The Canonization is a love poem. It reveals Donne’s Platonic love. It expresses Donne’s positive attitude towards love. It was written after the accession of King James-I (1603). The theme is that the world has been lost for love. It explores the implication of this loss.
Even the apparently simple and straightforward poet is forced into paradoxes by the nature of his instruments. Seeing this, we should not be surprised to find poets who consciously employ it to gain a compression and precision otherwise unobtainable. Such a method, like any other, carries with its own perils. But the dangers are not overpowering; the poem is not pre-determined to a shallow and glittering sophistry. The method is an extension of the normal language of poetry, and not a perversion of it. The basic metaphor which underlies the poem and which is reflected in the title involves a sort of paradox. For the poet daringly treats profane love as if it were divine love. The Canonization is not that of a pair of holy anchorites who have renounced the world and the flesh. The hermitage of each is the other’s body; but they do renounce the world and so their title to sainthood; it is cunningly argued.
The poem then is a parody of Christian sainthood; but it is an intensely serious parody of a sort that modern man, habituate to an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’, can hardly understand. He refuses to accept the paradox as a serious rhetorical device; and since he is able only to accept it as a cheap trick, he is forced into this dilemma. Either Donne does not take love seriously here where he is merely sharpening his wit as a sort of mechanical exercise or he does not take sainthood seriously here where he is merely indulging in a cynical and parody. But neither account is true and a reading of the poem will show that Donne will take both love and religion seriously. It will show further, that the paradox is here his inevitable instrument. But to see this plainly will require a closer reading than most of us give to poetry.
The poem opens dramatically. The ‘you’ is a person who objects to his love affair. The friend belongs to the secular world which the lovers gave up. The physical relationship is finally transformed into a spiritual experience. This is the mystery of love imagery. One of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s favorite poem, as late as ten years ago, he used to seek and find out grand lines and fine stanzas, but his delight has been far greater since it has consisted more in tracing the leading thought throughout the whole poem. The former is too much like coveting one’s neighbor’s goods, in the latter you merge yourself in the author, you become He.