Literature

A Summary and Analysis of John Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’

What do you get your beloved for your one-year anniversary? John Donne wrote this poem, ‘The Anniversary’, to his beloved. As well as being a fine love poem, ‘The Anniversary’ is also an example of metaphysical poetry, so it’s worth summarising the content of the poem. And the best way to offer a summary of a John Donne poem is, perhaps, to provide a rough paraphrase of what Donne is saying. So, here goes.

The Anniversary: summary

All Kings, and all their favourites,
         All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
    The sun itself, which makes times, as they pass,

    Is elder by a year now than it was
    When thou and I first one another saw:
    All other things to their destruction draw,
         Only our love hath no decay;
    This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
    Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

So, in summary – or rather, in paraphrase – Donne says, addressing his beloved: ‘Everything from kings to the sun in the sky is now one year older than when you and I first clapped eyes on each other. Everything else, however, is in decline, moving towards its own death, whereas our love is different from them because it knows no decay. Our love has no tomorrow, and no yesterday, because it’s timeless; our love runs and runs, but never runs away from us; but instead, it remains as strong as the day we first met.’

      Two graves must hide thine and my corse;
         If one might, death were no divorce.
    Alas, as well as other Princes, we
    (Who Prince enough in one another be)
    Must leave at last in death these eyes and ears,
    Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet salt tears;
         But souls where nothing dwells but love
    (All other thoughts being inmates) then shall prove
    This, or a love increasèd there above,
When bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove.

In the second stanza, Donne continues: ‘When we die, beloved, we’ll be buried in separate graves; if we weren’t, then even in death we would remain together. But if we are to be buried separately, then we must go the same way as other princes (and let’s face it, we’re so empowered by the strength of our love that we’re pretty much princes ourselves, of a kind) and leave each other in death. But souls which are full of love and nothing else, as ours are (because all our other thoughts are ‘inmates’ or prisoners of our love for each other: i.e. our love dictates every thought in our heads), will discover that, when bodies are buried in the grave, the souls rise up from the bodies – because our souls will rise from our corpses to find each other again.’

And then we shall be throughly blessed;
         But we no more than all the rest.
    Here upon earth we’re Kings, and none but we
    Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be;
    Who is so safe as we? where none can do
    Treason to us, except one of us two.
         True and false fears let us refrain,
    Let us love nobly, and live, and add again
    Years and years unto years, till we attain
To write threescore: this is the second of our reign.

In the third and final stanza, Donne says: ‘Then, when our souls are united even in death, we will be thoroughly blessed – but then so will everyone. It’s here on Earth, while we live, that you and I are truly special: we are like kings, but we are also like subjects (because I am your subject, but also your king; likewise, you serve me, but I also serve you, so you’re both my king and subject too). Who is as safe as we are? No one else can do treason to us, so we’re safe from harm; because you are my only subject, and I yours, only the other one can commit treason against us (and that’s hardly going to happen, right?). Let us live without fears – founded or unfounded – then, and let us love as befits kings, for many more years to come, until we die aged seventy (threescore). This is the second year of our reign, for we are kings.’

Of course, much is lost in paraphrasing the beautiful paradoxes of John Donne’s poetry, but hopefully something – a greater understanding of the meaning of the poem – is gained, too.

The Anniversary: analysis

First, before we move to analysing the meaning of the poem, a few words about its form and metre. Each stanza has ten lines, and the poem is largely in the iambic metre, with the first, second, and seventh lines being tetrameter and the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, and tenth lines being pentameter. This keeps the rhythm sprightly if not unpredictable, perhaps even neatly hinting at the slight uncertainties lurking beneath the poet’s confidence in his love (see below).

Paradox is a key part of metaphysical poetry, and few metaphysical poets utilised clever paradox more effectively than John Donne. The first paradox of ‘The Anniversary’, and perhaps the most central, is that Donne is celebrating his and his beloved’s one-year anniversary, marking the fact that time has moved on since they first met … and yet their love has not changed at all. It seems to exist outside of the bonds of time. And this risks undermining the whole point of the poem. What’s the point of celebrating your anniversary if your love has ‘no … yesterday’? But we know what Donne means: this is a different kind of love from others, because it does not age or decay. As with ‘The Sun Rising’, the hubris and arrogance of young love are on full display.

And yet what makes ‘The Anniversary’ more than just a crude strutting, a celebration of two people in love which fails to go beyond the banal ‘our love is as strong as the day we first laid eyes on each other’, is the undercurrent of fragility, or at least an acknowledgement of the possibility of fragility, that runs under the poem, particularly the second and third stanzas. First off, in that second stanza, Donne admits that his and his beloved’s love is not so strong that it card stave off death: they can love each other all they want, but they’re still going to die. Their love may not be subject to decay, but their bodies certainly are. But that’s all right, Donne says: because when they are placed in their (separate) graves, their souls will rise up and re-join each other. There will be, to borrow from Alison Moyet, a ‘love resurrection’.

And yet, and yet … in that third and final stanza, more doubt threatens to creep in. ‘Who is as safe as we?’ is offered as a rhetorical question which invites the (unnecessary) answer from the beloved, ‘Nobody!’, but does the question not mask a potential uncertainty on Donne’s part? After all, we goes on to acknowledge that they have both false and true reasons to be fearful for their futures. Even that analogy, that they are both kings to each other and each other’s subjects, introduces not only the troublesome possibility of treason against each other (i.e. infidelity), but also the idea that having more than one ‘king’ is surely a bad idea, at least in the same ‘kingdom’.

In the last analysis, ‘The Anniversary’ is one of Donne’s more accessible love poems, but it is perhaps not quite so straightforward as it first seems. Although we can catch its surface meaning easily enough, the possibility that Donne was also exploring the fragility of even the strongest love – those true and false fears – remains a very real one.

One Comment

  1. And what skill there is in the final line! He talks of years and years and years, even mentioning “threescore” – which does sound so terribly many, and far away, and unlikely – and finishes with just: “this is the second”. Yet, is it bathetic, or anti-climactic? I don’t think so. That final line has the elegance, strength and simplicity which, imho. is a hallmark of Donne’s poetry. Wonderful, unsurpassed.