There are clear Platonic elements in Donne's "The Good Morrow." The idea that Donne and his lady are halves that complete each other is traceable to Plato's theory of love. Lines 7 and 8 of the poem refer to the Platonic World of Ideas: the lady is presented as the Idea of Beauty, of which all earthly beauty is but an imperfect reflection. My argument, however, is that Plato's cave allegory and his World of Ideas are integral to a full understanding of this highly complex poem.
The first reference to the Platonic cave comes in line 4 of the poem: "Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den?" The seven sleepers are seven young Christians who were walled up in a cave in the year 249. Miraculously, they did not die but slept for 187 years. This miracle of early Christianity is negatively presented by Donne and the plight of the seven "snorters" may have a relationship to Plato's cave: there are fundamental similarities between Plato's cave-dwellers on the one hand, and the seven Christians (and the biblical myth of Exodus, for that matter) on the other hand, according to Downing. In both cases, there is a God who cares for the people involved, even though they are unaware of this fact; in the first case because they are asleep, in the second because they mistake shadows of shadows for reality. They are both trapped in a cave from which they apparently cannot escape. And they both dwell in darkness. In a poet of Donne's complexity, it is not far-fetched to argue that line 4 refers both to the seven Christians and to Plato's cave-dwellers, and that Donne wished us to read it in precisely this way. Such an argument is reinforced by the fact that the line is immediately followed by a Platonic reference to the lady as the Idea of Beauty.
In Plato's allegory of the cave, it is possible to escape and move out into the sun, which symbolizes God, who is Goodness and Truth. This is a long and difficult process, however, and those who succeed in it act as if they have awakened from a dream and finally discovered the true destiny of their soul. Overwhelmed with joy, they do not wish to return to the cave, but Plato insists that they must, to educate and free their fellow human beings who are still inside. In the first stanza of "The Good Morrow," Donne and his lady are in darkness, but in the second, they have emerged into the sunlight, awakened from the dream that they previously considered to be reality, and discovered perfection. The perfection they have found, however, is not God but each other, and they feel no responsibility toward those human beings who are still in darkness. As in Plato, it is perfection rather than size that is of the highest importance, and the little room the lovers dwell in becomes more significant than all the vast new worlds discovered by seventeenth-century voyagers and students of the heavens.
Plato's freed cave-dwellers discover God, but Donne and his lady find each other. "The Good Morrow" is thus a very clever reworking of Plato's cave allegory, for Donne and his lady establish a perfect love relationship and become themselves part of the World of Ideas. Together, they constitute a complete and perfect world. The third and last stanza ends as follows:
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die (19-21)
The first quoted line refers to the physician Galen, who maintained that death results from an imbalance of elements within the body. Donne then goes on to say that if each lover matches the perfection of the other's love to such a degree that neither can wane, their love will become deathless. What Donne is presenting to us, then, is the possibility of a perfect eternal love relationship, such as one would expect to find only in Plato's World of Ideas. In "The Good Morrow," Donne and his lady emerge from the dreamlike unreality and darkness of a cave and immediately discover that henceforth it is they who are the Platonic Idea of sexual love. (The concept of becoming a Platonic Idea is, of course, a paradox, as the World of Ideas is not only deathless but supposedly has existed since the beginning of time.)
Alternatively, one can argue that Donne (or his poetic voice) experiences a transient relationship in this poem that may or may not develop into a Platonic Idea. Like Plato's cave-dwellers who came out into the light, however, he has learned a great deal and become capable, as a consequence, of achieving the Platonic Idea of sexual love in a possibly new, deathless encounter that is "mixed equally."
Donne, John. "The Good Morrow." The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Frank Kermode and John Hollander. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. 1024-25.
Downing, Christopher. "How Can We Hope and Not Dream? Exodus as Metaphor: A Study of the Biblical Imagination." Journal of Religion 48 (1968): 35-53.
By Christopher S. Nassaar, American University of Beirut