The Good Morrow was first published in John Donne’s posthumous collection Songs and Sonnets (1633) and ranks among his best known love poems. Critics have developed various theories regarding the poem’s symbolism, many relating to the Platonic theory of love. Donne’s metaphoric vision of two lovers who join as one to reach completion supports their theories. Christopher S. Nassaar believes Plato’s cave allegory also influenced Donne’s construction. He uses as evidence Donne’s reference to a cave in the first stanza, the speaker’s reference to his lady as the Idea of Beauty, and the lovers’ later emergence from the cave into awareness of their love as perfection, as if emerging into light. As suits the approach of the metaphysical poets and poetry, Donne includes unusual figurative language in describing the lovers’ relationship. His format includes three stanzas, each composed of two couplets followed by a triplet.
The first stanza opens with the speaker’s musing to his partner about existence prior to their relationship:
I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not wean’d till then,
But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?
Donne naturalizes the dialogue by using enjambment at the end of his first line and inserting a caesura caused by a question mark in the middle of the second line. The speaker suggests that previous to romance, the two lovers were as babies, still dependent upon their mothers’ breasts for nourishment. Donne creates an unusual phrase in “suck’d on country pleasures,” perhaps indicating that the country, where the lovers matured, provided an unsophisticated environment. His next line employs the disrespectful verb snorted in conjunction with reference to a Christian miracle, when he writes, “Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?” The “seven sleepers’ den” refers to Christian mythology, in which seven Christian youths from Ephesus hid in a cave during the persecution of Diocletian in A.D. 250. While they slept, the opening to the cavern was blocked, leaving them entombed. Supposedly they were discovered, still living, in A.D. 479. Donne’s lack of respect in use of this reference suggests he did not want the love shared by the subjects of his poem compared to a miracle of faith, but simply to be perceived as a miracle of life. The speaker continues,
’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.
The lover acts as a fantasy, fulfilling all of the speaker’s desires for pleasure. In cliché form, one could paraphrase the end of the stanza as “My love, you’re a dream come true.”
In the second stanza, the speaker remains fixed on the movement of time, which is so important to their realization, and to their emotional awakening. He bids their souls good morning, stating,
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.
Donne employs one of his favored approaches, envisioning small areas as equivalent to enormous landscapes, as in his The Flea where a tiny creature momentarily represents a universe, and in one of his sonnets, I Am a Little World Made Cunningly. His use of alliteration and word repetition adds auditory pleasure to these lines, as the reader watches the lovers discover one another completely unabashed, as a result of the purity of their emotion. The concluding triplet expands the room as “an everywhere” into the sea and entire worlds, then multiple worlds, meant to be explored as the lovers explore their feelings: “Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, / Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown.” However, the lovers desire only the single world they form when they unite, as Donne develops a delightful paradox in his final line of stanza two, “Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”
The third stanza indisputably acknowledges that each lover requires the other in order to be whole, as they literally reflect one another: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, / And true plain hearts do in the faces rest.” Not only does Donne establish a metaphysical conceit with the melding of the two represented in physical dimensions, but his internal rhyme, with the repetition of thine and the inclusion of mine, creates an echo effect that underscores the idea of two separates that are in reality identical. Extending the geography conceit, the speaker adds, “Where can we find two better hemispheres / Without sharp north, without declining west?” Their world remains superior to the geographical world, as their orientation toward one another is defined by neither dimension nor direction.
The final triplet references a theory of the physician Galen, who held that physical death was caused by an imbalance—“Whatever dies, was not mixed equally”— then continues with the concluding epigrammatic statement, “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I / Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.” Donne again uses enjambment to suggest the continuity that he describes. Because the two lovers are so alike, all aspects, emotional and physical, will remain perfectly combined, leading to eternal life.
Nassaar, Christopher S. “Plato in John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow.’ ” American Notes and Queries 16, no. 1 (winter 2003): 20–21.