John Donne’s Poetic Philosophy of Love For the enormously complex and vexed John Donne (1572-1631), the one in whom all “contraries meet,” (Holy Sonnet 18), life was love—the love of women in his early life, then the love of his wife (Ann More), and finally the love of God. All other aspects of his experience apart from love, it seems, were just details. Love was the supreme concern of his mind, the preoccupation of his heart, the focus of his experience, and the subject of his poetry.
The centrality and omnipresence of love in Donne’s life launched him on a journey of exploration and discovery. He sought to comprehend and to experience love in every respect, both theoretically and practically. As a self appointed investigator, he examined love from every conceivable angle, tested its hypotheses, experienced its joys, and embraced its sorrows. As Joan Bennett said, Donne’s poetry is “the work of one who has tasted every fruit in love’s orchard. . . ” Combining his love for love and his love for ideas, Donne became love’s philosopher/poet or poet/philosopher.
In the context of his poetry, both profane and sacred, Donne presents his experience and experiments, his machinations and imaginations, about love. Some believe that Donne was indeed “an accomplished philosopher of erotic ecstasy” (Perry 2), but such a judgment seems to be too much. Louis Martz notes that “Donne’s love-poems take for their basic theme the problem of the place of love in a physical world dominated by change and death. The problem is broached in dozens of different ways, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by asserting the immortality of love, sometimes by declaring the futility of love”.
Donne was not an accomplished philosopher of eroticism per se, but rather a psychological poet who philosophized about love, sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously. The question, thus, arises as to the nature and content of Donne’s philosophy of love serendipitously expressed in his sacred and profane poetry. I will also argue that this particular philosophical perspective in Donne established the basis for the intimate connection between his profane and sacred poetry in which religious and sexual themes are closely linked and intermeshed.
After briefly touching on the intellectual atmosphere in which Donne worked, I will proceed to examine the Ovidian and Petrarchan traditions in Donne’s amatory lyrics, and their respective contributions to his philosophy of love. The subject of Petrarchism was “love,” of course, emotional and spiritual love “conceived as a noble way of life, and the lover as an aristocrat of feeling” (Guss 49). Donne’s development in his profane poetry of the nobility and aristocracy of Petrarchan love was by means of these essential themes including, . . . he proem, the initiation of love [“The Good Morrow”] , the complaint against the lady’s obduracy [“Twickenham Garden”], the expression of sorrow at parting [“The Expiration”], the remonstrance against the god Love [Love’s Exchange”], the elegy on the lady’s death [“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day”], and the renunciation of love [“Farewell to Love”]. Other common themes are the lady’s eyes, her hair, her illness [“The Fever”], the dream [“The Dream”], the token [“A Jet Ring Sent”], the anniversary of love [“The Anniversary”], and the definition of love [“Negative Love”].
How can a man and a woman achieve a love which is not based on rank sensuality, and yet which recognizes human physicality and ascribes a proper role and function to the body? How can a man and woman love one another with deep spiritual intensity and soulful devotion, and yet at the same time stop short of romantic or emotional idolatry? How can both components of humanity—body and soul—be brought together into a happy synthesis to create a love that eschews the problems of Ovidian immorality and Petrarchan idolatry, but is rather ordinate and rightly ordered?
The answers to these questions and the resolution of these tensions are found in Donne’s concept of idealized love generated largely under the influence of a Christian Platonism which establishes the sine qua non of his philosophy of love. It is a philosophy of love that seeks to balance the roles and establish right relations between both body and soul. Donne’s perspective is an attempt at integration, at wholeness, a striving at the reconciliation of opposing, dialectical forces.
It seems that ever since the fall of humanity, life has been characterized by division and fragmentation: God vs. man, heaven vs. earth, man vs. woman, body vs. soul, action vs. contemplation, theory vs. practice, and so on. Donne seeks to heal and harmonize at least one aspect of a divided world: his view is body and soul, not body or soul. He defines and describes the component parts of love in light of the comprehensive nature of humanity. His position would seem to answer the questions and resolve the tensions created by the Ovidian and Petrarchan traditions in his love poetry.
It would avoid the Ovidian problem of sexual immorality, and Petrarchan problem of romantic idolatry. Love is powerful, and it may very well abuse the body or the soul in its quest for satisfaction. But it can be rightly ordered as well. Donne’s outlook finds an appropriate place for both the body and the soul in a rightly ordered love. When coupled with his devotional poetry, the pattern indeed becomes complete, for it is in the love of God, which is the highest of all love, that human love itself finds its meaning and final reference point.
If it is true that all human love has as its source and meaning in the very love of God, then there must be a reciprocal relationship between these two forms of love, the infinite and the finite. God’s love validates human love, and human love reflects and images God’s. There is an intimate connection between love both human and divine. This would certainly be true in Donne’s Christian Platonism in which all things on earth, including human love, are a reflection of and point to things in heaven.