Donne wrote some of the most accomplished poetry about love that the English language has to offer. More than mere songs of courtship, Donne's lyrics meditate on love in all its varied manifestations -- from its futility to its possibility, from... [more]
Donne wrote some of the most accomplished poetry about love that the English language has to offer. More than mere songs of courtship, Donne's lyrics meditate on love in all its varied manifestations -- from its futility to its possibility, from its disappearance to its ability to grant unearthly bliss. Where other poets name their lovers, describe them, tease them out of the verse, Donne kept the objects of his devotion anonymous. Even while "hands firmly cemented" or "two shadows" give evidence of a lover's presence, his poems never founder in pure physicality. The corporeal world is important, but only as the loam from which the lover springs into the ethereal. In poems like "The Ecstasy," physical love catapults the soul into the contemplative stratosphere. Donne explored love at its most elusive and flagrantly present, for he was ultimately a Metaphysical poet. He took our nakedness in moments of love as an occasion to peer into the recesses of mind and soul. His poetry bursts with conceits and riddles -- love can be the bite of a flea or a teardrop -- in order to tease the mind from the physical into the psychological. At bottom, his work is grounded in intellectualism, not sentimentality. (Many in his day criticized him for such elitist ventures.) Religion and death also occupied the poet. Born Catholic in a time of extreme anti-Catholic sentiment, Donne converted to Anglicanism after his brother's murder. Out of this experience came the "Holy Sonnets," religious poetry that is profound, not exactly for its subject matter, but for its emotional intensity. Donne examined death in much the same way he examined love -- that is, from all angles. For Donne, death came in many guises: it might simply be a form of sleep, a manifestation of God's will, or humanity's ever-dreaded ill. As always, life's sublime moments provided him fuel for intellectual speculation. He dug his hands deep to get at the roots of both knowledge and emotion. He wanted to know how death tasted, but also what it meant. Donne, who anticipated death in many of his poems, orated his own "Death Sermon" just a few weeks before his final exit in 1631.