Love’s Growth by John Donne

The poem, Love’s Growth, is an admirable lyric in which Donne examines the true nature of love and finds that it is a mixed stuff, a mixture of both physical and spiritual elements. True love is both of the body and the mind, and to prove his point Donne gives a number of arguments and brings together a number of most disparate and varied elements.

In the poem, the poet says that love is not a quintessence or pure and simple stuff which has sustaining and life-giving properties. Rather, it is a mixed stuff, a mixture of different elements, both spiritual and physical. That is why; it affects both the body and the soul; it causes both spiritual and physical suffering. It does cure not because it is quintessence, but on the homeopathic principle, of “like curing the like”. It cures all sorrow only by giving more of it. Love is neither infinite nor “pure stuff”, but has a mixed nature like grass which grows with spring.

Love is a mixed stuff, a mixture of both spiritual and physical elements. Though like the grass in this respects, it is different from it in another way. While the grass loses its life and vitality with the winter, there is no such loss in the power of love. In this respect, it may be likened to taxes levied in an emergency, but never withdrawn even when the emergency is over.


Love’s Growth Analysis

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.

The poet here says that he does no longer believe his love to be so pure (simple and unmixed, hence not subject to change), and mixed, as he had earlier supposed it to be, because now he discovers that his love is subject to seasonal fluctuations and changes like the grass. Throughout the winter, the poet lied when he swore that his love was infinite, because what is infinite cannot grow and increase. Now he finds that his love has increased in vigour with the spring. Spring has made some additions to it.

But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

This love is like a medicine which cures sorrow (on homeopathic principle) by giving the patient more sorrow. Love is not a pure and unmixed essence which has sustaining and curative powers. It is rather a compound, a mixed stuff, made up of different elements or experiences, and hence it causes pain and suffering both to the soul and the senses.

When the poet says: “not only be no quintessence”, he means to refer the medieval belief of Quintessence, which was regarded as “the pure essence of anything”, containing within itself all the creative and sustaining virtues. It was ‘pure’ and ‘simple’ and not a mixture or compound of a number of different elements or ingredients. It was supposed to have the power of sustaining, nourishing and strengthening.

Like other mixed stuffs, love also gets an addition in its vigour and strength from the sun (his working vigour, i.e., its restorative power, its motive force, its sexual energy). Love is not as pure and unmixed as is supposed by those who have no other beloved except their poetry (i.e. those who have no practical experience of love).

In fact, love is a mixture of different elements. That is why; it is some time passive and at other times active (that is; it is both spiritual and physical, both of the mind and the body). Sometimes it acts, and at other times it contemplates. It is an activity both of the mind and the body.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament,
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.

The poet here says his love is not made larger by the spring, but more prominent, as in the heaven, stars are not enlarged, but revealed by the sun (the poet may mean here that as we would not be able to see the stars were not for the light which they reflect from the sun so we would not know of the existence of love, which is not for the bodily consequences of the union of souls.

Gentle love deeds, like blossom on a bough, bud out in spring from love’s awakened root. The poet means that just as blossoms burst out of the branches of trees in spring, gentle acts of love burst out from love, now reawakened with renewed vigour and energy. Every spring, thus, means a revival of sexual vigour, just as it also means a renewal of life and vitality in Nature.

If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Through this extract, the poet, John Donne, says that if love takes such additions (gentle love deeds), as more circles are produced by one stirred in water, those, like so many spheres, make only one heaven, for they are all centred in her. When the poet says: Spheres, he refers to the Ptolemaic astronomy, the spheres were a series of concentric hollow globes which revolved round the earth and carried the heavenly bodies with them. There were supposed to be nine such hollow globes and together they made up what we call the ‘heaven’.

Here the term ‘concentrique’ means one circle within the other, or circles or globes with a common centre. Here this common centre is earth. Hence the spheres were supposed to be concentric or centred upon the earth. The first four lines of this extract can also be analysed like: just as when water is stirred additional circles are produced by the original one, then these new additions will only constitute one heaven, like the spheres in the Ptolemaic astronomy form only one heaven; and that is because all these additions will be centred on you, just as in that system the spheres are all centred on the earth.

And though each spring adds new vigour to love, as princes levy new taxes in times of war, and do not remit them even during peace, no winter shall reduce the spring’s increase.

“Thus love is not like grass, but more like heaven; rather, it combines both realms and is constant in change.”

When the poet says: “No winter shall abate the spring’s increase”, he means that the increase made in love in spring is not reduced in winter. It goes on increasing from spring to spring.

So, love is both like and unlike the vegetable world. Like the vegetable world it is subject to seasonal changes, but unlike the vegetable world its strength and vitality is not reduced with the winter.

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