Using Donne to Defend Same Sex Marriage

Sometimes a student makes an observation about a poem that gets me to see it in an entirely new way. This occurred Monday when we were discussing “The Canonization” by John Donne and Grace Davis said it brought to mind same sex couples that want to get married. I asked then and there for her permission to use the idea in a blog post.

The poem begins with the poet complaining about those who won’t leave him alone and allow him to love in peace.  “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love,” he says in the wonderfully querulous opening line.  Then he advises his detractors to criticize other things besides his love—maybe his palsy, gout, old age, or fortune, maybe something seemingly more important. Go take a course, get a place, see the king, or count money with the king’s face on it, he tells them. Donne gives us the perfect riposte to people attacking same sex marriage: aren’t there more important things you should be spending your time doing?

FOR God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout;
My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace;
Or the king’s real, or his stamp’d face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

In the next stanza, Donne points out that his loving isn’t doing anybody any injury.  (A California ban on gay marriage was struck down by a judge who said that opposition to gay marriage had failed to prove harm.) And just as soldiers find wars to fight and lawyers find cases to litigate despite Donne’s loving, so does our world continue to move on despite gays and lesbians falling in love:

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?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.

While at first glance Donne seems to be saying that his loving is beneath anyone’s notice, he subtly starts turning the argument.  After all, he is doing something sublime while all these other people are engaged in inauthentic activities.  Why fight battles (say, in Afghanistan) or hoard money (Wall Street speculation) or seek out litigious quarrels when you could instead tie a sacred knot?

Our society is out of control, its priorities skewed. Unscrupulous politicians, pundits, and church leaders dominate the airwaves using the issue of same sex marriage to rile people up—and in the process, to gain wealth and political advantage for themselves—while couples are quietly entering mythical realms, rising and falling and rising again like eagles and doves, or like legendary phoenixes.

By the end of the poem, Donne has entirely reversed the hierarchy. He imagines a future time when the raging world will canonize his love, which they will know about through well-wrought sonnets (much better at spreading the word than half-acres tombs). Countries, towns and courts, rethinking the activities that they once thought were important, will beg from Donne and his partner a pattern of their love.

I have thought about how, rather than destroying the institution of marriage, same sex couples are helping save it. After all, they take it much more seriously than many straight couples (for instance, thrice-married Newt Gingrich). Faced with chiding from censorious Americans, they remain steadfast and, in the process, “prove mysterious by this love.”

I imagine them saying, with Donne, “Call’s what you will, we are made such by love.”

Here’s the poem in it entirety:

The Canonization

by John Donne

FOR God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king’s real, or his stamp’d face
Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

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?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.

Call’s what you will, we are made such by love ;
Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th’ eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us ; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.

We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love ;

And thus invoke us, “You, whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage ;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes ;
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
Countries, towns, courts beg from above
A pattern of your love.”

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