Donne’s: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

As often in Donne’s poems, the chasm between those within the web of love and those without is apparent in “A valediction: Forbidding mourning“.  Why would one wish to forbid that which comes most naturally at the instant of separation?  The act of mourning is not solely directed towards the outside, it consoles the self, by following what has been proscribed we attempt to bring back to our lives a semblance of the order that existed before the loss.  To mourn is to withdraw from the world, and the inventory one takes of what has remained after the shock of amputation is not unlike the withdrawal of the snail into its shell when confronted with a sudden movement, a displacement.  Yet Donne is hardly given to valourizing what comes naturally.  It is difficult to speak of a word that Donne may not have used for this poem. “Mourn” does not occur in the poem itself, and the title may not be Donne’s.

To speak of the division between the lovers and those removed is easier. The fact that I use the word division is perhaps potent.  Donne is apparently speaking of a separation of bodies, an insertion of space between the lovers.  This geographical distance must be expressed with geo-navigational metaphors, so Donne speaks of the compass and the spheres.  The poem then becomes a map for true lovers to set down the “correct” mode of parting as it were.  Does Donne’s poem become a navigational aid?

It must fail if it presumes to become the manual for the moment of departure, not only because it may not be possible to adapt it to the last touch before the lover boards the airplane, but due to its reliance on the language of faith.  If we are to absorb the truth of faith, “prophanation” and “layetie”, we must be convinced of the uniqueness of one’s relationship with the divine.  Faith when adapted for mass consumption must necessarily be reduced to religion.  This argument rebounds upon itself when we realize that Donne is prescribing exactly this.  In a world that values the vulgar display of emotion, that has and always will require the black vestment of the mourner, Donne suggests, demands almost that we restrict ourselves to quiet understatement.  This is an extension after all, of the the secret language of the lover that none other can understand.  Donne is creating once again a boundary beyond which to restrict those outside, confound them as it were by producing the antithesis of what is expected.  If we are to believe this then the poem fails on another level, in attempting to escape the censure of the world’s infinite eyes, the lover Donne must resort to a mode of thought that is intrinsically linked to what occurs “outside”.  This in itself is a forced acknowledgement of the existence of the universe.  The lover has failed to escape into a shell, a room which will not allow the world to enter, precisely because the desire to escape acknowledges the existence of the world.

This opposition, this diametric dialectic, is apparent in the poem itself.  Donne speaks of “teare-floods” and “sigh-tempests”, the absurdity becomes at once clearer and immaterial.  Yet this lack of materialism is a thread that runs through Donne’s work, the escape from the body, the “care lesse” caress-less existence that stares at us in the eye is mocked by the claim that the lover transcends the material, even the real; the claim that the lover acquires the ability to create his/her own reality.  The claim that such a possibility exists in itself undermines everything, it involves a sea-change in our perception of what lies beyond the consciousness.  At once we are given to understand what lies beyond our comprehension and then have it taken away from us. We know of the relevance of every motion of the earth, and that “men reckon what it did and meant”.  We can also remark on the far greater effects of any “trepidation of the spheares”.  Yet they are not innocent, the astrologers remain employed auguring the relevance of every shooting star.  Yet the argument, and the poem is a debate, is centered around the perspective and we have no answer to the Donnian “view”.

Perception is central to the poem, the perception of the outsider, its irrelevance, and the centrality of the common point of reference that the lovers share.  The oneness that is underlined by the image of the lovers melting noiselessly into one another, mingling, absorbing without a clue dispelled to the outside.  Every sensation is jealously guarded, nothing is allowed to escape, not even the effect their union has on the air around them.  The object of every action is the other, the world ceases to exist.  The lovers exist for each other, and refuse to breathe, to speak for any other.  This is the “dependance” Barthes speaks of, the irresistible urge to elevate all action to the status that is gained by that which is directed towards the other.

This thirst for a center, a focus, forces one to strive for the purity that is “so much refin’d,/That our selves know not what it is”.   Yet this purity reduces the love to one dimension, it destroys the kaleidoscope that is integral to the loss of control.  When one accepts the lover, it necessitates a departure from the centrality of the self, and requires a frenzied intake of breath that is forms the essence of the lover.  At this point the lover is the outside, the momentous moment of drinking in the other is also an intake of the alien.  The self is less “refined”, one becomes multi-faceted.  By reflecting the bright light of the unapproachable enigma that is the sun, “I” is guilty of tainting myself.

“We” are conscious of all contradiction, all duplicity and mock it with one stroke.  “If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two.”  And before the reader has a chance to question, Donne questions all himself, he says “And though it in the centre sit”.  The very relevance, the sanctity of the metaphor that is the center is in question, for the centrality is compromised, the center leans over, transgresses its bounds.  Love becomes less than perfect, it is capable of elasticity.  Yet in this never-ending circle of point and counter-point, the center in leaning strengthens the love since it is sacrificing its place on the stage to yearn for the lover.  And what they describe on the outside, for to absorb the relevance we must remain on the outside, is the perfect circle.

This “makes me end, where I begunne”, and the poet waits for the song to begin again so he can indulge in his lament.  Without descending into the Fruedian/Oedipal realm we can only remark that in leaving us this text evokes the eventual return.  The rejoining that shall absolve all.

John Donne’s Nocturnal

A linear reading of Donne’s “Nocturnal”


‘Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s,’.  The very first line of this poem hints at the constant shift in perspective that marks this poem.  By drawing a parallel between the midnight of one day and that of the entire year, Donne has put in place a relationship between the small and the large.  From one perspective the midnight is just another midnight and yet from another it is the longest, darkest night of the year, saturated with significance.  Donne’s fascination for astronomy and his adeptness with astronomical metaphors become a starting point for this poem and an apt beginning since the poem concerns itself with perspective, interpretation and significance. Donne’s metaphors are never common, and in “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”, the primary opposition of darkness and light, night and day, should appear hackneyed to us.  But working with these oft-used metaphors the poem places them in a novel context, and it is the unique end to which they are used that separates their use here from any other.  In distinguishing between the night of the day and the night of the year, Donne alludes to the darkness before creation, an allusion we will return to later in the poem.  Without specifically saying so, Donne puts in place a comparison between the Sun, the Earth (as it revolves around the Sun) and Lucy.  From this relativization we move into a description of the sun’s condition and here we see not the proud ruler of the sky but a tired sun spreading unequal rays. The sun is “spent”, a sexual and emotional fatigue that we shall see Donne apply to himself as well.  At this point, the sun is uneven, showering more light on some than on others, perhaps least on Donne. Yet Donne would, or should, be the last person to cry out against being left in the dark, he has complained too many times against the intrusions of the rising sun.  Now it seems as if the darkness Donne finds himself in is the vengeance of a jealous lover spurned, and if we carry this thought to its conclusion, it is the vengeance of a jealous God wreaked on one who has loved a mortal too fervently.  In this reading, the sun itself conspires against Donne, leaving him without a center around which to r-evolve once his world (his love) has been shattered. Donne returns however, to triumph in this lack of a fixed object, a blindness as it were, to create for himself a firm ground upon which to stand.  Donne, world-less is left to drift in space, and he creates for himself a stability (a rock) from a devotion to Lucy.  By doing this, Donne out-trumps the sun once again, Lucy has not only been his world, she now takes the place of the sun, and Donne revolves around her, worshiping his beloved.

As soon as we have been given a taste of the rather subdued tone of this poem, we are propelled into a hyperbole of death and absence.  In the nocturnal’s world the life-blood has disappeared, soaked by an eternally thirsty terrestrial existence.  Life itself has shrunk into a corpse that is ‘dead and interred’, the earth taking from this dead thing all the water it contains, shrinking it.  The word ‘shrunk’ can be understood in two contexts, the physical shrinking of the manifestation of life (the body) –an interpretation that reverberates with the use of  the metaphor “absence” that follows later in the poem– and the temporal reduction of life into the moment of death, another thought that we will return to later in the poem.  Despite the seemingly unambiguous nature of these phrases we cannot but suspect that a life that has withered, and had the life- blood sucked out of it, retains another facet of existence, that it is transformed into an extremely condensed form of this aspect.  In this manner the love that is dead has been reduced to a dense mass of memory and Donne’s love can only express itself by purging all direction from his mind.  An interpretation that is borne out by the use of “bed’s-feet” which are after all what the bed rests upon.  Since the bed signifies many things in Donne’s work, most notably the place where the lovers repose in the physical world, its feet become the support for the entire love-relationship and to shrink down to the bed’s feet is to reduce oneself to the essential structural support. The metaphoric density of this poem is underlined by the relationship between support, the earth, elevation, the poem’s own feet and gravity (a concept unfamiliar to Donne except in the abstract), each of these terms can be applied to the phrase “bed’s- feet” to arrive at a novel interpretation.  What we are particularly interested in is the interpretation that leaves Donne directionless and where he searches for a nocturnal to guide him through the night. Embedded in this interpretation is the assumption that the core of a love-relationship is the sense of loss felt in the lover’s absence. The core, the epitome of death and thirst is the epitaph, a condensation of meaning to the pith.  This then, is what is left after death, the epitaph that celebrates existence and hungers for it. Fundamental to the poem’s sense of absence and its status in love is the confusion between the poem and the poet.  We do not know what “me” refers to in the last line of the first stanza.  It could equally be Donne, or this poem itself which increasingly appears to be an elegy to a dead love.  A love whose last remains are enshrined in the poet, who becomes a relic of the love-relationship, or canonized in the poem itself.  At the same time, the term epitaph hints at the status of the word as a symbol for an absent thing.  All language, it seems, is a compromise to overcome the absence of the object itself.


The confusion over ‘me’ continues in the second stanza and by the third line is so acute that we are not sure of the self-referential ‘I’ itself.  This uncertainty and lack of an understanding of the self is an integral part of the experience of death.  We can only conceive of ourselves as living beings and have no point of reference for an existence beyond death, the very fact that we call such an idea “life after death” underscores this proposition.  By placing himself (and the poem) beyond the event of death, Donne has created a barrier between the reader and the poet/poem.  The dead speak to us, and we must listen, if only because this event itself is so unique. Within the world of the poem the keen awareness our initial fascination leads to (absorbing us) is put to good effect as we face one fantastic proposition after another.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations and lean emptiness.

He ruined me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

Even from a poet whose poems are truly fabulous, this would appear to be a little too much.  Yet this is not the only time Donne will ever use such a metaphor.  In this poem it is love who “wrought new alchemy”, in the 14th divine sonnet it will be God.  Or is it truly God even in the 14th sonnet?  And is it Donne or the poem that is being re-fashioned, wrought or re-begot here?  Is it the reader, the poet or God who brings about this re-begetting, a flowering of life. Neither of these questions have certain answers, and in Donne’s work they can be answered in different ways.  To tackle the question of the agent of rebirth, we must consider the possible candidates, a divine force, the reader or the poet.  If the poem is the object that arises from nothingness, the agent would have to be either the reader or the poet both of whom give life to a dead thing, the poet in writing the epitaph for a dead love and the reader for breathing life into the poem, an epitaph that requires a reader to interpret it.  The conventional reading would assign this role to either a divinity or love itself (perhaps even a God of Love, but Donne avoids classical allusions wherever possible).

In either case, the lyric impeccability of these lines does not permit us to pause for even a moment to reflect on their problematic but forces us onto the next word, with an inertia that drives us to the last word in the stanza, where we can finally stop to catch our breath. Donne is often dramatic and “A Nocturnal” lacks the overt dramatic settings of some of the other poems, most notably “The Flea”, yet its allusions to prior dramatic events (both canonical and apocryphal) stand proxy for this absence.  In particular, the allusion to a birth from nothingness, (a suggestion that carries biblical overtones) brought about by love, is an especially strong reference. Reading the lines “For I am every dead thing / In whom love wrought new alchemy” by themselves, it appears as if the poem itself is being wrought by love (and Donne refers to the poem as a “well wrought urn”, once again typified as a receptacle for the ashes and memories of the beloved) and the poet simply acts as an agent for his love to “express” itself in this love offering.  Now, the beloved becomes the divine and the very existence of the lover is an offering to the divine, an offering to reciprocate the great boon of life. Ironically, or perhaps convolutedly, the poet is an expression of the beloved/Love God’s art and seeks to create, with his own art, a poem to place before the beloved/Love God.

In overtly addressing the poem to the dead (since they have yet to experience the rebirth of love) who are alive (since they do not think of themselves as dead), Donne has perhaps overcome the problem of influence. Yet, his status relative to the reader still elevates him (as one who has experienced love) and the inconsistency deepens when we see him as a manifestation of the divine, or perhaps even a prophet of love, a suggestion that is corroborated by the emphatic “Study me, you who shall lovers be”. Donne then, is the son of Love reborn, but one who seeks to become a proxy for the father.

In the line “He ruined me, and I am rebegot” we find yet another parallel with the 14th divine sonnet, here Donne’s dream of being refashioned, broken, burnt and made new.  Donne must point out that he is fashioned from “things which are not”, or rather states we can only understand in terms of their absence.  The transformation of Donne, his refashioning, is so complete that he has no awareness of life before this rebirth, there is nothing for him before this love.  He can only understand his present state in terms of an absence of “all that’s good”.  The true poignancy of this poem is not in the absence of love, or the good, but an absolute incomprehension –and total loss– of an existence without them. Love has become life, and life without love has become death.  As the new-born child has no recollection of existence before its conception, Donne has no conception of a prior existence.  Just as a child is born of separate elements that exist in themselves, the lover Donne is born of independent entities, the beloved, love and himself.  When these three entities are torn apart (and do they constitute the three personed God of the 14th sonnet) what is left is nothing.  The interlude has changed everything.


The third stanza ropes in the outside world as Donne laments the lack of “good things” for himself.  The repetition of ‘all’ in the first line prepares us for the inevitable rejoinder, that Donne has nothing. What we see is an image of Donne as the grave that holds the distilled essence of nothingness.  What has been alluded to in the earlier stanzas takes its final form here as we see clearly the nothingness take shape.  With the occurrence of the word ‘limbeck’ in conjunction with ‘grave’, the conception of the grave as a container (or well wrought urn) for the essence of the dead is solidified.  We do not have to restrict this interpretation to the literal interment of a corpse; on the contrary this metaphor must be extended to include both the poem and the poet.  Donne and “A Nocturnal” are the last vestiges of a dead love, both contain the distilled remains of the relationship.

The compression of life to this love, and that of the world to the two lovers, continues as we are told of the floods of tears the lovers have shed which ‘drowned the whole world, us two’.  This is a concept Donne uses elsewhere, but never with such intensity. The line that follows tells of the consequences of expanding the lovers’ world to include ‘aught else’, the result is chaos.  Donne seems to suggest that the natural order of things demands that the lovers be preoccupied with each other, the moment they pay attention to anything else chaos ensues.  In this we can find a further intermingling of Donne’s thoughts on religion and love.  To turn away from the true love (God) leads to chaos.  Donne’s sharp, almost absolute claims concerning the nature of his love and its intensity would be irksome if it were not for the hesitant, halting tone of the third stanza.  In the short punctuated lines we hear the poem itself weeping and cannot but empathize with Donne in his quixotry. In the fourth stanza we encounter the idea of a concentrated nothingness once more, once again in the word ‘growth’ we see an inevitability, even a steady progression to this state.  To build from this an understanding of a ‘big bang and big crunch’ theory of the universe would be perhaps going a little too far, but we can use this instance to further explore the view of love advanced in this poem. Donne has woven into this poem the conception of love as the short lived life of a moth. It seems as if his life is a cocoon from which he breaks free for the short span of a day, to truly imbibe existence only to retreat at night into its (his life’s) inevitable death.  What are we to make of the suggestion that the second nothingness is more acute than the first.  Couched within the dense layers of metaphor is the germ of an idea, that the interlude has changed the poet/poem/reader, that despite the retreat into the original state of non-existence we can never go back to the original state we occupied. Juxtaposed with Donne’s claims that he is the essence of ‘things that are not’, we find him unable to place himself.  We hear his cry for purpose, an expression of desire for a reason, any reason to live, an end to work towards with ‘some means’.  He has none of this and with this declaration he occupies the position of the ancient mariner, tortured by the past, yet unable to do anything about it except perhaps retell the story.  The intensity of the prior love-relationship has sucked him dry, he can no longer ‘detest and love’, and in that he is not even a vegetable or a stone (the last almost blasphemous unless a reference to Donne’s Catholic upbringing and the status of the idol).  Donne’s sense of himself as nothing seems intrinsically linked to time.  He is not the shadow of something that exists in this moment, but rather the remains of what has existed in the past. Time is the culprit that has stolen from Donne what he most desired, and the desire itself.  If it is indeed time that is to blame for Donne’s annihilation, then his helplessness is even more acute, and the growth he refers to is steady in that it takes him further away from his existence as every moment passes.


In the last stanza, Donne reaffirms the uniqueness of his love and a conviction that it shall never occur again.  Despite the lack of open derision on his part, it seems as if a love that must rely on an external sun ‘to fetch new lust and give it’ to us is something less than the self-sufficient love that is Donne’s.  Donne’s generosity shames us as he blesses us and asks us to enjoy our summer, he must retreat to his personal chapel and maintain a vigil for his beloved. The line between religion and love is blurred here once again, perhaps with a finality that will bear no further expression. Donne declares this night, by calling it –giving it a name in the original nothing– her (E)eve.  There seems to be another gap here, as if Donne is relegating to himself the task of giving a name to these things, a task that can only recall Adam’s task in the garden of Eden. This action undermines Donne’s claim of everlasting nothingness, his declarations of purposelessness while he finds his purpose in worshiping his beloved.  “A Nocturnal” is beginning to look like a complex theory of the need for religion to give us a hook on which to hang our lives.  In this sense is the meaning of the term nocturnal realized, not only as a device to locate ourselves but as a form of prayer.  Continuing the theme that resonates throughout the poem, Donne returns to the original line in the poem, a statement of fact concerning the status of this midnight in both the day and the year, for him and the world, for this moment and his life.  Yet the last line is not exactly what the first was, the telling of the poem has changed Donne, the poem itself and the reader as well.  In its metaphoric density “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day” is among Donne’s finest poems, in its blending of the impulse towards religious and secular love and devotion it is as insightful as any other poem will ever be.

Marvell: To his coy mistress

At first, there would appear to be little in common between a poem that attempts to persuade a mistress and one that commemorates an anniversary.  Indeed, there few sentiments that Donne’s The Anniversary and  Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress share. Yet these are love poems and there must be some common ground that unites them on some plane.  There is, of course, such a common point of reference and it lies in the attitudes towards time that we find expressed in these poems.


Marvell’s conception of time is ever changing in To His Coy Mistress, but this is only to be expected in a poem that seeks to convince by constructing an ideal and proceeding to demonstrate its utopian nature. In the world of would and should that we are immersed in before the pivotal “But” in the second stanza, Marvell presents an idyllic view of lovers engaged in a slow waltz that stretches on for centuries.  In this snail-paced ritual Marvell feels he can do justice to his mistress, who “deserve this state”.  Things become a little more complex in the next line, “nor would I love at lower rate”.  This is where we begin o question what has up till now progressed so smoothly, as all good fantasies must if they are to be successful.  We begin to question this world of Marvell’s creation and see the enigma that lies within the term “lower rate”.  We have been hearing of an agonizingly slow mating ritual, Marvell has been patiently dancing around his mistress, praising her every aspect with a devotion that approaches what one would offer to the divine. How, we ask, can he slow down to a “lower rate”?

This is not the only striking aspect of the first stanza.  We know that Marvell is speaking of a state we are unfamiliar with and in its unfamiliarity lies the force of his argument.  The unfamiliar weaves in and out of our notion of the familiar as we seek to understand Marvell’s position.  We know, on one cognitive level, that in this state an eon is insignificant, yet we lay on it the import we would ascribe to an eon in the human sense.  For the beings Marvell speaks of, ages pass by as minutes; indeed we acknowledge that they must, or else why would one devote “An hundred years” to “praise thine eyes”.  Though Marvell suggests that centuries could be spent admiring every aspect of his mistress, we cannot imagine such prolonged ritual unless centuries mean less than what they do to us, as indeed they must to beings who live for millenia. It is necessary, if one is to be convinced by this argument, to occupy two positions simultaneously.  The first is the acceptance of Marvell’s illusion, of a state where one can spend eons in a single activity, and yet it is essential to evaluate this period of time in human terms.  If we waver too much in either direction, Marvell’s persuasion would fail.

It is a testament to Marvell’s skill that even when he breaks the spell, we continue to live in his illusionary time.  We have been maintaining a delicate balance between two realities, two conceptions of time. Marvell makes us walk a tight-rope between them and we comply.  The fascinating thing is that even when he finds it necessary to destroy the illusion he has created, bring us back to the ground as it were, he does it in such a way that we do not sense it.  Marvell lifts us gently from our precarious position on the tightrope we have been pacing on, the bridge between realities and gently places us on the ground.  In this manner the beginning of his lament at the fleeting nature of time does not jar us as it wakes us from our reverie in the land of the eternal.

We find Marvell now occupying the role of a pragmatist.  He has become one who is aware of his mortality and of the advance of time.  Time now becomes an enemy to be feared, an enemy who is closing down on us, and the eternity that had earlier facilitated the requisite offering to his mistress now becomes a vast desert.  It is ironic that to understand ‘deserts of vast eternity” we call upon that very conception of the monotonous which we have failed to apply where it would be most apt.  It would seem that a lover, any lover, would tire of spending “two hundred” years “to adore each breast”.  The same would be expected of a woman subjected to such unending praise, a love-song that keeps repeating itself will soon wear out both singer and listener.  Yet we do not stop to reflect on this alternate view while reading the first stanza. Rather, we are not permitted to reflect on this aspect since the poem keeps ushering us along, presenting one image after another in mind-numbing succession.  Though Marvell is ostensibly describing something that is drawn out in time, for the reader it proceeds at a pace that does not allow for reflection.  As one fantastic claim follows another, we cannot stop to think where they are leading to.  We are trapped in Marvell’s reality like Alice is trapped in Lewis Carroll’s.  When released from this fantastic world, it is only to enter a second where the doubts we should have had in the first  stanza’s reality are utilized to build another perspective.  This release is only a temporary respite before we enter another mental cage, at once invisible and confining, of Marvell’s making.

This might explain part of the effectiveness of To His Coy Mistress as a persuasive tract.  If Marvell is so adept at guiding us through his train of thought, it is only to be expected that we are convinced of his argument.  This is not because we feel his thoughts are in reality ours, that we have prophecized each shift and statement, but because wee are grateful to Marvell for having shared them.  In traveling along with Marvell on his rhetorical journey, we develop an affinity for him and his concerns.  We become Marvell’s sympathizers.

Donne’s The Anniversary appears to proceed in a direction almost exactly opposite to the progression we have traced in To His Coy Mistress. Ostensibly this is a poem that first suggests the ephemeral nature of all things that “to their destruction draw” and then counters it with a resounding proclamation attesting to the immortality of the poet’s love. This can, of course, be easily explained away by calling on the purpose of the poem, the need to reaffirm love.  If Donne is looking forward, at the first anniversary, to many years of union, it would seem natural to call upon us to imagine an endless love since this would be an articulation of his own hopes.

Yet as we might expect, Donne can only express a sense of eternity by contrasting it with what is fleeting.  Thus, we hear of a love that “hath no decay” only after we realize that “All other things, to their destruction draw”.  In the movement from an impression of the ephemeral nature of all things to a claim of immortality lies the clue we need to understand a love that is always fresh.  This method of setting up a dichotomy is employed once again in the second stanza where a contrast is drawn between the mortal body that must decay, and the immortal soul that shall continue to love.

Yet we must look at the first stanza with some reserve, since it does appear a little convoluted.  Donne suggests that all  things have aged by a year.  He is marking time by the passing of the sun and that of every other thing.  It seems clear that time progresses only with change, and part of change is death.  Witness, however, Donne’s claim that his love does not change, is everlasting.  This is not the everlasting day of the North and South poles, but a day where the sun does not wax and wane at all.  It is interesting that Marvell finds it necessary to make his sun run since he cannot hold him still “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run”, while Donne sees his sun passing him by and acknowledges this motion as inevitable and also essential.  What Donne is writing of is a time that is alien to us, as alien as Marvell’s ages.  We cannot comprehend time unless it is marked by change and yet Donne places his love outside the progression of time.  In his words, “This no to morrow hath, nor yesterday”.  Here we see something trapped in time, in one latent state.  Change, we now is life and suddenly this state of motionlessness appears to be non-existence, either death or limbo.  Now, the statement “our love hath no decay” begins to appear sinister. we see that this is a love that does not grow like Marvell’s “vegetable love”.  Like a Faustian exchange, to acquire immortality –a release from the steady march of time– we are forced to give up all life, our existence for our love.

We are well aware that this state of non-change, non-life is not brought about by our having achieved the highest love.  In fact, Donne is quite clear hat the pinnacle of love is achieved by two souls that have been purified and condensed so that “nothing dwells but love”.  Death has become a release from the monotony of an endless love that will not let us escape, or for that matter, progress form its “first, last, everlasting day”.  Death becomes welcome now, not only because it marks a transcendence to a higher, purer love, but also since it is the only way out of this trap that once sprung will not release us.  Time, in this context, is no longer a healer because “running it never runs from us away”. We are unable to distance ourselves by letting time carry us along with its flow. With this perpetual youth we have lost the marks and pleasure of age.

Ironically, though so much of the poem pretends to deny that his love ages, Donne’s very purpose is to commemorate his first anniversary.  In this celebration –and the acknowledgment of having reached a watershed imposed by the steady motion of time– Donne’s proposition is undermined.

Death and worlds

In Marvell we find, once again, a purposeful rendering of death and the contrast between that which is alive and that which has lost the spark of life.  Marvell chooses to concentrate on the corporal aspect of death, the sense of decay and the decimation of the body.  This emphasis serves him well as he has primarily been concerned with the visible beauty of his mistress.  Yet in Marvell’s veering away from the subject of the soul (the dominant theme in The Anniversary) there appears to be tacit acknowledgment of the difference between the body and the soul. Marvell is aware that he cannot argue with similar force if he chooses to notice the “higher faculties” in his poem.

It is to advance his argument that Marvell evaluates what are essentially abstract concepts in material terms.  This is how virginity is reduced to the literal maidenhead, which serves to point out this cherished tissue’s transitory nature.  Similarly, the grave must be spoken of in terms of embraces to contrast it with the warmth of a love shared when one is alive.  All of which suggests that Marvell is adopting a rather skeptical view towards death here.  It seems as if he has annulled the possibility of a life beyond the grave and proceeds in rather blunt, realist terms.  His desire to “sport while we may” belies a view that there is not much after death and if there is, it is not worth waiting for.   Which should lead us to enquire into what he finds positive about life.  The answers are contained in the third stanza, within the lines:

Now, therefore, while the youthful glue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing sould transpires

At every pore with instant fires

Life, is for Marvell the sheer pleasure of burning oneself, and of igniting a flame in another. This claim that youth is ecstatic motion, a movement that reshapes the world, that affects it as only those who truly live can.  This urge to toy with the world, to literally compress it into a ball and play with it is sheer exhilaration.  In Marvell’s exhortation to

Roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball:

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Through the iron grates of life

We find the violent expression of a desire to snatch from this world all that is worthwhile.  In this frenzied desire to upstage life, trip old time himself, Marvell’s aims not only to distill its essence, but also to infuse force into the act of acquiring from time all that he can.  With what almost seems to be a sexual frenzy, Marvell wishes to tear his pleasures roughly.  This is not the warm love we are accustomed to seeing extolled, it is passion shimmering in all its fury.  It is this passion, this ravenous bird, that Marvell believes is the fundamental uniqueness of life.

From the semi-orgiastic frenzy of the third stanza in To His Coy Mistress, we move back to Donne and by comparison The Anniversary almost seems insipid.  The Anniversary here too compliments To His Coy Mistress as it fills in the voids in Marvell. Donne does not shy from making clear the distinction between “soules where nothing dwells but love” and “these eyes, and ears” which we “must leave at last in death”.  Though he associates the corporal body with much estimable sentiment, and even hypothesises the possibility of a continuing union if the lovers share a common grave, this theme of life after death facilitated by either proximity of some memento of the lover (that occurs so often in Donne’s poetry) seems hollow, devoid of flesh.  Yet, this stark bareness at the same time gives Donne’s poetry a force all its own.

This facet, the sense of a bond between lovers outliving them, is best complimented by his notion of the lovers comprising a world unto themselves.  Where Marvell yearns for “world enough” and can only find it in the exaggerated fantasy, Donne claims for the lover a kingdom equaling all others.  The two lovers “who Prince enough in one another be” escape the vicissitudes of life by withdrawing into themselves. This is not an ignominious retreat, Donne certainly ascribes to it a hermetic sense which imparts to it an aura of fulfillment.  Yet one suspects that this is a sentiment antithetical to those expressed in To His Coy Mistress.  While for Donne the union is valued since no one “is so soft as we”, Marvell exults in the thrill of the chase, the sense of having completed, even fought, to acquire every grain of pleasure.  Unto the very end Donne remains true to the theme of his poem, as Marvell is, and we see that what he values is the gentle continuum that comprises his pacifist love.  To achieve the understated, even subdues expression of what we can only call tenderness, Donne suggests we restrain ourselves, hold part of our responses back while engaging in the lovers game.

We can see that there is much that divides To His Coy Mistress  and The Anniversary.  For one, love is a contest and all efforts are made to ‘win’, for the other the essence is an almost ignoble desire simply survive.  One poem exhorts us to run the race of life flat out and the other would have us pace ourselves.  Despite these marked contrasts, in the choice of a common theme and the recognition –if not acceptance– of similar perceptions, we see a common ground.  In a sense, both of these poems are working within the same tradition and confines, their different thrusts can only enrich this tradition.