J John Donne

Love’s Alchemy by John Donne

The title of the poem, ‘Love’s Alchemy’ is apt and suggestive. Alchemy was medieval science that aimed at the discovery of the Elixir of life or the philosopher’s stone. The Elixir was supposed to be some mysterious substance that could cure disease and prolong life, and a touch of the Philosopher’s stone could turn iron into gold. But the Alchemists, despite their life-long devotion to the search, failed to discover this substance. It remained a mystery despite all their efforts. Similarly, the true nature of love is a mystery. There are those who have probed deep into this mystery, and claim that they have discovered, where his centrique happiness doth lie. But the poet has failed to fathom love’s, ‘hidden mysterie’, though he himself has loved long and deep, and enjoyed the fruits of love. Therefore, he considers those who claim to understand the true nature of love as cheats and impostures.

Love's Alchemy by John Donne


Analysis of Love’s Alchemy

Some that have deeper digg’d love’s mine than I,

Say, where his centric happiness doth lie;

I have lov’d, and got, and told,

But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,

I should not find that hidden mystery.

Oh, ’tis imposture all!

And as no chemic yet th’elixir got,

But glorifies his pregnant pot

If by the way to him befall

Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,

So, lovers dream a rich and long delight,

But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.


Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day,

Shall we for this vain bubble’s shadow pay?

Ends love in this, that my man

Can be as happy’as I can, if he can

Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom’s play?

That loving wretch that swears

‘Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,

Which he in her angelic finds,

Would swear as justly that he hears,

In that day’s rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.

Hope not for mind in women; at their best

Sweetness and wit, they’are but mummy, possess’d.

Let those who have dug deeper into the mine of love say where the essential happiness of lovelies. As far as the poet is concerned, he has loved, possessed his beloved, and also told of his experience to others. But even if he were to go on loving, enjoying the pleasures of love, and telling of his experiences to others all his life, he would never be able to explain the true nature of love. Love is so mysterious. Those who claim to know its secrets and understand its nature are all impostures.

Just as no Alchemist has as yet succeeded in discovering the Elixir, but glorifies his pot full of a number of chemicals, and imagines that he has got the Elixir whenever he comes across something fragrant and medicinal, the by-product of his search for the Elixir, similar lovers dream of a rich and long delight in each other company but get only a cold and short wintery night. Dreams of lovers are as futile as the dreams of Alchemists who failed to discover the Elixir even though they devoted their whole lives to the search.

Therefore, the lovers should not spend their savings, their honor, their youth, and vitality in indulgence in the pleasures of sex which are as vain and fleeting as the shadows cast by bubbles. Love does not mean mere physical indulgence in sex, for if it were so, his servants would be able to enjoy all the pleasures of sex once he has gone through the humiliating wedding ceremony in the Church. But love is not also purely spiritual. That miserable lover who swears that marriage is the union of minds and not of bodies, and who finds his beloved a ‘pure spirit’ like an angel, he will also swear that he hears the music of the spheres in the loud, coarse noise made by the band which plays on the occasion of his wedding. In other words, an angelic woman is impossible. At their best, women have sweetened and wit. But when once they have been enjoyed they are found to be mere dead flash without mind or soul.


Critical Appreciation

The poem, ‘Love’s Alchemy’, by John Donne is more argumentative, though not distinctively scholastic or metaphysical. Neither needs it to be regarded, as I often has been, as the record of a mood of deep disenchantment and disgust. It is written with great gusto, I would almost say, with great animal spirits, and with admirable use of speech-rhythm. It should not, I think, be regarded as evidence that Donne at one time seriously believed that women had no minds, but rather as a deliberately exaggerated, provocative, and paradoxical expression of what always remained his conviction, namely, that in love the physical and the spiritual were ultimately inseparable. Donne in this poem is witty and paradoxical and insisting, partly in reaction against that Platonic and Petrarchan idealization which had degenerated into a mere fashion, on only one aspect of the truth, an aspect which he deliberately exaggerates and distorts and presents as though it were the whole truth.


About John Donne

Donne’s love poems cover a wide range of feelings from extreme physical passion to spiritual love, and express varied moods ranging from a mood of cynicism and contempt to one of faith and acceptance. Hence, it is difficult to classify them with any exactness. Donne’s love poetry covers a wider range of emotions than that of any previous poet, and that it is not bookish but is rooted in his personal experiences. He had very wide and varied experiences in love-making; therefore, you find a variety of emotions in his poetry. He is notorious for having love affairs with many a woman. Some of his lover’s affairs lasted for long and almost remained permanent, whereas others lasted only for a very short period.


Complex Nature of Love

It has been said that ‘Love’s Alchemy’ expresses Donne’s negative, cynical attitude toward love and that his attitude towards womanhood is brutal and savage. However, Leishman is nearer the truth when he says that in this ‘Love’s Alchemy’, as elsewhere, Donne is emphasizing the complex nature of love – that love is both of the mind and the body, that it is both spiritual and physical. Only, reacting against the Platonic and Petrarchan ideals of love, he goes to the other extreme and seems to deny the very possibility of a union of minds.


Mystery of Love

John Donne says in ‘Love’s Alchemy’ that love cannot be a merely carnal relationship, for if it were so it would not be worthwhile for lovers to spend their wealth, their time, and their energy for the sake of love, and suffer a loss of comfort and social respect. If love were merely physical, there would be no difference between a sensitive soul like the poet, and his mean and vulgar servant. In that case, even his servant can enjoy the pleasures of love, only if he is prepared to undergo the humiliating wedding ceremony.

Love is not merely physical, but it is also not purely spiritual. The poet mocks at those Petrarchan and Platonic lovers who believe in the ‘marriage of the minds’, and dream of finding in their beloveds an angelic soul. Such people have no practical experience of love, they have sung of it only in their verses, and so do not understand its real mystery. He calls such people ‘loving wretches’ and tells them that they must, “Hope not for mind in women”. Cynically, he declares that women, at their best, maybe, “sweetness and wit”, but once when they have been enjoyed, it would be found that they were Mummies, mere flesh, with no mind or soul.

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Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thanks for the EBI 😉

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