The best and most essential poems by John Donne (1572-1631)
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?
‘The Flea‘. 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…
‘The Good-Morrow‘. 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’.
Holy Sonnet: ‘Death, be not proud‘. 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’.
‘The Canonization‘. 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.
‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning‘. 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.
‘The Sun Rising‘. This is one of Donne’s most celebrated poems, 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.
Holy Sonnet: ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God‘. 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.
Song: ‘Go and catch a falling star‘. 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.
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed‘. 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.
‘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 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.
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.