John Donne

The Undertaking by John Donne

‘The Undertaking’ by John Donne is a poem about an elevated form of love that makes the speaker’s relationship superior to other people’s. 

Donne’s speaker admits in ‘The Undertaking’ that he knows that other people won’t understand the nature of his love and therefore keeps it to himself. The profane men of his day are unwilling to understand any other type of love than that which they are already familiar with. They relate love to sex and physical attributes, but Donne’s speaker has moved beyond that.

The Undertaking
John Donne

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.

It were but madness now t'impart
The skill of specular stone,
When he which can have learned the art
To cut it, can find none.

So, if I now should utter this,
Others (because no more
Such stuff to work upon, there is.)
Would love but as before.

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes
For he who colour loves, and skin,
Loves but their oldest clothes.

If, as I have, you also do
Virtue attired in woman see,
And dare love that, and say so too,
And forget the He and She:

And if this love, though placed so,
From profane men you hide,
Which will no faith on this bestow,
Or, if they do, deride:

Then you have done a braver thing
Than all the Worthies did,
And a braver thence will spring
Which is, to keep that hid.
The Undertaking by John Donne


Summary

‘The Undertaking’ by John Donne is about love and how some types are better than others. 

The poet begins this piece by having his speaker suggest that he’s accomplished something that rivals the bravery of the “Worthies.” This “thing” he’s done is something he’s not truly willing to share details about. As the poem progresses, he reveals that he’s speaking about a virtuous, spiritual love affair with a woman that does not hinge on physical attraction. It’s something that has brought him a great deal of satisfaction.

Themes 

The main theme of this poem is love. Specifically, spiritual or platonic love. The speaker uses the seven stanzas to focus on the new, elevated nature of his relationship with a specific, very virtuous woman. He sees into her soul and knows her for who she truly is. This is something that makes their relationship with one another superior to any that other everyday people experience.

Structure and Form 

‘The Undertaking’ by John Donne is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains or sets of four lines. These lines follow a simple, alternate rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet uses a refrain in the first and last stanzas, repeating most of the lines. The only change is found in the third line in which the poet uses “And a braver thence will spring” in the final stanza and “And yet a braver thence doth spring.” 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse because of the poet’s use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Which is, to keep that hid.” 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “spectacular stone” and “say so.” 
  • Enjambment: a transition between two lines that does not use end-punctation and leaves a phrase incomplete. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one and lines three and four of stanza two. 
  • Allusion: a reference to something not explained within the text of a poem. For example, in the first stanza, the poet alludes to the “Worthies.” This relates to a medieval legend and a group of individuals who are seen as the idealized image of courage. In the legend, they are named and described. But, Donne only alludes to them through this title in his text. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

I have done one braver thing

Than all the Worthies did,

And yet a braver thence doth spring,

Which is, to keep that hid.

In the first stanza of the poem (which is nearly repeated word for word at the end of the poem), the speaker begins by saying that he’s only done one thing in his life that’s braver than the legendary “Worthies.” This refers to a mythical group of people regarded for their idealized courage and morals

The one thing, he adds, was even more noteworthy because when he completed it, he didn’t tell anyone about it. This added to the quality of his action. He didn’t feel he had to brag about his bravery to the masses. 

As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that Donne is describing the act of finding a virtuous woman, someone who he loves for her morality and not for her appearance. Most people, he knows, are addicted to the sexual side of relationships. But, he’s willing to look beyond that to the spiritual side of love.

Stanza Two 

It were but madness now t’impart

The skill of specular stone,

When he which can have learned the art

To cut it, can find none.

In the second stanza, the speaker says that it would be foolish or the madness of him to describe what he did. He uses a metaphor to compare his actions to someone with specialized skills. Specifically, cutting “the specular stone.” This is another allusion to a transparent stone type that was historically used in temples. 

There’s no point in sharing a skill with someone who has no way to practice it or learn it. This suggests that what he did was so special that an opportunity to do the same thing again isn’t going to be easy.

Stanza Three

So, if I now should utter this,

Others (because no more

Such stuff to work upon, there is.)

Would love but as before.

The speaker adds more reasons why it would be difficult for anyone else to accomplish what he has. He’s found this woman he cares so deeply for, and if he did “utter” information about it, the others who heard him would not be able to achieve the same thing he has. They would “love but as before,” unable to appreciate spiritual love as he does. 

Stanza Four 

But he who loveliness within

Hath found, all outward loathes

For he who colour loves, and skin,

Loves but their oldest clothes.

The speaker goes on, saying that someone, like himself, who has found a truly virtuous, lovely woman will “loath… / For he who color loves.” Someone who has seen love as he has will struggle to understand another person who only loves someone because they are physically appealing. 

This type of person loves a version of a woman, not her whole self. The physical will fade, like old clothes, but her soul will remain true and far more worthy of love. 

Stanza Five 

If, as I have, you also do

Virtue attired in woman see,

And dare love that, and say so too,

And forget the He and She:

In the fifth stanza, the speaker says if someone achieves this kind of spiritual love as he has and looks into the woman and “see[n]” her for who she is, then that same person will be beyond gender. The difference between a man and a woman won’t matter anymore, he says. So strong will be this new physical connection that the woman’s body will be entirely unimportant. 

Stanza Six 

And if this love, though placed so,

From profane men you hide,

Which will no faith on this bestow,

Or, if they do, deride:

In the sixth stanza, the speaker begins bringing the poem to a conclusion. He says that some men, the “profane” variety, are never going to experience love as he is. It is easy to hide spiritual, platonic love from this kind of man. They care far more about sex and physical passion than what really matter between two people. 

The “profane” men will also try to “deride” or ridicule anyone who engages in this kind of love. But only because they can’t understand it. 

Stanza Seven 

Then you have done a braver thing

Than all the Worthies did,

And a braver thence will spring

Which is, to keep that hid.

The final stanza repeats much of what was said in the opening stanza of ‘The Undertaking.’ Donne redefines his “undertaking” of spiritual love as brave, courageous, and life-changing. His discovery of platonic love is all the more meaningful because it is a secret. But, as he said, even if he told other people about it, they would ridicule him for.

FAQs 

What is the meaning of ‘The Undertaking?’

The meaning is there is a higher love than that which most men engage in. Undertaking the pursuit of platonic, spiritual love is something that most people will never understand or even know about. The speaker has embarked on this kind of understanding of a virtuous woman in his life and feels as though he’s accomplished something incredible. 

What is the poem ‘The Undertaking’ about?

The poem is about platonic, spiritual love. The speaker vaguely alludes to finding and loving a virtuous woman in a way that other men can’t understand. Others don’t have the capacity for that form of love. 

Why did Donne write ‘The Undertaking?’

Donne wrote this poem in order to celebrate a particular type of love that his speaker in this text feels is beyond most men. Donne sought to elevate platonic love, a type of mutual love and respect that does not include any physical/sexual contact. 

What is the tone of ‘The Undertaking?’ 

The tone is proud and passionate. The speaker feels very strongly about his relationship with the virtuous woman and is proud of having achieved this sort of relationship with someone. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this should also consider reading some other John Donne poems. For example: 

  • A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day– is one of the poet’s best poems about love and loss. It depicts the speaker’s grief after the Death of someone he loved.
  • Death, be not Proud’ – tells the listener not to fear Death as he keeps morally corrupt company and only leads to Heaven.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls’ – explores themes of life, Death, and the human condition. He suggests that no man is an “island.
  • A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning‘ – uses one of his famous conceits to depict the steadfast nature of his love.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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