Answer: Love, the most felt and discussed emotion of human mind, has been a dominant theme of all branches of literature of all ages. But the treatment of love has been different from writers to writers, from poets to poets. John Donne has also used ‘love’ to be an important theme of his poetry. Since love may be different from man to man, time to time, Donne has also treated realistically love to be different from one poem to others. Thus, it is not very easy to find out a simple definition of the love from Donne’s poems.
There are mainly three strands in his love poems. Firstly, there is the cynical which is anti-woman and hostile to the fair sex. The theme is the frailty of man—a matter of advantage for lovers who liked casual and extra-marital relations with ladies. Secondly, there is the strand of happy married life, the joy of conjugal love. These poems are dedicated to the peace and fulfillment to be found in a happy marriage. Thirdly, there is the Platonic strand, as in The Canonization, where love is regarded as a holy emotion like the worship of a devotee of God. There are, however, certain poems where the sentiment oscillates between the first and the third strands—where sexual love is treated as holy love and vice versa. In some poems the tone is rugged, harsh and aggressive as in The Apparition. Much depends on the situation selected and the mood of the poet.
Donne’s treatment is realistic and not idealistic. He knows the weaknesses of the flesh, the pleasures of sex and the joy of secret meetings. However, he tries to establish the relationship between the body and the soul. True love does not pertain to the body; it is the relationship of one soul to another soul. Physical union may not be necessary as in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. However, in another poem, The Relic, the poet regards physical union as necessary. Such contradictions, however, do not mar the value of his poetry. They only tend to emphasize the dichotomy between the claims of the body and need of the soul.
In spite of the realistic touches and descriptions in the love-poems, Donne does not take pains to detail the beauty and fascination of any part of the female body. Rather he describes its effect on the lover’s heart. Here and there, he allows himself freedom to wander over the different parts of female anatomy, but like the earlier poems, he does not dwell on the charms of the lips, eyes, teeth or cheeks of a handsome mistress. It is rather surprising that a poet who is so fond of sex should abstain so totally from the temptation to dwell on the physical structure or charm of any part of the female body.
Donne does not feel that woman is a sex-doll or a goddess. She is essentially a bundle of contradictions. As such he laughs at her inconstancy and faithlessness. He believes in ‘Fraility, thy name is woman”. His contempt for woman is more than compensated by his respect for conjugal love. At times, he regards the beloved as an angel who can offer him heavenly inspiration and bliss. This two-fold attitude to woman— woman as a butterfly, and woman as an angel—depends on the situation and the mood of the poet.
While the Elizabethan love lyrics are, by and large, imitations of the Petrarchan traditions, Donne’s love poems stand in a class by themselves. Donne is fully acquainted with the Petrarchan model where woman is an object of beauty, love and perfection. The lover’s entreaties to his lady, his courtly wooing, the beloved’s indifference and the self-pity of the lover are common themes of Petrarchan poems. Such set themes are treated differently by Donne, because he has no own intimate experience to guide him.
Donne is different from Petrarch in his attitude to love. Here is wooing, but it is of a different type. The plea is a marriage bed and a holy temple of love. His courtship is aggressive, compelling and violent; there is no trace of self-pity in it. Rather there is a threat of revenge declared openly by the lover.
John Donne was the first English poet to challenge and break the supremacy of Petrarchan tradition. Though at times he adopts the Petrarchan devices, yet the imagery and rhythm, the texture and the color of the bulk of his love-poetry are different.
What surprises the reader is the variety of moods, situation and treatment of the theme of love- sensual, realistic, violent and full of vivacity of life. There is scorn, sarcasm, bitterness and cynicism at times, but the genuineness and force of love is unquestionable. Donne is one of the greatest of English love-poets. In fact, among all the English love poets, he is the only complete moralist. His capacity for experience is unique, and his conscience as a writer towards every kind of it allows of no compromise in the duty of doing justice to each. The poetry of lust has never been written with more minute truth, but then neither has the poetry of love transcending sex.