John Donne (1572-1631) is regarded by many critics as the greatest poet of the “metaphysical” school, who used language in new ways to express emotion and meaning at the same time. Donne’s poetry falls into two main groups, namely that written before he “got religion” (he ended his life as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) and that written after that event. Among his earlier works are the “Songs and Sonets”, a set of love poems written over a period of time and which include “The Good-Morrow”.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
“The Good-Morrow” consists of three 7-line stanzas with an ABABCCC rhyme scheme, although some of the rhymes read as half-rhymes in modern diction.
It is typical of Donne’s poetic method in that it opens with a line (or several) that grabs the attention and then develops the theme through the poem. It also takes the form, used quite often by Donne, of posing a direct question either to himself or the subject of the poem. In this case it is both:
I wonder, by my truth, what thou and IDid, till we loved; were we not weaned till then,But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
(The “Seven Sleepers” refers to a legend of the miraculous survival of seven Christians who were walled up in a cave during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius, only to come to life when the cave was opened nearly 200 years later)
The question is therefore posed and answered: “Twas so”. Donne then develops the “conceit” that being in love distorts one’s sense of reality to such an extent that what went before was unreal. This is expressed by his statement that any woman who had taken his fancy in the past was “but a dream of thee”.
In the second stanza the poem’s title is explained by love having given rise to a “Seven Sleepers” miracle, and also adding a completely new dimension to the lovers’ perception:
And now good morrow to our waking souls,Which watch not one another out of fear;For love, all love of other sights controls,And makes one little room, an everywhere.
Modern readers might see that last line as almost a “Doctor Who’s Tardis” concept, in that what seems small at the outset can contain a universe once opened. In Donne’s view, the love of two people for each other can outweigh all other considerations and be as all-encompassing as they want it to be. The explorations of “sea-discoverers” (at a time when Europeans were still ignorant of large portions of the world) are irrelevant to the lovers who: “… possess one world, each hath one, and is one”.
The third stanza introduces a new conceit that further develops the themes of re-awakening and discovery of new worlds:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;Where can we find two better hemispheres,Without sharp North, without declining West?
To be awake, eyes must be open, and, as each lover looks fully into the eyes of the other, they see themselves, and their “true plain hearts” reflected. The eyeballs thus become hemispheres that, for the lovers, are just as wide-ranging and wonderful as those of Planet Earth. They are indeed superior to the geographical ones because they lack the coldness of “sharp North” and the sunset of “declining West”.
Donne then throws in another idea, namely that lasting love must come from equal sharing between the partners, because “Whatever dies, was not mixed equally”. The concluding couplet stresses this point:
If our two loves be one; or thou and ILove so alike that none do slacken, none can die.
Love therefore conquers all, is the only thing that matters, and is a rebirth to immortality. This is the “pre-religious” John Donne, but the Christian belief of spiritual rebirth is very close to what is being presented here.
In “The Good-Morrow”, as with some other “Songs and Sonets”, the poet is sincere and passionate, which suggests that the object of the passion could be Anne More, who became Donne’s wife.
As a poem, “The Good-Morrow” is an example of something that was quite new to English poetry by beginning with a conversational and startling opening and projecting the reader into the poem in a way that holds their attention through a complex development of thought that preserves the passion rather than letting it cool. This was not always successfully done by the “Metaphysicals” (Donne included) who often let their delight in conceits and cleverness get in the way of the emotional content of their poems. “The Good-Morrow” is a good example of a John Donne poem in terms of its development but it is first and foremost a powerful love poem that never loses sight of its goal.