In “Love’s Alchemy,” John Donne sets up an analogy between the Platonists, who try, endlessly, to discover spiritual love, and the alchemists, who in Donne’s time, tried to extract gold from baser metals. This analogy allows Donne to express his beliefs that such spiritual love does not exist and those who are searching for it are only wasting their time. Donne cleverly uses language that both allows the reader to see the connections between the alchemists and the Platonists and that allows for a more sexual interpretation of the piece.
The poem opens with two lines that lay the groundwork for the analogy and that have a sexual implication. The word “digged” and the image of “love’s mine”, obviously allow for the comparison between the Platonist’s and the alchemists. Donne explains that some have experienced more love than he has, and, in having done so, have penetrated “deeper” into “love’s hidden mystery,” that is, they have reached a point beyond sensual love where they have found it’s true “centric” or essential happiness. This would be analogous to alchemists, who, after many attempts, have been able to extract gold from other metals. Due to the diction that Donne uses and the manner in which he expresses himself in these two lines, it is possible to extract their sexual meaning that serves to ridicule the claims and means of the Platonists as well as the alchemists. The words “digged love’s mine” can be interpreted as the sexual act. And when combined with line 2, we can interpret these two lines as saying that true happiness lies in sexual pleasure. It seems as if Donne is implying that the Platonist’s claims that they are striving to attain spiritual love is all a hoax because all they are truly after is more sexual pleasure.
Donne’s belief of the Platonist’s and alchemist’s fraudulence and deceit is further expressed in lines 3-6 along with further sexual implications. The explicit sexual “get” and “got” convey his experiences with physical love, but he is upset that he has not found that so-called “spiritual love,” even though he has followed a number of steps in a specific sequence, like an alchemist with a formula would do. He has (1) loved (2) got and (3) told (here meaning kept count). And since nothing that he has done or will do in his search has worked or will ever work, he concludes that everything Platonists claim is falsified.
The conceit of Platonists being like alchemists is made more explicit in the second half of the stanza. Donne says that just as no alchemist ever discovered the “Elixir” so too does the Platonist never find that ideal and pure love that he claims to exist. He further explains that the alchemists and Platonists both glorify things that are and will always remain physical. The alchemist ridiculously lauds over his “pregnant pot” and the Platonist over the woman’s womb, both being things that will never allow for perfection, purity or anything ideal to appear from within them.
Similarly, lover’s who try to find the “hidden mystery” imagine a full, warm and long ideal relationship, but in reality it turns out to be a “winter-seeming summer’s night” meaning that it is a cold and short one. And with the sexual implications in these lines, not only can the lover not find this spiritual love; he also cannot find the lasting pleasure in the physical aspect.
The second half of the poem begins with the idea that men are just wasting their lives and sacrificing their “ease”, “thrift” and “honor” by chasing after some non-existent pleasure in love (“vain bubbles shadow”). In the lines that follow, Donne brushes aside the Platonists ideas that only well-educated men can achieve this spiritual love and happiness by saying that his “man”, a common servant, can feel the same pleasure if he can “endure the short scorn of bridegroom’s play.” By this he means that both Platonists and common men only find momentary animalistic pleasure by going through a wedding. In line 17 we once again get a sexual implication with the word “play.” If we re-interpret the whole question, we see that Donne is saying that the man will be rewarded with the happy outcome of amorous play if he goes through marriage. Whether the man or the Platonist marries for wither claimed pleasure, they will both end up disappointed with the results since neither one will lead them to the pleasure that is claimed to exist in love.
In lines 18-22, Donne ridicules the Platonists by saying that they are just as false when they swear that the minds are what marry and that women have angelic minds as when they swear that they hear wonderful music in the “rude hoarse minstrelsy.” And in the last two lines Donne says that no man should hope to find a mind in a woman. If they find anything it would be sweetness and wittiness. But even if they do find these qualities in some women, they are still “mummy, possessed.” By this, Donne probably means that women, no matter what, are still mindless walking bodies. This line could also mean that once the sweet and witty woman is possessed, as in marriage, she proves to be the opposite.
In this poem, John Donne expresses his utter belief that pure spiritual love does not exist. And those who claim to be in search of it are all fraudulent in their claims because all they really want is physical pleasure. And as is common in his literature, he also manages to include his idea that women are thoughtless, sex objects.