John Donne

The Will by John Donne

The title of the poem ‘The Will’, by John Donne, is apt and suggestive, as the poem contains a catalog of the various items the poet bequeaths to different persons, as a dying person does through his will. However, in the case of a will, the various articles bequeathed are the tangible and concrete property of the dying person as property, lands, houses, etc.

But in the poem, the various items bequeathed by the poet are entirely different and unusual. As a matter of fact, ‘The Will’ has nothing serious about it. It shows Donne in a non-serious playful mood. The poet’s satirical vein finds full play, and the poem fully justifies Leishman’s praise of Donne as, the monarch of wit.

As usual, the emotional situation is defined in the very beginning. The poet is dejected and down-hearted because his beloved has rejected him. He, therefore, proceeds to expose and ridicule her inconstancy in a very witty manner, to the great delight and amusement of the readers. Before he dies, he would like to bequeath some legacies to a number of persons, but the legacies are all made contrary-wise, thus bringing out the inconstancy and unfaithfulness of the beloved, and of womankind in general.

The Will by John Donne


The Will Analysis

Stanza One

Before I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe,

Great Love, some legacies ; I here bequeath

Mine eyes to Argus, if mine eyes can see ;

If they be blind, then, Love, I give them thee ;

My tongue to Fame ; to ambassadors mine ears ;

To women, or the sea, my tears ;

Thou, Love, hast taught me heretofore

By making me serve her who had twenty more,

That I should give to none, but such as had too much before.

In this very first stanza of the poem, ‘The Will’, by John Donne, the poet makes certain gifts to those who do not need them and can make no use of them. He has got two eyes which either can see or cannot see. If his eyes can see, he bequeaths them to Argus, a giant with a hundred eyes, who, therefore, has no need of them. If he is blind, then he bequeaths his eyes and the God of Love, Cupid, who himself is blind.

In either case, his gift would be useless. Similarly, he gives his tongue to Gossip, his ears to ambassadors, and his tears either to women or the sea. In all these cases, the recipients have already enough of the item gifted to each of them. The poet does so because the God of Love has made him fall in love with a woman who already had a large number of lovers, and did not need her love.


Stanza Two

My constancy I to the planets give ;

My truth to them who at the court do live ;

My ingenuity and openness,

To Jesuits ; to buffoons my pensiveness ;

My silence to any, who abroad hath been ;

My money to a Capuchin :

Thou, Love, taught’st me, by appointing me

To love there, where no love received can be,

Only to give to such as have an incapacity.

In the next stanza of ‘The Will’, the poet bequeaths his constancy to planets which are constantly in motion, his truth to courtiers or lawyers who live by telling lies, his honesty and frankness to Jesuits who are known for their secrecy and cunning intrigues, his silence to those who have been abroad and who are given to much boasting, his money to monks (Capuchins) who have renounced the world and have no use for money. Thus he makes all his gifts to such as do not have the capacity to use those gifts. He does so because the God of Love has made him love a woman who, by her very nature, is incapable of loving.


Stanza Three

My faith I give to Roman Catholics ;

All my good works unto the Schismatics

Of Amsterdam ; my best civility

And courtship to an University ;

My modesty I give to soldiers bare ;

My patience let gamesters share :

Thou, Love, taught’st me, by making me

Love her that holds my love disparity,

Only to give to those that count my gifts indignity.

Continuing this very satiric and witty vein in the third stanza, the poet gifts his religious faith to Roman Catholics who are fanatics in religious matters, his good works to ‘Schismatic’, a class of people who pride themselves on their piety and goodness, his civility to the universities which claim to teach civility to those who come to them, his modesty to soldiers, and his patience to gamblers. Thus the gifts are given to those who will regard their respective gifts as an insult to them. He does so because the God of Love has made him fall in love with a woman who regards his love as an insult and a disgrace to her.


Stanza Four

I give my reputation to those

Which were my friends ; mine industry to foes ;

To schoolmen I bequeath my doubtfulness ;

My sickness to physicians, or excess ;

To nature all that I in rhyme have writ ;

And to my company my wit :

Thou, Love, by making me adore

Her, who begot this love in me before,

Taught’st me to make, as though I gave, when I do but restore.

In the fourth stanza of ‘The Will’, the poet tells us that the God of Love has made him love a woman whose beauty is the source of his love so that in loving her he is merely giving her back what in reality belongs to her. So, he makes various gifts to those who are the real sources of those gifts. Thus, the real source of his name and fame are his friends, and so he gifts his reputation to them. For that very reason, he gives his hard work and watchfulness to his enemies, his skepticism to the hair-splitting medieval scholars, his sickness to his doctors or the excess of some ‘humour’ in his body, his poetic talent to Nature, his wit to society.


Stanza Five

To him for whom the passing-bell next tolls,

I give my physic books ; my written rolls

Of moral counsels I to Bedlam give ;

My brazen medals unto them which live

In want of bread ; to them which pass among

All foreigners, mine English tongue :

Though, Love, by making me love one

Who thinks her friendship a fit portion

For younger lovers, dost my gifts thus disproportion.

In the fifth stanza of ‘The Will’, the poet tells the God of Love that he was cruel enough to make him love a woman, who had no use for the love of such an old man, and professed young men. Therefore, he makes various gifts to those for whom his gift would be unwanted and useless. Thus he gives his books of medicine to a dying man, his books of moral advice, to mad people, his ancient brass coins (no longer current) to poor starving people in need of bread, and his knowledge of the English language to those who have to live in foreign countries.


Stanza Six

Therefore I’ll give no more, but I’ll undo

The world by dying, because love dies too.

Then all your beauties will be no more worth

Than gold in mines, where none doth draw it forth ;

And all your graces no more use shall have,

Than a sun-dial in a grave :

Thou, Love, taught’st me by making me

Love her who doth neglect both me and thee,

To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.

In the last stanza, the poet does not make any gifts but threatens to destroy all the three –himself, the God of Love and his beloved. He will do so by dying, with this death true love will also die from the world. No more true lovers will be left in the world. When there will be no true lovers, the beauty of the beloved will also become useless and valueless. It is the love and admiration of the lovers which gives value and significance to the beauty of the beloved.

In the absence of such appreciation, her beauty will be as useless as gold lying buried in mines, or a sun-dial buried in a grave. In this way, by his death, he will destroy both love and her beloved. This will be his revenge upon them- upon the God of Love for making him fall in love with a woman who neglected his love, and upon the beloved for being so cruel to him.

The poem, ‘The Will’ by John Donne, is an exposure of woman’s inconstancy and hard-heartedness. It is in a cynical-satiric vein, but there is no bitterness about it. The tone throughout is playful and non-serious and the readers are much mused at the various gifts which the poet makes contrary-wise. It is a fine piece of raillery, written in jest rather than in anger. One of the outstanding features of the poem is its logical and symmetrical construction.

In each stanza, in the beginning, certain paradoxical gifts are made, and the reason for the various gifts is given in the last three lines. No doubt there are a few allusions and references which are stumbling blocks in the way of the readers, as for example, Capuchin, Schismatics, etc. However, the poem does not have the usual obscurity and complexity of a Donne-poem. It is one of his comparatively easier pieces. It furnishes a number of fine examples of Donne’s wit, the finest being the concluding lines of the poem:

Thou Love, taught mee by making mee

Love her, who doth neglect both mee and thee,

To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.

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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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