During the English Renaissance, the world was introduced to the writings of John Donne. He was well known for his love poems and his religious poetry.(Damrosch 1586) Many other famous Renaissance colleagues tried to fathom how a man such as Donne could write into two distinct personas, a man who was a lover, and a man who was a religious Anglican priest.(Damrosch 1586) Donne was notorious for being a master at writing metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poets like Donne use paradoxical images, subtle arguments, creative syntax, imagery from art, philosophy, and religious conceits.(“Academy of American Poets”)
Many of his fans like to read his poetry as an autobiography of himself. Most importantly his readers are very interested in his love life.During his student years, Donne was described by his friend Sir Richard Baker to be, “ a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, and a great writer of conceited Verses.” ( Damrosch 1586) In other words, Donne was considered to be a ladies man and had frequent female partners while he studied in London, which gave him the inspiration to write erotic elegies.
However, as Donne grew out of his college boy years, he met and fell in love with Ann More in 1597.( Damrosch 1586) Once he met Ann, Donne’s perspective on love changed for the better in the Renaissance. To support this claim, one must analyze Donne’s poems before and after he met Ann More. However, analyzing his poems through explication will not be sufficient evidence. When explicating a poem, the text itself is being analyzed, and literary critics such as the New Critics would not want the text connected to the author and read it as autobiographical. There is the fault in this literary sense because we cannot help ourselves from reading poet’s work as autobiographical because much of their writing comes from things that they experienced themselves. There is some truth in every poem or story that the author writers. Thus, we must know Donne’s personal history and tie it with explicating his poems to figure out his intentions. We will explicate three of his poems, two of which were believed written before he met Ann, “the Bait” and “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, and “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” which is rumored to be about Ann. By, explicating the poems, we will see how Donne’s perspective on love changes drastically once he marries Ann Moore and becomes his muse for all of his love poems.
When Donne wrote “the Bait” he created the poem to parody Marlowe’s pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, and Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply.” ( Damrosch 1596) The Bait is a poem about the speaker trying to convince his lover to come with him and be his wife. He entices her to join him by promising her pleasures will be satisfied whether they are physical objects or sexual desires. He then compares his beloved to that of bait when placed in a pool of fish to describe how alluring she is. He claims that the fish would get caught because they would not be able to break away from her trance. While others may try to catch fish in deceitful ways, his lover is not deceiving. The reason the fish swim to her is because she is lovely. The poet then concludes that any fish that can escape from his love is a wiser fish than he is. The theme of the poem is allurement.The poet uses the structure of the poem, and the use of language, and imagery to accomplish the theme throughout the poem.
Structurally the poem follows something similar to a pastoral poem by having its first line start with, “come with me and be my love.” (1) Most pastoral poems start this way. The Bait has seven stanzas, with each of them having four lines in them. Within the stanzas are rhyming couplets, and the rhyming scheme looks like aabbccdd. The poem also diverges from the pastoral poem because of its subject matter. Most Pastoral poems are about shepherds and their flocks, but they do emphasize on convincing people to run away from the city life and move into the country. Instead, the Bait highly emphasizes a woman to run away with her lover and be his wife. Both forms of poems are trying to allure someone away from society, though, and run away with them.
Aside from the structure of the poem, the poet’s figurative language also aids in creating the theme of allurement. The speaker especially uses many metaphors to show how beautiful and alluring his lover is. In line 6, the poet suggests that he is “warmed by thy eyes, more than the sun.”(6) Meaning his lover’s eyes have more power to warm him than the sun ever could. By comparing his lover’s eyes to that of the sun, he is suggesting that her attractiveness is more compelling than that of the sun. He compares her to the sun and the moon when he says,”by the sun, or the moon, thou darkest both/and if myself have leave to see/I need not their light, having thee.”(14-16) The poet is stating that he does not need the sun or the moon to see ahead of him, for he has his lover as his guiding light. He shows how powerful this woman has a hold of him. The speaker would rather go without the sun or the moon because he thinks that she is his world.
Finally, imagery is also used to show how alluring the speaker’s lover is. There is much violent imagery with the fish in the pond, “let others freeze with angling reeds/ and cut their legs, with shells and weeds/ or treacherously poor fish beset/with strangling snare, or windowy net.” (17-20) The speaker is claiming that fancy lures and baits deceive fish, but in the end the fish eventually meet their demise. He emphasizes that his lover does not need different baits or lures to trick fish, “for thou thyself are thine own bait.”(26) The poet believes that his lover uses her real self to lure the fish in, and there is no deceit from her. There is also much symbolism being used by the speaker to describe that his lover’s alluring. The fish in the poem symbolize the men that are flocking to the speaker’s lover. The men cannot escape from her ability to draw them in by her looks and personality. Her alluringness can be seen especially in lines 25 to 26 when the speaker says, “for thee, thou need’st no deceit/ for thou thyself are thine own bait.” (25-26) She stands apart from other fishermen because she uses herself as her bait, instead of using fancy lures and hooks to deceive the fish/men. What the speaker is saying here is that she is her real self when the fish/men see her from afar, and even when they come closer to her, she stays the same instead of being deceitful like other baits. In the end, he believes that if any fish/man can not get caught by her beauty and allurement, they are much smarter fish/man than him.
Although Donne’s poem is a parody of another poet’s work, it is hard not to view this poem as Donne’s perspective of love. Donne acknowledges there are some absurdities of love in pastoral poetry. It can be enticing to lure your loved one to run away with you, but at some point you have to admit that the things you promised your loved one about green grass, and blue skies will all grow dark and wither away. Donne acknowledges the fact that all things eventually die but his poet counterpart Marlowe does not.
Lynn Hamilton’s explication of Donne’s “the Bait” explains Donne used a central paradox in his poem by using these words,”For thou thyself art thine own bait” ( Hamilton 12). By using these words, Hamilton argues that Donne is saying that love is a state of devouring someone while being yourself devoured simultaneously. By having the woman in the poem being the bait’ as well as being the fisherman, Donne is forcing the idea that the fish want to consume this woman just as much as she wants to eat them. ( Hamilton 12)
Hamilton also suggests that Donne points out that there are dangers in love, which is something that Marlowe does not mention. ( Hamilton 12) The danger is in the first stanza of the poem. The fish are becoming entrapped by “lines” and “hooks”. (Hamilton 13) This suggests the violence of fishing that the fisherman is tricking the fish into her lure. This type of treachery to Donne is not true love in his eyes. Donne most importantly diverges from his other pastoral poets by claiming that both parties can be a victim of love. He suggests this by making the woman bait in his poem. She can be both predator and prey at the same time, much like how partners are in relationships. There are no winners and losers, but simultaneously we are pursued while we are pursuing.(Hamilton 13)
If what Hamilton claims is true about Donne perspective of love in the Bait, then we can infer that there is some truth in the claim that Donne is a runaway from love before he meets Ann. He might have been afraid of committing to a relationship, which explains why he had so many lovers during his schoolboy years. He knew that love requires risking the chance of getting hurt, and Donne was not ready to take that leap of faith for a girl. Instead, he became a writer of erotic elegies. The most popular one in which we will explicate is his poem “To His Mistress going to Bed”. Donne had written the poem before he gained a position as a secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton in 1597, which was the same year he met Ann More.( Damrosch 1586) From this timeline, we can infer that the poem is not about Ann but about a mistress he had before Ann. In this poem, Donne is thoughtfully inviting his mistress to come to lay with him on his bed. Although the poem does suggest that Donne is instructing his mistress to take off her clothes, all of these commands are happening in his head. Some of the commands he gives in his head are, “off with that girdle. Like heaven is zone glistering/ but a far fairer world encompassing.”(5-6), and “off with that happy busk that I envy.”(11) In these lines, he is saying that she is out of this world, much like her zodiac and how her body is his world, and it encompasses him much more than the Earth does.
In another line of the poem he calls her body, “A heaven like Mahomet’s paradise: and though/ Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know/By this these angels from an evil sprite/Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.”( 21-24) When he says this, he is claiming that her body is a place of sensual pleasure. For the remaining of the poem he calls touching her body is like discovering new land. “Oh, my America! my new-found-land/ My kingdom, safliest when with one nam manned/My mine of precious stones,my empery/ How blest I am in this discovering thee!”(27-30) In these lines, Donne is saying that touching his mistress’s body is like discovering new things. He wants to claim it for himself, and he feels special knowing that she is sharing her body with him and only him. He is suggesting that sex is much like a religious experience because it involves two souls coming together.
Much of Donne’s poem is about sex and the appreciation of the woman’s body. Once Donne meets Ann More in 1597, his appreciation changes. He changes from seeing love as something as a sensual religious experience, but sees it as” the love of the mind” instead of the “ love of the body.” (John Donne’s “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”) To show this, we will explicate his poem, titled “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”. The poem is about Donne leaving his wife for a journey to France in 1611.( Terry 1598)
In “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”, Donne talks about how he does not want the parting between him and Ann to be a sad moment. He does not want Ann to “have any tear-floods, nor sigh tempests move”(6). Donne knows that other couple’s relationships base their love on a pure sensual relationship, and they crumble because they are not together at all times. The relationship between Donne and Ann is completely different from other couples. They are different from other couples because their love is “so much refined/that our selves know not what it is.”(17-18) Their love is more than physical, but they share a pure love.
Donne and Ann’s love are so great that much imagery used to how powerful their love is. He first compares their love to that of the death of a virtuous man. When a virtuous man passes away, “while some of their sad friends do say/the breath goes now, and some say, no.”(3-4) In other words, Donne says that their love is like when a virtuous man dies because there is no pain in the parting. Just like the virtuous man, Donne and Ann know that their love is virtuous and that they will stay true to each other while they are apart from one another. The man’s friends pay respects by remaining quiet, much like how Donne and Ann part from each other. Neither partner wants to make things awkward.
Another use of imagery Donne uses to profess his love for Ann is when he compares him an Ann to planetary bodies. Even though the “moving of th’earth”(9) moves underneath their feet, and the “trepidation of spheres”(11), the movement of the planets, have no effect on the couple. Ann and Donne stay constant while the world is changing around them with the Earth’s natural disasters happening such as earthquakes.
Even though Donne must leave Ann, he reassures her that their love is “like gold to airy thinness beat.”(24) He wants her to know that their love is like gold. The element of gold is very malleable, which means it can be beaten and molded into anything. Their love will be beaten into a thinness, making it almost airy to the point where it will become spiritual.( Terry 1598) Here Donne is showing off his knowledge of the elements and the sciences. By him comparing his love to gold, he is reinforcing the idea that their love is never changing. Gold has been known to be the least reactive metals, and to be the most difficult metal to destroy. (“John Donne’s A Valediction: forbidding mourning”)
After comparing their love to gold, Donne makes his most memorable conceit by calling himself and his wife “stiff twin compassess.”(26) Both of them will be forever fixed in the same position for each other, no matter how far they are away from each other. Neither lover can “move, but doth, if th’ other do.”(28) Because they need each other to make the needles of their compasses move. Once they meet again, the love that they have for each other will “grow erect”(32). The two lovers will be able to release the buildup of excitement they have to see each other. Finally, their meeting will make them complete. Ann will provide “Thy firmness makes my circle just”(35). In the sweetest way, Donne is suggesting that Ann completes his circle.
In conclusion, it is no secret now that Ann clearly is the catalyst that caused Donne to view love in a more positive way in the Renaissance. Before John Donne met Ann, he was the man that viewed love as a risk. To him, love was too much a risk because it involved him to get possibly hurt. He spoke about this in his poem, “the Bait.” Instead, he became a ladies man. He wrote eroric elegies such as “To His Mistress going to bed,” which talk about worshiping a woman’s body as a sensual religious experience. Once Donne marries Ann, he writes more love poems about how love is not a sensual experience but rather it is about having a more mindful spiritual love. By explicating Donne’s poems before and after he married Ann, and knowing his personal history, we see this drastic change in his perspective of love.