John Donne's Poetic Philosophy of Love By Dr. David Naugle Stand still, and I will read to thee, A lecture, love, in love's philosophy. —John Donne, “Lecture upon the Shadow”
For the enormously complex and vexed John Donne (1572-1631), the one in whom all “contraries meet,” (Holy Sonnet 18), life was love—the love of women in his early life, then the love of his wife (Ann More), and finally the love of God. All other aspects of his experience apart from love, it seems, were just details. Love was the supreme concern of his mind, the preoccupation of his heart, the focus of his experience, and the subject of his poetry. The centrality and omnipresence of love in Donne’s life launched him on a journey of exploration and discovery. He sought to comprehend and to experience love in every respect, both theoretically and practically. As a selfappointed investigator, he examined love from every conceivable angle, tested its hypotheses, experienced its joys, and embraced its sorrows. As Joan Bennett said, Donne’s poetry is “the work of one who has tasted every fruit in love’s orchard. . .” (134). Combining his love for love and his love for ideas, Donne became love’s philosopher/poet or poet/philosopher. In the context of his poetry, both profane and sacred, Donne presents his experience and experiments, his machinations and imaginations, about love.1 Some believe that Donne was indeed “an accomplished 1 Louis Martz notes that “Donne’s love-poems take for their basic theme the problem of the place of love in a physical world dominated by change and death. The problem is broached in dozens of different ways, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by asserting the immortality of love, sometimes by declaring the futility of love” (169). In any case, the overwhelming question for Donne, according to Martz, was “what is the nature of love, what is the ultimate ground of love’s being?” (172). N. J. C. Andreasen has devoted a whole book to the subject of Donne’s philosophy of love in which he deals with what he called “the central problem in Donne’s love poetry: the nature of love dramatized in each poem and the attitude expressed by the poem toward that kind of love and toward the nature and purpose of love in general” (13).
philosopher of erotic ecstasy” (Perry 2), but such a judgment seems to be too much. T. S. Eliot’s observations about Donne in this regard are more exact. In his whole temper, indeed, Donne is the antithesis of the scholastic, of the mystic and of the philosopher system maker. . . . Perhaps one reason why Donne has appealed so powerfully to the recent time is that there is in his poetry hardly any attempt at organisation; rather a puzzled and humorous shuffling of the pieces. . . . His attitude towards philosophic notions in his poetry may be put by saying that he was more interested in ideas themselves as objects than in the truth of ideas. . . . The usual course for Donne is not to pursue the meaning of the idea, but to arrest it, to play catlike with it, to develop it dialectically, to extract every minim of the emotion suspended in it (8, 11, 12-13). Donne was not an accomplished philosopher of eroticism per se, but rather a psychological poet who philosophized about love, sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously.2 The question, thus, arises as to the nature and content of Donne’s philosophy of love serendipitously expressed in his sacred and profane poetry. In this paper I will attempt to answer this question by arguing that the Ovidian and Petrarchan traditions of erotic love poetry (upon which Donne drew in his own compositions) which raise
2 Contrariwise, A. J. Smith writes that “The poems themselves show him consciously formalizing his experience [of love] in a precise scholastic way” (131). On the other hand, N. J. C. Andreasen views Donne as “a great poet and psychologist rather than a great philosopher” (19). Furthermore, this same critic writes that “. . . determining whether...
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