Neoplatonist notions of love and their overcoming in John Donne’s poems

An analysis of "A Valediction: Forbidding mourning", "The Canonization", "The Sun Rising" and "The Flea"

Term Paper, 2019

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. John Donne - between Religion and Rebellion

3. Neoplatonism, Petrarchism and Metaphysical Poetry
3.1 Neoplatonism and Petrarchism
3.2 Love in the Context of English Renaissance and Metaphysical Poetry

4. Analysis of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “The Canonization”
4.1 Form and Content
4.2 Neoplatonist Ideas of Love
4.3 Contradiction to Neoplatonist Ideas of Love

5. Analysis of “The Sun Rising” and “The Flea”
5.1 Form and Content
5.2 Contradiction to Neoplatonist Ideas of Love
5.3 Neoplatonist Ideas of Love

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Among the poets of the English Renaissance, John Donne is one of the most original and innovative one, with a collection of poems that even have a modernist touch in them. One of the things that makes John Donne’s poetry so intriguing is its mixture of Neoplatonist or religious notions that had a great impact in English Renaissance poetry and the description of eroticism, physicality and sexuality that does not fit into the poetry marked by the Neoplatonism that followed the tradition of the Renaissance role model Petrarch and was very common at the time. The aim of this term paper is to examine how John Donne broke with the Petrarchan tradition in English Renaissance poetry by openly alluding to sexuality while still including Neoplatonist and other Renaissance influences in his poetry. To this end, a look at some relevant aspects of Donne’s life and views will be followed by an overview on Neoplatonist and Petrarchan influences on English Renaissance poetry and its dealing with love and sexuality. An analysis of two of Donne’s poems illustrate the contrasting directions his poetry takes towards religious, spiritual and Neoplatonist ideas on the one and the allusion to sexuality on the other hand.

2. John Donne - between Religion and Rebellion

John Donne was born in 1572 into a Catholic family and raised under Catholic influence (Bloom 10). The relation between Donne and his faith would be an interesting topic throughout his life, particularly considering his poetry. Despite his religious upbringing and Catholic family tradition, Donne “was pre-eminently worldly in his thinking” (Post 5). The developments of his era in science and exploration had an impact on him and their influence can also be found in his poems. He studied at Oxford and Cambridge, travelled the continent and stood out with his intellect and wit, that got him as far as becoming a secretary at Queen Elizabeth’s court (Bloom 10). Being dismissed from this position due to his marriage with Anne More, the niece of his superiors, and a temporary financial downfall, he entered the Anglican Church and turned his back on the Catholic Church to earn his living as an Anglican preacher and later even as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Bloom 10f.).

Risking a good position at the royal court for the sake of a forbidden love only to later become a servant of the Lord is a contradiction that is programmatic for Donne’s life as well as his poetry. John Donne never really was a convinced Catholic or Anglican. The temptations of the secular world were way more important to him, but that did not keep him from considering preaching as a worthy part of it. Thus, in his personal life, Donne already showed his broad interest in both worldly and spiritual thoughts, passion and preaching; for him, it was not something to be separated. Donne’s way of uniting intellect, wit and an interest in the spiritual is reflected in his poetry and his view on love as a unification of body and soul, of physicality and spirituality; something that seems to always have been natural for Donne.

By putting love above a career, by turning his back on the Catholic Church to earn a living, Donne proofed to be a rebel against what would have been appropriate choices. It does not come as a surprise that he also did not give in to the prevailing imitation of Petrarchan sonnets that was common among the poets of his time.

3. Neoplatonism, Petrarchism and Metaphysical Poetry

3.1 Neoplatonism and Petrarchism

One of the major influences on English Renaissance love poetry was Neoplatonism. Platonism includes the thoughts of the Greek philosopher Plato, who divided the world into a World of Being and a World of Becoming; the first one being an immaterial and ideal world; the last one, our world, material and flawed. Therefore, man should strive to reach the “Good”, to ascend to the ideal World of Being, which can be reached through platonic love (Hebron 83). Love in a Neoplatonist sense thus goes beyond the material. It is not the lady or the man of flesh and blood that one should yearn for, but the ascent of the soul to the unflawed, ideal, immaterial world through platonic love.

Plato’s antithetic thoughts of a division of the world into material and immaterial, body and soul, imperfect and perfect, was brought into the Renaissance by the scholar Marsilio Ficino. He also integrated Platonism into Christianity and thus was a founder of Neoplatonism. Ficino takes over the idea of ascent and descent through platonic love: “Platonic Love in essence is a quest for the Good through love, moving beyond the material to the transcendent” (Hebron 84). In Ficino’s work, the idea of platonic love relates to Medieval courtly love poetry: “‘Platonic love’ in this sense is not a search for transcendent truth but the presentation of a secular love between two humans as a spiritual experience“ (Hebron 84). Ficino’s Neoplatonism had a huge influence on English Renaissance poetry. Many of the poets of John Donne’s time wrote sonnets that remind of courtly love poetry; the veneration of a beautiful, unattainable lady. The Neoplatonist influence shows itself in the elevation of the desired woman to a divine being. Love is described only in a spiritual sense; the lyrical I ascends to the divine through his adoration and love of the lady.

Even centuries after his death, Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca and his Canzoniere were a great inspiration for many of the Renaissance poets. In his sonnets - the poetic form that Petrarch made popular - he refers to Neoplatonist notions of love. The sonnets mainly describe the unfulfilled love between Petrarch himself and an unobtainable lady named Laura. These love poems span a timeframe of about 20 years from Petrarch’s first encounter with Laura until her death. Their love was unhappy, as Laura was married to another man. Even though Laura was a lady of flesh of blood, Petrarchs exalts and idealizes her in a Neoplatonist way as a spiritual being untouched by worldly, human flaws. By doing so, Petrarch continues the tradition of Medieval poetry, the contrast between “divine love and secular love, the love of God and the love of a lady” (Goldstien 202). The object of Petrarch’s love, Laura, is an ideal out of his reach; the worldly and physical side of love becomes irrelevant and does not appear in the sonnets. Instead, Petrarch’s adoration for the woman is put on a level with the divine. Their love is only a spiritual one and therefore, in a Neoplatonist sense, worth striving for, even though it cannot end in a happy, fulfilled love in the physical world.

However, Petrarch does not see his love for Laura as a way to connect with God (Goldstien 203). It is Ficino who defines “human a microcosm of divine love” (Goldstien 203). Earthly, inferior love is only a step towards actual divine love. The man venerating a woman in fact venerates her as a divine being, his love elevates him into the realm of the divine and therefore brings him closer to God.

Petrarch’s love poetry defined the rules for love poetry in the English Renaissance. The poets of the English Renaissance adapt Petrarch’s poetry; his sonnets are translated into English by poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt (Braden 252), but they also inspire them to write sonnets of their own following the Petrarchan concept. As Petrarchism and Neoplatonism are closely connected, the Neoplatonist ideas along with Ficino’s Neoplatonist view on love frequently find their way into English Renaissance poetry. In numerous sonnets of this period that follow the Petrarchan tradition, the unfulfilled love to an unapproachable lady is spiritualized. As Neoplatonism mixed Platonism with other ideas such as religion, science or mythology, there were many ways to describe love, but the depiction of love in a physical and sexual sense was never reconcilable with the dominating Neoplatonist ideas.

John Donne, however, turned out to be a rebel in this regulated system of English Renaissance love poetry with Petrarch as its role model as he “reacts against prevailing Petrarchan conventions in his work, representing women at times as equals, at others as despicable creatures.not perfect and distant beauties who can ennoble their men” (Hadfield 57). Besides Donne’s conception of women, he frequently speaks of love in a for his time scandalous sexual way that does not fit into Petrarchan poetry. Still, he oftentimes included Neoplatonist ideas into his poems, at times even combined Neoplatonism and sexuality in one poem. This rejection of the Petrarchan tradition while also being influenced by Neoplatonist ideas that he deals with in a very unconventional way show Donne’s own world view that differs from the view on the division of love into bodily and spiritual: The unification of body and soul.

3.2 Love in the Context of English Renaissance and Metaphysical Poetry

The English Renaissance unites several notions of love and sexuality that are dealt with in the poetry of the epoch. The most typical form of love poetry was indeed heavily influenced by Petrarch and a Neoplatonist view on love as spiritual; the object of the man’s love, the woman, being unobtainable and even divine: “In this courtly love poetry, men and women love but don’t have sex...” (Matz 139). This demotion of physical love in comparison to the desirable ascend of the soul into the ‘real’ world, the World of Being, was founded on the idea that the body and the soul are separated; a thought that had been prevailing since the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, literature “became deeply engaged with the effort to repair this shift” (Bloom 12). John Donne did not share the idea of a separation of the body and mind, which was all the more unusual considering his religious background and profession.

Besides the Neoplatonist and Petrarchan conception of love as divine and spiritual, it is also not uncommon in the Renaissance to break the tradition and deal with physical love, even sexual mastery in their poems (Matz 137). Considering the importance and immense influence of Neoplatonism and the frequent imitations or adaptations of Petrarchan poetry, it is even more surprising that at the same time a “countercurrent of bawdy poetry that combined frank and rebellious sexuality.” (Maze 139) developed.

John Donne was not alone with his overcoming of the conventional Neoplatonist view on love in English Renaissance poetry in a more or less radical way, such as Shakespeare or Sidney. Still, Shakespeare rather mocks the Petrarchan tradition and the blazon that consists of comparisons between the body parts of the beautiful, unattainable lady with the sun, jewels, or other precious goods and celestial bodies that make of the woman a divine being of otherworldly beauty. John Donne does no such thing but considering his religious background and later profession as a dean, it becomes even more interesting that he alluded to ‘worldly’ sexuality far from venerating the divine in a woman that blatantly.

Among the poets of the English Renaissance, there appears a range of poems and poets that need to be assigned to a specific style: Metaphysical poetry. “The metaphysical poets were a group of seventeenth-century poets who rejected many Elizabethan poetic conventions and composed a new kind of verse. Their poetry is characterised by a markedly intellectual frame of reference, ingenious imagery and a dramatic, ‘rough’ use of metre” (Hebron 168).

Even though it is not clear how it should be classified (Correll 317) the poets considered as being part of the metaphysical school share one feature: Their use of the metaphysical conceit.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Neoplatonist notions of love and their overcoming in John Donne’s poems
An analysis of "A Valediction: Forbidding mourning", "The Canonization", "The Sun Rising" and "The Flea"
University of Augsburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
poetry, renaissance, john donne, neoplatonism
Quote paper
Sophie Barwich (Author), 2019, Neoplatonist notions of love and their overcoming in John Donne’s poems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Neoplatonist notions of love and their overcoming in John Donne’s poems

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free