You can’t pretend a man is an alchemist and not have the gold. It is therefore an undated poem, probably written for the woman he married, Anne More, in her twenties, known as ‘Love’s Growth’ –
I hardly believe that my love is so pure
As I had thought,
Because it lasts
Vicissitude and season like grass;
It seems to me that I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring did not do more.
But if this medicine, love, which heals all sorrows
With in addition, not only to be without quìntes sens,
But mixed with all the painful stuffs of the soul or the senses,
And from the Sun its working vigor borrows,
Love ain’t as pure and abstract as they use it
To say, who have no other mistress than their Muse;
But, like everything else being also an element,
Love would sometimes contemplate, sometimes do.
And yet not greater, but more eminent,
Love by spring is cultivated,
As in the firmament
Stars near the Sun are not magnified but shown.
Sweet acts of love, like flowers on a branch,
From the awakened root of love now bud.
If as in restless water no more circles be
Produced by one, likes such additions to take;
Those, like many spheres, but one sky do,
For they are all concentric with you;
And although each spring adds a new warmth to love –
As princes do in time of action
New taxes, and don’t put them in peace –
No winter will diminish the increase of spring.
Read the opening stanza and all the oxygen within five miles rushes in to greet you. It’s a poem with happy stuff and puns. “But if this medicine, love, which heals all sorrows / With more” is a small private gift for Anne More.
Donne incorporated the idea of the accumulation of time and the accumulation of love into the structure of the poem. Twenty-four verses of 10 syllables, plus four out of six (i.e. 24): the hours of the day. Seven rhymes per stanza: the days of the week. Twenty-eight lines in the poem: the days of a lunar month, each day being part of the growth of love.
Love, he writes, is a mixture of elemental things: “like everything else being equally elemental” – and so “love sometimes contemplates, sometimes does”. Donne is more daring than it seems: the ideal of the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas was the “mixed life”, that of contemplation and action. Donne diverts the Aquinian ideal and turns it towards its own erotic goal: the “doing” is sex. It’s the same momentum as in another poem, “Ecstasy”, where bodies must unite as well as minds, “otherwise a great prince lies in prison”. Real sex, he insists, is the soul playing out in the flesh.
“Love’s Growth” is built on the idea of seemingly endless love, doing more – which, once you’ve read everything he wrote, is completely unsurprising. Donne was an infinite merchant; the word is everywhere in his work. More than infinity: super-infinity.
A few years before his own death, Donne preached a funeral sermon for the poet George Herbert’s mother, Madeleine, who would “dwell bodily with this righteousness, in these new heavens and this new earth, forever and ever, and infinite and super – infinite forever”. In another sermon he wrote how we would one day be with God in “infinite, super-infinite, unimaginable space, millions upon millions of unimaginable spaces in the sky”. He liked to invent formations with the super-prefix: super-edifications, super-exaltation, super-death, super-universal, super-miraculous. It was part of his attempt to invent a language that would go beyond language, because infinity was not enough.
This version of Donne – excessive, hungry, nostalgic – is ubiquitous in love poetry. Sometimes it was carried lightly: who still wrote about nudity with more gaiety, more jokes? Then there’s the wilder, oddly provocative Donne, typified by the poem most people know him for, “The Flea.” The speaker watches a flea crawl over the body of the woman he desires:
Mark but this chip, and mark in this
How little you refuse me!
Me it sucked first, and now it sucks you,
And in this chip, our two bloods have mingled.
When the poem was first printed in 1633, typesetters used the “long s,” a letter that almost looks like an f, for the words “sucked” and “sucked”: giving readers of the third verse a another, more extravagant rendering.
There’s the meatiness and madness of sex in his work – but more so: Donne’s poetry believed in finding eternity through another person’s human body. It becomes akin to the sacrament. Sacramentum is the Latin Bible translation of the Greek word for mystery: and Donne knew this when he wrote: “We die and rise again, and prove / Mysterious by this love. He knew the awe: “Every measure and every tongue I should pass / Shall I say what a miracle she was.” And in “The Ecstasy”, love is both a mystery and its solution. He had to invent a word, “without perplexity”, to explain:
“This ecstasy never leaves one perplexed,”
We said “and tell us what we like…”
But as all many souls contain
Mix of things, they don’t know what,
Love these mixed souls that mix again,
And make the two one, each this and that.
“Every this and that”: his work suggests that we could travel beyond the brutal realities of masculine and feminine. In “The Undertaking”, probably written around the time he met Anne, the body can take you to a place of fusion:
If, like me, you do too
Virtue dressed in a woman see,
And dare to like it, and say it too,
And forget the “he” and the “she”…
His poetry crossed the gender binary and left him gasping on the floor. It’s also in ‘The Relic’: ‘We knew no more than gender difference / Than our guardian angels’ – because it was believed that angels didn’t need gender. He offered the possibility of sex as transformation: and we are more tempted to believe it when he says it, because it is the same man who admits, elsewhere, the feverishness, the disappointment and the wickedness in love. He’s lively, funny, mean, flippant, and deadly serious. He shows us that poetry is the thing – perhaps the only thing – that can hold love in words long enough for us to look at it honestly.
Sometimes religious outsider and social disaster, sometimes famous preacher and darling of the establishment, John Donne was incapable of being just one thing. He reinvented himself and reinvented himself again and again: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, challenger, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the king, dean of the most beautiful cathedral in London. It is traditional to imagine two Donnes – Jack Donne, the young debauchee, and Dr. Donne, the older and wiser priest, a divided Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend – but he was infinitely more varied and unpredictable than that.
We are, he believed, creatures born transformable. He knew the transformation into misery: “But O, self-traitor, I bring / The spider loves, who transubstantiates everything / And can convert manna into gall” – but also the transformation accomplished by beautiful women: “We have she informed, but transubstantiates you.
And then there was the transformation of himself: from failure and scarcity, to recognition in his lifetime as one of the finest minds of his time; someone whose work, if allowed under your skin, can deliver a joy so violent it tears the metal from your knees, and a sorrow great enough to devour you. Because amid all of Donne’s reinventions, there was one constant in his life and work: he remained true to his belief that we humans are both a disaster and a miracle.