Summary of Major Poems

"The Sunne Rising"

As with the vast majority of Donne's Songs and Sonnets, this poem cannot be dated accurately. They form the most famous part of his output and yet are likely to have come from a variety of different times in his career. This poem is one of Donne's most optimistic and also one of his best. The conceit he uses here is to address the sun directly, reprimanding it for interrupting the nighttime pursuits of the poet and his lover. He begins in a jocular and ironic tone:

"Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtains call on us?"

Donne suggests that the sun go about its other daily jobs and leaves him and his lover alone. It must be remembered that Donne lived in a world whose knowledge of itself was fast growing with the exploration of Magellan and Ralegh. Thus the references to India and the sun's passage across the world are of current interest to Donne's audience. Furthermore, Donne's use of scale highlights the dichotomy between the microcosm of Donne and his lover in bed, and the size of the world outside. What is notable about this poem is the fact that Donne does not describe the physical characteristics of his lover. He seems more taken with the intricate conceits he is weaving into his poetry than he does with the woman he is supposedly writing the poem for. This is a trend that is found throughout much of Donne's early love poetry.

"Lover's Infinitenesse"

This is one of Donne's more serious love poems, expressing the lover's concern that his lover does not love him entirely, and therefore the accompanying rigmarole of loving (remember that this is the age of Courtly Love) is too tiresome to continue. Once again the lover being addressed is faceless and nameless and exists as a representative figure rather than a truly human love interest. The poem explores the feeling, that many lovers have experienced, that since one can never fully possess anyone, the act of trying (the ultimate aim of any lover) is a futile one. The sense of sharing an emotional common ground with Donne is strong in this and other poems, and is a major reason for Donne's continued popularity above his near contemporaries like John Milton and Edmund Spenser.


Most recently recycled in a song by the Spice Girl Melanie C, the opening lines of this poem are amongst the most famous composed by Donne or any other poet: 'Goe, and catche a falling starre...'. The poem, like many of Donne's early works, deals with the theme of woman's inconstancy. Donne sets up a series of impossible tasks, all of which are easier to perform than finding a faithful woman. The breaking of tetrameter in lines seven and eight highlights the tension in the poem and foregrounds the stresses on 'finde' and 'winde' which would have made more powerful a public reading of the poem. This poem is an early example of Donne's use of irony when dealing with the subject of women.

"The Flea"

This poem is often used as the prime example of the Metaphysical Poets' use of conceits. The poet is attempting to persuade his lover to join him in physical as well as spiritual communion. He claims that because a flea has bitten both of them, thus mixing their bodily fluids, they should now be able to mix other fluids. This poem is a good example of Donne using his poetry to impress his audience rather than to seduce his lover. It is debatable whether any woman would truly fall for this elaborate and overwrought form of sexual persuasion (see Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" for more of this technique). One gets the impression that Donne is using the poem as evidence of his fine wit or sheer nerve. However, "The Flea" is one of Donne's most accomplished love poems and one cannot help but be impressed by his playful arrogance in the complexity of the conceit he uses.

"Holy Sonnet V"

Donne's Holy Sonnets break hugely in style from the often lascivious love poetry of his youth. They perhaps provide the best example in all literature of the difference between an author's naïve and youthful poetry and his more mature work. Perhaps the best of the Holy Sonnets is "Holy Sonnet V" which expresses in religious terms the microcosmic conceit of "The Sunne Rising":

"I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements and an Angelicke spright
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die."

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