does spreading over half-acre land. The hymns written in the honour of their love will finally approve them as canonized for love.

This is the central idea of the poem that intends to establish the theme of love to be equated with the canonization. The poetic process completes as it proffers several arguments until the lovers are raised to the level of martyrs. In order to show that lovers are equally saintly figures with their dedications and sacrifices the poem creates paradoxical situations that are very complex and sometimes obscure. But such paradoxes are very natural to the core of the poem that obviously bears certain contradictory elements. Donne’s poetry for its paradoxes has greatly influenced the so-called New Criticism – a modern school of literary criticism. Several new critics like F. R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks and many others took their interest in the metaphysical poets especially John Donne. Brooks in his collection of critical essays The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) – the title taken from Donne’s poem “The Canonization” – upholds the view that paradox is the most fundamental to a great work of art or poetry. He asserts that the language of poetry should be the language of paradox which is an extension of the language, never a deterrent or limitation to it. He analyses the poem “The Canonization” from the view point of paradoxes and sometimes compares Donne’s complex symbolic imageries to that of Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.  In his book Brooks has also generalised that it is the “heresy” that actually works underneath to give the meaning through its various tensions. In the poem of our discussion has also an inherent, subtle form of heresy that leads the poem towards its blasphemous and self-approbatory climax – “canonized for Love” (36).

The final stanza gives the denouement with such powers of love that encompass the entire world. The speaker feels that as their amorous life is canonized, all those who hear their story will invoke them because they have “made one another’s hermitage” (38). Everybody would remember them with reverence as the saints of love who by their divine power can make the whole universe contracted and converged into the eyes of their lovers. So the eyes of the lover and beloved will reflect an image of the outside world. Their world of love will sufficiently epitomize a full panorama of the macrocosm. It becomes an inspiration to the people who will follow the paths shown by the saintly figures of love. They will be the very model of the kind of love everybody aspires: “Countries, towns, courts: beg from above /A pattern of your love! (44-45). They will set an example to the people indiscriminately and the canonization of their love will be indoctrinated as a pattern that the whole world can follow.

All the three poems mentioned above have absorbed certain important features of metaphysical poetry. Although their treatment and attitude may differ, the main focus of these poems invariably remains on love and religion. While the poem “The Flea” is more sensuous and depicting a theme quite similar to carpe diem (instant enjoyment), the poem “The Good Morrow” is all about a metaphysical awakening through a perfect physical union, but the poem “The Canonization” is more complex and paradoxical in its theme as well as treatment. The poems consist of a variety of brief and elaborate conceits that are intellectually presented to enhance the forceful fusion of emotion and faith in all these poems. Reason plays an important role in metaphysical poetry as a result of Enlightenment that tries to establish a link between artistic imagination and contemporary realities. Sometimes it culminates into apparently conflicting situations that reflect the inherent paradox of man’s eternal involvement to both – love and religion. Despite all these facts, the complexity of substance is illustrated with the simplicity of expression in all dramatic situations found in Donne’s poetry. The employment of apparently contradictory ideas to love and religion is very suggestive in Donne’s mostly analysed three poems which are indispensable to understand Donne’s love poetry in general.





Works Cited:

Brooks, Cleanth, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Np: Mariner Books, 1956. Print.

Cruttwell, Patrick. Ed. Johnson: Selected Writings. Np: Penguine Classics, 1982. Print.

Eliot, T S. ed. Selected Essays: 1917-1932. London: Faber and Faber, 1950. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the English Poets.  Np: Biblio Life, 2008. Print.

Norton, W W. Ed. Norton Anthology of Poetry. Np: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1975. Print.

Kelley, David. “The Canonization of John Donne”. Sydney Studies 12:3 (1980): 1-41. Print.

Gardner, Helen. Ed. John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays. Np: Pentice Hall Trade, 1962. Print.





Author Introduction:

Mithun DuttaMithun Dutta is a Research Scholar pursuing his Ph.D at the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University and has completed M.A in English from Banaras Hindu University. His areas of interest are Metaphysical Poetry, Modern Poetry, Absurd Drama, Harold Pinter and literary theories especially Poststructuralism,Postmodernism and Postcolonialism.










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