John Donne

Elegy VII: Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love by John Donne

‘Elegy VII’ by John Donne, also known as ‘Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love,’ is a typical piece about unrequited love.

Elegy VII’ showcases John Donne’s mastery of the language of unrequited love. This poem is written in the manner of an elegy that laments the speaker’s regret of teaching a woman the art of love. It captures the speaker’s pain in being a facilitator, not a partner. Overall, this elegy evokes the emotions of hatred and disdain rather than grief. It showcases how grief hardens a lover’s heart. Besides, the regular rhythm and musicality of the poem hide the bitterness that lies deep within the speaker’s heart for the woman.

Elegy VII: Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love
John Donne

Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love,
And in that sophistry, oh, thou dost prove
Too subtle: Fool, thou didst not understand
The mystic language of the eye nor hand:
Nor couldst thou judge the difference of the air
Of sighs, and say, this lies, this sounds despair:
Nor by the’eye’s water call a malady
Desperately hot, or changing feverously.
I had not taught thee then, the alphabet
Of flowers, how they devicefully being set
And bound up, might with speechless secrecy
Deliver errands mutely, and mutually.
Remember since all thy words used to be
To every suitor, “I, ’if my friends agree”;
Since, household charms, thy husband’s name to teach,
Were all the love-tricks, that thy wit could reach;
And since, an hour’s discourse could scarce have made
One answer in thee, and that ill arrayed
In broken proverbs, and torn sentences.
Thou art not by so many duties his,
That from the’world’s common having severed thee,
Inlaid thee, neither to be seen, nor see,
As mine: who have with amorous delicacies
Refined thee’into a blissful paradise.
Thy graces and good words my creatures be;
I planted knowledge and life’s tree in thee,
Which oh, shall strangers taste? Must I alas
Frame and enamel plate, and drink in glass?
Chafe wax for others’ seals? break a colt’s force
And leave him then, being made a ready horse?

Explore Elegy VII: Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love

Elegy VII: Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love by John Donne


Summary

‘Elegy VII’ by John Donne describes how the speaker taught his loved one, who was a simpleton, the art of love.

The poem begins with a direct address to the woman as “Nature’s lay idiot,” who did not know the language or art of love. It was the speaker who taught her how to love and how to open up her heart. When she graduated in the art of love, she outshined her teacher. However, the speaker was not completely gullible. This is why he did not teach her (or failed to teach her) how to differentiate genuine feelings from flattery. At last, the woman was married to a person who literally inlaid her in household work. This makes the speaker angry as he was the one who deserved to be with her. He had been just a facilitator of the lady’s “love-tricks.”

Structure and Form

Donne’s ‘Elegy VII’ consists of a single stanza comprising 30 lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is roughly AABB. It means each set of two lines ends with the same rhyme. For instance, the first two lines end with the pair of words “love” and “prove” that rhyme closely. There are a total of ten syllables in each line, and the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Therefore, every line has five iambs or iambic feet. The overall poem is composed in iambic pentameter. Besides, Donne uses the first-person point of view in order to address the woman.

Literary Devices

In ‘Elegy VII,’ Donne makes use of the following literary devices.

  • Metaphor: Donne, a proponent of metaphysical poetry, heavily uses conceits or far-fetched metaphorical comparisons in order to communicate his message. For instance, the speaker refers to “love” as “sophistry” in the very beginning. He compares body language to a language that is both abstract and mystic. By the end, he compares the lady adept in love’s language to a “blissful paradise.” These are all examples of metaphysical conceits.
  • Caesura: The sudden pauses between a metrical line that add cadence to the overall piece can be found in Donne’s poem. For instance, this device is used in “Of sighs, and say, this lies, this sounds despair.”
  • Alliteration: The repetition of an initial consonant sound at the beginning of neighboring words can be found in the following instances: “sighs, and say,” “thee then,” “speechless secrecy,” “mutely, and mutually,” etc.
  • Rhetorical Question: In the last four lines of the poem, the speaker asks consecutive rhetorical questions for the sake of emphasis. These questions are framed in a manner that reveals the speaker’s hatred and disgust.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-8

Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love,

And in that sophistry, oh, thou dost prove

Too subtle: Fool, thou didst not understand

The mystic language of the eye nor hand:

Nor couldst thou judge the difference of the air

Of sighs, and say, this lies, this sounds despair:

Nor by the’eye’s water call a malady

Desperately hot, or changing feverously.

Donne’s ‘Elegy VII’ is about a speaker’s disgust for his failure in getting the love of the woman to whom he taught the language of love. The poem begins with the phrase, “Nature’s lay idiot” which is important in understanding the speaker’s attitude towards the woman. She is addressed as an idiot; a layman who could not understand or comprehend love. It is the speaker who taught her to love, and in that art, she proved to be an ardent student, an adept one.

There was a time when she was a mere “Fool,” starting with a capital “F” for the sake of emphasis. She did not (or could not) make out the “mystic language” of the eyes or touch. The language of love is so subtle that it cannot be heard or read. It is something that needs to be felt. The woman was so dumb that she could not tell the difference between the sighs that are not genuine and the sighs that arose out of utter despair.

Furthermore, she could not tell the difference between one’s suffering caused by a physical malady and one’s emotional pain. Overall, the woman was a simpleton. She was just a girl who was nurtured and trained to love, as she was not born with the abilities. In this way, the speaker projects himself as a teacher and the woman as his beloved student.

Lines 9-19

I had not taught thee then, the alphabet

Of flowers, how they devicefully being set

And bound up, might with speechless secrecy

Deliver errands mutely, and mutually.

Remember since all thy words used to be

To every suitor, “I, ’if my friends agree”;

Since, household charms, thy husband’s name to teach,

Were all the love-tricks, that thy wit could reach;

And since, an hour’s discourse could scarce have made

One answer in thee, and that ill arrayed

In broken proverbs, and torn sentences.

In the following lines of ‘Elegy VII,’ the speaker talks about the “alphabet of flowers,” which is the arrangement of different colorful flowers in a bouquet. They are intended to express or reflect the sender’s emotions. The woman, as discussed before, could not decode what a bouquet was encoded for. The speaker did not teach her the method of deciphering the code.

In the next lines, the speaker urges the woman to recall how she used to communicate with her past suitors. She depended highly on her friends’ views and suggestions. After she learned the language, she got engaged to her present husband. Now, she is engaged in household work. Her wit could hardly reach the man she is now with.

The following lines similarly suggest how badly she communicated verbally. The speaker informs how the woman could not find suitable responses. Even when she found an apt reply, the sentence was either broken or contained broken proverbs. From this reference, it could be inferred that the woman had some trouble with clear communication. She had difficulty in thinking. The speaker taught her how to think clearly.

Lines 20-30

Thou art not by so many duties his,

That from the’world’s common having severed thee,

Inlaid thee, neither to be seen, nor see,

As mine: who have with amorous delicacies

Refined thee’into a blissful paradise.

Thy graces and good words my creatures be;

I planted knowledge and life’s tree in thee,

Which oh, shall strangers taste? Must I alas

Frame and enamel plate, and drink in glass?

Chafe wax for others’ seals? break a colt’s force

And leave him then, being made a ready horse?

In this section of ‘Elegy VII,’ the speaker expresses his anger by saying that by no means she was destined to live with her present husband. The person severed her from the outside world and inlaid her in household work. Now, she can neither be seen, nor she could see someone.

The speaker talks about his “amorous delicacies,” a metaphorical reference to love. He refined the woman and made her heart a “blissful paradise.” All her fine graces and good words are his creation. He planted the knowledge of understanding human emotions and the seed of love that is metaphorically referred to as “life’s tree.” The tree of love grew up within her, and when the time came for fruition, she forgot him. Now, her fruits are for strangers.

Moreover, the speaker metaphorically talks about making enamel plates and drinking in a glass. This expression describes how the speaker is turned into a mere observer. He feels like chafing wax for others’ seals.

In the final lines, the speaker compares the woman with a colt. Like a trainer carving out a horse out of a colt, the speaker transformed the woman into an ideal lover. At last, the speaker regrets his decision to teach the woman in the first instance.

FAQs

What is ‘Elegy VII’ by John Donne about?

John Donne’s ‘Elegy VII: Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love’ is about a speaker’s regret of teaching a woman who did not reciprocate his love. He taught her the language and art of love. When she was adept at that sophistry, she chose a suitable partner and left the speaker.

What is the theme of ‘Elegy VII’?

This piece taps into many themes that include unrequited love, human emotions, regret, and the art of love. The main idea of the poem revolves around a speaker’s attempt in making a woman an ideal lover and how he was betrayed.

What is the tone of ‘Elegy VII’?

The poem’s subject is a woman whom the speaker taught to love. His attitude or tone toward the subject is filled with disgust, anger, and disdain. After reading the poem, it feels like the speaker is undergoing several emotions. By the end, it is only his anger that is reflected by the rhetorical questions.

What type of poem is ‘Elegy VII’?

Donne’s ‘Elegy VII’ consists of a total of 30 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. The poem contains the fixed rhyme scheme of AABB. Besides, this piece is composed in iambic pentameter.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that tap into the themes present in Donne’s ‘Elegy VII ’ You can also read more poems by John Donne.

Explore these memorable poems about unrequited love.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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