John Donne

The Apparition by John Donne

The poem, ‘The Apparition’, by John Donne is one of those lyrics wherein the mood of the poet has been shown cynical and bitter, almost savage. He has been disappointed in love, for his beloved has scornfully spurned his advances under the plea of her virginity. The poet tried his best to woe her, but did not succeed. The result is that his love gets turned into hatred, and he is determined to cause her harm. He is not one of those conventional Petrarchan lovers who continue to go on loving even when their beloved is, “a forbidding tree”, cruel and unapproachable.

In this dramatic lyric, the speaker is the poet-lover who addresses through this lyric his scornful mistress. The lover tells her when he is killed by her scorn and rejection; his ghost would appear to her in her bedroom. It would find her sleeping with another man, who would be much worse than the poet. When she would try to waken him he would shrink from her thinking that she wants more sexual-pleasure.

He will not awake, and then she would tremble with fear like an aspen leaf. But his ghost would not take any pity on her. The lover is merciless and does not tell her what his ghost would tell her or do to her. His love for her is spent, and, therefore, he would not spare her. He wants that she should suffer terribly and repent. This would be his revenge for all the sufferings she has caused him in his life.

The Apparition by John Donne


Analysis of The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,

In the poem, ‘The Apparition’, (which means ghost) the poet is shown angry with his beloved and says that she is no better than a murderess. When he is killed by her scornful rejection of his advances, she would consider herself free. She would then think that she would not be troubled ever again with his love-making. But she would soon realize her mistake, for his ghost will visit her in her bedroom.

And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;

The poet, through this extract, imagines that his ghost would find her in the arms of another man, much worse than he. She had always been putting him off pleading virginity, but all her claims to virginity would prove to be false when she would be discovered sleeping with another man. The meaning of the phrase ‘Feign’d Vestall’ refers to the one who falsely pleaded her virginity in order to put him off. At the time, the candle in her room would be burning with a weak, flickering light. She would shake and pinch her lover in order to wake him. But he, already exhausted, would think that she wanted more indulgence in sex and so he would pretend to be sleep, and shrink away from her.

And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.

The poet further says when she would find another man asleep and shrinking away from her, she would be left trembling miserably, like an aspen leaf (i.e., the poor, miserable woman, who trembles with fear like a leaf of the Aspen tree. The leave of the aspen is so thin that it shakes even when there seems to be no wind). She would lie there neglected by her lover. Her body would all be bathed in sweat, white and cold like mercury. Then she would look more like a ghost than he himself. By ‘quicksilver sweat’, the poet means sweat cold and white like mercury.

What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

In this last extract of ‘The Apparition’ what the poet would tell to her then, he cruelly keeps a secret. He will not tell it to her now, because fore-knowledge would lessen her fear and protect her from harm. He no longer loves her and, therefore, does not pity her. He wishes that she should suffer deep anguish and repent, rather than that he should merely hold out empty, harmless threats. The meaning of the terms ‘painfully repent’ is to suffer deep anguish and then repent of her sins, while by ‘Rest still innocent’, he means ‘fail to cause her any harm; that is; remaining harmless.



Thus, the poem, ‘The Apparition”, is characterized by an intensity of passion and simplicity. The lover’s disappointment and frustration towards her beloved have been adequately conveyed. The language is simple. It is entirely free from those difficult, and out of the way, illusions, and references which are such stumbling blocks in the way of Donne’s readers. It is a lyric that stands in a class by itself.


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 women. Some of his lover’s affairs lasted for long and almost remained permanent, whereas others lasted only for a very short period.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
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.
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