Critics basically agree to divide John Donne’s writing into two groups related to his life stages, his romantic, or love, poetry in the stage dating prior to 1615, and the spiritual poetry emanating from the time of his ordination in 1615 to the year of his death, 1631. However, most scholars also agree that much of his romantic poetry reflects his grounding since childhood in the Catholic faith, seen often in the figurative language he adopts to write of love and its erotic aspects. This combination proved unseemly to many in cultures that followed Donne’s own, and for that reason his poetry did not gain popularity until the 20th century. That era proved more open to the exaggeration and surprising comparisons of metaphysical poets and poetry that had so scandalized earlier readers. Donne’s focus on the theme of union, both physical and spiritual, dominates his work. Supported by the logical precision in which Donne excelled, his writing emphasizes balance in relationships and between themes. In “The Canonization,” he uses the relationship between the spiritual and the erotic as framework to emphasize the close ties between spiritual and physical love.
By titling his poem The Canonization, (1633) Donne prepares his readers for a religious poem but delivers something entirely different. He often utilized that technique, as in A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning, among others. Canonization in the Catholic Church occurs when individuals have proved themselves practitioners of “heroic virtue.” A person labeled as heroic is believed to have acted in an exceptional manner that ranks him above the common man, while one who practices virtue possesses a soul already redeemed by Christ, enabling him to reject things material in favor of things spiritual. Canonization preceded the granting of sainthood, and those deemed saints could be called upon by humans for intervention with God in important matters. Donne’s choice of canonization as suggesting role models and intercessors proves vital to the meaning of his poem.
The speaker begins with a dramatic address suitable to the stage, crying to an unseen provoker, “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” In a few words Donne sets a scene in which his audience understands that the “hero” of his poem has been attacked through words, probably gossip, due to the hero’s manner of loving. The speaker is concerned that because of the provoker’s judgment, he will not be allowed to continue his love. He next offers the antagonist substitute targets for his slander, including the obviously aged speaker’s physical attributes, such as his “palsy,” “gout,” and “five gray hairs.” Donne chooses the verb chide to make clear that the speaker’s nemesis seems a nag with so little to do, he must select an innocent person to rebuke. His next lines further allow his speaker to belittle the antagonist. Not only might the antagonist attack him simply for his age, which amounts to petty cruelty, but he might also criticize the speaker’s lack of material goods and social position, saying the attacker might his “ruined fortune flout.” Again Donne’s word choice proves imperative for its connotation. A person who suffers “ruin” is generally reduced by an outside attack of some kind, not by profligate actions of his own. The use of alliteration emphasizes that the attacker does not simply whisper about the speaker’s problems but flaunts them, suggesting he shows contempt for the debt, defying laws of decency. The speaker orders his assailant, “Take you a course, get you a place,” suggesting situations that at first glance seem to have high status, serving “his hounour, or his grace,” or a “King.” But Donne makes clear that these positions of “service” equate to simple toadyism, contemplating, for instance, the king’s “real, or his stamped face,” with “stamped face” probably meaning that which appeared on currency of the realm. The speaker does not care what other occupations the antagonist chooses, as long as he will “let me love.” He concludes the first of his five nine-line stanzas having established himself as an innocent, set upon by undesirables who have no loves of their own.
The second stanza continues the speaker’s application of logic, as he questions how his love injures or harms others. He contrasts small actions, such as a lover’s sigh or tears shed, with grand events, such as the sinking of a “merchant’s ships” and the floods that caused that sinking. The results escalate to the level of the absurd, with the speaker questioning,
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
His love has not altered the seasons or killed anyone with infection; nor has it, he adds, affected soldiers or lawyers who will continue with their normal actions even “Though she and I do love.” Having reduced his attacker to the level of fool, the speaker moves into the next stanza inviting others to label him and his lover whatever they wish; labels do not alter the reality of their 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.
The taper metaphor invokes thoughts of burning candles, which eventually disappear, as he and his lover might eventually die, consumed by their passion.
Donne next compares the lovers to “the eagle and the dove,” alluding to the Renaissance idea of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe as concentric circles. Within those circles various creatures moved. While the eagle flew in the sublunar space, that of the sky above earth, doves ascended and descended to and from the upper heavens, according to biblical passages such as the one in which the Holy Spirit descends from heaven during the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. Donne extends the metaphor of fire by using the phoenix, a mythological bird that recreated itself every 500 years, and suggesting its constant renewal as a riddle. The speaker proposes that the heat of passion may keep him young, despite his advancing age. The stanza concludes with an allusion to the Platonic notion that two lovers could join to form a perfect whole: “We die and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love.”
Donne carries the idea of love and death into the penultimate stanza, his first line reading, “We can die by it, if not live by love,” suggesting that once dead, the lovers will become the subject of legend and chronicle, their story preserved as an example to others. If their story is not told in history, it will certainly be presented through art:
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs.
His suggestion of the small urn’s equality to the most lavish of tombs was made famous in the title of the 20th-century formalist critic Cleanth Brooks’s seminal book The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. But Donne saves his most dramatic comparison for the final two lines of this stanza, writing, “And by these hymns, all shall approve / Us Canonized for love.” Here he broaches the blasphemous suggestion that his physical love bears an importance equal to that of the canonized saints. Not only do they provide an example, their names may be called upon in order to intercede with requests that their own passion be increased.
This suggestion supports the final stanza, in which the brazen speaker claims that the very antagonists attacking him, and others of his ilk, will call upon the speaker’s love as a model for their own. Those for whom “love was peace that now is rage” once valued a quiet method for romance but now crave a far more passionate approach, signified by rage. Donne incorporates various words suggesting religion, including invoke and reverend, that would have scandalized Victorian readers. The speaker states that the You he addresses made the homes, or “hermitage,” of others their own through their intrusion or spying. Sketching a memorable metaphysical image, Donne writes,
Who did the whole world’s soul extract, 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!
The speaker feels that those who spied upon others did so for vicarious needs and internalized what they observed. In the penultimate line, Donne adapts his frequent method for emphasis of an idea, expanding the individual concern or state to universal proportions.
“Beatification and Canonization.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “The Meaning of ‘Rage’ in ‘The Canonization.’ ” American Notes and Queries. 14, no. 2 (April 2001): 3.
Flynn, Denis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.