John Donne (1572 – 1631) was an English poet who has been often termed as the greatest love poet in the English language. He is also noted for his religious verse. Donne is the best known representative of the metaphysical poets. Metaphysical poetry is a term used to classify poems by a group of 17th-century English poets. It is characterized by use of literary elements of similes, metaphors, imagery, paradoxes, conceit and far-fetched views of reality. The poems of Donne often contain abrupt explosive openings; and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. Apart from these features, he is known for frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, tense syntax and tough eloquence. All these elements are considered a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry. Know more about the poetry of John Donne through his 10 most famous poems including The Flea, The Good-Morrow, Death Be Not Proud and The Sun Rising.
#10 A Hymn to God the Father
Alternate Title: To Christ
This poem begins with the speaker asking God to forgive him for the sin he has done before his birth, most probably a reference to the Original Sin involving Adam and Eve in the Christian religion. Through the poem, the poet confesses and asks forgiveness for his various sins and follows it with “When thou hast done, thou hast not done”, i.e. he is not done yet and has more sins to confess. In this line, John Donne puns upon his own surname perhaps to identify himself as the one who has committed those sins. The poem ends with the speaker asking God to swear an oath that he will be true to his promise that his son Christ will take the poet to Heaven; and then the speaker is finally satisfied. A Hymn to God the Father is one of the most famous religious poems by John Donne.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
#9 The Dream
This poem begins with the dream of the speaker being interrupted by the woman about whom he was dreaming. The speaker enjoys the arrival of his beloved and wants to continue his dream in real life. He then goes on to praise the beauty of his lover. He compares her first to an angel and then to a goddess who is superior to angels as she knows his feelings and thoughts. In the last and third stanza, the poet is critical of his divine lover as she is rising and getting up to leave. He accuses her of worldly considerations like fear of disgrace which are not befitting for a goddess. The poet then compares himself to a torch and his beloved to the person who lights that torch. He ends the poem deciding to continue his dream and hopes for an early return of his lover. The Dream is an intensely sexual poem and one of Donne’s best known erotic works.
Dear love, for nothing less than thee
Would I have broke this happy dream;
It was a theme
For reason, much too strong for fantasy,
Therefore thou wak’d’st me wisely; yet
My dream thou brok’st not, but continued’st it.
Thou art so true that thoughts of thee suffice
To make dreams truths, and fables histories;
Enter these arms, for since thou thought’st it best,
Not to dream all my dream, let’s act the rest.
#8 Go and catch a falling star
Alternate Title: Song
Song, often known by its first line, “Go and catch a falling star“, is an unusual poem by Donne as in it he doesn’t use the extended metaphors which can be found in his greatest poems. Nevertheless, it remains one of his best known works. In the poem, the speaker asks the reader to perform a number of impossible tasks like catching a falling star, finding why the devil has cloven feet or teaching him how to hear the songs of mermaids. He then tells the reader that after all that you will be able to swear that if a woman is “fair” or attractive, she will not be faithful. The poet ends by saying that if you do manage to find such a woman and even if she lives next door, before I reach her she would have been unfaithful to several men. Though the tone of the poem is light-hearted, the speaker’s belief that all beautiful women are unfaithful is grave. The poem is considered misogynist by many people due to its message.
If thou find’st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
#7 The Canonization
This poem is addressed to one friend from another. The speaker asks his friend to let him love and if his friend must criticize him, then let it be for his other faults. He argues that no harm has ever been done by his love and the world goes on unaffected by it. The speaker then describes how deeply he and his lover are in love claiming that their love will live on in legend, even if they die. He adds that such is the power of their love that it will see them canonised, or declared saints. The speaker ends by stating that even whole countries, towns and courts yearn to know such love. The Canonization is a widely acclaimed poem and it is seen as exemplifying Donne’s wit and irony. Despite its wit, it neither mocks religion by exalting love beside it nor aims to poke fun at love by comparing it to sainthood.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for Love.
#6 Batter My Heart, Three-personed God
Alternate Title: Sonnet XIV
Batter My Heart is part of John Donne’s series of 19 poems known as Holy Sonnets, Divine Meditations or Divine Sonnets. The poems in the collection were written at different points of his life though all were first published in 1633. This poem was written after he became an Anglican priest. Despite that, it is full of the same erotic language we find in his earlier love poems. In it, Donne employs violent and sexual imagery while he directly addresses God. He asks God to stop merely trying to persuade him and instead use his divine power to “break me and remould me into someone new“. The sonnet ends with a very daring declaration by the speaker for God to “ravish“ him. Batter My Heart is among the best known poems of Donne’s Holy Sonnets and one of the most dramatic devotional lyrics in the English language.
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
#5 The Sun Rising
The Sun Rising is a poem about lovers being so much in their world of bliss that they find no use of the sun but to warm them. It is one of the most famous love poems by John Donne. In it, the speaker addresses the sun directly. He begins with scolding the sun for disturbing him and his lover while they are in bed; and asks it to go bother someone else like boys who are late for school. He then challenges the strength of the sun by saying that he could eclipse its rays with a wink. But he wouldn’t do that as that would also mean that he won’t be able to see his lover. He then tells the sun that his lover is above all kings; and beside him in bed are all the riches and gold that he could ever want. He ends by saying that it is the duty of the sun to warm the world and, as it has warmed him and his lover, his duty is done as they are the world.
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
#4 A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
John Donne is perhaps most famous for his poetry that explores love and this poem is one of his best known works in the genre. It was written in 1611 or 1612 for his wife Anne More before he left on a trip to Continental Europe. The speaker of the poem is about to part from his beloved for a long duration and though he deeply loves her, he says they should not mourn their separation. He then uses a sequence of metaphors, each describing a way to look at the occasion of their separation without mourning. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is notable for its use of conceits and ingenious analogies to describe the couple’s relationship. It is one of the most famous poems which describe the parting of lovers.
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.
#3 The Flea
In this poem, the speaker is trying to seduce his lover to sleep with him. He uses an elaborate conceit of a flea to make his argument. He says that since the flea has bitten both him and his lover, their bloods have mingled in its body already. And as their bodily fluids are already being shared, then what is the harm in their physical union. In the second stanza, he holds the idea that the flea is their marriage bed and urges his lover not to kill it as she would be committing the crime of killing three: herself, himself, and the flea itself. The lady, in the third stanza, kills the flea, presumably rejecting the speaker’s advances. However, he ends by claiming that she would lose no more honour in sleeping with him than she has already lost by killing the flea. An erotic metaphysical poem, The Flea is full of sexual imagery and is one of the most popular poems by John Donne.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
#2 The Good-Morrow
The Good-Morrow describes the thoughts of a lover when he wakes up next to his beloved. In the first stanza the speaker wonders what did he and his beloved do before they fell in love. He compares their life before finding true love to childhood and sleep. In the second stanza, he states that their souls have been joined in pure love and they don’t need to explore anywhere as love ‘makes one little room an everywhere.’ The final stanza highlights their harmonious union which has made them inseparable and immortal. A poem about evolving love, The Good-Morrow moves from sensual love to spiritual love, which is liberated from fear and the need to seek adventure. It has been a subject of much literary interpretation and criticism. The Good-Morrow is the most famous love poem of arguably the best writer in the genre.
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 mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
#1 Death Be Not Proud
Alternate Title: Sonnet X
Along with Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, John Donne is regarded as the most important sonnet writer of the Elizabethan era. Death Be Not Proud is part of his 19 poems known as Holy Sonnets. In it, Donne directly speaks to Death, as though he is a person. Donne tells him not to be proud due to the awe in which people hold him because he can’t truly kill anyone as their souls live on in the afterlife. He goes on to compare death to “rest and sleep”, which he considers pleasurable, and infers that death would be more pleasurable. He concludes by saying that after death people awake into eternal life leading to the death of death itself. Death Be Not Proud is the most famous poem of John Donne with its opening lines especially being extremely popular.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.