Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
John Donne’s poetry is a curious mix of contradictions. At once spiritual and metaphysical, it is also deeply embedded in the physicality of bodies: love as a physical, corporeal experience as well as a spiritual high. His style can often be startlingly plain (‘For God’s sake hold your tongue’, one of the poems on this list begins), yet his imagery is frequently complex, his use of extended metaphors requiring some careful unpacking. Here we’ve condensed the complete poetical works of John Donne into ten of his best-known and most celebrated poems. What is your favourite John Donne poem? And can you choose one classic Donne poem?
1. ‘The Flea‘.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do …
No list of Donne’s best poems would be complete without this one. Like many great metaphysical poems, ‘The Flea’ uses an interesting and unusual conceit to make an argument – in this case, about the nature of physical love. Like Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (Marvell is another great Metaphysical poet), ‘The Flea’ is essentially a seduction lyric.
Since this flea has sucked blood from both me and you, the poet says to his would-be mistress, our blood has already been mingled in the flea’s body; so why shouldn’t we mingle our bodies (and their fluids) in sexual intercourse? Of course, this rather crude paraphrase is a world away from the elegance and metaphorical originality of Donne’s poem…
2. ‘The Good-Morrow‘.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee …
This poem celebrates the feeling of newness which love can bring: the sense of your life having truly begun when you meet the person you love. The opening lines address this plainly: ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?’ Watch out, too, for the sly pun on a certain four-letter word in the third line’s reference to ‘country pleasures’.
It’s clearly a celebration of young love and a very candid depiction of two lovers sharing their bodies with each other. Like so many of Donne’s love poems, it takes us right into the bedroom, ‘between the sheets’ …
3. Holy Sonnet: ‘Death, be not proud‘.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee …
Just as Donne’s love poems are filled with religious imagery, so his holy sonnets are intensely romantic, even erotic. In this poem, one of his most celebrated holy poems, death is personified as a male braggart, like a soldier boasting of all the men he’s slain.
There is also a suggestion of a male lover bragging about all of his conquests between the sheets: Donne liked the double meaning of ‘die’ as both ‘expire’ and ‘orgasm’, and the idea that ‘those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, / Die not’ hides the suggestion that ‘you may think all those women you conquer are overcome with pleasure, but they’re faking it’.
4. ‘The Canonization‘.
For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honour, or his grace,
Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love …
What an opening line! One of Donne’s most famous poems, ‘The Canonization’ is a love poem, but like many of Donne’s poems he fuses sexual or romantic love with religious motifs and imagery. After all, to ‘canonize’ someone is to declare them a saint. Love, indeed, becomes a sort of religion in itself – a sanctified thing.
We get some of the key features of John Donne’s love poetry in ‘The Canonization’: the bragging, the sense that (several centuries before Morrissey) the sun shines out of the lovers’ behinds because they have something the rest of the world will never have: they have their love for each other, which is greater than anyone else’s.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
’Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love …
As this poem’s title suggests, it’s a poem of farewell, written by Donne for his wife Anne in 1611-12 before he left England to go on a mission to Europe. Utilising metaphors of compass points and alchemical processes to describe the relationship between the husband and wife, ‘A Valediction’ is one of the finest examples of Metaphysical poetry.
In ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, Donne likens the relationship between him and his wife to a religious or spiritual bond between two souls: note that he uses the word ‘laity’ to describe other people who cannot understand the love the two of them bear one another.
This kinship between their souls means that they can transcend the physical basis of their relationship and so endure time apart from each other, while Donne is on the Continent and his wife remains back at home. Other couples, who are bonded physically but don’t have this deeper spiritual connection, couldn’t bear to be physically apart like that …
6. ‘The Sun Rising‘.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time …
This is how one of Donne’s most celebrated poems begins. And it’s gloriously frank – it begins with Donne chastising the sun for peeping through the curtains, rousing him and his lover as they lie in bed together of a morning. Donne’s metaphors are clever: observe the way he takes the idea of being blinded by staring at the sun and turns it on its head, saying that the sun itself may well be blinded by looking upon the eyes of his beloved – they’re that dazzling and beautiful.
It’s impossible to be blinded by beauty, of course, but the cleverness of the conceit transforms it from clichéd declaration of love (‘I’m blinded by your beauty’) into something more affecting because, as T. S. Eliot observed, thought and feeling were united in Donne’s poetry.
7. Holy Sonnet: ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God‘.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new …
This is a remarkable sonnet because, although it was written after Donne’s confirmation as a priest in the Church of England, it is teeming with the same erotic language we find in his earlier ‘love sonnets’.
This is the aspect of Donne which prefigures (and possibly influenced) a poet of 250 years later, the Victorian religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who often addresses God in the same breathless, excited way that we see in this sonnet. (Hopkins also favoured the sonnet form, as demonstrated by his most famous poem, ‘The Windhover’, as well as by many of his other best-loved poems.) Donne’s sonnet also ends with a very daring declaration of desire that God ‘ravish’ him – much as he had longed for the women in his life to ravish him in his altogether more libertine youth.
8. Song: ‘Go and catch a falling star‘.
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind …
This is one of Donne’s most cynical poems: the speaker of the poem argues that finding a woman who will remain faithful is as impossible as catching a falling star from the sky. The reference to ‘mermaids singing’ may have inspired T. S. Eliot’s line from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ about hearing the mermaids singing, each to each. You can listen to Richard Burton reading the poem here.
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing …
Also titled ‘Elegy XIX’, ‘To His Mistris Going to Bed’ (as it was originally spelt) is another seduction poem, in which a naked Donne undresses his mistress verbally, one item of clothing at a time. Donne’s poem undoes, or at the very least develops, the usual idea of courtly love by confronting the fact that the courtly love poet, in praising the beautiful woman, ultimately wants to go to bed with her (though often he can’t and never will get the chance).
Donne’s poem argues that the unattainable woman shouldn’t be unattainable: all that flattery of her looks and beauty is because the poet really wants to sleep with her. So, Donne concludes, why don’t we just do it? He also briefly introduces, and overturns, the idea of Neoplatonism (also seen elsewhere in his poetry): namely, that the body must be left behind in order to love the soul.
10. ‘The Ecstasy‘.
This love poem turns the idea of ‘purity’ on its head, arguing that a truly pure love can only be founded on physical union. Body and soul should not be seen as separate entities, but two complementary elements, both of which are essential in order for true love to be possible.
The title is from the Greek ekstasis, ex stasis, literally ‘outside standing’ – i.e. standing outside of oneself, or apart from oneself. A truly ‘ecstatic’ experience is always, to some extent, an out-of-body experience. Donne’s poem, then, is about the separation of the body and soul, which is immediately odd, since elsewhere his poetry explores the idea that the soul and the body are, in fact, one. It begins:
Where, like a pillow on a bed
A pregnant bank swell’d up to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best;
Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string …
The best affordable edition of Donne’s poetry is John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). It comes with very useful annotations and an informative introduction.
About John Donne
John Donne (1572-1631) is one of the most important poets of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in English literature. In many ways, what is now known as metaphysical poetry began with Donne and his innovative use of imagery, particularly his fondness for extended metaphors and elaborate conceits which draw on what were, at the time, new scientific theories and discoveries.
Key characteristics of metaphysical poetry include: complicated mental and emotional experience; unusual and sometimes deliberately contrived metaphors and similes; and the idea that the physical and spiritual universes are connected. This last one is where the term ‘metaphysical’ came from: from metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with, among other things, the relationship between mind and matter, or between the physical world and human consciousness. We can observe all of these features in Donne’s poetry.
His early poems, circulated in manuscript in the 1590s when he was still a young man in his twenties fresh out of university, are love poems which are disarmingly frank and direct both in what they show us (lovers together in bed, a man imploring his mistress to undress for him), and in how they address us (‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ is a refreshingly irreverent line after so many poems in praise of the sun’s life-giving light and warmth, while ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue’ was a daringly blunt way to get your reader’s attention in the age that gave us ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’).
But after his conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England, and his entry into the priesthood (Donne would eventually rise to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), Donne’s poetry replaced his female lover with the figure of God as his subject and addressee. He wrote a series of ‘Holy Sonnets’ which possess all of the directness of his earlier poems, and the same level of passion and fervour. In one poem, Donne calls upon God to ‘ravish’ him. He is regarded as a key figure of the Elizabethan and Jacobean literary world and perhaps second only to Shakespeare in terms of the influence a writer of that time had on subsequent English literature.
If you enjoyed this pick of Donne’s finest poems, check out our 10 classic sonnets we think every poetry fan should read and our analysis of Ben Jonson’s elegy ‘On My First Sonne’. If plays are your thing, we’ve compiled a list of Shakespeare’s ten best plays. For more poetry selections, take a look at our pick of Robert Burns’s greatest poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.