‘The Broken Heart’ is a wonderful example of Donne’s skillful approach to a traditional topic. He is able to write about love in a new, creative way that employs conceits, or complex metaphors. These metaphors give the reader a new way to imagine something they’ve likely thought about a lot, like love. It is for his conceits that Donne, a metaphysical poet, is best-remembered.
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Summary of The Broken Heart
The poem is focused around love as an emotion and state of mind that is far more powerful and all-consuming than any other. Other strong emotions, like sorrow and anger, come upon a human being suddenly. Loe is also sudden, but because the one experiencing it has sought it out. People want to be in love and therefore it can consume all of the heart in a way that other emotions can’t.
The speaker is prepared to argue in favor of his perception of love and use his own experiences as evidence. He knows that this is how love works because he felt it when he first saw “thee,” the intended listener of the poem. This person, who is presumably a woman, is in part responsible for the now broken state of his heart. He walked into a room, saw her, and walked out with his heart in pieces. She did not take it as one might assume, no, rather love destroyed it as easily as glass is smashed into pieces. The poem concludes with the speaker telling the listener, who may or may not be his lover, that he’s never going to love anyone the same way again. His heart is not capable of it.
Themes in The Broken Heart
The clearest themes at work in ‘The Broken Heart’ are love and loss/suffering. The speaker pairs these two themes together from the beginning. It seems to him that one cannot have love without suffering, the two are tied together. Love is such a powerful force that is able to take over the heart in a way that nothing else can. It can cause one to experience so much sorrow that their heart breaks into pieces that can’t be put back together again.
Donne depicts these themes quite clearly through his use of a conceit at the end of the poem. This clever extended metaphor compares the speaker’s own heart to pieces of glass. While he still has them in his breast, he’s unable to use them as he once was. He can only love in small, less emotionally turbulent ways because of what his original love did to him.
Structure and Form of The Broken Heart
‘The Broken Heart’ by John Donne is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. This complex pattern is made even more complicated by the meter that accompanies it.
The first three lines of each stanza are written in iambic tetrameter, the fourth line is in iambic pentamer, the next two are in iambic tetrameter again and then each stanza of the poem concludes with two lines of iambic pentameter. The word “iamb” refers to a pair of beats, or syllables. The first of this pair is unstressed and the second is stressed, it sounds like du-DUM du-DUM. When a line is written in iambic tetrameter that means that there are four iambs in each line. Iambic pentameter means that there are five iambs per line.
Literary Devices in The Broken Heart
John Donne makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Broken Heart’. These include but are not limited to examples of similes, metaphors, and imagery. The latter is important when it comes to making effective examples of figurative language. The best imagery appears when a poet uses descriptions that encourage readers to engage all of their senses to imagine them. Take for example these two lines from the end of stanza two: “By him, as by chain’d shot, whole ranks do die ; / He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.”
These two lines are also good examples of a simile and a metaphor. The first is a simile that compares love to a “chain’d shot” or ammunition that’s chained tougher to make more of an impact on the enemy. The second is a metaphor that uses an angry, perhaps even malevolent “pike,” or river fish, to depict love. It eats one’s heart just as a pike would eat “fry,” or small fish.
There are also examples of alliteration and enjambment in ‘The Broken Heart’. These are both formal devices that appear in the structure of the words and lines. Alliteration is seen through the use and reuse of words that start with the same consonant sounds. For example, “he hath” in line two of the first stanza and “nothing,” “nothing,” and “Nor” in stanza four. Enjambment refers to the way that the poet breaks off lines, in some instances, before the natural resolution of a phrase. For instance, the transition between lines five and six of the first stanza and between lines three and four of the second stanza.
Analysis of The Broken Heart
He is stark mad, whoever says,
That he hath been in love an hour,
Yet not that love so soon decays,
But that it can ten in less space devour ;
Who will believe me, if I swear
That I have had the plague a year?
Who would not laugh at me, if I should say
I saw a flash of powder burn a day?
In the first lines of ‘The Broken Heart,’ the speaker begins by suggesting that anyone who claims to have fallen in and out of love in an hour is “stark mad” or insane. This, he thinks, is impossible. Love is much more powerful than that. He believes that love is such a strong force that it can eat up and spit out ten people at that time. It’s a force that’s completely unstoppable.
As an example, Donne’s speaker creates a metaphor using the plague. He asks, rhetorically, if anyone would believe him if he said he’d had the plague for a year. The obvious answer to this question is no, the plague would’ve killed him much more quickly. No one could be sick for that long and not die.
Anyone, he suggests, would laugh at him if he said that he says gunpowder burn for an entire day. He implying that this is impossible. There’s no way that it could burn for so long. It should go up immediately, it’s not a drawn-out process. These two metaphors emphasize the act that love is incredibly powerful. It’s fast-acting.
Ah, what a trifle is a heart,
If once into love’s hands it come !
All other griefs allow a part
To other griefs, and ask themselves but some ;
They come to us, but us love draws ;
He swallows us and never chaws ;
By him, as by chain’d shot, whole ranks do die ;
He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.
In the second octave of ‘The Broken Heart,’ Donne describes the heart as a “trifle”. It’s easily controlled by the hands of love. This is a clever example of personification that’s meant to convey to the reader how easily love takes over the heart. He goes on, adding that grief over love is different than other emotions. The others take up only “part” of the heart because they “come to us”. This is contrasted against how love works. Human beings seek love out, “us love draws” and then is able to take over all of one’s emotions.
There is another wonderful example of personification in the next lines when the speaker describes love as something that can “swallow us” without chewing—we have no chance of resisting.
Two more metaphors conclude this stanza. The speaker says that love is like “chain’d shot”. This is a reference to musket balls that were chained together in order to inflict more damage on the enemy when released. While a single shot might take out a soldier’s leg or arm, these “chain’d shot[s]” can do a lot more damage. They take down “whole ranks” or one’s whole heart.
Love is also compared to a “tyrant pike,” or a powerful fish that eats one’s heart as though it were eating its normal prey, smaller fish.
If ’twere not so, what did become
Of my heart when I first saw thee?
I brought a heart into the room,
But from the room I carried none with me.
If it had gone to thee, I know
Mine would have taught thine heart to show
More pity unto me ; but Love, alas !
At one first blow did shiver it as glass.
The speaker provides the reader with evidence to back up all of his claims in the next lines of ‘The Broken Heart’. He says that if all the things he’s suggested weren’t true, then how do “thee,” or “you,” explain the speaker’s own emotional state. It is only in this stanza that the speaker brings in his personal circumstances. He knows from experience that love works the way he’s described. That’s why he’s so opinionated about it. Readers are also keyed into the fact that this entire poem is addressed towards the speaker’s lover, they are the intended listener or the addressee of the text.
He takes the next lines to depict what exactly happened to him when he saw “thee”. He walked into a room and then walked out without his heart. So quickly did love take him over. The speaker makes sure that it’s very clear that “thee,” the lover and listener, did not take his heart form him. If she had, then his heart would’ve taken on the role of showing hers “More pity unto” him. It would’ve made sure that her heart treated him fairly.
But, this isn’t what happened. His lover did not take heart, it was instead destroyed by love. It was shattered or shivered as if it were made of glass (a good example of a simile).
Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.
Despite the destruction of his heart in the previous stanza, the speaker tells the listener that there is still some hope for him. Nothing, including his heart, can be completely destroyed without leaving something behind. This is compared to the way that no “place can be empty quite”.
The speaker believes that his breast, or chest, still “hath all / Those pieces still”. The parts of his heart are still in his breast, leading him to think that he’ll be able to use them even though they “be not unite”. This is starting off a great example of one of Donne’s famous conceits. It is seen through the use of this extended metaphor comparing broken glass to a human heart.
He says that the broken parts of his heart are small. It’s in tiny pieces and now only able to feel tiny things. Never again will his heart experience so great a love as it did when he walked into the room and saw the listener of the poem.
Readers who enjoy Donne’s clever extended metaphors, or conceits, should also consider reading ‘The Flea’ and ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. These two poems are without a doubt his most popular, plus although one is more explicit than the other, they are also love poems. Other poems of interest might include ‘The Sorrow of True Love’ by Edward Thomas, ‘I Said to Love’ by Thomas Hardy, and ‘The Flight of Love’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley. While these poems might not contain the clever similes and metaphors that ‘The Broken Heart’ does, they all have different takes on love and its meaning that are worth investigating.