Analysis of Poem "Lover's Infiniteness" by John Donne

Updated on April 25, 2020
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

John Donne and a Summary of "Lover's Infiniteness"

"Lover's Infiniteness" was published in 1633 in Songs and Sonnets, two years after John Donne died. This collection of mostly love poems is based upon manuscripts he circulated privately among friends and colleagues. Only a handful of poems were published in his lifetime.

Donne's reputation as an inventive, witty, sometimes dark but unfailingly imaginative poet is now secured. And he uses both subtle and basic rhyme and interesting rhythms.

He is recognised as the master metaphysical poet, so called, because he makes the reader think; he teases and taunts and impresses with his conceits and metaphors and use of language.

In his love poetry, however, Donne often splits opinion. Some think him overly egotistical in his attempts to seduce the woman; he is too brazen, too clever. Others find his intellectual approaches attractive; he reasons with the woman, he is playful and sensual.

John Dryden, England's first Poet Laureate in 1668, wrote that Donne:

'perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.'

"Lover's Infiniteness" is a three-stage argument in three stanzas focusing on complete love. Can a lover give all? Or do both lovers need to join hearts to create a wholest whole? Can a lover offer infiniteness?

It's a cyclic poem, slightly repetitious, the speaker coming to a hopefully successful conclusion in the last few lines.

Basically the poem explores the idea that as individuals we can have all of someone's love, complete, that love can grow and expand into something we can wholly give to another, if the hearts are combined.

The poet uses the tiny word all in clever and creative ways. It occurs eleven times throughout the poem, and in the final line of each stanza takes on a different meaning. This is typical Donne inventiveness, repeating a word so that its importance grows, whilst challenging the reader to make sense of it all.

Donne uses the language of commerce within a personal address to build the speaker's argument for ownership of all the love the woman can give. Yet there are doubts and fears, especially in the first two stanzas, that he will never have all of her love, that he shall never have all of the woman.

  • The first stanza reveals the speaker reasoning that he shall never have all of the woman's love because some of it she might give to others.
  • The second stanza expands on this idea that she might create new love via other men who have themselves more to give than the speaker. There is some contradiction here because the speaker states that he has her heart, which is the source of her love.
  • The third stanza has the speaker delaying. He doesn't want all of her love just yet because if he's got it all he can't have anymore. And his love is growing. It's a paradox—by losing her heart (by giving her all) to him, their hearts will entwine so to speak and become one, big enough for each other's all.

Language of Commerce and Business in Lover's Infiniteness

It was popular in Donne's time to use words associated with commerce in love poetry and prose. Take Shakespeare's first line:

Farewell!! thou art too dear for my possessing,.. for example in Sonnet 87, the 'high-maintenance' sonnet.

Donne too uses similar language, in lines such as:

And all my treasure, which should purchase thee-

Than at the bargain made was meant;

So in one sense love is being treated as a business agreement...stocks to outbid... love as a contract, common back in his day.

Lover's Infiniteness

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of "Lover's Infiniteness"

First Stanza

The speaker addresses a lover, a female presumably, directly in the first person. The opening two lines have rumination and thoughtfulness, typically Donne, as the reasoning begins.

There's doubt initially...never have it all...her love that is. The speaker thinks negatively as he sighs and cries in vain. It's all about him, yet he can't function properly knowing that he can't have all of her.

He believes he's done enough to win her all—so many sighs and tears, oaths and letters, which are wrapped up in that word treasure—the things he's gone through. Surely he's done enough to 'buy' her love?

This sort of language, of commerce, was a fashionable trope in Donne's time. Men and women of note were contracted in love via the parents according to family name and status.

These six lines set out the basic argument: he is uncertain about receiving all of the lover's love despite his emotional and personal involvement, expenditure.

He goes on in his efforts to work things out, deciding that he's due no more anyway because they struck a deal ( the bargain made), and he theorises that she hasn't or cannot give fully, only partially, which means that others might get a piece of her love.

If so, he most certainly will never have thee all.

It appears as if the speaker, the male lover, is altogether doubtful about getting all of his lover's love, on and on, as suggested in the poem's title...."Lover's Infiniteness."

There is no mention of the lover's reaction, no live dialogue so to speak, so the reader has to intuit what the female lover is doing and saying in response.

Second Stanza

The argument builds, the speaker going into more detail and supposition. If in the past she did give her all, has given her all, to him, then that's all she could give, no more no less. All=all.

But, with the shift in time, and with her perhaps meeting other men...new love could have been created. This is curious. The speaker is asking for trouble surely by putting forward such an idea?

Not only are there other men, but these men also have more to offer than he has. They can outbid him—they have stocks entire...which suggests that the speaker is essentially insecure, incomplete.

Further, if such a thing should happen, out of this new love new fear would rise, for him? Or her? Or for both? And all because the lady hadn't made her vows - oaths - so the new love wouldn't be authenticated.

In line 20 comes an about turn. It so happens that she did make the vow, because that's the way she is, she's generous in her giving of love. So, in the first stanza her gift of love was partial, here it is general, that is, widespread among all.

The speaker metaphorically has her heart as ground, in which things grow. And it is his, he believes. Whatever is in her heart he should have it all.

A shift in trope - from business and transaction to the land, where things grow, including love.

Third Stanza

This opening line is one Donne must have thought through. Yet why does he use yet twice? Beginning and end? It must be because he is looking ahead, thinking that, yes, soon he will have it all.

The following line reinforces the idea that in time to come more will be heading his way since, logically, if you have all now, you cannot have any more in the future.

And since my love.....is this his love or his lover's love? It must be the lover whose heart is growing more love?

But hold on, because the argument takes a twist in logic. If she can give her heart daily to him, all of it, then does this mean she hasn't yet given him it all? It's growing every day, so all is not yet all. It's a question of timing.

What's more, she leaves her heart at home, even if she goes away physically, her love remains - by giving her heart she gains much more. This notion is based roughly on the Bible's new testament, in Mathew 10:39, Mark 8:35 and Luke 9:26, when Christ says:

He that findeth his life shall lose it; he who loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

This involves considerable self-sacrifice which, the speaker suggests, they can avoid by joining hearts together, mutually becoming one great big whole, all.

What Is the Rhyme Scheme in "Lover's Infiniteness"?

The rhyme scheme of Lover's Infiniteness:

ababcdcdeee

Most of the rhymes are full, bringing familiarity and closure, for example:

all/fall....more/store....depart/heart.

There is a perfect rhyme:

it/it

And there is slant rhyme:

love/move...yet/admit

All in all, a variety of rhyme which offers a challenge to the ear and eye. Entertaining. Note the last three line endings of each stanza are similar in sound, variations on a theme of all! This is typical Donne, making the reader think—about the rhyme!

What Is the Poem's Metre?

"Lover's Infiniteness" has a basic tetrameter/pentameter throughout, with a couple of hexameters thrown in for good measure. This means that some lines have four feet, others five, and two have six.

We can definitely say that the first two lines of each stanza are tetrameters, iambic, as is the last line in each. They are shorter in length than the pentameters generally.

And we can definitely say that the middle lines of each stanza (lines 3,4,5) are all pentameters, again with iambs dominant.

Let's have a closer look:

If yet / I have / not all / thy love,
Dear, I / shall nev / er have / it all;
I can / not breathe / one oth / er sigh, / to move,
Nor can / intreat / one oth / er tear / to fall;
And all / my treas / ure, which / should pur / chase thee
Sighs, tears, / and oaths, / and let / ers—I / have spent.
Yet no / more can / be due / to me,
Than at / the bar / gain made / was meant;
If then / thy gift / of love / were part / ial,
That some / to me, / some should / to oth / ers fall,
Dear, I / shall nev / er have / thee all.

Or if / then thou / gavest / me all,
All was but all, which thou hadst then;
But if in thy heart, since, there be or shall
New love created be, by other men,
Which have their stocks entire, and can in tears,
In sighs, in oaths, and letters, outbid me,
This new love may beget new fears,
For this love was not vow'd by thee.
And yet it was, thy gift being general;
The ground, thy heart, is mine; whatever shall
Grow there, dear, I should have it all.

Yet I / would not / have all / yet,
He that hath all can have no more;
And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou / canst give / it, then / thou nev / er gav / est it;
Love's riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays / at home, / and thou / with los / ing sav / est it;
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them; so we shall
Be one, and one another's all.

Donne's subtle use of syntax - the way the clauses and sentences are constructed - creates a fascinating mix of smooth rhythm and broken beat, rising and falling within mostly iambic feet.

The tetrameter lines are synchronised in the first two stanzas (1,2,7,8 and 11), as are the pentameter lines (3,4,5,6,9 and 10) which suggests the speaker is comparing himself with other new men, who could be vying for the woman's love.

In the third stanza, Donne cuts the tetrameter lines down to three (1,2 and 11) and boosts the middle section with two hexameters (6 feet) as his argument becomes more complex.

Donne slows the reader down somewhat in the punctuated line 6 of the first and second stanzas, repeating the sighs, tears and oaths and letters, again comparing his own 'treasure' with that of possible competitors for her love.

The overall impression is one of tight control - tetrameter and pentameter mostly iambic (with slight variation into trochee and spondee feet) - but with a hint of loss as the hexameters appear in the third stanza, going beyond the five-foot rule so to speak.

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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