You and I believe in Science because we were born into a 20th Century Western culture. John Donne, born this day in 1572, believed in Christianity, for just the same reason. Starting from our own framework of thought, we seek to expand the reach of logic and make sense of our world. Donne was doing the same thing, with his wide-ranging and fecund mind. Today, we easily perceive the limits of Donne’s theological cosmology. Perhaps he can help us perceive the limits of our own.
Image of her whom I love, more than she,
Whose fair impression in my faithful heart
Makes me her medal, and makes her love me,
As Kings do coins, to which their stamps impart
The value: go, and take my heart from hence,
Which now is grown too great and good for me:
Honours oppress weak spirits, and our sense
Strong objects dull; the more, the less we see.
When you are gone, and Reason gone with you,
Then Fantasy is queen and soul, and all;
She can present joys meaner than you do;
Convenient, and more proportional.
So, if I dream I have you, I have you,
For, all our joys are but fantastical.
And so I ’scape the pain, for pain is true;
And sleep which locks up sense, doth lock out all.
After a such fruition I shall wake,
And, but the waking, nothing shall repent;
And shall to love more thankful sonnets make
Than if more honour, tears, and pains were spent.
But dearest heart, and dearer image, stay;
Alas, true joys at best are dream enough;
Though you stay here you pass too fast away:
For even at first life’s taper is a snuff.
Filled with her love, may I be rather grown
Mad with much heart, than idiot with none.
— John Donne
We recognize that Donne’s language and usage are different from our own, and it may not be possible to separate this from our difference in framework of our thought. I therefore tread gingerly on the road of interpretation.
What I get from the first stanza is that Donne is steeped in humility, afraid that the love which has overtaken him is force greater than he can bear, and he is in danger of breaking. In the second stanza, he seeks the relationship between two parts of himself, the reasoning part which relates to the world of common experience, and the inner world of imagination. In the third, he associates joy with the imagined world and suffering with the outer. In the end, I think he comes down on the side of fantasy, where love is more real and more dependable, though he recognizes that to think so is flirting with madness.
I sense there is more here than I am apprehending, and I welcome your thoughts and interpretations.