‘The Canonization’ by John Donne was first published in 1633 in Donne’s posthumous collection Songs and Sonnets. It is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of nine lines. The lines rhyme in the pattern of abbacccaa, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. In regards to the meter, Donne was less consistent. There are moments in the text in which he uses iambic pentameter. This means that the lines are divided into five sets of two lines. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
There are other times in which Donne uses iambic tetrameter, meaning the lines contain four sets of two beats rather than five. Finally, a reader should take note of the last line of every stanza. Here Donne uses iambic trimeter, or a line with three sets of two beats.
One of the most important elements of ‘The Canonization’ is the use of an extended metaphor, known as conceit. This type of metaphor is often unusual and challenging. In the final stanzas, the speaker introduces a metaphor comparing himself and his lover to a phoenix. In this form, they are able to live, die in a blaze of passion, and then live again even more beautifully. This is a double reference in that “death” can refer to a climax in a sexual relationship.
Summary of The Canonization
The poem begins with the speaker telling a listener that they need to be quiet and let him “love.” One will soon discover that love is the most important thing to the listener. He values this above all else. The speaker goes on to tell the listener to do anything but bother him about his love. This person could make fun of his quirks, get a job, go to school, or meditate on the face of the king.
The speaker goes on to describe, in what sounds like a rant, how his love has not hurt anyone. It has not sunk ships, flooded fields, frozen out the spring, or given anyone the plague. It is harmless to all except the speaker and his lover for whom it is deeply beneficial. The speaker compares himself and his lover to a phoenix which lives and dies and lives again. They could get through anything and be remade.
He also tells the listener that if they are unable to live as they want on earth then they’ll happily die. Once they’ve ascended to heaven they’ll become saints of “Love.” Their position might not afford them grand tombs or a place in history but their story will be told in sonnets and love songs. They will have the ability to look down on earth and see all the lovers praying to them.
In conclusion, the speaker states that he knows they will be unhappy with what they see. The lovers on earth will not be “loving” in the correct way. This will enrage the couple.
Analysis of The Canonization
For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his honor, or his grace,
Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
In the first line of ‘The Canonization’, the speaker begins by telling an unknown, unnamed listener to be quiet. He expresses annoyance over the interaction he’s having with this person and states that the only thing he wants to do is love. Something the listener is doing is keeping him from being able to do. He goes on to gives them a number of options they should pursue rather than distracting him from his love.
First, they could move on to making fun of the speaker’s “palsy” or involuntary tremors or his “gout.” An affliction was uncommon in contemporary society that makes one’s joints swell. Or, the listener might want to direct their attention to the speaker’s “gray hairs” or take some pleasure from making fun of his lost fortune.
Other options the listener might pursue include bettering their own state of affairs. This might mean improving their mind with art or making money of their own. Additionally, this person could get a “place,” or a job or take some kind of class. Another option that might appeal more to the listener is contemplating the face of the king, either in real life or “stampèd” such as on a coin. The speaker doesn’t care what this person does as long as he is left alone to love as he will.
Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
In the next stanza of ‘The Canonization’, the speaker begins with a rhetorical question regarding his own love and what it’s injuring. He knows the answer to be “nothing” but hopes the posing of the question will remind the listener and inform the reader that there is no reason he should be kept from loving. This first question is followed by four more.
He poses possible, but unreal scenarios that his love was not involved in. The first of these is the drowning of merchant ships, the second the overflowing of land with water. It is clearly outrageous that “love” could ever cause such disasters as sunken ships and flooded land. Just in case the listener still has misplaced ideas about the speaker’s love he gives two more examples.
His relationship has not given anyone the plague nor the “cold” inflicted on his body by his love caused spring to recede early. The world is still turning as it always has. There are the soldiers fighting in battles and the lawyers still live for lawsuits. Everything is going on just as it is supposed to while “she” and the speaker “do love.”
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
The phœnix riddle hath more wit
By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.
In stanza three of ‘The Canonization’, he tells the listener that they can say anything they want about the love between the two but it does not bother him. The speaker is confident in who he is and how he is living because he is directed by love, it made the couple into who they are. He compares himself and his lover to “tapers” or candles. The burning of their flame causes their own demise, and he knows it.
No matter what the listener thinks of them, they compare themselves to a phoenix. They are not doves or eagles, but something grander and perhaps more magical. The “phoenix…has more wit,” meaning it makes more sense and applies more aptly to their situation. Together they are becoming one creature, “one neutral thing.” Just as the Phoenix is said to die and then be reborn, they are able to overcome all obstacles and return to one another. All because of the mysteries of love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for Love.
If life proves to be too much of an obstacle for the couple they are willing to face death. They can “die by it” if they are unable to “live by love” They would rather die than survive in a world without one another. The speaker is setting out a world in which their lives are unfit for traditional remembrance, via a tomb or marker. Instead, they will be known through “verse” or song, just like this one.
In the next lines, he states that they might not make their way into a “chronicle,” likely a reference to a history book. That’s okay with him thought as they will end up in a sonnet. This is a much more appropriate place anyway as it will contain their “pretty rooms.” They do not fit the description of the great ones who end up in “well-wrought urn[s]” and in “half-acre tombs.” Their lives are not so grand.
The sonnets they will end up in will allow them exposure to a larger audience. This way their story will be heard by many and perhaps finally accepted. The couple will become so popular they will be “canonized” or made into saints for “Love.” From then on out anyone who needs help in love will pray to them.
And thus invoke us: “You, whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes
(So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
A pattern of your love!”
The fifth stanza of ‘The Canonization’ solidifies this future position of the lovers as saints of love. Donne’s seeker turns again to the listener and tells them that everyone will “invoke” the saints. When they do this, the audience will speak on the “hermitage” the lovers created. It will be a place of safety for any in love.
Now that the lovers, in this fantasy created by the speaker, are in heaven, they are able to look down on earth. They hear prayers for and from everyone. All is not as they would have it though. The love shared amongst the people of earth is incorrect. Their “pattern of…love” is not the ideal one. The love that once gave them pleasure on earth has turned into a “rage” in heaven. The couple is upset by the fact that everyone on earth seems unable to live up to their standard.