Elegy V: His Picture

John Donne

‘Elegy V’ by John Donne is addressed to the poet’s lover. He asks her to accept him when he returns, despite the fact that he’s going to look and act differently.


John Donne

Nationality: English

John Donne is one of the most important English poets of his time.

He was the best of the metaphysical poets and is remembered for his skill with conceits.

In this valediction poem, the speaker, often considered John Donne himself, gives his lover a picture—a parting gift before he leaves on a trip. Donne explores in Elegy V’ how love changes as it ages in these lines observing that their old love is dead and a new mature love, not dependent on a physical connection, has been born. 

Scholars believe Donne penned this poem after joining Sir Walter Raleigh’s journey to Cadiz in 1596. It’s possible that he was considering a lover before his wife, Anne. 

Elegy V: His Picture
John Donne

Here take my picture; though I bid farewellThine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.'Tis like me now, but I dead, 'twill be moreWhen we are shadows both, than 'twas before.When weather-beaten I come back, my handPerhaps with rude oars torn, or sun beams tann'd,My face and breast of haircloth, and my headWith care's rash sudden storms being o'erspread,My body'a sack of bones, broken within,And powder's blue stains scatter'd on my skin;If rival fools tax thee to'have lov'd a manSo foul and coarse as, oh, I may seem then,This shall say what I was, and thou shalt say,"Do his hurts reach me? doth my worth decay?Or do they reach his judging mind, that heShould now love less, what he did love to see?That which in him was fair and delicate,Was but the milk which in love's childish stateDid nurse it; who now is grown strong enoughTo feed on that, which to disus'd tastes seems tough."
Elegy V by John Donne


‘Elegy V’ by John Donne is dedicated to a changing relationship moving beyond physical attraction to a strong, emotional connection. 

In the first part of the poem, the poet begins by telling his lover to take a picture he’s given her and use to remember him by while he’s gone on a trip. He knows that the trip is going to be long and that when he comes back, he’s going to look and feel different. He tells her that he can use the picture to show those who question her about their relationship what he looked like when they fell in love. 

He believes he’ll no longer be the attractive young man she once knew. Their relationship is going to hinge on their internal, emotional connection. This will take them into the next stage of their life, and their relationship will be far stronger and more dependable than a simple attraction to what the other person looks like. 

Structure and Form 

‘Elegy V’ by John Donne is a dramatic monologue contained within twenty lines of verse. The poet uses block form, meaning that the lines are in one single, large stanza. The title, ‘Elegy V,’ also informs the reader that this poem will in some way serve as an acknowledgment of someone who has recently died. It’s often defined as a lament for the dead. 

The poem divided his twenty lines into rhyming couplets following a pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on. Some of these rhymes are more obvious than others because of the poet’s use of enjambment. He also uses iambic pentameter mostly throughout the poem. This suits the conversational tone the speaker strikes as well as the dramatic monologue form. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Irony: seen when the poet uses an image as a farewell gift and as a token to remember him but immediately dedicates the rest of the poem to describe how he’s going to change physically.
    Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse because of the poet’s use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “When we” in line four and “body” and “bones, broken.” 
  • Enjambment: a transition between two lines that does not use end-punctation and leaves a phrase incomplete. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines three and four.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-8

Here take my picture; though I bid farewell

Thine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.

‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ’twill be more

When we are shadows both, than ’twas before.

When weather-beaten I come back, my hand

Perhaps with rude oars torn, or sun beams tann’d,

My face and breast of haircloth, and my head

With care’s rash sudden storms being o’erspread,

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker, John Donne, tells his lover (whose identity is unknown) to take his “picture.” This ironic subject helps the speaker argue against vanity in the following lines. 

He tells his lover that he carries a picture of them inside his heart, where his soul resides. The image he’s given her may show a simple picture of him, he adds, but it represents a lot more. It will be even more meaningful when “we are shadows both.” This suggests a time when both people are dead or their relationship is so changed that they are unrecognizable. 

Donne knows that it’s possible when he returns that he’ll be “weather-beaten.” He’ll look different and feel like a different man because of his experiences. The poet uses a literary device known as a metonym here to represent weather. It stands in for all the elements that will change the speaker and therefore makes the picture his lover now possesses of him inaccurate. 

In the next lines, he goes through the various parts of his body and appearance that are going to be different, he thinks, when he returns. He images the skin on his hands roughened because of his use of oars and his skin more generally tanned from prolonged time in the sun. 

He also speaks about his head and how he’ll be impacted mentally by his time away. He’ll deal with metaphorical (or perhaps physical) “sudden storms” that will change him. 

Lines 9-16

My body’a sack of bones, broken within,

And powder’s blue stains scatter’d on my skin;

If rival fools tax thee to’have lov’d a man

So foul and coarse as, oh, I may seem then,

This shall say what I was, and thou shalt say,

“Do his hurts reach me? doth my worth decay?

Or do they reach his judging mind, that he

Should now love less, what he did love to see?

In the next lines, the speaker goes on to say that his body is a “sack of bones, broken within.” This dark turn of phrase suggests that his interior, that which physically makes him who he is, will shatter. The phrase “powder’s blue stains scatter’d on my skin” implies that he’ll be physically broken and scarred from an actual fight. 

The speaker suggests that in the future, others are going hey regarding how she could dedicate herself to such a man, someone who is scarred and broken. He tells her that she should show them this picture of him before his trip and say that this is who he used to be and who she fell in love with.

The speaker tells her she should ask those questioning her love if his appearance and history “reach” her and impact her. Do they in any way her “worth decay?” The answer is, of course, no. 

His appearance is changed, but his affection for her, and her affection in return, has not. Their love now depends more so on their internal connection than on a physical attraction to one another. 

Lines 17-20 

That which in him was fair and delicate,

Was but the milk which in love’s childish state

Did nurse it; who now is grown strong enough

To feed on that, which to disus’d tastes seems tough.”

The speaker concludes the poem by finalizing what he thinks his lover would say to the questioning public. She will tell them that everything inside her lover that was “fair and delicate” was part of their childish love (their love as it was when they were first together). 

But now, they’ve grown stronger. Instead, they eat solid foods, something that to those still nursing on milk “seems tough” but to them is only the next step in their relationship. 


What is the meaning of ‘Elegy V?’

The meaning is that although the nature of the speaker’s love is going to change, he believes, very confidently, that upon his return, he and his lover will be stronger than ever. If he is physically and mentally scarred, it will only progress their relationship to its next stages. 

What is the poem ‘Elegy V’ about?

The poem is about a speaker’s impending voyage and what he believes will happen to him while he’s separated from his lover. He knows he will change and is preparing his lover to receive him in his changed state when he returns. 

What kind of poem is ‘Elegy V?’

‘Elegy V’ is an elegy and dramatic monologue. While Donne did not use the word “elegy” in its traditional sense (as a lament for the dead), he uses it to suggest a melancholy tone and, in this case, the death of the relationship as it used to be. 

Why did Donne write ‘Elegy V?’

Donne wrote this poem to describe his upcoming trip to Cadiz with Sir Walter Raleigh and bid his lover, an unnamed woman who he was with before he married Anne, farewell. 

What is the tone of ‘Elegy V?’ 

The tone is confident and self-assured. It is also, at times, reflective. He is looking toward the future and what it’s going to be like when the two are reunited. He knows he’ll see his lover again, but the state of their relationship will be different. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Elegy V’ should also consider reading some other John Donne poems. For example: 

  • A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning‘ – uses one of his famous conceits to depict the steadfast nature of his love.
  • Death, be not Proud’ – tells the listener not to fear Death as he keeps the morally corrupt company and only leads to Heaven.
  • The Flea‘ – is the poet’s most famous poem. In it, he uses one of his brilliant conceits to convince his love to sleep with him.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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