Love's Alchemy by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis

Love's Alchemy itself validates the claim of the 'unification of sensibility'. Alchemy was medieval science which aimed at the discovery of the Elixir of life or the philosopher's stone. The Elixir was supposed to be some mysterious substance which could cure disease and prolong life, and a touch of the Philosopher's stone could turn iron into gold. But the Alchemists, despite their lifelong devotion to the search, failed to discover this substance.

John Donne (1572-1631)

It remained a mystery despite all their efforts. These are those who have probed deep into this mystery despite all their efforts. Similarly, the true nature of love is a mystery. There are those who have probed deep into this mystery, and claim that they have discovered "where his centrique happiness doth lie". Both the poet has failed to fathom love's "hidden mysteries", though he himself has loved long and deep, and enjoyed the fruits of love. Therefore, he considers those who claim to understand the true nature of love as cheats and imposters.

The title love's Alchemy or the "Alchemy of love" is an ironic phrase that sets the tone of satire from the very title of the poem. By the time of John Donne, people had started considering the medieval science of Alchemy as a meaningless, absurd and impractical metaphysical idea. Therefore, if the Alchemy of gold was a stupid thing, the Alchemy of love was also equally stupid. By love's Alchemy Donne means the fantastic poetic ideas of Platonic love which all the Elizabethan contemporaries were singing about day and night. Donne's title therefore suggests his idea that the so called spiritual (metaphysical) love was as stupid an impractical as Alchemy: Donne's idea of love is that true love is an intimate relation or attachment of the mind and spirit which is established and promoted by physical intimacy or attachments. So the title itself satirizes the platonic love theory of Elizabethan sonneteers.

Donne believes that love begins with physical passion and attachment and then only it ascends to spirituality. The body is the foundation of the soul. Only the unification of the body results in the unification of the soul. The physical aspect of anything is equally important to approach and understand its essence within.

Love's Alchemy is an expression of exasperation against a common 'theory' of love, the platonic 'idealist' theory that rejected the body, the material and real aspect of the relationship. Donne uses sarcastic wit to satirize the idea of spiritual love which the Elizabethan poets overused and took for granted; that logic of love and relationship between man and woman was based on the Neo-Platonic theories, and scholastic theology of the Renaissance. These poets compared the experience of human love with God's act of creation order and beauty of the cosmos. In scholastic theology, love was thought as a manifestation of the latent impulse that seeks to trace a relation with its maker. So to those poets, to feel the spiritual love was to undergo an experience and seek the hidden mysteries of the universe.

Donne is a realist. He uses the devices of the opponents and throws them back at their faces: he says that he has tried and failed, and that makes it credible. The metaphor of alchemy is used as a central conceit for the poem in order to give a new twist to the conventional ideas about love and its experience. Such way of turning upside down in an unusual manner is Donne's powerful poetic strategy, which an intelligent reader can understand. For the purpose of argument, Donne uses the analogy of alchemic research and spiritual love, and then he proceeds on to attack his rival poets by drawing parallel between alchemy and platonic theory into the ground.

It has been said that the poem expresses Donne's negative, cynical attitude towards love and that his attitude towards womanhood is brutal and savage. However, one is nearer the truth when he says that in this poem, as elsewhere, Donne is emphasizing the complex nature of love-that love is both of the mind and the body, which is both spiritual and physical. Only, re-acting against the Platonic and Petrarchan ideals of love, he goes to the other extreme and seems to deny the very possibility of a union of minds.

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Sharma, K.N. "Love's Alchemy by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,