John Donne’s Love Poems

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Within John Donne’s love poems there many different ideas of loge presented, his attitudes towards love are contrasting as love is presented as more physical rather than emotional. Donne’s presentation of physical love can be viewed as an attempt to glorifying it. Among Donne’s poems, ‘the flea’ and ‘to his mistress going to bed’ can be viewed as attempts to glorify physical love, and attempts to reject society’s traditional view of courtly love at the time, along with equating physical love to spiritual love by transforming its physicality into a celebration of the holy union between souls and god.

Within both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ john Donne glorifies physical love. In “The Flea,” the narrator tries to seduce the woman within the poem with a surprising, and potentially gross, extended metaphor: both the narrator and the woman have been bitten by the same flea, meaning their separate blood now mingles inside the flea’s body. In the first stanza, the narrator explains to the woman that after the flea has sucked both of their blood, the two of them already become one through their blood mingling in the flea’s body, as a result, if they were to have sex it wouldn’t be “.A sin” and wouldn’t cause “shame, nor loss of maidenhead” because they have already technically done what, in Donne’s eyes, equates to having sex. Back in the 17th century, it was believed that during sex the participants’ blood would mingle so Donne’s metaphor isn’t so far fetched. Later in stanza three, after the woman has killed the flea in spite of the objection of the narrator, Donne describes her concern for the loss of chastity as “false fears” since having sex with him should be no simpler than simply killing a flea. However, back in Donne’s time, sex before marriage was considered a sin and a very big deal, and if it were found out by society, a woman could be shunned and it would make it difficult for them to find a husband.

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In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, not only is physical love presented as shameless, but it is also glorified as an exciting and happy adventure.“To His Mistress Going to Bed” is a poem of seduction. within the poem, the narrator tries to convince the woman presented to undress, get in bed, and have sex with him. The poem unfolds as the narrator of the poem attempts to persuade this woman to undress by grooming her, using pretty language mixed in with crude remarks, it can also be seen as the woman undressing throughout the poem. If the poem is taken as the woman is undressing throughout it appears that the narrator, Donne, appears to be enjoying it, as he claims that “All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be, To taste whole joys.’ and thus “full nakedness!’ is what brings him joys. The speaker also deems that the woman’s body an unexplored land that is waiting to be conquered, as he describes her body as ‘O my America! my new-found-land’ and whilst exploring it states “My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d”, this could be seen as Donne objectifying this woman. ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ therefore also celebrates physical love, much like ‘the flea’.

Donne’s glorifying of physical love consequently rejects and challenges the Petrarchan notion of love. In Petrarchan poetry, the mistresses are usually chaste and remote while the male lovers would be constantly devotional yet eventually suffering from unrequited love. In ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, however, Donne creates an entirely different scene with the idea of a courtly love being non-existent. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the woman is far from being remote to the male lover, as she has a physical presence in the poem, which is in the bedroom with the narrator. In ‘the flea’, unlike how the male lovers would usually try to win over the women with beautiful and unrealistic languages in the Petrarchan love poetry, in ‘The Flea’ the speaker uses unromantic imagery of a parasite, the flea as the metaphor for his intimate relationship with the woman, in order to persuade her to have sex with him. Most importantly, both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ stress on the immediate physical satisfaction which is a direct contrary to the chastity spirit of the Petrarchan world.

Apart from glorifying the physical nature of love and consequently breaking the Petrarchan conventional notion of love, in ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, Donne also equates the physical love with the spiritual love by transforming the mere physical union into a more holy union between the body and the soul, and even between the soul and God. In ‘The Flea’, the flea becomes the representation of the sacred and holy religious ritual of marriage between the speaker and the woman as he claims to her that “This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is’. The blood that the flea carries in its body not only represents the essence of life, but it also symbolizes different aspects of life under Donne’s pen, from the physical passion to the religious devotion. In the second stanza, the ‘three lives in one flea spare” also refers to the flea as a sacred ideal of the holy trinity of the Bible. The many religious metaphors presented in ‘The Flea’ therefore, can be regarded as an indication of Donne’s belief that the physical union with women can also bring them closer to the union with God.

Such a connection between physical love and spiritual love can be also reflected in Donne’s adaptation of the Neoplatonic conception of love in ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’. The Neoplatonic conception of love treats physical love as the lowest rung of the ladder. Once there is the appearance of physical love, it can then move onto the higher rungs of the ladder and eventually progress as the love for God and for spiritual beauty. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the speaker suggests in “As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be’ that the spiritual connection of two souls outside the body is crucial. The speaker compares the woman in the poem with an angel, as in ‘In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise’. Angel symbolizes the divine mediate between human beings and God, and therefore here in the poem the speaker believes that his love for her, physical or not, can help bring them closer to God.

Despite Donne’s many changing views of love, ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ share a lot of similarities. In both poems, Donne glorifies the physical nature of love, suggesting that it is worthy of celebration. Such glorifying of the physical love then, in turn, rejects and challenges the conventional Petrarchan notion of courtly love and its spirits of chastity. Finally, in both poems, Donne also equates physical love with spiritual love, transforming the physical union into the holy union between souls and God. 


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