Donne's eighth elegy, "The Comparison," is generally understood as an exercise in contrasting hyperbole, a poem in which the superlative beauty of the speaker's mistress is contrasted with the superlative ugliness of the addressee's mistress. It is true that the poem is constructed as a set of contrasting passages, but I believe that the end of the poem alters our understanding of just what was being contrasted. The elegy has what amounts to a punch line, but we have missed Donne's joke. The poem builds to a surprise, humorous ending in which what had previously seemed to be two different mistresses is revealed to be in fact a single woman.
Editors and critics typically, and understandably, treat the poem as though it compares two different women. Grierson and Gardner both speak of the poem as involving a contrast between the speaker's mistress and that of his "enemy" (74,121). John Carey says that the poem is one in which the speaker's "own girl's perfections are contrasted with the filthy deformities of another's" (30). Similarly, Arthur Marotti speaks of the poem as contrasting the "antagonist's mistress" with "the speaker and his mistress" (49).
Only Achsah Guibbory considers that "perhaps the two mistresses described in the poem are not different women but rather a single woman seen in two ways" (817). The speaker's and the addressee's mistress are, I believe, undoubtedly the same woman; indeed, the very point of the poem is to compel in readers a belated recognition that the speaker and the addressee love the same woman.
As a first indication that only one woman is being discussed, consider some otherwise puzzling aspects of the dramatic situation depicted in the poem. If the addressee is so unfortunate in his mistress and the speaker so happy with his own, what motivates this venomous outpouring? Why does the speaker not simply go enjoy his mistress and leave the poor addressee in his miserable state? The speaker, of course, might be gloating, but the tone seems too aggressive for mere gloating; Marotti is on to something when he speaks of the addressee as an "antagonist." But what offense can the addressee have committed against the speaker by loving a loathsome mistress? More particularly, what motivates the speaker's insistence that the addressee "leave" his mistress? What sense does it make to say "I have a wonderful mistress, and I will not stop harassing you until you leave your horrible one"?
The reason for the speaker's peculiar emotional investment in the romantic affairs of his addressee, I believe, becomes clear late in the poem when we discover that what had seemed like a contrast between two women is actually a description of one woman as the speaker sees her from two contrasting states of mind. When he believes she is involved with him exclusively, she seems ideal; when he considers that she is also involved with his addressee, he finds her loathsome.
The pronouns in the closing couplet are what reveal that only one woman is being discussed. In the penultimate line of the poem, the speaker commands the addressee to break off with his mistress by telling him to "leave her." But throughout the poem, the pronoun her has, with only one exception, been used to refer to the mistress of the speaker (lines 5, 15, 24, 28, 38). When he speaks of the addressee's mistress, he uses the word thy (7,19,25,32,34,39). In fact, after the phrase "my Mistris" in line 4, the word her serves as the speaker's sole means of indicating that he is talking about his own mistress. When at the close of the poem he tells his interlocutor to leave "her," the pattern of pronoun reference established earlier in the poem prompts us to realize that it is the speaker's own mistress whom he wants the addressee to leave.
The one time that her is used to refer to the mistress of the addressee comes in line 14, when the speaker refers to the skin of the addressee's mistress as "her skinne."(n1) This lone use of "her" in reference to the addressee's mistress serves to intimate the surprise ending, for it is confusingly followed by a line in which the pronoun "her" is used again, but this time in reference to the speaker's mistress: "And like vile lying stones in saffrond tinne / Or warts, or wheales, they hang upon her [i.e., your mistress's] skinne. / Round as the world's her [i.e., my mistress's] head" (13-15). Line 15 will initially sound like a continuation of the abuse in 13 and 14, so that at this stage of the poem, it is only by a deliberate effort that we supply different referents for the two hers.
The penultimate line, then, strongly suggests that the addressee's mistress is the same woman that the speaker loves, an identification that is subtly underscored by the pronoun in the final line: "she." The word she had not previously been used in the poem to refer to either mistress; it has been reserved for this moment, when the reader realizes that a single woman has been the object of both the idealization and the vilification in the poem.
With the dramatic, belated reversal, the elegy resembles some of Donne's other poems that are constructed almost as versified jokes. For example, the ending of "Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star" operates almost like a punch line, resolving the tension carefully built up through the previous four verses. And "Woman's Constancy" similarly closes with an abrupt and humorous reversal.
By missing the punch line of "The Comparison," we also miss some of the poem's significance. Read as I am suggesting, the elegy is more than just an exercise in contrasting hyperbole; it becomes a psychological study of the effects of faithfulness on desirability.
(n1.) The 1633 edition of Donne's poems does have "her" referring to the addressee's mistress ("her gouty hand") at line 34, but the 1635 edition alters this to "thy." Almost all manuscripts have "thy," and modern editors from Grierson on prefer this reading.
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
Gardner, Helen, ed. The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
Grierson, Herbert J. C., ed. The Poems of John Donne. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912.
Guibbory, Achsah. "'Oh, Let Mee Not Serve So': The Politics of Love in Donne's Elegies." ELH 57.4 (Winter 1990): 811-33.
Marotti, Arthur F. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.
By Gregory Machacek, Marist College ria, Canada New Zealand