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

  • Donne draws on the idea that there is an inequality between men's and women's love. This discussion has been going on for centuries, but until the last two centuries, women's voices were virtually never heard. That meant that male opinions predominated and male love was often presented as superior. Today this may sound very sexist. However, we need to look carefully at what Donne is actually saying here.

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?
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