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Analysis of the Poem "The Good-Morrow" by John Donne

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

John Donne

John Donne and A Summary of The Good-Morrow

The Good-Morrow is one of Donne's metaphysical love poems, specifically an aubade, a morning love poem or song. It is one of many secular poems he wrote, contrasting heavily with his later sacred works.

It was first published in 1633, a little after the poet's death but was probably written when he was a young man and recently married.

It is a three stanza poem with a deceptively simple opening. In the first stanza the speaker is asking a conversational question to another person, a lover, about what they did till we loved?

In typical Donne fashion it takes the reader right into the bedroom, which is the crucible of passion and thought.

The two lovers are waking up first thing in the morning. The speaker wants to examine the state of their relationship and so asks more questions, reflecting on this time prior to their loving, pleasure and beauty, and alluding to historical events.

This inspires further explanation in the next two stanzas.The poem:

  • implies that the love the two share is like a new religion (allusion to the Seven Sleepers, persecuted Christian youths sealed up in a cave who woke after nearly two centuries to find Christianity had spread).
  • progresses into a series of images that relate to travel, the world and cartography (map making), an extended argument for the unity of their love.
  • uses these metaphors to relate to exploration, discovery and conquest.

The language is plain enough but it is wrapped up in quite a complex syntax (the way clauses and grammar work together) which has to be carefully navigated by the reader.

  • This method of expanding a reasoned argument using strong imagery and metaphor to effectively control emotions and feelings, has been given the label of a metaphysical conceit, making Donne the prime mover of what has become known as the metaphysical school.

John Donne is now considered the master of the conceit, a figure of speech that relies on metaphor and imaginative contrasts to argue a point. In this poem he uses it to articulate his feelings about love and the relationship he's in.

He wrote many love poems when a young man, covering a range of emotions and passions. According to author Adam J. Smith in John Donne, Essays in Celebration, Methuen, 1972, these poems:

construct and elucidate desire, affection, fondness, closeness, tenderness, certainty, loving identification, yearnings, grief, scorn, contempt, loathing, hostility, frustration, jealousy, spite, revulsion, delight, excitement, bliss, rest (Smith 1972: 73).

For Donne, love is heat, fire, growth, unity, alchemy - a living organism - and in his love poems he sought to intellectually express his passion by using all manner of image and metaphor.

T.S. Eliot in his own inimitable manner called this process a 'dissociation of sensibility' in which emotional sensitivity is expressed in logically understandable ways - fresh images creating new perspectives.

  • The Good-Morrow employs images of a little room, sea-discoverers, maps, worlds, eyes, faces, hemispheres, North and West.
  • The language/diction used is simple enough - Donne's creative use of syntax and employment of parallel lines of persuasion make for fascinating reading, add to the meaning and help deepen understanding.

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.

Analysis of The Good-Morrow Stanza by Stanza

Stanza 1

Knowing that the title means good morning (Good-Morrow is archaic, an old fashioned way of greeting someone. Donne liked to join some of his words with a hyphen) the reader has a clue that the scene is set early in the day.

  • The first line takes the reader into the mind of the first person speaker, who is either asking himself or his lover a puzzling question. Note the language, it's 17th century English, so thou means you and by my troth means in all honesty or truth.

The first line runs on into the second (enjambment) and the caesurae (pauses caused by punctuation) ensure that the reader cannot go too quickly through these words. This is a carefully phrased question.

And that small phrase Did, till we loved? is important because it gives sense to the previous line and sets the poem off proper. Just what kind of existence did the pair have before they became lovers, before they fell in love?

It's a question many lovers have asked because when two become firmly entrenched in love it's as if the time previous to their meeting holds no value. They never lived, they didn't do anything meaningful.

  • Were we not weaned till then? To be weaned is to be influenced from an early age; to be a baby or an infant gradually given adult food whilst coming off a diet of mother's milk. The speaker is implying that they were infants before they loved.

The third line reinforces this sense of childish existence the two had to go through. The country pleasures are either crude sensualities or immature sexual pleasures, mere surface experiences.

Or they lived life asleep as it were. The allusion is to the Seven Sleepers, Christian youths who fled from the Roman emperor Decius (249-251) and were sealed in a cave. They slept for nearly two hundred years so the story goes, waking up in a world where Christianity had taken hold.

So the implication is that these two lived as if asleep until they fell in love and woke up - their love became a kind of new religion for them.

These four lines, with alternate rhymes, form a quatrain. The end three lines consolidate meaning, have the same end rhymes and have that final hexameter, a longer line.

Twas so; ...the speaker confirms that, yes, before they were lovers any pleasures were not real; it was as if they were infants asleep, not really awake but merely dreaming.

And Donne being Donne he goes on to say that his desires were fulfilled - he got what he wanted out of beauty - but even that wasn't real, it was only a dream.

Analysis of The Good-Morrow Stanza 2

Stanza 2

Having concluded in the first stanza that the lovers weren't really alive, or hadn't done anything, until they fell in love and became aware, the speaker wishes both of them a good morning as they wake.

There is no fear in their relationship; they are totally devoted, 100% in love, which is the be all and end all. They see the world through their love, through love.

And makes one little room an everywhere....the room the lovers are in is small, a microcosm, yet because their love is universal, it goes everywhere their love goes, and is whole, a macrocosm.

This line reflects the Renaissance idea that an individual held within them the universe.

  • The last three lines of this stanza are related to exploration of new worlds. Donne's use of metaphor is cutting edge for his time - explorers were discovering new terrestrial worlds using the latest maps, and astronomers were beginning to seriously chart the stars.

The known world was expanding rapidly. Donne connects this fact with the world the lovers have created.

Let us possess one world (in some versions this is our world)...the speaker affirms that they have their individual worlds but their love world they possess, they totally own a whole new world which they are free to explore.

Analysis of The Good-Morrow Stanza 3

Stanza 3

In the third stanza the speaker initially gets close up and personal.

Donne's fascination with reflections and imagery comes to the fore. As the lovers gaze into each other's eyes they see each other reflected. Evidence of more bonding, of two becoming one.

The lovers are true and plain - they don't have to pretend or show off or be fancy - in front of one another.

The speaker reverts to questioning again, as in the first stanza, and asks Where can we find two better hemispheres (semi-circles) ...which could be their eyes and faces.

Without sharp North....the cold north, relating to a cold relationship

without declining West...the sun sets in the west, end of the day, end of a relationship.

  • So the speaker in these four lines reinforces the idea that the lovers are a single entity; their relationship isn't cold or about to end, it is warm and rising.

Whatever dies was not mixed equally....In medical theory of the time death was thought to be the result of imbalances in the body's elements.

If our two loves...the speaker suggests that their two loves are not at all imbalanced, their loves are so alike that they can never die.

This is an idealistic end to the poem but Donne's original take on what love is remains with us today in popular musical lyrics for example.

What Is The Metre (Meter in American English) of The Good-Morrow?

The Good-Morrow has a basic iambic pentameter template, that is, there are five regular beats and ten syllables in each line except for the last line of each stanza which has twelve, so count as hexameters.

  • But there are odd exceptions here and there - some lines with an extra beat for example (11 syllables), others with trochees, spondees and anapaests, which alter rhythm and so bring added interest for the reader.
  • The syntax (the way clauses and grammar work together) is also complex in some places. Extra pauses are needed here and there which together with enjambment mixes up the rhythm within the lines.

Let's get close up to the metrical beat with a full analysis line by line:

I won / der, by / my troth, / what thou / and I
Did, till / we loved? / Were we / not weaned / till then?
But sucked / on count / ry pleas / ures, chil / dishly?
Or snor / ted we / in the Sev / en Sleep / ers’ den?
’Twas so; / but this, / all pleas / ures fanc / ies be.
If ev / er an / y beau / ty I / did see,
Which I / desired, / and got, / ’twas but / a dream / of thee.

And now / good-mor / row to / our wa / king souls,
Which watch / not one / anoth / er out / of fear;
For love, / all love / of oth / er sights / controls,
And makes / one lit / tle room / an eve / rywhere.
Let sea- / discove / rers to / new worlds / have gone,
Let maps / to oth / ers, 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 fa / ces rest;
Where can / we find / two bet / ter hem / ispheres,
Without /sharpnorth, / without / declin / ing west?
Whatev / er dies, / was not / mixed e / qually;
If our / two loves / be one, / or, thou / and I
Love so / alike, / that none / do slack / en, none / can die.

Out of 21, there are 13 lines of pure iambic pentameter ( 1,6, 8-13, 16,17,19,20) with a regular daDUM daDUM beat.

The second stanza has six of them but Donne's syntax, use of punctuation and diction, is creative enough to disturb the plodding rhythm and adds tension and interest for the reader.

  • Note that in all stanzas the end line is longer, forming a hexameter (six feet) which underlines what has gone before.

The first stanza has only two lines of pure iambic pentameter so is the most mixed when it comes to rhythm and beat. The syntax too is complex, with many commas and sub-clauses. Each question posed by the speaker also has a tendency to slow the reader down, which deepens the careful reflection shown by the hesitant speaker.

What Are The Literary Devices in The Good-Morrow?

There are several literary devices in The Good-Morrow, including:

Alliteration

When two or more words in close proximity begin with the same consonant:

were we not weaned...

snorted we in the Seven Sleepers'...

Which watch not...

Assonance

When two or more words in a line have the same vowel sounds:

sucked on country...

Seven Sleepers' den...

all love of other...

tine in mine...

true plain hearts do...

Caesura

A pause in a line caused by punctuation, where the reader has to pause. There are several in this poem, typified in line 14, where there are two:

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

What Is The Structure/Form of The Good-Morrow?

The Good-Morrow is a three stanza poem, each stanza having 7 lines (heptet).

The rhyme scheme is unusual : ababccc the first four lines of each stanza working together in alternate pairs, the last three lines being a conclusion or affirmation. All twenty one lines have mostly full rhyme, except for these near rhymes: I/childishly...fear/where...gone/shown..equally/I.

Sources

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

www.bl.uk

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

www.poetryfoundation.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey