ThemesLove and Sex in Donne
"Before I sigh my last gaspe, let me breath,
Great love, some Legacies;" ("The Will").
Donne left us some of the great love poetry of the Renaissance era. Through his best poems, one can trace a path through the various human conditions in the relationship between the sexes - from euphoria to heartache, lust to reverential subordination to his lover. Donne's poetry covers a wider scope of love situations than we find in almost any other writer - more than Petrarch, Dante, or any of the Classical poets. One finds the claustrophobic, frustrated passion of "The Apparition", "Love's Deity" and "Twickenham Garden" next to the contented strains of "The Sunne Rising", "The Canonization" and "The Undertaking". One also finds the touching, mournful tones of "The Expiration" and the death-awaiting "A Fever" next to the carefree liberty of "The Indifferent" and "Confined Love".
Sex, however, can be seen as quite distinct from love in Donne. Not until he meets Anne More do his feelings stray outside those of a seventeenth-century playboy, pleased to dally (at least theoretically) with the hearts of the young women he meets. John Dryden says that Donne's love poems were "calculated to perplex the minds of the fair sex with the nice speculations of philosophy". Perhaps his desires stretched to perplexing them enough that they might fall into bed with him, but his ideal was for one of the high powered women to whom he sent his poems to become his patron (and thus provide him with a salary). He was not committed to a particular philosophical system, but happy to adapt those of his period (including controversial and even heretical ones - see Carey) in order to tempt his lovers - on paper - into discarding their inhibitions.
Donne's work is often, if not always, separated between the first satires and elegies (mainly from the 1590s, it is believed), the Songs and Sonnets love poems and the (presumably) later religious poetry. It is extremely pertinent that this break comes almost exactly at the point that he met Anne More. Whilst one does not wish to put to great a weight on biographical details when we know so little about the dates of the poems, it seems that Donne's feelings for Anne transcended all the emotions he felt for the girls of his youth (indeed, he sacrificed his career for her). In the love sonnets, one gets the impression of the author as a Romeo-figure, in love with the art of being in love, changeable and ready to renege on the heady promises he makes at the slightest whim. His poetic voice suggests that he is ardent in his refusal to be tied down:"I can love her, and her, and you, and you,
I can love any, so she be not true." ("The Indifferent").
In his earlier poetry, his sexual satisfaction is notably frank in its expression:
"So, to one neutrall thing both sexes fit,
Wee dye, and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love." ("The Canonization").
It is only after the repudiation of his youth's superficiality, and his true embracing of all things religious, that Donne seems to give up his passion for passion.
The line, however, is not so clean cut. Many critics have seen the stability of his love for Anne as the base upon which his love for God was founded, and superseded. "Holy Sonnet XVII" has been seen as crucial in the transformation of Donne from the frivolous love and society poet into Donne the profound spiritual commentator. If one reads the poem closely, one can see that - as in Eliot's Four Quartets where one can see some of Eliot's earlier guises lying beneath the surface - traces of the younger Donne can be found in his Holy Sonnets. In "Holy Sonnet XVII", Donne writes:"Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt
To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is sett."
Whilst this has rightly seen as an abnegation of worldly things in the aftermath of his true love's death, the reason for Donne's mind being set "on heavenly things" is perhaps not what one would expect. In dissecting these lines, one notices that it is only now that his love has "payd her last debt" that he moves away from earthly things. Therefore, his mind follows his love to heaven, rather than abandoning his love of her in exchange for a love of God. Donne's spirituality is thus given a very firm root in his worldly love. There is an intermingling of philosophies that goes beyond the transition from lustful, terrestrial thoughts to those on a higher plane. Like Eliot's, Donne's poetry seems to have become more lucid
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