John Donne: A Song of Sweetest Love

I have been reading rather a lot of John Donne recently – a surge of reading inspired by (albeit indirectly) the Council of Chalcedon – and whilst in a future post I would like to take a look at Donne’s religious life (particularly the nature of his religious allegiance, which is notoriously ambiguous), today I am going to share one of his secular works. It is one of a handful that is entitled ‘Song’, and so by way of differentiation is also known by its first line – Sweetest Love, I Do Not Go. The poem is written primarily as an expression of Donne’s anguish at having to part with his wife, but gradually moves from these concerns to communicate a deeply felt sense of what true love is.

Anne, Donne’s wife, was the niece of Sir Thomas Edgerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (a high office of State), to whom Donne had been appointed as secretary, and at whose home he was living. Donne fell in love with Anne, but the relationship met with disapproval from Edgerton and Sir George Moore, Anne’s father. This may partly have been due to the age difference (Donne was twenty-eight to Anne’s sixteen) but seems to mainly have been because of Donne’s low income and lack of social standing. At any rate, they were married in secret, and for this Donne was held in Fleet Prison until the marriage’s validity could be proven beyond doubt. It was another eight years before the poet was reconciled with Sir George and received his wife’s dowry.

Donne also lost his job because of the marriage, and so had to make ends meet by taking occasional work as a lawyer. Thankfully, as Anne gave birth to twelve children over their sixteen years of marriage, they were also supported by the generosity of Anne’s cousin, Sir Francis Wolley, who gave them somewhere to live and sent work Donne’s way. The background to this tumultuous and often stressful time, sustained only by the great love that Anne and John Donne had for one another, is important in understanding the sentiments expressed in this poem. In it, he begins by reassuring Anne that their parting will only be temporary, preceding a more wonderful return – as the sun sets before rising again, how much more will Donne’s love cause him to return to his beloved.

Donne then considers how we habitually take the blessings in life for granted, only to allow life’s woes a greater hold over us than is warranted, letting sorrow gain a hold over us that is out of proportion with our prior experience, and also that articulations of grief at such times uttered by one’s beloved redouble the pain of parting for the lover. This leads him to consider the strength of the love that binds them, and that even in parting, by the remembrance of one another and the calling to mind of that unbreakable and eternal bond, the parting has no abiding reality – true love keeps those who share in it alive to one another, transcending any separation by time and space. Furthermore, given Donne’s convictions, it is not presumptuous to see this bond as partaking in a far greater Love – one that transcends even death itself:


Sweetest love, I do not go,

For weariness of thee,

Nor in hope the world can show

A fitter love for me;

But since that I

At the last must part, ’tis best,

Thus to use myself in jest

By feigned deaths to die.


Yesternight the sun went hence,

And yet is here to-day;

He hath no desire nor sense,

Nor half so short a way;

Then fear not me,

But believe that I shall make

Speedier journeys, since I take

More wings and spurs than he.


O how feeble is man’s power,

That if good fortune fall,

Cannot add another hour,

Nor a lost hour recall;

But come bad chance,

And we join to it our strength,

And we teach it art and length,

Itself o’er us to advance.


When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,

But sigh’st my soul away;

When thou weep’st, unkindly kind,

My life’s blood doth decay.

It cannot be

That thou lovest me as thou say’st,

If in thine my life thou waste,

That art the best of me.


Let not thy divining heart

Forethink me any ill;

Destiny may take thy part,

And may thy fears fulfil.

But think that we

Are but turn’d aside to sleep.

They who one another keep

Alive, ne’er parted be.


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