Change as the Result of Time in the Secular Poetry of John Donne

love's alchemyOne of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time (Gale, 66). In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation (Gale, 68). Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne shows a particular interest in time and shrewdly manipulates his own representations of it in order to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability in a variety of thought-provoking ways.

In A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Donne uses time to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation. ‘Tis the year’s midnight’ – the winter solstice – when the ‘sun is spent’ and the world’s ‘whole sap is sunk’. Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died. It is indeed a dark time. Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers, Fontana, 91). The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day. With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective.

Texts unfold in time; by necessity they have a beginning, middle, and end and their temporality is heightened when are framed by time. The Sun Rising is framed by the time it takes for the sun to rise. The speaker, in bed with his lover (the speaker refers to the lover as ‘she’ and himself as a ‘prince’ so is quite likely to be male), mockingly questions whether it is also ‘to thy (sun’s) motions lovers’ seasons (must) run.’ He then suggests that if this is what the sun ‘shouldst think’, then the sun is wrong. If the speaker so desires, ‘I could eclipse and cloud’ ‘thy beams’ ‘with a wink’. But he does not so desire and in the final stanza abandons his derisory threats to welcome the sun because its job is ‘to warm the world’ and the world ‘All here in one bed lay’.

Why the change of heart? Perhaps it only the speaker’s attempt to come to grips with the reality that the sun will rise regardless of what he fantasizes. Or maybe the allusion to ‘alchemy’ takes us in an altogether different direction – pointing past the false gold of temporal ‘honours’ and ‘wealth’ to something much more valuable.

Frames draw attention to that which they are framing. Frames objectify the framed and define its relationship to its surroundings adding status and value (Jacobs, 18). How better to add status and value to a sexual relationship than through allusions (‘that’s done in warming us’) to the alchemical process of warming the alembic (two connected vessels, OED n 1) and all it might imply. According to Mark Booth (342), at its heart alchemy is a spiritual exercise intended to transform man’s selfish, sexual desires into living, spiritual desires which in turn allows the Phoenix, bird of resurrection and immortality, to rise.

In The Canonization, the speaker actually suggests that he and his lover might ‘die’ (through organism?) and ‘rise’ like the ‘phoenix’ from the ‘greatest ashes’ beyond the ‘half-acre tombs’ and be reborn (the ‘phoenix riddle’). According to Booth, (342), alchemists are fascinated with love because they know that the heart is an organ of perception. Adepts at alchemical transformation have made a conscious decision to see the world through the eyes of love which in turns leads to an immortality of sorts (Booth, 343).

The speaker in The Anniversary elaborates. Although everyone and everything (‘kings’, ‘honours’, beauties’) grows older with time (the passing of ‘the sun itself’), ‘our love’ ‘no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday.’ To this end, the speaker encourages us to ‘love nobly’ and by doing so ‘add again/Years and years and years’ to achieve the ‘second of our reign’. The message seems that with proper application, through ‘love’, we can propel ourselves past time to a place where as ‘souls’, ‘nothing (else) dwells but love’.

Might this really be achieved? Donne seems to suggest not. In Love’s Alchemy, the speaker makes clear that those who ‘have deeper digged love’s mine’ do hope to achieve the ‘hidden mystery’ – the ‘elixir’ – indefinitely prolonging their lives (OED n 2 a). Realistically they have little hope of accomplishing this. For although most ‘lovers dream a rich and long delight’, what they get is a ‘winter-seeming summer’s night’ (short and cold life).

In The Flea, Donne uses time to effect desired change. ‘(C)loistered’ in bed with his lover, the frustrated speaker does everything possible to convince her to lose her ‘maidenhead’. When a flea ‘sucks’ them both, he hatches a cunning plan. ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this’, he commences. For ‘in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.’ Doubtless knowing his lover will kill the (now doomed) flea, the speaker ratchets up the pressure by asserting that ‘this flea is you and I’ and if you kill it, you will be ‘killing three’. When his lover inevitably kills the flea (her ‘purpled’ nail marks the moment), the speaker launches into the final phase of his argument: if she had not feared that killing the flea would be a ‘sacrilege’ as he had suggested, then might her loss of ‘honour’ (and maidenhead) be equally a ‘false fear’?

The lapse between the flea’s initial ‘suck(ing)’ and its demise cannot have been more than a couple of minutes; time is pushed fast-forward on a wave of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter/pentameter culminating in a couplet marking the end of each of three distinct phases of the poem that function like acts in a play. As readers, we cannot help sensing that in this dynamic, dramatic flow of time, the speaker has seized upon the perfect moment to force his lover’s hand.

Donne also uses time to express vexation. In Song the speaker urges an unidentified other to ‘Ride ten thousand days and nights’ until ‘age snow white hairs on thee’ and then report back whether there ‘lives’ (anywhere) ‘a woman true, and fair’. The sheer length of the time proposed (along with other impossible tasks like ‘catch a falling star’) suggests an exasperated speaker who believes what he asks (yet, still he asks) is an impossibility. Vexation is further suggested by the speaker’s request virtually springing from the stressed first syllable in each of three commanding/demanding lines; ‘Go’, ‘Tell’, Teach’; the four beat sing-song nature of these lines is mocking. Even if by some wild chance ‘such a pilgrimage’ were successful, there is still time for it all to go wrong: ‘Though she were true, when you met her’, she will have turned ‘false’ by the time the speaker meets her. The speaker foresees no remedy for -‘Yet she/Will be’ – with the two beat couplet pounding home the un-deniability of the assertion.

At first blush, this poem seems trite, flippant. Those sing-song lines and hyperbole do their job. Yet ‘Tell me, where all past years are,’ suggests the speaker is not simply vexed but deeply troubled especially in conjunction with asking how he is to ‘keep off envy’s stinging’? Ouch. If the speaker’s flippancy is meant to insulate him from re-experiencing past hurts, however, then in refusing to change his mind-set he is actually perpetuating them. Constancy is not always a good thing.

In Woman’s Constancy, Donne takes a fresh approach with a (rather insincere) seventeenth century rendition of the twentieth century hit song ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles). Here Donne’s speaker develops his (the speaker is likely male complaining about ‘woman’s constancy) concerns that having ‘loved me one whole day’, his lover might forget all about him ‘tomorrow’. Even worse, she might choose to ‘antedate’ (assign an earlier date, OED v 2) some ‘new made vow’ in effect voiding her ‘lovers’ contract’. The reference to contract law (Donne was trained in law) is a neat twist because a contract requires reciprocity, a meeting of the minds. In suggesting that their ‘lovers’ contract’ may be invalid, the speaker legitimately gives room for his own inconstancy (‘for by tomorrow, I may think so too’). I suggest that it is just possible that he ‘abstained’ from forcing her to honour her ‘oath’ in a ‘dispute’ because he liked her ‘new vows’ as much if not better than she.

Finally, Donne highlights perhaps his most intriguing ideas about mutability and constancy in The Computation. That speaker counts up an amazingly long 2,400 years (100 for each hour) since an unidentified (and notably absent) listener has ‘gone away’. The speaker suggests that his is not a ‘long life’ however (even though it seems rather long plodding along in unrelenting iambic pentameter) but more of a metaphysical impasse: he thinks that in being ‘dead, he or she may now be immortal (presumably in the sense of not being subject to death, OED adj A a).  This apparent oxymoron invites the reader to dig deeper. What might it mean to be both ‘dead’ and ‘immortal’ at the same time? What might it mean to be a ‘ghost(s)’ that cannot die? Perhaps Donne is expressing the same sad sentiment as in Song where past pain persists (or seems to persist) into eternity making him forever feel like a ‘ghost – a mere shadow of his former self (OED n 10 a). Or Donne might have meant a ‘ghost’ with regard to the spirit (OED n 6) to which Donne might have assigned religious significance – perhaps even addressing his own schism with the Catholic Church. But regardless whether this poem is about a secular or religious relationship (or both), it bodes ill – for the speaker’s ‘Tears drowned one hundred’ of those amazingly long years and his or her ‘sighs blew out’ a good many more.

In summary, Donne uses various representations of time in his secular poetry to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability. While on the surface it may appear that he is a proponent of constancy, his speakers often lamenting how others are so inconstant and false, I would argue that on the whole Donne favours change. Without change, the speaker in A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day would be caught in a vicious cycle. Without change, the frustrated lover in The Flea would be caught in a sexual stalemate. In The Sun Rising his speaker seems to suggest that through alchemical change, immortality is a real possibly. Although this idea is glorified in The Canonization and The Anniversary, in Love’s Alchemy Donne suggests that realistically chances of success in this endeavour are for the most part grim. In Woman’s Constancy, Donne suggests that love is like a contract and that in trying to change the terms of said contract retroactively one may unwittingly provide the other party with a way out. Finally, in The Computation Donne explores what it may be like to be trapped in a situation feeling bereft as a ghost yet unable to die/escape the situation. Contrary to what many might believe, constancy (and/or eternity) as protrayed by Donne may not always be a good thing.





Donne, John. The Major Works. ed. John Carey. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.


Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2008.


Booth, Mark. The Secret History of the World. New York: The Overlook Press (2008).


Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997.


Gale, Richard M (ed), The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. Oxford; Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002.


Haskin, Dayton. ‘Donne’s afterlife’ (233-2466). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Jacobs, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading. London: Routledge, 2001.


Magnusson, Lynne. ‘Donne’s language: the conditions of communication’ (183-200). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Scherer Herz, Judith. ‘Reading and rereading Donne’s poetry’ (101-116). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ‘The Experience and Perception of Time’. 5 June 2014.



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