John Donne's "The Canonization" begins relatively simply, as a familiar lyrical ode to his mistress. Gradually it deepens in meaning while approaching the final verses, where Donne reveals the true complexity of his vision of love. "The Canonization" is undoubtedly still a love poem; it revels in theatrical descriptions of the love he and his beloved share. But there are also many layers of meaning and irony behind the words he chooses to express his feelings. "The Canonization" is brimming with powerful imagery and symbols, witty jabs at other poets and Elizabethan English society, and a playfully blasphemous attitude toward religion. Although Donne was ordained as a priest and therefore was presumably quite religious, many of his poetic works demonstrate his questioning of society's deemed superiority of religious love over romantic love. His love poetry often contains naturalistic, vivid bodily and sexual imagery that subverts traditional Petrarchan metaphors for love. In Elegie VIII, Donne compares drops of dew on a rose to drops of sweat on his lover's breast. He also utilizes the rather grotesque image of a flea sucking and mingling both his and his beloved's blood, used as a metaphor to justify her losing her virginity to him in "The Flea." Donne never shies away from describing or alluding to the sexual aspect of his romantic relationships in his poetry. He makes it clear that the love he is speaking of is not dreamy, unrequited love but reciprocal, passionate and physical. The opinion of the public referred to in "The Canonization" condemns the lovers, so we can assume they are not married. Therefore their passion is in direct opposition to the Church's prescriptions. This is what makes the conceit of lovers as saints in "The Canonization" so interesting. Through his use of sexual and religious imagery and emblems in "The Canonization," Donne suggests that romantic love and religious love are more similar than different, as both represent a desire for unity and spiritual fulfillment.
To understand how Donne uses sexual and religious imagery in order to disintegrate the (to his mind) unnecessary distinction between romantic and religious love, it is first necessary to first summarize Donne's descriptions of love throughout the poem, because he compares the sexual and the religious in a sequence almost akin to a joke. The first stanza sets up the comparison, while the second actually reveals precisely what is being compared. Donne first describes the love he shares with the object of his affection is biological, and thus sexual, terms when he asks:
Alas ! alas ! who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill? (Donne 1633)
Donne uses these lines to ridicule the notion that his socially unacceptable relationship could cause any real harm while simultaneously using these hyperbolic images to relate the intense emotional importance of his love. Thus, this first initial description of love serves two purposes, because it extends the poem's overall argument against hypocritical societal prohibitions and mores which fail to see the similarities between romance and religion, as well as introducing what precisely Donne means by "love," which, for much of the second stanza, means sex.
Donne mentions his "sighs," "tears," "colds" and "heats," describing the physical and emotional experience of being in love. As Michael Winkelman notes, "because [sighs, tears, and other outward expressions of emotion] reflect universal states of mind, rather than originating as some arbitrary, socially-constructed literary device [….] sighs and tears [are] fundamental to love poetry" (Winkelman 2009). That Donne chooses to start with the biological before moving on to the religious (rather than the other way around) is an important detail to note, because it reveals some of the nuances of the poem's argument and demonstrates that while Donne is clearly resistant to the dominant religious and moral codes of his time and place, he nonetheless ensures that his criticism remains focused and deferential to the proper religious authorities (namely, God).
By moving from the sighs and hot blood of physical romance towards the acceptable love of religion (as expressed later in his allusions to mythology and canonization), Donne is careful not to "reduce" religion to the level of emotional and biological love, but rather to elevate the biological and emotional to the higher status of the religious. In this way, although one may easily observe a somewhat cheeky approach to the subject matter, one may certainly not accuse Donne of mocking or otherwise disparaging religion while defending his own romance. Nonetheless, the love Donne is talking about is distinctly physical and reciprocal, representing "the blinding miracle of the incarnation and resurrection experienced [...] in the anticipatory ecstasy of fully requited love" (Martin 2004). Thus, for Donne, romantic love seems to offer the same kind of transcendent emotional experience offered by religion, something which will be explored in greater detail as the poem progresses.
Although the second stanza is the first time Donne actually describes the kind of love he is talking about, one must return to the first stanza in order to fully understand the extent of his argument, because it is in the first stanza that he proposes any number of other things people could do other than care about what he is doing, thus setting up the comparison of romantic love to the love of religion and the supposed love returned to his followers by the Christian god. Examining this stanza reveals some of what Judith Herz calls "Donne's syntax of desire […] of love, of God, of self," or put another way, the notion that love, whether physical, emotional, mental, or religious, is different for different people, and furthermore, than given iteration of love is no more or less legitimate than any other (at least within the usual cognitive and imaginative constraints placed upon someone living in 17th century England, making it somewhat more difficult to read Donne's poem as a defense of homosexuality in addition to his clearly robust defense of unmarried heterosexual relationships despite those critics arguing that "that in order to make Donne a figure for heterosexuality or emergent heterosexuality [one must] argue against Donne's poetry and prose to an unjustifiable extent") (Herz 2001, Bach 2005). In a sense, Donne conceives of love as an idea larger than any one interpretation of it, such that any expression of love is merely one flavor out of a nearly infinite variety, and he begins to approach this idea when he lists all the other things people might concern themselves with instead of his conjugal habits.
Donne first suggests that a critical public and society "chide my palsy, or my gout; / My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout" instead of bothering with his relationship before suggesting other, more general options, such as spending money to get a better life or taking a class to enrich one's "mind with arts" (Donne 1633). He then suggests that these overzealous enforcers of sexual mores instead choose to Observe his Honour, or his Grace; / Or the king's real, or his stamp'd face." While these options begin as things for people to criticize other than his love, Donne eventually just starts giving them ideas to improve their lives, a shift which reveals that the love mentioned in the first line ultimately has much more in common with education, the arts, Honour, Grace, riches, and royalty than palsy, gout, or gray hair.
Thus, the aforementioned "joke" born out by the structure of the poem comes from Donne's method of elucidating love's resemblance to all these idealized objects of attention, with the Honour and Grace of the Christian god being the most worthy, before revealing to the reader that the precise definition of love he is talking about is a decidedly intimate union between two physical bodies. However, even the way in which he describes this union alludes to the religious and spiritual, and seeks to elevate the physical to a plane of acceptance and celebration usually reserved for the religious.
Among other things, Donne describes he and his lover as a phoenix, who "die and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love," lending his physical romance a bit of mythical glamor but also implying that the joy and vitality created through romance and intercourse can rival that somewhat more famous bodily resurrection performed by Jesus as well as the spiritual resurrection his followers assume will greet them upon their death. Once again, Donne does not go precisely as far as this in his literal words, opting instead to stay with classical mythology rather than strictly Christian terms, but his assumptions regarding what will eventually happen to the story of he and his beloved reveal that far beyond the phoenix, he does view his own love as equal to that ostensibly embodied in the story of Jesus and his father, if of a different kind.…