John Donne is most famous now for his witty and complex love poems, but he also produced satires, occasional poems and verse letters.
Donne’s love poems are collected as the Songs and Sonnets, and the Elegies. Their bold, first-person speakers, mostly male but sometimes female, make the poems feel disconcertingly direct. The poems adopt different personae, and perspectives on love both sublime and disturbing. In the much-read ‘The Flea’, the speaker playfully chides his mistress-addressee for denying him her body, when their blood has already mingled in the flea that has bitten them both. These poems often combine elevated, hyperbolic reflections upon love, or the feeling of loving, with everyday, material things, such as a pair of compasses, intricately described. In ‘The Flea’, the speaker declares with typical extravagance that this creature is their ‘marriage-bed and marriage-temple’.
Other ‘love’ poems are darker, with misogynistic and cynical speakers. Both appealing and possessive is Donne’s elegy ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’. Its speaker impatiently demands that his lover disrobe, come to bed and ‘[l]icense my roving hands’, before praising her as his ‘America’, his ‘new-found land’, his ‘kingdom’. With these metaphors his mistress becomes, like the ‘New World’ itself, a territory to be claimed and exploited.
These sorts of poetic strategies and concerns led later poets, such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, as well as literary critics, to describe Donne as a ‘metaphysical’ poet. The label ‘metaphysical’ reflects the poems’ interest in complex and abstract ideas such as love, and their use of intricate syntax, inventive metaphors (or conceits) and detailed imagery.
Donne’s sonnets are the most well known of his devotional poems. They comprise the sequence of seven linked sonnets called ‘La Corona’ [the crown] and the 19 Holy Sonnets. The sonnet form is traditionally associated with love poetry, and Donne’s religious poems use some of the same techniques as his love poems. The speakers in the Holy Sonnets also make passionate demands of their addressees: ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’, implores the speaker in Holy Sonnet 14, urging God to enter his heart, like a siege-engine entering a ‘usurped town’; while Holy Sonnet 10, addressed to Death, demands ‘Death! be not proud… | … for thou art not so’. Paradoxes are arguably even more important than they are in the love poems. Holy Sonnet 14 closes with perhaps Donne’s most infamous and bold paradox: I will never be ‘chaste’, the speaker claims, ‘except you [God] ravish me’. The whole of Holy Sonnet 10 is dedicated to the Christian paradox that Death’s victims will in the end ‘die not’.
How did Donne’s contemporaries encounter his poems?
Donne did not print his poetry, but chose to share it with a small circle of readers and patrons, who read and circulated it in manuscript. This makes it difficult to date many of his works. Donne’s poems were very sought after, and his reputation was high: the first printed collection of Donne’s Poems (1633) describes them as ‘the best in this kinde, that ever this Kingdome hath yet seene’. This collection, however, omitted the well-known elegy, ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’.