John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets do not describe a single unchanging view of love; they express a wide variety of emotions and attitudes, as if Donne himself were trying to define his experience of love through his poetry. Love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or merely a sexual one, and it can give rise to emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. Taking any one poem in isolation will give us a limited view of Donne’s attitude to love, but treating each poem as a fragment of a totality of experience, represented by all the Songs and Sonnets, it gives us an insight into the complex range of experiences that can be grouped under the single heading ‘Love’.
In To his Mistris Going to Bed we see how highly Donne can praise physical pleasure. He addresses the woman as:
Oh my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree,
The images are of physical, material wealth, and anyone reading this poem alone would think Donne’s interest in women was limited to the sexual level. He describes sex in terms of a religious experience; the woman is an ‘Angel’, she provides ‘A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise’, and the bed is ‘loves hallow’d temple’. But this is not a love poem; nowhere does he say that he loves the woman, or that sex is part of a deeper relationship.
In The Extasie Donne conveys a very different and more complex attitude to physical pleasure, when it is just one part of the experience of love.
This Extasie doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love,
Wee see by this, it was not sexe,
Wee see, we saw not what did move . . .
Love’s mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke.
The body and the soul are distinct, but related aspects of the totality of love. The uniting of souls is the purest and highest form of love, but this can only be attained through the uniting of bodies.
Soe soule into the soule may flow,
Though it to body first repaire.
This focus on the soul leads Donne to express a condescending attitude towards physical love in this poem which is in marked contrast to the attitude he expressed in To his Mistris Going to Bed.
But O alas, so long, so farre
Our bodies why doe wee forbeare?
They’are ours, the though they’are not wee. Wee are
Th’intelligences, they the spheare.
But in reading Donne one soon learns that an attitude expressed in one poem is not to be taken as absolute and exclusive. One of Donne’s characteristics is that he freely contradicts himself from one poem to another. The title of this poem, The Extasie, implies that love is a religious experience, just as the diction of To his Mistris Going to Bed conveyed sex as a religious experience. The religious metaphors give a hyperbolic intensity to his imagery, but the ideas expressed in The Extasie are firmly rooted in the scientific theories of his day.
Donne’s view that spiritual love can be attained through physical love ties in with the contemporary theory of the ‘chain of being’. Angels, presumably, could experience a totally spiritual love, unadulterated by the physical. But man, being part divine and part animal, can only reach the spiritual level through the sensual.
So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
That sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
The inherent superiority of the spiritual level, and the part love can play in refining man’s nature towards the spiritual, is expressed in these lines:
If any, so by love refin’d,
That he soules language understood,
And by good love were grown all minde
Copyright: Ian Mackean