Donne’s love poetry expresses a variety of amorous experiences that are often startlingly unlike each other, or even contradictory in their implications.In “The Anniversary” he is not just being inconsistent when he moves from a justification of frequent changes of partners to celebrate a mutual attachment that is simply not subject to time, alteration, appetite, or the sheer pull of other worldly enticements.For instance, a lover who is about to board ship for a long voyage turns back to share a last intimacy with his mistress: “Here take my picture” (Elegy V).
Exploiting and being exploited are taken as conditions of nature, which we share on equal terms with the beasts of the jungle and the ocean.
In “Metempsychosis” a whale and a holder of great office behave in precisely the same way: He hunts not fish, but as an officer, Stays in his court, as his own net, and there All suitors of all sorts themselves enthral; So on his back lies this whale wantoning, And in his gulf-like throat, sucks everything That passeth near.
His work is distinguished by its emotional and sonic intensity and its capacity to plumb the paradoxes of faith, human and divine love, and the possibility of salvation.
Donne often employs conceits, or extended metaphors, to yoke together “heterogenous ideas,” in the words of Samuel Johnson, thus generating the powerful ambiguity for which his work is famous.
Some of Donne’s finest love poems, such as “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” prescribe the condition of a mutual attachment that time and distance cannot diminish: Dull sublunary lovers’ love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence, because it doth remove Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love, so much refined, That our selves know not what it is, Inter-assured of the mind, Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Donne’s career and personality are nonetheless arresting in themselves, and they cannot be kept wholly separate from the general thrust of his writing, for which they at least provide a living context.
Donne was born in London between January 24 and June 19, 1572 into the precarious world of English recusant Catholicism, whose perils his family well knew. His mother, Elizabeth (Heywood) Donne, a lifelong Catholic, was the great-niece of the martyred Sir Thomas More.
After a resurgence in his popularity in the early 20th century, Donne’s standing as a great English poet, and one of the greatest writers of English prose, is now assured.
The history of Donne’s reputation is the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other body of great poetry has fallen so far from favor for so long.