Two Examples of Poetic Parallelism
between John Donne and Lope de Vega
Universidad de Alcalá (Spain)
|[Originally published in the journal of
de Estudios Renacentistas Ingleses -SEDERI-
for English Renaissance Studies: SEDERI
The similitude between the metaphysical and
inspirations has often been pointed out. Most articles and books
with it focus on the similarities between John Donne and Francisco de
However, there are also some parallelisms between the English poet and
Lope de Vega. A perfect example of these are the two pairs of poems
here: on the one hand, Donne’s ‘The Flea’
and Lope’s ‘La pulga, falsamente
atribuida a Lope’, and, on the other, number five of Donne’s Holy
and sonnet VI from Lope’s Rimas sacras.
The identification and comparison between English metaphysical
poetry and Spanish poesía conceptista was suggested for
first time by James Smith, and then studied by Frank J. Warnke and
Nelson. Later bibliography has focused almost exclusively on the
of Francisco de Quevedo’s affinity with metaphysical poetry, and John
in particular. Critics and scholars have studied Quevedo’s use of the
and the metaphysical themes of some of his poems, and quite recently,
comparative study of Quevedo’s and Donne’s poems has been undertaken.
As a contrast, only a few authors have dealt with John
Donne in relationship with Lope de Vega, or viceversa, even though some
of Lope de Vega’s poems also belong to the conceptista vein.
Warnke included two sonnets by Lope de Vega in his collection of
metaphysical poems, and he pointed to the stylistic similarities
the devotional poems of Quevedo and Lope and those of Donne’s (52,
Octavio Paz mentioned the existence of similarities between the
both amorous and religious, of Lope de Vega and Donne. Daniel L. Heiple
discovered that Lope had used the term ‘metaphysical’ in much the same
way as John Dryden and Dr. Johnson did later. Not long ago, Laurie Ann
Kaplis, wrote, as her doctoral thesis, an extensive, yet not
comparative study of Donne and Lope. She provided a general study of
autobiographical and sincere character of their poems, and how the
of personæ diluted it somewhat. Kaplis indicated the
characteristics of conceptismo and metaphysical poetry, and she
also pointed out the basic similarities and differences between Donne’s
poems and those of Lope de Vega’s as regards to the themes of profane
religious love, although she did not really focus on the very analysis
of pairs of poems. This is not surprising for after all, none of her
actually compared texts to prove this parallelism. Curiously enough,
Paz even deemed this unnecessary since "este género de
fundadas en el gusto tanto o más que en la razón, no
pruebas ni demostraciones" (7).
I definitely disagree with this statement for, indeed,
we must find arguments and proofs to support such comparisons and show
that, in fact, they respond to reason rather than taste.
In my opinion, the correspondences and similarities between
John Donne and Lope de Vega are of course limited, given their
evolution and the greater variety and amount of Lope de Vega’s
However, within the compass of these limits, it is possible to find
similarities between some of their compositions.
If Richard E. Hughes’s division of Donne’s life into three
periods is to be followed,1 the poet’s
works can also be roughly
divided into three groups accordingly: one, satires and cynically
love poems; two, sincere, deeply-felt neoplatonic amatory poems, and
complimentary verses to influential female friends; and three, his
In a similar way, if Dámaso Alonso’s four-period
division of Lope de Vega’s poems is accepted but partly amended by
one more group, his works fall into five classes: one, written in the
tradition; two, devotional; three, formally obscure or gongorinos;2
four, philosophical or difficult as to content or conceptistas;3
and five, antipetrarchan and full of literary self-mockery.
Bearing in mind these classifications, it is quite evident
that the possible parallelisms between Donne and Lope de Vega must be
to just three groups of poems, namely: those that are a subversion of
conventions, those that express neoplatonic love, and those that give
to a sinner’s religious crisis.
It is the aim of this paper to contribute a study of two
pairs of poems, which, in my opinion, perfectly illustrate two of the
resemblances: the authors’ antipetrarchism and their addresses to God
help to achieve repentance and forgiveness. The first couple of poems
that of Donne’s ‘The Flea’,
and Lope de Vega’s ‘La pulga, falsamente atribuida a
Lope’, from his volume
Rimas humanas y divinas del licenciado Tomé de
published under a pseudonym in 1634 and containing poems written
his career. The second pair is formed by the practically contemporary
five in Donne’s Holy
Sonnets, a sequence written circa 1609-1614,
and sonnet VI from Lope de Vega’s Rimas sacras,
a volume published
The poems dealing with the naughty, little insect may
belong to a fairly common Renaissance topos that developed in
Italy and Spain and which John Donne and Lope de Vega may have been
with as R. O. Jones has pointed out in a very enlightening essay.
whether Donne and Lope de Vega knew the French and Italian poems on
that impudently bite beautiful ladies in most inappropriate points of
anatomical geography is not especially relevant for the purpose of this
essay. The parallelism between their poems is quite clear as regards
matter even if we do not take into account those precedents. If both
read some of those poems, they worked within the limits of a common
If they struck on a happy coincidence quite by chance, then, this only
underlines the idea of the existence of resemblances between some of
It is evident that the approach to the same incident is
different in each poem, but, in any case, the common elements of these
two poems are more important than their differences. In both of them a
flea bites a lady who, in retaliation, suddenly punishes the poor
effrontery with death. In both poems, the speaker piquantly relates the
biting to his sexual desire. Apart from the fact that, according to
one of the traditions that shaped the lady-bitten-by-flea topos
may have its ultimate origin in Petrarch’s sonnet CXLI,5
two compositions are parodies of Petrarchan conventions. Far from being
poems praising a real or fictitious lover, they focus on a more banal
with the same erotic end and using very a very similar technique.
Donne’s ‘The Flea’, as opposed to Lope de Vega’s ‘La
is a longer poem free from the sonnet’s formal limitations, and,
an apter vehicle for experimentation, originality, and full-blown
In this poem, the flea is the foundation upon which the speaker builds
the edifice of a rhetorical and cynical lesson in love with which he
to appease an anonymous lady’s misgivings and persuade her to lay with
him and put an end to her maidenhood. The flea remains the centre of
of the speaker (Donne or his persona), the lady, and the reader.
to the Petrarchan habit of praising the beauties of the loved lady, by
comparing teeth to pearls, lips to rubies, hair to gold, and so on and
so forth, or extolling her virtues by relating them to religious ideas
in witty conceits, Donne, in a bold, hyperbolical inversion of values
imagery, diminishes the importance of the lady and that of the loss of
her virginity, and stresses the significance of the flea. He equates
loss of maidenhood to the flea’s bite and therefore establishes an
and jocular, if inappropriate, association between the two losses of
On the other hand, he transforms the flea into ‘something rich and
a living emblem of their prospective intimate union, by means of
conceits. As the flea has ‘sucked’ both the speaker and the lady, thus
mixing their bloods, it turns into a nuptial bed and a temple where
marriage takes place de facto. The flea’s shining, black,
exoskeleton becomes a precious cloister with ‘walls of jet’. The flea
the same poetical transformation as Laura’s features do in Petrarch’s
This has a double, if paradoxical effect. The importance of the flea is
greater than that of the lady, as I have already said, but, at the same
time, the union of such dissimilar terms to create those conceits
a debasement of the religious referents that almost results in sheer
if not blasphemy.
Then, the speaker beseeches the lady not to kill this
symbol of their union alleging the act would be a triple sin: murder,
of the speaker’s blood in it; suicide, because of their own blood in
and sacrilege for the flea is now sacred as it has transformed into a
However, the lady kills the insect as a presumably enraged
rejection of his twisted arguments. Far from being taken aback, the
remains aloof and he chides the lady for her behaviour. He has the last
word. Prompted by the lady’s observation that she does not find him or
herself any weaker after having been bitten by the flea, the speaker,
cynical teacher, concludes his ‘didactic’ monologue with an irrefutable
point, an observation that is still dependent on the image of the loss
of blood and intended to dispel her fears definitively: she will not
herself any weaker either after making love for the first time, and so
much fuss about honour and chastity will prove to be futile nonsense.
Lope de Vega’s poem is closer to the Petrarchan model
both in form and imagery, but the very occasion that the sonnet
and its festive mood are a significative baroque departure from the
Renaissance seriousness of the form. This contrast constitutes Lope de
Vega’s subversion and parody of the Italian conventions.
Leonor is one of the fictitious lovers of Tomé
de Burguillos, Lope de Vega’s persona at the end of his life and
Leonor is beautiful, her skin is white and rosy, and her fingers look
ivory as the commonplace metaphors indicate. Her beauty is so special
it even makes the flea attractive, contrary to what it might be
As in Donne’s poem, the flea undergoes a transformation by means of
The sharp contrast of the flea’s dark body with Leonor’s white skin
it into a precious stone, a different but inoffensive insect, even a
quite seductive mole on Leonor’s breast.
However, Leonor, like the anonymous lady in Donne’s poem,
crushes the flea with a sudden, mortal finger twist, thus avenging both
her bitten breasts in a single action.
The ejaculation, and I mean the flea’s words, of course,
is a very skilful, humorous, rhetorical device, that consists in a
of the flea and a dramatization of its death. These words, put in the
mouth, so to speak, allow Tomé de Burguillos, Lope de Vega’s
to retort with an ingenious, exaggerated request full of innuendo aimed
at bringing his desire home to Leonor, the presupposed listener of this
theatrical sonnet. This is not an altogether dissimilar artifice from
argumentation Donne used in ‘The Flea’, both of them belong to the
of rhetoric, they seek the same end, and they certainly are as witty.
Inspiration, antipetrarchism, rhetoric, wit, finality,
these are the common elements between Donne’s ‘The Flea’ and Lope de
In the same way that the flea poems have a most likely
common background, Donne’s religious sonnets and those of Lope de
also share a common source. Laurie Ann Kaplis points out6 quite
convincingly that both John Donne and Lope de Vega based their
verses on the method of meditation created by Ignatius of Loyola in his
Ejercicios espirituales (1521-1541).7
As Kaplis explains,8
these exercises, which were quite popular in England of the Elizabethan
and Jacobean periods, were intended to provoke repentance and
in a three-step process: first, meditation had to be initiated with a
visualization of a religious scene, the compositio loci, then
an analysis of sins by using feelings, affections and senses, and
a direct address to God expressing feelings, misgivings, asking for
to avoid the way to perdition. For Kaplis, John Donne and Lope de Vega
follow the Ignatian meditation method and their religious poetry can be
divided into three phases corresponding to the three stages of this
of meditation. Thus, she states that Lope de Vega’s Romancero
Donne’s La Corona belong to the first, visualisation stage, Soliloquios
amorosos de un alma a Dios and the Hymns correspond to the
one, that of self-analysis, and Rimas sacras and Holy
parallel the last stage, that of direct communication and prayer to God.9
Therefore, both Lope de Vega’s and John Donne’s sonnets
not only share the same background, but also express similar feelings
ideas. In them, their authors admit their sinful natures, their
of salvation, they express their powerful sense of guilt and their
ardent desire for help so that they can repent from their sins, be
and obtain divine grace. They even put these ideas in very passionate,
sincere, similar words, although as a rule John Donne’s mood tends to
more pessimistic than Lope de Vega’s.
However, there is an important difference related to the
fact that the authors belong to different persuasions: Anglican and
Catholic respectively. Donne addresses God only, but Lope also demands
help and support from the Virgin Mary and the Saints. As a consequence,
and as Kaplis points out, only those poems that the authors address to
God can be fully analogous.
That is precisely the case with both sonnet five from
the Holy Sonets and sonnet VI from Rimas sacras.10
Both sonnets are a supplication to God. The two of them express their
fear of death, not only physical, but also spiritual, and they
anxious demands of divine help to attain repentance, expiation for
sins, unbending faith and religious steadfastness.
Curiously enough, not only do these poems share the same
feelings, they also render them in practically identical terms for
and Lope de Vega use contemporary scientific notions to convey their
They base their imagery on closely related ideas within the still
dominant worldview, namely: the four elements as constituents of the
their correspondences in the four humours of Hippocratical medicine,
the scholastic cosmology based on the Ptolemaic geocentric system.11
Donne sees himself as a microcosm, a little world, composed
of, on the one hand, the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire
make up his body, and on the other, the ‘angelic sprite’ which is his
Because of his sins, he risks death on a double plane of existence, he
is not only in danger of physical death, but also metaphysical death:
his body and soul are condemned.
Continuing with the scientific imagery, Donne resorts
to the discoveries of his age and the idea of the universe structured
Earth-centred concentrical spheres to express, quite grandiosely, his
for and need of help to repent from his past sins by shedding abundant,
Donne desperately wants to weep profusely, until his microcosm
of self is flooded. This image harks back to the biblical deluge and,
doing so, it also offers an alternative to destruction and death. God
as recorded in Genesis 9:11, that the Earth would not be flooded again.
Thus, in a perfect correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm,
tears may be not his end, but the means to cleanse all trace of sin
However, in a cry of despair and in contraposition to
the water of his tears of remorse and the somewhat cryptic reference to
the deluge, Donne introduces fire as the cause of the end of both the
and the macrocosm. He implicitly associates fire with the flames of
where his soul will go because of his sins, and apocalyptical fire, as
prophesied in St. John’s Book of Revelation. Indeed, Donne says a
fire has consumed him so far, ruining him physically and spiritually,
it can be perfectly identified as the means of his own destruction.
is persuaded he must burn and he is resigned to his fate, but, quite
he asks God for a totally different kind of fire. He demands the fire
zeal, that is to say, religious enthusiasm, strong faith, and
all rolled into one, which far from destructive, is restorative, as the
paradox in the last line indicates.
Thus, along his train of thought, Donne reduces the four
elements introduced at the beginning of the poem to just two: water,
stands for repentance, and fire, that represents the Day of Doom, the
of Hell, sin and finally grace.
In Lope de Vega’s sonnet we find the same preoccupation
in very similar images. Like Donne, Lope de Vega finds himself close to
dying both a physical and a spiritual death. The first indications he
of his impending death are dryness and cold. These symptoms can be
in the light of the theory of the four humours as typical of the
‘complexion’, for black bile or melancholy was a cold and dry humour,
associated to the stage previous to death.12
However, they also
mean, together with Lope’s hard frozen heart, his irresponsiveness to
and, presumably, his sins.
Lope needs to reform as badly as Donne and his change
is expressed as a variation in the predominant humour in his body. He
to turn his complexion from melancholic to sanguine, that is from cold
and dry, to warm and moist. The only way in which Lope de Vega can
to both keeping his earthly and spiritual life is through showing real
repentance, symbolised metonymically by tears as in Donne’s sonnet. His
warm feelings for God and his desire to cry a river of tears, analogous
to Donne’s will to weep seas, are the only way in which he will melt
ice of sin and find salvation and true life. Lope will send his tears
God, the author of the supreme sphere, a clear reference to the
ideas about the structure of the universe. This river of tears will
God’s pity and grace, which is as vast as the sea, the final
where all sinners’ tears go.
In the same way as Donne created an opposition between
water and fire, Lope contrasts ice, water and fire. However, Lope does
not ask for burning zeal, for he is already experiencing it. He seems
be in a better situation than Donne, but, in fact, this does not make a
difference with Donne’s plight because Lope, just like the English
needs God’s grace to avoid sin. In order to melt the ice of sin and
completely, he needs God’s intervention. Lope expresses this with a
conceit that might have been created by Donne himself. Besides, this
shares with Donne’s paradox at the end of sonnet number five an
function of closing the poem by posing an intellectual problem to the
In the last two lines of his sonnet, Lope asks God for the beams of his
holy fire and the crystals of his sacred heaven. It is quite easy to
that God’s holy fire stands for spiritual illumination and divine
however it is quite hard to realise what the meaning of the crystals
I was puzzled myself for some time trying to decipher the meaning, but,
finally, I succeeded in elaborating an interpretation after poring over
the sonnet. In fact, the crystals hark back to line eight where Lope de
Vega refers to God as ‘the author of the supreme sphere’. Here he
the notion of the universe being a set of concentrical spheres. To
the relationship between the spheres and the crystals, it must be taken
into account that, according to some theoreticians, these spheres were
made of crystal and a planet was ‘inlaid’ in them, while according to
all the spheres, including the Primum Mobile, the outer limit
the created universe, were encompassed by a crystalline sphere beyond
the Empyrean heaven and God Himself could be found. In any case, God’s
light and grace have to go through a crystal to reach sinners here on
Therefore, the meaning of this image is quite evident now. Lope employs
a true metaphysical conceit in which a religious concept and a common
experiment are linked up. In fact, Lope asks God for light beams and
to help him melt the ice that symbolises his sins and unheeding
This conceit has no equivalent in Donne’s sonnet number
five, but it is very similar in its inspiration to that in the final
of sonnet number one in which the effect of grace on Donne’s hard heart
-as hard as Lope’s- is put in terms of magnetism: ‘Thy Grace may wing
to prevent his [the Devil’s] art / And thou like Adamant draw mine iron
Suffering, repentance, tears and a demand for help to
overcome sin, as well as the expression of these ideas by means of
taken from the incipient scientific experiments of the time are the
between these religious sonnets.
Here ends my limited contribution to the analysis of the
parallelisms between the poetic arts of John Donne and Lope de Vega, I
only hope that it has provided you with new ideas and encouraged you to
find similarities that, I am sure, are waiting to be found and
This is my own Englishing of Lope de Vega’s two sonnets
discussed in this paper.
‘The Flea, falsely attributed to Lope de Vega.’
A daring, living atom suckèd
Fair Leonór’s white breasts,
A garnet amidst pearls, a mite in a rose,
A brief mole with an invisible tooth.
She, two points of shining ivory,
with sudden disquiet, whining, bathed,
and with her twisting its boisterous life,
in a single torment, it feels a double revenge.
When the flea expired, it quoth: ‘Alas me, wretch,
for such a petty wrong, so sharp the pain!’
‘Oh, flea!’ quoth I, ‘happy thou wert,
‘Hold thy ghost, and tell Leonór
to let me suck where thou wert
and I’ll exchange my life for thy death.’
If stern and fearsome death’s
beginnings are dryness and coldness,
my hard heart, this ice of mine,
signs are of which I could be afraid.
Yet if life expects to keep itself
in warmth and moisture, let my eyes form
a river, which to thy merciful sea I send,
divine author of the supreme sphere.
Warmth will give my love, water my tears,
let dryness go hence, let ice forsake me
which from life diverted me so much.
And thou, who know’st now my burning zeal,
give me the beams from thine holy fire,
and the crystals from thy sacred heav’n.
1 Richard E. Hughes, The
the Soul: the Interior Career of John Donne (New York: William
13-17, 56-59, 226-229 (qtd. in Kaplis, 56, 95n).
2 «Gongorian», after Luis
de Góngora y Argote,
would be the best translation of the Spanish term into English.
3 «Conceptist» would be a
fit Englishing of
the term, though «metaphysical style» is also close (see
4 Donne’s poems were published
in 1633; it is very difficult, if not impossible, to establish their chronology.
5 Jones, 166, 167, 172. The number of
sonnet is wrongly indicated as XCLI, instead of CXLI, on page 166.
6 Kaplis, 365. Warnke (8n, 55, 56,
mentions that Louis L. Martz holds this view in The Poetry of
Meditation (New Haven, 1954), however, Warnke sees a parallelism
between both genres rather than a cause-effect relationship.
Although he does not reject the influcence of meditation
on Donne, Herbert or La Ceppède, he states that many of
the characteristics of metaphysical poetry are not a
consequence of the influence of religious meditation, but a result
of the spirit of the time. For the opinion that Ignatian
meditation did influence metaphysical poetry see also «Spanish
and English Religious Poetry of the Seventeenth Century»
in Edward M. Wilson, Spanish and English Literature of
the 16th and 17th Centuries. Studies in Discretion, Illusion
and Mutability. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
7 There is an easily available text in
Checa (ed.). Barroco esencial (Madrid: Taurus, 1992, 154-230).
8 Ibid., 374-7.
9 Ibid., 385.
10 Kaplis (396-8) compared Donne’s
number five with Lope de Vega’s sonnet number two from his Rimas
sacras, with which it also shows some resemblances.
11 The following lines can give an
to the close relationship between the idea of the four elements and the
theory of humours:
Four humours reign within our bodies
And these compared to four elements:
The Sanguine, Choler, Phlegm, and Melancholy:
The latter two are heavy, dull of sense;
Th’ other two are more jovial, quick, and jolly,
And may be likened thus without offence.
Like air both warm and moist is Sanguine clear;
Like fire doth Choler hot and dry appear,
Like water cold and moist is Phlegmatic,
The Melancholy cold, dry[,] earth is like.
From The Englishman Doctor, or The Schoole of Salerne
(1608) translated from a medieval Latin text by Sir John
Harington, included in G. Blakemore Evans (ed.) Elizabethan-Jacobean
Drama (London: A. & C. Black, 1987) 327, ll. 1-10.
12 See previous endnote.
WORKS CITEDThe Englishman Doctor, or The Schoole of
1608: translated from a medieval Latin text by Sir John Harington. In
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Alonso, Dámaso. Lope de Vega,
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y límites estilísticos. Madrid, Gredos, 1ª ed.,
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y amorosa de Francisco de Quevedo. Madrid, Cupsa.
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Manuel. 1991: La poesía metafísica de John Donne y
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Hoover, Elaine L. 1978: John Donne and
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Hughes, Richard E. 1968: The Progress of
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de Vega y algunos sonetos. In El País II núm. 57,
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Text copyright ©1996 Jesús Cora Alonso. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission of
the author and SEDERI.
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