Selected Poems by John Donne

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‘That loving wretch that swears,/'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,’ – As is, on occasion, stated in the poetry of Donne himself.

‘Which he in her angelic finds,’ – Not only is love between minds, but a woman’s mind can be ‘angelic:’ truly spiritual and intuitive, rather than material and rational.

‘Would swear as justly, that he hears,/In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.’ – The ‘day’ is the day of the ‘bridegroom’s play’ which would have involved raucous music. The music of the spheres was regarded as reflecting the perfect harmony of creation. There were nine concentric spheres surrounding the earth, each of which produced a pure note, which combined to a perfect chord. As we always hear this chord, we are never aware of it. You certainly couldn’t hear it during a ‘bridegroom’s play.’

‘Hope not for mind in women; at their best,/Sweetness and wit, they are but mummy, possess'd.’ – ‘mummy’, here, refers to the purely physical, dried and dead form of the human body. Once he ‘possesses’ a woman, a man will find she has no mind, and, while she is obviously alive, she is, nonetheless, little more than ‘mummy.’ In this, Donne’s speaker is following a small group of (heretical) Christian writers who had argued that women do not possess souls.

Language

As in so many of Donne’s poems, his imagery is drawn from a wide variety of disparate sources: mining, alchemy, the bridal practices of his day. His register is frequently ironically heightened: ‘centric happiness,’ ‘some odoriferous thing,’ and sometimes, by contrast, comically coarse, as when he is punctures the alchemical bubble with ‘glorifies his pregnant pot.’ The modifiers in ‘vain bubble’s shadow’ are thought-provoking; it is, indeed, difficult to imagine anything more transient and evanescent than the shadow of a bubble.

Structure

The rhyme scheme is AABBACDDCCEE; the metrical pattern 10-10-7-10-10-6-10-8-8-10-10-10. As we might expect, Donne’s long stanza form contains numerous irregularities, which serve to undermine our expectations, as does the argument of the poem. The shorter lines are frequently used to puncture these expectations (e.g. ‘O! ‘tis imposture all,’), while the frequency of couplets in the rhyme scheme gives extra point to Donne’s witty argumentation. This is best seen in the epigrammatic final couplet.

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John Donne