10 John Donne Poems Dominating Our Thoughts & Expressions

John Donne, an English poet from the Late Renaissance, is known widely for his metaphysical poetry. Read on to recite and learn ten of his most beautiful poems.

John Donne Poems

As the song of Stephen Sanchez, Be More, harnessed the old school romance and dominated the hearts of many people from this generation, I personally found the lyrics soft and extremely lovely, much bigger than words like I love you or Be Here with Me Always. And sometimes, I feel that these words have become very limited in many artists’ songs, which is why we connected with the love story of Stephen that much. The first time I listened to the song, I moved away to the shores, where the fresh breeze took away all my worries. Now, this feeling was not new as my dad always used to feel this with the golden songs of Indian cinemas in the lovely voices of Lata ji and Asha Bhosle. Since Gulzaar’s poems were loved by hundreds of millions of people in India, they were turned into music by the older cinema industry. Hence, from generation to generation, we saw this feeling inside us through variety and excellent artistry. As I gave wings to my mind, I began to imagine what if poems from old literature made a similar comeback. Certainly, I cannot speak for the music industry, but one thing that does not change is the significance of all of the poems from our past for our emotional and mental well-being. They can affect us thoroughly and take us into their dreamlands. So, today, with this article, I am introducing you to one of the prominent poets of the earlier times and his few poems, which I loved most, none other than John Donne. So without a further ado, let’s take a rhythmic look at John Donne Poems. 

Who Was John Donne?

Before we step into his world of poetry, let us first learn a brief about the poet.

John Donne, one of the best-known poets was famous in Jacobean England for his powerful oratory of his sermons and his public role as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Born in London in 1572, he was the son of John Donne and Elisabeth Heywood. Attending Hart Hall, Oxford, between 1584 and 1589, he left without a degree and later joined Lincoln’s Inn to study law, participating in literature club.

English Poet John Donne

Though keenly interested in poetry and literary elements, he always kept his poetry limited to the selected group of his friends and patrons. He had no interest to make them widely available as he thought it to be beneath the idea of printing them. In 1611 and 1612, he regretted printing his long poems, The Anniversaries, which he said was an error, noting:

“to have descended to print anything in verse … I wonder how I declined to it, and [I] do not pardon myself.”

And this preference of keeping poems to limited members made it strenuous to give them a precise date. It is likely that he wrote his Satires and Elegies at Lincoln’s Inn during the 1590s, as well as some of his love poems. Many of his Holy Sonnets and love poetry probably belonged to the time when he was married in 1601. Despite Donne’s public identity as an Anglican cleric after 1615, many of his devotional poems contain worldly paradoxes and potentially blasphemous conceits (the speaker of Holy Sonnet 14 claims that he will never be ‘chaste’ unless God ravishes him).

It was only at his time of death that his poetry was celebrated, but a few decades later, it fell out of favor. Only in the 19th century and 20th century did his reputation increase again, and TS Eliot, a famous poet, regarded him as a proto-modernist poet. And today, he is one of the leading metaphysical poets of the English Renaissance.

As we understand the poet in the abstract, let us now head toward the poems.

10 John Donne Poems That Takes Me Back to the 1600s.

1. The Flea.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

– John Donne

The Flea is the most famous of the John Donne Poems. It starts with the poet asking his beloved to observe the flea carefully, which consists of both their blood in its stomach as a mark of pure mingling, without losing chastity. The lines truly are conversational as the poet talks about his feelings of love towards his beloved. By intermingling their blood in the flea’s stomach, the poet sees the sexual intercourse with pure devotion and asks his beloved to see the same without considering it a sin, shame, or loss of virginity. And from this incident, she should learn to eliminate her fears of losing her honor to her lover before marriage. This John Donne poem is about unconditional love, which demolishes the false notions of honor and chastity. That even true and spiritual love has a basis in physical union, and it can’t harm the glory of the character of a person. You will read that the poet has destructed all the conventional Petrarchan attitudes towards love, which many of our minds still have.

2. The Sun Rising.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

               She’s all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world’s contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

– John Donne

The Sun Rising is a classic John Donne poem where he has used soulful lines to explain love and romance. The poem starts with severe insults to the sun as it bulges into the place, where the poet and his lover lay in bed, presumably after a night of passion, acting as a completely unwanted intruder. The speaker repeatedly asks the sun to leave at first, but in later stanzas, he uses an extended metaphor to display the bed of the room as the focal point of the cosmos around which everything revolves, even the unruly sun. John has used such melodious paraphrases to defame the sun and glorify his lover in contrast to him in the poem that the reader leaves impressionless. In one stanza, he says he could ignore the sun with a blink of his eye, but he doesn’t want to waste his precious few moments on him but rather wants to see the shine and glory of his beloved through them. Poems like these take the soul away and leave the reader with a simple fact about whether or not this kind of love exists now.

3. Death Be Not Proud.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 

– John Donne

The verse in Death Be Not Proud is for the people who fear death and have a question in their mind why do the best men often leave soon or die first? The speaker, at first, ridicules the death for calling itself mighty and dreadful as all it does is show illusion. Since only physical bodies can go, he challenges it to take himself as he knows he will always exist in the world, regardless of where it is. The speaker intents to tell that death is not what it looks like as it is merely a peaceful sleep. For those, who exaggerated death as a powerful monster, it is nothing like that, as it has low and weak companions such as poison, war, and sickness. I will regard this as one of the worth read John Donne poems as it has many more lines. The sole intent of the verse is not to fear death. 

4. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.

As virtuous men pass mildly away, 
   And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say 
   The breath goes now, and some say, No: 

So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
‘Twere profanation of our joys 
   To tell the laity our love. 

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant; 
But trepidation of the spheres, 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 

Dull sublunary lovers’ love 
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove 
   Those things which elemented it. 

But we by a love so much refined, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 

Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat. 

If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
   To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit, 
   Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans and hearkens after it, 
   And grows erect, as that comes home. 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
   And makes me end where I begun. 

– John Donne

The poem starts with the speaker describing the death of a righteous man, after which he goes into the afterlife peacefully. Due to his good deeds, his death comes peacefully, and as his friends surround his bed, they are sad and unable to decide whether the man has passed. Death to a virtuous man comes in a whisper, and there is nothing traumatic in it. Afterward, without explaining much about the first stanza, the speaker moves to the next verse, expressing the peaceful parting between him and his wife. Either of them who survives will not show their cries and loud sorrow as they have high grounds for it. As the speaker intends to emphasize, their minds will remain connected even when their physical bodies are absent. He calls the need to feel the senses, like eyes, lips, and bodies, a shallow love and certainly puts love first through the spiritual context. In every stanza, there is an emotional bind to the dominance of love through the prevalent death themes. The last part of the metaphor describes his wife’s love as being stiff with a fixed foot, similar to the movements of the celestial spheres. While her husband, the speaker, roams around, she remains stationary. Through a few lines, the poet conveys the depths of his relationship, which even death can’t take away.

5. The Good Morrow.

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I 
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then? 
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly? 
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den? 
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be. 
If ever any beauty I did see, 
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

And now good-morrow to our waking souls, 
Which watch not one another out of fear; 
For love, all love of other sights controls, 
And makes one little room an everywhere. 
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, 
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, 
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one. 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, 
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest; 
Where can we find two better hemispheres, 
Without sharp north, without declining west? 
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; 
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

– John Donne

This John Donne Poem starts with three rhetorical questions, to which he does not expect an answer. Enquiring into the lives when he and his lover were unknown to each other, he wonders what in the world, they did before they met each other. His only intent here is that only after they met and gave up the country’s pleasures, their lives begun. I was moved by the speaker’s comment that their love controls everything he sees and that the small bedroom of the big earth drives his entire life. True love is the only way to achieve the balance necessary for mental and physical well-being, which the speaker hints at well. The entire verselet brings back the old romance, which is above everything. 

6. 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. 

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. 

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.

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.

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!”

– John Donne

The speaker begins the poem by telling an unknown and unnamed listener to be silent as interacting with that person created annoyance in him, enabling him to love. The first stanza of the poem only revolves around wanting the poet to love as he goes on to give suggestions the listener could pursue rather than disturbing him from his only job of doing love. He even says that the listener could ridicule him for his gray hair or the lost fortune but must be left alone to let love. The poet further speaks through his words, explaining his perfect relationship with his lover. At one point, he even says that if they can’t live together, they will die, but if not, they will continue to hold each other through the sonnets and verses of his poem. In the poem, you will read numerous metaphors which continue to tell about the pure love between the speaker and his lover. Both of their souls unite to be like a phoenix, which is said to be dead and reborn again. In the same sense, no matter how many times the poet and his lover depart away, they will always return to one another as they are mysteries of love, which not everyone understands.

7. The Dream.

Dear love, for nothing less than thee 
Would I have broke this happy dream; 
            It was a theme 
For reason, much too strong for fantasy, 
Therefore thou wak’d’st me wisely; yet 
My dream thou brok’st not, but continued’st it. 
Thou art so true that thoughts of thee suffice 
To make dreams truths, and fables histories; 
Enter these arms, for since thou thought’st it best, 
Not to dream all my dream, let’s act the rest. 

   As lightning, or a taper’s light, 
Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak’d me; 
            Yet I thought thee 
(For thou lovest truth) an angel, at first sight; 
But when I saw thou sawest my heart, 
And knew’st my thoughts, beyond an angel’s art, 
When thou knew’st what I dreamt, when thou knew’st when 
Excess of joy would wake me, and cam’st then, 
I must confess, it could not choose but be 
Profane, to think thee any thing but thee. 

   Coming and staying show’d thee, thee, 
But rising makes me doubt, that now 
            Thou art not thou. 
That love is weak where fear’s as strong as he; 
‘Tis not all spirit, pure and brave, 
If mixture it of fear, shame, honour have; 
Perchance as torches, which must ready be, 
Men light and put out, so thou deal’st with me; 
Thou cam’st to kindle, goest to come; then I 
Will dream that hope again, but else would die.

– John Donne

The poem reflects several qualities of love and is very abstract and intellectual in John’s work. Starting from the conversational style, The Dream addresses his beloved that he had been dreaming something which moved him strongly and that her arrival interrupted it, but in a way, it will continue, for now, the pleasures he dreamed converted into reality. He asks her to be in her arms so that he can embrace her.

The poet describes her lover in an extremely flattering way through words like taper’s light, eyes, etc. To prove that his beloved is a goddess in the form of a human, Donne has given argument after argument in the poem.

8. A Lecture Upon the Shadow.

Stand still, and I will read to thee 
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy. 
         These three hours that we have spent, 
         Walking here, two shadows went 
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d. 
But, now the sun is just above our head, 
         We do those shadows tread, 
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d. 
So whilst our infant loves did grow, 
Disguises did, and shadows, flow 
From us, and our cares; but now ’tis not so. 
That love has not attain’d the high’st degree, 
Which is still diligent lest others see. 

Except our loves at this noon stay, 
We shall new shadows make the other way. 
         As the first were made to blind 
         Others, these which come behind 
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes. 
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline, 
         To me thou, falsely, thine, 
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise. 
The morning shadows wear away, 
But these grow longer all the day; 
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay. 
Love is a growing, or full constant light, 
And his first minute, after noon, is night.

– John Donne

The poem starts with the introductory stanza when the lyrical voice presents several number of images to convey different stages of a relationship, and the tone is as if he were to give advice and teach about love. The introductory lines include terms like Stand Still, A lecture, love, in love, which brings attention to the lyrical voice’s message. As the poem gets away with words, it shifts its narrative about the two lovers by addressing a particular situation.

During their walk, the lovers encounter two shadows that represent possible conflicts between them (“two shadows went with us, which we produced”). According to A Lecture upon the Shadow, light represents love and bliss, while shadows represent disagreement and discord. Since “now the sun is above our heads”, these shadows vanish, indicating that the poem follows these lovers throughout the day, with noon representing the high point of their relationship, as there are no traces of conflict. 

By explaining this, the lyrical voice implies that while the relationship grows (“So whilst our infant loves did grow”) the shadows also grow (“Disguises did, and shadows flowed/From us, and from our care”), but, at the time, that is not an issue (“but now it’s not so/Love doesn’t have to be of the highest quality”). As before, this imagery extends the imagery associated with noon. In addition to using alliteration and structured rhyme, these images of light and darkness serve as a metaphor for the different stages of a relationship.

9. Elegy Vii: Nature’s Lay Idiot, I Taught Thee to Love.

Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love, 
And in that sophistry, oh, thou dost prove 
Too subtle: Fool, thou didst not understand 
The mystic language of the eye nor hand: 
Nor couldst thou judge the difference of the air 
Of sighs, and say, this lies, this sounds despair: 
Nor by the’eye’s water call a malady 
Desperately hot, or changing feverously. 
I had not taught thee then, the alphabet 
Of flowers, how they devicefully being set 
And bound up, might with speechless secrecy 
Deliver errands mutely, and mutually. 
Remember since all thy words used to be 
To every suitor, “I, ’if my friends agree”; 
Since, household charms, thy husband’s name to teach, 
Were all the love-tricks, that thy wit could reach; 
And since, an hour’s discourse could scarce have made 
One answer in thee, and that ill arrayed  
In broken proverbs, and torn sentences. 
Thou art not by so many duties his, 
That from the’world’s common having severed thee, 
Inlaid thee, neither to be seen, nor see, 
As mine: who have with amorous delicacies 
Refined thee’into a blissful paradise. 
Thy graces and good words my creatures be; 
I planted knowledge and life’s tree in thee, 
Which oh, shall strangers taste? Must I alas  
Frame and enamel plate, and drink in glass? 
Chafe wax for others’ seals? break a colt’s force 
And leave him then, being made a ready horse?

– John Donne

“Elegy VII” illustrates the mastery of John Donne’s use of unrequited love language. Essentially, this poem is an elegy in which the speaker regrets having taught a woman the art of love. As a facilitator, not a partner, it captures the speaker’s pain as the woman who had no understanding of love or language learned to love and open up her heart to the poet, but eventually, she married another man, by which she now lost her wit, engaged in the household chore.

The poet argues that in the beginning, the woman was just a fool who did not know the mystic language of the eyes or touch, which is the language of love. She was so dumb that she was unable to trace the differences between the unreal signs and the signs which rose from utter despair. Though the poet taught her everything to love, she is now living with her present husband, and the speaker regrets in the ending lines that he transformed her into an ideal lover.

10. Love Alchemy.

Some that have deeper digg’d love’s mine than I, 
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie; 
         I have lov’d, and got, and told, 
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old, 
I should not find that hidden mystery. 
         Oh, ’tis imposture all! 
And as no chemic yet th’elixir got, 
         But glorifies his pregnant pot 
         If by the way to him befall 
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal, 
         So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, 
         But get a winter-seeming summer’s night. 

Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day, 
Shall we for this vain bubble’s shadow pay? 
         Ends love in this, that my man 
Can be as happy’as I can, if he can 
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom’s play? 
         That loving wretch that swears 
‘Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds, 
         Which he in her angelic finds, 
         Would swear as justly that he hears, 
In that day’s rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres. 
         Hope not for mind in women; at their best 
         Sweetness and wit, they’are but mummy, possess’d.

– John Donne

The poem’s title gives a hint that it is about the mysteries of love and the alchemist. Let me tell you that an alchemist is a person who has devoted his entire life to searching for the Elixir of life or the philosopher’s stone, which is a kind of stone, which cure diseases, and turns iron into gold, but he never found it. People were misled by the fragrance of the various chemicals into believing he had Elixir when he didn’t. Similarly, when someone says that he knows all the mysteries of love, the speaker claims he cheats and impostures, as it is impossible to know everything. As we approach the first stanza, we understand that no Alchemist has been successful in discovering the Elixir yet, but glorifies the pot full of chemicals he has stored and imagines he has the Elixir whenever he comes across something fragrant and medicinal. As a consequence of his search for the Elixir, similar lovers dream of a long and rich pleasure in each other’s company, but they receive only a short and cold winter night. Although Alchemists spent their entire lives searching for the Elixir, their dreams were as futile as lovers’ dreams. 

The poem delivers a cynical attitude towards love as it is not what it looks like.

Final Words.

John Donne was one of the greatest poets who showed their relationship with his lover through his epic poems. The sonnets fill the reader with enthusiasm, visualizing a different world of love, which most of us fail to see and express. Tell me which poem of these John Donne poems melted your heart, and meanwhile, I promise to bring another romantic poet from the Renaissance next time.


The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne by John Donne.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is John Donne’s most famous poem?

An exchange between the poet and his beloved, Flea is the most famous John Donne poem that expresses unconditional love and leaves behind the false notions of honor and chastity.

What is the poem Song by John Donne about?

The poem Song by John Donne is an exchange that begins with the poet assigning impossible tasks to the reader following with a conclusion of never finding a woman who is honest and fair.

How many poems did John Donne write?

John Donne wrote nearly 200 poems that included all of his known letter poems and poems for publication.

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