John Donne (1572-1631)
In this beautiful, dramatic lyric, the attitude of the speaker is presented as skeptical and scornful, virtually brutal. When his love towards her is rejected, it turns into hatred and he is quite determined to cause her harm. The image of the conventional Petrarchan lover is overturned who goes on loving the beloved, even if she rejected him. The speaker’s love and passion are not considered important by the beloved and it disappoints him. With his frustrated love, he decides to torture her even if he dies. He imagines a situation, when he is dead, he would visit her in her bedroom. There she will be rejected by her new lover in her demand of much love and cuddling. She would suffer and would be frightened by the presence of the ghost of the speaker. And the refusal of her man in the bed to comfort her from fear is what the speaker loves to see as a torture to her rejection. So, he urges her to make a repent now rather than to face the fearful situation later.
The first line of the poem deceptively acknowledges the conventions of Petrarchan poetry in supposing that the rejected lover will die of unrequited love, but in every other respect this is an anti-Petrarchan poem. The lover's bitterness towards his lady is seemingly at least a match for her scorn towards him, and rather than passively, lament the cruelty which is supposedly killing him, he takes a malicious pleasure in contemplating the suffering he, in his turn, will cause her.
The ‘fain'd vestall' (his beloved) has claimed to prize her virginity, above all else in order to justify refusing herself to the would-be lover, but at her bedside, his ghost will see the humiliating truth: that her sexual appetite is in fact far keener than that of the lover she has that night exhausted, and who `shrinks' away from her in fear of further demands on his tired manhood. The lines are brutal, both in the matter-of-fact treatment of her sexual desires, and in the suggestion that she has been casual and indiscriminate in acquiring her lovers. This is to portray human sexuality at its most mundane, least glamorous level: the contemptuous picture of the lady sweating and trembling beside her unresponsive lover.
The poem appears to have reached its climax when the speaker has his revenge upon the lady — ignored by the lover she has accepted, and tormented by the lover she had spurned, she is still more dead-alive than he is.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now, Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent, Thad rather thou shouldst painfully repent, Then by my threatnings rest still innocent.
He asserts that his love is finished (spent), but this fact cannot be denied that the basis of the poem is his hopeless desire for her. Donne deliberately leaves the mocking picture of the lover as a man who has failed during his lifetime to find words with which to court the lady. He, finally, becomes aggressive and warn of the terrible things he is sure he will be able to think once he has died for love.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now, Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I'had rather thou shouldst painfully repent, Than by my threat'nings rest still innocent.
These last four lines should be seen not as a slip, but as the final witty stroke in a careful, controlled poem which, without them, might appear too one-sided and savage to be entertaining.
On the spiritual interpretation, the speaker can be the God, the beloved is human kind and another lover in the bed is Satan. When the God is calling the mankind and trying to save their soul, they denied the call of God. They prefer the company of the Satan or the pleasures of the perishable world. Later, which means after the death, they have to face God and will see the wrath of God for the denial. The only way for the mankind to be away from the wrath of the God and to receive the love of the God, they have to surrender themselves to the arms of the God when alive.
Published on: 9 March 2018