Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
For my first twenty years, since yesterday,
- Right away you can sense something fishy in the way Donne sets up this poem: "my first twenty years, since yesterday." The contradiction is presented so smoothly and so confidently that you could easily just accept it unhesitatingly.
- "My first twenty years" might lead us to think that he is going to relate some coming-of-age story: his life until age twenty.
I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away ;
- The speaker says that for the first twenty years, he couldn't believe that the person he is addressing as "thou," could really be gone.
- Considering the tone, we can't imagine this poem being addressed to anyone else but a lover, so we'll refer to Donne's fictional audience as his lover, or "her." What has happened to "her"? Did she kick him to the curb? Did her parents drag her away to a nunnery? Did she die?
- You could easily get confused from such an opening. We're not sure how time is working yet. Specifically, we don't know which is the metaphorical time: "twenty years," or "yesterday."
- Put simply, is the speaker saying that a loss that occurred twenty years ago felt as fresh as if it had happened "yesterday." Or is he saying that a separation that occurred yesterday felt like it happened a long time ago.
- Also in these lines, Donne establishes a simple rhyme scheme of couplets: yesterday/away.
For forty more I fed on favours past,
- Things start to get strange as the speaker now claims it has been sixty years since he saw his lover "yesterday." He adds forty more years on to the twenty we already had.
- Either the speaker is a really old man by 17th century standards, or we have left the conventional sense of time behind. You can probably guess what our vote would be.
- He "feeds" like a hungry or starving man on the "favor" that she once showed him. We're not talking "favor" like when someone offers to walk your dog, we're talking "favor" in the romantic English sense, as in, "Does the charming lady favor the dashing gentleman?"
- It sounds like she had feelings for him, and he is reliving the memory of it in his mind, to tide him over until they can meet again.
And forty on hopes that thou wouldst they might last ;
- He spent the next forty years hoping that she would want to continue showing her favor (i.e., having feelings) for him.
- Here Donne uses the English subjunctive verb tense, which has to be our favorite verb tense in the world.
- When you "would" that something would happen, you are hoping or desiring that it will happen. And to express wishes or desires, you would use the subjunctive mood. You'll find this verb form more often in works of the English Renaissance than in modern literature: "Oh, would that he would love me!" (But we think you should lead the charge in making this form popular again – we'll start using it if you do.)
- It should now be clear that the speaker's use of "years" must be some kind of exaggeration.
- Also, we can guess that whatever happened between them, the speaker and his lady friend probably didn't break up, because the speaker has hope that she wants to continue the relationship.