The poem ends with a contemplation about love and how bloody confusing it is.
If yet I have not all thy love,
Dear, I shall never have it all;
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move,
Nor can intreat one other tear to fall;
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee—
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters—I have spent.
Yet no more can be due to me,
Than at the bargain made was meant;
If then thy gift of love were partial,
That some to me, some should to others fall,
Dear, I shall never 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 never gavest it;
Love’s riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing savest 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.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Another priest come poet, John Donne lived between 1572-1631 and seemed to have enjoyed his early life with tales of travel, womanising and later a secret marriage and a spell in prison.
After he’d sorted himself out with his father-in-law and got out of prison, he and his wife got on with things. His marriage was a particularly productive one as they popped out an amazing 12 children in 16 years! However, he lost two to still birth and a further three died before they reached the age of 10. Also, his wife died in childbirth with their twelfth child and he was left devastated by all these losses. Clearly there was a lot of love there (a lot of humping too!) and we can read the height of his passion in this poem.
Anyway, what else do you need to know? He is regarded as one of a group known as the metaphysical poets. Rather than being a group who’d get together for chinwags from time to time, they were grouped together loosely as their poetry explored abstract concepts using unusual simile and metaphor that are on the face of things compare two completely different things.
This isn’t particularly relevant in this poem, but we do have some unusual approaches to exploring love as a concept – having to buy it, for instance.
This is an exploration of the nature of love. He questions what he should want, aim for and be satisfied with, while also acknowledging the contradictions of the emotion.
In the opening stanza sees a miserable Donne telling his love that he has given all he has to her: there is no more he can do to convince her of his worth and secure her full affection. He re-emphasises the fact he’s given everything by claiming nothing more can be due from him.
Next he considers that even if she does love him fully, will that be enough when others come calling with their box of romantic tricks. As he’s given his everything already, he feels he might not be able to compete with something new or offering more than he has. However, from his fearful contemplation he moves onto considering himself entitled by the promises they have made to each other.
Finally, he seems a bit more positive, and realises that he doesn’t actually want all her heart at once as it would mean he has no further desire to impress her and has nothing else to gain for his efforts. The second half of this final stanza considers the riddle of love that contradicts itself in that you have to give your heart away to really love. He ends by seeing his love as a merging of hearts rather than exchanging them (someone tell George Michael!).
Language and techniques
I’d start by commenting on something addressed directly in the third stanza. The whole poem is about ‘Love’s riddle’ and we can see Donne is struggling with different ideas or ways to think about love throughout from his constantly changing focus, which are indicated by his repetition of ‘yet’. This shows that each idea he considers about love is being contradicted with others.
He deals with this directly in the third stanza. He personifies Love to make it something that is deliberately trying to confuse and confound us through its riddles. Riddles are meant to be tricky to solve and leave us scratching our heads, which is exactly what he is doing in this poem. The specifics of the riddle in the third stanza that ‘though thy heart depart, It stays at home, and thou with losing it savest it’. This is a contradictory idea that to really feel our hearts fulfilled and alive, we have to give them away. Only when someone else has accepted our hearts will our hearts be saved and thus fulfilled.
He eventually solves this problem by envisioning their hearts as not being exchanged, but rather merged together and becoming one entity.
Moving on. I’d also comment on the way he describes his love. He refers to having ‘spent’ ‘all my treasure’ in order to secure his lover’s heart. The word ‘treasure’ makes me think that he has given over a valuable hoard in exchange for this lady, and as a metaphor is used to show us the immense importance of love. Just think, what would a pirate give up his treasure for? (I don’t think any pirates would give up their booty for a girl’s…)
However, on closer inspection of this treasure he’s handed over we can see that it is a metaphor for his emotions; these don’t sound overwhelming positive though. ‘Sighs, tears, and oaths’ show us that love is full of misery and worry and he has only been able to realise it through making a commitment – presumably marriage is represented by ‘oaths’. We also see how much love takes out of us and effects us emotionally when Donne says ‘I cannot breathe one other sigh’ as if he is physically exhausted or emotionally drained by all he has had to put into the relationship.
You could also comment on the change in Donne attitude in each of the stanzas. In the first there is a sense that he is miserable, but accepting of the fact that he will never control her whole heart. He admits if her ‘gift of love were partial’ then he’s never going to get the rest of it.
However, this dejected tone transforms to jealousy and a bit of anger in the second stanza. He almost threatens her when explaining that if ‘new love [is] created’ in her by other men trying to woo her, then that love ought to be worried. New love was ‘not vow’d by thee’, which suggests she has made promises and commitments elsewhere and any new love she feels is his by rights.
We have a bit of natural imagery here to help us understand his message. He says her heart is the ‘ground’ and ‘what ever shall Grow there, Dear, I should have it all’. Their vows to each other are like them each buying a piece of land and thus whatever grows there is theirs to eat and theirs alone.
This imagery continues in the third and his mood becomes more positive and cheery. He realises he doesn’t want all her love because that would mean there is no more to come. New growth means ‘new rewards in store’ for him. He understands that if she could give him her heart then that would mean their love before was less important as it would mean she hadn’t given it before.
We’ve got three regular eleven line stanzas that follow the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEEE. I see this regularity as standing in contrast to Donne’s shifting ideas and revealing a consistency and order in his emotions.
However, the punctuation of the poem is important in communicating the shifting moods and conceptions of love. Notice the consistent pauses (caesuras) in the opening stanza that make it slow and almost mournful as he acknowledges his inability to give anymore. We see a little of the same as he contemplates losing his love or her growing interested in others, but that gives way to a faster pace and longer lines as he becomes more positive and certain about his love.
As mentioned above, it shifts from regret and misery (in the first stanza, where he is basically questioning whether he will remain worthy for his lover) to fear and a bit of entitled anger and finally to realisation that he is content with what he has and to see love grow and blossom as times goes on.