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Love's Alchemy by Donne

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John Donne, together with Ben Johnson, is considered to be the founder of English lyrics of the XVIIth century. His poems cannot be analyzed within already existing frames and concepts. On the contrary, a reader is always amazed by their ambiguity, unexpected contrasts and twists of mind, constant dissatisfaction and combination of dry analytical judgments with emotional splashes. For John, as well as for Shakespearian Hamlet, the harmony of the universe had been substituted for unexplainable chaos that accompanied the change of historical epochs. As the artist painfully felt the imperfection of the “fallen to the atoms” world, all his life was dedicated to looking for a supporting point. That is why there is no wonder that the main topic of his poetry is a sense of inner frustration; this is the principal reason for its difficulty, its agonizing conflicts, combination of frivolous hedonism with sorrow of apostasy, impressive prose with a lack of self-confidence.

The main idea of the poem

This theoretical background would help us to analyze Donne’s Love’s Alchemy. In his poem, the author rejects the idea of the true love that can bring true happiness into our life. Donne unveils the Neo-Platonists’ idea of love. Advocates of Neo-Platonism proved a rather complicated doctrine about love as a union of lovers who in a mystical way cognize God in the image of a beloved person. In the poem, Donne doubts the possibility of a harmonious lovers’ union, unveiling its sensuality and proving that all the mysteries of love are fake. Lines 1-6 tell us that true love does not exist, and waiting for it till death is just waiting one’s time; thus, one should not believe someone who claims to have found his/her true love:

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!

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As it becomes clear from this excerpt, the “deeper digging” presupposes some higher level of love, i.e., a non-sensual one; but even this level of spiritual unity does not guarantee essential “centric” happiness. The phrase “Oh, ’tis imposture all!”  renders the author’s state of inner frustration: “the hidden mystery” still remains hidden for him, which makes Donne desperate. From this standpoint, there is no wonder that Donne uses the imagery of alchemy that with no success has desperately strived for gold and searched for the elixir of life. Every illness cannot be cured, as well as it is impossible to stay young forever: constantly experimenting on the same thing, an alchemist gets nothing essential but a mere chemical odor that clings on him:

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 (7-12).

Personification and alliteration of "Pregnant pot" in the poem 

These lines convincingly underpin Donne’s mockery of alchemists’ beliefs that non-carnal love is crucial to happiness. The author uses personification and alliteration in words “pregnant pot” to reveal the absurdity of such an opinion. He describes alchemists as people who do nothing useful and get nothing useful as well; they do not reach their goal but do not understand this and keep glorifying their illusive fruits of labor. Instead of rejoicing at the elixir of life, alchemists rejoice at any smelly thing or even medicine. Thus, the task of alchemists is to fill their pot with chemicals of different kinds with no evident success. The same happens with lovers – those who seek for delight get “a winter-seeming summer’s night”. This oxymoron highlights the irony of the idea that one can understand and find the essence of love.

Furthermore, Donne proves that we should not spend all our life searching for vain ideas, things that we can never get or use for our benefit. As in the case with alchemists who waste everything they have and get nothing, one should not try to catch happiness since it is impossible. For Donne, love ends in “vain bubble’s shadow”: this metaphor is of high interest as love is not even a bubble but its shadow, which presupposes that the notion of love is too vague, indistinct, and momentary. Therefore, the notion of marriage is mocked of, too: the phrase “the short scorn of a bridegroom’s play” implies that a marriage based on the illusive ideas of true and eternal happiness deserves nothing more but a scorn.      

Our ease, our thrift, our honor, 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 (13-18).

Comapring "wretch" with a person who loves

“That loving wretch” falsely believes that “the mind” of his beloved woman is worth worshipping; blindly idealizing her, he does not notice “day’s rude hoarse” because for him it is the music of the spheres. The poet summarizes his thoughts rather pessimistically: women’s beauty is superficial and their innate nature is that of mummies. Such an attitude towards women once more underlines Donne’s disappointment about the carnal, as well as spiritual side of love: 

’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 (19-24).

All things considered, Donne’s Love’s Alchemy presents a specific vision of love. Using scientific imagery, Donne compares love to alchemy as they both are nothing more but chasing after chimeras. Happiness is volatile and cannot be squeezed into the frames of marriage, and harmonious lovers’ union is hardly possible. 

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