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John Donne: Poem analysis » Aire and Angels

John Donne : Aire and Angels

This is a demanding poem, which discusses various theories about love. However, it is very clever and well worth the effort. There are two main difficulties:

More on incarnation: see The Extasie

Love and angels

Archangel MichaelThe main analogy in this poem is between masculine love and angels. Nowadays angels are often seen as feminine but traditionally they have tended to be viewed as masculine. In Donne's day it was believed that angels needed some medium through which to manifest themselves to humans. That medium was the element of air, which was regarded as the purest of the four elements (the others being earth, water and fire), though Donne's references to ‘a voice' and ‘a shapelesse flame' suggest other ways for angels to make themselves known.

Donne's argument is that love also needs an incarnation in which to manifest itself, just as does the soul (l.7). Otherwise, it remains invisible: ‘Some lovely glorious nothing I did see' - an unusual oxymoron. So his first attempt to find a suitable manifestation was the woman's body. She, as a physical being, must be the outward expression of his love. This suggests typical Elizabethan love poetry, in which every detail of the lady's body is listed as an object for admiration: ‘thy lip, eye, brow'.

However this proves inadequate so he switches his analogy to a ship: ‘love's pinnace'. His approach has loaded so much on to the woman's body (ship), that it has capsized. The medium of incarnation must have been wrong. What, then, is the right medium?

Women's love

The answer is the woman's love itself. Just as air is not as pure as the angel it manifests, neither is the woman's love as pure as his, but it is the only way for it to show itself. This can, of course, be interpreted in several different ways – and Donne enjoys this ambiguous, paradoxical, possibly teasing, kind of ending. Is the poem, then, a put-down for women? Or does it mean that love simply cannot exist materially unless both a man and a woman are fully in love with each other i.e. a complete manifestation? Or that without a woman's love, a man's love is just an idea?

Investigating Aire and Angels
  • How do you read Aire and Angels?
    • Is it a sexist statement about men's love?
    • Or is it a statement about the need for mutuality?
  • Can you define what, for Donne, is the experience of being in love?
  • How does the poem make you think about:
    • What sexual love is?
    • How we express that love in language?
Supernatural beings closely linked with the work of God; his messengers, traditionally portrayed as having a winged human form.
Belief that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God became a human being.
Relating to the period of time of Elizabeth I of England.
A logical parallel to the thing being discussed, to help forward the argument. Often it is expressed as an extended simile. All analogies have their limits.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.
A Figure of speech in which two apparently opposite words or ideas are put together as if they were in agreement.
Relating to the period of time of Elizabeth I of England.
Belief that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God became a human being.
A figure of speech wherein an apparently contradictory set of ideas is presented as being, in fact, part of the same truth.

Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapelesse flame,
Angells affect us oft, and worship'd bee;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.

But since my soule, whose child love is,
Takes limmes of flesh, and else could nothing doe,
More subtile then the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too,
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love aske, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix it selfe in thy lip, eye, and brow

Whilst thus to ballast love, I thought,
And so more steddily to have gone,
With wares which would sinke admiration,
I saw, I had loves pinnace overfraught,
Every haire for love to worke upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;

For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere;
Then as an Angell face and wings
Of aire, not pure as it, yet pure doth weare,
So thy love may be my loves spheare;
Just such disparitie
As is twixt Aire and Angells puritie,
'Twixt womens love, and mens will ever bee.