‘Air and Angels’ by John Donne is a two stanza poem that is separated into sets of fourteen lines. It was published in 1633 in Poems. Donne did not structure this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme. The two stanzas are quite divergent from one another. Only the first has a coherent rhyme scheme, following the pattern of ABBABACDCDDEEE. The second stanza is completely different with a number of unrhymed endings and with no connections to the previous fourteen lines aside from ending with a rhyming triplet.
Summary of Air and Angels
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he has loved the listener many times over, and always without knowing her. His love exists on its own terms, separate from the person it is directed at. The speaker compares love to the purity of angels. It is in the world the same way angels move through the air.
He wonders over how exactly his love will be made known. First, considering the possibility it could find a home within his lover’s body. This is quickly pushed to the side though as he decides a woman could not balance the strength of a man’s love within her. She would be weighed down like a small ship.
‘Air and Angels’ concludes with the speaker deciding the only way his love and his listener’s love can come together is if her’s encircles his like a sphere. This way they avoid anything too “bright” or “extreme.” Their loves will reside in a middle ground together.
Analysis of Air and Angels
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
The speaker begins ‘Air and Angels’ by stating that he loved the listener before he even knew who she was. Not once did he love her, but “Twice or thrice,” two or three times. This multiplication of his love gives it additional credibility. His love from a distance was not a passing feeling, it was true and returned to him two or three times.
What is remarkable about his love is that it existed before he knew the listener’s “face or name.” This makes it seems as if the connection between the two is otherworldly in some way. It exists on a plane different from that of other loves and lovers.
In the next two lines, the speaker comes to some kind of a conclusion about the form his love takes. He is relating his emotions to the ways that “Angels affect us.” His love makes itself known through “a voice…a shapeless flame.” These are ephemeral parts of the world that are impossible to pin down or reproduce. It is likely Donne was connecting the mysteries of emotion, the power of his speaker’s own love, to the mysteries of angels and their ever-changing forms.
Just as angels are worshipped, yet not seen, so too should his love be appreciated. The listener might not be able to see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see,
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too,
In the next section, the speaker describes how he followed the listener with his love wherever they went. This presents a contrast from the previous section, showing a physical representation of love in the presence of the speaker. He returns in line six to referring to love as a “glorious nothing.” He might be present and observable but the love between the two is impossible to see.
The next four lines are jumbled in their syntax, making Donne’s speaker’s new ideas about love harder to interpret. He is still interested in the relationship between love, the spiritual, and the physical. His speaker states that love is the child of his soul. This invisible emotion came from his invisible essence. In order to make itself know, love must “Take…limbs of flesh.” It is necessary for love to be as obvious as the “parent is” in order to make itself known.
And therefore what thou wert, and who
I bid love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
The final lines come to a conclusion about where the speaker’s love resides now that it has been born from his soul. It needs limbs and a body in order to survive and has fixed “itself to thy lip, eye, and brow.” This is a necessary step in order to strengthen the love between the two. His emotions are now embodied within the listener’s own body.
Although romantic and devotional, Donne’s lines also speak on agency and the power of a woman’s own emotions. They play into the stereotype that a woman’s feelings and loves are not as strong as a man’s. This is how his love is able to take up residence within her body.
Whilst thus to ballast love, I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw, I had love’s pinnace overfraught,
Although the speaker seemed sure of his concept of love existing within the physical, he changes his mind. He now sees the body as being too much of a distraction from the pure, pristine love that came from his soul.
The speaker describes love within one’s body as a “pinnace” or a small ship that is being weighed down by ballast. It is in danger of becoming “overfraught” and ending in disaster. Perhaps the body is incapable of sustaining love, or at least the power of a man’s love.
Every thy hair for love to work upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt’ring bright, can love inhere;
Then as an angel, face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
It is in the fifth line of the second stanza that the speaker starts deciding the true appropriate place for love. First, he takes note of the fact that love cannot happen in the “extreme” or “in nothing.” There must be something in between these two poles.
The final lines in this section speak to the two sides of love. It is like the angels in many ways, but it comes from a human soul. This means that it will never be able to live in one extreme or the other. There has to be another solution.
So thy love may be my love’s sphere;
Just such disparity
As is ‘twixt air and angels’ purity,
‘Twixt women’s love, and men’s will ever be.
In the final lines of ‘Air and Angels’, he states that love’s place is as a “sphere.” The listener’s love needs to encircle his own. With the two together, a woman’s and a man’s, there can be a balance.
The last lines add to the relationship that will exist between his love and the listener. They might be able to come together and grow stronger, but that doesn’t mean that they are completely the same. There is still a “disparity” between them just as there will always be a difference between angels and the air.