A commentary on a classic Donne poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?’ With these frank and informal words, John Donne (1572-1631) begins one of his most remarkable poems, a poem often associated – as is much of Donne’s work – with the Metaphysical ‘school’ of English poets. But what is ‘The Good-Morrow’ actually about? In this post, we offer some notes towards an analysis of Donne’s ‘The Good-Morrow’ in terms of its language, meaning, and themes.
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.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
A brief summary of Donne’s poem might be helpful to start with. In the first stanza, he addresses his beloved and asks her to cast her mind back to before they were lovers. What was their existence like before they met and loved each other? Were they little more than babies, like infants who are not yet weaned off their mother’s breast? (‘Country pleasures’ has the same punning suggestion it carries in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet’s ‘country matters’: we are invited to concentrate on the first syllable of ‘country’.)
Or, if not like children, were the two of them – the poet and his lover – asleep before they met? (‘Snorted’ here means ‘snored’.) Donne answers his own (rhetorical) questions by saying yes: before they met each other, any pleasures they enjoyed, or thought they enjoyed, were mere a mere shadow of the joy they now feel in each other’s company.
In the second stanza, Donne bids good morning, or good day (hence ‘The Good-Morrow’) to his and his lover’s souls, now waking from their ‘dream’ and experiencing real love. They look at each other, but not through fear or jealousy, but because they like to look at each other.
Indeed, the sight of each other far exceeds any fondness they have for other pleasant sights, and the bedroom where they spend their time (they are newly loved up, after all!) has become their world: the real world beyond their bedroom is of little interest to them. Men may voyage across the sea to other lands, and men may even chart the locations of other worlds beyond our own – that is of no concern to us, Donne tells his lover.
We don’t need those other worlds, because our bodies are a world in themselves, ready for the other to explore. This is what Donne means by ‘worlds on worlds’ and ‘each hath one, and is one’: he and his lover, he urges, should enjoy a bit of ‘world-on-world action’. His body is a new world for his beloved to explore, and her body is a world for him to possess and explore.
In the final stanza, Donne zooms in even further from the bodies of the two lovebirds, focusing on their eyes: he sees his face reflected in his lover’s eye, and her face appears in his eyes (meaning not only that she sees herself reflected in Donne’s eyes, but also that as he turns to face her she is in his line of vision). Their very hearts are exposed to each other, their devotion to each other plain in their expressions. (The eyes never lie and all that.)
Donne then uses the metaphor of ‘hemispheres’ – half-worlds (worlds again!) – to convey the idea that she is his ‘other half’ and he hers. But in fact, Donne argues, his and his lover’s ‘hemispheres’ are better than the hemispheres that make up the Earth, since their love has no cold North Pole and no ‘declining West’ (suggesting that the sun will never set on their love for each other).
Donne then throws in some alchemy for good measure, stating that ‘Whatever dies was not mixed equally’ – although this line might also be read as a reference to the male and female ‘seed’, which, according to mainstream medical theory at the time, had to be equally mixed if conception were to take place. Donne then concludes by saying that if their love for each other is felt equally strongly on both sides, then their love is strong and cannot die.
Even summarising ‘The Good-Morrow’ becomes a task of annotation and discussion, but then that’s so often the mark of a rich and complex poem. How should we interpret and analyse the poem’s meaning? 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’ (as Simon Schama put it in a BBC documentary about John Donne). Most poets stop short of bringing us into the bedroom with them. Donne wants us right there between him and his beloved.
We’ll conclude this short introduction to, and analysis of, ‘The Good-Morrow’ with a few more glosses which readers may find of interest. In the first stanza, Donne likens himself and his lover to the Seven Sleepers, who were seven Christians sealed in a cave by the Roman Emperor Decius – who had a penchant for persecuting Christians – in around the year AD 250. These Christians reportedly slept for nearly 200 years before being woken up to find Christianity had become a world religion. The point of Donne’s analogy is that the love he and his lover feel for each other is like a new religion, that’s how devoted they are.
In the second stanza, Donne refers both to sea-travel to new worlds: the New World of the Americas was just being explored and colonised at this time, by England and Spain, chiefly. But Donne also suggests, when he writes of ‘maps to others’, that man is charting other worlds too: when Donne was writing, the revolution in astronomy was just underway, and Copernicus’ theory that the earth travelled around the sun (rather than vice versa) was being explored by Johannes Kepler and, slightly later, Galileo. As the twentieth-century poet and critic William Empson pointed out in ‘Donne the Space Man’, John Donne was peculiarly interested in travelling to other planets, and his poetry reflects this, making him unique among Elizabethan and Jacobean poets.
This is yet another reason to revere him, and in this summary and analysis of ‘The Good-Morrow’ we’ve tried to get across some of the richness and strangeness of Donne’s classic poem. What do you make of ‘The Good-Morrow’?
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’d like to explore more of John Donne’s remarkable work, the best edition of his writing out there is, in our opinion, John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). For more Metaphysical poetry, see our analysis of Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’. For more Renaissance poetry, read our discussion of Ben Jonson’s ‘On My First Son’. We’ve also compiled some tips for how to write a good English Literature essay.
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.