John Donne straddled the 16th and 17th centuries (as indeed did Shakespeare and Jonson) and his poetry is a rich collection of secular and religious verse. I chose this poem to highlight here as the first poem by Donne on this blog because it is a love poem with a surprisingly modern opening and a theme which I find optimistic – the possibility of love enduring while age and infirmity completely change the person who is the loved one.
Elegy V: His Picture
BY JOHN DONNE
Here take my picture; though I bid farewell
Thine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.
‘Tis like me now, but I dead, ’twill be more
When we are shadows both, than ’twas before.
When weather-beaten I come back, my hand
Perhaps with rude oars torn, or sun beams tann’d,
My face and breast of haircloth, and my head
With care’s rash sudden storms being o’erspread,
My body’a sack of bones, broken within,
And powder’s blue stains scatter’d on my skin;
If rival fools tax thee to’have lov’d a man
So foul and coarse as, oh, I may seem then,
This shall say what I was, and thou shalt say,
“Do his hurts reach me? doth my worth decay?
Or do they reach his judging mind, that he
Should now love less, what he did love to see?
That which in him was fair and delicate,
Was but the milk which in love’s childish state
Did nurse it; who now is grown strong enough
To feed on that, which to disus’d tastes seems tough.”
“Here take my picture”, you could hear this on almost any day, spoken by anyone who has a cellphone camera, capturing an image of an ephemeral moment, soon forgotten. But in this poem, the picture is not to be taken by a camera, and the moment is not intended to be forgotten, quite the opposite in fact. This is a plea from a young man to his lover to fix his youthful and attractive appearance in her mind before he gets old and ravaged in time, so that she will continue to love him through the image of memory.
Much of the middle section of the poem describes in gruesome detail the likely fate of the poet’s body and appearance later in life, or close to death as if he were a shipwrecked sailor returned from a watery grave, his broken body a sack of bones, with marks all over his skin. But the picture in his lover’s memory will remain fresh and youthful allowing her to continue to proclaim her love for that young man who is no longer young and fair.
This is part of the recipe for enduring love.
The Poetry Dude