A commentary on a classic Donne poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love’: such an opening line demonstrates with refreshing directness John Donne’s genius for grabbing our attention right from the first line of a poem. ‘The Canonization’ is a difficult poem, but closer analysis of its language and imagery is rewarding.
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.
Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
The phœnix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for Love.
And thus invoke us: ‘You, whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes
(So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
A pattern of your love!’
Although paraphrase can be the death of poetry, it can also offer us a way into challenging and seemingly impenetrable poems whose meaning is not immediately apparent. This is the case with many of Donne’s poems, and ‘The Canonization’ is no different. So, a brief paraphrase that can serve as a summary of the poem’s meaning:
‘For God’s sake, be quiet, and let me love. Or if you can’t be quiet, criticise my other faults – my palsy, my gout, the fact that my hair’s going grey, or I’ve lost all my money. Improve your mind with artfulness, and improve your stately bearing with wealth, and look at how kings behave – and let me love. After all, what harm does my love do? Nobody’s died. My cold’s haven’t chilled the spring. The heat I feel in my blood hasn’t infected a single person with fatal plague. The world goes on, soldiers fight in wars and lawyers seek out clients who wish to sue someone, but my lover and I just love each other. You can call us what you like, but we are who we are because we love. Call us flies, if you will, or tapers (candles), which destroy themselves through burning brightly. Within us are the eagle and the dove, thus making sense of the riddle of the phoenix, since my lover and I are one, and combine to form the phoenix. Both male and female merge to form one androgynous being. We die and then rise again. If we cannot live by our love we can die by it, and if our love is not fit for the tomb and hearse of death, it is fitting for poetry. A small urn, well-crafted, is as worthy to hold the greatest ashes as a vast tomb, and the sonnets my love and I inspire will see us canonised, or declared saints, for our love. And those who do so will declare to us: ‘you two, who love each other, who took the soul of the whole world and squeezed it into each other’s eyes that are like the mirrors of the world’s soul … whole countries, towns, and courts are envious of you, and long to know such love!’
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. We also get the metaphysical use of imagery, whereby the lovers’ eyes are likened to mirrors: the eyes are looking-glasses used not merely for looking out of, but for looking in. (Look at how the round parentheses encircling these lines suggest the orb of the eye, too.) And the fire imagery, suggesting the passionate ferocity, and ferocious passion (‘You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage’), of their love, is used throughout to suggest the all-consuming nature of love. ‘We may be condemned for our love in our own lifetime, as saints are martyred in theirs, but in the future we will be looked up to for it.’ Hence ‘The Canonization’. Hence, also, the rather high-and-mighty (and holier-than-thou) tone of the poem’s speaker.
Given the poem’s title, and its central conceit – that the lovers are ‘canonized’ or made saintly through their love – that opening admonition sounds less like blasphemy and more like a literal please: ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue’, because our love is for the sake of God, and you’d be well to remember that. But any classic John Donne poem repays closer and more careful analysis, as even the more local images of the poem work together to reinforce the main thrust of the poem – in the case of ‘The Canonization’, the intense passion and earnestness of the speaker’s love – beyond the clever use of eyes-as-mirrors in the final stanza. For instance, look at how, in that third stanza, those flies give way to candles, which in turn light the way to the bigger flying creatures, the eagle and dove; and then how, via the legend of the phoenix, the fire lit by those candles flares out by summoning the pyre on which the phoenix dies. And look at the way every stanza ends with the same word, ‘love’. Love is what everything comes back to. But is, after all, love separate from God and saintliness? Even intensely physical love? Donne’s love poetry – and, for that matter, his later religious verse – seems to suggest that the two are inextricably intertwined.
Donne’s poem was written some time in the 1590s, as with the majority of his love poetry, but not published until after his death, when in 1633 his Songs and Sonnets appeared. Curiously, this was the same year that George Herbert’s poetry was posthumously published in The Temple, and Donne’s poetry shares many characteristics with Herbert’s. Both are devotional poets, and metaphysical poets, whose direct language almost conceals the complexity of the poems’ conceits and images, which close analysis must uncover. So it is with ‘The Canonization’, which is and will almost certainly remain an integral part of the Donne canon.
The best edition of Donne’s work is, in our opinion, the indispensable John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). If you found our analysis of ‘The Canonization’ useful, you might also enjoy our thoughts on one of his great holy sonnets, his classic poem ‘The Ecstasy’, and our discussion of his ‘A Hymn to God the Father’.
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.