John Donne and the Poetic Love Tradition

At the time of Donne, there were mainly two ‘schools’ of love — the Platonic and the Ovidian. Platonic love inspired from Petrarch was of a non-sensuous kind, where the beloved was seen as a spiritual ideal — a manifestation of the higher divine. On the other hand, the Ovidian school had a more sensuous and playful approach towards love where the lover became a slave to his passions. While the Ovidian lover’s adoration was to win sensual rewards from his ladylove, the Platonic lover was more devoted and deferential.

Let us not forget that Donne was writing for the Elizabethan court where courtly love poetry enjoyed great patronage and favour with the queen. Courtly love ideal was revived by Queen Elizabeth following the classical and medieval literary traditions of the courtly love poetry, where a nobleman pronounced his love for a lady and idealised her as chaste and unattainable. The higher aim of courtly love ideal was to lead men to transcend the physical beauty of the beloved to reach the ultimate beauty and truth of God. Through the pursuit of such beauty, the lover would be exalted beyond the physical/temporal to a higher spiritual plane. Most of the Elizabethan sonneteers such as Sidney and Spencer wrote in the courtly love tradition and imitated Petrarch’s platonic model of courtly love, with their sonnets venerating Queen Elizabeth as the “Virgin Queen”.

However, unlike his predecessors such as Spencer who described the visible physical beauty, Petrarch who talked about sublimation in love, and Ovid for whom love was a sport, Donne gives importance to physicality, earthiness and mutuality in love. While Petrarch and Dante sanctified women’s body beyond such unholy contemplation, Donne rejects this old platonic style which was devoid of passion and makes an unabashed declaration of his love.

Donne’s poems register a clear departure from the sonnet conventions of the Elizabethan court as he moves away from the idealistic platonic approach of the courtly tradition to a more sensual Ovidian expression. Donne can be credited for not only introducing innovation in the Elizabethan renaissance poetry with his metaphysical conceits but also for challenging the Petrarchan tradition where the beloved was seen as chaste and divine. With Donne, there is no Petrarchan idealisation of women as goddesses. He rejects the platonic Petrarchan ideal of womanhood and instead takes recourse to Ovidian elegies. He subverts the mystification of the beloved commonly seen in Petrarch and expresses a longing for intimacy with the beloved. In complete contrast to Petrarch, Donne celebrates reciprocity in male and female love relationships and there is a continuous assertion of mutuality and reciprocity in the experience of love. The ‘thou’ and ‘I’ that one sees in Petrarch becomes ‘we’ in Donne’s poetry.

Broadly speaking, Donne’s poetry has been divided into two categories—love poetry and religious poetry. Love is a recurrent theme in his poetry where he expresses a longing for intimacy with the beloved and desires a union that cures “the defects of loneliness”(The Extasie). While Donne’s love poems, songs and sonnets were composed in 1590s, the impact of religion is seen towards the latter part of his life after he was ordained as an Anglican priest under pressure from King James.

With the ascendancy of James I, the love poetry that flourished in the Elizabethan court was gradually replaced by religious verses greatly patronised the king. The changed socio- religious scene from Elizabethan to Jacobean age also cast its influence on Donne’s writings. In contrast to the unabashed eroticism and promiscuity of his earlier poems, his later poems reflect a mature understanding of love that took on a spiritual colouring. Grierson and Smith identify this transition from sensual to religious poetry by Anne Donne’s death, and believe that “when Anne died, all Donne’s love for her turned back to God from whom she came”. His wife Anne’s death during childbirth and its bereavement turned him towards God that paved way for religious poetry.

If Donne’s early poems are about love and its expression, his later poems are metaphysical in content and reflect his spiritual awareness. However, the two experiences are not shown exclusive and are often presented as one. Several of his holy sonnets and poems conflate the sexual and the spiritual where the two experiences intertwine. Donne’s love poems often use religious metaphors. In Batter my Heart, the poet uses rape as the central metaphor. God is drawn as a masculine lover with poet a pliant female asking God to ravish her to make her pure. The later poems reveal a shift in the poet’s religious sensibilities where his initial scepticism about God in the Holy Sonnets converts to assured faith in Hymn to God in my Sickness. It is in his poems where the religious unrest of his age along with his spiritual scepticism and confusion accompanying his ordination also finds expression.

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