In a poem which has nothing to do with either air or angels, Donne configures the familiar trope of love in ways quite distinct from the prevailing conception. The whole paradox of Petrarchan love was in the idealization of the unattainable beloved figure. Her beauty and fleeting charms and virtues could never really be measured within the confines of the physical.
Donne’s “Air and Angels” resurrects the ashes of sensuous love, real love as experienced by flesh-and-bone mortals from the ruins of Plato’s abstract and physically transcendent that was even espoused by the NeoPlatonists. Resorting to the metaphorical usage of air and angels, the poem furnishes a conceptualization of love cognizant of its empirical being, of the necessitude of shared mutuality between the man and the woman within its ambit. The soul, if extricated from the body, would be aloft the pleasure of corporeal love, which is very much rooted in desire, which has its own legitimacy, as it were.
Markers of name and such become insignificant before the expression of love, which must manifest through the medium of the human body. The poet ponders redolently upon the past when he was engrossed with a woman, the effect of whose remembrance has the same delicate effect on him as does the emergence of angels from air. Unlike the angels who manifest themselves with the concomitance of voice or light, love, as idealistic an enterprise it is does not derive its origins from the spirit. The beloved’s body provides a haven to the soul of love itself.
The note of reverence detected in the initial four lines is unmistakably Petrarchan, but it is invoked only to be derided. Love cannot originate in an abstruse, inexplicable fashion, and its codification, as such is possible only because it is mired to the flesh. The angels, who were held as masculine figures in the contemporary times, could manifest only vis-à-vis the medium of air, which was also the purest of the four media of air, water, soil and fire.
Without a physical incarnation of love in the woman’s body, it is impossible for the narrator to stumble upon anything but a “lovely, glorious nothing”. The male gaze presiding much of love poetry, and even here subjecting the female body to an objectification of silence, cannot think of love without being able to visualize it with such certainty. The image unfurling posits the soul as having parented the body, and the body, in resemblance to the soul, assume this incarnation, which also insinuates the possibility of the man’s love for the woman as being definable in solely, or predominantly physical terms.
Hence we find the abject categorization of various parts of her anatomy from the perspective of the male gaze. Once she is relegated to the stature of his beloved, and has to therefore be the externalized expression of his love, her “lip, eye and brow” all become symbolic (but, in continuity with much of Elizabethan love-poetry) objects of admiration for the desiring male gaze. It is much more sinister in implication than love affixing itself to her anatomical being. It is the limitations of the other sex’s gaze, and that too, in very subjectivist and often unreciprocated nuances, which remain with her, and define her, only in absentia.
Such an imposition of views becomes evident to the narrator only after a while of him indulging in his fancies. He finds it has capsized the pinnacle of the ship, which represents the beloved’s body. Just as a ballast or a heavy load is required to stabilize the movement of a ship, so too the mere appreciation of the woman’s physical charms, he realizes, will not suffice to stabilize love. The love which is moored onto her body must be made to adjust, so as the two fit. Love certainly does not exist in a vacuum, and is to be found neither from all things nor from that angelic and unqualified nothingness, but from somewhere-in-between. Only a substantial expression of love in the objective sense of the term can adduce to the engendering of the “steadied” love that seems to be at the core of the narrator’s obsessive concern over adjudicating his love for his beloved. Physical union is what the narrator wants, which can give solidarity to their relationship.
Signifying woman’s love as air and man’s love as angel (the obvious implication being that man is the pursuer, the more active agent in the game of love-making than the passive woman who is more of the receiver, the yielder) the narrator claims eventually that it is the harmonized synthesis of the two that will consummate their love. The air producing the angel is as impure as the latter. By analogy, the poet argues that the woman’s love is also as pure, or as independent as that of the man’s love, and it is rather a mutual transaction of the two that will diminish the space between man’s passion and women’s response, which had been an arduously contested debate in literary discourse.
In the final evaluation, the realms of angels and men have a relative purity, wholly removed from the absolute purity shared by the “aerial” worlds known to womenfolk. However, The fact of “thy love” being but a reflection of his, another macrocosm with its own functionalities and machinations, abridges this disparity by shared mutuality, but not wholly, for the poem ends with the somber realization that the disjunction between man’s fervors and woman’s responses will never be eliminated altogether. The harmony that exists between the air and the angels is to be injected into the male-female dialectic too, but with what results we do not know.
Moreover, the incommensurability of romantic relationships between the opposing genders brings to mind the championing of male-to-male relationships in ancient Greece, and of the legacy of pederasty that the poet was still contending with when he was writing this poem. Love is transmuted into many shapeless but physical forms throughout the poem, and the ambivalent critical interpretation of the last few lines is obviated after reading in between the words.