Image featuring John Donne for the analysis of The Broken Heart

The Broken Heart by John Donne: The Simplest Explanation

John Donne is one of the most popular names when it comes to poetry. With emotions as his core message, Donne was capable of presenting very complex emotions lucidly, and “The Broken Heart” is a testament to that. 

Written in the year 1896, Donne wrote about a human emotion that will stay relevant as long as humans stay human; heartbreak. Let’s take a look at this wonderful poem and then at the meaning, summary, and analysis. 

The Broken Heart

He is stark mad, whoever says,
    That he hath been in love an hour,
Yet not that love so soon decays,
    But that it can ten in less space devour ;
Who will believe me, if I swear
That I have had the plague a year?
    Who would not laugh at me, if I should say
    I saw a flash of powder burn a day?

Ah, what a trifle is a heart,
    If once into love's hands it come !
All other griefs allow a part
    To other griefs, and ask themselves but some ;
They come to us, but us love draws ;
He swallows us and never chaws ;
    By him, as by chain'd shot, whole ranks do die ;
    He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

If 'twere not so, what did become
    Of my heart when I first saw thee?
I brought a heart into the room,
    But from the room I carried none with me.
If it had gone to thee, I know
Mine would have taught thine heart to show
    More pity unto me ; but Love, alas !
    At one first blow did shiver it as glass.

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
    Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
    Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
    My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
    But after one such love, can love no more.
-John Donne

Complete Meaning and Summary of The Broken Heart

To summarize the entire 36-lines poem into a few, “The Broken Heart” is about, well, broken hearts. All of us have faced some situations when warm and hopeful love turned out to be the sharpest knife, giving us a scar to carry for the rest of our lives. 

The poet, John Donne, has had his heart broken. But he had a few more words than the rest of us and a talent to poetically express his feelings.

There are two parts to this poem; one part is about the nature of love, and the second is about the nature of his heart. Let’s look at the first part first. 

At the beginning of the poem, Donne talks about the evil, hurtful, damaging, and downright dangerous nature of love. But the way he does that shows his poetic prowess. 

Instead of putting it out directly like a drunk guy who got stood up, Donne employs the power of rhetoric, metaphors, and personification to hammer in the emotions. Words flow like magic and tell us how much he is hurt. 

The second part of the poem goes deeper into explaining the reason why Donne is so repulsed by the idea of love. We get to know the reason for the vilification of love by a poet!

It turns out that there was once an instant when Donne was in love with someone, but instead of showing reciprocal feelings, she rejected his heart. And it fell, crashed, shattered, but it remained.

Let’s look at the analysis of each octave and understand “The Broken Heart” line-by-line. 

Line-by-Line Analysis of “The Broken Heart”

He is stark mad, whoever says,

    That he hath been in love an hour,

Yet not that love so soon decays,

    But that it can ten in less space devour ;

Who will believe me, if I swear

That I have had the plague a year?

    Who would not laugh at me, if I should say

    I saw a flash of powder burn a day?

Meaning: John Donne says that any person who says that he has been in love for more than an hour is completely mad. Love is a strong and dangerously fast-acting drug that can hurt people before they can think.

Donne says that love can devour ten people in less than an hour, how can a single man survive for more than an hour? Then the poet brings his characteristic metaphors and rhetoric. 

Would anyone believe the poet if he said he had the plague for more than a year or if he saw gunpowder burning for more than a day?

None can survive plague for more than a few months, let alone a year. And we all know that gunpowder does not just burn, but it explodes. A few seconds is all it takes for the entire gunpowder to burn. 

Ah, what a trifle is a heart,

    If once into love’s hands it come !

All other griefs allow a part

    To other griefs, and ask themselves but some ;

They come to us, but us love draws ;

He swallows us and never chaws ;

    By him, as by chain’d shot, whole ranks do die ;

    He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

Meaning: When love takes control over the heart, it plays with it. Love has no value for the heart. Not just that, but while other griefs come to us, love is grief that draws us towards it. 

Love is personified here. He draws us close, and swallows us but without chewing. This means that we do not realize we have been swallowed in love. It happens instantly, without a warning. 

Chained shots are special types of artillery that are used to inflict more damage. They are intended for fatal damage instead of wounding. Donne compares love’s intentions to this type of damage. 

Love is like a big, dangerous fish (tyrant pike) and our hearts are just like a small fry, drawing towards this big fish to be swallowed whole. 

If ’twere not so, what did become

    Of my heart when I first saw thee?

I brought a heart into the room,

    But from the room I carried none with me.

If it had gone to thee, I know

Mine would have taught thine heart to show

    More pity unto me ; but Love, alas !

    At one first blow did shiver it as glass.

Meaning: The first two octaves were about what Donne thinks love is like. But he wasn’t always with this mindset. What happened that completely changed the image of love for him? The third octave tells readers just that. 

Here we get to know what happened. Donne says that if love was not like the way he described it, why would the things that happened to him happen in the first place? Why would he get heartbroken?

Donne saw a woman and fell in love with her. He “walked in the room carrying a heart” and came out with none. This is a very powerful way of expressing two different ideas; falling in love, and losing his heart (metaphorically, of course.)

He says that he is sure his heart did not go to this mysterious woman’s heart because if it had, it would have taught her heart to show some pity and kindness. 

This shows that the woman did not even consider loving Donne, and was very harsh about it. She must have outright rejected him. Anything might have happened but we are sure that it wasn’t good for Donne. 

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,

    Nor any place be empty quite ;

Therefore I think my breast hath all

    Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;

And now, as broken glasses show

A hundred lesser faces, so

    My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,

    But after one such love, can love no more.

Meaning: The final octave of the poem is the most expressive and impactful one. Here we get to see the famous metaphysical genre of Donne’s poetry.

“Yet nothing can to nothing fall, Nor any place is empty.” The first two lines in the octave deal with a very complicated concept of emptiness and nothingness. And Donne connects it to the after-effects of heartbreak. 

Since he gave his heart away and it was broken, he did not walk out of the room with a heart. But the place where it sat cannot be empty. 

So instead of having a complete heart, he has “shards” of the broken heart, like shattered glass. Now we come to the most powerful lines of the poem. 

And now, as broken glasses show

A hundred lesser faces, so

    My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,

    But after one such love, can love no more.

Now that heart is broken, he can see a hundred lesser faces, but not a single big image of himself. His heart, or whatever is left of it, can like, wish, or adore someone, but never love. 

After one such hurtful love, like a violent combustion of gunpowder, his ability to truly love someone is gone.

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the Poem “The Broken Heart” by John Donne are:

End-stopped Lines– The Poet uses End-Stopped lines in the poem to state the end of a sentence or a thought. For example:

But that it can ten in less space devour ;

 If once into love’s hands it come !

To other griefs, and ask themselves but some ;
They come to us, but us love draws ;
He swallows us and never chaws ;
    By him, as by chain’d shot, whole ranks do die ;
    He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

Alliteration– A few examples of Alliteration from the poem include:

He is stark mad, whoever says,
    That he hath been in love an hour,

If once into love’s hands it come !

 He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

If it had gone to thee, I know
Mine would have taught thine heart to show

Imagery– The poet uses imagery in the poem to connect with the readers. For example:

 By him, as by chain’d shot, whole ranks do die ;
    He is the tyrant pike, our hearts the fry.

More pity unto me ; but Love, alas !
    At one first blow did shiver it as glass.

Repetition– The poet repeats several words throughout the poem like, “he”, “love”, “I”, “grief”, “heart”, and “glass”.

Conclusion

Heartbreaks can be very difficult. The impact they have on us can change the way we view things, and sometimes the scars are too deep to fade away. You carry them for the rest of your life. 

But only a few poetic souls can come close to expressing the pain of it, and John Donne does that magnificently. If you look at it, the meaning of the poem is just the pain and suffering that comes with heartbreak. 

But the meaning or the message is not the highlight. It is how the poet has presented the familiar pain to readers. 

It is like we know and are quite familiar with the gift that sits inside the box. But we have never seen such a beautiful way of packing and wrapping a gift. This is how we can describe the poem “The Broken Heart” by John Donne. 

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