Described to me as a ‘less morbid Donne poem’, see below my brief reflection on this beautiful poem by eminent metaphysical poet John Donne. Donne, far from being co-pilot to Clarence Oveur in Airplane!, was an English writer and Anglican cleric, born in 1572. His poem Air and Angels is marvellous and beautiful, speaking to the quality of human love.
Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp’d be;
         Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.
         But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
         More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too;
         And therefore what thou wert, and who,
                I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw I had love’s pinnace overfraught;
         Ev’ry thy hair for love to work 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 angel, face, and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure, doth wear,
         So thy love may be my love’s sphere;
                Just such disparity
As is ‘twixt air and angels’ purity,
‘Twixt women’s love, and men’s, will ever be.
I believe from my research that Donne was inspired by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, who saw love in a different way, having had his love revealed to him on Good Friday to a woman, Laura de Sade, who could not love him back. The idealised this unattainable figure. The beauty he felt she represented, having been revealed to him on an important day in the Church’s calendar, went beyond the physical.
Petrarch was not selfishly obsessive, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed Laura to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, “From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good.” The Imaginative Conservative
Air and Angels takes this theme and applies it. The poem speaks of the difference between love in its temporal physical form and love in the eternal sense, a higher love which is carried in the soul beyond death. Love as we experience it is corporeal, it is bodily. Donne draws a distinction here between our experience of love and how angels appear to manifest themselves through air, which is the purest of the four elements. Indeed human love is derided in the poem, with Donne saying that he tried to visualise his past love and alighted on a ‘lovely glorious nothing’, which seems to say, in the absence of a woman to look at and objectify, the male gaze is impotent. This is carried on by his imagining her features (lip eye and brow). Man’s love for woman, here, is restricted to the physical and cannot assume the position of the soul’s love, which is above such things as the soul itself is not corporeal.
Resorting to the metaphorical usage of air and angels, the poem furnishes a conceptualisation of love cognisant of its empirical being, of the necessitude of shared mutuality between the man and the woman within its ambit. The soul, if extricated from the body, would be aloft the pleasure of corporeal love, which is very much rooted in desire, which has its own legitimacy, as it were.
Love then, must not come from earthly longing, nor from angels and heavenly things, but from somewhere in between. The poem argues that the combination or synthesis of man’s love (angel) and woman’s love (air) is needed for the success of both.
The air producing the angel is as impure as the latter. By analogy, the poet argues that the woman’s love is also as pure, or as independent as that of the man’s love, and it is rather a mutual transaction of the two that will diminish the space between man’s passion and women’s response
So thy love may be my love’s sphere;
                Just such disparity
As is ‘twixt air and angels’ purity,
‘Twixt women’s love, and men’s, will ever be.
The final four lines leave the result of such synthesis unclear, perhaps intentionally.