Although at times Donne adopted Petrarchan devices in his poems, his imagery, style and meter were completely different from Petrarchan love poetry. His imagery ranges from the vulgar to the sublime, from daily activities to old scientific theories; it may be of a deplorable bad taste or combine sheer originality with beauty and accuracy. His poetry displays an intellectual analysis of human experiences and desires, and contradictory views on love, truth and religion. Rhythm in Donne’s poems is secondary, and helps only, if at all, to underline ideas. Despite all its variety, Donne's work had certain recognizable stylistic features like the use of colloquial language, conventional tone and rhythms and literary devices such as equivocation, puns and metaphysical conceit. His poems displayed intelligence through logical analysis and witty argument, sometimes to the extent of being blasphemous. Donne attempted to define love by pitting the conventions about love against the actual experience of it. He decried Petrarchan one-sided love and came to the realisation that “a satisfying passion must be a mutual relationship” which would transcend the physical world. This is considered one of his most important contributions to love poetry. In 'Love's Deity' he writes, 'It cannot bee
Love, till I love her, that loves mee'
Donne's description of 'mutual' love often suggests a kind of parity between the lovers - their incompleteness without each other. The difference between the lover and beloved, however, is still maintained. The meeting of the two does not debilitate either of their identities but instead, creates a whole, as in ‘The Good Morrow’: “Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.”
Donne’s love poetry followed the Ovidian structure, where love is celebrated as a passionate physical experience. Although he considered the soul the essence of the being, and thus treated physical lust as inferior to spiritual love, he did not entirely disregard physical love. Donne insists that transcendence of the physical world is accomplished only by fulfilling and embracing bodily needs. Love without the bodies is incomplete, and souls can only flow into each other through sexual love. "So must pure lovers soules descend,
T'affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
To'our bodies turne wee then, that so
Weake men n love reveal'd may looke;
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke." (The Ecstasy)
In ‘The Canonization’, for instance,
“We two being one, are it;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.”
In Donne's Elegies, the male speakers believed in practicality, and openly admitted their interest in money and sex.
Contrary to popular tradition, Donne’s poetry did not detail the physical virtues of the subjects of his adoration. He did not talk about beauty of ‘colour and skin’, described in ‘The Undertaking’ as ‘but their oldest clothes’. In ‘The Blossom’ the delicacy of his beloved is likened to the tenderness of a flower. The main focus of Donne’s poetry is on emotional, spiritual and physical experience.
Donne’s attitude towards women varies over the range of his works. In some works we see a clear contempt towards women, for instance, in “Go, and catch a falling star”: “Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.”
He clearly views the woman as unfaithful and promiscuous. Women are compared to animals, water, things which are passive or inconsistent. In 'Community' Donne states that women are 'things indifferent' to be 'used by men', and have no moral or spiritual value. In other poems, however, women are presented as extremely desirable. In the seduction poem 'Going to Bed', the woman is land to be explored and possessed by man, and is referred to as 'my America, my new-found-land.'
Donne provides various contradictory explorations of the experience of love. On the one hand, mutual love as an experience is very important, as it leads to the union of souls and creates a private world that renders all external factors unimportant. However, on the other hand, he portrays love as the ultimate self-destructive experience, calling it a state of living death. In 'A Nocturnal', love is paradoxically identified with death. Donne, in his Divine Poems, describes man's relation with God in terms of human love. He seeks to understand the relation between a man's erotic love for a woman and the love for God that helps one attain salvation. Erotic language is often used to demand an intimate relationship with God. Donne in 'Batter my heart, three person'd God', says he is like a woman who is in love with one man (God) but betrothed to another (Satan) and asks to be rescued, even if by force; "Yet dearely' I love you, and would be lov'd faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie,
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor even chast, except you ravish mee."
Divine Poems suggest that erotic love is human beings' only means, as an experience, for apprehending a relation with God. Donne's comparisons between human love and love of God however, are not without tension, since they suggest a competition of sorts between the two. In the poem written after his wife's death, Donne's anxiety about the value of human love is expressed. The speaker says he has 'found' God who has 'fed his thirst' but he also says that with Anne(Donne's wife)'s death 'my good is dead'. Despite having found God, Donne begs for 'more love', implying that God's love is insufficient? "Since she whome i lovd hath payd her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead
And her Soule early into heaven ravished,
Wholly in heavenly things my mind is sett.
Here the admyring her my mind did whett
To seeke thee God; so streames do shew the head.
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts mee yett.
But why should I begg more Love"
John Donne, therefore, as a love poet, expresses the infinite and unstable human desire. He constantly contradicts his own views as well as general conventions, yet manages to make his work accessible and relatable. Donne's love poetry includes the whole range of the experience of love, be it human or divine, and despite being the poetry of contradictions, eventually leaves the reader with a strong feeling of love.