Achsah Guibbory (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Guibbory, Achsah. “‘Oh, let mee not serve so’: The Politics of Love in Donne's Elegies.” In Critical Essays on John Donne, edited by Arthur F. Marotti, pp. 17-36. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

[In the following essay, first published in 1990, Guibbory focuses his discussion of Donne's love poetry on the poet's often grotesque or negative images of the female body.]

For modern readers, accustomed to distinct separations between private and public, love and politics may seem strange bedfellows. But recent studies have made us aware of important connections between amatory poetry and patronage, between the discourse of (courtly) love and the seeking of advancement by aspiring men at Queen Elizabeth's court.1 Arthur Marotti, especially, has analyzed the political circumstances and dimensions of Donne's amatory poetry, arguing that we should see it as “coterie” poetry written in an “encoded” language, embodying Donne's frustrated ambitions for socioeconomic, political power even when, especially when, he is writing about love.2

Marotti's discussion of the interrelations between politics and the languages of love is deservedly influential. But his argument (both in the book on Donne and in his important earlier article on Elizabethan sonnet sequences) fosters a certain distortion, for repeatedly Marotti's language implies that the real subject of this poetry is socioeconomic power and ambition. While he brilliantly shows the political dimensions of the languages of courtly love as used in Elizabethan poetry, the effect of his argument is to suggest not so much the interrelations between love and politics but the centrality of socioeconomic concerns. Love becomes merely the vehicle of the metaphor; the tenor is invariably political. In the interest of deciphering this political “meaning,” amatory relations between men and women tend to all but disappear.

I want to build on Marotti's sense of the political dimension of Donne's witty love poetry, by arguing not that love is a metaphor for politics but that love itself is political—involves power transactions between men and women. By privileging neither Donne's ambitions for socioeconomic power nor his personal need for a fulfilling emotional relationship with a woman, I reevaluate the interrelationship between love and politics. I will focus on Donne's depictions of amatory relationships—his representation of the female body, sexual relations, and sexual difference—to show how he represents power relationships in love and how love repeatedly intersects public politics. In Donne's treatment of love in the Elegies, the public world of politics and the intimacies of the private world are often inseparable.3

The “direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman.4 Though the words are Karl Marx's, the notion was well understood in the Renaissance. As Milton's portrayal of the “society” of Adam and Eve makes clear, the relationship between man and woman is thought to constitute the basic unit of society. Apparently natural but also culturally determined, that relationship offers a potential image of the organization and distribution of power in the larger society. Milton's treatment of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost reveals his awareness of a political dimension to interpersonal, sexual relations. Donne, too, understood the political dimension of amatory relations, exploiting it in his Elegies. Donne repeatedly in these poems envisions relations between the sexes as a site of conflict, thereby mirroring a larger society in which there is considerable anxiety about the lines and boundaries of power.

Exploring male/female relations, Donne's Elegies focus insistently on the body, especially the female body. The human body commonly functions as what the anthropologist Mary Douglas has called a “natural symbol” of society—a “model”...

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symbolically expressing the values and orders, powers and dangers, of the social body.5 Thus it is not surprising that Donne's representations of the body, as well as of male/female sexual relations, have a sociopolitical significance.

In discussing the male/female relations in the Elegies, I will deal with the misogyny evident in many of these poems, but often repressed in critical readings of Donne.6 There is in many of the Elegies a persistent misogyny, indeed a revulsion at the female body, which has provoked various responses. Some readers give these poems scant attention, preferring to focus on the more easily admired poems of the Songs and Sonnets like “The Good-morrow,” “The Canonization,” or “The Ecstasy,” which celebrate a mutual love that attributes to the mistress special importance and value. Others see the misogyny as simply a matter of “literary convention” (which skirts the issue of why authors are attracted to some literary conventions and not to others), or as an example of Donne's desire to shock or his outrageous wit, or as one posture among many that Donne tries out in his poetry. But these critical responses effectively tame Donne's Elegies. Yes, Donne is being outrageously, shockingly witty, but why are women the subject of degradation in so much of the wit? Granted there is humor in these poems, but jokes often have a serious dimension and reveal much about the person. And though Donne adopts various personae and tries out a variety of postures, at some level he possesses an ability to identify (even if briefly) with these roles. It is unfair to Donne's poetry, and inconsistent, to treat the misogynous, cynical poems as rhetorical posturing or as exercises in witty manipulation of literary convention (hence, not “really” meant) while reading the celebrations of mutual love as indicative of Donne's “true” feelings. Though we may not like to admit the presence of misogyny in one of the greatest love poets in the English language, we need to come to terms with it, especially in the Elegies where it appears so strongly. What I will be arguing about the Elegies is not meant to be taken as the whole picture of Donne—obviously, the canon is extensive and various, and his attitudes are quite different in many of the Songs and Sonnets—but it is one part of Donne's works that needs to be understood and historicized rather than repressed if we are to have a fuller understanding of the poet and the canon.

Many if not most of Donne's Elegies were written in the 1590s, when England was ruled by a female monarch who demanded faithful service and devotion from aspiring men.7 The mere presence of a female monarch is insufficient to account for the Elegies, but it does suggest an initial historical context for these poems. Elizabeth, the “woman on top” (to use Natalie Zemon Davis's phrase) was an anomaly in a strongly patriarchal, hierarchical culture in which women were considered subordinate to men.8 It is difficult to ascertain the effect that rule by a female monarch had on the position of women. Though she may have provided an encouraging example for women, it is likely that, as the exception, she actually confirmed the rule of patriarchy in English society.9 But for men there were tensions inherent in submission to the authority of a queen in what was otherwise a culture in which power and authority were invested in men. As Constance Jordan remarks, the prospect of a female ruler “could hardly have been regarded with anything but concern”; and the actual presence of a woman on the throne in England gave focus to a debate about the legitimacy of woman's rule.10

Tensions over submission to female rule are strikingly evident in Donne's representation of private love relationships in the Elegies. Many poems attack or reject female dominance in love and attempt to reassert male control. Though Marotti has well described fantasies of control in these poems, it has not been sufficiently appreciated how much the degradation and conquest of women is presented as essential to that control, nor how these efforts to control woman have a special sociopolitical meaning. “Private” relations between man and woman are closely connected to the pattern of relations in the larger social body—a point recognized by Milton in his divorce tracts, for example, when he set about to reform the institution of marriage. Though the private and public spheres became increasingly separated in England during the seventeenth century, in the world of Donne's Elegies they are still closely interrelated.11 Repeatedly, the attack on female rule in amatory relations spills over into an attack on female rule in the public world. Private love and public politics become subtly intertwined as Donne's amatory elegies are inscribed in politically resonant language. Many of the poems are both explicitly amatory and covertly political. Hence they possess a politically subversive potential at the same time as they probe the dynamics of amatory relations.

The conventions of courtly love poetry, with its chaste, unattainable, superior woman, desired and sought by an admiring, subservient, faithful male suitor, were especially appropriate for articulating complex relationships between Queen Elizabeth and the ambitious courtiers seeking her favors.12 That Donne rejects and mocks these conventions in his poetry has not gone unnoticed. As Marotti well puts it, Donne in his Elegies is rejecting “the dominant social and literary modes of the Court, substituting plainspeaking directness for polite compliment, sexual realism for amorous idealization, critical argumentativeness for sentimental mystification, and aggressive masculine self-assertion for politely self-effacing subservience” (Coterie, 45). But it has not been sufficiently appreciated that the rejection of courtly love and the assertion of self are achieved in large part through a ritualized verbal debasement of women. It is common to speak of Donne's Ovidian “realism,” but in some elegies, “realism” seems too mild a term for the debasement Donne substitutes for idealization.

Repeatedly, Donne's Elegies represent women, not as idealized creatures, closed and inviolable in their chastity, but as low, impure, sometimes even disgusting creatures. Donne rejects “classical” representations of the female body (finished, elevated, pure), which characterized courtly and Petrarchan love poetry, in favor of the “grotesque” female body—not so much out of an attraction toward the vitality of the grotesque body as out of an impulse to demolish the idealized image of woman, thereby making her undesirable and hence, no longer an object of worship.13

“Elegy 2: The Anagram” wittily, systematically subverts the conventions of female beauty as the speaker tells how Flavia has “all things, whereby others beautious bee” (2), but in the wrong order, proportion, places, or forms. Her small and dim eyes, large mouth, jet teeth, and red hair make her grotesque and “foule” (32). Like Shakespeare's sonnet 130 (“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun”), this elegy playfully mocks conventional Petrarchan descriptions of female beauty (golden hair, small mouth, pearly white teeth), but Donne's details may also glance at the physical appearance of the aging Queen Elizabeth, who in her later years had visibly rotten teeth and wore a red wig.14 The poem itself reenacts the descent from high to low not only in its announced subject (the ugly mistress) but also in its movement from describing her face to describing her genitals, which are guarded by a “durty foulenesse” (42) that will keep out all rivals and ensure her chastity for the man who dares marry her. “Though seaven yeares, she in the Stews had laid, / A Nunnery durst receive [her], and thinke a maid” (48-49). Even “Dildoes” would be “loath to touch” her (53-54). The language of the poem unpleasantly links her face and her genitals—both are “foule” (32, 42). Just as the foulness of the one reflects the foulness of the other (and Donne uncovers both), so the larger implication of the poem is that this low grotesque female body mirrors, even in its distortion, the traditionally beautiful female body. She has all of “beauties elements” (9) and is thus an “anagram” of beauty. As in his Paradoxes and Problems, Donne delights in being outrageous, in exercising his wit in defending the indefensible. The paradox here serves to undermine the idea of female beauty (and hence desirability) and to suggest that “beauty” (and the power of beautiful forms) is humanly constructed—Donne suggests that the man can rearrange Flavia's “parts” to make her beautiful just as we arrange “letters” different ways in order to produce a variety of pleasing “words” (15-18).

If “The Anagram” presumes a continuity (not merely a contrast) between the ugly and the beautiful female body, “Elegy 8: The Comparison” makes this connection explicit.15 The poem begins by contrasting idealized descriptions of the female body with grotesque ones:

As the sweet sweat of Roses in a Still,
As that which from chaf'd muskats pores doth trill,
As the Almighty Balme of th'early East,
Such are the sweat drops of my Mistris breast,
And on her necke her skin such lustre sets,
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl carcanets.
Ranke sweaty froth thy Mistresse brow defiles,
Like spermatique issue of ripe menstrous boils.


The focus on excretions, however, defiles the pure, classically beautiful body. Beneath the oppositions between high and low runs the sense of what these two supposedly different women share—an open, sweating, excreting, potentially diseased body. As in so much of his writing, Donne is obsessed with decay and death, here particularly associated with the female body. The nausea which surfaces elsewhere in Donne (for example in the Satires and The Second Anniversary) here is evoked by woman. Like “The Anagram,” “Elegy 8: The Comparison” tends to conflate face and genitals, the high and low parts of the body, metaphorically linking “menstrous boils” and “thy Mistresse brow” and moving from descriptions of the women's heads to descriptions of their breasts and finally to their genitals.

The idealized description of female beauty is progressively undermined by the grotesque one. In spite of the contrasts drawn, the differences come to seem more those of perception or description (that is, verbal and imaginative constructs) than of “objective” material reality. If the “ugly” woman is associated with death, so too is the beautiful one:

Round as the world's her head, on every side,
Like to the fatall Ball which fell on Ide,
Or that whereof God had such jealousie,
As, for the ravishing thereof we die.


Beneath the appearance or illusion of beauty is foulness, dirt, disease, death. Though his mistress's breast seems “faire,” the breasts of the rival's mistress are “like worme eaten trunkes, cloth'd in seals skin, / Or grave, that's durt without, and stinke within” (24-26).16 And her breasts are an anticipation of things to come. Though his mistress's genitals are like a “Lymbecks warme wombe” (36),

Thine's like the dread mouth of a fired gunne,
Or like hot liquid metalls newly runne
Into clay moulds, or like to that AEtna
Where round about the grasse is burnt away.
Are not your kisses then as filthy,’and more,
As a worme sucking an invenom'd sore?


Mere touch is contaminating, defiling. The disgusting descriptions of the female body as diseased, impure, and polluting, themselves contaminate the idealized representation of woman so that by the end of the poem, the speaker's denunciation seems to include not just “comparisons” and the “ugly” mistress but woman generally: “Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus, / She, and comparisons are odious” (53-54). Perhaps the two mistresses described in the poem are not different women but rather a single woman seen in two ways. The misogynist thrust of the poem, which betrays the male speaker's desire to keep uncontaminated, may explain the discomforting comparison used to represent the speaker's sexual relations with the beautiful mistress: “Such in searching wounds the Surgeon is / As wee, when wee embrace, or touch, or kisse” (51-52). The delicacy of mutual tenderness jars with the queasy sense of exploring tender (open? bleeding?) wounds.

The repulsion toward the female body evident in so much of the poem makes it difficult to worship or adore woman. By deidealizing woman, Donne reconstructs male/female relationships—as embodied in the sex act—to confirm a hierarchy in which the male remains superior:

Then like the Chymicks masculine equall fire,
Which in the Lymbecks warme wombe doth inspire
Into th'earths worthlesse durt a soule of gold,
Such cherishing heat her best lov'd part doth hold.


This passage does more than describe the temperate heat of his mistress's genitals (which contrasts with the barrenness and excessive heat of the other woman's). By drawing on the Aristotelian association of the male with fire and spirit and of the woman with earth and lower forms of matter, it also reconfirms the traditional hierarchy in which men were seen as naturally superior. As Aristotle explains in De generatione animalium, “the female always provides the material, the male provides that which fashions the material into shape; this, in our view, is the specific characteristic of each of the sexes: that is what it means to be male or to be female … the physical part, the body, comes from the female, and the Soul from the male.”17 In generation, which for Donne as for Aristotle confers a purpose or end on sexual intercourse, woman is like the warm limbeck, the necessary container—and at the same time the (in itself) worthless dirt, the earth—the material that needs to be informed by a masculine soul. Merging Aristotelian sex differentiation with Paracelsian alchemy, Donne represents man as contributing the heat, the “Chymicks masculine equall [in the sense of the original Latin aequus, ‘even’] fire,” as he “inspire[s]” the “durt” with a “soule of gold.” Thus even the seemingly idealized description of woman at last reconfirms her inferiority and subordination to man.

Donne's emphasis on sex, on the body, and notably on female genitals in these poems has typically been seen as characteristic of the Ovidian influence, and of his “realism.” But it is a peculiar realism that focuses so exclusively on one part of the body. The speaker in the witty, satirical “Elegy 18: Loves Progress” assumes a superior posture as he denies woman the qualities of “virtue,” “wholesomeness,” “ingenuity” (21, 13) and defines her essence as her genitals, the “Centrique part” that men love (36). Men should pay no attention to the face and those higher parts of the female body, which are dangerous distractions that threaten to waylay or even “shipwracke” (70) men on their journey to the harbor of love: her “hair” is “a forrest of ambushes, / Of springes, snares, fetters and manacles” (41-42), her lips give off “Syrens songs” (55), her tongue is a “Remora” (58); her “navell” (66) may be mistaken as the port; even her pubic hair is “another forrest set, / Where some doe shipwracke, and no farther gett” (69-70). Seduction becomes a journey of exploration and discovery, but also potential entrapment for the unwary male. The female body he traverses actively seeks to thwart him.

Satirizing Petrarchan idealizations of women, Donne implies that such refinements are new and monstrous perversions of nature: “Love's a beare-whelpe borne; if wee'overlicke / Our love, and force it new strange shapes to take / We erre, and of a lumpe a monster make” (4-6).

If worshipping woman from a distance and praising her virtue and beauty are modern, monstrous innovations, Donne implies he is restoring older, natural, and correct amorous relations. Mocking the platonic ladder of love (set forth first by Diotima in Plato's Symposium and later by Bembo in Castiglione's The Courtier) whereby the lover ascends from the beauty of a particular person to an admiration of beauty generally to a vision of ideal, transcendent beauty, Donne sets up a different pattern of love whereby men may “ascend” if they “set out below” and start from “the foote” (73-74).18 The “progress” of love is thus a journey of progressive mastery, in which the goal or “right true end of love” (2) (the female genitals) is kept firmly in sight at all times. The refusal to idealize, indeed the impulse to debase that “end” of love shapes the poem's final lines, which first describe sexual intercourse as paying “tribute” to woman's “lower” “purse” and then compare the man who uses the wrong means to attain this end to a person who foolishly tries to feed the stomach by purging it with a “Clyster” (91-96).

What we have here, as in so many of the Elegies, are strategies for reasserting male control in love. To some extent these are reminiscent of Ovid. Alan Armstrong's description of Ovid's contribution to the development of the elegy suggests both his special appeal for Donne and also a parallel in these two poets' redistribution of power in love relationships. Much as Donne would subvert Petrarchan conventions, Ovid himself undercut Latin elegiac conventions such as the enslaved lover, asserting instead that love is an art with the lover in control rather than ruled by his passions and mistress. Ovid gave the “elegiac lover a degree of rationality and self-control reflected in his urbane wit and complete self-consciousness.”19 Such a description of Ovid, with its emphasis on mastery, is more valuable in explaining the appeal and usefulness of Ovid to Donne than the commonplace label of “Ovidian realism.” Ovid's concern with control may have had a political dimension (though obviously not identical to Donne's), expressing a desire for independence in a society of limited freedoms, in which one could be exiled at the pleasure of the emperor. (One thinks of the premium Cicero and Horace in their own ways placed on rationality, self-control, and self-sufficiency as means of insulation from dangerous political vicissitudes.) Ovid's love elegies continue the stance of political non-conformity evident even earlier in Catullus and Propertius. But there are differences between Ovid's and Donne's elegies, for gender assumes a special importance in Donne's efforts at mastery. The misogyny that surfaces in Donne's poems, and becomes a strategy for defining the male speaker's superiority, recalls not Ovid's elegies so much as Juvenal's Satires.20

Since the conventions of courtly love were an integral part of the ideology of Queen Elizabeth's court, appropriated and encouraged by the queen as articulating and confirming her power, Donne's sharp rejection and subversions of these love conventions might be expected to have political implications. His choice of genre itself reflects not simply his literary taste but a political stance, for he is distancing himself from the preferred discourse of the Elizabethan court. He elects in the 1590s to write not sonnets of courtly love but satires and elegies—genres marked by misogyny and insistence on the male speaker's power and control. The anti-establishment implications of his choice of genres and of the misogyny in Donne's elegies accord well with our knowledge that in the mid 1590s Donne was associated with the Essex circle, having embarked on two expeditions against Spain under Essex in 1596 and 1597.21

Throughout the 1590s Essex was engaged in a prolonged struggle for power with the queen that set him against the court establishment and that ended only in 1601 with his trial and execution for treason. His conflicts were not only with Cecil and Ralegh, his rivals for political favor, but also with the queen herself—a point evident in J. E. Neale's conclusion that “had she let a man of Essex's nature pack the royal service and the Council with his nominees, she would probably in the end have found herself a puppet-Queen, in tutelage to him.” Disdaining the subservience that characterized his stepfather Leicester's relation with the queen, Essex found it difficult to subject himself to Elizabeth's will, repeatedly betraying in his actions and letters a particular and growing dislike of serving a woman.22 A letter of advice from Francis Bacon after the Cadiz expedition warned Essex that his all too evident resistance to Elizabeth's authority was dangerous: describing Essex as “a man of a nature not to be ruled,” Bacon asked “whether there can be a more dangerous image than this represented to any monarch living, much more to a lady, and of her Majesty's apprehension?” (Lives and Letters, 1:395).

Essex was ambitious for glory and honor. But that matters of gender were also involved is startlingly evident in the violent public argument that took place between Essex and the queen in summer 1598 over the appointment of a governor for Ireland. Angry at the queen's rejection of his candidate, Essex turned his back on her in a “gesture of contempt,” which prompted the queen to strike him on the ear. Essex put his hand on his sword, swearing that “he would not put up with so great an indignity nor have taken such an affront at the hands of Henry VIII himself” (Lives and Letters, 1:489-90). His anger at having to take this abuse from a woman is apparent in the letter he afterwards wrote Elizabeth, complaining of “the intollerable wrong you have done both me and yourself, not only broken all laws of affection, but done against the honor of your sex” (Lives and Letters, 1:493). Essex's feeling that there was something perverse in her exercise of authority, in his having to submit to a female ruler and accept her humiliations, was not limited to this occasion, and it was apparently shared by others. Young men surrounding Essex were privately saying that they would not submit to another woman ruler, thus reviving the issue of gender that Elizabeth had faced at the beginning of her reign.23 In 1597 the French ambassador Sieur de Maisse observed that, though Elizabeth's government pleased the people, “it is but little pleasing to the great men and the nobles; and if by chance she should die, it is certain that the English would never again submit to the rule of a woman.”24

Such sentiments find an echo in Donne's privately circulated Elegies. The Elegies embody attitudes toward female rule that were also being expressed by Essex and his circle. The whole pattern of Donne's anti-Petrarchanism and revisions of gender relations betrays a discomfort with (indeed, a rejection of) the political structure headed by a female monarch. Intimate private relations between man and woman and the power structure of the body politic mirror and reinforce each other. If the private and the public are so closely related, perhaps a change in relations in the private realm will generate a corresponding change in the world of politics.

The political dimension of Donne's love elegies is particularly evident in the sense of seduction as mastery that pervades “Elegy 19: To his Mistres Going to Bed,” in which Donne moves easily between the bedroom and the political realm of empires and monarchs. In this witty, exuberant poem we are far from the degradation and disgust of “The Anagram” or “Comparison.” For the speaker joy, enthusiasm, and delight reign.25 But even here, as the speaker commands his mistress to undress, Donne transfers power from the woman, desired and praised, to the man who hopes to possess her. She is wittily idealized and commodified through a variety of stunning conceits that aim to conquer her (his “foe” [3]) through hyperbolic praise: she is a “farre fairer world,” a “beauteous state,” “flowery meades,” an “Angel,” “my America,” the repository of “whole joys” (in Donne's wicked pun) (6, 13, 14, 20, 27, 35). But the other side of compliment, admiration, and reverence is the desire to possess and thus master the colonized woman. The speaker affirms his power not only through the accumulated verbal commands of the poem but also through a crucial shift in metaphor in lines 25-32:

License my roving hands, and let them goe
Before, behind, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd,
My myne of precious stones, my Empiree,
How blest am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds, is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.

At the beginning of this passage the woman is the monarch, providing a license; but the moment she gives this license she loses her sovereignty. What was implicit from the first now is clear. The man becomes not only explorer but conqueror, and she becomes his land and kingdom. The repeated possessives reinforce the sense of his mastery, and by the end of this passage he has now become the monarch, setting his “seal.” Self-aggrandizement, of course, characterizes much of Donne's poetry, even his divine poems, but the metaphors and images in these lines have a distinctive political resonance as they dethrone the woman and restore sovereignty to man.26

As soon as this politically subversive note has been sounded, Donne momentarily retreats from its implications, first praising “full nakedness” (33) then flattering the woman as both a “mystique book” and a divinity who imputes “grace” to the special few allowed to see her mysteries “reveal'd” (41-43). But once her confidence in female superiority has been reestablished, Donne gives a final twist to the argument that conclusively and wittily reasserts male supremacy by placing the man “on top”: “To teach thee, I am naked first: Why than / What need'st thou have more covering than a man” (47-48). The act of sex confirms what is seen as the legitimate, rightful mastery of man—a mastery that conflicts both with the conventions of courtly love and with the political situation in England in the 1590s. Seduction fantasies, even as they represent woman as supremely desirable, complement Donne's strategy of debasement, for both aim at restoring male sovereignty.27

But, as readers have noticed, the mastery and control Donne's speakers strive for in the Elegies is often frustrated or incomplete.28 The very metaphors describing women contain a disturbing potential for suggesting women's resistance to any individual man's control. The Elegies show a recurring tension between the male mastery asserted and an implicit female resistance to mastery which undermines the restoration of male sovereignty. The land, despite man's attempts to enclose and possess it, is always vulnerable to being “possessed” by other men, as the speaker of “Elegy 7” (“Natures lay Ideot …”) only too well has learned. His mistress's husband may have “sever'd” her “from the worlds Common” (21), enclosed her as private property, and her lover may have further “Refin'd” her into a “bliss-full paradise” (24), but these acts prove inadequate attempts to civilize her. For all the speaker's position of superiority (he claims to be her teacher, even her God-like creator who has “planted knowledge” and “graces” in her [24-25]), she has thrown off his authority and is leaving him for other lovers. The poem ends with angry, impotent outbursts, in which verbal degradation reveals both the desire to control the woman through what “Elegy 16: On his Mistris” calls “masculine persuasive force” (4) and the striking inability to do so:

                                                                                                                        Must I alas
Frame and enamell Plate, and drinke in Glasse?
Chafe wax for others seales? breake a colts force
And leave him then, beeing made a ready horse?


The female body's “openness” subverts all attempts at permanent masculine control, and insures that dominance will always be unstable and precarious. As the speaker in “Elegy 3: Change” puts it, “Women are like the Arts, forc'd unto none, / Open to'all searchers” (5-6). The conventional representations of woman as land/earth and as water convey a sense of her openness, her essential resistance to boundaries or limits, which Donne wittily exploits:

Who hath a plow-land, casts all his seed corne there,
And yet allowes his ground more corne should beare;
Though Danuby into the sea must flow,
The sea receives the Rhene, Volga, and Po.


Embodying the Aristotelian identification of woman with the supposedly lower elements of earth and water, such representations both suggest the difficulty of mastering woman and reinforce the notion of her necessary inferiority to man, making male sovereignty seem natural and imperative. Though the receptiveness of their bodies shows women were not made to be faithful to one man, the speaker argues that women are made for men in much the same sense as nature, in the Judaeo-Christian scheme of creation, was made for man—hence, the comparisons of women to birds, foxes, and goats in this poem. Given such hierarchy and “natural” inequality, for a man to submissively serve a woman would be as wrong as for animals to rule man.

Donne's discomfort with serving a woman is perhaps most obvious in “Elegy 6,” the opening of which draws a rich, complex analogy between love and politics:29

Oh, let mee not serve so, as those men serve
Whom honours smoakes at once fatten and sterve;
Poorely enrich't with great mens words or lookes;
Nor so write my name in thy loving bookes
As those Idolatrous flatterers, which still
Their Princes stiles, with many Realmes fulfill
Whence they no tribute have, and where no sway.
Such services I offer as shall pay
Themselves, I hate dead names: Oh then let mee
Favorite in Ordinary, or no favorite bee.


Distinguishing himself from others, he rejects in both political and amatory spheres a service in which the lover/suitor is submissive, flattering, and unrewarded, and the woman falsely idealized, made into an idol by her admirer. Instead, Donne offers a different kind of “service,” clearly sexual, which “pay[s]” the woman (compare the “tribute” paid into the woman's “purse” in “Elegy 18”) and is in turn rewarded. This kind of service restores male dignity, for it is not servitude but mastery. But mastery is desire rather than accomplishment, for the poem's fictive occasion is the discovery that his mistress is unfaithful.

Recounting their relationship, he represents her as a destructive “whirlpoole” (16) or “streame” (21), himself as the delicate “carelesse” (innocent) “flower” which is “drowne[d]” in the water's “embrace” (15-17). This image of the destructive stream also appears near the end of “Satyre III,” where the stream is explicitly identified with royal power:

That thou may'st rightly'obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name's chang'd; to be
Then humble to her is idolatrie;
As streames are, Power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough streames calme head, thrive and prove well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the streames tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rockes, and woods,'and at last, almost
Consum'd in going, in the sea are lost:
          So perish Soules, which more chuse mens unjust
          Power from God claym'd, then God himselfe to trust.


The dating of this satire is uncertain, but the anxiety about royal power (figured as female and identified with the watery female element) would seem to place the poem in the company of those clearly written during the reign of Elizabeth.31 These complex lines of “Satyre III” articulate both fear of and resistance to royal power, as the speaker, identifying himself with the “blessed flowers” and unjust monarchs with tyrannous streams, rejects idolatrous submission to earthly rulers and hopes to find ultimate (though not necessarily earthly) safety by dwelling at the calm head (God, the source of all power).

In “Elegy 6,” the deceptive mistress, likened to the whirlpool or stream, takes on conventionally “masculine” attributes. She is active, aggressive; he becomes the vulnerable, passive victim. Not the man but the mistress is associated with fire when like the “tapers beamie eye / Amorously twinkling, [she] beckens the giddie flie” to his destruction (17-18). He is the “wedded channels bosome” (24) which she, the “streame” (21), has deserted:

She rusheth violently, and doth divorce
Her from her native, and her long-kept course,
And rores, and braves it, and in gallant scorne,
In flattering eddies promising retorne,
She flouts the channell, who thenceforth is drie;
Then say I; that is shee, and this am I.


The cumulative effect of this language, transferring conventionally “masculine” terms (for example, “brave,” “gallant”) to the woman, is not to question traditional distinctions between male and female but to show her unnaturalness, thereby reinforcing conventional distinctions between the sexes.

These distinctions were being reexamined in medical circles, as Ian Maclean has shown.32 During the late sixteenth century a limitedly revisionist medical discourse emerged as anatomists and physicians, attacking the Aristotelian idea of woman as imperfect man, argued that women and men were equally perfect in their respective sexes. But in contrast to medical discourses, ethical, legal, theological, and political discourses remained conservative in their view of woman. For all the remarkable innovation of Donne's Elegies, they are conservative, even reactionary, in their representations of the sexes. Like Aristotle, Donne presumes clear sex distinctions. Aristotle had justified what he saw as clear sex differentiation among the “higher” animals according to the principle that “the superior one should be separate from the inferior one”: “wherever possible and so far as possible the male is separate from the female, since it is something better and more divine” (De generatione animalium, 2.1 [732a]). In the Elegies, Donne like Aristotle is concerned to enforce firm sex distinctions. But whereas Aristotle assumes fixed, stable categories, Donne's poems embody strong anxiety about transgressions of hierarchical distinctions between the sexes—an anxiety understandable in a culture in which those categories, both physiological and social, could no longer be assumed to be fixed or stable. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth herself was effectively destabilizing these clear sex distinctions by publicly cultivating an androgynous image of herself as both a desirable maiden to be courted and a strong, martial ruler who was master of all her subjects and noted for her “masculine” qualities of judgment and prudence.33

In Donne's “Elegy 6” the rebellious woman, imaged as both fire and water, has transgressed the supposedly natural, proper boundaries distinguishing the sexes (as did the promiscuous mistress in “Natures lay Ideot,” which is, I believe, why the gender changes in the last lines, where the woman is compared to a male “colt,” broken in only to be enjoyed by another). The woman's assimilation of “masculine” attributes has effectively “feminized” the man (he is like a flower, or the earth that is the stream's channel). Donne's strategy is first to expose the blurring of gender distinctions as unnatural and then to restore those boundaries and reassert masculine dominance.34 Once he has exposed her betrayal, the speaker can reassert the “proper” male authority and supremacy as he warns her:

Yet let not thy deepe bitternesse beget
Carelesse despaire in mee, for that will whet
My minde to scorne; and Oh, love dull'd with paine
Was ne'r so wise, nor well arm'd as disdaine.
Then with new eyes I shall survay thee,'and spie
Death in thy cheekes, and darknesse in thine eye.
Though hope bred faith and love; thus taught, I shall
As nations do from Rome, from thy love fall.
My hate shall outgrow thine, and utterly
I will renounce thy dalliance: and when I
Am the Recusant, in that absolute state,
What hurts it me to be'excommunicate?


His warning effectively gives him control as he suggests that her beauty, and thus her power and authority over him, depends on him. Questioning the conventions that idealize the mistress, Donne suggests that the lover empowers the mistress and thus ultimately holds the reigns of control. Perhaps this is all just wishful thinking on the speaker's part, and Donne is just wittily playing with literary conventions; but in this poem which brings together love, religion, and politics, these lines have a dangerous subversive potential. When one returns to the opening analogies between amorous and political service, this ending implies that just as the power of the mistress depends upon the good will of her lover (and the power of the Roman Church depends upon the willing consent of nations), so the power of the queen depends upon her subjects.

“Elegy 6” is not the only poem to imply that monarchs can be deposed. In “Elegy 17: Variety,” the speaker rejects constancy for variety in love and invokes political language that suggests that no allegiance is permanent: “I love her well, and would, if need were, dye / To do her service. But followes it that I / Must serve her onely, when I may have choice?” (21-23). Constancy in love entails a loss of man's original “liberty” (62)—it ties him to a single person and makes him subservient to a woman. Rather than being faithful to one woman (and submitting to “opinion” and “honor” [50, 45], which Donne associates with woman in the ideology of courtly love), he chooses to follow a male monarch, making a “throne” (64) for the deposed Cupid. The political implications of this poem, in which worship/admiration of a single woman is replaced by loyalty to a king, would not have been lost on Donne's Elizabethan readers. But the poem might well have been unsettling even after Elizabeth's reign, for by the poem's end the attack on woman's rule has expanded to question the sovereignty of all rulers. Though the speaker proclaims he will now loyally serve the king of love by pursuing a variety of women, eventually even this pursuit will become tiresome and this new loyalty bondage. “But time will in his course a point discry / When I this loved service must deny, / For our allegiance temporary is” (73-75). Paradoxically, continual variety itself will prove boring, so for a change he will become faithful to a single mistress, if he can find one beautiful and worthy. Then the cycle of constancy and change will begin again. Envisioning a succession of allegiances, all of which are provisional and temporary, the poem both explores the psychology of desire and undermines an absolutist interpretation of monarchy.

In their revisions of power the Elegies thus have a politically subversive aspect which helps explain why Donne not only did not want his poems published but also in later years apparently regretted having written them (or at least, regretted not having destroyed them). Five elegies (including “Loves Progress” and “To his Mistress Going to Bed”) were refused a license to be published with his other poems in 1633. Probably it was not simply their eroticism that offended. Donne's elegies might have seemed dangerous not just during Elizabeth's reign but even later in James's and Charles I's, when Donne had finally achieved a position of prominence in the church, for repeatedly they imply that allegiances can be withdrawn, that monarchs can be deposed—which was precisely the fate that awaited Charles.

But for all their extended political resonance, I see these poems as distinctly (though not narrowly) the product of, and a reaction to, the historical situation of England's rule by a woman. Donne's anti-Petrarchanism, his debasement of women, his various subversions of women's rule, and his repeated attempts to reassert masculine sovereignty embody both the problematics of male submission to a female ruler and Donne's not unrelated personal sense that male desire requires an element of conflict, a feeling of superiority (however precarious) and the promise of mastery. Participating in the debate about women's rule as they contribute to the development of the love elegy, Donne's elegies embody a central tension: while basically conservative, even reactionary, in their insistence on male superiority and rule, they repeatedly demonstrate woman's unruliness, her subversion of permanent male rule. Thus power (whether in private, interpersonal relations, or in public, social ones) is seen as radically unstable.

The Elegies suggest that Donne was deeply disturbed by the sense that the old hierarchical order was threatened by a blurring of gender and sex distinctions (he attacks effeminacy as well as voracious, rebellious, aggressive women), by conventions such as neo-Petrarchan courtly love that seemed to invert the “proper” order in male/female relations, and by rule of a female monarch which seemingly enabled these other disruptions. Clearly, many things in late sixteenth-century English culture besides the presence of the queen on the throne contributed to the unsettling of traditional orders. But even if Queen Elizabeth's reign actually reinforced the existing hierarchies, Donne's Elegies are striking evidence that he may have perceived in it a threat to patriarchy, with its assumption of stable, permanent hierarchies. These poems reveal a deep sense of the connectedness of private and political human relations—and a strong sense that hierarchical power relations characterize the most personal and private area of human experience.


  1. See, e. g., Arthur F. Marotti, “‘Love is not love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” ELH 49 (1982): 396-428; Louis Montrose's two essays, “Celebration and Insinuation: Sir Philip Sidney and the Motives of Elizabethan Courtship,” Renaissance Drama, n. s., 8 (1977): 3-35, and “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1 (1983): 61-94; and David Javitch, “The Impure Motives of Elizabethan Poetry,” in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982), 225-38. Lauro Martines has suggested similarly complex relationships between courtly love poetry and politics in a paper “The Politics of Love Poetry in Renaissance Italy,” given at a conference on “Historical Criticism in an Age of Deconstruction” (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 13-15, 1989).

  2. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986). Further references to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text. See also John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), chaps. 3-4, who similarly argues that “power is the shaping principle in Donne's verse” (117).

  3. A. LaBranche, “‘Blanda Elegeia’: The Background to Donne's ‘Elegies,’” Modern Language Review 61 (1966): 357-68, argues that “the study of essential human relationships” is “a principal theme of the love elegy” as developed by Catullus and Ovid and later by Donne (357). LaBranche's argument should make us wary of concluding too narrowly that Donne's concern is only socioeconomic politics.

  4. Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struik and tr. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1973), 134.

  5. See Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1970), 12, and Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), chap. 7.

  6. Marotti's otherwise excellent reading of The Anagram, for example, glosses over the antifeminism when he comments, “The point of the exercise is not to indulge in a virtuoso antifeminism, but to question an entire range of amorous customs and rituals” (Coterie [note 2], 48). Other critics simply ignore those poems where the misogyny is difficult to avoid. In The Metaphysics of Love: Studies in Renaissance Love Poetry from Dante to Milton (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), A. J. Smith, gracefully describing Donne's celebration of mutual love and the interdependency of body and soul, lavishes attention on “The Ecstasy” but nowhere mentions the Elegies (chap. 3, “Body and Soul”). Recently, George Parfitt has correctly directed attention to the “reductive,” “immature” view of women in the Elegies (John Donne: A Literary Life [London: Macmillan, 1989], 30-39), but the misogyny of these poems still remains to be historicized and the political implications explored.

  7. I have used Helen Gardner's edition of The Elegies and Songs and Sonnets (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965) for the texts of the poems, though I refer to the elegies by the numbers assigned to them by Grierson in his 1912 Oxford edition. Specific references are cited parenthetically in the text by line number. I accept Gardner's dating of the Elegies as generally belonging to the 1590s (xxxii-xxxiii), though it is possible a few are later. The Autumnall has long been assigned a later date. Annabel Patterson, reminding us to be wary of assuming that all the elegies are early, argues that several belong to the period of James I (see “John Donne, Kingsman?,” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, ed. Linda Levy Peck [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991]).

  8. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe,” in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, ed. Barbara Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 147-90. Davis's concern is with the symbolism of sexual inversions, especially the image of woman on top, in popular forms of misrule, but her discussion does not extend to Queen Elizabeth and the questions raised by the political rule of a female monarch. This issue has recently been addressed by Constance Jordan, “Woman's Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 421-51.

  9. Davis (note 8) suggests that in literature, popular festivity and ordinary life, sexual inversions both confirmed women's subjection and offered potential for subversion and change (see, esp. 183). But Montrose (note 1) observes that “because she was always uniquely herself, Elizabeth's rule was not intended to undermine the male hegemony of her culture. Indeed, the emphasis upon her difference from other women may have helped to reinforce it. … The royal exception could prove the patriarchal rule in society at large” (“Shaping Fantasies,” 80). Jordan (note 8) judiciously concludes that the actual presence of a woman on the throne in Britain did not affect social conditions for women but did prompt debate over woman's rule and thus contribute to the general climate of rational inquiry that challenged the notion of fixed, absolute values (424).

  10. Jordan (note 8), 421. Jordan examines the writings for and against gynecocracy prompted by the accessions of Mary I and Elizabeth I. Most notorious is John Knox's, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Geneva, 1558), published the year Elizabeth ascended the throne, though it was written specifically against the Catholic Mary I. Knox insisted that woman's rule is “monstrouse,” “repugnant to nature,” and a “subversion of good order” (see, for example, 5v, 9r, 12v, 17r, 27v, though his charges are repeated throughout). Knox's diatribe was impelled by his anti-Catholic Protestantism, but the treatise is also an exhausting argument for woman's natural inferiority to man. Knox's treatise was answered by John Aylmer's An Harborowe for faithfull and trewe Subjectes, against the Late blowne Blaste … (London, 1559), which in counselling obedience to the queen suggested Knox's position was seditious (B1r, B1v, R2v). On the tensions for men posed by obedience to a female monarch, see also Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies” (note 1), 61, 64-65, 75.

  11. Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), argues that during the seventeenth century the “division between the public and the private [was] constructed in its modern form” (14).

  12. See Javitch (note 1), and especially Marotti (notes 1 and 2), “Love is not Love” and Coterie, chap. 1.

  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin's useful distinction between the “classical” aesthetic and “grotesque realism” as two manners of representing the human body (Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984], 18-30). But as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White well point out (The Politics and Poetics of Transgression [London: Methuen, 1986], 5-6), Bakhtin idealizes the grotesque when he identifies it with festivity and vitality. Donne's representation of the female body in the Elegies betrays a sense of revulsion that contradicts Bakhtin's sense that the bodily element is always “deeply positive” in “grotesque realism” (19).

  14. The French ambassador André Hurault, Sieur de Maisse, described her in 1597 as wearing “a great reddish-coloured wig. … As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal. … Many of them are missing” (De Maisse: A Journal of All That Was Accomplished … Anno Domini 1597, tr. G. B. Harrison and R. A. Jones [London: Nonesuch, 1931], 25-26). On Elizabeth's appearance see also J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography (1934; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), 356, and Paul Johnson, Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), 13-14, 374-75. According to Neale, her hair originally had been reddish-gold (28).

  15. Marotti (note 2) observes that the “satiric debasement of women” in this poem “could imply a general critique of the cult of female beauty with its prescribed forms of hyperbolic praise” (Coterie, 50).

  16. There may be yet another glance at the appearance of the aged queen here. The French ambassador De Maisse (note 14) recorded that the queen was given to displaying publicly, and fully, her “somewhat wrinkled” breasts (25, 36).

  17. Aristotle, De generatione animalium [Generation of Animals], tr. A. L. Peck, Loeb Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), 2.4 [738 b]; cf. 1.2 [716 a]. Further references are cited in the text. Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man (London, 1615), which collects anatomical information from “the best authors” from Aristotle and Galen to Casper Bauhin and André du Laurens, repeatedly cites Aristotle's description of the womb as “the fertile field of Nature” (200, 221, 270). On Aristotelian ideas of sexual difference, see Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), chap. 3, and Thomas Laqueur, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” Representations 14 (1986): 1-41. Galenic medicine follows Aristotle's distinctions between the sexes, though Galen diverged from Aristotle in according women semen.

  18. Symposium, in The Dialogues of Plato, tr. B. Jowett, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), 580-82; Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier … done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby [1591] (London, 1900), The Fourth Book, 357-63.

  19. Alan Armstrong, “The Apprenticeship of John Donne: Ovid and the Elegies,ELH 44 (1977): 419-42, esp. 433. Armstrong comments that Donne's elegies show “a more aggressive version of the techniques used by Ovid” (434) though the implications and significance of this aggressiveness are not the concern of his important article.

  20. L. P. Wilkinson, Ovid Recalled (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955), 44, describes Ovid's continuation of the non-conformist stance in Catullus and Propertius. For the misogynist strain in Juvenal taken up by Donne see especially Juvenal's sixth satire. Though Ovid depicts love as an art, a game, and a hunt, Wilkinson finds him “a sympathizer with women,” with “an unusual inclination to see things from their point of view” (25, 86).

  21. On Donne's connection with Essex, see Carey (note 2), 64-69, and especially M. Thomas Hester, “Donne's (Re)Annunciation of the Virgin(ia Colony) in Elegy XIX,South Central Review 4 (1987): 49-64. Hester argues that the opposition to the dominant court establishment that is inherent in Donne's association with Essex's circle underlies the anti-establishment implications of Elegy 19.

  22. Neale, 350. On Essex and his relation with Elizabeth, see also Johnson (note 14), 369-74; J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth 1558-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), 365-68, 370-73; and Walter Bourchier Devereux, Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1853). Further references to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  23. Neale (note 14), 356.

  24. De Maisse (note 14), 11-12. Montrose, who quotes this passage from De Maisse, sees the attempts of Parliament and counselors to persuade the queen to marry as in part motivated by the degradation and frustration men felt with serving a female prince, especially one not subjected to any man in marriage (“Shaping Fantasies” [note 1], 80).

  25. Not all readers have stressed these qualities. Marotti (note 2), for example, finds this poem “a curiously antierotic treatment of a sexual encounter” (Coterie, 54). Carey's emphasis on Donne's obsession with power leads him to distort the tone of this poem, which he describes as “punitive,” revealing a sadistic “urge to dominate” ([note 2], 106, 116, 117, 124).

  26. Cf. Essex's curious letter to Queen Elizabeth which reveals an urgent desire for mastery at the same time that he praises her as the object of all his desire: “If my horse could run as fast as my thoughts do fly, I would as often make mine eyes rich in beholding the treasure of my love as my desires do triumph when I seem to myself in a strong imagination to conquer your resisting will” (Lives and Letters, [note 22], 1: 292).

    Carey (note 2) finds Donne “profoundly excited by the thought of majesty” (113), obsessed by “royalty” (115), but he does not consider that these matters are problematic or subversive. See Hester's (note 21) fascinating discussion of this elegy as a subtle, radical critique of the English colonizing in Virginia, of Sir Walter Ralegh, and (by implication) of Queen Elizabeth.

  27. Cf. Montrose's analysis of the seditious political implications of the seductive mastery of a queen (“Shaping Fantasies” [note 1], 62, 65). Marotti (note 2) argues that Donne's seduction poems are vehicles for expressing fantasies of achievement and triumph in the social world (Coterie, 89-90). Both Montrose and Jordan ([note 8], 450) recognize that for Elizabeth virginity was a source of power, that to yield to a man in marriage entailed a diminution of her power.

  28. Marotti, Coterie (note 2), 52-53; also Stanley Fish's paper at the 1987 MLA, “Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power,” which argued that in the Elegies Donne and his surrogate speakers can never achieve the control they desire.

  29. See Marotti, Coterie (note 2), 56-57.

  30. For the text of this satire, I have used W. Milgate's edition of The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

  31. Paul R. Sellin, “The Proper Dating of John Donne's ‘Satyre III,’” Huntington Library Quarterly 43 (1980): 275-312, questions the traditional dating of this satire as belonging to the 1590s, arguing that the poem grows out of Donne's experiences in the Netherlands in 1619.

  32. On the revision of Aristotelian thought, see Maclean (note 17), 43-46.

  33. On the queen's androgynous image, see Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies” (note 1), 77-78. Sieur de Maisse (note 14) observes that the queen was “well contented … when anyone commends her for her judgment and prudence, and she is very glad to speak slightingly of her intelligence and sway of mind, so that she may give occasion to commend her” (37-38).

  34. Douglas, Purity and Danger (note 5), 142, suggestively remarks that “beliefs in sex pollution” are likely to flourish in societies where the principle of male dominance is contradicted by other elements in the social life—which would suggest that misogyny and a reinsistence on female inferiority would flourish if the norm of male dominance in a patriarchal society was threatened by the rule of a female monarch. Donne's interest in sexual inversions, in the crossing of gender boundaries exemplifies her second category of “social pollution”: “danger from transgressing the internal lines of the system” (122).


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John Donne 1572-1631

English poet, essayist, and sermon writer

The following entry presents criticism of Donne's works from 1990 to 2001. See also John Donne Poetry Criticism.

One of the most prominent literary figures of the early seventeenth century, Donne has nonetheless engendered widely differing views regarding the merits of his work. His reputation stands on two distinct accomplishments: the witty, sensual love poetry of his early career and the serious, devout religious writing of his later career as the Dean of St. Paul's. Donne's poetry was influential enough to be considered the basis of the metaphysical school of poetry, as characterized by later writers such as Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, and George Herbert. Donne was equally influential as an Anglican divine: his highly personal accounts of seeking God and an authentic faith address the universal difficulty of living both a spiritual and a worldly life as well as the specific struggles of the Anglican Church of the era.

Biographical Information

Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family in London. His father, a successful merchant, died when Donne was young; his mother, Elizabeth Heywood, was the daughter of a playwright who was distantly related to the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. England's rejection of papal authority directly affected the Donne family: two Jesuit uncles died while in exile and Donne's younger brother was imprisoned for sheltering a Roman Catholic priest. Donne himself was unable to obtain his degree when he was at Oxford University because he could not take the oath of supremacy recognizing the English monarch, and not the pope, as the head of his church. He attended Oxford from 1584 to 1587, and from 1591 to 1596 he continued his legal studies at the Inns of Court. While there, he developed a reputation as a serious student and as a libertine: the latter persona is reflected in the Elegies and Satyres he wrote during this period. It was also while he was studying at the Inns of Court that Donne began to consider leaving the Catholic Church and converting to Anglicanism. After completing his studies at the Inns of Court, Donne entered the military, serving in the navy with the earl of Essex. During this time, he met Sir Thomas Egerton, who later employed Donne as his secretary. This position could have been the making of Donne, but it was instead his undoing. Donne secretly married Egerton's niece, Anne More, an act that prompted More's father to have Donne imprisoned. After his release from prison in 1602, Donne's prospects for gainful employment were unpromising. Meanwhile, his wife was nearly continually pregnant, eventually giving birth to twelve children before her death in 1617. Donne's luck improved when he found influential patrons in Sir Thomas Morton, the countess of Bedford, and Sir Robert Drury. Some biographers have suggested that Donne came to embrace the Anglican faith in order to advance himself professionally. While this view remains controversial, Donne did serve Morton by helping him write broadsides against the Catholic Church once Donne's conversion was official. The essays Pseudo-Martyr (1610) and Ignatius His Conclave (1611), both anti-Catholic treatises, followed soon after. The death of Drury's daughter was the occasion for Donne's Anniversarie poems in 1611 and 1612. Donne also accompanied Drury on a diplomatic mission to France at this time, a year-long journey away from his wife that inspired one of Donne's best-known poems, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Donne's writing received the attention of James I, who felt that the essayist could serve the interests of the English Catholic (Anglican) church. James pressed Donne to take holy orders, a vocation Donne resisted for some time before submitting to the king's request in 1615. Donne acquitted himself well in his new profession. His Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) was well received, and he developed a reputation for thoughtful and articulate sermons. In 1621, James insisted on Donne's promotion to Dean of St. Paul's church in London. Donne suffered periods of illness for the next ten years while continuing to preach and write. His first published sermon, Deaths Duell (1632), was referred to by many as Donne's funeral sermon, delivered as it was by a man so plainly dying. He died only a few weeks after giving the sermon and was interred in St. Paul's.

Major Works

Although religious study and spiritual seeking were significant parts of Donne's writing life, his best-known works are his love poems. The poems classified as Songs and Sonets in particular are fine examples of the literary school later associated with Donne, that of the metaphysical poets of the mid-seventeenth century. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is in this group, as well as “The Canonization,” “The Ectasie,” and “The Flea.” These poems exhibit the provocative subjects and innovative language for which Donne would later be both condemned and praised. The Elegies and Anniversaries have similar qualities. The Elegies are not funeral poems, as the term implies in modern usage, but most often love poems characterized by sensual and even overtly lustful themes. The Anniversaries, however, are genuinely elegiac tributes to a young woman Donne hardly knew; critics suggest that Donne's careful adaptation of the elegy to address issues beyond the short life of Elizabeth Drury effectively redefined the genre. Donne's writing in these poems combines both intense passion and logical argument, features that would also help shape his Holy Sonnets. Among the better known of these poems are “Batter my heart, three person'd God,” and “Since she whom I lov'd,” the latter a lament on the death of his wife. While many of the Holy Sonnets are assumed to be the products of a more mature poet—written anywhere from 1609 to sometime after 1617—some biographers have suggested that the searching tone of some of the poems may also reflect the serious side of Donne as a young man. Donne's early prose is not often read by modern students, but his sermons and devotions remain a central part of his oeuvre. Perhaps the best known among these is the prose work “No man is an island,” included in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Donne's importance as a religious thinker is reflected in the posthumous publication of several of his sermons in LXXX Sermons (1640) and his Essays in Divinity (1652).

Critical Reception

Among the first critics of Donne's poetry was the playwright Ben Jonson, with whom Donne maintained generally friendly relations. Donne and Jonson read and critiqued each others' work: Jonson found Donne witty but decried his earthy subject matter and his innovations in poetic meter. Nineteenth-century writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Browning, and Thomas DeQuincey, however, appreciated Donne's lack of reserve and stylistic experimentation, celebrating his works as brimming with life and filled with primeval emotion. Donne's status in the canon of English literature was consolidated in the twentieth century when major critics—including T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, and Cleanth Brooks—acknowledged Donne's ability to capture the human experience in poetry. Appreciation for Donne has never been universal, however. C. S. Lewis considered Donne's poetry overrated, flawed in both structure and content. More recently, influential scholar Stanley Fish has openly declared his dislike of Donne's work, which he has described as “bulimic.” Critics have been similarly divided on the subject of Donne himself. Donne writes in distinct personas that appear to serve his present needs without regard to consistency: his earlier poems are those of a witty courtier seeking favor and patronage, his later poems are concerned with theology and personal salvation. Similarly, while his earliest essays are strongly anti-Catholic, some of his later verse seems to show Catholic sympathies. Such inconsistencies have occasioned charges that Donne is insincere and self-serving—that his writing and even his conversion to the Anglican Church reflect not his personal beliefs but his attempts to rise in English society. One of the strongest statements of this position appeared in John Carey's 1981 biography of Donne, a highly influential and frequently cited volume. Carey has suggested that apostasy and ambition were the driving forces of Donne's career, describing the man himself as violent and driven and his poetry as powerful only to the extent that it reflects the poet's personal aspirations. The image of Donne as a forceful poet with a masculine drive to dominate has been a frequent theme of Donne criticism after Carey's biography. Fish embraced this view and argued it further, although other critics—notably, some feminist critics—have suggested that Donne's unique representation of gender as sometimes fluid or ambiguous belies the portrait of Donne as a domineering patriarch. Donne's view of women has also been a subject for disagreement. An important article by Achsah Guibbory has advanced the view of Donne's poetry as a document of masculine anxiety about female authority, focusing on the grotesque images of the feminine in his Elegies. The variety of Donne's verse has also permitted alternate contemporary views of his attitude towards women, particularly with respect to Donne's feelings for his wife, Anne More Donne. Maureen Sabine has proposed that Donne's love poetry reflects a deep attachment to More, although earlier critics had dismissed this view. Similarly, the authenticity of Donne's break from the Roman Catholic Church has remained a topic for scholarly debate. Whether critics have seen Donne as a secretive Catholic or a devout Anglican, however, many have been willing to accept Donne's devotions and religious poetry as sincere expressions of faith. Donne's melancholy and his spiritual anxiety are interpreted by many critics as a reflection of his deep concern with creating a Christian community and having a right relationship with his God.

Maureen Sabine (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Sabine, Maureen. “No Marriage in Heaven: John Donne, Anne Donne, and the Kingdom Come.” In John Donne's “Desire of More”: The Subject of Anne More Donne in His Poetry, edited by M. Thomas Hester, pp. 228-55. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Sabine discusses the importance of Donne's wife to his love poetry.]

“In the last hour of his last day, as [Donne's] body melted away and vapored into spirit,”1 Izaak Walton depicted the poet facing death with remarkable composure. However, Donne's own tormented poetry invites me to imagine another death-bed scenario. His “sad friends” open his shirt to see if his “breath goes now” (“A Valediction forbidding mourning,” ll.3-4), and bring an ear to the Dean of St. Paul's chest, only to discover there the letter ‘A’ that scored the flesh of another minister of God and transgressive lover, Arthur Dimmesdale.2 For marriage to Anne More was “the remarkable error of his life” that eluded Walton's understanding and narrative control (263) as he struggled to disentangle “the many labyrinths and perplexities” of Donne's personal history and lead his biographical subject to the safety of a holy death (269). Anne More was “the remarkable error” that runs like the thread of female fatality through the strong life and love lines of Donne's poetry, making him fear even six years after his wife's death and seven years before his own “that when I' have spunne / my last thred” he will not expire with Walton's edifying words “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” on his lips (270), but the defiant marital pun “when thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For, I have more” (“A Hymne to God the Father,” ll.5-6).

In this commemorative essay on Anne Donne, I propose that the letter ‘A’ is the mark of Anne and her figurative but problematic importance to Donne. I would like to explore what the letter ‘A’ might stand for by looking at five poems, “The Relique,” “The Canonization,” “The Anniversarie,” “A Valediction of my name, in the window,” and “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day,” and so begin to consider that most private and impossible of questions—what a wife might have meant to her husband.3 I commence with “The Relique,” which spells out the name I see, in answer to Christopher Ricks,4 responsible for blighting the beauty, the grace, and the spiritual-corporeal depth of Donne's love poetry, the name that blots Anne's letter ‘A’, the unclean and unclear name of adulteress. It would have been unpardonable for either Donne or Walton to make Anne's resemblance to an adulteress clear when she was the faithful companion and wife to him in adversity and died as a result of her twelfth childbirth in 1617. However, the early Church father St. Jerome is explicit in his condemnation of the man who is so passionately in love with his wife as to become an adulterer and make his wife a harlot.5 After Anne was dead, Donne would cite Jerome in a marriage sermon addressed to the bridegroom who might be tempted “to love a Wife like a Mistresse” (Sermons 2, 345). Walton had no desire to resurrect the public scandal that Donne's secret, illicit, and, by Elizabethan patriarchal standards, seditious marriage in 1601 to the minor Anne More caused.6 But he hints that Donne might have loved Anne like a mistress before making her his wife by suggesting that their union was one of headlong passion, blind to all obstacles (252). For Jerome, such fatal sexual attraction was a lascivious sin. For the critic Ilona Bell, who speculates not only that John Donne and Anne More burned with desire for one another, but became lovers as long as two summers before their winter marriage in 1601, their love affair anticipates our more frank and sexually liberated era where women as well as men can boldly proposition one another.7 Donne's own defiant comments in a letter of apology to Anne's irate father rival those in “The Canonization” for bluntness: that they “adventurd equally” and “yt is irremediably donne.”8 For the lovers have found each other simply irresistible. Perhaps the repeated proof that they gave of “love['s] new heate” (“Love's Growth,” l.25) “saved” their marriage from annulment and Donne from a long spell in prison. Yet Donne also implies that his attachment to Anne is not simply one of physical urgency but an existential choice for better for worse; that sexuality gives expression to his identity as “donne.” Finally, there is the Calvinist-like admission that his behavior to Anne and her father is inexcusable, that he cannot justify, remedy, or make good what he has “donne.” He has committed a sin that is close to irredeemable. It would cause Donne unspeakable anguish to examine his own “highly passionate” nature in the Holy Sonnets, which Walton had recognized as a key to his character (271), and admit that in loving Anne or those who were a “dreame” and promise of her (“The good-morrow,” “Aire and Angels”) so prodigally, he had not only neglected his duty to his Elizabethan superiors but failed his God. Renaissance moral theologians still followed Jerome in the insistence that an impassioned marriage alive and aglow with sex was not only adulterous but idolatrous.9

The deep sense of shame, fear, and grief that pervades the Holy Sonnets and especially “A Hymne to God the Father,” the obsession there with the idolatrous and profane loves of the past, and the strong, erotic imagery that is sublimated with only partial success into a diatribe directed at God, suggest that the sexual passion of Anne and John's “first strange and fatall interview” (“Elegie: ‘On his Mistris,’” l.1) lasted as long as their marriage. Indeed both Theresa M. DiPasquale and Achsah Guibbory suggest that even after Anne's death, Donne's desire to have her in the flesh did not die.10 In fact, the memorable Westmoreland sonnet that Donne wrote after Anne's death, “Since she whome I lovd,” employs the vocabulary of delirious young love, used circumspectly by Walton in his biography (252), such as “melts” (l.8), “ravished” (l.3), “thirst” (l.7), “begg” (l.9), “woe” (l.10) and “tender jealosy” (l.13). This erotic textuality points to the pleasure of an ardent and active sexual relationship in which husband and wife generously honored their conjugal debt, giving their bodies freely to one another until Anne's “last debt [was] payd” (l.1) in death. It also points to the warm memory of the pleasure that keeps Anne alive for Donne in the poetic lines that are a punning substitute for having her in his loins.11 Yet this beautiful tribute to Anne and to a sexual lifetime together ends in “feare” (l.11):

But why should I begg more Love, when as thou
Dost woe my soule, for hers offring all thine:
And dost not only feare least I allow
My Love to Saints and Angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealosy dost doubt
Least the World, fleshe, yea Devill putt thee out.


This is the neurotic fear attributed to God but instilled in the speaker by the superegos of Christianity, that sexuality cannot be a dynamic force “wholy” (l.4) and purely channeled for good through love.12

By contrast, in “The Relique” Donne does not show “feare” or “doubt” about the sexual current that runs from love human to the divine but lets passion wash over and pour out of his verse.13 Rather than deny that the letter ‘A’ of Anne's name might be read as the sign of adultery and the letter ‘J’ or ‘I’ of his name as the mark of idolatry, the poet exults in these joint sins of profligate lovers. For through them he now imagines a macabre likeness between “a loving couple” (l.8) who are corrupting in a single grave and those lovers who have been purified, perfected, and glorified for all “time” and every “age”—Mary Magdalene and Christ.

Thou shalt be'a Mary Magdalene, and I
                    A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men.


In absolving the reputed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, of her sins, Christ challenged male purists, who may have little to forgive but have shown little love, to abandon the conviction that the woman had committed a grave sin. Instead, they must contemplate the truth that through sexuality as well as through her female sex, she had opened her whole being to the grave mystery of divine love. She is christened as a return for her extravagant outpouring of self in the tears, kisses, and perfume that she showers on Christ's feet. “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7.47). The generous message embedded in these words encouraged Donne to rewrite “the remarkable error” of his improvident marriage to Anne, and here in “The Relique” to absolve his couple playfully of “grave sin” by speculating on their grave love, which is to say, the love that endures in and beyond the grave. This subject was no joking matter for Donne, as DiPasquale also observes,14 and in later sermons he obsessively worried over the Christian resurrection of the body and the soul's attachment to its prior human existence even when in heaven.15 In “The Relique,” it amused but perhaps also comforted the poet to see human lovers with Christ's eyes, by depicting his speaker as “something else,”16 and look through the flesh into the soul as Christ tenderly looked upon Mary Magdalene, not searching for sins of sex but reading the signs of salvation. Indeed, this was the loving way in which Walton scanned Donne's life, wondering at that “highly passionate” nature that yearned for “something else,” something “more” to life. That something was both his wife and Christ.17 Donne's youthful motto, “Sooner dead than changed”18 captures the noncompliant spirit not only of “The Relique” but of many of his other and later love poems; and it illustrates his reluctance to sacrifice one love experience for another, however much Walton may insist that “all his earthly affections were changed into divine love” (259). The relationship between Mary Magdalene and Christ gave him cause to hope that earthly affections were not simply changed into but by divine love.

Mary Magdalene touched Christ's life at three moments of critical importance to Donne—after lovemaking, at the hour of his death, and after the resurrection. She was depicted as the impure sinner who became the saint of pure, mystic love.19 However, the odor of female sexuality as well as sanctity clung to her, not only when she first threw herself in abandonment at Christ's feet, but in her concern to touch Christ's body one last time with burial spices, and to embrace him in the flesh when he appeared to her in his glorified body.

Ostensibly, Donne represents the Mary Magdalene and the Christ figures of “The Relique” as paradigms of the spiritual and asexual love that profane couples must be satisfied with “at the last busie day” (l.10), when they are resurrected and reunited in the body. “Difference of sex no more wee knew, / Then our Guardian Angells doe” (ll.25-26). Donne was alluding to Christ's avowal to his disciples in Matthew 22.30: “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”20 He was also reiterating Augustine's theological qualification “ubi sexus nullus est” that the human resemblance to God is one in spirit and does not extend to sexual difference.21 But the profane wit of “The Relique” subverts the official effort of Christianity to detach the body from its lurid history of sexuality and clothe it in the brilliant spiritual raiment worn by the angels who announced the risen Christ. The title of the poem directs our special attention to the “bracelet of bright haire about the bone” in line 6 that is the primary relic of the sainted lovers. The decomposition process has left little more of them than a bleached bone and some hair to prefigure the dazzling spiritual transformation that the material body will undergo after the final resurrection. Yet the devout women who come to venerate this relic will do so with a fervor unequalled by men (“all women shall adore us, and some men,” l.19), kissing and embracing the braceleted bone and so suggesting the lovemaking that the saints themselves disavow. Even if in life they avoided sex, unbelievable as it may seem, in death their bodies dissolve into one and become sexually indistinguishable. “Difference of sex no more wee knew” (l.25). This was not the merciful release from sexuality that Augustine envisaged but a fusion fitfully found in the “comming and going” (l.27) of sexual climax, a fusion that Heathcliff hoped to seal with Cathy Linton in the grave.22 If the lovers assume a missionary position in the grave as they would have, had they as Christians engaged in sex, then it becomes impossible to say whether the bone is the phallus encircled by pubic hair or the bone behind the uterus, which the phallus touches as the male body collapses and dissolves deep into the female interior. In these last stages of corruption, the phallic body, in fact, encounters the os crucis, or holy bone (as the bone behind the uterus was known),23 which reminds us that hidden deep in lovemaking is that other redeeming Passion of the Cross, while hidden in the neurotic shadows of Christianity, at the foot of the Cross, lies a passionate history of human redemption through lovemaking. Also hidden in the corpus of this poem between the first resurrection, when Mary Magdalene met the risen Christ, and the final resurrection, when the indistinguishable lovers of “The Relique” will be reunited with their bodies and with each other, lies the resurrection of priapus, “the upright one,” who is a travesty of Isaiah's suffering servant of God who “made his grave with the wicked” (53.9-11) and a reminder that Christ and “Crosses” are to be found even “in small things” (“The Crosse,” l.21). Grave sin through sexuality comes and goes in importance like the phallus itself, and ultimately falls away before love's grave mystery.

Donne performs “miracles” in his love poems that have dazzled successive generations of readers. In “The Relique,” these were miracles in which he salvaged material from his damaging marriage to Anne and reanimated it, as though “at the last busie day,” in his verse. The vehement desire that drove Anne More and John Donne together and put them on a collision course with Elizabethan patriarchy is allowed full play in Donne's poetry. As we have seen, sexual feelings find a way even into the pure, arid realm of metaphysical speculation and eschatology. This libidinous energy empowered the poet to find life where there was death; to seek reassurance when he contemplated sex as the beginning of the end in “The Canonization,” “A Valediction of my name, in the window” and “The Anniversarie” that Anne and he would not die to one another; and to look for signs of life after Anne's death in “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day.”

Christopher Ricks has, however, deplored the way in which Donne recoils from the libidinal force that he unlooses in his love poetry—as though absolving sex of sin—only to turn against the passion that stirs deep and true in his verse.24 Yet even when Donne's lines crackle with desire, he was heavy burdened by the Augustinian legacy of Christian morality that saw sexual pleasure not only as an evil in itself but as the “virus” that transmitted original sin from one generation to another, “that sinne where I begunne, / which is my sin, though it were done before” (“A Hymne to God the Father”).25 Yet the “remarkable error” of his marriage also stiffened his resistance to this sexual pessimism and made him acutely aware of the fact, which Peter Brown has traced to early Christianity, that the body is “deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul”;26 in other words, that sexuality can arouse immortal longings. To repudiate sexuality as a sin would be not only to sin against something that was bedrock donne in his own nature but to do evil to the good, the honor, and later the memory of Anne. “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, For, I have more.”

In “The Canonization,” his speaker rails against the joyless austerity of a protocapitalist society that indefinitely postpones pleasure for the sake of enrichment and promotion. Is a world that does not value, honor, celebrate, or sanctify lovemaking but drives it underground into cult practice, subversive poetry, and destructive suicide pacts a world we really want to live in, for godsake, this speaker asks? Donne's secret courtship, marriage, and life with his wife at Mitcham, which make Anne so difficult to locate in his poetry, gave credence to the view that is articulated in “The Canonization:” that a couple's sex life is nobody's business and should be kept private. However, the hidden and unmentionable nature of the act does inevitably provoke voyeuristic speculation: What exactly do they do? and a semi-religious wonderment: Do they still love one another and make love with such constancy? Even before the Reformation struck matrimony off as a sacrament, prurient clerical regulation of the married couple's sex life made it difficult for lovers to engage in uninhibited marital relations or to glimpse the blessings of sexuality in the conjugal vow, “with my body I thee worship.” Prior to the Reformation, intercourse was banned during a draconian number of designated “holy days.” Couples had to refrain from sex on all Sundays and feast days, during Advent and Lent; and if they wished to receive communion they were obliged to undergo a passionless passion altogether unlike the ecstasy of “The Canonization” and practice sexual abstinence three days before. Such restrictions made it almost impossible for couples to regard their lovemaking as a holy activity that made them whole before God. It was equally hard for either partner to regard the fertile female body as a sacred and mysterious proof of love when husbands were forbidden sex and wives communion during such periods as menstruation, after childbirth, and during lactation.27 The phenomenal fecundity of Anne—she was pregnant twelve times, or nine full years out of her sixteen-year marriage to Donne—is a matter of public record. The unflagging sex drive that must have engendered this record is a matter for the pornographic minds of Liaisons Dangereuses or the court scandalmongers of “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone”;28 yet it is a matter that is left wide open to the imagination by the wild claims of the speaker in “The Canonization.”

Call us what you will, wee'are made such by love;
                    Call her one, mee another flye,
We'are Tapers too, and at our owne coste die,
                    And wee in us finde the'Eagle and the dove.
                              The Phoenix ridle hath more wit
                              By us, we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutrall thing both sexes fit.
                    Wee dye and rise the same, and prove
                    Mysterious by this love.


If, as Bald believes, “The Canonization” alludes to the early years of Donne's marriage to Anne,29 when they had nothing much to live on or for except sex, then the speaker's wild claims for lovemaking appear a noble attempt by the poet to look beyond his marital miseries and hold fast to “the kingdom, the power, and the glory” that is revealed to men and women in their bodies. St. Paul had assured the Romans that “God has imprisoned all human beings in their own disobedience only to show mercy to them all” (11:32). The chief mercy that God shows to the rebellious lovers of “The Canonization”—and perhaps to Donne himself after his own release from prison—is the sexuality where they can offer their “bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12.1). When Donne wrote “The Canonization,” the “living sacrifice” that constituted the heart of the Eucharistic service was provoking passionate debate, dissent, and recusancy among Catholics and Anglicans.30 The worship that Christians could safely conduct in private, without need of a priest, the communion that remained freely available to all despite “difference of sex” or creed was the lovemaking, the living sacrifice of highly sexed bodies, that is given both sacrilegious and sacramental importance in “The Canonization.” The speaker of this poem has at once the worst opinion and the highest regard for sexual love. His “palsie,” “gout,” and “five gray haires” (ll.2-3) are symptoms of an unrepentant fornicator; for frequent intercourse was commonly regarded as a petit mort that led to premature aging, baldness, and death.31 Yet these same infirmities and the aroused sexual state that they presume are given startling new meaning by Christ's assurance that: “every hair on your head has been counted” and is precious in the sight of a God of love (Luke 12.7). Likewise, as has been often noted, the speaker and his mistress give a sensational new angle to Christ's death on the Cross and Mary Magdalene's witness to his Resurrection from the tomb when they “dye and rise the same, and prove / Mysterious by this love.” Their sexual climax is an idolatrous parody of Christ's deliverance of man from sin but also exults in the revolutionary vision that the sexual consummation of a love match like Anne and John's helps to complete the work of redemption, the work of redeeming men and women not from, but in the flesh. The poet's own plea for mercy to his estranged patron, the Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Egerton, “that redemtion was no less worke than creation,”32 is similar in spirit to “The Canonization” and suggests how he tried to do in art, what he failed to do in life, which was to defend and glorify “the remarkable error” of his marriage and the sexual abandon that was regarded as such undignified behavior. To Egerton and the other keepers of Elizabethan law, a lover's presumption that there is a divine meaning to his sexual misadventure would have seemed the height of arrogance and absurdity. Yet it is hard not to cry mercy for that frail, fool-hearty, but brave hope that Donne formulated in “The Canonization” and perhaps composed in the social exile of Mitcham.

                              You whom reverend love
                    Made one anothers hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage,
                    Who did the whole worlds soule extract, and drove
                              Into the glasses of your eyes
                              So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize,
                    Countries, Townes, Courts: Beg from above
                    A patterne of your love!


The hope is that if the Body of Christ was breaking up as an institutional power and a sacramental force in the world, indeed if marriage was no longer a sacrament,33 the corpus mysticum survived, concealed in lovers' bedrooms, sexed bodies, and amorous sonnets. The lovers themselves are held up in place of the sacred host, which was once elevated. It is they who provide “Countries, Townes, Courts” with that eye-glass, or round, mirrored window, that opens like the Eucharistic monstrance of old on the mystery of Christ died, risen, and come again. But what a momentous change Donne has wrought in this poem. For the pornographer's visual images—the hole and the prick, the unspeakable sexual acts and aids—have become “something else,” something sacred and mysterious. In this moment of revelation, Christianity seems to implode as it is driven in on itself and forced to see its own unedifying history through lovers' eyes. Yet extraordinary claims are made for such an unprepossessing pair of lovers! Like Jane Eyre, they have not been gifted with any beauty or wealth. They are no longer young and do not appear to possess the fit, attractive physique of youth. Indeed, they suffer from complaints that are a definite sexual turn-off—weepy eyes, runny noses, chills, and fever. They have the same undependable bodies as you and me, or John and Anne Donne. They are consumed by worry, fatigue, and ill-health and not only by desire. Yet they insist that it is lovemaking—not marriage or sex but the intimacy that lies somewhere between the two34—that unites and braces them to face life's vicissitudes.

“If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved,” swore the speaker of the Shakespearean marriage sonnet (116). We may assume but can never be certain that “The Canonization” was Donne's private sonnet on his own marriage. What I have argued is that he was writing about “something” more intimate—the “remarkable error” of passion that occasioned his secret marriage to Anne. His speaker never really silences the wagging tongues that gossip that this passion is a disgrace. But he looks beyond the sin, idolatrous and preposterous though it may be, and as Christ studied the heart of Magdalene, discerns that lovemaking can be a channel of grace. If lovemaking is consecrated in “The Canonization” and given the spiritual importance that formerly belonged to the sacraments, the death of the beloved, whether real or imagined, threatens to close down one of the few remaining channels of grace “open to most men” (H.S. 179, l.14) and spawns “a sinne of feare” (“A Hymne to God the Father,” l.13), which Donne resists in “The Anniversarie,” panders to in “A Valediction of my name,” and surrenders to in “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day.”

In “The Anniversarie,” it is not perfect love but young love that casteth out fear. Couples who meet and fall in love in youth must be pardoned if they naively imagine themselves to be immortal. Even the weary, pained speaker of “The Canonization,” who should know better, feels a godlike flame flickering in the passionate love of later life, the love that gathers intensity from the melancholy presentiment of death. But the speaker of “The Anniversarie” has not yet been battered about the heart and glories in the fact that he has loved one whole year and not just “one whole day” (“Womans constancy,” l.1). Like the young Paul McCartney singing “When I'm sixty-four,”35 he cannot really imagine getting old nor can he imagine that his longstanding relationship will be subject to time or their love subject to temporal authority. He has a lot to learn and he learns fast.

                    All Kings, and all their favorites,
                    All glory'of honors, beauties, wits,
The Sun it selfe, which makes times, as they passe,
Is elder by a yeare, now, then it was
When thou and I first one another saw:
                    All other things, to their destruction draw,
                              Only our love hath no decay;
This, no to morrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keepes his first, last, everlasting day.


By the second stanza, the speaker has become wise to the fact that their love is mortal and because mortal, corruptible. In “A Valediction of my name” Donne's speaker would pursue a similar line of reasoning. But it will generate a different and more malignant fear: that his mistress might be corrupted by lust and so deal a mortal blow to the enduring spirit of their union. The speaker of “The Anniversarie” contemplates mortality more philosophically, but only because he deadens the pain of love and softens the unbearable truth with which he opens the second stanza. “Two graves must hide thine and my coarse, / If one might, death were no divorce” (ll.11-12). The stronger the attachment, the more grievous will be the sorrow of separation. Death does us part. Some critics have maintained that “The Anniversarie” can have no bearing on Donne's marriage to Anne but must be alluding either to their premarital relationship or another love affair because the couple in the poem occupy two different graves.36 But I think they miss the point that is being tacitly reiterated—that “true deaths, true maryages untie” (“Womans constancy,” l.8). Whether their union is officially recognized or not, long or short-term, this couple enjoy a “true maryage” because they have dramatically touched, altered, and interanimated each other's lives. Yet, however much this love has shaped their very souls, they have come together, as Augustine put it, through a “corruptible and mortal conjugal connection”37 that will be dissolved by death and corruption in the grave. God sunders what he has joined.38

Donne's speaker promises his mistress more than the sun and the moon. He promises her a love that “hath no decay” (l.7), that will make life eternal. He then gently disabuses her of these high hopes and shows her the two graves, which are brutal proof of the fact that death is a divorce, however much either the poet himself or his critics or any of us might wish otherwise.39 As John Carey has shown,40 Donne had great difficulty in accepting the orthodox Christian belief that the soul could endure separation from the body at death, could enjoy heavenly life in the interim without this body, or suffer the long wait until the physical resurrection. For Donne conceived of the relationship of the soul and the body in terms of the marital union. “God married the Body and Soule in the Creation,” he preached and “as farre as man is immortall, man is a married man still, still in possession of a soule, and a body too; and man is for ever immortall in both. … For, though they be separated … they are not divorced” (Sermons 7, 257). In a sermon on the Last Day (3, 112-13), Donne later compared the “gladnesse” that soul would experience when it was reunited with its flesh to the joyous reunion of a man with his friend, companion, and wife, in other words with “a real companion” through life like Anne Donne.41 Yet one of the reasons, I propose, why the thought of death and resurrection steals like a thief in the night into his love poems is because he was haunted by Christ's admonition to his disciples: “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22.30). The death of the body was therefore the death of love in human form and flesh, which is the only love we know. For as Donne himself would conclude in “Aire and Angels,” when he likened the afterlife of angels in heaven to the human sense of preexistence, “Love must not be, but take a body too” (l.10).42

Therefore, the speaker's closing declaration in the second stanza, “when bodies to their graves, soules from their graves remove” (l.20), has sombre implications, though it is unclear from the third and final stanza of the poem whether the speaker is anticipating an existence in heaven before or after the physical resurrection.

                    And then wee shall be throughly blest,
                    But wee no more, then all the rest.
Here upon earth, we'are Kings, and none but wee
Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects bee.


Donne's lovers will recognize one another in heaven but will no longer enjoy the singular blessing of an exclusive or lasting claim to each other through ties of flesh and blood. They will “be throughly blest” but no longer blest in intimately discovering or knowing each other's bodies. Love will be “increased there above” (l.19), which is to say they will love everyone equally but no one in particular.43 What this meant personally for Donne was that he might hope to have “more Love,” but with it went the lamentable realization of the Westmoreland sonnet that commemorates Anne's death and analyzes its psychological impact on the poet, that “more Love” meant “no more.” The poet takes us as readers to the saddest of reunions in the next life, where we will no longer commemorate the “anniversaries” that give our individual lives meaning. These are the birthdays, first meetings, wedding anniversaries, and anniversaries of death that remind us of the psychic necessity of personalized love relations from birth through to the grave. Then, matter-of-factly, Donne brings us back down to earth. “Let us love nobly; and live” (l.28). If there will be no kings or favorites in the “new heaven, new earth,” then we should count our blessings, even if they are mortal, and be content that “we'are Kings,” the most important figure on earth to at least one other person.

The “true maryages” that flourish in Donne's love poetry are those that defy time; yet despite their bravado and their bluster, they advance relentlessly toward death. As Philippe Ariès has noted and as I shall now show in “A Valediction of my name, in the window,” it is at the breaking point when the finality of death is psychologically absorbed that “there can be an almost neurotic reinforcement of the marriage bond”44 as the partner tries to build a bridge to the beloved across the great and silent divide. Like Donne's other valedictions, “A Valediction of my name” ends where it begins. So we discover in the final stanza that the poem is a sexual daydream concocted by a speaker who languidly goes through the motions of lovemaking while his mind flirts with death.45

                              But glasse, and lines must bee,
No meanes our firme substantiall love to keepe;
                    Neere death inflicts this lethargie,
                    And this I murmure in my sleepe;
Impute this idle talke, to that I goe,
                              For dying men talke often so.


In Scripture, Christ warned his followers that they must be ever on the alert for the sudden arrival of death, for they know not the hour or the day. While a lover who lies in the arms of his mistress prays for the hour of his death, the sudden loss of his sexual powers when they are at their full strength perhaps explains why this particular speaker talks in the closing line of the poem as though he is a doomed man. The fear, however, that Donne allows to filter into the no-man's land of sleep and dream, fantasy and imagination is not his own death as a conscious identity or the death of the author46 but the death of the lover. In imagining the worst, Donne could recall the Catholic witnesses “who by nature had a power and superiority ouer my will,”47 and who gave consummate proof of love in their public emasculation and dismemberment.48 The legends of these martyrs who went like bridegrooms to their hanging and mutilation may have interplayed with the popular myth that hung men experienced the sexual excitement of an erection.49 For the “ruinous Anatomie” (l.24) and “scatter'd body” (l.32) of the speaker certainly suggest that he daydreamed not only that he died but was torn apart for love. How many readers would be as honest as this speaker and admit that they indulged in melodramatic fabrication of their own death as a perverse torment to themselves and their loved ones? Yet this is the serious make-believe that we employ as an apotropaism to protect ourselves against the knowledge of death, which is first consciously understood when life and other people become precious, “when love and griefe their exaltation had” (l.38). In childhood, we imagine how sorry our family and friends will be when we die and cry in secret at our own sad reflection in the mirror, as the speaker of “A Valediction” hopes his mistress will weep at the sight of his name engraved in glass. Later, we luxuriate in the more adult and erotic torture of wondering if our partner will find another lover after we are dead. Perhaps “A Valediction” was also occasioned by Donne's private memories of his life at Mitcham between 1605-9, when he often lay sick and sometimes wondered if he was dying.50 Thus, the anguish of acknowledging in retrospect that Anne could have married someone else, someone at least as witty and a lot more wealthy, someone who did not keep her pregnant and impoverished, may account for this poem's disturbing psychological undercurrents. This was, however, an anxiety that in general seventeenth-century couples kept to themselves, along with the secrets of their sex life; for it was common practice to remarry with all due dispatch after the loss of a husband or wife. Donne was unusual in promising his children that he would never marry again after Anne's death, though there were many practical advantages to a second and more prudent alliance in middle age.51 Not only in this, but in his abnormal grief and express desire to join Anne in the grave with the same haste of their scandalous marriage, Donne withstood the vulgar thinking of Claudius that death was a common theme. His poem is also uncommon in its neurotic insistence that death is the only certain test of the beloved's fidelity and love's lasting power. In this respect, “A Valediction” anticipates that romantic revolution in affectivity that the Brontës articulate.52 Individuals like Heathcliff and Cathy Linton or Rochester and Jane Eyre cannot accept the fact that the grave will keep them apart even if they have been fatally separated in life.

The morbid affectivity of the Brontës' lovers can begin to be felt in Donne's “Valediction of my name.” Indeed, rather than wait for death to claim him as “time's fool,” the speaker employs his erotic imagination to trespass into the world of shadows. Thus, as he is lying in bed, perhaps dreaming of dying in flagrante delicto, his thoughts stray from the upright flesh to Paul's exhortation to the Ephesians: “the things which are done in secret are shameful even to speak of,” and finally to Paul's command that they must become pure and upright: “Wake up sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (5.12-14). I have argued that “A Valediction” is occasioned by a sexually exciting but also pathological reverie on death in which the speaker envisages his spirit rising up from the bed on which his body lies prostrate. In a remarkable prefiguration of the parapsychological experience that Mr. Lockwood will have in the paneled bedcloset of Heathcliff, Donne depicts the speaker as coming like a ghost to the window of his bedchamber and standing behind his name engraved in the glass.53 Lockwood saw the letters of star-crossed love, “Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton,” glare luminously from the dark wood on which they were carved as he lay fitfully asleep.54 In like manner, the speaker prophesies that the name engraved on glass will glow supernaturally in the dark, perhaps from his own spectral aura, and so remind his mistress that she is joined to him, not only as Jane Eyre stated, “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” (476) but in spirit for eternity. In the later half of the poem, the speaker depicts his mistress as trying with as little success as Lockwood to shut out the name that haunts her waking and sleeping thoughts, and look out for another lover. Of course, Donne did not carve the letters of any old name into the window of his poem. His speaker is no John Doe but “Jo: Donne,” as he frequently signed himself. And if the sexual anxiety that surfaces in the second half of the poem suggests that he was half expecting a Dear John letter, it came from a woman and an emotional tender spot deep within himself. For Donne was simultaneously comparing his name before he met Anne and his life without her to that existential connection of letters that spelled out both their marriage and his second and more spiritual name, “Johannes Donne.” Spirit communication, telepathy, prophetic dreams, and ghostly sightings appear regularly in Donne's poetry as metaphors for uncannily close lovers.55 Walton would later remark on the “sympathy of souls” between John and Anne Donne and recount with some discomfort the psychic experience that the poet had while abroad with the Drurys in early 1612, when he discovers in “a dreadful vision” that leaves him speechless with shock and ecstasy that Anne has been delivered for the eighth time—of a still-born child.56

“A Valediction of my name” is obsessed not only with jittery subjects like lovers' partings and death but with clairvoyance and spiritualism, as we can see from stanza II:

                              'Tis much that Glasse should bee
As all confessing, and through-shine as I,
                    'Tis more, that it shewes thee to thee,
                    And cleare reflects thee to thine eye.
But all such rules, loves magique can undoe,
                              Here you see mee, and I am you.


It is just possible then, as John Shawcross has cautiously noted, that the poem was written after Donne's traumatic separation from Anne in 1612, when he seems to have had some extrasensory perception that she had lost their child. But while such an event is consistent with the ethereal character of the poem, the mystic and magical properties of their joint name, and the telepathy between the speaker and his mistress, it does not explain why Anne lies hidden at the heart of both his name, “Johannes Donne,” and the poem he wrote on his name. In order to get at that, I suggest we turn again to Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. I have already proposed that the poetic drama is set in motion by Paul's command in chapter 5: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I do not think the allusion to this passage was simply the result of random or associative thinking. For it comes in the middle of a homily Paul delivered on sex and marriage that is pertinent to Donne's love poetry and his life with Anne. Paul's exalted vision of marriage as a great mystery that bodies forth Christ's love, sacrifice, and communion with the Universal Church was one that Donne struggled imperfectly to realize in “The Canonization.” Paul's precept that “husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself” (28-29) clearly reflects the nobler sentiments expressed in the first half of “A Valediction.” The implicit supremacy in Pauline thought of the husband as head over the wife even though each is equally subject and attached to the other when “the two become one flesh” (32) also touches directly on Donne's relationship to Anne as it is expressed in the name “Johannes Donne.” On the one hand, she is doubly trapped not only within her married name and Donne's surname but within his Christian name Johannes as well. She is completely possessed by him; he is completely obsessed by her. His poetic warning that his spirit will continue to possess her and his later outburst of sexual jealousy in stanza VIII, where he fears that she may become the trophy wife of another man, show the consuming nature of his love. Paul himself was well aware of the “sexual immorality or impurity or greed” (5) to which Donne's speaker descends in the latter half of this poem; and in later life, Donne would express “shame” for the licentious wit of his love poetry and his early reputation as a womanizer.57 In Paul's view, what made sex something other than an omnivorous screwing instinct, what made marriage something other than male pride of ownership, privilege, and possession, was love. Only the love of Christ could correct the evil tendency in human nature to divinize sexuality: “sexual immorality … is worshipping a false god” (5-6) or to divinize the loved one and so commit another and more infernally clever form of idolatry.58 Both in his life and in his art, Donne felt prone to these dual idolatries; “Valediction of my name” is no exception. Often, his speakers would turn in disgust on one craving—whether for sex or for a particular woman—and savagely embrace the other, leaving a critic like Christopher Ricks with the understandable impression that Donne was “corrosively unfaithful” to the finer spirit of his love poems.59 Stanza III suggests that the ballast to his treacherous changes of heart or to the inner disarray that Paul had seen in the Ephesians lay with Anne.

                              As no one point, nor dash,
Which are but accessaries to this name,
                    The showers and tempests can outwash,
                    So shall all times finde mee the same;
You this intirenesse better may fulfill,
                              Who have the patterne with you still.

(ll. 13-18)

The art of discerning Donne's character from his signature involves not only graphology but cryptography, for his writing is secret, intelligible only to those with a key to his heart. Many are the readers who have thus tried to do a cardiograph on this poet, goaded on by the hearts that he lays open for anatomy in his love poetry but that remain foolproof to analysis. In the above stanza, Donne suggests that it is Anne who has the key, “the pattern,” or the code that can decipher the tempestuous points, dashes, scrawl, and scratches of his character. This is because Anne is present inside his name—Johannes—not only as his sole possession but as his stable inner self, his soul. The naming of her within his name—the identification of Anne at last—is crucial to the self-representation that develops in “Valediction of my name.” For as he said in another “Song” of leave-taking, which is also thought to have been written at the time of his continental journey with the Drurys, she is his “sweetest love,” “the best of mee,” his “divining heart.” These compliments of almost mystical sweetness redeem the vicious streak that runs through Donne's poetry. William Empson was close to the truth when he suggested that the mistress is made a Christ in Donne's love poetry.60 It is a truth that also shows how strong is the human temptation to idolatry. But Donne could narrowly avoid this temptation in stanza III by bearing in mind the qualifier of Paul: “As God's dear children, then, take him as your pattern, and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up for us as an offering and a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5.1-3). The pattern of love for both man and woman, husband and wife, lies in Christ. Each can see, if he or she wishes, the face of Christ in the other. Sexual love need not be the enemy of Christian love but a means of following Christ, especially when there is the blessing of a “true maryage,” as in the poems I have already examined. If Donne is absent from this poem either because he stands condemned by contemporary theory as an author or because he imagines himself a ghost, Anne is the “firm substantiall” presence of stanza V, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, soul of his soul:

                              Then, as all my soules bee,
Emparadis'd in you (in whom alone
                    I understand, and grow and see,)
                    The rafters of my body, bone
Being still with you, the Muscle, Sinew', and Veine,
                              Which tile this house, will come againe.


As the mother is often the earliest love object that the child magnifies into a figure of numinous importance, so Anne provides psychic mirroring for Donne, reassuring him that he is seen, understood, known by name, and loved. Psychoanalysis now realizes that self-integration, psychological development, and religious maturity all depend upon the growth in affirmative personal relations that can sustain us from birth to death.61 In the second stanza of “A Valediction,” Donne may claim that he is a godlike artist whose poem creates Anne (“it shewes thee to thee,” l.9) and makes her over in his image (“here you see mee, and I am you,” l.12). However, by the fifth stanza he also concedes that she reconstitutes him through her love; and without her, he cannot “grow” either reproductively or spiritually in likeness to Christ. As John and Anne create each other anew in this poem, so we have in Christ the mystery of a God who humbles himself to the life cycle; who could not be incarnate without the consent of Mary to be his mother; who allows us to find him reflected in the faces of those we love the most; and who consequently feels “tender jealosy” towards the poet's idolatry, for it is only human of Donne to see in Anne God's image.62

To bring my argument to its close, I turn to “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day.” I am prepared to run the risk of being labeled “naive”63 by presuming that this charnel house of a poem was inspired by Anne's death on 15 August 1617; and that it might well have been written as that terrible year drew to an end, when, Walton suggests, Donne sank deeper into depression, “his very soul … elemented of nothing but sadness” (260). The complicated Latin epitaph that Donne composed for Anne's funeral monument afforded him one last opportunity to sign his name as “Johannes Donne.” We have seen in “A Valediction of my name” that Anne gave his signature her depth, substance, and stability. After her death, he was indeed existentially diminished to “Jo: Donne,” that “ragged bony name” that preached Anne's mortality and his “ruinous” grief. The portrait that depicts Donne in the Deanery of St. Paul's in 1620 shows a grave figure with hollow, sunken eyes, much altered from the neat, dapper face in the Issac Oliver miniature made a year before Anne's death. By the time Donne posed for his own funeral monument in 1631, he had become a “deaths head,” the living embodiment of his skeletal name, as the emaciated face in the Droeshout engraving shows.64 He was not altogether exaggerating when he described himself in “A nocturnall” as a “dead thing” (l.12) or a “carcasse” (l.27), more inhuman than a “beast” (l.32), more unfeeling than “plants,” and more cold than “stones” (l.33) when Anne More, the soul of his named identity, was dead. As he said in another elegy, “sickly, alas, short-liv'd, aborted bee / Those Carkas verses, whose soule is not shee” (“A Funerall Elegie,” ll.13-14).

I propose that we approach this poem by standing with Donne at the foot of the bed in which Anne died five days after giving birth to a stillborn daughter.65 In all likelihood, this was the marital bed where Anne made love with John, conceived their children, and endured twelve confinements and where he, in turn, imagined and even conceived some of his most evocative love poems. Given the centrality of the household bed to the great passages of life in the seventeenth century—labor and birthing, marriage and sex, the death throes and passing—it would have been almost impossible for the speaker who grieves, “shrunke” (l.7) in upon himself, in the shadows of the bed, to think of “her death, (which word wrongs her)” (l.28) without recalling the other vital human activities that were performed in this bed and keep her so vividly and painfully alive for him. Anne herself died in the middle of the night, and Donne's “nocturnall” not only commemorates this fact, but in its express allusion to St. Lucies feast day on 13 December, the poem also canonizes the month of their marriage in 1601.66 The legality of their union, contracted after a whirlwind courtship that may have begun in the summer of 1600, was not clearly established until the spring of 1602.67 Neither Anne nor John seems to have been psychologically prepared for the cold condemnation or rebuff to which they would be subjected. Their marriage, a major occasion for social celebration, propelled them instead into a world of outer darkness where they were all but dead to the society that had sustained them. The dramatic contrasts and surprising reversals contained within their own marital narrative is remembered in the nostalgic close of the “nocturnall,” where the speaker advises a new round of green, young lovers to cherish what little time and happiness they have together before they too pass into oblivion.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
                    At this time to the Goat is runne
                    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                              Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.


The cyclic pain in this poem, where the blackest of nights recalls the sweetest of days, where the dead of winter awakens thoughts of hot summer love, and where Anne's last rites renew the memory of the Donnes' marital rites, derives, in part, from the woman's body that is laid out on the bed before the speaker. In his memorial tribute to Anne,68 Donne would record the “Immani febre correptæ” or savage, immense, ravishing fever that killed her and that points to the puerperal fever that claimed many women in childbed. Yet the history of Anne's childbearing years suggests the remarkable resilience of her body and the regularity of both their marital relations and her female cycle. Rough calculation of the birthdates of the Donne's twelve children indicates that Anne must have been pregnant during some period of almost every year of their marriage. Three of her children were conceived around the time of their wedding anniversary in December and five of their children were born in the winter months. Two children were conceived near the time of Anne's death in August, while three children were born in August, the last being the direct cause of her death. There were five spring conceptions and four spring births. The spring conceptions resulted in winter births; the summer conceptions in spring births; and the autumn conceptions in August births. The power of this female cycle—so abruptly stopped—continues to throb in the seasonal rhythms, solar rotations, and emotional revolutions of a “nocturnall.” The speaker's outrageous complaint that “I am every dead thing” (l.12), when his mistress lies cold and still before him, indicates not only the self-centered nature of grief as we go over and over our own pain of loss, but the psychological difficulty of living with the death of those who have been such a vibrant center of our lives. However, the circular thinking in this poem where death greets life and life embraces death is a deep mindset rooted in the ancient association between the nuptial bed and the deathbed. Long before marriage was regulated by those laws that proved an impediment for Anne More and John Donne, it was customary for the nuptial blessing to be bestowed on the couple at night, in bed, prior to sexual consummation of their union. The marital “festivall” followed with the coming of the light and lasted for three days. But this could be a “long night” for the newly joined couple because sexual abstinence was sometimes required of them.69 Donne's speaker honors this venerable ritual in his generous impulse to give young lovers his blessing, to invoke the blessed memory of his beloved partner, and to hope that his sorrow may be a tenebrae, or three-day passion of darkness that prefigures resurrection and new marriage.

In the closing lines of his Latin epitaph in memoriam of Anne, Donne prayed for “Nouo matrimonio (annuat Deus) hoc loco sociandos, a new marriage (may God assent) in this place joining together.” We have returned full circle to the longing of “The Relique,” where the speaker hopes that he and his mistress may “make their soules, at the last busie day, / meet at this grave” (ll.10-11). But though Anne and John were a devoted couple, Donne would survive his wife by fourteen years, another lifetime, almost as long as their marriage. Anne, meanwhile, would share a grave with her stillborn daughter,70 not the husband whom she loved and who had pledged to mingle his ashes with hers. From her grave, she posed the fear that lies buried in his most profound love poetry—the fear that we are alone in death, that what remains of him will be “Jo: Donne,” not “Johannes Donne,” for there are no marriages in heaven.

The clichés of romance speak of undying love and point to the enduring strength of our human attachments. The pain of death and bereavement is bearable for many Christians because they behold in the credo of the resurrection the promise of reunion with those whom they loved on this earth in the flesh. In the love poems that I have examined, Donne celebrated our love in human flesh as a thing divine. But in the Westmoreland sonnet, which he wrote after his wife's death, he depicted God as competing with Anne for his love and exclusive claim to his soul. Other Holy Sonnets and religious poems such as “A Hymne to Christ” or “A Hymne to God the Father” strengthen the impression of a God who is a possessive monster.71 “As thou / art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now, / Thou lov'st not, till from loving more, thou free / my soule” (“Hymne to Christ,” ll.17-20). This God does not hesitate to batter and break the human heart in order to subjugate the soul. Smoking ruins are all that is left of the ties and troths that weave our human existence and that strike delight to the inmost heart of his love poems.72 Yet, however distorted Donne's representation of divine love in his religious verse may appear, his views are perfectly consistent with the orthodox thinking of male religious celibates even today that, sad as it may first seem, “man and woman are not made for one another but for God.”73 Walton's hagiography of Donne's metamorphosis from a lover and poet into a preacher is predicated on such a premise. Though Donne loved and died, hungered and raved in his poetry like a Heathcliff, his holy death is that of a “high master-spirit” like Brontë's St John Rivers, who wants no human lover and who gasps to his divine betrothed, “Surely I come quickly.”74 What I have tried to show in this tribute to Anne More is that Donne's most exalted ideas of love do not arise out of a detachment from personal intimacy but out of a dogged devotion to human attachments “even to the edge of doom.” As he admits in the Westmoreland sonnet, Anne drew him towards God. “Here the admyring her my mind did whett / To seeke thee God” (ll.5-6). In “A nocturnall,” he ponders the psychological truth that the death of “she whome I lovd,” and with her of primary intimacy, makes the world seem unreal, the self seem insubstantial, “all others” (l.19) insensible, and life godforsaken. If death brings our personal loving to an end, with all its adulterous excess and idolatrous intensity, it may mean the death of God as well. If there is no marriage in heaven, there will be no “new marriage” of divine love either; since it is the lifelong family romance of parents and siblings, mother or father figures, and mature lovers and friends that give rise to belief in God. Cut this love-knot, “divorce mee, ‘untie, or breake that knot againe” (“Batter my heart,” l.11), cut Donne free from More, extract Anne from the core of John, and you leave the shell of a man, the shadow of a God; for you have plucked out the heart of their mystery.

What ending can we rearrange for Donne that acknowledges the primacy of Anne in his poetic communication of love for others or for God? To the poet has been destined the arduous task of resurrecting his love from the grave, indeed from the very ashes of the crypt. To feminist literary critics has recently been bequeathed the work of making the dead, the silent, and women speak again. We only have Donne's word—the subject of endless speculation—for what Anne might say. I suggest, then, that we turn to another woman figure to supply Anne's closing remarks, a woman who brought nobility to the stigma of adultery, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. At the beginning of this study, I imagined the dying Donne's secret alliance with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in his transgressive love for his wife. Both Walton and Hawthorne give the man, not the woman, the final word. Both Donne and Dimmesdale imagine the end of life with fear. “I fear! I fear!” cries Dimmesdale, “that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion.” Let us close, however, with the prior questions that Hester Prynne puts to Arthur Dimmesdale: “‘Shall we not meet again?’ whispered she, bending her face down close to his. ‘Shall we not spend our immortal life together’?”75 Let us hope the answer is yes.


  1. Izaak Walton, “Life of Dr. John Donne” (1675), in Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, ed. Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), 270. (Subsequent references will be parenthetically indicated by page number in the text.)

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and Selected Tales (Penguin Books, 1986), 270-71.

  3. Critics have traditionally regarded Donne's love for his wife as sacrosanct and have avoided any unseemly suggestion that he could have been actively thinking of his wife when he wrote his most shocking or profane love poems by suggesting that he wrote them before his marriage or that his mind was on other things. John Carey has claimed most recently in his edition of John Donne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 88, that most of the Songs and Sonets were written after 1603, while John T. Shawcross dates them before 1601 in “Poetry, Personal and Impersonal,” The Eagle and The Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), 56. Rather than conclude that Donne is a hypocrite or a cold-hearted bastard, I think we should pursue the thought that Anne inspired not only Donne's love but his love poetry, even if Shawcross warns us of the intentional fallacy and the danger of reading her too directly or personally into his poems as the actual subject (54, 62). Good reasons have been put forward for not relegating Anne More to the shadowy background of Donne's biography, but for bringing her forward as a vital issue for his love poetry by John Haffenden in his edition of William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature, Vol. 1, “Donne and the new philosophy” (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 21-25. Haffenden follows Empson in refusing to leave Anne out of the speculative discussion of Donne's love poems, “Donne in the new edition,” 146-53. Two of the contributors in this volume, Camille Slights, “A Pattern of Love: Representations of Anne,” and Achsah Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’: Death and the Loss of Sacramental Love,” argue that Anne cannot be found as an historical presence but only as a figure with representational power in his work.

  4. Christopher Ricks, “Donne After Love,” in Literature and the body: essays on populations and persons, ed. Elaine Scarry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1988), 34-35.

  5. See Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” 16-29, for a fine discussion of Christianity's tangled history of sexuality, esp. pp. 213-17 for her remarks on Jerome.

  6. Dayton Haskin, “On Trying to Make the Record Speak More,” in this volume, also suggests that Walton tried to downplay the notorious history of Donne's marriage to Anne More, at the same time that he indicated this was “not done” conduct.

  7. “‘Under Ye Rage of A Hott Sun and Yr Eyes’: John Donne's Love Letters to Ann More” in The Eagle and The Dove, 31-33. See further related comments in Bell's essay in this volume, “‘if it be a shee’: The Riddle of Donne's ‘Curse’.”

  8. See R. C. Bald's account of this debacle in John Donne: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 134.

  9. Theresa M. DiPasquale, “Ambivalent Mourning in ‘Since she whome I lovd’,” and Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” both in this volume, also emphasize Donne's fear of idolatrous attachment to Anne.

  10. Ibid., 1-8, 13-14, respectively.

  11. Ricks, “Donne After Love,” 62.

  12. Empson, “Donne in the new edition,” 152, believes that Donne only paid cynical lip-service to Jerome on marital love “because he could not otherwise feed his wife and children.” However, a recent reviewer of Haffenden's edition of Empson's essays on Donne, Eric Griffiths, argues in the TLS, “One Double string: Donne, Empson and the perplexities of love,” 30 July 1993, 7, that the poet was more seriously oppressed by Christianity's sexual pessimism than Empson imagined. DiPasquale, “Ambivalent Mourning,” and Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” make related points.

  13. See Frances M. Malpezzi's essay “Love's Liquidity in ‘Since she whome I lovd,” in this volume, for a discussion of water imagery in Donne's verse and the representation of Anne as a sacred stream.

  14. DiPasquale, “Ambivalent Mourning,” p. 183.

  15. See John Carey's discussion of Donne's anxieties about death and resurrection, especially as they relate to the severance of the body and soul in John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber paperback, 1981), 222-24. See, for example, Sermons 4, 358 where Donne argues: “naturally the soule and body are united, when they are separated by Death, it is contrary to nature, which nature still affects this union; and consequently the soule is the lesse perfect, for this separation” and his review of both orthodox and heretical views as to whether the resurrection was one of soul and/or body in 3, 115-116 and 4, 74-75.

  16. Thomas Docherty, John Donne, Undone (London: Methuen, 1986), 175-76, summarizes the body of critical opinion that holds that “a something else” is a daring euphemism for “A Jesus Christ.” See, for example, Theodore Redpath's 2nd ed. of The Songs and Sonets of John Donne (London: Methuen, 1987), 286-87 or William Empson, “Donne the space man,” 87.

  17. Malpezzi, “Love's Liquidity,” sees a steady movement higher in love from Anne to Donne. I do not.

  18. From the earliest extant portrait of Donne, which dates back to 1591 and was made into an engraving by William Marshall for the Poems of 1635.

  19. Patrick Grant, Images and Ideas in the Literature of the English Renaissance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), 114. See Susan Haskins' splendid cultural history Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor (London: Harper Collins, 1993), esp. 177-91, though, alas, she does not discuss this poem.

  20. DiPasquale, “Ambivalent Mourning,” and Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” also believe this passage was disturbing for Donne.

  21. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for The Kingdom of God: Women, Sexuality and The Catholic Church, trans. Peter Heinegg (Penguin Books, 1991), 53, refers to Augustine's De trinitate 12, 12. See Edmund Hill's trans., The Trinity, Vol. 5 of The Works of St. Augustine, ed. John E. Rotelle O.S.A. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991), 329. Augustine fittingly quotes St. Paul's famous promise to baptized Christians in Gal. 3.26 that “there is no male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and concludes that “because they are being renewed to the image of God where there is no sex [my italics], it is there where there is no sex that man was made to the image of God, that is in the spirit of his mind.”

  22. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Penguin Books, 1985), 319-21. Heathcliff bribes the sexton to bury him beside Cathy in the grave. “By the time Linton gets to us, he'll not know which is which.”

  23. Alan W. Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (London: Thames & Hudson, 1954), 108.

  24. “Donne After Love,” 64-65.

  25. See Ranke-Heinemann's discussion of Augustine's theological efforts to link original sin not only to intercourse but sexual pleasure in Eunuchs for The Kingdom of God, 76-77, 92-93 and 259, as well as Donne's own echoes of Augustine's sexual anxiety in Sermons 7, 361-62. See also Guibbory's related points in “Fear of ‘loving more’.”

  26. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (London: Faber paperback, 1989), 235-36. Marina Warner in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Quartet Books, 1978), 97, discusses the later legacy of Aquinas, that “the soul's personality is expressed by and through the body.”

  27. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for The Kingdom of God, 138.

  28. Bald, John Donne, 139.

  29. Ibid., 146-47. See Haskin's discussion of the history of interpreting “The Canonization” as it relates to Donne's secret marriage, above, pp. 39-65.

  30. See Malcolm Mackenzie Ross, Poetry and Dogma: The Transfiguration of Eucharistic Symbols in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 1-48, and James S. Baumlin's modern theoretical restatement of the problem in his chapter “Sacramental Theology and the Poetics of Absence,” John Donne and The Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 159-90.

  31. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for The Kingdom of God, 182.

  32. Bald, John Donne, 138.

  33. The arguments of DiPasquale in “Ambivalent Mourning,” Malpezzi in “Love's Liquidity,” and Guibbory in “Fear of ‘loving more’,” esp. 5-6, all rightly suggest that Donne's verse gives sacred and sacramental importance to Anne but none note this crucial historical closure.

  34. Eric Griffiths argues in his TLS review of Empson on Donne's love poetry, “One Double string,” 7, that “Donne lived in the between of two lives, not in their union; this is why he loved to make up words beginning with ‘inter’.” However, psychoanalytic feminists like Jessica Benjamin have described a psychic state of intersubjectivity that “refers to what happens between individuals and within the individual-with-others, rather than within the individual psyche.” See “A Desire of One's Own: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms and Contexts, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 78-101, esp. 92. Without this sense of intersubjectivity, Benjamin argues that there can be no profound sense of subjectivity and I would argue that Donne's habitation of a ‘between’ state in his love poems points to this intersubjectivity. The Holy Sonnets, on the other hand, may point to that intrapsychic and phallic mode of representation that “does not distinguish between real and imagined, inside and outside, introjective-projective processes and interaction.”

  35. See Julia Walker's intriguing discussion of the numerical importance of 64 to Donne, and the Beatles to some of his critics in “Anne More: A Name Not Written,” in this volume.

  36. See Carey, Life, Mind and Art, 92, who believes that these lines could not possibly have been addressed to Donne's wife but that the question of the woman's identity is beside the point. Ilona Bell argues, in contrast to the critics who read an unmarried love affair in these lives, that “John Donne wrote ‘The Anniversarie’ for Ann More when her name was More,” “Donne's Love Letters to Ann More,” The Eagle and The Dove, 46.

  37. See Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), 161.

  38. Donne touches uneasily on this issue in an Easter sermon of 1627 (7, 376-78). He notes Aquinas' familiarity with a body of Catholic opinion that “Death it selfe does not dissolve the band of Marriage.” Donne did not share this Roman disapproval of second marriages and felt that Christians should not be stopped from marrying again if their spouses died. Nonetheless, he counsels continence—the course he himself chose after Anne's death—as more consistent with the monogamous ideal of having one partner through life and perhaps beyond.

  39. See the Shawcross ed., n. 19, 109.

  40. Life, Mind and Art, 162-63, 200-1, 222-23. Carey argues on 162 and 223 that at the time in his theological studies when he wrote the Holy Sonnets, Donne flirted with the heretical theory that the soul must die or sleep with the body until the Last Judgment. Helen Gardner firmly held that as a preacher Donne insisted that the soul is immortal and does not die with the body. See Appendix A, “Donne's views on the State of the Soul after Death,” in The Divine Poems of John Donne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 114-17.

  41. Bald, John Donne, 326.

  42. “We shall be like the Angels, sayes Christ; In that wherein we can be like them, we shall be like them, in the exalting and refining of the faculties of our soules; But they shall never attaine to be like us in our glorified bodies,” Donne argued in Sermons 6, 297. But in 3, 117, he added that “flesh and bloud … preserved by propagation and generation … cannot inherit heaven, where there is no marying, nor giving in marriage, … we shall be as the Angels.”

  43. Obviously, I disagree with Helen Gardner that “it is a lover and his mistress, not a husband and wife, who prefer to be blest ‘here on earth’ rather than to share with others the full bliss of heaven,” quoted by Haffenden in his “Introduction” to William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature, 23. DiPasquale argues in “Ambivalent Mourning,” that Donne longed for what he could not hope to have, “a heavenly continuation of his marriage to Anne.”

  44. “Love in married life,” Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times, ed. Philippe Ariès and André Bejin, trans. Anthony Forster (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 138.

  45. Walker, “Anne More,” also suggests the poem is spoken in bed after lovemaking.

  46. See Baumlin's deconstructive reading of this poem, “Sacramental Theology,” John Donne, 176-84, esp. 180.

  47. Bald, John Donne, 39.

  48. John Carey in his Oxford ed. of John Donne, xxi.

  49. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 609.

  50. See Shawcross's discussion of the possible biographical circumstances that evoked this poem in The Eagle and The Dove, 56, 61-62, and Carey's discussion as Oxford editor of the autobiographical allusions in the poems and puns on Anne More's name, John Donne, xxvi, 88. Shawcross thinks most of the Songs and Sonets were written before 1601; Carey thinks after 1603.

  51. Walton, 259-60 and Bald, John Donne, 326-27, note these practical advantages.

  52. See Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, 442, 455, 581-82.

  53. My reading differs “materially” from the fine analysis of Elaine Scarry, “Donne: ‘But yet the Body is His Booke’” in Literature and the body, 82-83, in that she presumes that Donne stands in flesh and blood on the other side of the window, while I think he comes as an apparition to haunt his wife and frighten her into lifelong fidelity.

  54. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 61-67.

  55. See “Elegie: On his Mistris,” l.47; “Elegie: His parting from her,” ll.69-72; “The good-morrow,” l.6; and “The Dreame,” ll.15-18.

  56. Walton, 256. See Bald's account of these strange events in John Donne, 251-53.

  57. Bald, John Donne, 121, 135.

  58. DiPasquale, “Ambivalent Mourning,” 6-7, 13 and Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” 10, discuss Donne's all-too-human temptation.

  59. “Donne After Love,” 64.

  60. “Donne in the new edition,” 141. Malpezzi in “Love's Liquidity” concludes that “Donne's love—in his role as poet—has been patterned on Christ-in-Anne.”

  61. See Ana-Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

  62. See Catherine Keller's feminist revisioning of God as related to all persons and as feeling the experiences of the world in From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism and Self (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 214.

  63. Carey, Life, Mind and Art, 92 and Judith Scherer Herz, “Donne and the Poetics of Concealment,” The Eagle and The Dove, 11, argue that it would be “naive” to read the “real grief or real loss” of Anne's death into this poem.

  64. See the relevant plates of Donne in Bald, John Donne, 382, 312, 529 respectively.

  65. Ibid., 324.

  66. See Kate Gartner Frost, “Contexts of ‘A nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day’,” in this volume, who argues that this date had strong private meaning for Donne and that he may even have married Anne on this day.

  67. Bald, John Donne, 139, says 27 April, to be exact.

  68. I am indebted to M. Thomas Hester's translation and critique of the Latin epitaph in this volume.

  69. Philippe Ariès, “The indissoluble marriage,” in Western Sexuality, 142-43.

  70. Bald, John Donne, 325.

  71. See Empson's damning verdict on Donne's “disgusting God” in “Donne in the new edition,” 152, although Malpezzi, “Love's Liquidity,” believes Donne followed scriptural and Christian tradition in seeing jealousy as a mark of God's goodness.

  72. I echo Rochester's beautiful tribute to Jane Eyre on 182 of the Penguin ed., 1985: “I knew … you would do me good in some way, at some time: I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you: their expression and smile did not … strike delight to my very inmost heart so for nothing.” Like Guibbory, “Fear of ‘loving more’,” I agree that Donne's God ultimately “requires what seems humanly impossible—the renunciation of the closest, deepest ties to those who seem virtually a part of our selves.”

  73. William Johnston, S. J., The Mirror Mind: Spirituality and Transformation (London: Collins, 1983), 168.

  74. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 477.

  75. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 269.

Principal Works

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Pseudo-Martyr (essay) 1610

An Anatomy of the World. Wherein, by Occasion of the vntimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drvry the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented (poetry) 1611; Revised as The First Anniversarie. An Anatomie of the World, 1612

Ignatius His Conclave; or His Inthronisation in a Late Election in Hell: wherein many things are mingled by way of satyr; concerning the disposition of Jesuits, the creation of a new hell, the establishing of a church in the moone (essay) 1611

The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progres of the Soule. Wherein, By Occasion Of the Religious death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the incommodities of the Soule in this life, and her exaltation in the next, are Contemplated (poetry) 1612

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Severall steps in my sickness (devotions) 1624

Deaths Duell (sermon) 1632

Juvenilia; or Certain paradoxes, and problems (prose) 1633

Poems (poetry) 1633

LXXX Sermons (sermons) 1640

BIATANATOΣ, A declaration of that paradoxe or thesis that self homocide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise. wherein the nature and the extent of all those lawes, which seeme to be violated by this act, are diligently surveyed (essay) 1647

Essays in Divinity (essays) 1652

The Works of John Donne, D.D., Dean of Saint Pauls 1621-1631, With a memoir of his life 6 vols. [edited by Henry Alford] (poetry, essays, sermons, devotions, epistles, and prose) 1839

The Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. [edited by Herbert J. C. Grierson] (poetry) 1912

The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. [edited by Simpson and George R. Potter] (sermons) 1953-62

The Complete English Poems (poetry) 1985

The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne [edited by Charles M. Coffin] (collected works) 1994

Essayes in divinity. being several disquisitions interwoven with meditations and prayers [edited by Anthony Raspa] (essays) 2001

Selected Letters [edited by P. M. Oliver] (correspondence) 2002*

Lisa Gorton (essay date September 1998)

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SOURCE: Gorton, Lisa. “John Donne's Use of Space.” Early Modern Literary Studies 4, no. 2 (September 1998): 1-27

[In the following essay, Gorton employs contemporary theories of cosmology and physics as a context for understanding Donne's poetry.]

Donne's writing shows he was fascinated by new discoveries. He took up the modern idiom of maps and discovery with delight. But he was also deeply attached to the past, and his assumptions about space belonged to an old tradition: a cosmographic rather than cartographic way of imagining space. This paper is about Donne's spatial imagination: its cosmographic assumptions, and its many contradictions—between old and new ways of imagining the cosmos, between cosmographic and cartographic ways of imagining the world, and between his spatial imagination itself and his narrative voice.

We are almost always aware of where Donne's speakers are, but he creates that sense of place with startling economy: with prepositions rather than descriptions. His characters inhabit peculiarly simplified locations and spatial arrangements: a town under siege; a “little roome”; a “pretty roome”; a room encircled by the outside world, by spies, by pilgrims, by cosmic spheres or the sun; centres and circles. It was not the appearance but the shape of space that interested Donne, and he used the same shapes over and over again in his poetry and prose, as if they formed a kind of language for thinking about relationships; as if he had a spatial apprehension of a thought (rather than the “sensuous apprehension of a thought” for which Eliot praised him), and imagined a relationship's intangible configurations of power, passivity, privacy and fusion in spatial terms, as shapes.1

We can see that Donne's writing is full of circles: symbolic, loving, social and spiritual. We can argue that he phrased ideas to himself in spatial terms. However, our distance from his assumptions about space makes it difficult for us to understand why. His spatial language took forms and meaning from a traditional conception of space, which seems very odd to us today. We generally think of space as a characterless abstraction. We think of it without picturing circles, or considering forces. We think of space without imagining the cosmos.2 But space was a different story for Donne. It was material, forceful, meaningful, full, and arranged into concentric circles. This was the concept of space the new philosophy called into doubt, while cartography offered an alternative way to picture it, in two rather than three dimensions, and all these contradictory ways of imagining space play against each other in the foreground of Donne's poetry. However, the traditional interpretation of space formed the background to his spatial imagination. He expected space to mean something; to take certain shapes, which indicated forces.

The tradition came out of the belief that the cosmos was a finite sphere, with nothing outside it. Plato laid out cosmic space in spheres in the Timaeus. Aristotle adapted and developed this arrangement in his lectures On the Heavens and in Physics by making it part of his explanation of why things moved as they did.3 Plato described “space” as the “receptacle” or fundamental and characterless substance in which changing qualities enacted themselves.4 Aristotle identified Plato's space (kh”ra) with his own prime matter.5 Like Plato, he rejected the opinion of the atomists. Space was not a three-dimensional void in which particles moved.6 It was the outcome of material dimension, hence his denial that “space” as we might imagine it—as a void or three-dimensional abstraction—existed at all.7

Augustine built the idea that space was a set of concentric spheres into Christian philosophy when he interpreted the Book of Genesis in accordance with it in The City of God.8 It became an assumption necessary to understanding how and why things moved, with Aquinas' interpretation of Aristotle's Physics,9 and quasi-doctrinal once Aquinas based certain of his proofs that God existed upon Aristotelian premises,10 and concluded his Commentary upon Aristotle's Physics on the triumphant note:

And thus the Philosopher ends his general discussion of natural things with the first principle of the whole of nature, who is over all things, God, blessed forever, Amen.11

Of course, there were very many variations upon this cosmic scheme, many of them highly creative, but almost all of them were variations upon the common theme of cosmic “cohaerence … just supply and … Relation,” operating across the concentric spheres of space the symbolic value of the traditional scheme explained why the “new Philosophy” called “all in doubt.”12

Variations were fitted onto the following basic model. The cosmos was centred upon earth and arranged in concentric spheres.13 The sphere enclosed by the orbit of the moon was called the sublunary sphere and the sphere above it, the celestial sphere. In the sublunary sphere everything was always becoming something else, living and dying, but the celestial sphere was made from better, purer, simpler stuff than the sublunary sphere, and the heavenly bodies lasted for all time, and moved for all time in a regular pattern. The pattern could be understood numerically as a set of ratios. Their purity was associated with their supposedly circular motion, and contrasted with the rectilinear motion of sublunary things, which moved up and down and came together and fell apart because they were composite. They were made from the four elements of earth, water, air and fire, each of which naturally belonged to a different sphere of the sublunary realm, and sought its natural place, so pulling natural bodies up and down and apart.

Perhaps this description has led us to picture the cosmos as a set of concentric spheres, set up like an armillary sphere. But we have to be careful not to imagine an abstract arrangement in three dimensions. Space was material, and the shapes of space had force and meaning. In the Almagest Ptolemy wrote that “almost every particular attribute of material nature becomes apparent from the peculiarities of its motion from place to place. [Thus we can distinguish] the corruptible from the incorruptible, by [whether it undergoes] motion in a straight line or in a circle … and passive from active, by [whether it moves] towards the centre or away from the centre.”14 Like Plato, Aristotle and his Christian followers made “the contrast between circular and rectilinear motion a symbol of the contrast between the eternal and the transient, hence also between the psychical and the physical, even the divine and the mortal.”15

These metaphysical attributes of space allowed Donne to imagine metaphysical relationships in spatial terms; in terms of the sphere, circle, centre, circumference and set of concentric circles that gave shape to space in the closed cosmos, where space took shape and meaning from the forms that filled it.16 But the new philosophy of the seventeenth century challenged this idea of the cosmos,17 so calling “all in doubt,”18 a doubt caught up by an odd moment in Donne's 1609 satire, Ignatius His Conclave. Copernicus is in hell, arguing he deserves a leadership role there because he threw the world into confusion with his new cosmology, and doing well until Ignatius argues that Greeks such as “Heraclides, Ecphantus, & Aristarchus” said the earth moved long before he did and, besides, he “may be right” in what he said.19 And even Satan could not be certain. The new philosophy brought uncertainty with it, and while Bacon pictured a ship sailing past the old bounds of knowledge in the frontispiece to his New Atlantis, Donne referred to it as a sign of the frailty and decay rather than the progress of human knowledge in The first Anniversary, as if the old certainties were not wrong, but “lost.”20

Donne's poetry plays upon the uncertainties of the time. He co-opts them to his own uncertainties: his radical changes of perspective; his radical juxtapositions of different perspectives; his balancing of possibilities. He uses different ways of imagining space to illustrate different attitudes, sometimes referring to the new philosophy, and sometimes writing as if he'd never heard of it. He chooses the philosophy that illustrates what he wants to say. In a letter to a friend he writes, “methinks the new philosophy is thus appliable well, that we which are a little earth should rather move toward God, than that He … should move toward us.”21 But in “The Sunne Rising” he fits the old philosophy onto that same image of a circle and its centre, for the lovers' position at the centre of the cosmos indicates the central importance and centrifocal tendency of their love. He chooses the philosophy that illustrates what he wants to say. However, he fits both philosophies and both relationships onto that one image of a circle and its centre, and the arrangement of relations that it represents in spatial terms.

That image takes its shape and meaning from the shape and meaning of space in the “closed cosmos,” where space is arranged in concentric circles. Donne describes the cosmic arrangement as “natures nest of boxes: the heavens contain the earth; the earth, cities; cities, men. And all these are concentric …”22 and contained by “all the vaults and circles of the severall spheres of heaven” (S. 4. 5.150). This image of concentric circles appears over and over again in his writing, working like a master-image upon which he maps many, various, and sometimes contradictory ideas.

For instance, he uses this image of concentric circles to illustrate his sense of the proper relationship between social ranks. He writes,

as in the heavens there are but a few circles that go about the whole world, but many epicycles, and other lesser circles, but yet circles; so of those men which are raised and put into circles, few of them move from place to place, and pass through many and beneficial places, but fall into little circles, and, within a step of two, are at their end, and not so well as they were in the centre, from which they are raised …

Here he maps a social hierarchy onto the architecture of concentric circles in the heavens, so we picture the spatial arrangement and movement of people, with that mix of abstraction and visualisation that is so curious in his imagery.23

Donne maps the relationship between friends onto the same model. In a letter to Goodyer of 1609 he writes,

The first sphere only which is resisted by nothing, absolves its course every day; and so doth true friendship well placed often iterate in act or purposes the same offices. But as the lower spheres, subject to the violence of that, and yet naturally encouraged to a reluctation against it, have therefore many distractions and eccentricities, and some trepidations, and so return but lamely and lately to the same place and office; so that friendship which is not moved primarily by the proper intelligence, discretion, and about the natural centre, virtue, doth perchance sometimes, some things, somewhat like true friendship; but hath many deviations …

What an extraordinary way to compare friendships! His image comes from Plato's Timaeus, source of the idea that a first sphere moved without resistance around inner spheres facing resistance.24 The model has the advantage of letting him map many different human relationships onto one master-image, so he can compare friendships, and not just friends. And it sets those human relationships within the vast and impersonal terms of the universe. It exposes those human relationships to the immense and impersonal terms of the cosmos, as the lover in “A Lecture upon the Shadow” exposes his own relationship to cosmic immensity. Another writer might use the contrast to diminish the relationship. Donne uses it to clarify the value of the relationship, for its very vulnerability becomes the measure of its intensity.

Donne organises “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” around the same image, of intelligences moving spheres:25

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forreigne motions, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:

Here the image of the enclosing sphere of the sun, and the sun, contains the physical movement of the speaker “Riding Westward.” Once again Donne contrasts the purity of the higher sphere and intelligence with the “distractions and eccentricities” of the speaker moving in a lesser sphere,26 to provide a spatial image of the speaker's complaint about distractions of “Pleasure or businesse.”

This poem concerns the death of Christ. Since Christ's incarnation contracted “That All, which always is All everywhere” into the “little roome” of humanity,27 it seems fitting that the speaker breaks the logic of the cosmic arrangement, as he does with the paradox,

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And turne all spheares at once, peirc'd with those holes?

But he also breaks the logic of the cosmic arrangement with the introduction of cartographic imagery—the East and the West of the poem. The contradiction between cosmographic and cartographic imagery expresses divine grace in spatial terms, for the sun reaches both East and West and overarches all the world. This adds to the irony of the last clause, “I'll turne my face”—an irony that plays upon the religious ironies of prevenient grace, for the sun moves to shine in the face of those who ride westward. And all the movements traced in the poem—the path of the rider, westwards, and the arc of the sun overhead, and the turning of his back and the turning of his face—help to illustrate the to-and-fro movement of the rider's consciousness.

Different and sometimes contradictory perspectives can play together on Donne's imaginative sites. This is part of the peculiar power of the rooms in Donne's poetry, I think: they counter-balance love against the awareness of an outside world unkind to love. Lovers in Donne's Elegies often retreat to rooms “ambush'd round with houshold spies”: a “husbands towring eyes,” a jealous husband, an “Hydroptique father … with glazed eyes,” “spies and rivals … [and a] fathers wrath.”28 Their rooms are images of a love staked against the outside world, measuring its value by its dangerousness.

The lovers in Donne's Songs and Sonets do not only stake their rooms of love against the outside world. They take over the outside world. Their contraction of the world, thus, finds an image and equivalent in the “contraction” of the Elegy-form into the stanzas, or “little rooms,” of the Songs and Sonets (Donne plays on the pun in “The Canonization”). In the Elegies the lovers “themselves exile” in rooms “close and secret, as … [their] soules.”29 In many of the Songs and Sonets, they answer exile as defiantly as Coriolanus, with “I banish you.”30 Many of Donne's Songs and Sonets gather excitement as the lovers transform withdrawal: they are shut out from the world; they shut out the world; they are the world. We see the dynamic shift in “His parting from her.” First the lover says, “come Night, / Environ me with darkness.” But soon he claims he could give darkness to the night, “and say, / Out of my self, There should be no more Day.” He makes himself the active centre of the darkness. The lover in “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day” also makes himself the negative centre of the poem. Nature mocks him—“Yet all these seem to laugh / Compar'd with me …”—as it mocks the lover in “Twicknam Garden” who looks upon happiness from outside: the trees laugh. But both lovers work from the margins, to create a world that centres upon them: “Hither with christall vyals, lovers come”; “Study me then, you who will lovers be …”

We see the same dynamic in “The Canonization.” Here society rather than nature mocks the lover with its ongoingness: “Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?” But the lover defies the world's definitions: “Call us what you will, wee are made such by love.” In the following stanzas he builds a room for love, and a world around it. This impulse for living and loving, despite the world, sends a quickening pulse through these stanzas. We feel the same sudden creative power in “The Sunne Rising,” when the lover stops trying to shut out the sun and starts demanding it centre upon the room of his love. The lovers do not simply stake out a room against the world, but find a whole world in their room. They become their own “mirrors and … spies,” taking over from the “houshold spies” of the Elegies:31 “wee in us finde th'Eagle and the Dove”; “She'is all States, and all Princes, I, / Nothing else is.”32 We feel a sudden corresponding expansiveness in the poem.

When the lovers transform their withdrawal, they demand we fit our imagining of “That All, which always is All everywhere” into their “little roome.”33 It is no longer only a matter of pitting different perspectives against each other. It is a matter of fitting them together. These rooms demand a startling imaginative juxtaposition equivalent to the startling visual juxtaposition of “A bracelet of bright haire about the bone,” or the startling temporal juxtaposition of “his first minute, after noone, is night.”34 “'Tis greatest now, and to destruction / Nearest,” he writes in “The Progresse of the Soule.”35 Such opposites are never simply opposites, in Donne, but formed upon each other; the lover in “A Lecture upon the Shadow” sees, “We doe those shadowes tread.” The closeness of opposites in Donne's vision gives the dramatic “cleernesse” of contrast to every emotion; it is this awareness of shadows that makes the “cleernesse” “brave.”36

Our pleasure in the imaginative power of the lover is undercut by our knowledge of the sun's unstoppable passage in “The Sunne Rising,” as our confidence in “The Canonization” is undercut by knowing the power is imaginative. When we read “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” we know mourning may be postponed, but morning cannot be. The lover stakes a place for love in a world we know he does not control, for his own images remind us of its range and its variousness. The lover's confidence is a kind of courage. Against the knowledge that “paine is true” he sets the reality of pleasure.37

His celebration of “one little roome” as “everywhere” plays tricks of scale—“the world's contracted thus.”38 But he also plays different perspectives off against each other by switching from cosmographic to cartographic imagery. Each way of imagining puts the poet in a different imaginative position. A cosmographic sense of space put the poet imaginatively at the centre of a three-dimensional universe, whilst a geographic sense of space puts the poet imaginatively above and apart from a two-dimensional representation of the world. Their juxtaposition creates the imaginative equivalent of irony: an irony, or split-vision, the reader experiences for, since Donne's imagery is spatial, his settings are images, not simply to see, but to inhabit.

In “The Good-morrow” he says,

Let sea-discovereres to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.

Here the difference between a cartographic and cosmographic imagination is caught in the contrast between the verbs, “showne” and “possesse.” We picture the maps piled on top of each other. This is one outcome of sea-discovery, for the people at home: a vision of the surface of the world. But then he seeks to “possesse” a world, and this is the world one has and one is: the cosmos, or macrocosm of the human microcosm.39 This is the system that puts people at its centre. And from this point, the lover imagines himself and his beloved as the two halves of the earth: “Where can we finde two better hemispheares. …” They are the world other people looked upon in the map.40 The reader sees them from both perspectives, picturing both the world in Maps and the hemisphere in each lover's eye.

Such imaginative irony is remarkable because it does not play the present off against the future or the past (though that kind of irony is also found in Donne's poetry). It plays spatial perspectives off against each other. It is an irony caught in the very present moment of the speaker's experience, making dividedness part and parcel of the full creative consciousness of the speaker. This can give Donne's poetry a poignancy clear of nostalgia and cynicism, for the speaker's awareness of a world elsewhere, that will not wait for lovers, makes his here and now seem both more precious and more precarious.

The contradictions within Donne's spatial imagination create a perspectival irony. But Donne does not only play different spatial perspectives off against each other. He also plays his spatial vision off against his narrative voice. So many of his love poems are set at the edge of some delight, and written in resistance to the inevitable; poems forbidding the sun, or the morning, or the break of day. But when his speakers assert power over time, they actually imagine power over space: the power of gold, beaten “to aery thinnesse,” to reach across space; the power of a compass to organise sequence into a coherent spatial image; the power of lovers to reach beyond time into the celestial sphere. They try to fit time into the atemporal patterns of space.

The image of concentric circles is beautifully expressed in “Loves Growth” where he turns time itself into an expanding set of concentric circles:

… as in water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make …

He transforms a passage of years into a pattern of circles, using spatial imagery against time, denying its ability to change the lovers' relationship, just as the lover in “A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning” uses the image of compass-drawn circles to deny time will keep the lovers apart.41 Donne's speakers often wield the image of a circle against time in this bitter-sweet, teasing way. Here his wit offers a way to live in the valedictory moment.

There is, of course, a long tradition associating eternity with circles.42 It was built into the old cosmology and its associated physics.43 However, a circle can defeat time in two ways. It can defeat time by turning into itself, over and over again, making every ending a beginning. This is how God makes a Christian life into a circle. Donne says “God is a circle himselfe, and he will make thee one” (VI. viii. 175). Such immortality is a kind of timelessness. However, he says immortality is qualitatively different from eternity. He imagines a different kind of timelessness for God. God's eternity is “not a Circle where two points meet, but a Circle made at once; This life is a Circle, made with a Compasse, that passes from point to point; That life is a Circle stamped with a print, an endlesse and perfect Circle, as soone as it begins … (S. 2. 9.200). God's eternity is without sequence, and Donne imagines it as a space, describing God as “millions upon millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven.”44

The lover in “A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning” echoes a biblical phrase when he says his love, like the logic of a circle “makes me end, where I begun.” Donne gives the source of the phrase in a Sermon: “When I begin, says God to Eli, I will make an end; not onely that all Gods purposes will have their certain end, but that even then, when he begins, he makes an end … as a Circle is printed all at once, so his beginning and his ending is all one” (S. 4.3.96).45 But the difference I mentioned, between God's printed circle and a human being's drawn circle, comes into play here. The lover is trying to get beyond the human condition of time by treating it as a space. The image of time as a circle rests upon the belief that there is a world apart from time, and his logic is the illogical logic of faith and love. He ignores the time intervening between his ending and beginning, and the fact that a lover can return where but not when nor as he began. His circle cannot be printed; it must be drawn out. This fallacy runs like a crack through his argument and makes us feel nervous, and that nervousness is an essential part of the brilliance of the poem. It is Donne's fencing partner. It's why the argument feels courageous.

Donne's poetry presents the conflict between love and time in the conflict between his spatial imagery and his narrative style. A scenario is non-discursive. But Donne's poems are emphatically discursive. Though his speakers claim to be safe from time, the evolution of their argument reminds us time is passing as they speak.46 His lovers must find their place in a world of time, and they must defend their space against that world of time; a world that threatens to break into their spatial enclaves and break up their perfect moments. We feel the conflict between space and time as a premonition of failure or decline. The confidence of Donne's lovers is edged by our fear and we feel the brave, defiant brilliance of their arguments with the inevitable.


  1. Barbara Everett writes that, for Donne, “a familiar place was pre-eminently a fact of consciousness.” “Donne: A London Poet” Proceedings of the British Academy LVIII (London: Oxford UP, 1972) 5.

  2. As Moreau writes, “la pensée moderne se distingue de la pensée antique précisément en ceci, que l'idée d'Univers est pour elle hors d'usage.” “L'Idée d'Univers dans la Pensée Antique” Biblioteca del Giornale di Metafisica 10 (Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1953) 5. Moreau dates the change from Descartes, who no longer includes a consideration of the Universe in his explanation of our perception of things in it.

  3. Aristotle, On the Heavens I and II with introduction, translation and commentary by Stuart Leggatt (London: Aris and Philips, 1995).

  4. Plato, Timaeus, Critias, Clitophon, Menexus, Epistles trans. R. G. Bury (London: Heinneman for the Loeb Classics Library, 1929) 16-20.

  5. Aristotle, Physics trans. and ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936) 4.2, 209b 11-13.

  6. See G. E. R. Lloyd's summary of alternative early Greek concepts of the universe in “Greek Cosmologies,” Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) 141-63.

  7. As an “immobile three-dimensional extension which, so far as its own definition is concerned, is empty of body.” The quotation is taken from Richard Sorabji's introduction to David Furley and Christian Wildberg's translation of Philiponus' commentary upon Aristotle's Physics—The Corollaries on Place and Void with Simplicius, Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World (London; Duckworth, 1991) 9-10. The passage is worth quoting in full: “We think of space as three-dimensional. But Aristotle had denied there was such a thing as three-dimensional space. The nearest equivalent is the place of a thing, which he defines as the two-dimensional surface of its immediate surroundings. This definition, which captivated the middle ages, never really gained much ground with the ancient Greeks … [Simplicius] himself defines place or space in a more familiar way as an immobile three-dimensional extension which, so far as its own definition is concerned, is empty of body. He does not think it ever is empty, in fact, or even can be empty, any more than matter can exist without form. But on the other hand, he defends the use of thought experiments involving the impossible. If per impossibile the cosmic layers of earth, water, air and fire were not there, what would remain beneath the heavens would be this same extension empty of body …” See also Richard Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion. Theories in Antiquity and their Sequel (London; Duckworth, 1988) 5-43. The relevant passage in Aristotle is the fourth chapter of Book Four of the Physics.

  8. He said that “… the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels—all these alike could come into being only through him who IS.” He said “that the two greatest bodies of the universe, at the opposite extremes of the universe, are linked and connected by two intermediary elements, air and water” (City 22.11 and see Timaeus 32A). He also accepted the Aristotelian theory that place exerted a force over its appropriate bodies; indeed, he fitted human desires into this logic, saying, “Bodies tend by their weight to move towards the place proper to them. Weight pulls not only downwards, but to its proper place: fire tends upwards, stone downwards; moved by their weight, things seek their right place … Out of their place, they are not at rest; they come to rest in being brought to their right place. My weight is my love: wherever I am carried, it is by that that I am carried.” Confessions 13. 9.10. See also De Gen as litt. 2.1.2; 4.3.7-8; 18.34; City of God 11.28.

  9. R. Blackwell, R. Spath, and W. Thirlkel, trans., with an introduction by V. Bourke, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics by Saint Thomas Aquinas (London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

  10. That “everything that is in process of change has that change initiated in it by something else” and “we cannot go on to infinity in the line of initiators of change and things in the process of change,” in his Summa contra gentiles I.13.4, cited in C. Martin, ed., The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas; Introductory Readings (London and New York; Routledge, 1988; repr. 1989) 105. Also see Martin's analysis, 99-100, and Aquinas' parallel proof inSumma theologiae 1 q.2 a.3.

  11. Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Book 8, lecture 23, 1172.

  12. “The first Anniversary” 205 and 213-24 in Herbert Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912; repr. 1951) 1. 237. Hereafter cited as Poems.

  13. Ptolemy writes; “… the heaven is spherical in shape, and moves as a sphere; the earth too is sensibly spherical in shape, when taken as a whole; in position it lies in the middle of the heavens very much like its centre; in size and distance it has the ratio of a point to the sphere of the fixed stars; and it has no motion from place to place.” Ptolemy's Almagest, trans. and ed. G. J. Toomer (London: Duckworth, 1984) 38.

  14. Almagest 36.

  15. David Furley, “The Greek Theory of the Infinite Universe”, Journal of the History of Ideas 42.4 (1981) 580. When we turn to Donne we will see how the metaphysical attributes of space encouraged him to imagine the relationship between active and passive parts in spatial terms; in terms of the sphere, circle, centre, circumference and set of concentric circles that gave shape to space in the “closed world,” where space took the shape of the forms that filled it.

  16. It took a radical thinker like Giordano Bruno to recognize that this symbolic geometry belonged to the old cosmology of concentric spheres and active spaces. As Bruno noted, Copernicus needed someone “to think out all that was involved in his discovery.” Picking up from the atomists, Bruno argued that there were no fixed spheres, no limits, no circumferences; natural laws were unconditioned by place. (See “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds” trans. Dorothea Singer in Giordano Bruno [New York: Schuman, 1950] 251). Of course, Giordano Bruno's arguments were received with scepticism but the atomism that informed his thinking also influenced the thought of Scaliger, Telesio and Patritius (as M. Jammer argues in Concepts of Space [Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1957] 80-89). Jammer points out that the new concept that space is undifferentiated—that “place does not affect the nature of things and does not affect their being at rest or in motion.” This, as Gilbert argued in Philosophia Nova, is the necessary basis of seventeenth century physics. We find it, for instance, in Descartes's twenty-first principle “That extension of this world is likewise indefinite,” and again in his twenty-second principle; “Thus the matter of the heavens and of the earth is one and the same” (Philosophical Works of Descartes trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1931] 265). The concept that space is undifferentiated led mechanistic philosophers to seek internal laws of matter, internal causes of motion, in contrast to the established neo-Aristotelian belief that the laws of the spatial hierarchy govern movement. In his preface to Jammer's book, Einstein noted Newton's debt to the atomists.

  17. Giordano Bruno eulogised Tycho Brahe because his study of the comets showed they passed through the “fixed” and “perfect” spheres of heaven in his Italian dialogue “On the Infinite Universe and the Worlds,” cited by H. Hoffding in A History of Modern Philosophy (London; Macmillan, 1900) 129.

  18. With the double meaning, perhaps, of calling to all people in doubt, and calling all assumptions into doubt. “The first Anniversary” 205 in Poems 237.

  19. Ignatius His Conclave ed. T. Healy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969) 19.

  20. See lines 205-214 of “The First Anniversary” in Poems 237.

  21. He says “that which is in the Center, which should rest, and lie still, is this peace,” and “If one Milstone fell from the North-Pole, and another from the South, they would meet, and rest in the Centre; Nature would con-centre them” (S. 1.2.179 and 9. 7.179).

  22. Devotions 10. Meditation.

  23. Devotions 21. Meditation. And most remarked of the compass image in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

  24. Letters 1.225. Plato's Timaeus explained this spatial hierarchy by describing how the cosmos was made. He said God began with a material, soul; the self-mover that moves matter. He divided this soul into strips, which he fixed in two circles, one outside the other, and at a different angle. He called the outermost circle the circle of the Same. This circle would move forever at the same speed, for their was nothing to impede its motion. This circle housed and moved the fixed stars, and accounted for the regularity of their movement. He called the innermost circle the circle of the Different, breaking it into seven rings, again one inside the other: One for the sun, and moon, and five planets. The circle of the Same turned all within its circumference, but the circles of the Different also turned: some in a different direction from the circle of the Same; three turn at a similar speed, and four at speeds different from each other. This design accounted for the apparently variant movement of the “heavenly bodies,” showing it was not really variant, but in accordance with a formula that formed the basis for the measures of time. See Timaeus 35b.

  25. “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” 1-6 in Poems 336-337.

  26. Quotation from the passage of Devotions 21. The Meditation is included in the preceding paragraph.

  27. La Corona 2. “Annunciation” in Poems 319.

  28. Quotations from “His parting from her,” “Iealousie,” “The Perfume” and “On his Mistris” respectively, in Poems, 100-104; 79-80; 84-86 and 111-113.

  29. “Iealousie” 28 and “The Perfume” 12 in Poems. But in “A Lecture upon the Shadow” the lover argues, “That love hath not attain'd the high'st degree, / Which is still diligent lest others see.”

  30. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus 3.3.154 ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969).

  31. Quotations from “The Canonization” 42 and “His parting from her” 41.

  32. Quotations from Poems, “Twicknam Garden,” 28-29; “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day” 44-45; “The Canonization” 14-15; “The Sunne Rising” 11-12.

  33. La Corona 2. “Annunciation” in Poems 319.

  34. “The Relique” and “A Lecture upon the Shadow” in Poems 62-63 and 71-72.

  35. “Metempsychosis: The Progress of the Soul” 338-339 in Poems 293-316.

  36. “A Lecture upon the Shadow” 8 in Poems 71-72.

  37. Though he satirises the kind of lover who dare not suffer, and would rather love the “image of her whom I love, more then she” in this poem. “The Dreame” 15 and 1 in Poems 95-96.

  38. Quotations from “The Good-morrow” and “The Canonization” in Poems 7-8 and 14-15.

  39. Plato established the correspondence between the cosmos and the human form in the Timaeus.

  40. It is interesting to note the variant reading of l. 13 that Grierson records, “Let Maps to other worlds our worlds have showne.” See Poems 7-8.

  41. Donne was probably playing upon Proclus' criticism of the “fallacy of spatialization” (to quote Bergson); the circle ends where but not when it began.

  42. Donne says “One of the most convenient hieroglyphicks of God, is a Circle …” (S. VI. viii. 173).

  43. But one remarkable tendency of Donne's spatial imagination is that if he imagines a circle is timeless he will also, conversely, imagine something that transcends time as circular. He pictures virtue, for instance, as a circle: “virtue is even, and continual, and the same, and can therefore break nowhere, nor admit ends nor beginnings.” Edmund Gosse, Life and Letters of John Donne 2 vols. (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959) 1.178.

  44. This image of eternity as a timeless space is the one Hobbes, Descartes and Newton refuted. The image belongs to the old cosmological idea that a timeless space surrounds and limits the temporal world. The idea makes time and eternity contrary to each other, positioning reality in the immutable beyond. Donne does not pre-empt Einstein when he imagines time as a space, because his images of time as a space partner his idea that eternity is a space surrounding the space time occupies. Donne imagines time as a space when he wants to defeat time, and he calls upon the old cosmological opposition between time and space to do so.

  45. Donne's explanation itself echoes another passage in the sermons where he contrasts the circle drawn across time in this life with the circle of the next, made without passage.

  46. R. J. Quinones argues that this sense of time is a modern phenomenon in The Renaissance Discovery of Time.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Book 8, lecture 23. Pittsborough, NC: Intelex Corp, 1992.

Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle's “Physics” by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Tr. R. Blackwell, R. Spath, & W. Thirlkel. London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Aristotle, On the Heavens I and II. Intr., tr. and comm. Stuart Leggatt. London: Aris and Philips, 1995.

———. Physics. Tr., ed. W. D. Ross. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936.

Bruno, Giordano. “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.” Giordano Bruno. Tr. Dorothea Singer. New York: Schuman, 1950.

Descartes, Rene. Philosophical Works of Descartes. Tr. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1931.

Donne, John. The Poems of John Donne. Ed. Herbert Grierson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912; repr. 1951.

———. Ignatius His Conclave. Ed. T. Healy. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969.

Everett, Barbara. “Donne: A London Poet.” Proceedings of the British Academy, LVIII. London: Oxford UP, 1972.

Furley, David. “The Greek Theory of the Infinite Universe.” Journal of the History of Ideas 42.4 (1981): 580.

Gosse, Edmund. Life and Letters of John Donne. 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

Hoffding, H. A History of Modern Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1900.

Jammer, M. Concepts of Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1957.

Lloyd, G. E. R. “Greek Cosmologies.” Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Martin, C., ed. The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas; Introductory Readings. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Moreau, Joseph. “L'Idée d'Univers dans la Pensée Antique.” Giornale di Metafisica. Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1953.

Plato. Timaeus, Critias, Clitophon, Menexus, Epistles. Tr. R. G. Bury. London: Heinemann, 1929.

Ptolemy. Almagest. Tr. and ed. G. J. Toomer. London: Duckworth, 1984.

Quinones, R. J. The Renaissance Discovery of Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. Ed. John Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Sorabji, Richard. “Introduction.” In Philiponus' commentary upon Aristotle's Physics—The Corollaries on Place and Void with Simplicius, Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World. Tr. David Furley and Christian Wildberg. London: Duckworth, 1991.

H. L. Meakin (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Meakin, H. L. “Sapho to Philaenis: Donne Writes Back: His Dialogue With Ovid and Sappho.” In John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine, pp. 109-38. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Meakin discusses Donne's poem about the lesbian poet Sappho as example of how Donne was able to transcend seventeenth-century conceptions of sex and gender.]


That imitations and translations of Ovid in the sixteenth century constituted a large part of literary endeavour hardly needs stating. Ovid's Epistulae heroidum or his Heroides were translated into English by George Turberville in 1567, the same year that Arthur Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses appeared. Turberville, John Lyly, whose drama Sapho and Phao was first performed in 1584 before the Queen, and Michael Drayton, who in 1597 wrote England's Heroicall Epistles, had their own agendas in responding to Ovid and were not interested in the question of lesbian ‘likenesse’.1 I mention them here to set in relief the uniqueness of Donne's focus. Recent critical discussion of Ovid's relationship to Sappho centres around the motivation behind his ‘invention’ of a discourse of female desire: empathy (Jacobson 1974); or the knowledge that his portrayal of Sappho would forever link his name with hers and her literary authority (DeJean 1989: 75); or the display of his own wit, resulting in a ‘duplicitous glance’, malevolent and compassionate, which suggests he is primarily concerned with the display of his own wit (Verducci 1985: 136).2

Donne responds to or departs from several episodes in Ovid by foregrounding the question of Sappho's sexual orientation rather than engaging as intensely as does Ovid with the questions of authorship and literary property. In Ovid's poem, Sappho renounces the female community which she loves and for whom she wrote, to love a single youth whose attentions or lack thereof have become the source of her poetic genius: ‘ingenio vires ille dat, ille rapit; [My genius had its powers from him; with him they were swept away]’ (206). Ovid exaggerates the number of women Sappho refers to in her own poetry to emphasize the power of a single man and perhaps to portray something of the prodigious lust lesbians were perceived to exercise. Donne's Sapho has recovered from Phaon's desertion and now loves Philaenis. Are we to read Donne's lesbian epilogue as a correction of Sappho's inconstancy or promiscuity, which Ovid emphasizes, or is Donne subtly perpetuating the belief that women were fickle?

Both poems open with laments. Here is Ovid's Sappho:

Ecquid, ut adspecta est studiosae littera dextrae,
          Protinus est oculis cognita nostra tuis—
an, nisi legisses auctoris nomina Sapphus,
          hoc breve nescires unde movetur opus?
Forsitan et quare mea sint alterna requiras
          carmina, cum lyricis sim magis apta modis.
flendus amor meus est—elegiae flebile carmen;
          non facit ad lacrimas barbitos ulla meas.

[Tell me, when you looked upon the characters from my eager right hand, did your eye know forthwith whose they were—or, unless you had read their author's name, Sappho, would you fail to know whence these brief words come? Perhaps, too, you may ask why my verses alternate, when I am better suited to the lyric mode. I must weep, for my love—and elegy is the weeping strain; no lyre is suited to my tears.]


The opening of Donne's ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ gestures towards Ovid's poem with some important differences in emphasis, primarily the less self-conscious state of Sapho. She does not complain about the generic implications of her mood, but more generally laments her lack of inspiration:

Where is that holy fire, which Verse is said
          To have, is that inchanting force decai'd?
Verse that drawes Natures workes, from Natures law,
          Thee, her best worke, to her worke cannot draw.
Have my teares quench'd my old Poetique fire;
          Why quench'd they not as well, that of desire?


Sapho's declaration of loss suggests confusion and instability by using an undirected interrogative, unlike the assertive question Ovid's Sappho puts to Phaon. So bereft is Donne's Sapho, she can only state that verse ‘is said’ to be inspired by ‘holy fire’. Moreover, she refers to ‘that’ holy fire and ‘that’ inchanting force, again suggesting some disorientation and a sense that what was hers is no longer. Yet in both Ovid and Donne's poems, Sappho/Sapho's first concern is for her poetry rather than for her beloved, whether Phaon or Philaenis. This prioritization could be an aspect of the topos of inexpressibility, or part of the self-consciousness of letter-writing which we saw in Chapter 1. Many of Ovid's other heroines in the Heroides, perhaps conventionally, immediately draw attention to the physical fact of the letter they are writing or the words written on it, but they are not as concerned about their own writing ability as is Sappho. As a poet and as a woman in love, she has two losses to lament.

In the first two lines, Sapho refers to the inspiration which fuels verse as ‘holy fire’ and as ‘that inchanting force’. While we must keep in mind that the poem is written in the voice of an ancient Greek and not a Christian one, there is still and would have been, I think, in the minds of Donne and his readers, a tension between the different associations of ‘holy’ and ‘inchanting’. The first word suggests the divine inspiration of the Muses, or heaven-sanctioned utterance, while the second suggests that the source of ‘inspiration’ is a darker one. Donne's only other use of the word ‘inchant’ (L., cantare, to sing) or its cognates occurs in ‘The Dampe’, a poem atypically filled with Spenserian ‘Gyants’ and ‘Witches’. The speaker projects his death as a result of the coldness of his mistress, and suggests a more challenging murder: ‘But if you dare be brave, ❙ And pleasure in your conquest have, ❙ First kill th'enormous Gyant, your Disdaine, ❙ And let th'enchantresse Honor, next be slaine’ (9-12). Donne's language recalls Spenser's fairy world of bewitched heroes and heroines, spells and magic mirrors; a world of illusion, rather than the special access to knowledge granted to poets filled with ‘holy fire’.

The tension between Nature and Art becomes overt in lines 3 and 4, and is sustained throughout the poem to a point where Sapho appears to resolve it. Repetition, rhyme, and more subtle aural effects are introduced here as well, and produce incantatory effects so that we already realize that Sapho's ‘inchanting force’ has not ‘decai'd’. We are constantly being asked to assess ‘likenesse’ and difference, both in terms of sound and of sense. The allusion to Orpheus' powers to draw ‘Natures workes, from Natures law’ is, I think, of central importance to the poem, both in terms of the poem as a response to prior poets, Ovid and Sappho, and in terms of Orpheus' own experiences of love and sexuality. Sappho, like Orpheus, is a bisexual poet for Ovid and Donne. Here is the opening of Metamorphoses, 11, to which Donne's lines refer:

Carmine dum tali silvas animosque ferarum
Threicius vates et saxa sequentia ducit,
ecce nurus Ciconum tectae lymphata ferinis
pectora velleribus tumuli de vertice cernunt
Orphea percussis sociantem carmina nervis.

[While with such songs the bard of Thrace drew the trees, held beasts enthralled and constrained stones to follow him, behold, the crazed women of the Cicones, with skins flung over their breasts, saw Orpheus from a hill-top, fitting songs to the music of his lyre.]


Orpheus is then dismembered by the Maenads whose love he repulsed in favour of ‘tender boys’ after losing his wife Eurydice. For both Orpheus and Sappho, their sexual ‘transgression’ seems to be of as great or greater import than their poetic gift. Orpheus' head floats with his lyre down the river Hebrus. His unacceptably (homo)sexual body is literally separated from the bodily site of his poetic gift, his mouth and tongue, and his instrument, the lyre. Head and lyre float out to sea and wash up on the shore of Lesbos, the island on which Sappho was born. Like Orpheus, Sappho's promiscuous and/or ‘depraved’ sexual body is often separated from her voice, ‘literarily’ rather than literally. Orpheus is reunited with his beloved Eurydice in Hades. Sappho, in Ovid's version, is a repentant lesbian now aching with longing for Phaon. Ovid makes sure both poets end up heterosexual, although neither's desire is fulfilled since Orpheus and Eurydice are bodiless shades and Sappho threatens to jump off the Leucadian cliff. And yet Sappho does get her Phaon, for in his Amores, Ovid writes that the lovers were reunited in the epistles his fellow poet, Sabinus Aulus, wrote as replies to the Heroides: ‘det votam Phoebo Lesbis amata lyram [the daughter of Lesbos, her love returned, may offer to Phoebus the lyre she vowed]’ (2.18.34). Again, Donne departs from the tradition following Ovid in leaving his readers in suspense as to Philaenis' response to Sapho's letter.3

The allusion to Orpheus' powers to draw ‘Natures workes, from Natures law’ is also a way of representing Sapho's lesbianism, which draws woman (Philaenis), Nature's ‘best worke’, from the ‘Natural law’ of heterosexuality to what Sapho argues is a more ‘naturall Paradise’, the body of a woman untouched (‘unmanur'd’, as she says, punning on manus/hand) by man. Implicit in this first reference to ‘Natures law’, however, is an indictment of lesbianism, for it draws women away from one of their primary functions: reproduction. The same feminine pronoun, ‘her’, refers first to Nature, traditionally personified as female, but then to Verse, also personified as female: ‘Thee, her best worke, to her worke cannot draw’. Identities already begin to melt and merge here in a fourfold totality of femaleness: Verse, Nature, Sapho, Philaenis. Does Donne intend his reader to become entangled in pronouns and repeated words, setting up tensions, paradoxically through the use of identical words—‘her’, ‘drawe’, ‘worke’,—which mimic the tension between Sapho and Philaenis, and the tension between Verse or Art, and Nature? Is this the singing of a Siren or an Angel, an Enchantress or a Muse?

Sapho describes the unhappy state in which Philaenis' abandonment has left her using standard Petrarchan imagery:

Thoughts, my mindes creatures, often are with thee,
          But I, their maker, want their libertie.
Onely thine image, in my heart, doth sit,
          But that is waxe, and fires environ it.
My fires have driven, thine have drawne it hence;
          And I am rob'd of Picture, Heart, and Sense.
Dwells with me still mine irksome Memory,
          Which, both to keepe, and lose, grieves equally.
That tells me'how faire thou art.


As many critics have argued, most recently Heather Dubrow in Echoes of Desire, Donne enjoyed turning Petrarchan conventions upside down as much as he often dispensed with them altogether or, indeed, participated in them. There is a curious passage in Metempsychosis in which Donne mocks the suffering of the Petrarchan lover and yet warns against deviant forms of sexual desire with a reference to sodomy. When we read both passages together, we are once again unsettled as to Donne's tone in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’. If we recall that Carey suggests 1601 as a possible date for ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, the year we know Donne wrote Metempsychosis, there is a possibility that these two passages are variations on a theme in Donne's mind at the time. Donne describes an Ape into whom the ‘Soule’ enters soon after the creation of the world, one whose ‘organs now so like theirs hee doth finde, ❙ That why he cannot laugh, and speake his minde, ❙ He wonders’ (1967b: 454-6). The Ape assumes a ‘likeness’ between himself and the children of Adam and Eve. Is there an echo here of Sapho's ‘Likenesse begets such strange selfe flatterie, ❙ That touching myselfe, all seems done to thee’? We hope not, but following a description of the Ape's desperate Petrarchan antics as ‘the first true lover’ who desires the daughter named Siphatecia—his ‘love faces’, ‘sombersalts’ and ‘hoiting gambolls’—the speaker rather abruptly warns: ‘Sinnes against kinde ❙ They easily doe, that can let feed their minde ❙ With outward beauty; beauty they in boyes and beasts do find’. How does Sapho's beautiful apology for the ‘naturall Paradise’ of lesbian love sound next to this post-Edenic warning about the dangers of feeding one's mind with outward beauty?

Against the Law of Nature, Siphatecia gives in to the Ape's seduction in a graphic scene in which Siphatecia's bodily sensations are described. Since the Ape is having no success with mere flirting, ‘likelier meanes he tries’:

And up lifts subtly with his russet pawe
Her kidskinne apron without feare or awe
          Of nature; nature hath no gaole, though shee have law.
First she was silly'and knew not what he ment:
That vertue, by his touches, chaft and spent,
Succeeds an itchie warmth, that melts her quite;
She knew not first, now cares not what he doth,
And willing halfe and more, more then halfe loth,
She neither puls nor pushes, but outright
Now cries, and now repents.


Like Sapho's Orphic verse which ‘drawes Natures workes, from Natures law’, the Ape sets about to commit a sin ‘against kinde’, or against what Donne implies is a law of nature if the Ape will nevertheless suffer no punishment (‘gaole’) for breaking it. The adoption of a law governing sexual congress once there were enough of Adam and Eve's descendants to make incest unnecessary is an issue to which Donne frequently alludes in his poetry, indeed he does so earlier in Metempsychosis: ‘Men, till they tooke laws which made freedome lesse, ❙ Their daughters, and their sisters did ingresse; ❙ Till now unlawfull, therefore ill, 'twas not’ (201-3). Donne, fascinated as he is by words which enact and denote an intermingling, uses ‘ingress’ here (from the Latin, in + gradi, to step in or enter) uniquely, according to the OED, as a synonym for intercourse. The libertine speakers of Donne's Elegies ‘Change’ (10-14) and ‘Variety’ (48-9), and the female speaker of ‘Confined Love’ all begrudge the existence of a law which states, ‘One should but one man know’ (6). On the other hand, the lover in ‘The Relique’ boasts: ‘Our hands ne'r toucht the seales, ❙ Which nature, injur'd by late law, sets free’ (29-30). But one of the main cultural attitudes, at least in England, towards the kind of female homoeroticism which Donne describes in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ was that it did not break any man-made laws.4 Only when a woman ‘supplemented’ her own natural body, as Valerie Traub states, with either natural (an enlarged clitoris) or artificial (a dildo) implements of penetration (1994: 66) was the serious charge of sodomy levelled against her. Thus, the condemnation of ‘Sinnes of kinde’ in the Metempsychosis may serve to contrast, rather than mirror, the relatively innocent behaviour of Sapho and Philaenis. Except that Donne presents Sapho envisioning this mode of relating as permanent, and not as an immature prelude to heterosexuality.

In the passage from Metempsychosis, above, the Ape lifts the girl's apron, and ‘touches’ her. In ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, it is the sense of touch which is emphasized, as Sapho touches herself in front of her mirror and argues for the coming together of her body and Philaenis' not through penetration but in the touching of ‘brest to brest’ and ‘thighs to thighs’. It is the girl's pleasure which is focused on, indeed mocked, for Donne states that Siphatecia ‘Now cries’ out against the Ape and ‘now repents’ at the cessation of pleasurable sensation. Siphatecia, being ‘silly’ or ignorant of the meaning of the Ape's advances, ‘melts’ in confusion and pleasure. The language of abandonment and loss of self-awareness is again uncomfortably like that of Sapho near the end of her epistle. There is the same ‘addition problem’ for Siphatecia, who is ‘willing halfe and more, more then halfe loth’, and for Sapho who cries, ‘O cure this loving madnesse, and restore ❙ Me to mee; thee, my halfe, my all, my more’ (57-8), although such language is conventional enough. Donne was fond of such mathematical paradoxes elsewhere when it came to sorting out the ones and twos of love, however. One plus one could equal zero, one, two, three, or ‘all’. There are enough similarities between ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ and Donne's anecdote of the Ape and Siphatecia in Metempsychosis, the primary ones being the congruity of a parody of Petrarchisms and a warning against ‘Sinnes against kinde’, to make ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ sound less like a championing of Sappho's Phainetai moi and more like an extremely subtle if still voyeuristic exploration of female homoeroticism for wholly self-interested purposes.

Certainly Donne's references to male homosexuality or bestiality as we would categorize them today are, without exception, unambiguously negative. In “Satire I,” the speaker asks his decadent companion,

Why should'st thou (that dost not onely approve,
But in ranke itchie lust, desire, and love
The nakednesse and barenesse to enjoy,
Of thy plumpe muddy whore, or prostitute boy)
Hate vertue, though shee be naked, and bare?


Here is an example of Donne's assertion which I quoted in my Introduction, that ‘lesse particles then words have busied the whole Church’ (Sermons, ix. 71). If it be not a ‘great thing’, the discrepancy among manuscripts and editions in the spelling of the word, ‘barenesse’ in line 39 is nevertheless pertinent here. Is the word ‘bareness’ or ‘barrenness’? The syllogism which the speaker is employing would suggest that it is ‘bareness’, an emphatic synonym for ‘nakednesse’, as Grierson points out (Donne 1912: ii. 107). As he admits, however, ‘barrennesse’ is also appropriate to the context in that sexual activity between the libertine and his ‘plump muddy whore, or prostitute boy’ would be barren, the purpose being physical pleasure rather than reproduction. This reading would support Sapho's argument that the female body (and the female in her social role) neither needs, nor benefits from, insemination by a male, and what I will argue is possibly an oblique reference to dildos at line 44, which, in the soft pornography of the time, were celebrated or condemned (depending on whether a woman or a man was speaking) as being better than a penis because its use would not result in pregnancy. In ‘Satire II’, Donne makes reference to the endemic ‘Symonie'and Sodomy in Churchmens lives’ (75), and in ‘Satire IV’, to the corrupt courtier who notices ‘Who loves Whores, who boyes, and who goats’ (128) so as to blackmail them. Except for his epigram, ‘The Jughler’, then, Donne's condemnation of sodomy and other ‘deviant’ sexualities are contained in his satires.

We have not yet looked at the whole of ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, however. It is the centre of Donne's poem which startles most, and complicates the poem's allusiveness. Sapho is finally distracted from her misery by her memory of Philaenis' beauty:

                                                                                                    Thou art so faire,
          As, gods, when gods to thee I doe compare,
Are grac'd thereby; And to make blinde men see,
          What things gods are, I say they'are like to thee.
For, if we justly call each silly man
          A litle world, What shall we call thee then?
Thou art not soft, and cleare, and strait, and faire,
          As Down, as Stars, Cedars, and Lillies are,
But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only
          Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye.
Such was my Phao awhile, but shall be never,
          As thou, wast, art, and, oh, maist thou be ever.


Sapho compares the gods to Philaenis and it is they who benefit from such a comparison. Donne rejects the entire natural world and moves, blasphemously, right to the supernatural. J. Mueller, as do Allen and Revard, suggests that by comparing Philaenis to the gods, Donne takes the first line of Phainetai moi, ‘He seems to me equal to the gods’, and ‘wittily translates [it] from the male rival to the female beloved—outsapphizing, at this juncture, Sappho herself’ (1993: 186). This point seems to me to be Mueller's and Revard's strongest in arguing for Donne's familiarity with Sappho's poem, especially since Donne, as usual, goes one step further and rather than making Philaenis ‘equal to the gods’, he has Sapho blaspheme that Philaenis surpasses them.

The blasphemy of the first simile is surpassed by the evangelism of the second. If read literally, Sapho's simile is absurd, for if blind men cannot see the gods, neither can they see Philaenis to enable the comparison. But the idea of something so striking it allows blind men to ‘see’ was conventional in Donne's time. Juan Luis Vives's Instruction of a Christen woman (1541) criticizes the current fad in women's fashion of exposing one's breasts: ‘howe foule a thynge is that, as the commen sayeng is, a blynde man may espy, whan those that se it, some abhorre the abhominablenes: and some wanton menne seyng the parte of the bodye, nat used to be sene, are set on fyre therewith’ (39v). Donne is perhaps also using the words ‘blinde’ and ‘see’ in their theological senses, the notion that atheists are spiritually blind, for in a sermon, Donne describes the Church as ‘A place where the blind might recover sight; that is, Men borne in Paganisme, or Superstition, might see the true God, truly worshipped’ (v. 125).

As I set out in my Introduction, Sapho's defence of her ‘blasphemy’ can be read on several levels, one of which is the way Donne uncannily points, through his mimicry of a convention, to the dereliction of woman from the symbolic order, the ‘world’, but also to her ‘disruptive excess’, beyond patriarchal prescriptions. The micro/macrocosm comparison is a favourite device of Donne's and is worth looking at in a few poems as well as in a sermon, for purposes of comparison and contrast. In his ‘Holy Sonnet’ which begins ‘I am a little world made cunningly ❙ Of Elements, and an Angelike spright’, Donne does not play with gender but his imagination pushes against another frontier when he addresses the astronomers and discoverers who were stretching the limits of the known world and universe: ‘You which beyond that heaven which was most high ❙ Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write, ❙ Powre new seas in mine eyes’ (5-7). In ‘The Good-morrow’, the speaker uses the convention as if the statement, ‘man is a little world’, includes the woman: ‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, ❙ Let Maps to others, worlds on worlds have showne, ❙ Let us possesse our world, each hath one, and is one’ (12-14). Likewise in ‘The Sunne Rising’, ‘the world's contracted thus’ (26) in the lovers, although the arrangement between them betrays a significant imbalance of power: ‘She'is all States, and all Princes, I, ❙ Nothing else is’ (21). Trying to outdo himself in finding one more permutation for the metaphor and extend the limits of epideictic, Donne reverses the comparison in The First Anniversary when he describes Elizabeth Drury as ‘She to whom this world must it selfe refer, / As Suburbs, or the Microcosme of her’ (235-6). In a sermon on Psalm 62: 9 Donne embarks on a dazzling defence of ‘man's’ divinity. I include this sermon passage to set in relief the gender-inflected use in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’:

[A]s though one God were not enough for the administration of this world, God hath multiplied gods here upon Earth, and imparted, communicated, not onely his power to every Magistrate, but the Divine nature to every sanctified man. … [S]ince God is so mindfull of him, since God hath set his minde upon him, What is not man? Man is all. … Absolutely, unconditionally we cannot annihilate man, not evacuate, not evaporate, not extenuate man to the levity, to the vanity, to the nullity of this Text. … For, man is not onely a contributary Creature, but a totall Creature; He does not onely make one, but he is all; He is not a piece of the world, but the world it selfe; and next to the glory of God, the reason why there is a world.

(vi. 297-8)

In this astounding affirmation of both ‘man's’ divinity, his share in the immortal not just in ‘the next world’ but ‘here on earth’, and of the impossibility of his ‘annihilation’, woman is once again subject to ‘internal exile’, both there and not there, her difference assumed to be participating in the relationship between God and man. But ‘if we justly call each silly man ❙ A little world, What shall we call’ woman? Man is ‘all; He is not a piece of the world, but the world it selfe’. The phrase, ‘Partaker of the divine Nature’, also reminds us that part of the debate on the nature of women was the very question (usually asked in jest to show off one's rhetorical skills) of whether women partook of the divine nature (Maclean 1988: 13-14), hence Donne's Problem, ‘Why hath the common opinion affoorded woemen Soules?’ (1980: 28-9).

Holstun uses the gender-inflected use of the macro/microcosm metaphor in ‘The Good-morrow’ to argue that ‘Because sapphic love cannot participate in this political and erotic play of domination … it cannot employ this trope’ (1987: 840). But Sapho does employ the trope, wittily playing with its gender inflections, and then she rejects it because of its inadequacy. As the speaker of ‘Negative Love’ professes, ‘If that be simply perfectest ❙ Which can by no way be exprest ❙ But Negatives, my love is so’ (10-12). Likewise, in a sermon Donne states, ‘we can expresse God himselfe in no clearer termes, nor in termes expressing more Dignity, then in saying we cannot expresse him’ (viii. 105). Sapho realizes that neither gods nor anything in the natural world can do justice to Philaenis and so she is forced to resort to praise by negative comparison. In her lyrical essay, ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, Irigaray explains to her female interlocutor why she has been insisting on negatives in her evocation of love between women:

And if I have so often insisted on negatives: not, nor, without … it has been to remind you, to remind us, that we only touch each other naked. And that, to find ourselves once again in that state, we have a lot to take off. So many representations, so many appearances separate us from each other. They have wrapped us for so long in their desires, we have adorned ourselves so often to please them, that we have come to forget the feel of our own skin.

(1985b: 217-18; Irigaray's ellipsis)

That Donne's Sapho should insist on negatives therefore might be interpreted as a sloughing off, as it were, the trappings of a specular, possessive claim to the other. Sapho insists on the nakedness of woman that is both ‘her destitution in language’ (1985a: 143), and the starting point for a different language. There is no way of articulating woman or her desire apart from the ‘words as the wrappings with which the “subject,” modestly, clothes the “female” (142; my emphasis). But what about Irigaray's ‘metaphor’ of the two lips, which I quoted above? Is she not just substituting one metaphor, one series of metaphors, for another in her exploration of what a ‘speaking (as) woman’ might be? Diana Fuss clarifies the difference in Irigaray's mimicry of the operation of substitution in phallogocentrism: ‘what is important about Irigaray's conception of this particular figure is that the “two lips” operate as a metaphor for metonymy’ (1989: 66). I will return to the implications of what Fuss identifies as Irigaray's proposed metonymic relationship between language and the body.

Anachronistic a reference though it may be for Sapho, in her rejection of Petrarchisms there is almost certainly an allusion to the imagery the lover uses in the Song of Solomon, or Canticles. Sapho says of Philaenis:

Thou art not soft, and cleare, and strait, and faire,
          As Down, as Stars, Cedars, and Lillies are.


While ‘Down’ has the most textual support, Grierson notes the ‘Dowves’ (i.e. doves) of the Phillips manuscript gives the plural as in the other nouns, and a closer parallel in poetic vividness. ‘We get a series of pictures—doves, stars, cedars, lilies’ (Donne 1912: ii. 91). Grierson cites The Winter's Tale, in which Florizel describes Perdita's hand: ‘As soft as dove's down, and as white as it’ (4.4.364). Doves, cedars, and lilies appear frequently in the Canticles and all three occur in the blazon the woman sings of her male beloved, here in the Geneva Bible's translation:

His eyes are like dooves upon the rivers of waters, which are washt with milke, & remaine by the ful vessels. His chekes are as a bed of spices, and as swete flowres, & his lippes like lilies dropping downe pure myrrhe. … His mouth is as swete things, and he is wholy delectable: this is my welbeloved, & this is my lover.

(vv. 12-13, 16)

Both male and female sing each other's praises and both are compared to doves and lilies. The woman yearns for her beloved: ‘In my bed by night I soght him that my soule loved: I soght him, but I founde him not’ (3: 1). Both the erotic blazons and the lovers' separation and desired union in the Canticles seem to echo in Donne's poem. Sapho's words are part of a negative comparison, however. Again, there is an ambiguity as to whether Sapho and Philaenis' love is nothing like the love expressed in the Canticles or is one which defies all (current) categories. None of the comparatives in line 22, with the exception of stars, are frequent in Donne's poetry. ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ contains the only reference to lilies. Only Donne's ‘Upon the Annunciation and Passion’ makes reference to ‘a Cedar’ (8) which plants itself and falls, an allusion to Christ and the cross on which he is crucified. A dove or doves figure in ‘The Canonization’ (‘And wee in us finde the'Eagle and the Dove’, line 22). In the epithalamium Donne wrote for Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Frederick (‘the grave whispering Dove’, line 6), ‘Holy Sonnet XVIII’ (‘And let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove’, line 12), and ‘His Parting From Her’, in which the speaker refers to his ‘Dove-like friend’ (line 30), the dove obviously symbolized the tenderness which Donne felt was integral to such a relationship. If we are to read ‘Down’, rather than ‘Doves’, ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ is the only instance of it as a substantive noun.

Considered as a group, I suggest Donne's ‘insignificant’ metaphors could also point towards the kind of ineffability we see in Dante's Paradiso as Dante attempts to describe his union with God in the thirty-third Canto, ‘the end of all desires’: ‘O how scant is speech and how feeble to my conception! and this, to what I saw, is such that it is not enough to call it little. O Light Eternal, that alone abidest in Thyself, alone knowest Thyself, and, known to Thyself and knowing, lovest and smilest on Thyself!’ (1961: 33.46-7, her strange blazon, Sapho admits that the best praise she can bestow upon Philaenis is that her right side ‘only’ is like her left. Likewise in Donne's ‘The Dreame’, the speaker says of his beloved:

Thou art so true, that thoughts of thee suffice,
To make dreames truth; and fables histories
.....I doe confesse, it could not chuse but bee
Prophane, to thinke thee any thing but thee.

(7-8; 19-20)

In the epithalamium Thomas Heywood wrote for the 1612 marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick, he obviously intends it as the highest compliment that ‘Unto your selves, your selves, then we must say, ❙ We onely may compare’ (1613: Cv). Finally, compare the sonnet Henry Constable writes ‘To the Countesses of Cumberland and Warwick, Sisters’:

Yow sister Muses doe not ye repine,
That I two sisters doe with nyne compare
For eyther of these sacred two more rare
In vertue is, then all the heavenly nyne.
But if ye aske which one is more devine?
I say like to theyre owne twin eyes they are
How should I yow commend, when eyther one
All things in heaven and earth so far excell.
The highest prayse that I can give is this,
That one of yow like to the other is.

(1960: 146-7)

Outside the context of lesbian love, this compliment of incomparability is both politic and conventional (as we saw in ‘All haile sweet Poët’); it is the context of Sapho's compliment which is, to indulge in a colloquialism, earth-shattering.

There would seem to be at least two ways of interpreting this group of metaphors in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, both of which cast radically different lights on the issue of lesbian ‘likenesse’ and the Nature versus Art tension. Is Sapho expressing defeat or wonder? Is her epideictic which begins with comparisons to the gods and ends with a comparison of the self to the self a blasphemous parody or a pointing to the dwelling of the immortal in the mortal? On the one hand, critics argue that Donne buries the possibility of lesbian expression in an unmarked grave, so to speak; that Philaenis inhabits a ‘self-contained signifying system’ (Holstun 1987: 840). On the other hand, several critics responding to Holstun argue that Donne suggests a ‘remedy’ for the intertextual rivalries so much more apparent in Ovid's text (Harvey 1989: 128) and moves closer to Sappho (whether he'd read her or not) in whose lyrics ‘love is a forgetfulness of self, a delight in mutuality, in mirroring, in giving pleasure to the beloved’ (Kauffman 1986: 55). On one side of language, we have the realm Holstun asserts Philaenis inhabits, a ‘realm of preverbal monstrosity’; and on the other side of language we have that phenomenon so appealing for Donne: ‘reaching beyond language and thought into wonder’ (Carey 1990: 111) and hence, towards the divine. Both interpretations bring to mind the ‘limit of the thinkable’.

I suggest that one reading of Sapho's epideictic is to see it as wonderment at the uniqueness rather than the ‘monstrosity’ of Philaenis. A sense of wonder which renders the speaker speechless is expressed in a number of Songs and Sonets. For example, the speaker of ‘The Relique’ admits to the inability of language to express the perfection of his beloved: ‘All measure, and all language, I should passe, ❙ Should I tell what a miracle shee was’ (32-3). Wonder in the Songs and Sonets, however, is often complicated by the speaker's need to assert that his love relationship is unique in the world and thus in need of safeguarding from contamination. The speaker of ‘The Undertaking’ boasts: ‘I have done one braver thing ❙ Then all the Worthies did, ❙ Yet a braver thence doth spring, ❙ Which is, to keepe that hid’ (1-4). The need to hide their superior love from ‘prophane men’ is urged on the beloved in ‘A Valediction: forbidding Mourning’: ‘'Twere prophanation of our joyes ❙ To tell the layetie our love’ (7-8). Likewise, the woman in ‘A Valediction: of the Booke’ is urged to collect the love letters passed between herself and the speaker, but ‘This Booke’, ‘this all-graved tome, ❙ In cypher write, or new made Idiome; ❙ Wee for love's clergie only'are instruments’ (19-21). There is in each of these excerpts what Anthony Low and others identify as Donne's desire for a private world which is manifestly superior to the world of ‘dull sublunary lovers’. Such exclusivity demands a code of expression in order to protect it from ‘inundat[ions]’ of the uninitiated, so that the wonder of love is not necessarily inexpressible, it just cannot be shared, or will not be shared, with the outside world. If Sapho's epideictic acknowledges the uniqueness of Philaenis, the confusion of Sapho with Philaenis later in the poem as she stands in front of her mirror—‘touching my selfe, all seemes done to thee’—is her attempt to identify completely with the other, which she ultimately recognizes is impossible. But between the unhappy extremes of fusion and unknowability lies the ‘neere[ness]’ which Sapho calls for in the final line of the poem.

There are problems, however, with such a positive reading of Sapho's ‘all or nothing’ epideictic. After manipulating the topos of inexpressibility and incomparability with dazzling virtuosity, Sapho is suddenly reminded of her old lover, Phaon, and says he was like her, for ‘awhile’. Sapho has breached one of the laws of love: never bring up former lovers. Our imaginations have been taken to the edge of the universe and back, only to find Philaenis compared to someone in Sapho's own backyard: her former male lover. So far, critics have noted that Philaenis comes out ahead of Phaon in this comparison, but the deflatory effect of the comparison has not registered. Phaon appears, moreover, so as to allow us to compare Donne to Ovid, to Sappho. What exactly is being compared in this couplet?:

Such was my Phao 'awhile, but shall be never,
          As thou, wast, art, and, oh, maist thou be ever.


The end of Sapho's radical epideictic is the first indication that Sapho and Philaenis are post-Phaon. Phaon is no longer what Philaenis was, is and ever shall be: smooth, symmetrical, and ‘indefinitely other in herself’. Donne perhaps alludes to Sappho's declaration in Ovid's Heroides, 15, ‘o nec adhuc iuvenis, nec iam puer, utilis aetas; [O neither yet man nor still boy—meet age for charm]’ (93). But both males and females change at puberty; indeed women continue to experience time cyclically rather than linearly because of menstruation. Renaissance women were considered to be lustier and naturally more changeable in temperament. So in what way is Philaenis as a woman the same in past, present, and future time? Donne's lines hint that his experimentation with the nature of lesbian love arises out of male performance anxiety. Only a man suffering from such anxiety would look at a woman and view her as unchanging relative to a man, if only in the arena of physical love. The unfavourable comparison of Phaon to Philaenis would suggest that Donne was especially attracted by the imaginative opportunities for stability and constancy which a certain perception of lesbian love presented to his mind. Holstun's assertion that ‘lesbian sexuality becomes a phenomenon of the past which can only be discussed in retrospect’, is one which seems to stem from a careless reading of the present tense in Donne's poem, and of the tentativeness with which Sapho frames her argument against heterosexuality. While Ovid's Sappho waxes elegiac about the good times she and Phaon shared, Donne's Sapho engages in an eloquent argument which she still obviously believes can persuade Philaenis to come to her senses (all of them) and return to Sapho. Donne's Sapho, unlike Ovid's, is not about to jump from the Leucadian cliff to ‘seek her fate’; she is not suspended in a literal cliff-hanger that is resolved beyond the margins of Heroides, 15 in Ovid's Amores where, it turns out, Phaon wises up.

Ovid's Sappho had also compared her beloved Phaon to the gods, Apollo and Bacchus. She argues that if these two gods could love Daphne and Ariadne, neither of whom were poets, Phaon ought to love her: ‘si mihi difficilis formam natura negavit, ❙ ingenio formae damna repende meo. ❙ sim brevis, at nomen, quod terras inpleat omnes, ❙ est mihi; mensuram nominis ipsa fero. [If nature, malign to me, has denied the charm of beauty, weigh in the stead of beauty the genius that is mine. If I am slight of stature, yet I have a name fills every land; the measure of my name is my real height]’ (31-4). Sappho's defence is both a cheap shot on Ovid's part—referring as he is to the tradition that Sappho was ugly—and rather extraordinary in that a woman argues her literary skills more than ‘make up’ for the physical attributes which usually make or break a woman's fortunes. Moreover, a woman's name, although it was better if no one heard of her, was usually made famous or infamous because of her sexual ‘reputation’, chaste or unchaste, not her poetry.

In what is probably another nod to Ovid, Donne's Sapho also refers to her own beauty briefly so that her far-reaching praise of Philaenis seems further eroded after her reminiscence of Phaon.

Here lovers sweare in their Idolatrie,
          That I am such; but Griefe discolors me.
And yet I grieve the lesse, least Griefe remove
          My beauty, and make me'unworthy of thy love.


Mueller suggests Donne draws from Sappho's Phainetai moi here, but the tone seems to be that of parody. From references outside of time and space, Sapho brings us back to her immediate situation with ‘Here’. To whom does ‘lovers’ refer? Is Sapho loved by others? If so, does she scorn them all for Philaenis or does the promiscuity Ovid exaggerated (‘atque aliae centum, quas hic sine crimine amavi’; my emphasis) continue? Finally, the soaring, visionary language with which Sapho describes Philaenis comes crashing down, like Icarus with his melted wings, into a sea of bathos. Sapho's final lines of this passage can be rudely paraphrased thus: ‘My distress over your absence mars my face, but I am crying less for you so that I do not look so bad that you cannot love me’. Such interludes as lines 25 to 30 make it difficult to assert Donne has a single agenda in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’. It is as if he tries to entertain a male coterie, deflate the reputations of Sappho and Ovid so as to inflate his own, and yet find an answer for his own imaginative problem with which he is so obsessed in his love poetry: the impossibility, the mystery, of two becoming one.

Sapho's argument begins in earnest in the following lines, for the threat of a male supplanting Sapho in Philaenis' affections is real.

Plaies some soft boy with thee, oh there wants yet
          A mutuall feeling which should sweeten it.
His chinne, a thorny hairy'unevennesse
          Doth threaten, and some daily change possesse.
Thy body is a naturall Paradise,
          In whose selfe, unmanur'd, all pleasure lies,
Nor needs perfection; why shouldst thou than
          Admit the tillage of a harsh, rough man?
Men leave behinde them that which their sin showes,
          And are as theeves trac'd, which rob when it snows.
But of our dallyance no more signes there are,
          Then fishes leave in streames, or Birds in aire.


Against Holstun's argument of periodization, I would suggest that Sapho's epistle constitutes a wooing of Philaenis, the promise of a second honeymoon, as it were. First, however, she must dismiss the competition, and she does so on purely physical grounds. The word ‘play’ is a common euphemism for sexual intercourse. The words, ‘chinne’, ‘thorn’ and ‘hair’ are all used by Shakespeare as euphemisms for the penis or pubic hair (G. Williams 1994). Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It pun on ‘chin’ in the same way (3.2.201-6). Sapho's argument is thus based on primary and secondary sex characteristics, and the unevenness of (de)tumescence is augmented by the threat of pregnancy. Sapho thus answers Shakespeare's question in his third Sonnet: ‘For where is she so fair whose uneared womb ❙ Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?’ (5-6).

Before discussing Sapho's radical reappraisal of woman's reproductive capacity as measure of her worth, I want to address the ‘mutuall feeling’ which heterosexual ‘playing’ lacks. The OED defines ‘mutual’ as ‘reciprocal’ (A.1.a). Its essence is qualitative as opposed to ‘equal’, a word more objectively quantifiable, at least according to Milton who describes Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost: ‘both ❙ Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd’ (4.295-6). Consider Donne's use of the word in ‘The Exstasie’: ‘As 'twixt two equall Armies, Fate ❙ Suspends uncertaine victorie, ❙ Our soules, (which to advance their state, ❙ Were gone out,) hung 'twixt her, and mee’ (13-16). Elsewhere in his poetry, Donne uses ‘mutuall’ to connote the absolute unity of heterosexual lovers. In ‘The Dissolution’, the speaker says, ‘wee were mutuall Elements to us, ❙ And made of one another’ (3-4); in the epithalamium Donne wrote for Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine, they are ‘Two Phænixes whose joyned brests ❙ Are unto one another mutuall nests’ (23-4). At least ideally, there is ‘a mutuall feeling’ in these relationships which sweetens it and is part of what Low recognizes as Donne's reinvention of love in terms of the communal rather than the social (1993: 33).

Donne's Sapho compares the mutuality of lesbian ‘likenesse’ with the ownership implied in heterosexuality. Philaenis lacks nothing whatsoever, there is nothing wanting in the natural Paradise of her body, ‘In whose selfe, unmanur'd, all pleasure lies’. The use of the word, ‘unmanur'd’, is an unusual one to our ears. The verb ‘to manure’ was used as it is today, according to the OED, as early as 1599, but its primary meaning in Donne's time was ‘To hold, occupy (land, property); to have the tenure of, to administer, manage’. It also meant ‘to inhabit’ (1.b) and ‘to till’ or ‘cultivate’ (2), and was used figuratively of the body or mind (2.d). Donne uses it in his verse letter to Rowland Woodward, ‘Like one who'in her third widdowhood’, in its primary, secondary, and figurative senses, to recommend the retired life to Woodward: ‘Manure thy selfe then, to thy selfe be'approv'd’ (34). Self-sufficiency and discretion—literally possession of one's self—are the ideals Donne holds up. In ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, Donne uses ‘unmanur'd’ to suggest the same kind of self-possession, not so much in the moral sense, but the physical one, and not just in terms of the individual but a single sex. His puns on ‘man’ and the Latin, manus / ‘hand’, thus contracts several connotations in one word: Philaenis need not be touched by man, sexually or any other way which tries to appropriate her as his property. In both instances, the economic connotations of holding one's property or ‘place’ in the world and of being independent thus have radically different implications for the speakers and their addressees, because of their gender differences. Janel Mueller states, ‘that economic aspects of lesbianism are addressed at all remains for me a compelling index to the seriousness and rigor of Donne's “what if” in “Sapho to Philaenis”—the attempt to imagine friendship and marriage as a conjoint relation of equality’ (1993: 202).

According to Sapho, Philaenis is in no need of the perfection women were considered to achieve upon marriage and subsequent motherhood, nor must she capitulate to becoming the possession or property of her husband, a commodity to be exchanged between men, father and husband. The natural Paradise of Philaenis evokes a world both antithetical and analogous to Marvell's assertion in ‘The Garden’ that ‘Two paradises 'twere in one ❙ To live in Paradise alone’ (63-4). Paradise for Sapho is a body which refuses to ‘Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man’. Ian Maclean concludes that ‘matrimony was a divine, natural and social institution in the eyes of Renaissance thinkers: any alternative is theologically contentious, and requires a new vision of the mental and physical predispositions of the sexes’ (1980: 84). Humanists such as Erasmus in his Praise of Matrimony and Thomas More in his Utopia actively promoted marriage as centrally important to their ideal societies, actively reviving classical metaphors such as David Halperin quotes from the Athenian betrothal ceremony ‘in which the father of the bride says to her future husband, “I give you this woman for the plowing of legitimate children”’ (1990: 141). Renaissance thinkers were, for the most part, of the same mind as the Greeks: ‘in the absence of men, women's sexual functioning is aimless and unproductive, merely a form of rottenness and decay, but by the application of male pharmacy it becomes at once orderly and fruitful’ (141). Irigaray observes: ‘Thus, the idea has been introduced in women's imagination that their pleasure lies in “producing” children: which amounts to bending them to the values of production, even before they have had an occasion to examine their pleasure’ (1990: 85). Here, Irigaray points to the operation of the Oedipal complex which constructs woman as castrated and therefore desirous of the phallus, which she obtains indirectly through the production of (boy) children, and thus acquires value in the eyes of the Father.

What is astounding is that Donne argues against the opinions of his time when Sapho compares the consequences of hetero- and homosexuality for women:

Men leave behinde them that which their sin showes,
          And are as theeves trac'd, which rob when it snows.
But of our dallyance no more signes there are,
          Then fishes leave in streames, or Birds in aire.

Two women making love are as creatures in their natural element, they belong together and they leave the world as they found it. Donne uses the same metaphor in a verse letter to Henry Wotton, ‘Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle soules’. In his argument that life is a voyage which requires self-disciplined navigation, Donne counsels his friend:

And in the worlds sea, do not like corke sleepe
Upon the waters face; nor in the deepe
Sinke like a lead without a line: but as
Fishes glide, leaving no print where they passe,
Nor making sound, so, closely thy course goe;
Let men dispute, whether thou breathe, or no.


The balance here between presence and absence is a delicate one. Donne's image is so subtle it would seem he almost counsels invisibility and silence, anonymity rather than discretion, but the notions of moderation and assimilation to effect the mutual benefit of individual and community or surroundings are present as well. The image in ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ is perhaps vulnerable to the same set of readings but in its antithetical position to the description of men's sexual activity, it functions primarily to continue the argument of naturalness and mutuality. Donne is not talking about non-signification here, a lack of difference—fishes are different from water, birds are different from air—but they exist in a non-hierarchical relationship, something which is impossible on patriarchal terms. In addition to avoiding pregnancy, Sapho and Philaenis' ‘dallyance’ is not an example of the performative, display-oriented male conception of sexual activity. Sapho's ideal, like the advice Donne gives to Wotton about discretion, is decidedly different from the crowing male lovers in the Elegies and the Songs and Sonets or even the ideal lovers of ‘The Canonization’, who will be ‘invoke[d]’ and begged for ‘A patterne of [their] love’. J. Mueller points out the third party observing the lovers in ‘The Extasie’ and that that third party is male (1985: 39-42). Yet another viewpoint is expressed in ‘A Lecture upon the Shadow’, however, whereby disguises or secrets have no part in true love and lovers are indifferent to opinion: ‘That love hath not attain'd the high'st degree, ❙ Which is still diligent lest others see’ (12-13).

Donne's analogy of men to thieves is perhaps not as straight-forward as it appears. Sapho's meaning seems obvious enough: that men who make love to women often leave behind a child which ‘showes’ the ‘sin’ of fornication. But the analogy to thieves who steal in winter and can thus be traced by their footprints betrays the collective and individual male anxiety of fixing paternity absolutely. The man who loves and leaves, indeed any man, can never be sure of tracing the children his mistress/wife gives birth to, back to his own seed. It is in fact women who could potentially rob men if their children are conceived extramaritally. Family inheritances could be diverted into impure bloodlines and hence, anyone who could be proven a bastard could be cut out of any inheritance. Again here, Sapho's argument in part betrays a male perspective, in which it is males, illegitimate sons, who steal from other males, their supposed fathers. Those men who ‘trespass’ on the property of other men, their wives, are also thieves and cause for anxiety. Donne uses the lover/thief analogy in the same way but more overtly, to begin ‘The Perfume’. The man as lover/thief is betrayed by his ‘traiterous’ perfume. And it is the woman's father, not the woman, who is compared to one who has been robbed. As Anthony Low points out, the most intense relationship is not that of the lover and his mistress but rather the lover and his mistress's father (1993: 38). The woman is the loot, even as the speaker implies she is promiscuous:

Once, and but once found in thy company,
All thy suppos'd escapes are laid on mee;
And as a thiefe at barre, is question'd there
By all the men, that have beene rob'd that yeare,
So am I, (by this traiterous meanes surpriz'd)
By thy Hydroptique father catechiz'd.


Donne's Sapho holds out the best of both worlds to Philaenis: ‘betweene us all sweetnesse may be had; ❙ All, all that Nature yields, or Art can adde’ (43-4). The Nature versus Art argument, most famously articulated by Sidney in his Defence of Poetry, has been one of the tensions underlying Sapho's entire epistle. Sidney argues that ‘Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done; … Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden’ (78). The poet is both poiein/maker and vates/prophet, and embellishes the world in which he/she lives. Sapho, despite her protestations of inability, has been employing her considerable Art in wooing Philaenis, convincing her of her own desirability as a woman, over any man. But the sudden surfacing of this ‘Art’ in line 44, after an extensive agricultural, Paradisal paean does not seem logical. If Philaenis' body is a ‘naturall Paradise’ what need is there of Art? Perhaps I employ a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (Janel Mueller's term) here, but I cannot but suspect Donne could not resist a joke about dildos. Sapho and Philaenis as two women can enjoy each other naturally as well as use artificial penises and thus make men utterly superfluous. We have just heard Sapho argue that one of the greatest merits of lesbian love is that there is no risk of pregnancy, and she does so without even remotely implying that she and Philaenis use a dildo. Yet not having to fear pregnancy along with never ‘detumescing’ are the two properties of the dildo which women—such as Nashe's Francis in The Choise of Valentines—celebrate in the soft-core pornography of the Renaissance. Donne refers to dildos twice, in ‘The Anagram’ and ‘Satire II’. While one cannot say for sure that these four words, ‘or Art can adde’, added to the end of an argument for natural love have a deflatory effect, it is just the kind of subtle jab Donne could make to amuse his friends and yet not take away from the sincerity of the argument Sapho makes.

Donne, through the voice of Lesbian Sappho, the Tenth Muse, seems to want to construct a world through poetry which holds out the possibility of a world devoid of ‘change’ and ‘sicknesse’, a world symbolized by the naturalness of lesbian love as Sapho argues for it, even as she draws ‘Natures workes, from Natures law’. If Donne's motivation for portraying lesbian love is not simply to rescue it and Sapho from the dismemberments of his poetic predecessors, or to present it as a viable choice for ‘real’ women, his imagination seems attracted to the lesbian woman because she represents through a sexuality which is not frustrated by the changes and ‘unevennesse’ of ejaculation, detumescence, even pregnancy, the perfect union and constancy which proves so elusive in heterosexual relationships, both real and imagined. Sapho speaks for Donne, mediating this union through the sexuality she expressed in her poetry, and while Donne uses her as a kind of Muse figure here, a mutual redemption takes place: Donne represents the ‘honey-sweet pride of Lesbos’ instead of the butch of Martial; Sapho redeems Donne from a fallen world of, to use Ricks's term, ‘post-coital sadness’.

Finally then, we are back where we began: looking at Sapho looking in the mirror as she touches herself. Now that I have discussed what precedes this scene both inside Donne's poem and outside it, are we any closer to determining Donne's construction of lesbian ‘likenesse’? Sapho has just concluded her articulation of a female pleasure which is other than the procreation of children as male property, and her argument sounds very much like what Judith Butler calls the ‘antipenetrative eros of surfaces’ which appears in some of Irigaray's writing: ‘[t]he refusal of an eroticism of entry and containment seems linked for Irigaray with an opposition to appropriation and possession as forms of erotic exchange’ (Butler 1994: 158; see Irigaray 1993c: 179-80). Sapho asks of Philaenis, ‘Hand to strange hand, lippe to lippe none denies; ❙ Why should they brest to brest, or thighs to thighs?’ She suggests that ‘the likenesse being such ❙ Why should they not alike in all parts touch?’ Nowhere does Sapho espouse the bee-line approach to the ‘Centrique part’ which the speaker of ‘Love's Progress’ asserts is the ‘desir'd place’, the telos of love. Donne thus seems to pass the ‘test’ Irigaray imposes:

even the motifs of ‘self-touching,’ of ‘proximity,’ isolated as such or reduced to utterances, could effectively pass for an attempt to appropriate the feminine to discourse. [sic] We would still have to ascertain whether ‘touching oneself,’ that (self)touching, the desire for the proximate rather than for (the) proper(ty), and so on, might not imply a mode of exchange irreducible to any centering, any centrism, given the way the ‘self-touching’ of female ‘self-affection’ comes into play as a rebounding from one to the other without any possibility of interruption, and given that, in this interplay, proximity confounds any adequation, any appropriation.

(1985b: 79; first emphasis mine)

There is a startling example of what seems to be an eros of ‘the fecundity of the caress’ (see Irigaray 1993a: 185 ff.) in Ben Jonson's translation of Petronius: ‘Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short; ❙ And done, we straight repent us of the sport: ❙ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it, ❙ Like lustful beasts, that onely know to doe it’. Rather, ‘Let us together closely lie, and kisse, ❙ There is no labour, nor no shame in this; ❙ This hath pleas'd, doth please, and long will please; never ❙ Can this decay, but is beginning ever’ (1925-52: viii. 294). Jonson's male performance anxiety registers here in the shame and disgust he expresses for the wholly inadequate sexual act. Jonson was obviously attracted to a ‘becoming’ which avoided postcoital sadness, the ‘disappointment of having come’, and thus his privileging of touch over penetration is at least in part substitutive for intercourse rather than an altogether independent mode of relating. Moreover, we saw the rage with which he expressed Cecilia Bulstrode's ‘rubbing’ and writing in his ‘Epigram on the Court Pucelle’.

In her essay, ‘Love of Self’, Irigaray points to the dangers of love between women in which Sapho appears to get caught up in front of her mirror:

The female has always served the self-love of man, obviously. But there is also the fact that the female does not have the same relation to exteriority as the male. … She herself cannot watch herself desiring (except through another woman? Who is not herself? One of the dangers of love between women is the confusion in their identities, the lack of respect for or of perception of differences).

(1993a: 63)

It takes Sapho some time to distinguish her image in the mirror from Philaenis, even as she touches her own body, but she does, crucially, return to her own body from the ‘other side’ of the mirror. Unlike the opinion of the speaker in ‘Communitie’ and ‘Variety’, one woman is not just like another. Irigaray articulates the likeness and difference in the love between women she enacts with her female interlocutor in ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’: ‘We live by twos beyond all mirages, images, and mirrors. … Our resemblance does without semblances: for in our bodies, we are already the same. Touch yourself, touch me, you'll “see”’ (1985b: 216).

There is a corresponding moment to Sapho's mirror scene in which Ovid's Sappho describes her dreams of Phaon:

illic te invenio, quamvis regionibus absis;
.....oscula cognosco, quae tu committere linguae
          aptaque consueras accipere, apta dare.
blandior interdum verisque simillima verba
          eloquor, et vigilant sensibus ora meis.
ulteriora pudet narrare, sed omnia fiunt,
          et iuvat, et siccae non licet esse mihi.

[In them I find you, though in space you are far away; … I recognize the kisses—close caresses of the tongue—which you were wont to take and wont to give. At times I fondle you, and utter words that seem almost the waking truth, and my lips keep vigil for my senses. Further I blush to tell, but all takes place; I feel the delight, and cannot rule myself].

(125, 129-34)

Sappho has switched from the past tense to the present in this passage in order to convey the illusion of Phaon's presence as she dreams. She describes the physical sensations of her fantasy as if they were real, she touches Phaon, she utters ‘words that seem almost the waking truth’, and if Ovid's Latin is more literally translated, she brings herself to orgasm. In Sappho's dream, her words function in the same way to make Phaon, a man, ‘present’, as Sapho's words and body do in Donne's poem to make Philaenis, a woman, ‘present’. The likeness of their bodies is such that the required suspension of disbelief is something less than in the case of a woman and a man. When compared to the scene in Ovid then, Sapho's autoerotic mirror-gazing is less troublingly narcissistic than it is coincidentally useful to Donne's argument for perfect union. The danger of narcissistic everlastingness is in fact dissolved as Sapho moves to kiss her image in the glass and recognizes it is she and not Philaenis. Likewise in Ovid, Sappho wakes up with only her memories of Phaon's presence, symbolized by the pressed-down grass of the forest.

In her final lines, Sapho resumes her wooing through epideictic and again attempts to surpass stale Petrarchisms. Philaenis once again is thrust into the outer reaches of the galaxy, encompassing or ‘outwear[ing]’ time itself. The final image of the poem is of Philaenis ‘comming neere’ and thus keeping ‘change’ and ‘sickness’ from Sapho. The undecidability of the whole poem does not let up in the final line, for here is both a desire for the absolute, for mastery over time and space which constitutes a phallogocentric economy, and an evocation of the proximate which Irigaray advocates in ‘This Sex Which Is Not One’:

Woman always remains several, but she is kept from dispersion because the other is already within her and is autoerotically familiar to her. Which is not to say that she appropriates the other for herself, that she reduces it to her own property. Ownership and property are doubtless quite foreign to the feminine. At least sexually. But not nearness. Nearness so pronounced that it makes all discrimination of identity, and thus all forms of property, impossible. Woman derives pleasure from what is so near that she cannot have it, nor have herself. She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either.

(1985b: 31)

Donne's Sapho seems to practice an exchange, a love of self and other through the other once she has ‘cross[ed] back through the mirror that subtends all speculation’ (1985b: 77; Irigaray's italics). Sapho and Philaenis seem to relate as do the lovers in ‘The Good-morrow’ where the speaker says, ‘Let us possesse our world, each hath one, and is one’ (14). But the same thing occurs at the end of both poems: a sudden desire to ‘freeze’ the becoming and exchange between lovers. ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ ends with only the wished-for return of Philaenis; she and Sapho have yet to come ‘neere’, and when they do Sapho anticipates no change rather than ex-change. ‘Love's Infiniteness’ is another poem which expresses the split within Donne's imagination between a desire for an unchanging ‘All’ and the wonder of love which ‘doth every day admit ❙ New growth’ (25-6). ‘The Good-morrow’ ends with a supposition: ‘If our two loves be one, or, thou and I ❙ Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die’. Catherine Belsey recognizes in her discussion of the crux at the end of ‘The Good-morrow’ that there is a direct conflict between desire's two imperatives: sustained intensity and fulfillment (1994: 143-6); the same conflict is carried over in Donne's exploration of homoerotics, because here Donne is unable, finally, to step across the threshold of the thinkable and comprehend that difference can bring us together in wonder as much as it always—inevitably yet creatively—separates us.

While Donne's homopoetics, to use Paula Blank's term, are still caught in the mirror of the Same and the Other of the Same, still frustrated rather than invigorated by the difference between Sapho and Philaenis, and if he still to some degree exploits lesbianism and the body of woman, Donne represents homoerotics in a way which Irigaray suggests can be useful in establishing an ethics of sexual difference, regardless of actual practices; that is, as a morphological model, one step in the process of realizing the gender relationship as intersubjective; hence, the possibility of an ‘I, you’ mode of relating rather than an ‘I, not-I’ ‘dialogue of one’. It is precisely that we cannot ‘forget the Hee and Shee’ (‘The Undertaking’), insofar as they signal the irreducible difference between subjectivities, if we wish to enter into fully creative dialogue with one another. In this sense, the poem is not ‘about’ sex at all, as Paula Blank argues in her discussion of the way sameness and difference ultimately transcend gender (1995). ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ shows that there is something ‘other’ to the feminine (and hence, to the masculine) besides its patriarchal status as merely Other of the Same; that it remains ‘somewhere else’, a ‘residue’ or excess which insists on troubling the borders of masculine amplitude. Donne criticism has assumed familiarity with the ‘scene of representation’ (see Irigaray 1985b: 68-85) with which phallogocentrism, Donne's ‘masculine perswasive force’ has obscured the entire landscape, so that if a poem like ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ does not fit, we remove it from our sights. I suggest that ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ points to another ‘place’ entirely unmapped, a ‘new love … so far ahead of its time culturally that it is questionable whether even Donne himself could have understood all its potential implications’ (Low 1993: 3). Anthony Low and I disagree as to the precise characterization of Donne's ‘reinvention of love’ as well as to the orientation of ‘Sapho to Philaenis’, but we agree that Donne did, almost, reinvent love. Low suggests Donne's ‘private love’ is ‘idealized, Romantic, mutual, and transcendent in feeling’, whereas I would point to Donne's rejection in at least some poems of ‘either/or’ modes for the ‘both/and’ modality of flesh and spirit, in something which comes closer to Irigaray's ‘sensible transcendental’ or what Kerrigan suggests ‘we might term, thinking of early Heidegger, a “fundamental ontology” of love, a revelation of being-in-love through the charted voyage of its temporal possibilities’ (1987: 13). Donne's efforts to ‘forget the hee and shee’ when he employs an image of neutrality between lovers in love poems such as ‘The Canonization’, are to erase an aspect of human relating which he elsewhere insists upon, but they might also be read as what Irigaray calls ‘crossing through the neuter—the space-time of remission of the polemic’ so as to ‘set up the return or reappearance of God or of the other’ (1993a: 147); a means of reconfiguring the self and other in a relationship which is horizontal rather than hierarchical. One senses that in writing ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ and so many of his love poems, Donne comes very close to recognizing that the ‘mystery of relations between lovers is more terrible but infinitely less deadly than the destruction of submitting to sameness’ (Irigaray 1993a: 191).


  1. Turberville takes much licence in shifting the emphasis of Ovid's epistles to his own Tudor culture's concerns and expectations. Contemporary advice on women's conduct which demanded a woman's silence in exchange for her chaste reputation provides the lexicon of Turberville's moralized renditions. Lyly chose the fictionalization of Sappho which remembered her as a virtuous princess, not as a poet nor a lover of other women, nor a courtesan; in fact, the only choice open to him in a presentation before Her Majesty. While sharing the Renaissance preoccupation with the proper relations of those on various levels of the world hierarchy, Lyly chooses to represent the threat to and restoration of this order in a social rather than sexual context. But see Philippa Berry's discussion of Lyly (1989: 120-4) in which she suggests Lyly's presentation of Elizabeth as Sappho is more ambiguous in its exploration of the relations between power and sexuality. Drayton's poems (1961: ii. 129-308) constitute a sophisticated and complex response to Ovid, but the epistles are written by women from English history and so Sappho does not appear.

  2. Verducci refers to ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ which she suggests is wholly a reaction to Heroides, 15, a portrayal of Sappho ‘as macabre and anachronistic as Ovid's’, yet perfectly faithful to the central tenet of Ovid's poem: the claims of art and life on the poet (1985: 143).

  3. The ambiguous ending of Ovid's poem and this allusion to a happy ending for Sappho in Sabinus, was and is usually rejected or ignored in favour of Sappho's suicide. In Ovid's poem, the naiad who appears to Sappho in the forest tells her not that her leap from the Leucadian cliff will kill her, but that it will cure her passion for Phaon (163-72). Sappho makes up her mind to follow the nymph's advice and prays, ‘tu quoque, mollis Amor, pennas suppone cadenti, ❙ ne sim Leucadiae mortua crimen aquae! [Do thou too, tender Love, place thy pinions beneath me, lest I die and bring reproach on the Leucadian wave!]’ (179-80). She pledges her lyre to Phoebus if she survives her attempt to free herself of her passion for Phaon, and this is the vow to which Ovid refers at Amores, 2.18.34. Certainly Sappho worries that her leap from the Leucadian cliff will be fatal, but she seems in part to be indulging in a little calculated rhetorical posturing in order to sway Phaon (see ll. 187-90).

  4. But see Crompton 1980/1 for a correction of the notion that lesbianism was not legislated against in Continental Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Works Cited

Printed works before 1700 are published in London unless otherwise indicated.

Allen, D. C. (1964). ‘Donne's “Sapho to Philaenis”’. ELN 1: 188-91.

Belsey, Catherine (1994). Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Berry, Philippa (1989). Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen. London: Routledge.

Blank, Paula (1995). ‘Comparing Sappho to Philaenis: John Donne's “Homopoetics”’. PMLA 110/3: 358-68.

Butler, Judith (1994). ‘Bodies That Matter’ in Burke, Schor, Whitford: 141-74.

Carey, John (1990, 2nd edn., first publ. 1981). John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber and Faber.

Crompton, Louis (1980/1). ‘The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791’. Journal of Homosexuality 6/1-2: 11-25.

Dante Alighieri (1961). The Divine Comedy. Italian text with Trans. and Comm. by John D. Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press.

DeJean, Joan (1989). Fictions of Sappho: 1546-1937. University of Chicago Press.

Donne, John (1912). The Poems of John Donne. Ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson. 2 Volumes. Oxford University Press.

———(1953-62). Sermons. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter. 10 Volumes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———(1967b). The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters. Ed. W. Milgate. Oxford: Clarendon.

———(1980). Paradoxes and Problems. Ed. Helen Peters. Oxford University Press.

Drayton, Michael (1961). The Works of Michael Drayton. Ed. J. William Hebel. 5 Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fuss, Diana (1989). Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, Elizabeth (1989). ‘Ventriloquizing Sappho: Ovid, Donne, and the Erotics of the Feminine Voice’. Criticism 31/2: 115-38.

Heywood, Thomas (1613). A Marriage Triumphe.

Holstun, James (1987). ‘“Will You Rent Our Ancient Love Asunder?”: Lesbian Elegy in Donne, Marvell and Milton’. ELH 54/5: 835-68.

Irigaray, Luce (1985a). Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Orig. Speculum de l'autre femme. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1974.

———(1985b). This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Orig. Ce Sexe qui n'en pas un. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1977.

———(1989). ‘The Language of Man’. Trans. Erin G. Carlston. Cultural Critique 13: 191-202. Orig. ‘Le langue de l'homme’. Revue philosophique 4(1978).

———(1990). ‘Women's Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray’. Trans. Couze Venn. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. Ed. Deborah Cameron. London: Routledge: 80-96.

———(1993a). An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Orig. Éthique de la différance sexuelle. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit 1984.

———(1993c). Sexes and Genealogies. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. New York: Columbia University Press. Orig. Sexes et Parentés. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1987.

Jacobson, Howard (1974). Ovid's Heroides. Princeton University Press.

Jonson, Ben (1925-52). Ben Jonson. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson. 11 Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kauffman, Linda S. (1986). Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre and Epistolary Fictions. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kerrigan, William (1987). ‘What Was Donne Doing?’ SCR 4/2: 2-15.

Low, Anthony (1993). The Reinvention of Love: Poetry, Politics and Culture from Sidney to Milton. Cambridge University Press.

Maclean, Ian (1988, first publ. 1980). The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life. Cambridge University Press.

Mueller, Janel (1985). ‘“This Dialogue of One”: A Feminist Reading of Donne's Exstasie’. ADE Bulletin 81: 39-42.

———(1993). ‘Troping Utopia: Donne's Brief for Lesbianism’ in J. Turner 1993b: 182-207.

Ovid (1979, 2nd edn.). The Art of Love and Other Poems. Trans. J. H. Mosley. Rev. G. P. Goold. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———(1986, 2nd edn.). Heroides and Amores. Trans. Grant Showerman. Rev. G. P. Goold. 2 Volumes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———(1984, 2nd edn.). Metamorphoses. Trans. F. J. Miller. Rev. G. P. Goold. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Revard, Stella P. (1993). ‘The Sapphic Voice in Donne's “Sapho to Philaenis”’ in Summers and Pebworth: 63-76.

Sidney, Sir Philip (1973). Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan Van Dorsten. Oxford: Clarendon.

Summers, Claude J., and Pebworth, Ted-Larry, eds. (1993). Renaissance Discourses of Desire. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Turberville, George (1567). The Heroycall Epistles of the Learned Poet Publius Ovidius Naso, In English Verse. With Aulus Sabinus Aunsweres to Certaine of the Same.

Turner, James Grantham, ed. (1993b). Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images. Cambridge University Press.

Verducci, Florence (1985). Ovid's Toyshop of the Heart: Epistulae Heroidum. Princeton University Press.

Vives, Juan (1541). A Very Fruteful and Pleasant boke callyd The Instruction of a Christen Woman. Trans. Richard Hyrde.

Williams, Gordon, compiler (1994). A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. 3 Volumes. London: Athlone.

Further Reading

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Flynn, Dennis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 245 p.

Emphasizes Donne's family and personal connections to English Catholic figures and history.

Siemens, R. G. “‘I have often such a sickly inclination’: Biography and the Critical Interpretation of Donne's Suicide Tract, Biathanatos.Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May 2001). URL: http//

Discusses Donne's melancholy and the extent to which Biathanatos might be considered autobiographical.


Blissett, William F. “‘The strangest pageant, fashion'd like a court’: John Donne and Ben Jonson to 1600—Parallel Lives.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May 2001). URL: http//

Compares the lives and careers of Jonson and Donne, including their assessments of each others' work and their status at court.

Bridge, G. Richmond. “Trumpet Vibrations: Theological Reflections on Donne's Doomsday Sonnet.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May 2001). URL: http//

Reads this pre-ordination sonnet in light of Donne's supposed struggle with his calling to the priesthood.

Donaldson, Ian. “Perishing and Surviving: The Poetry of Donne and Jonson.” Essays in Criticism 51, No. 1 (January 2001): 68-85.

Contends that the poetry of Donne and Jonson has more in common than is usually acknowledged.

Kneidel, Gregory. “John Donne's Via Pauli.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100, no. 2 (April 2001): 224-46.

Contends that Donne's sermons on the conversion of Paul from Judaism to Christianity reflect Donne's own views about the true church and the best path the for English church.

Nutt, Joe. John Donne: The Poems. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, 211 p.

Introductory study of the main themes and characteristic style of Donne's major poetry.

Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “John Donne's ‘Lamentations’ and Christopher Featherstone's Lamentations … in prose and meter (1587).” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May 2001). URL: http//

Sheds light on the problem of editing Donne's “Lamentations of Jeremy”; also discusses evidence for dating the work.

Raman, Shankar. “Can't Buy Me Love: Money, Gender, and Colonialism in Donne's Erotic Verse.” Criticism 43, no. 2 (spring 2001): 135-68.

Examines the theme of valuation and currency in Donne's elegies in order to better understand the relationship between gender and colonialism.

Roth-Schwartz, Emma L. “Colon and Semi-Colon in Donne's Prose Letters: Practice and Principle.” Early Modern Literary Studies 3, No. 1 (1997). URL: http//

Relies on Donne's letters to suggest a punctuation practice for editing Donne's manuscripts.

Sprafkin, Alyson. “Language Strategy and Scrutiny in the Judicial Opinion and the Poem.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 2 (Fall 2001): 271-98.

Compares Donne's “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo's opinion in Palko v. Connecticut as examples of language used to guide the reader.

Sullivan, Ernest W. II The Influence of John Donne: His Uncollected Seventeenth-Century Printed Verse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993, 215 p.

Argues that the large body of Donne poems circulating during the seventeenth century—those previously uncollected and unstudied—demonstrate the poet's tremendous influence on the popular culture of his era as well as on the poetry of continental Europe.

Summers, Claude J. “W[illiam] S[hakespeare]'s A Funeral Elegy and the Donnean Moment.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May 2001). URL: http//

Discusses Donne's transformation of the elegy while arguing that the author of W.S.'s Funeral Elegy rejected Donne's path.

Additional coverage of Donne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors Modules: MST, POET; Exploring Poetry; Literature Criticism From 1400-1800, Vols. 10, 24; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 121, 151; Poets: American and British; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 2, 11; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Poets.

Stanley Fish (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Fish, Stanley. “Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power.” In John Donne, edited by Andrew Mousley, pp. 157-81. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Fish argues that in his poetry Donne exercises the power of language to dominate and control.]


For a very long time I was unable to teach Donne's poetry. I never had anything good to say about the poems, and would always find myself rereading with approval C. S. Lewis's now fifty-year-old judgement on Donne as the ‘saddest’ and ‘most uncomfortable of our poets’ whose verse ‘exercises the same dreadful fascination that we feel in the grip of the worst kind of bore—the hot eyed, unescapable kind’.1 Indeed my own response to the poetry was even more negative than Lewis's: I found it sick, and thought that I must be missing the point so readily seen by others. I now believe that to be the point: Donne is sick and his poetry is sick; but he and it are sick in ways that are interestingly related to the contemporary critical scene. In short, the pleasures of diagnosis have replaced the pleasure I was unable to derive from the verse.

Let's get the diagnosis out of the way immediately: Donne is bulimic, someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up. The object of his desire and of his abhorrence is not food, but words, and more specifically, the power words can exert. Whatever else Donne's poems are, they are pre-eminently occasions on which this power can be exercised; they report on its exercise and stage it again in the reporting, and when one asks about a moment in the poetry, ‘Why is it thus?’ the answer will always be ‘in order further to secure the control and domination the poet and his surrogates continually seek’. This is, I think, what Judith Herz is getting at in a recent fine essay when she remarks that ‘Donne … will say anything if the poem seems to need it’,2 an observation I would amend by insisting that the need to be satisfied is not the poem's but the poet's, and that it is the need first to create a world and then endlessly to manipulate those who are made to inhabit it.

In more than a few of the poems Donne not only performs in this way but provides a theoretical explanation of his performance. Such a poem is the elegy usually entitled ‘The Anagram’, a variation on the topos of the praise of ugliness. What Donne adds to the tradition is an account of what makes it possible, the capacity of words to make connection with one another rather than with some external referent that constrains them to accuracy. Four lines teach the lesson and exemplify it:

She's fair as any, if all be like her,
And if none be, then she is singular.
All love is wonder; if we justly do
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?

(ll. 23-6)3

That is, if your mistress is indistinguishable from the indifferent mass of women, then say ‘she's fair as any’, and if she is distinguished by the oddness of her features, then say, ‘she is singular’, i.e., a rarity. In either case you will be telling the truth, not as it exists in some realm independent of your verbal dexterity, but as it has been established in the context created by that dexterity. This is even truer (if I can use that word) of the second couplet in which we are first invited to assent to an unexceptionable assertion (‘All love is wonder’) and then told that by assenting we have assented also to the infinite conclusions that might be reached by playing with the two words and their cognates. It is as if the copula operated not to form a proposition, but simply to establish an equivalence between two sounds that can then be related in any way that serves the interpreter's purpose. If love equals wonder, the so-called argument goes, the condition of being full of wonder should equal the condition of being full of love, but since loveful is not a proper word, let's make it lovely.

The obvious objection to this self-propelling logic of schematic figures is that it knows no constraints and is wholly unstable; meaning can be pulled out of a suffix or out of thin air, and the linear constraints of syntax and consecutive sense are simply overwhelmed. But Donne forestalls the objection by putting it into the poem, not however, as an objection but as a rationale for the interpretive fecundity of his ‘method’: ‘If we might put letters but one way, / In the lean dearth of words, what could we say?’ (ll. 17-18). The answer is that we could say only one thing at a time, and that the one thing we could say would be formed in relation to some prior and independent referent. By refusing to be confined by the lean dearth of words Donne becomes able to say anything or many things as he combines and recombines words and letters into whatever figurative, and momentarily real, pattern he desires. As Thomas Docherty has recently observed, in this poem ‘anything we choose to call a stable essence is always already on its way to becoming something else’.4 The result is an experience in which the reader is always a step behind the gymnastic contortions of the poet's rhetorical logic, straining to understand a point that has already been abandoned, striving to maintain a focus on a scene whose configurations refuse to stand still.

The case is even worse (or better) with another of the elegies, ‘The Comparison’; for if the lesson of ‘The Anagram’ is that the ‘lean dearth of words’ is to be avoided, the lesson of this poem is that the lean dearth of words—the sequential fixing of meaning—can't be achieved. Structurally, the ‘plot’ of the poem couldn't be simpler: the poet's mistress is compared feature by feature to the mistress of his rival and declared to be superior; but this simplest of plots soon becomes radically unstable because the reader is often in doubt as to which pole of the comparison he presently inhabits. …

It is an amazing performance, a high-wire act complete with twists, flips, double reverses, and above all, triumphs, triumphs at the expense of the two women who become indistinguishably monstrous when the poet makes it impossible for us to tell the difference between them (‘the language of vilification contaminates that of praise’);5 and triumphs, of course, at our expense, as we are pushed and pulled and finally mocked by the incapacity he makes us repeatedly feel. But it is a triumph that has its cost, as the last half line of the poem makes clear:

… comparisons are odious.

(l. 54)

This is a moment of revulsion, not from the women for whose features he is, after all, responsible, but from the act by which he makes of them (and us) whatever he wills. Comparisons are odious because they are too easy. Given the requisite verbal skill, it is impossible for them not to succeed, and their success carries with it a lesson that turns back on itself, the lesson of a plasticity in nature so pervasive that it renders victory meaningless. What pleasure can be taken in the exercise of a skill if it meets no resistance? And what security attends an achievement that can be undone or redone in a moment, either by the verbal artificer himself, or by the very next person who comes along?

It is a lesson that has just been learned by the speaker of ‘Elegy 7’, a complaint-of-Pygmalion poem in which the first-person voice discovers to his distress that the woman he has fashioned has detached herself from him and is now free to go either her own way or the way of another. He begins by recalling her as she was before they met, and remembers her exclusively in terms of the languages she did not then understand: ‘thou didst not understand / The mystic language of the eye nor hand / … I had not taught thee then, the alphabet / Of flowers, how they devisefully being set / … might with speechless secrecy, / Deliver errands mutely’ (ll. 3-4, 9-12). The point is not only that these were languages unknown to her, but that independently of them she was herself not known because she was as yet unformed. What she now understands now understands—in the sense of supporting or providing a foundation for—her; she is the sum of the signifying systems whose coded meanings and gestures now fill her consciousness and that is why her previous state is characterised as the absence of signification: ‘ill arrayed / In broken proverbs, and torn sentences’ (ll. 18-19). ‘Arrayed’ means both ‘clothed’ and ‘set into order’: by being clothed in his words she attains an order where before there was only linguistic—and therefore substantive—chaos, broken proverbs, torn sentences. Quite literally, his words give her life: ‘Thy graces and good words my creatures be: / I planted knowledge and life's tree in thee’ (ll. 25-6).

The horror is that after having in-formed her, he finds that she is no less malleable than she was when she was nothing but verbal bits and pieces waiting for someone who might make her into something intelligible. The two stages of creation—from incoherent fragments into sequenced discourse—are finally not so different from one another if the configuration achieved in the second stage is only temporary, if once having been planted, knowledge and sense can be supplanted by another gardener who brings new knowledge and an alternative sense. The poet cries out in dismay: ‘Must I alas / Frame and enamel plate, and drink in glass? / Chafe wax for others' seals?’ (ll. 27-9). In short, must others now ‘write’ you, inscribe you, as I have done? Cannot the work of signification be frozen once it has been accomplished? What the speaker here discovers, three hundred and seventy-five years before Derrida writes ‘Signature Event Context’, is the ‘essential drift’ of language, the capacity of any signifier to ‘break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable’.6 Once an intelligible sign has been produced, one can always ‘recognise other possibilities in it by inscribing it or grafting it onto other chains’. ‘No context can … enclose it’, a truth the speaker of ‘Elegy 7’ now ruefully acknowledges as the poem ends: ‘Must I … / … break a colt's force, / And leave him then, being made a ready horse?’ This final line and a half could not be more precise: the shaping power he exerted before the poem began is given its precise name—force—but once given, the name declares its own problematic; he who lives by force is precariously at the mercy of force wielded by others, by strangers. The grafting of signifiers—and, remember, that is all she is, a chain of signifiers—onto other chains cannot be stopped; and it cannot be stopped because there is nothing to stop it, no extralinguistic resistance to its inscribing power, a power the speaker once again displays when he uncreates what he has made by de-gendering it. He leaves his rival not with a ‘her’ but a ‘him’, a ready-made horse in place of the previously ready-made woman. It is as if he were attempting to forestall the reinscription of his creation by performing it himself and thus removing from the world the graces his words have placed there. It is a particularly nasty instance of someone saying, ‘if I can't have her, no one will’, with a decided emphasis on the will.

It should be obvious by now that in these poems the act of writing is gendered in ways that have been made familiar to us by recent feminist criticism. The male author, like God, stands erect before the blank page of a female passivity and covers that page with whatever meanings he chooses to inscribe. This is how the speaker of the elegies always imagines himself, as a centre of stability and control in a world where everyone else is plastic and malleable. But this self-dramatisation of an independent authority can be sustained only if the speaker is himself untouched by the force he exerts on others. Were that force to turn back and claim him for its own by revealing itself to be the very source of his identity (which would then be no longer his) he would be indistinguishable from those he manipulates and scorns; he would be like a woman and become the object rather than the origin of his own performance, worked on, ploughed, appropriated, violated. (This is in fact the posture Donne will assume in many of the Holy Sonnets.) The suspicion that this may indeed be his situation is continually surfacing in these poems, as when in ‘The Comparison’ the despised mistress is said to be ‘like the first Chaos’, an image that seems to place the poet in the preferred position of shaping creator, the bringer of order; but he cannot occupy that position unless chaos—the feminine principle—precedes him and provides him with the occasion of self-assertion. Chaos is thus first in a sense infinitely less comfortable than the one he allows himself to recognise;7 for it is necessary both to the emergence of his being—such as it is—and to the illusion of his mastery, a mastery that is never more fragile than at those moments when it is most loudly proclaimed. …

That is precisely what happens at the end of [‘Elegy 3’] when he makes a perfect revolution from the stance of the opening lines to conclude ‘change is the nursery / Of music, joy, life and eternity’ (ll. 35-6). Critics complain that this conclusion seems inauthentic, that the ‘work seems to come apart intellectually and emotionally’,8 but the complaint assumes the survival of a first-person voice of whom unity and integrity might be predicated. But that voice has been the casualty of its own poem, undone by the gymnastic virtuosity that impels both it and the poem forward. All that remains is what Sanders calls ‘the serene beatitude of these lines’, a beatitude that might mark an achieved coherence in a poem like Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos, whose conclusion it resembles, but here marks only the dislodgement of the centred self by the fragmentary, ecphrastic discourse it presumed to control.9 As Docherty puts it, there remains ‘no identifiable “Donne”, no identifiable or self-identical source or authority. … Donne is that which is always the Other [to] himself.’10

The continual reproduction of a self that can never be the same, that can never be ‘its own’ is at once reported and repeatedly performed in the last of the elegies I shall consider, ‘Elegy 16’, ‘On His Mistress’. The poem is an address to a woman who has offered to accompany the speaker on a journey disguised as his page, and commentary has foundered on the biographical speculation that the woman in question may have been Donne's wife. But the fact of the dramatic occasion is not revealed until line 15, and before that line the poem is focused neither on the woman nor on her proposed stratagem but on itself and on the other verbal actions that have preceded it.

By our first strange and fatal interview,
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my words' masculine persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts, which spies and rivals threaten'd me,
I calmly beg: but by thy fathers wrath,
By all pains, which want and divorcement hath,
I conjure thee. …

(ll. 1-9)

This long syntactic unit is an extended oath, but while oaths typically invoke some extraverbal power or abstraction, this oath invokes previous oaths. Even when the verse names emotions that would seem to be prior to words, they turn out to have been produced by words: desires that proceed from interviews (exchanges of talk), hurts that flow from threats, pains fathered by the expressions of wrath. The lines call up a familiar Ovidian world of plots, dangers, crises, but the principal actors in that world are not the speaker or his mistress or her father, but the various speech acts in relation to which they have roles to play and meanings to declare. A phrase like ‘fathers wrath’ names a conventional linguistic practice, not a person, and when the speaker swears by it, indeed conjures by it, he acknowledges the extent to which the energy he displays is borrowed from a storehouse of verbal formulas that belong to no one and precede everyone.

Yet even as that acknowledgement is made, the speaker resists it by claiming that the power that is working in this scene has its source in him, or, more precisely, in the ‘masculine persuasive force’ by means of which he produces (begets) his mistress's character. The three words that make up this phrase are mutually defining and redundant. The masculinity he asserts is inseparable from his ability to persuade—that is, to control—and ‘force’ is just a name for the exercise of that control, an exercise that validates his independence and thereby confirms his masculinity. But even as the power of masculine persuasive force is asserted the line itself assigns that power to the words—‘my words' masculine persuasive force’—which thereby reserve for themselves everything the speaker would mark as his own, including his own identity. In the guise of telling a story about a man, a woman, and a proposed journey, the poem stages a struggle between its own medium and the first-person voice that presumes to control it. That struggle is enacted again in the next line and a half when the speaker declares that his words are subordinate to the inner reality of which they are the mere expressions: ‘all the oaths which I / And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy’ (ll. 9-10). The assertion is that the constancy is a feature of his character and is prior to the oaths that serve only as its outward sign; but no sooner has that assertion been made than it is flatly contradicted by the (speech) action of the next line: ‘Here I unswear, and overswear them thus.’ ‘Overswear’ means ‘swear over’, both in the sense of ‘again’ and in the sense of reinscribing, of writing over what has been written previously. Not only does this overswearing undermine the constancy that has just been claimed, it also renders empty the personal pronoun that stood as the sign of the claimant. A consciousness that can rewrite its own grounds in the twinkling of an eye is not a consciousness at all, but a succession of refigurings no different finally from the refigurings it boasts to have produced in others. …


That irony is the subject of the Satires, despite the still influential account of them as spoken in the voice of one who ‘consistently defends the spiritual values of simplicity, peace, constancy, and truth’.11 Certainly there is much talk of these virtues in the poems, but they are invoked at the very moments at which the speaker is displaying their opposites; rather than naming his achievements, they name the states from which he is always and already distant, the state of being one thing (simplicity), of being that thing without conflict (in peace), and of being that thing forever and truly. The satires record the desperate and always failing effort of the first-person voice to distinguish himself from the variability and corruption—alteration from an original—he sees around him. The basic and (literally) self-defeating gesture of these poems is enacted in the very first lines of ‘Satire I’:

Away thou fondling motley humourist,
Leave me …

The phrase ‘fondling motley humourist’ is made up of words that point to the same quality, instability; a humorist is a person of irregular behaviour, ‘a fantastical or whimsical person’ (OED); a fondling is a fool, someone dazed, incapable of focusing (in an earlier manuscript Donne wrote ‘changeling’); and motley is what a fool wears because a cloth ‘composed of elements of diverse or varied character’ (OED) perfectly suits one who is without a centre. It also suits the traditional figure of the satirist, the writer of a random discourse who moves from one topic to another in ways that display no abiding rationale; the linking definition of satire as ‘satura medley’—a full dish of mixed fruit indiscriminately heaped up—was a standard one in the period and linked the satirist both with the court fool (as he appears, for example, in King Lear), and with the ‘mirror’ or recorder figure who reflects the disorder of a world without coherence and has no coherence of his own. (Here one might cite Skelton's Parrot). In short, what the first-person voice pushes away or tries (in an impossible effort) to push away is himself; rather than saying, as he would like to, ‘Get thee behind me Satan’, he is saying (in perfect self-contradiction), ‘Get thee behind me me.’ From the beginning he is protecting and defending an identity—a separateness from flux and surface—that he never really has.

In what follows, each declaration of distance and isolation is undermined even as it is produced. In line 11 he vows not to leave the ‘constant company’ of his library; but in the previous line that company is said to include ‘Giddy fantastic poets’, an acknowledgement that at once belies the claim of constancy and points once again to the giddiness (absence of stability) of the speaker, who is after all practising poetry at this very moment. In line 12 he is betrayed even by his own syntax:

Shall I leave all this constant company,
And follow headlong, wild uncertain thee?

Who is ‘headlong’—that is, madly impetuous—the motley humorist or the speaker who (at least rhetorically) disdains him? Since ‘headlong’ can either be an adverb modifying ‘I’ or an adjective modifying ‘thee’ it is impossible to tell, and this impossibility faithfully reflects the absence of the difference the speaker repeatedly invokes.

The claim of difference is further (and fatally) undermined when the speaker without any explanation decides that he will follow along after all. As if to reaffirm his self-respect (and his self) he asks for assurances that he will not be left alone in the street (First swear … / Thou wilt not leave me’ [ll. 13-15]), but this weak (and, as he himself knows, futile) gesture only underlines the extent of his capitulation: the distance between ‘leave me’ and ‘don't leave’ has been travelled in only fifteen lines; the stutter rhythm of push away/embrace is now instantiated in the poem's narrative as the now indistinguishable pair prepares to exit together. Before they do, the speaker rehearses the dangers he hopes to avoid, but his recital of them is so detailed and knowledgeable that he seems already to have fallen to them, and when he once again reasserts his difference from the world he is about to enter—‘With God, and with the Muses I confer’ (l. 48)—one cannot take him seriously. Immediately after uttering this line he says ‘But’ and performs the action he vowed never to perform in line 1:

I shut my chamber door, and come, let's go.

(l. 52)

Yet even here he hesitates, pausing on the threshold (which he has long since crossed) to analyse an action that he himself finds inexplicable; after all he knows his man too well to believe that he will be faithful, and he knows too that any fickleness will be accomplished by a justification for ‘why, when, or with whom thou wouldst go’ (l. 65). The real question, however, is why the speaker would go in the face of such knowledge, and he poses the question himself in the very act of going:

But how shall I be pardoned my offence
That thus have sinned against my conscience.

(ll. 66-7)

There is no answer, merely the report that, finally, ‘we are in the street’ (l. 67), but the answer is all too obvious: if by conscience he means an inner integrity—an identity that holds itself aloof against all external temptations and assaults—then conscience is what he has not had ever since his first words revealed a mind divided against itself. Ironically, that mind is now unified (if that is the right word) when it accepts (certainly not the right word) its implication in the giddy and the variable, and ventures out into the world to encounter other versions of himself, others who, like him, are ‘many-colored’ and forever on the move. The fiction that it is not he but his fickle companion who refuses to stand still (l. 86) is rhetorically maintained by the distinction of pronouns, but even that distinction is collapsed in the final lines:

He quarreled, fought, bled; and turned out of door
                    Directly came to me hanging the head,
                    And constantly a while must keep his bed.

(ll. 110-12)

That is, he comes home, where he lives, to the speaker, and he comes ‘directly’, as if by instinct, and as he comes he shares with the speaker the pronoun ‘me’—is it ‘comes to me while hanging his head’ or ‘comes to me who am hanging my head’? The attribution of ‘constancy’ is mocked not only by the immediate qualification of ‘a while’, but by everything that has transpired in a poem where inconstancy rules and most spectacularly rules the voice who would thrust it from him (‘Away …’). …

Moreover, insofar as the speaker's relationship to the world he scorns is precarious, so is Donne's, for nothing in the poem authorises us to perform the saving and stabilising move of formalist criticism in which a sharp distinction between the poet and his persona allows the former to stand outside the predicament of the latter. In Donne's poems, as Herz observes, ‘inside and outside are no longer clearly fixed points’,12 and therefore we cannot with any confidence locate a place in which the poet is securely established as a controlling presence. This is particularly true of ‘Satire 4’, a poem in which the speaker plays with the dangers of displaying Catholic sympathies in a way that cannot be separated from the danger Donne—the Catholic-in-the-course-of-becoming-an-Anglican—risks in presenting such a speaker. Is it the satiric voice who begins by declaring ‘Well; I may now receive’ and then labours to render the suggestion of a forbidden ceremony metaphorical and jesting, or is it Donne? …

What we do know is that once again a Donne poem presents a speaker who refuses to recognise himself in the indictment he makes of others. In this case the indictment is of those who go to court, which is the very first thing the speaker does in an action he finds as inexplicable as we do:

My mind, neither with pride's itch, nor yet hath been
Poisoned with love to see, or be seen.
I had no suit there, nor new suit to show,
Yet went to Court.

(ll. 5-8)

The claim is, as in the earlier poems, a claim of interiority—he need not show himself in order to acquire value; he is content with what he is in himself—and in order to maintain the claim, he at once minimises his sin and renders it something external by calling it ‘my sin of going’ (l. 12). Characterised that way, the sin seems accidental to an inner being it does not touch, something that ‘happens’ to that being before it is even aware. Of course he knows what the commission of this little sin will suggest to some, that he is ‘As prone to all ill, and of good as forget- / ful, as proud, as lustful, and as much in debt, / As vain, as witless and as false as they / Which dwell at Court, for once going that way’ (ll. 13-16); but by insisting on the ‘once’, on the anomalous nature of the event, he pushes the accusation away and reaffirms his status as something apart from the scene he unwillingly enters.

It is in the service of the same affirmation that he labels everything and everyone he meets ‘strange’ and a ‘stranger’, indeed ‘Stranger than strangers’ (l. 23). That is to say, nothing I saw is like me, an assertion belied by the very first person he encounters; that person wears coarse clothes which leave him bare (l. 30); he ‘speaks all tongues’ (l. 35) and has none of his own; rather he is ‘Made of th' accents’ (l. 37), a confection of ‘pedant's motley’ (l. 40). He is, in short, a satirist, affectedly coarse, deliberately ill-attired, a mirror of everything around him, an indiscriminate mixture. The speaker has met himself, and he responds in language that at once admits the kinship and disclaims it:

He names me, and comes to me; I whisper, ‘God!
How have I sinned, that thy wrath's furious rod,
This fellow, chooseth me?’

(ll. 49-51)

‘He names me’ is literal in its identification of the two, but of course in so exclaiming the speaker intends only wonder at so unlikely an act of recognition; but then he performs (unknowingly) the same recognition when he ‘names’ the stranger ‘thy wrath's furious rod’, for this is still another standard description of the satirist and his purpose. Unable to free himself from this unwelcome companion, he has recourse to behaviour that will he hopes drive the wretch away: ‘I belch, spew, spit, / Look pale, and sickly’ (ll. 109-10); but this is precisely the aspect the ‘stranger’ already bears, and it is no wonder that upon meeting it in the speaker ‘he thrusts on more’ (l. 111). The ‘more’ he produces is a compendium of stock satiric themes—‘He names a price for every office paid; / He saith, our laws thrive ill, because delayed; / That offices are entailed’ (ll. 121-3)—and as he listens to this version of himself even the speaker is close to seeing the truth:

… hearing him, I found
That as burnt venomed lechers do grow sound
By giving others their sores, I might grow
Guilty. …

(ll. 133-6)

Guilty, that is, not simply of going, but of being, or rather of nonbeing.

The thought is too horrible and he thrusts it away with a gesture that is its own allegory:

… I did show
All signs of loathing.

(ll. 136-7)

‘All signs of loathing’ is a formulation that definitively begs the question both for the speaker and for Donne. ‘Signs’ of loathing are precisely external indications of something that may be otherwise; whether the speaker really loathes is something we don't know and something he doesn't know either. The same holds for Donne: the entire poem constitutes his sign of loathing, his declaration of distance from the world he delineates and from the voice he projects: ‘this is not me but my creature; this is not my world, but the world in which my creature is implicated in ways that he does not know; I, like you, know; I am in control.’ But the only evidence he might cite in support of this declaration and its claim (the claim to be in possession of himself in contrast to his creature who is not) are his signs of loathing, his production of words, his show; but whether or not anything lies behind the show, whether the signs of loathing stand in for an authentic loathing or whether they constitute a ruse by which the true nature of Donne's impure being is concealed from us and from himself in exactly the manner of his fictional (or is it true?) surrogate, is something we cannot determine. And neither can he. As in the elegies, the foregrounding of the power of signs and of their tendency to ‘compass all the land’ catches the foregrounder in its backwash, depriving him of any independence of the forces he (supposedly) commands. The more persuasive is his account and exercise of verbal power the less able is he to situate himself in a space it does not fill, and he is left as we are, wondering if there is or could be anything real—anything other than artifice—in his performance (a word that perfectly captures the dilemma).


The relationship between the exercise of power and the claims to independence and sincerity continues to be thematised in the Holy Sonnets although in these poems Donne occupies (or tries to occupy) the position of the creature and yields the role of the shaper to God. That difference, however, is finally less significant than one might suppose since the God Donne imagines is remarkably like the protagonist he presents (and I would say is) in the elegies, a jealous and overbearing master who brooks no rivals and will go to any lengths (even to the extent of depriving Donne of his wife) in order to secure his rights. It is as if Donne could only imagine a God in his own image, and therefore a God who acts in relation to him as he acts in relation to others, as a self-aggrandising bully. To be sure, in the sonnets the speaker rather than exerting masculine persuasive force begs to be its object (‘Batter my heart, three person'd God’), but this rearrangement of roles only emphasises the durability of the basic Donnean situation and gives it an odd and unpleasant twist: the woman is now asking for it (‘enthrall me’, ‘ravish me’). One might almost think that the purpose of the sonnets, in Donne's mind, is retroactively to justify (by baptising) the impulses to cruelty and violence (not to say misogyny) he displays so lavishly in his earlier poetry. In an important sense ‘Thou hast made me and shall thy work decay’ is simply a rewriting of ‘Nature's lay idiot’, which might itself be titled ‘I have made you, and shall my work decay?’ The plot is the same, an original artificer now threatened by a rival artisan (‘our old subtle foe so tempeth me’), and a complaint against change in the name of a control that would be absolute. Of course in the ‘sacred’ version the complaint is uttered not by the about to be supplanted creator, but by the creature eager to remain subject to his power (‘not one houre I can myself sustaine’); nevertheless the relational structure of the scene is the same, a structure in which masochism (and now sado-masochism) is elevated to a principle and glorified, earlier in the name of a frankly secular power, here in the name of a power that is (supposedly) divine. The fact that Donne now assumes the posture of a woman and like the church of ‘Show me deare Christ thy spouse’ spreads his legs (or cheeks) is worthy of note, but to note it is not to indicate a significant (and praiseworthy) change in his attitude toward women and power; it is rather to indicate how strongly that attitude informs a poetry whose centre is supposedly elsewhere.

Moreover, even as Donne casts himself in the female role, he betrays an inability to maintain that role in the face of a fierce and familiar desire to be master of his self, even of a self whose creaturely nature he is in the process of acknowledging. In a poem like ‘As due by many titles I resigne / My selfe to thee’, the gesture of resignation is at the same time a reaffirmation of the resigner's independence: considering well the situation, it seems proper that I choose to be subservient to you. As Hester has observed, this is not so much a resigning, but a re-signing, the production of a signature and therefore of a claim of ownership, if not of the self that was, as he says, ‘made’ (1.2), then of the act by which that self is laid down (a distinction without a difference).13 Ostensibly the poem is an extended plea to be possessed (in every sense) by God, but in fact it is a desperate attempt to leave something that will say, like Kilroy, ‘Donne was here’.

That desperation is the explicit subject of ‘If faithfull soules be alike glorifi'd’, a first line that enacts in miniature everything that follows it.14 As it is first read, the question seems to be whether or not all faithful souls are glorified in the same way (are they alike?), but then the first two words of the second line—‘As Angels’—reveal that the likeness being put into question is between all faithful souls (now assumed to be glorified alike, but without any content specified for that likeness) and angels who are themselves glorified alike but perhaps not in the same manner (alike) as are faithful souls. If the pressure of interrogation falls on the notion of likeness and therefore on the issue of identity (one must know what something or someone uniquely is before one can say for certain whether or not it or he or she is like or unlike something or someone else), then the interrogation is from the very first in deep trouble when the word ‘alike’, meaning ‘not different’, turns out to be different from itself in the passage from line 1 to line 2.

The trouble is compounded as line 2 further unfolds:

As Angels, then my fathers soule doth see

Whether or not his father's soul sees is still in doubt since the entire construction remains ruled by ‘If’; and the fact of his father's being a Catholic reinvigorates the question that had been left behind in the turn of the second line: are faithful souls glorified alike even if they are faithful to papism? As a result, the status of his father's vision is doubly obscure; we don't know whether it is like the vision of other, more safely, faithful souls, and we don't know, should it pass that test, whether it is as perspicuous as the vision of angels.

It is in the context of that unsure vision that we meet the sight it may or may not see: ‘That valiantly I hels wide mouth o'erstride’ (l. 4). The line presents itself as an assertion of the way things really are—despite appearances I stand firm against the temptations of the world, flesh, and devil—but in the context of what precedes it, the assertion remains only a claim until it is confirmed by one who sees through appearances to the inner reality they obscure. Since, however, the question of whether his father is one who sees in that penetrating way has been left conspicuously open, neither he nor we can be sure of that confirmation, and there remains the suspicion that behind the sign of purity, behind the verbal report of spiritual valour, there is nothing; the suspicion that the truth about him is no deeper or more stable than his surface representation of it. It is this dreadful possibility that Donne (one could say ‘the speaker’, but it will come down to Donne in the end) raises explicitly in the next four lines:

But if our mindes to these soules be descry'd
By circumstances, and by signes that be
Apparent in us, not immediately,
How shall my mindes white truth to them be try'd?

(ll. 5-8)

That is, if my father and other glorified souls (if he is, in fact, glorified and if all faithful souls are glorified alike) descry just as we on earth do, through a variety of glasses darkly, by means of signs, of representations, of what shows (is ‘Apparent’), then there is no way that anyone will ever know what's inside me or indeed if there is anything inside me. A ‘white truth’ is a truth without colour, without coverings, without commentary, but if coloured, covered, and textualised truth are all anyone can see, then the white truth of his mind will continue to be an untried claim, and one moreover that is suspect, given the innumerable examples of those who feign commitments they do not have:

They see idolatrous lovers weepe and mourne,
And vile blasphemous Conjurers to call
On Jesus name, and Pharisaicall
Dissemblers feigne devotion.

(ll. 9-12)

Anyone can say they are faithful or sincere or ‘white’, but such sayings, proffered as evidence of a truth beyond (or behind) signs, are themselves signs and never more suspicious than when they present the trappings of holiness. It is at this point (if not before) that the precarious situation of the poem becomes obvious; as a structure of signs it has done all the things it itself identifies as strategies of dissembling: it has wept, mourned, dramatised devotion; and then, as if it were following its own script, the poem closes by performing the most reprehensible of these strategies; it calls on Jesus' name:

                                                                                          … Then turne
O pensive soule, to God, for he knowes best
Thy true griefe, for he put it in my breast.

(ll. 12-14)

There are at least two levels on which this is an unsatisfactory conclusion. First, there is no reason to believe that the turn to God is anything but one more instance of feigned devotion, one more performance of a piety for which the evidence remains circumstantial (that is, theatrical) and apparent, a matter of signs and show. To be sure, the structure of the sonnet lends these lines the aura of a final summing up, of a pronouncement (‘Then’) detached from the gestures that precede it; but nothing prevents us from reading the pronouncement itself as one more gesture, and therefore as a claim no more supported than the claim (that he valiantly o'erstrides hell's mouth) it is brought in to support. And even if we were to credit the sincerity of these lines and regard them not as dramatic projections but as spontaneous ejaculations, they would not provide what the poem has been seeking, a perspective from which we could discern once and for all what, if anything, was inside him; for all the lines say is that whatever there is in his breast, God knows it, which means of course that we don't, and that we are left at the end with the same doubt that his ‘true griefe’ (here just one more ‘untry'd’ claim) may be false, a confection of signs and appearances. As in the elegies and the satires, the relentless assertion and demonstration of the power of signs to bring their own referents into being—to counterfeit love and grief and piety—undermines the implicit claim of this producer of signs to be real, to be anything more than an effect of the resources he purports to control. …

This is spectacularly the case in ‘What if this present were the worlds last night?’ This first line might well open one of the sermons Donne was later to write; it is obviously theatrical and invites us to imagine (or to be) an audience before whom this proposition will be elaborated in the service of some homiletic point. But in the second line everything changes abruptly. The theatricalism is continued, but the stage has shrunk from one on which Donne speaks to many of a (literally) cosmic question to a wholly interior setting populated only by versions of Donne:

Marke in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright?

(ll. 2-4)

Donne addresses his own soul and asks it to look in his heart, where will be found a picture he has put there, either for purposes of meditation or in the manner of a lover who hangs portraits of his lady in a mental gallery. But the meditation is curious in the way we have already noted: Donne does not direct it at his beloved, whether secular or spiritual, but to another part of himself. Although Christ's picture is foregrounded, especially in the lines (ll. 5-7) that rehearse its beauties in a sacred parody of the traditional blazon, in the context of the poem's communicative scene, the picture—not to mention the person it portrays—is off to the side as everything transpires between the speaker and his soul. The gesture is a familiar one in Donne's poetry; it is the contraction into one space of everything in the world (‘All here in one bed lay’), which is simultaneously the exclusion of everything in the world (‘I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink’);15 but here it seems prideful and perhaps worse, for it recharacterises the Last Judgement as a moment staged and performed entirely by himself: produced by Donne, interior design by Donne, case pled by Donne, decision rendered by Donne. Again, as in the elegies, Donne occupies every role on his poem's stage, and since the stage is interior, it is insulated from any correcting reference other than the one it allows. Thus protected from any outside perspective and from the intrusion of any voice he has not ventriloquised, Donne can confidently ask the poem's urgent question:

And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray'd forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight?

(ll. 7-8)

The question's logic assumes a distinction between ‘that tongue’ and ‘thee’ (i.e., me), but since Donne is here all tongues, the distinction is merely verbal and cannot be the basis of any real suspense. The answer is inevitable and it immediately arrives: ‘No, no’ (l. 9). But as John Stachniewski acutely observes, ‘the argument of Donne's poems is often so strained that it alerts us to its opposite, the emotion or mental state in defiance of which the argumentative process was set to work’.16 Here the mental state the poem tries to avoid is uncertainty, but its pressure is felt in the exaggerated intensity with which the ‘No, no’ denies it. Uncertainty and instability return with a vengeance in the final lines:

… but as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd,
This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.

(ll. 9-14)

In the rhetoric of this complex statement, Donne's idolatry is in the past, but his words also point to the idolatry he has been committing in the poem, the idolatry of passing judgement on himself in a court whose furniture he has carefully arranged. The assertion that he is not now in his idolatry is undermined by the fact that he here says the very same things he used to say when he was. As he himself acknowledges, what he says is part of a seductive strategy, more or less on the level recommended in ‘The Anagram’: if your beloved's countenance is forbidding and harsh, impute to her a benign interior; and if her aspect is ‘pitious’, impute to her a consistency of form and content. In this poem, the suspect logic is even more suspect because it is directed at himself: the referent of ‘thee’ is his own soul, the addressee since line 2. The soul is asked to read from the signifying surface of Christ's picture to his intention, but since that surface is one that Donne himself has as-signed, the confident assertion of the last line has no support other than itself.

Indeed the line says as much in either of its two textual versions, ‘This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde’ or ‘This beauteous forme assumes a pitious minde’.17 In either variant ‘This beauteous forme’ refers not only to the form Donne has assigned to Christ's picture, but to the form of the poem itself; it is the poem's verbal felicity and nothing else that is doing either the assuring (which thus is no more than whistling in the dark) or the assuming (which as a word at least has the grace to name the weakness of the action it performs). The poem ends in the bravado that marks some of the other sonnets (e.g., ‘Death be not proud’), but the triumph of the rhetorical flourish (so reminiscent of the ending of every one of the Songs and Sonnets) only calls attention to its insubstantiality. Once again, the strong demonstration of verbal power—of the ability to make any proposition seem plausible so long as one doesn't examine it too closely—undermines its own effects. In the end the poet always pulls it off but that only means that he could have pulled it off in the opposite direction, and that only means that the conclusion he forces is good only for the theatrical moment of its production. This is true not only for his readers but for himself; as the poem concludes, he is no more assured of what he assumes than anyone else, neither of the ‘pitious minde’ of his saviour, nor of the spiritual stability he looks to infer from the saviour's picture. The effort of self-persuasion—which is also at bottom the effort to confirm to himself that he is a self, someone who exceeds the theatrical production of signs and shows—fails in exactly the measure that his rhetorical effort succeeds. The better he is at what he does with words, the less able he is to claim (or believe) that behind the words—o'erstriding the abyss—stands a self-possessed being.

The realisation of radical instability (‘the horror, the horror’) is given full expression in ‘Oh, to vex me, contraryes meete in one’, a poem that desires to face the spectre down, but in the end is overwhelmed by it. The problem is succinctly enacted in the first line: if contraries meet in one, then one is not one—an entity that survives the passing of time—but two or many. This would-be-one looks back on its history and sees only a succession of poses—contrition, devotion, fear—no one of which is sufficiently sustained to serve as the centre he would like to be able to claim:

… to day
In prayers, and flattering speaches I court God:
To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod.

(ll. 9-11)

These lines at once report on and reproduce the dilemma: ‘prayers’ seems innocent enough until ‘flattering speaches’ retroactively questions the sincerity of the gesture; and the same phrase spreads forward to infect the assertion of line 11; when he quakes with ‘true fear’, is the adjective a tribute to his artistry, to his ability to simulate an emotion in a way that convinces spectators (including himself) of its truth; or is the fear true in a deeper sense, one that would allow us to posit a moment (however fleeting) of authenticity in the midst of so many performances? The question is of course unanswerable, although as the poem ends (both with a bang and a whimper) there is one last attempt to draw the kind of line that would make an answer possible:

So my devout fitts come and go away
Like a fantastique Ague: save that here
Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.

(ll. 12-14)

‘Devout fitts’ recapitulates the problem: can devotion be genuine—heartfelt—if it comes and goes like the ever-changing scene of a fever? In the continual alternation of contradictory spiritual states, no one moment seems any more securely ‘true’ than any other. Nevertheless the poem proceeds to declare an exception with ‘save that. …’ On one level the exception is to the comparison between spiritual and physical health: while in the illness of the body the best days are the days when convulsions subside, in spiritual matters the best days are marked by fearful agitation.18 But the exception Donne here tries to smuggle in is one that would attribute authenticity to the fits he displays on some days as opposed to others: my life may be characterised by changeful humours, but among those humours one speaks the genuine me. In order for that claim to be strongly received, however, the last line must be disengaged from everything that has preceded it and be marked in some way with the difference it attempts so boldly to declare. But no such mark is available, and as we read it the line is drawn into the pattern from which it would distinguish itself. Either it refers backward to the ‘true fear’ of line 11, already identified as a theatrical production, or, if we give the word ‘here’ full force, it refers to itself—I am at this very moment of writing shaking with true fear—and asks us to accept as unperformed and spontaneous the obviously artful conclusion to a sonnet. In either case, one cannot rule out a reading in which the best days are the days when he best simulates the appropriate emotion (‘look at how good I am at shaking with fear’), and we are as far from an emotion that is not simulated—from an emotion produced other than theatrically by someone other than a wholly theatrical being—than we were when he uttered the first self-pitying line, ‘Oh, to vex me. …’

Reading this same poem, Anne Ferry makes observations similar to mine but reaches a different conclusion. She takes the poem's lesson to be ‘that what is grounded inward in [the speaker's] heart is at a distance from language used to describe it, which cannot render it truly’, and she generalises this lesson into a Donnean theory of sincerity:

… what is in the heart cannot be interpreted or judged by outward signs, among which language is included, even when they are sincere. Inward states cannot therefore be truly shown, even by the speaker's own utterance in prayers or poems, cannot be defined by them, even to himself.19

Ferry assumes what it seems to me these poems put continually into question, that the ‘inward experience’ or ‘real self’ is in fact there and the deficiency lies with the medium that cannot faithfully transcribe it. I have argued that the problem with language in these poems is not that it is too weak to do something, but that it is so strong that it does everything, exercising its power to such an extent that nothing, including the agent of that exercise, is left outside its sphere. I am not offering this as the insight Donne wishes to convey as opposed to the insight Ferry urges, but, rather, saying that it is not an insight at all—in the sense of something Donne commands—but the problematic in which he remains caught even when he (or especially when he) is able to name it as he does in this passage from a sermon delivered during his final illness:

The way of Rhetorique in working upon weake men, … is to empty [the understanding] of former apprehensions and opinions, and to shape that beliefe, with which it had possessed it self before, and then when it is thus melted, to powre it into new molds, … to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.20

Once again Donne identifies, this time by its proper name, the activity he has practised all his life, an activity propelled by a force that knows no resistance and simply writes over (overswears) whatever meanings and forms some previous, equally unstoppable, force has inscribed. Once again, he attempts to assert his distance from that force even as he exercises it and reports on its exercise, attempts to possess it without being possessed by it. And once again the attempt takes the form of an act of displacement by means of which his fears are pushed onto others, not this time onto women or Frenchmen or Italians, but onto ‘weake men’. Weak men are men whose convictions are so malleable, so weakly founded, that they can be shaped and reshaped by the skilled rhetorician who becomes, in an implied opposition, the very type of the strong man. But as we have seen, in the story that Donne's poems repeatedly enact, the skilful rhetorician always ends up becoming the victim/casualty of his own skill, and no more so than at those moments when his powers are at their height. The stronger he is, the more force-full, the more taken up by the desire for mastery, the less he is anything like ‘himself’. The lesson of masculine persuasive force is that it can only be deployed at the cost of everything it purports to incarnate—domination, independence, assertion, masculinity itself.

In much of Donne criticism that lesson has been lost or at least obscured by a concerted effort to put Donne in possession of his poetry and therefore of himself. The result has been a series of critical romances of which Donne is the hero (valiantly o'erstriding the abyss). Ferry gives us one romance: the poet, ahead of his times, labours to realise a modern conception of the inner life. An older criticism gave us the romance of immediacy and the unified sensibility: the felt particulars of lived experience are conveyed by a verse that is at once tactilely sensuous and intellectually bracing. Often this romance was folded into another, the romance of voice in which a singular and distinctive Donne breaks through convention to achieve a hitherto unknown authenticity of expression. At mid-century the invention of the persona produced the romance of craft: Donne surveys the range of psychological experience and creates for our edification and delight a succession of flawed speakers. And the most recent scholarship, vigorously rejecting immediacy, voice, authenticity, and craft as lures and alibis, tempts us instead with the romance of postmodernism, of a Donne who is ‘rigorously sceptical, endlessly self-critical, posing more questions than he answers’.21 (This last is particularly attractive insofar as it transforms obsessive behaviour into existential heroism of the kind academics like to celebrate because they think, mistakenly, that they exemplify it.) As different as they are, these romances all make the mistake of placing Donne outside the (verbal) forces he sets in motion and thus making him a figure of control. In the reading offered here, Donne is always folded back into the dilemmas he articulates, and indeed it is the very articulation of those dilemmas—the supposed bringing of them to self-consciousness—that gives them renewed and devouring life.22


  1. C. S. Lewis, ‘Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century’, in Seventeenth Century English Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. William Keast (New York, 1962), pp. 98, 96.

  2. Judith Herz, ‘“An Excellent Exercise of Wit that Speaks So Well of Ill”: Donne and the Poetics of Concealment’, in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia, MO, 1986), p. 5.

  3. John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (Baltimore, MD, 1971). All further citations of the elegies and the satires are taken from this text.

  4. Thomas Docherty, John Donne, Undone (New York, 1986), p. 68.

  5. Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison, WI, 1986), p. 48.

  6. Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, Glyph, I (1977), 182, 185.

  7. For a brilliant discussion of chaos as it operates in Renaissance literature in general and in Milton's Paradise Lost in particular, see Regina Schwartz, ‘Milton's Hostile Chaos: “… And the Sea Was No More”’, ELH, 52 (1985), 337-74.

  8. Marotti, Coterie, p. 308.

  9. Wilbur Sanders, Donne's Poetry (Cambridge, 1971), p. 41.

  10. Docherty, John Donne, p. 60.

  11. N. J. C. Andreason, ‘Theme and Structure in Donne's Satyres’, in Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne's Poetry, ed. John R. Roberts (Hamden, CT, 1975), p. 412.

  12. Herz, ‘Poetics of Concealment’, p. 6.

  13. M. Thomas Hester, ‘Re-Signing the Text of the Self: Donne's “As due by many titles”’, in ‘Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse’: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia, MO, 1987), p. 69. Also see Docherty, John Donne, p. 139.

  14. All citations from the Holy Sonnets are taken from John Donne: The Divine Poems, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1964).

  15. ‘The Sun Rising’, ll. 20, 13.

  16. John Stachniewski, ‘John Donne: The Despair of the “Holy Sonnets”’, ELH, 48 (1981), 691.

  17. All manuscripts read assures, but the 1633 edition reads assumes.

  18. Anne Ferry, The ‘Inward’ Language (Chicago, 1983), pp. 242-3.

  19. Ibid., pp. 243, 249.

  20. Sermons, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols (Berkeley, CA, 1953-62), 2:282-3.

  21. Docherty, John Donne, p. 29.

  22. I am grateful to Stanley Fish for his helpful suggestions for editing his essay. Ed.]

[Stanley Fish's essay discusses a wide range of generically distinct poems (elegies, satires, and religious sonnets) and discovers a common strand between them in the Donne who fashions reality through language, but who is anxious, at the same time, about the emptiness of his own rhetoric. In the highly mediated, highly textualised world of a Donne performance, there is, according to Fish, a continual effacement of ‘prior and independent referent[s]’ (see p. 159 above), including Donne himself. The gender hierarchy whereby Donne would ideally position himself as creator rather than created, essence rather than construct, subject rather than object of linguistic transformation, collapses to reveal a mutable ‘sign’, as available for linguistic appropriation as those he inscribes and re-inscribes via the use of analogy.

During the course of his commentary upon one of Donne's religious sonnets, Fish makes the interesting point that ‘one must know what something or someone uniquely is before one can say for certain whether or not it or he or she is like or unlike something or someone else’ (see p. 171 above). This position, anti-poststructuralist in its affirmation of a form of essentialism which holds that things and people possess their own unique and inviolable identities, is worth comparing and contrasting with the more attenuated essentialism of Elizabeth Harvey's and Barbara Estrin's feminist approaches.

For an interesting elaboration of Fish's theoretical position, see his ‘What it Means to do a Job of Work’, English Literary Renaissance, 25 (1995), 354-71. For further discussion and contextualisation of his essay, see Introduction, p. 18. Ed.]

Theresa M. DiPasquale (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: DiPasquale, Theresa M. “The Cunning Elements of ‘I am a little world’” and “The Three Sonnets of ‘Goodfriday, 1613.’” In Literature and Sacrament: The Sacred and the Secular in John Donne, pp. 101-19, 119-29. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, DiPasquale explores the spiritual anxiety that she perceives in Donne's religious poetry, using La Corona, “I am a little world,” and “Goodfriday, 1613” as a basis for the discussion.]

The sonnet is a problematic form for post-Reformation English poets because of the idolatrous implications of its history as the Petrarchan poets' verse-form of choice. As Ernest Gilman points out, Sidney uses the “the language of Protestant iconoclastic polemics” to define Astrophil's folly in Sonnet 5: “What we call Cupid's dart, / An image is, which for our selves we carve; / And fooles, adore in temple of our hart” (Gilman, 12-13, quoting Astrophil and Stella 5:5-7). As suggested in Sidney's phrase “which for our selves we carve,” the problem with poetry is not simply that sonnets are put to work in the service of idolatrous desire. Rather, the peril lies in the making of the iconic, highly wrought artifact itself, in the carving of verbal images, regardless of the sort of love or desire those images express.1

In La Corona, therefore, Donne takes care to dissociate the art of sonnet-making from the sin of presumptuous self-reliance; the delayed appearance of the word “I” in the work is one safeguard against the futile subjectivity and idolatrous self-absorption that are a sonneteer's Petrarchan birthright.2La Corona's liturgical language also helps deflect the danger attending the sonnet form, distinguishing Donne's work as that of a poet whose words proceed from a sense of spiritual community and rely upon the Spirit of God for inspiration; the poet of La Corona thus carefully avoids claiming to effect his own salvation through “the worke wrought.”3

Many of Donne's Holy Sonnets, however, step dangerously closer to the Petrarchan edge: in “O Might those sighes,” the speaker feels that he has “spent” (2) all of his eloquence—troped as the “sighes and teares” (1) of Petrarchan love poetry—on the worldly “griefs” (6) of his “Idolatry” (5), and that he has no poetic resources left to express the “holy discontent” (3) of repentance; in “Oh, to vex me,” he parallels his “humorous … contritione” (5)—which is “ridlingly distemperd, cold and hott” (7)—with the oxymoronic “contraryes” (1) of Petrarchan poetry; and in “What if this present were the worlds last night?” he imagines Christ as the mistress whose “picture” he holds in his heart (3), relying—rashly, if Petrarch's experience is any guide—on the argument that his beloved's “beauteous forme assures a pitious minde” (14).4

In most of the Holy Sonnets, moreover, and in “Goodfriday, 1613,” the poet/speaker is a man alone. His voice—like that of Petrarch in the Rime sparse—rings out in a desolate space inhabited only by himself and the projected image of his Beloved; and, like Petrarch, he often speaks as much to himself as to the object of his devotion. He is cut off from that sense of shared liturgical experience that affords La Corona its sacramental power; he must therefore rely upon his own invention, his own concetti, his own skill as a sonneteer.

In a sermon on the Apostles' Creed, Donne draws a sharp contrast between private and communal prayer that illuminates the differences between the Holy Sonnets and La Corona:

I lock my doore to my selfe, and I throw my selfe downe in the presence of my God, … and I bend all my powers, and faculties upon God, as I think, and suddenly I finde my selfe scattered, melted, fallen into vaine thoughts, into no thoughts; I am upon my knees, and I talke, and I think nothing; I deprehend my selfe in it, and I goe about to mend it, I gather new forces, new purposes to try againe, and doe better, and I doe the same thing againe. I beleeve in the Holy Ghost, but doe not finde him, if I seeke him onely in private prayer; But in Ecclesia, when I goe to meet him in the Church, when I seeke him where hee hath promised to bee found … in his Ordinances, and meanes of salvation in his Church, instantly … not a dew, but a shower is powred out upon me, and presently followes … The Communion of Saints, the assistance of the Militant and Triumphant Church in my behalfe; And presently followes … The remission of sins, the purifying of my conscience, in that water, which is his blood, Baptisme, and in that wine, which is his blood, the other Sacrament; and presently followes … A resurrection of my body … and … Life everlasting

(Sermons 5:249-50)

In the phrases from the creed, the expression of communal belief recited in the first person singular by the whole congregation at Morning and Evening Prayer, Donne finds the words that bring peace to the human soul. As in La Corona, refreshment and hope spring from the established forms and patterns of the Faith. Indeed, in another sermon, Donne portrays the avoidance of raw spontaneity as a bid for the very highest kind of creative achievement: “Of God himselfe, it is safely resolved in the Schoole, that he never did any thing in any part of time, of which he had not an eternall pre-conception, an eternall Idea, in himselfe before. … And therefore let him be our patterne for that, to worke after patternes …” (Sermons 7:60-61). In La Corona, Donne takes the liturgy and ordinances of the Church as his pattern—and the creative achievement of the work cannot be separated from its status as a formal prayer.

In sharp contrast to such efficacious language is the meaningless succession of half-distracted, idiosyncratic prayers which, in Donne's sermon on the Creed, dissolve into “vaine thoughts, into no thoughts.” These failed private devotions are strongly reminiscent of the Holy Sonnets, works filled with spurious arguments, false starts, unresolved questions, and sudden reversals. We are faced, then, with Donne's own doubts concerning the kind of prayer represented in the Holy Sonnets; and yet the impact of those works—their success as art—is no doubt partly a function of the degree to which they express the experience of personal insufficiency, of tortured subjectivity, of divine absence rather than Eucharistic presence, of an ongoing frustration reminiscent of Astrophil's Petrarchan anguish rather than joyful fruition of the sort that characterizes love lyrics like “The Good Morrow” and “The Sunne Rising.” As Gardner puts it, “The flaws” in the Holy Sonnets' “spiritual temper are a part of their peculiar power” (xxxi).

It is still useful, however, to discuss the Holy Sonnets in terms of sacramental function; for Donne's desire to write sacramentally efficacious poetry, as demonstrated in “The Crosse” and La Corona, also bears upon the inward turn of his Divine Meditations.5 In “Wilt thou love God,” one of the sonnets that Martz links to a specific Ignatian meditation, Donne's speaker interiorizes the Eucharistic meal, playing upon the idea of mental communion familiar to Protestants and Catholics alike. He presents the subject matter of the poem as spiritual food that effects his likeness to the deity: “Wilt thou love God, as he thee! then digest, / My Soule, this wholsome meditation” (1-2). As in La Corona, the thoughts that feed the poet/speaker of this sonnet are characterized by his sense of wonder at the interwoven mysteries of Incarnation and Passion, and even his vocabulary recalls the Eucharistic sonnet cycle; a reference to man's gaining, through Christ, the “endlesse rest” of the heavenly Sabbath (8) echoes line 10 of La Corona's first sonnet. Although the piece begins as a solitary meditation in which the poet/speaker addresses his own soul, it moves in line 12 from the second person to the first person plural “Us,” effectively confirming the speaker's status as a part of redeemed humanity, of the “man” (13, 14) Christ died to save.

The speakers of Donne's divine poems do not always feel so peacefully capable of mental communion, however; in “Since she whome I lovd, hath payd her last debt,” as I have argued elsewhere, Donne portrays himself as prone to idolize the sacramental woman who has been his Eucharistic conduit of grace (“Ambivalent Mourning,” 184-91). In other poems, the poet/speaker feels himself altogether cut off from the sacramental, denied the purgative waters of baptism and unable to look upon the visible signs of Christ's Body and Blood. This is the case in the Holy Sonnet “I am a little world” and in “Goodfriday, 1613,” which is a highly compressed sequence of three sonnets that leads, as most Petrarchan sonnet sequences do, only to ongoing desire and irresolution.6

In “I am a little world,” Donne resolves the problem of spiritual sickness and wrests a sacramental conclusion from the poem's fire imagery; but in the Goodfriday poem, one too many “turns” make for a conclusion that recalls the last-minute reversals in many of the sonnets of Astrophil and Stella and that leaves the poet/speaker alone with his conceit, a conceit that does far more to win the human reader's admiration than to effect the poet's or reader's sacramental union with Christ crucified.


In “I am a little world,” the speaker combats a nearly desperate fear of damnation with a desire to be purged, either by water or by fire. He declares himself “a little world made cunningly / Of Elements, and an Angelike spright” (1-2), but he feels certain that his microcosm is doomed:

But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown'd no more:
But oh it must be burnt; …


Gardner (76) has explained that the sonnet's movement from flood to fire is based upon two scriptural passages. Recalling God's rainbow covenant with Noah—that there shall never again be “a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11)—the speaker reasons that his microcosm, too, “must be drown'd no more.” A watery apocalypse thus ruled out, he concludes with St. Peter that the end will be a conflagration, “the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire, shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2 Peter 3:12). These biblical glosses clarify the reasoning behind the sonnet's turn at line ten, but they do not sufficiently explain either the psychological dynamics or the sacramental poetics at work in the poem.

In order to appreciate the emotional force—and, ultimately, the metapoetic implications—of the parallel Donne is making, we must recognize the typological relation between the Flood and baptism: the water of the Deluge is a “figure” of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). In a sermon preached at a christening, Donne stresses that the sacrament does for individual Christians what the Flood did for the earth: “it destroyes all that was sinfull in us” (Sermons 5:110). Thus, the speaker's “little world” has, like Creation itself, been drowned once already; and the connection between the macrocosmic and microcosmic events is made clearer by the fact that baptism, like the Flood, is never to be repeated. There is, as the Nicene Creed declares, “one baptism, for the remission of sins” (BCP, 251).7

According to Christian teaching, God has made ample provision for sins committed after baptism, but Roman Catholics and Protestants disagree sharply about the nature of that provision. Catholics find the remedy for such sin in the sacrament of Penance; repentance thus includes “not only … a contrite and humble heart [Psalm 51:17], but also the sacramental confession of those sins, … sacerdotal absolution, as well as satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers and other devout exercises of the spiritual life” (Council of Trent, “Decree Concerning Justification,” chapter 14). But for Protestants, who recognize only two sacraments (Baptism and the Eucharist) and who reject the idea that penitents must confess to a priest, the contrite sinner is to find assurance of forgiveness in the memory of his or her baptism. Thus, in a christening sermon, Donne stresses that “all the actuall sinnes [in the infant's] future life, shall be drowned in this baptisme, as often, as he doth religiously, and repentantly consider, that in Baptisme … he received an Antidote against all poyson, against all sinne” (Sermons 5:110).8

Such assurances notwithstanding, however, Donne's sermons often betray the fact that—having lost access to the Catholic sacrament of Penance—he was preoccupied with the desire for a second baptism. He speaks of martyrs as having “found a lawfull way of Re-baptizing, even in bloud” (Sermons 5:66) and—in one early sermon—goes so far as to define tears of repentance as the “souls rebaptization” (Sermons 1:245). In “I am a little world,” the speaker wishes to weep such sacramentally potent tears; but he has set up his typological analogy between baptism and the Great Deluge, and having done so, he feels that his “little world,” like the earth itself, “must be drown'd no more” (9). Seeking to solve the problem he has thus posed for himself, he first considers what seems to be a valid alternative to drowning, suggesting that his world may be “wash[ed]” in tears even if it can no longer be drowned. Such a cleansing would seem to be the perfect completion of the typological comparison he has drawn: the earth, though it is never again to be utterly destroyed by water, is refreshed by gentler rains; and Christ provides not only baptism, but “another Water,” as Donne explains punningly in a sermon: the “Ablution … [of] Absolution from actuall sins, the water of contrite teares, and repentance” (Sermons 9:329).

In the poem, however, the speaker's state is one of near, if not complete, despair. In declaring from the start of his analogy that his “worlds both parts … must die” (4), the speaker has testified to a horrifying conviction: he will suffer, not only the physical death of his “Elements,” but also “the second death” (Revelation 21:8)—that of the “Angelike spright” itself.9 And the poem's form reflects his spiritual state. The line in which he considers washing as the alternative to drowning is the sonnet's ninth line; in a conventional Italian sonnet, it would be the turn. But here, it extends the water imagery of the octave into what ought to be the sestet, disrupting the relation between the sonnet's “both parts,” only to make a far more decisive turn by resorting to fire imagery in line 10: “But oh it must be burnt.”10 In his dark state of mind and soul, the speaker cannot rest with the thought of cleansing tears, and the poet cannot rest with a neatly shaped Italian sonnet. The poem's desperate logic is clear; since the macrocosm “must be drown'd no more” after Noah's flood, it will instead be destroyed by fire. 2 Peter 3:7 declares that, just as the world was once destroyed by water, so “the heavens and the earth, which are now, … are kept in store unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” And if the fate of the macrocosm is thus fixed, must not the microcosm, too, be destined for a fiery end?

It would seem that the speaker—who, as the self-destructive inventor of the sonnet's ruling conceit, cannot be neatly distinguished from Donne, the maker of the distorted sonnet itself—has analogized himself into a furnace. He is trapped by the parallels that his own wit has generated; as we have seen, “The Crosse” warns against just such a danger: “when thy braine workes, ere thou utter it, / Crosse and correct concupiscence of witt” (57-58). But here, even the crossings and corrections—as in the careful substitution of washing for drowning—help to seal the speaker/sonneteer's fate. According to the artful parallel he has established, both parts of his “little world” are “reserved unto fire” (2 Peter 3:7) just as are the earth and sky of the macrocosm. He finds himself hedged by the flames he himself has fanned. Playing out the apocalyptic implications of his own trope, he finds that he must remain faithful to the poetic correspondence between sinful world and sinful self.

The irony of this suicidal commitment to analogy is that it springs from the poet/speaker's near-despairing sense that he has been unfaithful to the commitment he made in baptism. For it is just such apostasy which—on the microcosmic level—may lead to the fires of spiritual destruction. The Novatian heretics of the third century considered any breach in the baptismal covenant to be completely irreparable; they “denied that any man could have [grace] again, after he had once lost it, by any deadly sin committed after Baptisme” (Sermons 5:86). Many of Donne's sermons argue against such harsh doctrines and the despair they inspire.11 But those pastoral efforts reflect the Dean's own preoccupations; he was haunted by the specter of an unforgivable sin, a transgression that would wipe out the effects of his baptism once and for all.12

Several passages in the scriptures fed Donne's fears. As he points out in a sermon on Christ's declaration that “the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men” (Matthew 12:31), the concept of unforgivable sin is “grounded in evident places of Scriptures” (Sermons 5:91). One of these is Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage that sheds significant light on the emotional logic of “I am a little world”:

[I]t is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted … the good word of God, … [i]f they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance: … For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.

This passage specifically invokes the image of earth that takes no benefit from having been watered. Those who bear no fruit when they are blessed by God's rain of grace will meet a fiery doom. No wonder, then, that the speaker of the sonnet should feel the threat of flaming death for “both parts” of his microcosm. Having acknowledged that his “little world,” though it was once covered by the waters of baptism “must be drowned no more,” he must fear that his wrongdoing has ruled out the possibility of being “renew[ed] … again” (Hebrews 6:6) and that, by sinning willfully after he has “received the knowledge of the truth,” to quote another verse from Hebrews chapter 10, he has doomed himself to “the violent fire which shal devoure the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).13

Donne's anxiety about the impossibility of repeating one's baptism must surely have been fed by his status as a convert from Catholicism to Protestantism—which is to say, from the Catholic perspective, as an apostate. Even in a sermon in which he affirms the ecumenical belief that “we must be … far, from straitning salvation, to any particular Christian Church, of any subdivided name, Papist or Protestant” (Sermons 10:169-70), Donne stresses that it is a grave matter to depart from the Church into which one was baptized. “[T]he Ego te baptizo I can heare but once,” he says, consciously or unconsciously recalling his own recusant roots through the use of Latin rather than the English of the Book of Common Prayer:

and to depart from that Church, in which I have received my baptism, and in which I have made my Contracts and my stipulations with God, and pledged and engaged my sureties there, deserves a mature consideration; for I may mistake the reasons upon which I goe, and I may finde after, that there are more true errours in the Church I goe to, then there were imaginary in that that I left.

(Sermons 10:161)14

As the sermon continues, however, it becomes clear that this disconcerting passage introduces the possibility of a negative biographical interpretation only to reinforce Dean Donne's “mature consideration” that he and his auditory ought to cling to the Church of England and her sacraments. He recounts a satirical anecdote about a French Protestant who converted to Catholicism for monetary gain and then, in a far more serious tone, tells two stories of English Protestants who gave themselves “leave, to thinke irreverently, slightly, negligently of the Sacraments, as of things … indifferent” or even “impertinent” (Sermons 10:161). His bowels, he says, “earn'd and melted” at the story of a woman who thought it unimportant to have her dying child christened; and he was moved with “sorrow” and “holy indignation” at the attitude of a man who refused the Eucharist when Donne brought it to him on his deathbed because he felt he had “not lived so in the sight of [his] God, as that [he] need[ed] a Sacrament” (Sermons 10:161, 162).15

Donne's own feelings were the exact opposite of those expressed by the dying man. In an Easter sermon, he tells his congregation that the Church has provided an ongoing source of hope and renewal: just as “from the losse of our Spikenard, our naturall faculties in originall sin, we have a resurrection in baptisme,” Donne explains, so “from the losse of the oyntment of the Lord … and the falling into some actuall sins, … we have a resurrection in the other Sacrament” (Sermons 7:112). In “I am a little world,” then, the speaker leaves behind the fears inspired by his meditation on one sacrament—Baptism—to find hope in the thought of another—the Lord's Supper. He seeks a Eucharistic renewal in the very flames with which, according to his typological analogy, he “must be burnt” (10). Having acknowledged the fiery guilt of his sins, the speaker prays: “Let their flames retire, / And burne me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee' and thy house, which doth in eating heale” (12-14). The lines refer not only to the purgative fires which—as in “Goodfriday, 1613”—may restore God's image in the poet, but also to the Eucharist, through which the zealous believer is healed and strengthened “in eating.” As Docherty points out, “The ambiguity here concerns who is eating what. The fire of the zeal consumes the poet certainly; but more importantly the poet also eats the Lord, and it is this eating which heals him” (226).16

As long as one does not reject the Eucharist, Donne feels, one has a means of being restored to God; for the Epistle to the Hebrews characterizes the relapsed sinner as one who “hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing” (Hebrews 10:29). In a sermon, Donne interprets this passage from Hebrews as applying only to “a falling away … from Christ in all his Ordinances”; for, he explains, “as it is impossible to live, if a man refuse to eat, Impossible to recover, if a man refuse Physick, so it is Impossible for him to be renewed” if he rejects the “conveyance of [Christ's] merits” through preaching and the sacraments (Sermons 7:112). The sonneteer is at pains to demonstrate that he is no such man. Begging to be burnt by the fire “which doth in eating heale” (14), he declares that, far from rejecting nourishment and restorative medicine, he embraces both.

In the Devotions, Donne associates the ninth verse of Psalm 69, “For the zeal of thine house hathe eaten me,” with his feverish desire to be recalled from the “excommunication” of bodily sickness which forbids him to go to Church: “Lord, the zeale of thy House, eats me up, as fast as my fever; It is not a Recusancie, for I would come, but it is an Excommunication, I must not” (Devotions, 17; Expostulation 3).17 He is unable to worship in God's temple not only because he is physically sick in his bed, but also because he is himself no longer a holy place, having been—as he puts it in another Holy Sonnet—only “till I betray'd / My selfe, a temple of [the] Spirit divine” (HSDue, 7-8). In “I am a little world,” his adaptation of the psalmist's cry serves a similar purpose; for here, too, he is praying to be healed. He hopes that, “in eating” the sacrament of Holy Communion, he will be restored to the house of God. Moreover, by partaking of the Eucharist and thus receiving Christ into his own body, he himself can become God's temple once again; for, when Christ enters into him, he will drive out all evil as he did the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple. As the passage from the Gospel of John recounts it, Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, [and] he drove them all out of the temple … And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:15, 17).

The allusion to this Gospel passage is particularly significant in light of Donne's conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, for his hope in the sonnet is to be restored to a cleansed temple, a reformed Church, and to be characterized by that hallmark of reformed piety, zeal.18 Young argues that “what is always sought but always doubtful” in Donne's Divine Poems “is the confident assurance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar” and that “the ambiguity of Eucharistic doctrine in the Church of England must have been a source of anxiety for Donne” (“Donne, Herbert,” 173). In this poem, however, as in La Corona, Donne is comforted precisely by the doctrine of the Eucharist as he found it expressed in the English Church, with its insistence upon the experience of divine Presence not in the transubstantiated elements but in the act of receiving, “in eating.”

But how can the essentially excommunicate sinner, bed-ridden in his sins, participate in the eating that heals? The English Church's service for “The Communion of the Sick” provides an answer. According to the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, the rite exists so that, “if the sick person be not able to come to the church, and yet is desirous to receive the communion in his house,” he may do so (BCP, 307). The Epistle read during this service, taken from Hebrews 12, reminds the ailing communicant of sickness's purgative function: “My son, despise not the correction of the Lord. … For whom the Lord loveth, him he correcteth, yea, and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (BCP, 308). The same book of the Bible that fuels Donne's burning fear thus provides as well for Christ's restorative, Eucharistic entry into His defiled temple.

As the closing line of the sonnet suggests, it is not so much the body of the believer, as his soul—moved by devout zeal—that consumes the sacrament. This idea, too, is supported by the prayer book rubrics, which explain that a Christian may communicate spiritually if “by reason of extremity of sickness” he cannot physically consume the consecrated elements: “[T]he curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe …, he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ, profitably to his soul's health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth” (BCP, 308).19

Relying upon the doctrines articulated in the rite for the “Communion of the Sick,” “I am a little world” remedies private desperation with liturgically informed belief. The poet does not stop, despairingly, at the seventh verse of 2 Peter 3, which prophesies the fiery end of the world, but proceeds to the consoling words found in verse 13 of the same chapter: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). This verse looks forward to the perfecting of the macrocosm, not to the renewal of an individual's body and soul. But because the logic of Donne's sonnet is built upon the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, Donne can hope that the heavens and the earth of his microcosm—his spirit and his body—will also be transformed by purgative flame.

It is important to note that the sonnet's world analogy is complete only when Donne, realizing that no lesser power can help him, looks to the “new heavens and new earth,” burnt into being by God himself.20 Invoking other powers only helps to advance the self-destructive course of the analogy he has set up:

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write,
Powre new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly …


These lines address not only heroic Renaissance scientists and explorers, but also the saints, the heroes of the Church Triumphant.21 The speaker is, however, following a false lead when he asks those who have traveled beyond the old world to supply him with waters drawn from the oceans they have discovered; for the saints have not yet seen the “new heavens and new earth” that will be fired into being at the end of time. On that day, their “Angelike sprights” will be reunited with the perfected elements of their own little worlds, their resurrected bodies. But until then, Donne stresses in a sermon on 2 Peter 3: 13, no one really knows the nature of the “new heavens and new earth” which are to be. In the sermon, Donne compares charts of New World discoveries to the works of various commentators explicating that verse:

[I]n these discoveries of these new Heavens, and this new Earth, our Maps will bee unperfect. … [W]hen wee have travell'd as farre as wee can, with safetie, that is, as farre as Ancient, or Moderne Expositors lead us, … wee must say at last … that wee can looke no farther into it, with these eyes. … We limit, and determine our consideration with that Horizon, with which the Holy Ghost hath limited us.

(Sermons 8:81-82)22

God, then, is the only author who “of new lands can write” in such a way that the text becomes an aid to salvation; and with Donne's concluding prayer for the zeal “which doth in eating heal,” it becomes clear that only the words of the divine Author can provide an escape from the typological cul-de-sac that the human sonneteer has constructed for himself.

Yet the poet cannot throw down his pen. Even as he calls upon the Lord to burn him, he phrases his prayer in terms that, on every level, maintain a delicate tension between divine action and human response.23 In evoking the Eucharistic encounter, the petition for the “fiery zeale … which doth in eating heale” involves the penitent's willingness to “take and eat” even as it implies that he is a helpless object of the Lord's corrosive flames, a man “now zealously possest”—to cite the expression in La Corona (Cor1, 11)—by a God who is zeal.24 The phrase “zeale / Of thee' and thy house” is, moreover, ambiguous with regard to possession; the zeal with which Donne wishes to be burned is, in one sense, of God and his house in that it is a characteristic of Christ and his Church, an expression of their great love for each man. From that perspective, the allusion to Christ's furious assault on the temple merchants supports the poet's view of himself as a temple awaiting the zealous savior's whip of knotted cords. Yet the prayer is also a request that he himself be imbued with zeal of—that is, for—the Lord and his house; and zeal is the hallmark of the embattled Christian, himself active and eloquent on behalf of God and his Church.25

Human response remains a factor in the process of redemption as “I am a little world” portrays it; and for Donne as the maker of this highly wrought conceit, human response takes the form of poetic act. The artist must exert himself to heal his work—the poem—if he is to call upon God to heal and redeem him, the divine artist's own “cunningly” made work.26 Though Donne crafts the first ten lines of the poem to reflect in deliberately dangerous trope the precarious state of his soul, it is also through a poetic act that he finds the way to make his final prayer. He can ask for the “fiery zeale … which doth in eating heale” only insofar as he can reinterpret the fire which threatens him with destruction; and doing so means enacting a Eucharistic change. The element's function is redefined—flames are interpreted as instruments, not of annihilation, but of medicinal nourishment—in an enactment of the moral choice by which the afflicted man turns from despair to repentance.

As I have stressed in my reading of La Corona, the English Protestant definition of Eucharistic transformation involves a change in the use of the elements: in the sacrament, the bread and wine ordinarily used to nourish the body are appropriated for a sacred function and become nourishment for the soul. Here, threatened by hellfire and in danger of utter despair, the poet/speaker must avail himself of the Eucharistic flexibility of poetic language and transform the element of fire. He must rework the image of burning, relying on the fact that flames—like the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper—have more than one use. Fire may destroy, or it may be an agent of purgation and digestion.27

The poet's Eucharistic consecration of the fire imagery redefines and transforms the sonnet itself. As we have seen, its turn may be said to occur in line 10's desperate shift away from water imagery to that of fire; but from another perspective, the real turn does not take place until line 12, when the poet/speaker rejects the fevered fires of lust and envy, and addresses God directly, praying for restorative fire. While this twice-turned shape dramatizes the speaker's tormented fluctuation between hope and despair, the resonant confidence of the final couplet—with its strong masculine rhyme—bears witness to the resolution of that conflict.28

The resolution is anticipated, moreover, in the sonnet's own testimony that it is no spontaneous effusion, poured—unpremeditated—from the heart. “I am a little world made cunningly,” it says in its opening line, testifying to its status as a completed artifact, carefully crafted and revised, already “made” even as it begins.29 Here, no less than in La Corona, the poet has taken seriously the belief that human beings should, like God, “worke after patternes” (Sermons 7:61), that a maker's art must be based upon a fore-conceit.

“I am a little world” demonstrates, moreover, that the peril and the efficacy of such making are inseparable. For according to the sacramental poetics that underlies the sonnet, conceits are either truly deadly or truly redemptive, like the sacrament of Eucharist itself. A man who receives the Eucharist unworthily is damned (1 Corinthians 11:29) or, as Donne puts it, he “makes Christ Jesus … his damnation” (Sermons 7:321; emphasis added). Similarly, to doubt one's salvation is, as Donne sees it, to weave a kind of dark Faustian conceit:

[T]o doubt of the mercy of God … goes so neare making thy sinne greater then Gods mercy, as that it makes thy sinne greater then daily adulteries, daily murthers, daily blasphemies … could have done, and though thou canst never make that true in this life that thy sinnes are greater then God can forgive, yet this is a way to make them greater, then God will forgive.

(Sermons 2:333; emphasis added)

In the sonnet, too, the poet makes a metaphor that threatens its inventor with perdition.

But he also finds his way out of the deadly trope, consecrating the elements of his analogy, making active use of the multivalence with which God invests language, and giving sacramental form to the fire of tribulation:

[I]f we can say … [t]hat all our fiery tribulations fall under the nature, and definition of Sacraments, That they are so many visible signes of invisible Grace, … If I can bring this fire to … conforme it selfe to mee, and doe as I would have it; that is, concoct, and purge, and purifie, and prepare mee for God … [then] I shall finde, that … [t]hough we can doe nothing of our selves, yet as we are in Christ, wee can doe all things.

(Sermons 8:71-72)

Guided by the Spirit, the poet makes what he will of the element of fire, saying such things as to put it to a new and spiritually profitable use. In “I am a little world,” the healing flames of a Eucharistic fire save Donne from a burning fear that he has lost the grace of Baptism: the response to fire is fire, the answer to fears about sacramentality is sacrament, and poetic utterance remedies the despair that was spoken into being through poetry.


“Goodfriday, 1613,” like “I am a little world,” ends with a prayer for burning purgation; in the longer poem, however, the fires remain corrosive, and the poet/speaker discovers no sacramental trope that can unite his own work with that of the savior.30 The poem's powerfully irresolute conclusion arises, I would argue, from its ominously Petrarchan form: 42 lines in length, “Goodfriday, 1613” is a highly compressed sequence of three sonnets in which the speaker can never quite bring himself to surrender entirely to grace or to rely on God instead of the “opus operatum” of his own poetic work.31 Like Astrophil in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, he becomes less and less capable of restraining either himself or his art.

Indeed, in order to understand the spiritual and artistic implications of the final “turne” in “Goodfriday, 1613,” I would first turn briefly to Sidney's sonnet sequence, a work that offered a biting critique of Petrarchan poetics even as it provided Donne and his contemporaries with the definitive example of English Petrarchism. In Astrophil and Stella, of course, Astrophil thinks that his problem is the competition between virtuous love of Stella and the base promptings of carnal desire; and up to a point, he is quite right. But an even more dangerous problem is posed by the nature of his medium, by the Petrarchan sonnet itself in all its self-defeating, self-referential self-sufficiency.

Early in the sequence, Astrophil tries very hard to dissociate his poetry from the slick beauty and rich, aureate artificiality of conventional Petrarchan sonnets that, he insists, show their authors' lack of sincerity: they “bewray a want of inward touch” (Astrophil and Stella 15:10).32 He claims that he has no desire to load his verse with the “living deaths, dear wounds, fair storms, and freezing fires” that burden the imitators of Petrarch (A & S 6:4). He is a plain-spoken fellow: “I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they, / But think that all the map of my state I display, / When trembling voice brings forth, that I do Stella love” (A & S 6:12-14).

But as the sequence continues, both the reader and Astrophil discover that Astrophil's simple declaration of love does not map his state quite so perfectly as he intends. For the shaky-voiced conclusion of Sonnet 6 sounds rather euphemistic and insincere when compared with the raw imperative at the end of Sonnet 71: “Give me some food” (14). This expression of unvarnished physical need is a metaphor (food = sexual satisfaction) couched in a personification (it is “desire” that “still cries: ‘Give me some food’”), but it taps a deeper level of honest self-expression than does the literal assertion “I do Stella love.” Lust will have its say.

The sonnet that ends with desire's cry is, however, a nearly successful attempt to keep it silent. Until desire bursts into the poem in the fourteenth line, Sonnet 71 presents a morally edifying definition of Stella that resembles the Horatian definition of poetry in Sidney's Defense. She is a “fairest book” that both delights and teaches (A & S 71:1). In Stella, as in a good poem, there is no conflict between beautiful form and ethical content; the two work together. Her “fair lines … true goodness show”; indeed, “while [her] beauty draws the heart to love, / As fast [her] virtue bends that love to good” (A & S 71:4, 12-13). And if Stella is an ideal poem, Astrophil's sonnet through line 13 is a work dedicated to her Horatian aesthetic. This dedication falls apart, however, in an abrupt volta or turn between lines 13 and 14. The “desire” that speaks up in line 14, shattering the good intentions of the previous 13 lines, may thus be understood not only as the untamed force of Astrophil's lust, but as the unruly desire of the sonnet itself: as a 14-line poem in a Petrarchan sequence, it does not want to serve the purposes of an “erected wit” (Defense of Poesy, 217) but to be itself, a sonnet, a self-contained ball of witty self-consciousness and unfulfilled erotic longing.

In the first line of the next sonnet, Astrophil confronts this rogue aesthetic directly by punning on the second person form of the verb to be: “Desire, … thou my old companion art” he says, addressing “Desire” as art (A & S 72:1). Like Petrarch himself, who cannot separate his art from his love, his pursuit of Laura from his pursuit of the Laurel, Astrophil finds that he cannot keep the artless sincerity of pure love separated from the artful designs of lust. He begins by telling his desire that “though thou … oft so clings to my pure love, that I / One from the other scarcely can descry,” yet “Now from thy fellowship I needs must part” (A & S 72:1-3, 5); he maintains this stance for 13 and one-half lines, making it almost to the end of the sonnet: “thou desire, because thou would'st have all, / Now banished art,” he says (A & S 72:13-14); but his effort collapses in the last half line with a plaintive rhetorical question: “Now banished art—but yet, alas, how shall?” (14). Desire—both for sexual satisfaction and for an artful wit that serves itself rather than “virtue”—intrudes itself at the last, turning the poem from ethical declaration to Petrarchan sigh at what is nearly the last possible point in its structure, with only three metrical stresses to go. Astrophil's entrapment in Petrarchan poetics is, I would argue, an object-lesson in the dangers of sonneteering, a demonstration of the sonnet's persistent tendency to part company with any ethically or spiritually “erected” poetics and to turn inward on itself.

In “Goodfriday, 1613,” Donne does not forget Sidney's lesson. Though his speaker, like Astrophil, thinks that his problem is the competition between true “devotion” (2) and more carnal impulses (the “Pleasure or businesse” [7] by which his soul is “whirld” [8]), the most dangerous kinds of turn are for him—as for Astrophil—the cunningly-delayed turns of his own sonnets. And there are exactly three sonnets—14 lines + 14 lines + 14 lines—in the 42 lines of the poem.33

The first 14 lines of “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” are both an attempt to explain away the speaker's impious motion and a piece of material evidence that he remains intent on secular “Pleasure or businesse” (7), including the pleasure and business of poetic composition. It is the definitively artificial form of his strained analogy, no less than his worldly journey to the West, that continues to divide him from artless “devotion”—which he calls man's “naturall forme” (6).34 For eight lines, he develops his complex analogy between the tendencies of the human soul and the whirlings of the planets; and at that traditional turning point or volta, he reaches his first period. Then, in what amounts to the sestet of the poem's first sonnet-like section, he “bends” (10) away from his analogy even as he completes it: “Hence is't,” he says “that I am carryed towards the West / This day” (9-10) when the greatest of celestial and spiritual motions takes place in the “East” (10): there, the “Sunne” rises (11) and the Son is raised on the cross. What may be termed the first “sonnet” of the work ends as he reaches another period, asserting the central truth of Redemption with ringing certainty: “But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, / Sinne had eternally benighted all” (13-14). The art of the speaker, so strongly evident in the octave's long, complex analogy between planetary and spiritual motion, is thus made supernumerary in the sestet, subsumed in the supernatural creativity of the savior who—himself “begotten, not made” (Nicene Creed; BCP, 250)—“beget[s]” rather than makes the “endlesse day” that is man's salvation (12).

The half-hidden sexual innuendo in these lines, which present Christ as the hanged God whose erection or “rising” spills life onto the parched dryness of a sin-blasted world, is carried forward in the second sonnet-like section of the poem, lines 15-28.35 In this section, the poet/speaker meditates on the Atonement, which he depicts as the Christian equivalent of the primal scene, the moment of his own begetting as a redeemed soul: “Yet dare I'almost be glad,” he says, “I do not see / That spectacle of too much weight for mee” (15-16). It is unthinkable to “see God dye” (19), to watch him in the act of pouring out his vital fluids, mingling “that blood which is / The seat of all our Soules” (25-26) with the “dust” of the ground in order to “Make durt” (27) and remake the creature first “formed … of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7).36 This remaking of man is no art, the sexual analogy suggests, but a super-natural version of natural reproduction.

In lines 21-22 of the poem, which form the midpoint of “Goodfriday, 1613” as a whole and lines 7-8 of the work's second sonnet-like section, the poet/speaker concludes that sonnet's octave with a definitive volta, an image of the crucified Christ as the primum mobile whose hands “turne” not the little world of a sonnet, but the entire cosmos:

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And turne all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?

In these lines, positioned at the center of “Goodfriday, 1613,” Donne marks the crucifixion as the turning point in Christ's work of redemption and implicitly contrasts that mighty undertaking with his own artistic effort as he crafts the “turne” of his work's second 14-line section.37

As he moves from the octave to the sestet of the poem's central sonnet, he does not speak of his own conversion or turning; rather, he forges on in a series of rhetorical questions that mingle spiritual awe with theological reflection:

Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us and to'our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Make durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?


These lines reflect upon an essentially sacramental mystery, pondering not only the hypostatic union of God and Man in Christ, but the substance of Eucharist, Jesus's Blood and Body, which is the point of sacramental contact between the human and the divine. The poet/speaker's rhetorical questions invite a negative answer but do not pronounce a definitive “No, I cannot behold his Body and Blood.”38 McNees comments on his perplexity:

… Donne still appears reluctant to assert a eucharistic Real Presence. … Intellectually, his questions echo the Puritan difficulty of realizing Christ simultaneously on earth and in heaven. Yet the emotional vividness with which Donne catalogues the crucified Christ's physical traits is … reminiscent of the first step of the Ignatian meditational method—composition of place. The carnal imagery suggests that Donne is conjuring up Christ's physical presence … to identify himself with Christ's sacrifice and thereby become worthy of partaking in the eucharistic meal. Yet this process is backward. To achieve true conformity with the crucified Christ, the speaker must first suffer his own internal crucifixion through penance.

(Eucharistic Poetry, 57-58)

The speaker's problem, considered from this perspective, is that he has not prepared himself or—rather—that he has not been prepared (with an emphasis on the verb's passivity) by the gift of sacramental tribulation that Donne celebrates in “The Crosse.” He cannot experience Christ's sacramental presence without receiving that gift.

It is with a prayer for purgative punishment, then, that Donne will end “Goodfriday, 1613”; but before he reaches that petition, he asks a fifth rhetorical question focusing on the Blessed Virgin rather than on Christ. This query, which begins the poem's third 14-line section, introduces the subject of the final “sonnet” of “Goodfriday, 1613”: the challenge that the crucifixion poses to the human poet as maker.

If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?


These lines present the Blessed Virgin as a grief-stricken maker who now beholds the destruction of her beloved work. Mary as she is described here no longer provides the poet with a precedent for devout making and divinely sanctioned poesis (as she does in La Corona, where her womb is a model for the “little roome” of a sonnet). Instead, the “miserable mother” at the foot of the cross models a maker's willingness to submit to the will of God and to stand by meekly while the perfect fruit of her labor is immolated by her divine collaborator. The Virgin “furnish'd … / Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us” (31-32) but can be a “partner” to God—both sexually and artistically—only by allowing him to destroy the work they have made together.39

The poet/speaker of the last “sonnet” in “Goodfriday” thus does not want to look on the human “mother” of the sacrificed Christ; he knows that her example would call him to sacrifice his own work. He goes on to acknowledge that both she and her dying Son “are present yet unto my memory, / For that looks towards them” (34-35) in an act of anamnesis that might, if further developed, involve the poet/speaker in a Eucharistic meditation like the one Donne carries out in La Corona. But he does not develop that brief allusion to memory; instead, he concludes that what matters most is not his vision, but that of Christ: “and thou look'st towards mee, / O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree” (35-36). Unlike the fearful yet desiring gaze of the subject that, in a Petrarchan sonnet, merely reflects back from the “murderous mirrors”40 of his love-object's unpitying eyes, the gaze of the “Goodfriday” speaker is met with an answering look that redeems rather than kills.

Having acknowledged Christ's gaze, the speaker believes himself ready to surrender to grace; and at the traditional turning point (that is, at line 37 of “Goodfriday, 1613” which is line 9 of the work's third sonnet) he tries to do just that, to make an artful turn in his poem that reflects a spiritual turn toward submission: “I turne my backe to thee, but to receive”—that is, but to take what you will give to me, to eschew attempts at offering worthy works of my own. Indeed, this “turne” will—the ensuing lines imply—be a turn to utter receptivity, passivity, and submission; Christ, he insists, must do all:

I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee …


Whether the action is intellectual (“thinke” and “knowe”), corrosive (“punish” and “Burne”), or constructive (“Restore”), only Christ and his grace can perform it. The speaker (“mee”) and his qualities (“my rusts, and my deformity”) can only be objects of these verbs. Indeed, if “mans Soule be a Spheare” (1), only the “hands” of Christ—which, in lines 21-22, “span the Poles / And turne all spheares at once”—can “turne” him. Only the redemptive force of Christ's sacrifice as evoked in that “turne” can “Restore [Christ's] Image” (41) in the poet/speaker; he can rely on no other “turne.” Or so it seems, at any rate, until the last three feet of the poem's final line: “… and I'll turne my face.”

In the last three stresses of “Goodfriday, 1613,” the redemptive movement of the third sonnet and of the entire three-sonnet sequence is called into question; for there the poet inserts another kind of “turne.” With the phrase “and I'll turne my face,” he reasserts his own presence as subject and doer of action; and though his action is deferred to a future when Christ's “mercies” will “bid [him] leave” or cease the scourging that the poet has begged for in the preceding 5 and 2/5 lines, it nevertheless makes the final outcome of the redemption process dependent upon his own action, upon a final (and perhaps too artful) “turne” that is the work of the poet rather than of Christ. Lacking the ambiguity of “I am a little world”'s conclusion, in which “eating” is an action both performed by the speaker and done to him by the divine fire for which he prays, the conclusion of “Goodfriday, 1613” proposes a contractual sequence: first, you do this for me; then, I will “turne.” First, grant my prayer; then I will undertake the process of conversion.41

If one compares the language of “The Crosse,” in which the speaker urges himself and others to “Let Crosses … take what hid Christ in thee” so that one may “be his image, or not his, but hee” (35-36), one can see the distinction between a freely chosen act of surrender to the shaping force of God's corrections and a human “turne” that is definitive and final. One must not, as Sherwood rightly complains that some critics do, “minimize [Donne's] regard for human powers” (“Conversion Psychology,” 110). “Goodfriday, 1613” certainly does not proceed from those versions of Protestant doctrine that, as Sherwood puts it “denied human initiative” (111). Indeed, Sherwood rightly emphasizes the difference between “Donne's initiative in turning his back” in line 37 as a “free spiritual movement” and the “turne” of line 42, which is projected into the future (111, 110). But it does not follow that Donne's work maps “free human movement towards the boundaries of man's limits, then a clear recognition of those boundaries, then a willing request for God's aid” in which “Donne looks for the will to be turned after his free request for God's necessary correction” (Sherwood, “Conversion Psychology,” 111; emphasis added). The poet/speaker does not look for his will “to be turned” but promises—on certain conditions—to “turne” it himself.

Sherwood glosses the conclusion of “Goodfriday, 1613” with a number of Old Testament penitential texts that evoke “turning as an activity assimilating human and divine motions” (119). But in a passage like Zechariah 1:3—“Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Turn ye unto me, … and I will turn unto you”—the order is exactly the opposite of that described in Donne's poem, where the speaker/poet reserves his “turn” for last. The most relevant scriptural gloss on the conclusion of “Goodfriday, 1613” is, I would argue, the refrain line that occurs three times in Psalm 80: “Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (verse 3).42 The prayer at the conclusion of “Goodfriday, 1613” revises the psalmist's prayer, inverting its emphasis: the Psalm speaks of God's act of turning man, presenting a sequence in which salvation follows from that turning and from the shining of the divine face;43 the poet/speaker of “Goodfriday, 1613” speaks of his own face and his own act of turning.

The power of “Goodfriday, 1613”—and particularly of its conclusion—thus arises from the work's status as the sacrament of its author's perilous spiritual state. It—no less than Astrophil and Stella—is the outward and visible sign of a poet's unsuccessful struggle to turn away from Petrarchan subjectivity, self-referentiality, and ambition. He who made me, the poem declares, cannot cease to craft his own turns.


  1. Even in Petrarch's Rime sparse, as Freccero has shown, the poet's idolatrous love for Laura is elided with his equally idolatrous desire for the laurel crown. The solipsistic self-referentiality of his poetics, the detachment of his art from any end or purpose outside itself, makes Petrarch's verse “a poetry whose real subject matter is its own act” (“The Fig Tree,” 34).

  2. Compare the prominence of the word “I” in Marvell's “The Coronet,” which may be read as a more strictly Calvinist counter-argument to the sacramental poetics of Donne's La Corona; and see Walker's discussion (“The Religious Lyric as a Genre”) of La Corona, “The Coronet,” and Herbert's “A Wreath.”

  3. This is the translation of the phrase ex opere operato in Norton's English translation of Calvin's Institutes 4.14.26; see above, introduction, (n. 11).

  4. See also Young, “Donne's Holy Sonnets” (35-36).

  5. On the title “Divine Meditations,” which is found in Group III manuscripts, see Gardner (65); see also McNees, Eucharistic Poetry (56): “The language of ‘Goodfriday,’ ‘Hymne to God my God, in my Sicknesse,’ and the Holy Sonnets internalizes the public eucharist … of the previous poems to depict the persona's own private spiritual struggle.”

  6. See also McNees, Eucharistic Poetry (61-65), on those “Holy Sonnets” in which penitence and communion “seem to offer separate routes toward redemption” (63).

  7. See also the Trent Catechism (189-90), Article 16 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and Homilies (261).

  8. For the English Church's assertion that there are only “two Sacramentes ordeyned of Christe,” see Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles; against the Catholic requirement of “auricular confession,” see Homilies (266-67). For Calvin on the idea that the penitent need only devoutly recall the forgiveness of his sins in baptism, see Inst. 4.15.3-4. The Council of Trent specifically anathematizes anyone promulgating this doctrine; see the Seventh Session, “Canons on Baptism,” Canon 10.

  9. Line 4 thus contrasts sharply with Cor6, where the speaker feels himself released from “Feare of first or last death” (7).

  10. The delayed turn is noted by Martz (53) and Empson (75). McNees also notes that this sonnet “deviates from the octet-sestet” structure (Eucharistic Poetry, 65).

  11. See Sermons 8:280-81: “When I have had … true Absolution … still to suspect my state in Gods favour, … still to call my repentance imperfect, and the Sacramentall seales ineffectual, still to accuse myselfe of sinnes, thus devested, thus repented, … this is to blaspheme mine owne soule.” See also Sermons 5:85-86, 102-03; 7:110-17, 9:329, and 10:118.

  12. See the vivid evocations of a despairing sinner's state of mind in Donne's Sermons 7:413 and 2:84.

  13. This is the Geneva Bible translation. The King James renders the phrase “fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” See also 2 Peter 2:20-21.

  14. The sermon, which was preached at Whitehall, is undated; but Potter and Simpson (Sermons 10:15) conjecture that it was delivered during the reign of King Charles. The thrust of the sermon is to defend the godliness of those who remained within a largely corrupt Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation and, as Potter and Simpson explain, to defend “the English Church against those Puritans who wished to secede from it, or to despoil it of all the ceremonies derived from the primitive and the medieval Church” (Sermons 10:19).

  15. See also Sermons 1:189 for Donne's account of “purified puritans” as those that “think they … need ask no forgiveness.”

  16. See also Clark (77) and McNees, Eucharistic Poetry (66).

  17. From the third Devotion, “The Patient takes his bed.” Interestingly, Donne mentions recusancy here only to deny any inclination toward it and to confirm his desire to be restored to communal worship in the Church of England.

  18. In one sermon, Donne associates “zeale / Of … [God's] house” with accusations of crypto-Catholicism: “Let a man be zealous, and fervent in reprehension of sin, and there flies out an arrow, that gives him the wound of a Puritan. Let a man be zealous of the house of God, and say any thing by way of moderation, for the repairing of the ruines of that house, and making up the differences of the Church of God, and there flies out an arrow, that gives him the wound of a Papist” (Sermons 2:58). But as this passage itself suggests, the word “zeal” was more commonly associated with Christians of a Puritan bent, as is the case with the character of Zeal-of-the-land Busy in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fayre. See also Donne, Sermons 1:188: “let me live the life of a Puritan, let the zeal of the house of God consume me.”

  19. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church also provides both for Communion of the Sick (the reservation of the consecrated Host making a separate Communion liturgy in the sick person's room unnecessary) and for the act of mental communion (see the quotations from Ignatius Loyola and Francis de Sales in Martz [90, 288]). See also page 92 above for a quotation from the Trent Catechism on the distinction between spiritual and sacramental reception of the Eucharist.

  20. See Belette, who notes that the sonnet's “resolution, the harmonizing, of its separate parts lies not in argument and debate but in recognition and acceptance: specifically recognition and acceptance of Christ's sacrifice. When this occurs, the sonnet form regularizes itself and is seen once again to embody within itself an orderly movement towards a reconciling conclusion” (334).

  21. Gardner's gloss identifies them as “discoverers generally: astronomers who find new spheres and explorers who find new lands” (76). Smith's note on the lines includes not only those mentioned by Gardner, but also “the blessed who have ascended to a heaven beyond our comprehension” (627). He does not, however, link the lines to 2 Peter 3:13. Shawcross glosses the “you” as “Christ” himself (Complete Poetry, 347).

  22. This passage is quoted from Donne's memorial sermon on Magdalen Herbert Danvers, preached about one month after her death.

  23. For a different emphasis, see McNees, Eucharistic Poetry (65-66): “Here Donne transfigures the word ‘burne’ from its secular to sacred use by imploring God's intervention as opposed to that of secular explorers. With this transformation he surrenders his temporal control over language to God's sacred control.”

  24. “God was … zeale in Paul” (Sermons 8:233).

  25. See Sermons 3:214, where Donne recalls the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost “in Tongues, and fiery Tongues. Christ was not, a Christian is not justified in silence, but in declarations and open professions; … and not in dark and ambiguous speeches, nor in faint and retractable speeches, but in fiery tongues; fiery, that is, fervent; fiery, that is, clear.” See also the discussion of human speech in relation to the divine Word in Asals, “John Donne and the Grammar of Redemption.”

  26. Belette notes that the “sonnet, too, is ‘a little world made cunningly’” (334).

  27. Galenist physiology defines digestion as a process in which the body's heat breaks down and transmutes food. See Milton, who describes digestion as “concoctive heat / To transubstantiate” (Paradise Lost 5:437-38).

  28. On the issues at work in the conclusions of Donne's devotional lyrics, see Linville.

  29. The adverb “cunningly” evokes a connection between the poetic activity of the poet's “Angelike” spirit and the divinely inspired and commissioned work of the craftsmen chosen to make the cloth of the tabernacle, which is to be adorned with “broidered” cherubim (Exodus 26:1), “That is,” as the 1560 Geneva Bible's marginal gloss indicates, “of moste conning or fine worke.” In the King James translation, the language is even closer to that of the sonnet: “with cherubim of cunning work shalt thou make them.” On the speakers of some of Donne's “Holy Sonnets” as self-conscious poets exploring the nature of poetic sincerity, see Ferry, The ‘Inward’ Language (226-46).

  30. See O'Connell, who argues that “Goodfriday, 1613” “could almost be subtitled ‘I am a little world (expanded)’: structural, verbal and thematic parallels would seem to indicate that Donne had this sonnet in mind, if not in hand, as he composed the later couplet poem. Both begin with a microcosm-macrocosm analogy, proceed to the speaker's recognition of his own sinfulness, and conclude by addressing the Lord directly, in each case to ask for the purifying action of fire” (“‘Restore Thine Image,’” 13).

  31. The structure of “Goodfriday, 1613” has frequently been discussed; Martz divides the poem into a three-part mediation in which the first 10 lines are the “composition” (the part of meditation in which the faculty of memory is engaged), lines 11-32 are the “analysis” (the part of the meditation in which the faculty of the reason or understanding is engaged), and the final 10 lines—perfectly symmetrical to the first 10—are the “colloquy,” in which the faculty of the will is engaged (54-56). This schema is disrupted somewhat by the fact that the composition of place is completed only in lines 11-32 and by Donne's reference to the faculty of memory in lines 33-35 rather than in lines 1-10. For alternative accounts of the structure of Donne's work, see Bellette and Severance, who builds on the analysis of the poem proposed by Bellette and sees “Goodfriday, 1613” as dividing into sections of symmetrically proportioned groups of lines—8, 2, 4, 6, 2, 6, 4, 2, 8—where lines 1-8 correspond to lines 35-42, lines 9-10 to lines 33-34, etc., with the couplet describing Christ's “hands which span the Poles, / And turne all spheres at once” (21-22) at the poem's center. Severance's argument that this symmetrical pattern indicates the work's status as a “circle” (24) seems to me to be undercut by Bellette's accurate observation that, “The poem is not totally symmetrical. The last eight lines are in many ways greatly opposed to the first eight. They are full of anguish, far from the intellectually controlled sureties of the opening. We have not returned to the same emotional and spiritual place” (345).

  32. Subsequent quotations from Sidney's sonnet sequence are cited parenthetically as A & S by sonnet and line number.

  33. The work is, of course, composed of rhyming couplets rather than quatrains, but the poem's grammatical and semantic dividing lines repeatedly echo the 8/6 proportions of the Italian sonnet so important in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella.

  34. See McNees on Donne's presentation of the speaker's “out-dated Ptolemaic analogy as a superficial (and incorrect) rationalization” (Eucharistic Poetry, 56-57).

  35. See Steinberg's landmark study, which explores the “sexual Christology” articulated through the representation of Christ's genitalia in Renaissance painting and sculpture. Steinberg stresses that the works he analyzes “set forth what perhaps had never been uttered” and “are themselves primary texts” rather than illustrations of a “preformed” doctrine. For Steinberg, the paintings and sculptures of Jesus' circumcision imply a contrast between Christ and the phallic fertility gods of the Greeks (“The sexual member exhibited by the Christ child … concedes … God's assumption of human weakness; it is an affirmation not of superior prowess but of condescension to kinship … And instead of symbolizing, like the phallus of Dionysus, the generative powers of nature, Christ's sexual organ—pruned by circumcision in sign of corrupted nature's correction—is offered to immolation. The erstwhile symbol of the life force yields not seed, but redeeming blood” [47-48]). Donne, I am arguing, takes a step beyond these circumcision images in portraying the erection of the crucified Christ as supernaturally and spiritually procreative. Though Steinberg—taking great care to refute the “fallacy of naturalism”—finds “the folklore of hanged men's erections … irrelevant” to his inquiry (82, n. 82), Donne seems to be contrasting that supposed natural tumescence with the supernatural phallic potency that, in the paintings Steinberg discusses, is figured by billowing loincloths that “convert the ostentatio genitalium decently into a fanfare of cosmic triumph” (93). See especially figure 101, a Crucifixion (1503) by Lucas Cranach in which the loincloth of Christ contrasts with that of the hanged thief facing the viewer.

  36. See O'Connell, who also links line 27 to the creation of Adam (“‘Restore Thine Image,’” 23).

  37. The question of whether the verb in line 22 is “tune” (as in the seventeenth century print editions of the poem and many manuscripts) or “turne” (as in the Group II manuscripts and the Dobell manuscript) is decided in favor of “turne” by Shawcross (see his explanation in the “Index of Textual Differences,” Complete Poetry, 497-98). The appropriateness of “turne” seems all the clearer in light of a reading that underscores the contrast between the poet/speaker's artful sonnet-turns and Christ's super-Natural actions as primum mobile and begetter of redemption. On lines 21-22 as “the exact midpoint of the poem,” see Bellette (344); Severance (37-38); Stanwood (114-15); and Brooks (295).

  38. See O'Connell: “the logic of the question points to the impossibility of not seeing” (“‘Restore Thine Image,’” 22). I would stress that the ambiguity of the rhetorical questions in “Goodfriday, 1613” contrasts markedly with the ringing imperatives and less equivocal rhetorical questions in “The Crosse,” in which the poet/speaker and the reader must not refuse to see the cross of Christ in all its myriad manifestations.

  39. Compare the conclusion of Marvell's “Coronet.” Unlike the author of Genesis, who excludes any mention of Sarah from his account of the Sacrifice of Isaac, Donne identifies with the mother whose husband—Abraham obeying God in Genesis, and God the Father himself in the Gospels—is willing to sacrifice their only Son. This sympathy is not subversive, for it presupposes the rightness of the mother's submission to the Father's will; but it points up the analogy paralleling the bond of flesh and blood between the female parent and her child with the bond of ink and inspiration between the poet and his work. See also Astrophil and Stella 1, where Sidney's speaker goes through labor pains in an effort to give birth to his poetry.

  40. Petrarch's phrase is “micidiali specchi” (Rime sparse 46:7). See also Petrarch on “that lovely clear gaze where the rays of love are so hot that they kill me before my time” (Rime sparse 37:83-85) and on the “assault” of Laura's eyes (Rime sparse 39:1).

  41. See Brooks's discussion of the word “turne” (297); she argues that the “residual tension within the poem's future-oriented closing lines attests to … the recognition of the [human soul's] lifelong dependency on Christ's saving Grace, a dependency that Protestant thinking had greatly intensified” (298). I would argue that the conclusion does precisely what Brooks contends that it does up until the concluding half-line, which breaks away from reception of grace to assert the independent action of the “I.”

  42. The refrain is repeated with a slight variation in the mode of address in verse 7 (“Turn us again, O God of hosts …”) and in verse 19 (“Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved”), which concludes the psalm.

  43. Donne follows a similar sequence in his “Hymn to God the Father,” where he begs that “at my death thy Sunne / Shall shine” (15-16), concluding by surrendering all to God: “And, having done that, Thou hast done, / I have no more” (17-18).


Asals, Heather Ross. “John Donne and the Grammar of Redemption.” English Studies in Canada 5 (1979): 125-39.

Belette, Anthony F. “‘Little Worlds Made Cunningly’: Significant Form in Donne's Holy Sonnets and ‘Goodfriday, 1613.’” Studies in Philology 72 (1975): 322-47.

Brooks, Helen B. “Donne's ‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’ and Augustine's Psychology of Time.” John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross. Ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Frances M. Malpezzi. 284-305. Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1995.

Calvin, John. The Institution of the Christian Religion. Trans. Thomas Norton. London: Thomas Vautrollier for Humfrey Toy, 1578.

Clark, Ira. Christ Revealed: The History of the Neotypological Lyric in the English Renaissance. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1982.

Donne, John. The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. Ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-1962.

———. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

———. Selected Prose. Chosen by Evelyn Simpson. Ed. Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

———. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Ed. Anthony Raspa. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975.

Empson, William. English Pastoral Poetry. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

Ferry, Anne. The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Freccero, John. “The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch's Poetics.” Diacritics 5.1 (1975): 34-40.

Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954.

McNees, Eleanor J. “John Donne and the Anglican Doctrine of the Eucharist.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 29 (1987): 94-114.

———. Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Presence in the Writings of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1992.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Longman, 1971.

O'Connell, Patrick F. “‘Restore Thine Image’: Structure and Theme in Donne's ‘Goodfriday.’” John Donne Journal 4 (1985): 13-28.

Petrarch, Francesco. Petrarch's Lyric Poems. Trans. and ed. Robert M. Durling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Rogers, Thomas. The Faith, Doctrine, and religion professed & protected in the Realme of England: Expressed in 39 Articles Cambridge: J. Legatt, 1607. Rpt. as The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, by Thomas Rogers, A.M., Chaplain to Archbishop Bancroft. Ed. J. J. S. Perowne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1854.

Roman Catholic Church. Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests. Trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan. London: B. Herder; New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1923.

Sidney, Philip. Sir Philip Sidney: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Steinberg, Leo. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon/October, 1983.

Walker, Julia. “The Religious Lyric as a Genre.” English Language Notes 25.1 (1987): 39-45.

Young, Robert V. “Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Theology of Grace.” “Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse”: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. 20-39. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Douglas Trevor (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Trevor, Douglas. “John Donne and Scholarly Melancholy.” Studies in English Literature 40, no. 1 (winter 2000): 81-102.

[In the following essay, Trevor examines Donne's lifelong melancholy, or depression, as an integral part of his religious beliefs.]

Donne is in a sense a psychologist.

—T. S. Eliot

Throughout his life, John Donne's prose and poetry are filled with references to, as well as accounts of, his self-understanding as a melancholic.1 If we take his self-professed depressive tendencies as seriously as his devotional meditations, we find that the two are interlinked: Donne often describes ecstatic religious experience with the same metaphors of earthly instability and material metamorphoses he uses to catalogue his melancholic, self-destructive inclinations. Like Søren Kierkegaard, who will praise Christian belief in part because it entails great suffering, Donne is inclined to equate unhappiness with spiritual redemption.

Modern thinkers interested in depression have often commented on the circular nature of religious despair. According to Julia Kristeva, “the implicitness of love and consequently of reconciliation and forgiveness completely transforms the scope of Christian initiation by giving it an aura of glory and unwavering hope for those who believe. Christian faith appears then as an antidote to hiatus and depression, along with hiatus and depression and starting from them.”2 Donne uncovers a similar pattern in “Holy Sonnet III” (“O might those sighes and teares returne againe”):

To (poore) me is allow'd
No ease; for, long, yet vehement griefe hath beene
Th'effect and cause, the punishment and sinne.(3)

It is perhaps not surprising to see Kristeva diagnose religious despair as a form of narcissistic depression; and we might well be tempted to characterize Donne's melancholy in such a way, particularly if we are willing to read the emotions expressed in “Holy Sonnet III” as self-disclosure on the part of its author. Reading Donne as a “narcissistic depress[ive]” would mean emphasizing the degree to which his melancholy seems to be perpetually re-invigorated, principally by his own self-involvement rather than by bereavement over lost objects. Depressives, Kristeva claims, “do not consider themselves wronged but afflicted with a fundamental flaw, a congenital deficiency … For such narcissistic depressed persons, sadness is really the sole object.”4

The recourse to modern psychoanalytic categories to come to terms with Donne's melancholy is not necessary, however; early modern English writers, notably Robert Burton and—before him—Timothy Bright, provide us with ample schemata and examples of the causes and symptoms of depression as it was understood in the period.5 Moreover, Donne complicates the relationship he posits between melancholy and religious belief, complicates it in such a way as to transcend Kristeva's notion of what it means to be narcissistically depressed. While he is mindful that his inordinate self-interest sometimes provokes and contributes to his dejection, sadness is not Donne's “sole object.” He is occupied by other matters, other concerns, even other worries: spiritual, professional, and ecclesiastical. In this piece, I argue that Donne's scholarly melancholy—grief stimulated specifically by learned endeavor—forms an integral part of his religious melancholy. Donne's self-perceived, melancholic disposition thus manifests itself both in his approach to learning as well as in his articulations of his experiences as a Christian. Bereavement, as we have already seen, is, at times, desired in the devotional realm. Donne prays at the beginning of “Holy Sonnet III”:

O might those sighes and teares returne againe
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourne with some fruit.

(lines 1-4)

As John Calvin himself admits, despair associated with Christian doubt—in the context of Reformation theology, whether or not one could count oneself amongst the elect—is hard to avoid: “One of Satan's deadly weapons is to attack believers with doubts about whether they are among the elect, and then incite them to look for answers in the wrong way … There is hardly anyone who does not think sometimes, ‘If my salvation comes only from God's election, what proof have I of that election?’ When this thought dominates an individual, he will be permanently miserable, in terrible torment or mental confusion.”6 For the male scholar in the early modern period, as Juliana Schiesari has shown, melancholy “appears as a privileged but also perilous condition,” potentially designating its sufferer as a genius while also indicating that he is easily subject to distraction, even madness.7 Although depression, for devout and studious souls alike, prompts concern, it can also validate the claims advanced by its sufferer—claims of intellectual as well as spiritual worth.

As we will see in “Holy Sonnet XIX” (“Oh, to vex me, contraryes meet in one”), Donne often turns to his volatile humoral makeup to explain his religious devotion (p. 447). At the same time, however, by insisting so vehemently on an intimate, even inseparable, relationship between the learned and the devout life—by claiming, as he does in his Essayes in Divinity, that “Reason is our Sword, Faith our Target”8—Donne knowingly exacerbates his humoral imbalance, for scholarly pursuits in particular were thought in the seventeenth century to invite despondency and depression.9 Donne not only recognizes that melancholy lurks behind—and in a sense authenticates—his thirst for knowledge, he transforms what Jaques, in As You Like It, calls “a melancholy of mine own” into a subject for intellectual inquiry, writing Biathanatos, a tract that defends the right to self-slaughter.10 Donne's interest in dark themes—decay, misery, guilt, loneliness—is not limitable to a certain set of texts or to a given period in his life, although certainly his years at Mitcham, roughly from 1607 to 1609, were especially fraught with professional uncertainty and personal dissatisfaction.11 Rather, as John Carey has argued, Donne's “grasp of the world did not basically change” during his life, although of course his opinions and social attitudes evolved.12 As a poet, controversialist, and preacher, his most persistent thoughts were often his most morose and despairing ones.

Donne's obsession with decay, sickness, and degeneration is not limited to his Anniversaries, although in them we see a particularly vivid assessment of the world as “rotten at the hart,” likened to “a Hectique fever [that] hath got hold / Of the whole substance, not to be contrould” (First [Anniversarie] pp. 324-71, lines 242, 243-4). Donne's tendency to produce such graphic representations of material transformations—in The First Anniversarie not only the world but mankind as well “decayes,” while the whole universe “[i]s crumbled out againe” (lines 143, 212)—has been examined most thoroughly by Carey.13 Rather than read these descriptions symptomatically, however, Carey suggests that Donne viewed “change” with equanimity, as “an ally.”14 Related to Donne's probing, at times disturbing, examinations of metamorphoses and loss is his skepticism, which compels him to press his investigations and analyses further and further. Hamlet, perhaps the exemplary embodiment of the early modern fusion of melancholy and skepticism, shares Donne's curiosity as well as his fascination with mutability; indeed the prince's tracing of Alexander's dust to the stop of a beer barrel calls to mind, in abbreviated form, Donne's Metempsychosis, in which the reader is led through human history by following the soul of the forbidden fruit first plucked by Eve.15 Particularly attuned to Donne's inexhaustibly intellectual nature, although unfortunately distanced from any consideration of his melancholy, have been those critical readings that emphasize his skeptical predilections. Indeed, it is tempting to see in what Joshua Scodel describes as Donne's “skeptical mean between the extremes of positive and negative dogmatism” not merely the skeptic's desire to find a middle ground but the melancholic's desire to attain humoral stability.16 Donne's emphasis on the via media, in other words, carries with it a psychological corollary: his desire for moderation in ecclesiastical affairs mirrors the melancholic's yearning for emotional balance and mental tranquillity. The evidence provided by his poetry, devotional prose, letters, and sermons reveals how Donne—throughout his life—read his body, faith, and the world-at-large humorally.

Scholars have increasingly sensed the degree to which Donne's self-analyses resist an exclusively Christian template of interpretation, particularly in relation to his divine poems. John Stachniewski, for example, regretted “[t]he reluctance of literary critics to face the [Holy] [S]onnets squarely as productions of the early seventeenth century by a self-confessed melancholic,” while—without elaborating—David Norbrook has identified a “manic-depressive element” in Donne's writings.17 Before either Stachniewski or Norbrook, Donald Ramsay Roberts argued that “[t]he persistence, in one form or another, of the idea of a death instinct in Donne's intellectual life may be attributed to the fact … that a wish for death was a permanent and constant element in his psychic life” and that this wish reveals “something more than appropriate Christian resignation.”18 Donne himself resists a strictly religious understanding of his melancholy by continually testifying to the potentially strained—if always eventually reconcilable—relationship between the learned and the devout life. Indeed, it is through his studies that Donne understands and conceptualizes his devotion. He comes to read himself as he does his books, with insight, persistence, and considerable anguish—anguish that he sees saturating the world around him, and on which he continually draws regardless of the genre in which he writes.

When Donne, in the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, imagines himself in a losing duel with death, he considers for a moment one possible cause of his illness: “But what have I done, either to breed, or to breath these vapors? They tell me it is my Melancholy: Did I infuse, did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse; was I not made to thinke? It is my study; doth not my Calling call for that? I have don nothing, wilfully, perversly toward it, yet must suffer in it, die by it.”19 As Donne describes it, his melancholy is caused by thinking and studying, the quintessential activities of the scholar. But, to what extent is Donne responsible for these inclinations, these tendencies that seem to lead inevitably to sickness? Initially he proposes two alternatives: the vapors that constitute his melancholy are either bred by his humors or absorbed—breathed in—by his lungs. By the end of this passage, however, Donne chooses neither scenario, deciding instead to absolve himself of all responsibility, in the process punning on his name (“I have don nothing”), and presenting himself as an acted-upon, pitiable subject of adversity. Donne's melancholy, figured as the consequence of scholarly inclinations he can neither control nor resist, is also revealed to be ineluctably interwoven with his responsibilities as a preacher. Scrupulously working through counterarguments, in the process demonstrating the very intellectual rapaciousness he laments, Donne makes it clear that even if one were to attribute his illness to the studies that he himself has undertaken, these studies are in fact necessitated by his calling, by that profession that God has selected for him. At other times, as in “Holy Sonnet VIII” (“If faithful soules be alike glorifi'd”), Donne reads his melancholy in less mediated terms, as a kind of despair that God not only imparts but also lifts away: “Then turne / O pensive soule, to God, for he knowes best / Thy true griefe, for he put it in my breast” (p. 439, lines 12-4).20 Judging from the above passage from the Devotions, however, scholarly melancholy forms an integral part of this “true griefe,” authenticating the sincerity of Donne's spiritual convictions while causing him pain, even—potentially—killing him.

The close connections Donne draws between learning and faith are not, of course, unproblematic in the early seventeenth century. Faced with the threat of ill-health that was so often thought to accompany scholarly endeavor, George Herbert (according to Izaak Walton) frequently contemplated turning his back entirely on the activities and environs that made up the male scholar's life at Cambridge: “I may not omit to tell, that he [Herbert] had often designed to leave the university and decline all study, which he thought did impair his health; for he had a body apt to a consumption, and to fevers, and other infirmities which he judged were increased by his studies; for he would often say, ‘He had too thoughtful a wit: a wit, like a penknife in too narrow a sheath, too sharp for his body.’”21 In response to Donne's question in “Meditation 12” of the Devotions, “It is my study; doth not my Calling call for that?”22 Herbert answers no. In clear contrast to Donne, who proclaims no control whatsoever over his scholarly melancholy, Herbert recognizes the dangers of learning and finally withdraws from such pursuits when they threaten to overwhelm him.23

Donne argues for the spiritually edifying effects of learning in his Essayes in Divinity where, in contrast to the opinions offered by Herbert in A Priest to the Temple—“Curiosity in prying into high speculative and unprofitable questions, is another great stumbling block to the holinesse of Scholars”—he proposes that the work of scholars serves God well: “So he [God] is pleased that his word should endure and undergo the opinion of contradiction, or other infirmities, in the eyes of Pride (the Author of Heresie and Schism) that after all such dissections, & cribrations, and examinings of Hereticall adventures upon it, might return from the furnace more refin'd, and gain luster and clearness by this vexation.”24 While aware of the potential pitfalls awaiting those who neglect their faith in pursuit of learning, Donne usually qualifies his censure of overzealous “dissections, & cribrations,” or insists that “Humility, and Studiousnesse … are so near of kin, that they are both agreed to be limbes and members of one vertue, Temperance.25 In a sermon preached on Christmas Day in 1621, Donne goes further, asserting that “Knowledge cannot save us, but we cannot be saved without Knowledge; Faith is not on this side [of] Knowledge, but beyond it; we must necessarily come to Knowledge first, though we must not stay at it, when we are come thither.”26 Learning, then, can purify the Christian believer, or—more relevant to Donne's own circumstances—even help to protect the preacher from melancholy: “To be a good Divine, requires humane knowledge; and so does it of all the Mysteries of Divinity too; because, as there are Devils that will not be cast out but by Fasting and Prayer, so there are humours that undervalue men, that lacke these helps.”27

Donne's conception of life, indeed his passage through life, is deeply rooted in learning. As Catherine Creswell argues in reading his Holy Sonnets, “Donne's rejection of truth as vision, like his rejection of individual revelation, is an insistence upon interpretation over immanent seeing, often thematized as a move toward ‘hearing’ the Word or turning to the ‘voyce.’”28 In important ways, however, to live—for Donne—is not only to study and write but also, in doing so, to suffer. Like Burton, Donne attaches unhappiness to scholarly pursuits at the same time that he identifies such pursuits as the focal point of his own existence, thereby knowingly risking the onset of melancholy.29 He also frequently equates his scholarly activity with real imprisonment, this in spite of the fact that he suffered such detention in the Fleet following his secret marriage to Ann More. For instance, in a 1625 letter—possibly to Sir Thomas Roe—Donne describes a productive, if stifling, period of time: “I have spent this Summer in my close Emprisonment. I have reviewed as many of my Sermons, as I had kept any notes of; and I have written out, a great many, and hope to do more. I ame allready come to the number of 80.”30

As books so often occupy Donne's energies, parts of the scholarly book as well figure prominently in his description of mortal life: “All this life is but a Preface, or but an Index and Repertory to the book of life; There, at that book beginnes thy Study; To grow perfect in that book, to be dayly conversant in that book, to find what be the marks of them, whose names are written in that book, and to finde those marks, ingenuously, and in a rectified conscience, in thy selfe … this is to goe forth, and see thy self, beyond thy self, to see what thou shalt be in the next world.”31 To live is, for Donne, to read oneself and by reading to begin the process of improving, or rectifying, one's conscience. By imagining earth-bound life as a preface or an index, Donne converts individual being into bound pages, pages that are carefully, even scrupulously, studied in a quintessentially erudite fashion. Such an emphasis on the material book causes Donne to privilege, in the Essayes in Divinity, written praise of God over spoken prayers.32 Books not only come to symbolize existence for Donne, they also provide him with an academic audience in times of personal isolation: “I shall be content that Okes and Beeches be my schollers, and witnesses of my solitary Meditations,” he claims halfway through his Essayes, implying that when introspection is recorded and circulated it does not remain “solitary” for long.33

In “Satyre I,” probably composed while Donne was a student at Lincoln's Inn (1592-95), he depicts a scholar's abandonment of his books, but does so less approvingly than Walton had in recounting Herbert's departure from university life. Arthur Marotti reads “Satyre I”—correctly, I think—as reflecting “the poet's splitting of himself … into the scholar-moralist and the inconstant fool addicted to the fashions of Court and City.”34 The opening lines bear witness to the speaker's failed attempt at dismissing his visitor, but they also cast this visitor as a specter of humoral intemperance, leaving the speaker to choose between his company and the familiar, dungeon-like quality of a Donne study:

Away thou fondling motley humorist,
Leave mee, and in this standing woodden chest,
Consorted with these few bookes, let me lye
In prison, and here be coffin'd, when I dye;

(pp. 214-8, lines 1-4)

Although it resembles a prison or a tomb, this study proves to be more like a womb: the speaker finds within its walls the “constant company” of divines, philosophers, statesmen, chroniclers, and poets who nurture his intellect (line 11). To imagine his death in such surroundings is for the speaker to imagine himself nestled, perhaps even suffocated, under the pages of his favorite authors, or even under the volumes of notes written in his own hand. This is a far cry from being left “in the middle street,” the speaker's other, more agoraphobic fear that—fittingly—comes true when he ventures out of his chambers (line 15).

Torn between social frivolity and book learning, Donne suggests that the melancholy that wraps him, like Jaques, “in a most humorous sadness,” is not merely the melancholy of a scholar.35 As much as he attempts to satisfy the thirst of his mind, and—perhaps more importantly—write of such attempts, Donne is also subject to distractions: distractions which, if “Satyre I” can be taken as evidence, prompt regret when they are fulfilled. In a letter he writes to his friend Henry Goodyer in 1622, he welcomes the passing of years and gentling of his humors, praising his present melancholic bouts in comparison to those he once suffered: “Every distemper of the body now, is complicated with the spleen, and when we were young men we scarce ever heard of the spleen. In our declinations now, every accident is accompanied with heavy clouds of melancholy; and in our youth we never admitted any. It is the spleen of the minde, and we are affected with vapors from thence; yet truly, even this sadnesse that overtakes us, and this yeelding to the sadnesse, is not so vehement a poison (though it be no Physick neither) as those false waies, in which we sought our comforts in our looser daies.”36 Eager here and elsewhere to put distance between his “looser,” pre-ordination days and those that follow, Donne blames his current distempers on his spleen, the organ in which medical theory of the day would have placed the production of the melancholic humor black bile.37 Recognizing the true source for such “heavy clouds,” rather than following the “false waies” of his youth, provides Donne with comfort, in part because with the identification of “true” symptoms his mind, and body, are spared the harmful effects of misguided rumination.

Certainly, the “false waies” with which Donne associates his prior “poison” remind us of the speaker's wayward sallies into the streets of London in “Satyre I.” Nonetheless, letters written before Donne's ordination indicate that his lack of clerical credentials also perturbs him, suggesting perhaps that he might have found a career as a preacher attractive in 1615 in part because it meant an increase in his stature as a scholar, and thus a possible diminution of the severity of his melancholic bouts. Writing to Goodyer in 1608, Donne expresses concern over being dismissed as a self-interested layman, even when the writings he has in mind are in verse rather than prose: “I have met two Letanies in Latin verse, which gave me not the reason of my meditations, for in good faith I thought not upon them then, but they give me a defence, if any man; to a Lay man, and a private, impute it as a fault, to take such divine and publique names, to his own little thoughts.”38 Donne's comments regarding his poem “The Litanie” imply that he views his poetic productions as he does his scholarly projects. Both require research, if not for ideas, then for “defence” from critics. Keenly aware of the need to lend weight and legitimacy to his “little thoughts,” Donne at once seeks out precedents for the claims he is making, as any budding controversialist must, while at the same time attempting to preserve his ingenuity as a poet, assuring Goodyer that he in no way had the Latin litanies in mind when he wrote his own.

If Donne's letter calls attention to the commonality of scholarly and poetic enterprises, “The Litanie” itself repeatedly attests to its author's awareness—more insisted upon here than in his Essayes—of the dangers learning can pose to religious belief. Indeed, the most persistent petitions in the poem dwell upon the speaker's fear that he will pursue knowledge too zealously, thereby forgetting more important matters: “Let not my minde be blinder by more light / Nor Faith by Reason added, lose her sight” (pp. 456-67, lines 62-3). Excessive attention to writing poetry also prompts earnest pleas; regarding the prophets, the speaker asks his Lord “That I by them excuse not my excesse / In seeking secrets, or Poëtiquenesse” (lines 71-2). In stanza thirteen of “The Litanie,” entitled “The Doctors,” Donne strikes another cautionary note, asking that what the Church Fathers

                                                                      have misdone
Or mis-said, wee to that may not adhere,
Their zeale may be our sinne. Lord let us runne
Meane waies, and call them stars, but not the Sunne.

(lines 114-7)

Such temperance with regard to learning would have surprised few readers in Jacobean England, accustomed as they were to arguments that pointed out the perils awaiting those who pursued knowledge immoderately, arguments often put forth by learned men (“How well he's read,” King Ferdinand remarks of Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, “to reason against reading!”).39 By the end of “The Litanie,” however, Donne's wary attitude toward such intellectual and aesthetic pursuits is qualified, while his own ability to moderate his passion is openly doubted. The penultimate petition of the poem, followed only by a final prayer for salvation, finds the speaker asking God to moderate his dangerous desire for knowledge while at the same time to refrain from vanquishing it entirely:

That learning, thine Ambassador,
From thine allegeance wee never tempt,
                    That beauty, paradises flower
For physicke made, from poyson be exempt,
                                                  That wit, borne apt, high good to doe,
                                                  By dwelling lazily
On Natures nothing, be not nothing too,
That our affections kill us not, nor dye,
Heare us, weake ecchoes, O thou eare, and cry.

(lines 235-43)

Equated here with “affections”—with feelings or emotions that defy governance, or emanate from an abnormal bodily state—the yearning to know is recognized as a potential poison, and yet the speaker pleads for it nonetheless to remain in his system.40 He wants in psychological terms what the skeptic desires intellectually: to hold a position between extremes.

Donne's defense of “The Litanie” as having been written in “good faith” mirrors his insistence that Biathanatos was composed out of “[p]iety,” and indeed both works are thought to have been written while Donne lived at Mitcham.41 Each composition, although in a different genre, attests to Donne's scholarly blending of intellectual, religious, and melancholic inclinations. While Donne denies in Biathanatos that his study of self-slaughter is blasphemous, his decision to keep the book in manuscript form suggests fear on his part that too wide a readership might cause the work to be accused of injecting “poyson” into the flower of learning. Donne realizes, in other words, that his studious inclinations flirt with danger—at the very least in the form of public censure, at the most, spiritual corruption—and yet he refuses to forswear such predilections, claiming either that they are a part of his nature, as in “The Litanie,” or that they deserve scripted preservation, as with Biathanatos. In the latter case, textual abeyance represents Donne's familiar yearning for the via media, here between two extremes described in the 1619 letter to Sir Robert Carre as “the [printing] Presse, and the Fire.”42

Contrary to what Donne claims in his 1622 letter to Goodyer, “Satyre III” indicates that the younger Donne is well aware of the spleen, for it figures prominently in the opening of the poem: “Kinde pitty chokes my spleene; brave scorn forbids / Those teares to issue which swell my eye-lids” (pp. 224-9, lines 1-2). Unsatisfied by his own display of Christian belief, particularly when it is contrasted with the “blinde Philosophers” of past ages, “whose merit / Of strict life may be imputed faith,” the speaker resolves to “Seeke true religion” (lines 12-3, 43):

To will, implyes delay, therefore now doe.
Hard deeds, the bodies paines; hard knowledge too
The mindes indeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the Sunne, dazzling, yet plaine to all eyes.

(lines 85-8)

Commenting on these lines, Richard Strier has argued that “[t]he context, after all, is not that of the intellectual life in general but of the religious life in particular.”43 But Donne, I would suggest, does not so neatly distinguish between the two. Rather, for him, as we have already seen in his Christmas Day, 1621 sermon, “we must necessarily come to Knowledge first, though we must not stay at it, when we are come thither.”44 For the speaker in “Satyre III,” to commit himself to “true religion” means recommitting himself to his studies. As J. B. Leishman wrote, “this saving truth is, in a sense, factual rather than doctrinal, and to be attained, not in some beatific vision, but as the result of a long and laborious process of historical, or semi-historical, research.”45 Or, as Donne puts it,

                                                  though truth and falshood bee
Neare twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busie to seeke her, beleeve mee this,
Hee's not of none, nor worst, that seekes the best.

(lines 72-5)

At the very least, it appears, seeking truth can do no harm, and yet distinguishing the “best” of these pursuits from the “worst” vexes Donne long after he has finished “Satyre III.”

Donne's religious belief depends upon, and is articulated through, his own search for “hard knowledge.” In “Satyre III,” the connection between this search and those “mysteries … plaine to all eyes” is unclear, as Strier acknowledges (lines 87-8).46 But this ambiguity, I would argue, reflects the intimate relationship Donne maintains between study and devotion; the latter, while strengthened by the former, is not dependent upon it. The nature of devotion is a mystery, and yet—paradoxically—it is through the mind's endeavors that faith can be made “plaine to all eyes.” While undecided about the nature of “true religion,” Donne is certain that it is to be approached through study. And yet, recalling the descriptions of his study in “Satyre I” and elsewhere, he frequently describes the place in which such learning occurs as a depressing one, linking scholarly activity with suffering and isolation, just as he describes, as in the beginning of La Corona, his verse as a product of his “low devout melancholie” (pp. 429-30, line 2). Although Donne periodically releases himself from his scholarly imprisonment, its hold on him remains steady over time. This is in spite of, indeed because of, the morbid connotations the study carries for Donne, for it is in his descriptions of the scholar's place of work that Donne's fascination with death is grounded. His learned endeavors, in other words, are endeavors rooted in a desire if not necessarily to die then to experience the place of death, a place accessed through the study.

Nowhere is such a conflation between the place of burial and learning more visible than in a 1608 letter to Goodyer in which Donne reveals that his study, quite literally, sits atop a crypt: “I have occasion to sit late some nights in my study, (which your books make a pretty library) and now I finde that that room hath a wholesome emblematique use: for having under it a vault, I make that promise me, that I shall die reading, since my book and a grave are so near.”47 Similarly, in the dedicatory letter to Sir Edward Herbert that graces the inside cover of the Bodleian Manuscript of Biathanatos, Donne projects his own melancholy onto the text, assuring his friend that the book will not take its own life because it is pleased with its argument: “I make account that thys Booke hath inough perform'd yt wch yt undertooke, both by Argument and Example. Itt shall therfore the lesse neede to bee yttselfe another Example of ye Doctrine. Itt shall not therefore kyll yttselfe; that ys, not bury itselfe.”48 The insinuation here is that to “kyll” is the same as to “bury,” but if we recall Donne's already envisioned, passive modes of expiration—being “coffin'd” in “Satyre I,” noting the proximity of a grave to his study in the letter to Goodyer—we realize that Donne is again thinking as much about being placed in the earth as he is of taking his own life. Suicide remains a part of the equation, but not the focal point of Donne's attention. This attitude changes somewhat in the closing lines of the letter to Herbert, where self-slaughter becomes the characteristic performance of men who spend their lives reading and writing: “I know yor Loue to mee wyll make in my fauor, and dischardge, yow may adde thys, that though thys Doctrine [defending self-slaughter] hath not beene tought nor defended by writers, yet they, most of any sorte of Men in the world, haue practisd ytt.”49 For Donne, suicide becomes a possible product, and end, of the learned life, one frequently undertaken and thus uniquely understood by scholars, indeed even conceptualized in scholarly terms, for when Donne describes, in the Devotions, the transition from the earthly to the celestial realm he does so by drawing on an extended analogy with the material book.50

Upon taking holy orders, Donne gives the impression—as we have already seen—that his melancholic humor changes. He also indicates, in his 1619 letter to Carre, that his prior interest in justifying self-slaughter fades as he devotes himself to writing sermons. Biathanatos, Donne writes to Carre, is a “Book written by Jack Donne, and not by D. Donne.51 Here the scholarly self is ostensibly split, just as the dutiful student is distinguished from the “motley humorist” in “Satyre I,” but, in fact, both incarnations are involved in learned activities, the one pious, the other arguably heretical. Donne's ordination does not make him a new scholar, however, at least not to the extent that Walton would want us to believe, or that Donne himself might have hoped.52 While he devotes himself wholeheartedly to sermon writing, Donne's work in this genre betrays its author's continued fascination with self-slaughter. Christ's soul “did not leave his body by force,” Donne tells his congregation on Easter Day, 1619 (the same year in which he writes to Carre about Jack and the Doctor), “but because he would, and when he would, and how he would; Thus far then first, this is an answer to this question, Quis homo? Christ did not die naturally, nor violently, as all others doe, but only voluntarily.”53 While Donne refrains from offering the evidence marshaled in Biathanatos to argue for Christ's suicide, he nonetheless encourages his listeners to think of their savior's death—if only for a moment—as a voluntary one.54 Christ's crucifixion here fascinates Donne not because it is a self-sacrifice for the sins of humanity, but because it affords him another way of thinking about death.

In a number of texts where melancholy is not formally attached to his life as a scholar, Donne's analysis is nonetheless of a scholarly nature; he reads himself, in other words, in the same rigorous way he reads his books, just as he describes life on earth—as we have already seen—as “but a Preface, or but an Index.” Donne's descriptive tendencies themselves reflect his melancholy: he builds up intensely earthy (crude or indecent), and earthly (terrestrial or nondivine) images, only to allow such images to decompose. While often these images include, or refer explicitly to, the human body, they frequently transfer the language of the physical world to immaterial realms—realms that are often of a psychological or spiritual nature, and sometimes curious mixtures of both.55 In the process, the writer revealed is one fascinated with inconstancy, one who persistently reads not only his own constitution but the larger world as tempestuous and unstable.

It is this juxtaposition of cataclysmic, spiritual change with temporal, earthbound shiftings that is at the heart of the experience of spiritual illumination as understood and expressed by Donne in many of his sermons, but particularly in the four extant that he devoted to Paul's conversion (preached between the years 1624 and 1630). While it would be impossible perhaps to avoid metaphors of transformation when describing experiences of spiritual illumination, Donne nonetheless turns repeatedly to images of the earth. Paul's conversion, he reminds us in a sermon preached at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1624 on Acts 9:4, “was a true Transubstantiation, and a new Sacrament.”56 But rather than conclude his sermon with this image of the new, sanctified Paul, Donne instead glosses another word of the verse he has chosen—the word earth, here first associated with sin but, by the end of the passage, transformed into an incubator for the soul awaiting the Last Judgment: “You heap earth upon your soules, and encumber them with more and more flesh, by a superfluous and luxuriant diet; You adde earth to earth in new purchases, and measure not by Acres, but by Manors, nor by Manors, but by Shires; And there is a little Quillet, a little Close, worth all these. A quiet grave. And therefore, when thou readest, That God makes thy bed in thy sicknesse, rejoyce in this … That that God, that made the whole earth, is now making thy bed in the earth, a quiet grave, where thou shalt sleep in peace, till the Angels Trumpet wake thee at the Resurrection.”57 Repetition of the phrase “quiet grave” emphasizes that Donne's God has designated space for his subjects in the earth, space to be occupied until greater metamorphoses into the heavenly realm are enacted. At the same time, the phrase calls to mind Despair's alluring description of the benefits that follow suicide in book 1 of The Faerie Queene:

Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet graue?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.(58)

Donne's study, we might say, has, in this sermon, dissolved into the crypt beneath it; the allure of the earth is the peaceful withdrawal it affords, perhaps, from such tasks as “reviewing” sermons, for only death can—in Donne's eyes—release the scholar from learned labor.59

Although biographical details (e.g., the abandonment of his familial religion and the death of his wife) offer us experiences which we can surmise tortured Donne, his own understanding of his melancholy is—as we might expect in Jacobean England—humoral; Donne persistently sees himself as racked not so much by events in his life as by his own constitution, for as he notes parenthetically in a 1608 letter to Goodyer, “my vices are not infectious, nor wandring, the came not yesterday, nor mean to go away to day: they Inne not, but dwell in me, and see themselves so welcome … that they will not change.”60 The extent to which Donne takes sole responsibility for these vices is debatable, particularly when we recall his insistence in the Devotions that his calling necessitates studying, which invites melancholy. Whether it is attributable to God, or to his own nature, or to a combination of both, the “worst voluptuousness” for Donne remains one temptation alone: the “Hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning.”61 Here he holds the same opinion as the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, for just as Burton feeds his own scholarly melancholy in an effort to cure it (“I write of Melancholy, by being busie to avoid Melancholy”), Donne treats his “Hydroptique” desire with a steady diet of study and meditation.62

Painfully for Donne, however, the very act of introspection by which one charts one's spiritual health, or addresses a potential reader, risks plunging one into despair. In another letter to Goodyer, this one from 1609, Donne writes of being “contracted, and inverted into my self.”63 Emphasizing yet again the material transformation of an immaterial abstraction, he confesses his fear of being too greatly concerned with his own depression while his wife, sitting beside him, has equal grounds for unhappiness: “But if I melt into a melancholy whilest I write, I shall be taken in the manner: and I sit by one too tender towards these impressions, and it is so much our duty, to avoid all occasions of giving them sad apprehensions.”64 A turn inwards, here not voluntarily to pray but rather instinctively to brood, reminds us vividly that the realm for melancholy and religious belief is a shared space, both metaphorically and psychologically, just as melancholic language in the period is at once diagnostic (melting used to describe humors that were heated or imbalanced), as well as figurative. Hamlet's similar-sounding lamentation offers us another instance in which a disenchanted scholar yearns for self-dissolution.

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. God, O God.(65)

In each case, the speaker's envisioned disintegration is prompted by a guilt complex that, paradoxically, feeds itself even by conjuring up its own annihilation. Self-preoccupation, and the loathing it engenders, stubbornly remain, such that when Donne imagines attending so scrupulously to his soul that it is not besmirched “in any minute by actuall sinne,” he confesses that “even in that I should wound her more, and contract another guiltinesse.”66

Indeed, in the same 1609 letter to Goodyer in which Donne describes his anxious marital relationship, he writes of denying himself pleasure in terms suggestive of the close link between ascetic impulses and willful self-annihilation: “As I have much quenched my senses, and disused my body from pleasure, and so tried how I can endure to be my own grave, so I try now how I can suffer a prison.”67 “[G]rave,” here once again combines with “prison,” conflating the interlinked, earthly categories of death, suffering, and even learning (the study superimposed, as it were, over a crypt). In Biathanatos, Donne claims to keep the keys to such a prison always on hand so that he might escape whenever he desires, making his prison stay one of voluntary duration.68 Indeed, just as he—very uncharacteristically for his age—grants Christians from all churches a chance at redemption, Donne is equally generous with depression: “God hath accompanied,” he assures his parishioners, “and complicated almost all our bodily diseases of these times, with an extraordinary sadnesse, a predominant melancholy, a faintnesse of heart, a chearlesnesse, a joylesnesse of spirit.”69 Similar sentiments so overwhelm Donne in the Devotions that he dares, for a moment, to ask the unthinkable: “Is the glory of heaven no perfecter in it selfe, but that it needs a foile of depression and ingloriousnesse in this world, to set it off?”70

Donne's insistent use of metaphors that equate the meltings and scorchings of the earth with the eternal soul and the earthly self are metaphors that frequently dissolve the very images they create, as well as the sense of a stable, authorial persona responsible for these images. Nowhere, perhaps, is this dissolution more striking than in “Holy Sonnet XIX” (“Oh, to vex me, contraryes meet in one”).71 The poem brims with descriptions of inconstancy that draw from Renaissance medical terminology: both the speaker's devotion to God and his more temporal love are “humorous”; each is “ridingly distemperd, cold and hott” (p. 447, lines 5, 7). As in the Devotions, Donne is aware not only that one may “mistake a Disease for Religion,” but that humoral terminology can be used metaphorically to describe religious practice, as when he likens confessing one's sins to employing a physic which “drawes the peccant humour to it selfe.”72 Yet, here the melancholic tenor of the sonnet does not arise from its humoral juxtapositions. Rather, such sentiments emerge in the speaker's self-estrangement, the crystallization of which occurs in the poem's sestet:

I durst not view heaven yesterday; and to day
In prayers, and flattering speaches I court God:
To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod.
So my devout fitts come and go away
Like a fantastique Ague: save that here
Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.

(lines 9-14)

Today, in present time, the speaker finds himself in a middle realm where his approach to God is clearly inadequate. The timidity with which he “durst not view heaven” is replaced, in the following line, by courting that permeates both his “prayers” to God and his “flattering speaches.” It is another point in time, a day toward which the speaker looks twice, that is his “best,” and yet this state too is one marked with high volatility (lines 11, 14). In a 1608 letter to Goodyer, Donne uses equally tempestuous images, and even some of the same words, to portray what might be his worst days, further suggesting the similarities between his melancholic and spiritually illumined states: “I have over fraught my self with Vice, and so am ridd[l]ingly subject to two contrary wrackes, Sinking and Oversetting, and under the iniquity of such a disease as inforces the patient when he is almost starved, not only to fast, but to purge.”73 In “Oh, to vex me,” the speaker “quake[s]” and “shake[s]” with fear. The desired state is one of trembling, akin to the earthquakes that are said to bring “harmes and feares” in “A Valediction forbidding mourning” (line 9). In the Devotions, we will recall, Donne uses earthquakes to describe not devotional inclinations but suicidal ones.74 In each case, distemper pervades the emotional state of the speaker, a state persistently characterized as being wrapped in the hot and cold fevers of melancholy.

In “Oh, to vex me,” the inconstant fits that characterize the remembered and longed-for realm of religious faith abate. The final simile of the poem (“Like a fantastique Ague”) equates religious fervor with physical fever before giving way to tremors of “feare.” Reminding ourselves that “doubt” and “fear” were synonyms in the period, and that fear, sadness, and despair were all taken to be symptoms of a melancholic condition, only accentuates the poem's ambivalent conclusion.75 True contrition, at the moment after and before it is thrown into fluctuation, is by its very nature anxious and trembling. Conditioned by his own fear of melting into despondency, his own visions of being coffined with his books, Donne turns his fear into faith, his faith into fear, and a charting of his temperament into a description of the maddening inconstancy that characterizes, in his scripted life of uneasy sequestration and contemplation, his relationship both to himself and to his God.

The speaker at the conclusion of “Oh, to vex me,” is painfully aware of what is expected of him, and yet the sonnet is holy only insofar as it is hopeful; the speaker's “best dayes” do not materialize. The “here,” which suggests at once the present moment and the speaker's grounded presence (spiritually and physically) on earth is instead set off by the pronoun “Those.” This shift from insufficient (“here”) to appropriate contrition (“Those”) is sudden and surprising, void of syntactical demarcation and formally suggested only by enjambment (“save that here / Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare”).76 Estranged from his idealized self, the penitent supplicant, the speaker's longing is disturbingly self-interested as well as pious; indeed, the poem points out—as does much of Donne's verse—the uneasy similarities between the two states of mind.

Roger Rollin, in the most enduring psychoanalytic reading of the Holy Sonnets, calls them “vexatious … in part because they are sick poems in the service of preventive medicine.”77 But the speaker here, in “Oh, to vex me,” does not delude himself with even the possibility of a cure. Instead, it is the acute awareness of his own temperament that renders him melancholic. Donne is not, as Anne Ferry would have it, “asserting the existence of an intrinsic state of being which he cannot name,” but rather more troubling, he is recognizing that this state is inherently tempestuous and unstable.78 As in the Devotions, the overriding sense of humanity is a somber one: “Man … is but dust, and coagulated and kneaded into earth, by teares; his matter is earth, his forme, misery.79 Paul, we will recall, distinguishes between two kinds of sorrow (“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death”).80 While Donne forever aspires to the former, he never wholly escapes the latter.81 Worldly sorrow, in his letters, sermons, and verse, is continually mixed with godly. Rather than discard one kind of melancholy for the other, it is perhaps more fitting to recognize—as Donne himself does—the shared topologies of spiritual and temperamental terrain, and to acknowledge that Donne sees his scholarly melancholy as an integral component of his religious faith, to be both treasured and feared.


  1. Epigraph is from T. S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, ed. Ronald Schuchard (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), p. 80.

  2. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), p. 134.

  3. John Donne, Holy Sonnet III, in The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1985), pp. 435-6, lines 12-4. Unless otherwise noted, subsequent references to Donne's poetry will be to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by inclusive page numbers for the first mention of a poem, and by their numbers and line references on all references. Patrides follows the numbering of the sonnets established by Herbert Grierson in his edition of The Poems of John Donne, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912). Although I do not employ Helen Gardner's numbering, I favor her dating of sixteen of the nineteen Holy Sonnets between the years 1609 and 1611. See “Introduction: II. The Date, Order, and Interpretation of The ‘Holy Sonnets’” in her edition of John Donne: The Divine Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952; rpt. 1966), pp. xxxvii-lv.

  4. Kristeva, p. 12.

  5. The Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino is principally responsible for establishing the perceived connection between melancholy and learned endeavor in Renaissance Europe. See book 1, De vita sana or De cura valetudinis eorum qui incumbunt studio litterarum (1480) of his De vita libri tres.

  6. John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, ed. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 219.

  7. Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992), p. 104.

  8. John Donne, Essayes in Divinity, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 16.

  9. Surveying a wide range of early modern texts, Lawrence Babb has argued that “the physiological effects of intellectual labor were such that the man of letters [in Elizabethan and Jacobean England] could hardly hope to escape melancholy” (“Melancholy and the Elizabethan Man of Letters,” HLQ 9, 3 [April 1941]: 247-61, 261).

  10. William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Alan Brissenden (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), IV.i.15.

  11. According to Donne's nineteenth-century biographer, Augustus Jessopp, the mournfulness that marks his letters written from Mitcham is “attributable far less to any mere lack of means than to that intellectual depression inseparable from excessive strain upon the powers of brain and heart” (John Donne, Sometime Dean of St. Paul's [London: Methuen, 1897], pp. 61-2).

  12. John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1981; rprt. 1990), p. xi.

  13. See also George Williamson, “Mutability, Decay, and Jacobean Melancholy,” in Seventeenth Century Contexts, rev. edn. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 9-41.

  14. Carey, p. 182. I think Carey is right in pointing out that Donne “wanted, and invented, a universe as changeable as himself, in which all things were continuously on the edge of nothingness,” but change unsettled Donne in ways I do not think Carey sufficiently acknowledges (p. 158).

  15. See Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1982), V.i.200-5. Donne ends Metempsychosis by echoing both Hamlet and Montaigne: “The onely measure is, and judge, opinion” (pp. 402-27, line 520).

  16. Joshua Scodel, “John Donne and the Religious Politics of the Mean,” in John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross, ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Frances M. Malprezzi (Conway AR: UCA Press, 1995), pp. 45-80, 55.

  17. John Stachniewski, “John Donne: The Despair of the ‘Holy Sonnets,’” ELH 48, 4 (Winter 1981): 677-705, 705 n. 52; David Norbrook, “The Monarchy of Wit and the Republic of Letters: Donne's Politics,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 3-36, 16.

  18. Donald Ramsay Roberts, “The Death Wish of John Donne,” PMLA 62, 4 (December 1947): 958-76, 970, 960.

  19. Donne, “Meditation 12,” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 62-4, 63.

  20. Here I follow the Westmoreland manuscript. The 1635 Poems, in accordance with the O'Flaherty and Dobell manuscripts, renders the last line as “Thy griefe, for he put it into my breast.” See Gardner, p. 14.

  21. Izaak Walton, “The Life of Dr. Donne” and “The Life of Mr. George Herbert” (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1937), p. 384.

  22. Donne, “Meditation 12,” p. 63.

  23. Timothy Bright counsels his reader to “abandon working of your braine by any studie, or conceit: and giue your mind to libertie of recreation, from such actions, that drawe too much of the spirit, and therby wrong the corporall members of the bodie” (A Treatise of Melancholie [London, 1586], p. 243). While Winfried Schleiner argues convincingly that “by the early seventeenth century melancholy is not presented unambiguously as the humor of the gifted,” scholars such as Donne and Robert Burton continue to associate themselves with the malady (Melancholy, Genius, and Utopia in the Renaissance [Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991], p. 29).

  24. George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple. Or, The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life, in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), pp. 223-90, 238. Donne, Essayes in Divinity, p. 57. Cf. Martin Luther, De Servo Arbitrio, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, trans. Philip S. Watson (London: SCM Press, 1969), pp. 110-2.

  25. Donne, Essayes in Divinity, p. 5. Cf. Scodel, p. 62.

  26. Donne, The Sermons of John Donne, ed. Simpson and George R. Potter, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1962), 3:359. All references to Donne's sermons are from this edition.

  27. Donne, Sermons, 9:254.

  28. Catherine Creswell, “Turning to See the Sound: Reading the Face of God in Donne's Holy Sonnets,” in John Donne's Religious Imagination, pp. 181-201, 184.

  29. According to Burton, “[t]wo maine reasons may be given of it, why students should be more subject to this malady [melancholy] then others. The one is, they live a sedentary, solitary life, sibi & musis, free from bodily exercise … The second is contemplation, which dries the braine, and extinguished naturall heat; for whilst the spirits are intent to meditation above in the head, the stomacke and liver are left destitute, and thence come blacke blood and crudities by defect of concoction, and for want of exercise, the superfluous vapours cannot exhale” (The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair, 3 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989], 1:302-4).

  30. Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, ed. Charles M. Coffin (New York: Random House, 1952; rprt. New York: Modern Library, 1994), p. 402. All quotations of Donne's letters, unless otherwise noted, are from this edition.

  31. Donne, Sermons, 6:286.

  32. See Donne, Essayes in Divinity, p. 41.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p. 39.

  35. Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV.i.18-9.

  36. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 390.

  37. See, for example, Thomas Walkington, The Optick Glasse of Humors (London, 1639), p. 133.

  38. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 373. The dating of this letter, as with most of Donne's correspondences, is uncertain. Patrides suggests 1609 or 1610 (p. 456).

  39. Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, ed. Richard David (London: Routledge, 1951, rprt. 1994), I.i.94.

  40. According to the OED, affection could be used in Donne's day to refer to “an emotion or feeling … as opposed to reason,” a “[s]tate of mind generally, mental tendency; disposition,” or a “bodily state due to any influence.”

  41. Donne, Biathanatos, ed. Ernest W. Sullivan II (London and Toronto: Associated Univ. Presses, 1984), p. 31. For the dating of Biathanatos, see Sullivan's introduction, p. ix.

  42. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 387.

  43. Richard Strier, “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” ELH 60, 2 (Summer 1993): 283-322, 304.

  44. Donne, Sermons, 3:359.

  45. J. B. Leishman, The Monarchy of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne (1951; rprt. London: Hutchinson, 1962), p. 116.

  46. Strier, p. 304.

  47. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 372.

  48. Donne, Biathanatos, “Appendix A,” pp. 248-50, 249.

  49. Ibid.

  50. See Donne, “Meditation 17,” in Devotions, pp. 86-7.

  51. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 387.

  52. See Walton, Life of Dr. Donne, p. 342.

  53. Donne, Sermons, 2:208.

  54. See Donne, Biathanatos, pp. 128-30.

  55. See Elaine Scarry, “Donne: ‘But yet the body is his booke,’” in Literature and the Body: Essayes on Populations and Persons, ed. Scarry (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 70-105.

  56. Donne, Sermons, 6:209.

  57. Donne, Sermons, 6:213.

  58. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London and New York: Longman, 1977), I.ix.40.6-9.

  59. Cf. Donne's description of Christ's depression, that is, his submersion in temporal suffering, and his eventual redemption (Sermons, 10:192-3).

  60. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 372.

  61. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 376.

  62. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1:6.

  63. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 377.

  64. Donne, Selected Prose, pp. 377, 378.

  65. Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.ii.129-32. Here I follow the Folio text.

  66. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 375.

  67. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 378.

  68. Donne, Biathanatos, p. 29.

  69. Donne, Sermons, 7:68-9.

  70. Donne, “Expostulation 17,” in Devotions, pp. 87-9, 89.

  71. Jonathan Dollimore argues that, in this poem, and in the Holy Sonnets in general, “an experience of dislocation … overrides even the relocating potential of the sonnet form” (Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2d edn. [Durham NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1993], p. 180).

  72. Donne, “Meditation 5,” in Devotions, pp. 24-6, 26; “Expostulation 10,” in Devotions, pp. 52-4, 54.

  73. Donne, Selected Prose, p. 371. Cf. “Meditation 1,” in Devotions: “O perplex'd discomposition, O riddling distemper, O miserable condition of Man” (pp. 7-8, 8).

  74. Donne, “Meditation 1,” pp. 7-8.

  75. See Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, pp. 101-2.

  76. Cf. Anne Ferry, The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 242-3.

  77. Roger B. Rollin, “‘FANTASTIQUE AGUE’: The Holy Sonnets and Religious Melancholy,” in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1986), pp. 131-46, 131.

  78. Ferry, p. 249.

  79. Donne, “Meditation 8,” in Devotions, pp. 40-2, 41.

  80. 2 Cor 7:10. See also Rom 5:3-5 (KJV): “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.”

  81. See Donne, “Meditation 17,” in Devotions: “No Man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction” (pp. 86-7, 87).

This essay benefited enormously from the feedback of many scholars; I would especially like to thank Barbara Lewalski, Jeffrey Masten, and Helen Vendler.

Barbara Everett (essay date January 2001)

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SOURCE: Everett, Barbara. “Donne and Secrecy.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 1 (January 2001): 51-67.

[In the following essay, Everett reflects on the history of Donne scholarship, contending that overemphasis on Donne as a public, active man has been misguided.]

It's a quiet time just now in Donne criticism. It's a quiet time, perhaps, in anything criticism. English as a subject is putting its main energies elsewhere. But it remains an interesting exercise to ask how we actually know a given writer: what is it that's there, and why? Who do we mean, when we say ‘Donne’? For such questions, this isn't history's happiest moment.

The reason is partly that so many answers have been given in the immediate past. They may be true enough, most of them, to make them not easy to reject; but they are also dated enough to make us not want them much. We're no longer living in the century in which the poet was in some sense discovered both by Academia and by Modernism—Grierson of Edinburgh edited him, and Eliot read that edition for review. Donne can almost be said to have brought together, for once, English studies and the newest movements of literature. The New Criticism, spreading through university English departments, in part under Eliot's influence, was in love with difficult verse. Many intelligent people through the Twenties, Thirties and Forties had a passion for Donne, and a good number of them tended also to believe—on principle, as it were—that poetry needed, above all, intellectual activity in it, rapid arguments, brilliant wit and metaphysical conceits.

It all seems a long while ago. In 1946, just after the ending of the Second World War, you can still find the poet Auden (in his Harvard Ode, ‘Under Which Lyre’) looking down on the great audience of returned war veterans, all agog to read a poet other than himself, and saying bitterly:

Nerves that never flinched at slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne.

Even then, though, the Donne fever was beginning to pass. A few years later, as an undergraduate at the Oxford of the 1950s, I can remember feeling a very particular unwish to write an essay on John Donne: the moment had somehow, one felt, passed. What was true then is truer now. Whenever I open Donne, on a good reading day, I am struck by an extraordinary distinction and strength and originality of mind and gift. Donne is so generously, even unnervingly present on the page. But saying what is present, and why we value it, has perhaps got harder, not easier, with the change of fashion.

The difficulty in seeing Donne clearly now comes at least in part from the sheer publicity with which the poet has been celebrated over the last eighty years or more: the intensity and dissemination of his image as a writer. I want to try here to say something about his powers by approaching from an altogether different direction. His most famous or notorious conceit is that of the compasses in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, whose perfect circles of parting and reunion depend on the unseen point inscribed at the centre of their movement—just as it is vital to the love and parting of the poem that it ‘make no noise’. I am going to circle round the ‘noiseless’ or private Donne, the reader rather than (at first) the writer.

Not an enthusiast for the poets who came to be known as Metaphysicals, Johnson conceded that to write on their plan it was at least necessary to ‘read and think’. Despite his talk of ‘whining poetry’, John Donne was in fact extraordinarily literate. He described himself, with some guilt or embarrassment, as possessed by an ‘hydroptique immoderate thirst of learning’, as if it were a sin or sickness: he got high on books, he was addicted to reading. After he died, his son found notes making it plain that the poet had worked carefully through at least fourteen hundred books: a quite exceptional figure for the period. And something of this is reflected in the fact that the poems are dense with books as images and symbols and conceits.

There was a special dimension to all this reading. Donne was a secret reader, as some people are what is called secret drinkers (Marvell, as it happens, seems to have been just that). Donne's first biographer, Izaak Walton, tells us that a great deal of his reading was done, certainly during the poet's earlier years, unusually early in the morning. Donne would get up at around four a.m. and study till around ten a.m. Then, when the day was well launched by Elizabethan standards, he would sally out, elegantly dressed, and visit his often rather grand and distinguished friends, few of whom will have had any awareness that the caller had already put in a solid day's work.

Walton's biographical image usefully offers two contrasting selves in the poet: the solitary reader, the social visitor in a very public world. The two behaviours come together in the second aspect of this extreme literacy: Donne wrote letters. The poet was probably the greatest letter writer of his age. His modern biographer, R. C. Bald, remarks that of all the Elizabethans only Bacon left behind more letters, and many of Bacon's are purely formal. Donne's are real communications. In letters as in the ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, the poet liked to test and ensure relationship through separation, through space and silence. Without being anything at all easily recognisable as homoerotic, he could bring into letters to male friends especially the kind of intensity and openness of written expression that we value his love-poems for. Thus, he will open a verse-letter to his lifelong courtier friend, the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, with

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle Soules;
For, thus friends absent speake.

Letters to friends brought together the writerly and the social in Donne. That society was urban, indeed metropolitan: he was a man born and bred in London, and a Londoner all his life, at a cultural moment when the city was extraordinary in its scale and in its significance. His birthplace was just off Cheapside, London's great market in the city. Donne's exceptional literacy had one further dimension: he was a great book-buyer. Anyone who now reads, let alone studies, Donne's poems is likely to own many more books than were owned even by literate and learned Elizabethans. Theirs was an age when books were expensive and private libraries rare. But even that fraction of Donne's library that has come down to us (and there were likely to be more) amounts to over two hundred books.

Donne didn't just buy and read and collect his books. He owned them, made them his own. He was so habitually a book-buyer and so characteristically a book owner that he invented an idiosyncratic practice, like drawing up a book-plate before that device came into use: he often set a private mark on his books. On the lower right-hand corner of a book's title-page he wrote his name; on the upper right-hand corner he wrote a motto or imprese, always (so far as we know) the same one. He wrote an Italian sentence, ‘Per Rachel ho servito & non per Lea’, which means ‘For Rachel I have served and not for Leah’.

The names ‘Rachel’ and ‘Leah’ here refer to the story in Genesis. The great Jewish patriarch Jacob in his youth met Rachel, younger daughter of Laban, and served Laban seven long years to earn Rachel's hand. But Rachel had an elder sister, Leah; and Leah was so angry to see her younger sister marrying first that she persuaded her father to help her trick Jacob. The veiled lady whom Jacob married turned out when unveiled to be not Rachel, but Leah. So Jacob served Laban for another seven years to win Rachel as his wife. This impassive story has an irony to it. The loved Rachel proved, sadly, barren; it was the hated Leah who gave Jacob his sons and with them his hope of futurity.

The ancient story got itself absorbed into medieval European culture, and provided an iconography. The sisters became symbols—Leah of the active life, and Rachel of the contemplative. In this form, the story entered Petrarch. Donne's line is not a direct quotation from the Bible, but uses Jacob's cry as it occurs in the seventh stanza of Petrarch's nineteenth Canzone. The Italian love-poet's version adds something to Rachel and Leah which gives them a certain difference from the New Testament Martha and Mary, now more familiar images of the active life and the contemplative. Martha and Mary cannot lose their scriptural or devotional context—their relation to Jesus sanctifies or at least historicises them. The Old Testament figures are more readily transformed to metaphor. Petrarch's usage gives to Rachel and Leah some shadow of individual experience, of inward feeling—even some intonation of bitterness or regret. Petrarch communicates intensity well.

Johnson once said that a man wasn't on oath in epitaphs. You could say the same about book-plates. The phrase about Rachel and Leah was a good sort of thing to write into a book—especially at an historical moment when an actor could come on stage, as the player of Hamlet has to, carrying or reading a book, because the book was becoming a token of the individual, the solitary, perhaps even the unsociable. But Donne, who strikes a reader as in certain respects prone to nervous intensity, even to obsession, as Petrarch was, would not have merely thrown words about. An extremely aesthetic man, interested in painting (and a collector there too), the poet is likely to have had something beyond the ordinary Elizabethan responsiveness to inscribed verbalities, to mottos and watchwords and all kinds of sayings.

Rachel and Leah, figures for the contemplative life and the active, may offer us a new if oblique way into John Donne, who could be described—like the man who read before he visited—as a secret poet for social readers. I earlier proposed that historically speaking this is a difficult moment to find a clear critical image of Donne. In fact there have been many literary moments in the last four hundred years when it has been hard to see him clearly, and many too when no-one was actually trying. The passion for Donne during the first half of the twentieth century was by way of being a flash in the pan. The sense of critical instability was established in the writer's own lifetime, from the early 1590s, when he started writing as a very young man and, according to his friend Ben Jonson, produced his best work—up to the early 1630s, when he died. Most of the work we admire him for was of course unpublished in his lifetime. A member of the upper bourgeoisie of a well-derived Catholic family, Donne (unlike Shakespeare and Jonson, whose plays he admired) was bound by aristocratic rules of behaviour, the most relevant of which was that gentlemen did not publish literary work of private substance. It was demeaning. His best poems were therefore in his lifetime read only in manuscript, passed from hand to hand round a small circle of more or less aristocratic friends. Only after his death, for a few decades after 1631, did Donne come into his own. Respected while he lived for his intellectual powers as displayed on public topics, on ethical or theological matters, Donne was now admired for his love-poems too. He became a major literary figure. But the culture in which his writing was understood changed rapidly in the 1660s with the Restoration. By the eighteenth century Johnson was having to tuck a critical discussion of the earlier poet's verse—and it was critical in the sense of reductive though interested—into an introduction to Cowley's poems, because Donne was not read enough to require new editions. Even in the nineteenth century writers like Coleridge and Lamb and then Browning praised him with reservations, a sense of duty being done.

Familiar literary history of this kind is worth recalling here for a specific purpose: as a way of suggesting that Donne's reception was not random and accidental. Nor can his variable critical reputation, sometimes less variable than non-existent, be associated merely with factors in his own character and career. The same kind of variability affects a number of Donne's most gifted later contemporaries: writers who, very different from each other and Donne, may nonetheless have inherited something of his greatly original voice and stance. Herbert, Herrick and Marvell in his non-political poems all essentially disappear from view throughout the whole eighteenth century, only beginning to revive with Coleridge's scrutiny of them. Now, after seventy or eighty years in the limelight, they are possibly (like Donne) beginning to withdraw again.

What has happened and is happening to Donne and his contemporaries appears at least as much a cultural as a simply personal phenomenon. It can be explained, at any rate in part, by the relationship of these poets to some of the critical and cultural terms I have used up to this point: in speaking of Donne as a ‘secret’ poet for ‘social’ readers, a man moved and concerned by images of the ‘contemplative’ life and the ‘active’, a writer absorbed by the linking of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Perhaps a reading of Donne necessitates an equal weight given to each of these apparently opposed terms; perhaps Donne becomes unreadable whenever that equality or equivalence is not achieved.

It happens that the two most recent Merton Professors of English at Oxford have both worked on Donne (the second in fact as a pupil of the first). Helen Gardner's Oxford edition of the Elegies and the Songs and Sonets, which came out in 1965, was the first Oxford edition of them since 1912 (it is already being re-edited); and the editor's feeling for her subject is plain in the introduction's opening sentences: ‘Donne has a claim to the title of our greatest love-poet … the range of mood and experience in his love-poetry is greater than can be found in the poetry of any single other non-dramatic writer’.

The critical study of Donne now most in use is probably that by Gardner's successor in the Merton Chair, John Carey's 1981 volume, John Donne: His Mind, Life and Art. Its opening sentences don't appear to have much in common with the Oxford edition's somewhat unfocused largeness of gesture. Carey begins: ‘The first thing to remember about Donne is that he was a Catholic; the second, that he betrayed his Faith’. To Gardner's evidently important man, Carey opposes a specific, violent, sometimes even vicious maverick, a rootless papist who sold out to the established Anglican church of his time because driven by consuming worldly ambition. Carey's first four chapter headings are: ‘Apostasy’, ‘The Art of Apostasy’, ‘Ambition’ and ‘The Art of Ambition’. When cornered by the general purposes of his sometimes persuasive and often brilliantly written study into needing to explain why Donne has ever been admired, Carey calls him a powerful poet by virtue of his extreme personal egoism.

I don't cite these two approaches to lament the fact that change occurs in critical attitudes, but perhaps to suggest that not enough change occurs. These two confrontations of Donne sound opposed—the backward-looking enthusiasm with its stress on love and greatness and poetry, and the tough and of-the-moment concentration on the political. But oddly, they have one thing notably in common. Both clear a context for the writer that is essentially public. Gardner's Donne is the historical figure and important man, with a ‘claim’ to the ‘title’ of ‘our greatest love-poet’; and it is his ‘range’ that she makes the basis of his ‘greatness’. Carey is, paradoxically, just as external. What interests him first is the poet's change of church—not of religion or faith, though Carey's capitalised F ‘Faith’ tries to insist that they are the same—but merely of church: born a papist, Donne when adult after long thought and study accepted the state or Anglican church of his country.

This is not merely a debate about capital letters, but a suggestion that potent attitudes can underlie casual silent assumptions. The poet here treated as a man of success by two recognisably successful people, and harshly censured for it by one of them, in fact early ruined his prospects in the world, and by an action of quite conscious choice. Donne fell in love with a very young woman and secretly married her, and her violently angry father destroyed Donne's chances in a fit of rage which passed too late for him to redress the damage done to the poet's career. Donne never achieved the position at court he had theoretically spent his first twenty-five years working for. When at length, in 1615 (when he was in his early forties) Donne reluctantly accepted under force of the king's pressure and in order to feed his family a position in the church of his time, and held it until his death with commitment and hard work, he still never rose higher than a deanship of St Paul's—by no means a high position for one of the most brilliant and admired men of his time.

These facts of personal history are underwritten by a much larger matter. I earlier proposed that Donne's difficult critical history was shared or part-shared by writers such as Herbert and Herrick and Marvell, who all disappeared from view almost entirely during great tracts of the past three centuries. The cultural phenomenon all inhabit has perhaps something to do with the languages of public and private life; interestingly, Marvell's public or political poems long outlasted his more private lyrics.

We probably ought to envisage a creative period stretching from (say) 1590 to (say) 1680. During this period certain writers, of whom Shakespeare is the predominant genius (and his Sonnets too shared the fate of Donne's Songs and Sonets, and were lost to view for long intervals) gradually and with very great originality developed a new language of private experience that was not recessive. It confronted public experience, held it in tension with the private, and fused the two in a style so new, so difficult, and to some so obscure as to force the work out of currency (except in the judgement of a few exceptionally literate people) until the beginning of the twentieth century. Eighty or so years ago, the major or Modernist writing of our time was starting to do something parallel enough to make the Metaphysicals again tolerable.

Questions of the public and the private have to be handled with peculiar respect when we take on earlier historical periods. Ungenial as it is to belabour a colleague's often intensely clever book, Carey's study does offer what seem signal violations of this. He places major stress on what he calls Donne's apostasy, but so far as I recall nowhere mentions the simple fact that only a few decades before Donne's birth nearly everyone in England had apostasised. The churches of the time were political forces: Rome had given way to Anglican England. In the sixteenth century, a faith and a church were by no means identical. If this were not so, Donne would have been unable to write his eighteenth Divine Poem, ‘Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and clear’. Men sincere as well as intelligent could rethink the politics of their religion, moving from one church to another under the pressure of honest rational enquiry, as Donne seems to have done. Or, more important still, the enforced awareness of the political background of churches could generate in writers that withdrawal into individualistic private life characterising the seventeenth century literature that Donne so deeply influenced and helped to create.

The same reservations attend the whole notion of a capital A Ambition, a spiritual mechanism in fact neither peculiar to one historical period nor to any one individual within a period. It would be hard to say who in the sixteenth century, that Age of Gold, was not ambitious. It's a question as to whether we call simply ‘ambitious’ Ralegh, hopelessly questing along the Orinoco for his Golden City, that El Dorado which might finally save his life in winning his king's favour; or Shakespeare, retiring rich and honoured to a great house in his home town; or Ben Jonson, who became Poet Laureate to his age. In Jonson's plays, his crooks are dreamers and his dreamers crooks—a poet's insight into the word ‘ambition’, perhaps.

The early modern world in which Donne lived and wrote was (like our own, of course) ruled by the fact and the concept of power. The politics of the time began and ended in the court, which had its centre in London. Donne himself grew up in the City, on the east side of London, an east in which the power of money and of business was beginning to contest the single rule of the monarch in the west (and the poet recognises this division when he uses phrases like ‘the Kings reall, or his stamped face’, by which he means ‘court or City’, or ‘royalty or money’). In this gamblers' risk economy, where fortunes were to be won or lost every minute, ambition was not less a factor in the City than in the court: the two interlock in that ‘stamped [minted] face’. Donne's whole world was based on the idea of ‘state’, of hierarchy, on the knowledge that if a man were to survive he must climb. This is an awareness deep in the consciousness of all sophisticated men of the time, especially the Londoners through whom a new urban culture was being created. It was, after all, to London that both Shakespeare and Marlowe had come, to write the histories and tragedies which commemorate and analyse their own and any other climbing culture.

Donne too in one of the Songs and Sonets, speaking as dumped and revengeful lover avid for someone new, says to his own heart, ‘Meet me in London, then’. London is the place in these poems where naive idealism gives way to winning, to hustling, to new people, to more life. Up to a point Donne speaks for all ambitious apostates in the sense of being a London poet. His poems are urban poems, focused on close encounters of human beings, bringing alive a great crowd of articulate moods and feelings. There had been no love poetry like this since the Roman poets, and not much then. Long before the metropolitan poetry of Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot, Donne in the ‘First Satire’ (based on Persius)—one of those pre-1595 poems that Ben Jonson thought the poet's best because wittiest—plunges the reader into a London street scene which, funny and fast and crammed with contemporary types and topical references, comes to embody the fascinated, exasperated, mocking and mimicking and essentially observing individual as isolation within a crowd. Years later, and in a radically different poem, the seventh ‘Divine Poem’ beginning ‘At the round earth's imagined corners’, the poet brings about an effect in one way oddly comparable. His first eight lines magnificently evoke, as in a great baroque painting, the sheer mass and organised flight and social bustle of Last Things, ‘All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, / Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes / Shall behold God’: and there he holds the universe in Apocalypse up, like a traffic policeman, while he thinks. ‘But let them sleepe, Lord, and me mourne a space’.

All the poet's most intense as well as most characteristic effects tend to come from a pure opposition or contradiction. In the seventh ‘Divine Poem’, he balances the solitary but profound, as it were ‘reading’ consciousness of the individual mind, against the great universal Apocalyptic City of event: ‘But let … me mourne a space’. The ‘First Satire’ comparably opens by making a harshly ironic statement of chosen isolation:

Leave me, and in this standing wooden chest
Consorted with these few books, let me lie
In prison, and here be coffined when I die.

The writer who creates, and immerses us in, a brilliant mental drama of existence as Crowd, as phenomenon and activity, would have preferred the tiny wood-walled study, and ‘these few books’; and yet he sees that lonely life as a kind of death; and yet that death is also (we perceive) the life of the writing.

In one of the verse-letters to friends mentioned earlier, the poet sketches in an ironic and vivid picture of the city deserted in hot summer, everyone fled away from business and the plague into the country; and he sums up in a single line: ‘Our theatres are filled with emptiness’. In its characteristic strangeness and wit, this is a marvellously resonant phrase. It makes a reader think of the possibility that the ambitious Donne didn't reach the highest positions because something in him just wasn't interested; not London, that empty theatre, but the drama of the thought and felt was what really absorbed at least half his nature. Walton says that Donne was an eager theatre-goer in his youth. And certainly he must often have been desperately bored and frustrated and melancholy during the long middle years of failure and poverty, with little to do but worry and write in a house full of small children. All the same, this may, I suspect, be the period of many of the best of the Songs and Sonets: written by Donne when he had simply nothing else to do.

In ‘The Blossom’, from which I have already taken ‘Meet me in London, then’, Donne speaks of ‘my naked, thinking heart’. A naked heart in the market of the metropolis is an image paradoxical enough, like the theatre filled with emptiness. I am suggesting that these are the conditions of his greatness—greatness because not accidental. There are, certainly, accidental effects of the marriage with both Rachel and Leah, private and public life, throughout Donne's writing. Some of the most heated debates in Donne criticism over the last fifty years have been caused by them. At the end of that very fine appeal to a soul in private which is ‘The Extasie’, the lover invites, ‘To our bodies turn we then’: an invitation which suggests to some critics a love-making so public, given the eyes of the reader, as to involve voyeurism. Other critics passionately repudiate this. I am half-heartedly among them; but it has to be conceded that that very strong mind, C. S. Lewis, once admitted that he couldn't read Donne because of the sense of an invasion of privacy which approaches the voyeuristic (though Lewis doesn't use the word).

The most thrilling verse of this tender, strained poem says

So must pure lovers soules descend
          T'affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
          Else a great Prince in prison lies.

That sense of strain resolved, of a floating energy against the stream, contains all the accidents of Donne's writing which become, wrestled with, necessities, then great qualities. Even the new formal character of these highly original ‘London’ love-poems in the Songs and Sonets reflects the accidentality of true existence, never quite out of sight of irony, a bored and restless shrug, a shift from mood to mood and moment to moment. No-one less gifted than Donne could have left such intensity while ending every poem somewhere different, sometimes underminingly different, from where it began.

Occasionally these attributes will come together in a particularly clear form. The not very often quoted but wonderfully baroque ‘Lecture upon the Shadow’ begins from a pair of lovers who pace along at noon through what must be a great city (such sophisticated souls would hardly at that time stroll through country fields); and the dramatic address of one to the other with which it opens flows instantly into argument, reflection and self-symbolisation:

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A Lecture, Love, in loves philosophy.
                    These three houres that we have spent
                    Walking here, Two shadowes went
Along with us, which we our selves produc'd;
But now, the Sunne is just above our head,
                    We doe those shadowes tread;
And to brave clearnesse all things are reduc'd.

Movement and action here are marvellously crystallised into a lonely truth of the self, of the consciousness.

The rest of the poem, less unfaltering than its opening, transforms this ‘brave clearnesse’ of the noonday light into mere intellectual process, an argument for the heroic trust lovers must have in each other. Many of Donne's lyrics are of course dramatic in this way. The actual theatre has taught Donne, who could not and would not have written a play, the kind of superb dramatic rhetoric that concludes his early ‘Sixteenth Elegy,’ the farewell to a mistress that begins unbeatably, ‘By our first strange and fatal interview’, and ends with a very young girl woken by nightmares, frightening her nurse

With midnights startings, crying out, oh, oh,
Nurse, o my love is slaine, I saw him goe
O'r the white Alpes alone; I saw him I,
Assail'd, fight, taken, stabb'd, bleed, fall, and die.

The striking thing about this climax is that—like the undressing of the woman in another ‘Elegy,’ the amorous nineteenth—it has not happened; it may never happen. The intensity is imagined and dependent on the anxiously parting lover's wish, ‘When I am gone, dreame me some happiness’—don't have nightmares like this one. The very special and brilliant drama of Donne's love-poems is always a ‘brave clearnesse’ of the public lending itself as a language to communicate the private: private not only as between two people, the curtains drawn to keep out the day, but as the silent words within the solitary head. It is to contemplative Rachel, not active Leah, that Donne utters that very remarkable and odd tenderness, ‘dreame me some happinesse’.

Admirable as they are, Donne's divine or religious poems seem to this reader (though opinions differ) less remarkable than the Songs and Sonets, and for a reason that has something to do with the whole matter of public and private experience. Rationally, and also theologically, the poet cannot ever address his God with a blazing and ironic intimacy. In the presence of his Maker he becomes polite, which is what gives excellent work like ‘The Litany’ its sustained finesse. Only the love-poems set Donne free to explore the situation that haunts him, an extreme actuality whose meaning is only his own to discover. He is able to question in public terms the private truth of love-experience as he is not to question the meaning of God—and it is not censorship he fears so much as chaos.

In the first edition of the Songs and Sonets, brought out by the poet's son, there are hints of authorial organisation in the ordering of the poems that go some way to support this understanding of the collection. The first poem in the book, ‘The good morrow’ (not necessarily the first written, or randomly placed) is characteristic for the questioning in its (well-known) opening lines—well-known, perhaps, because so central and so declaratory:

I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov'd? Were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we i' the seven sleepers den?
'Twas so; But this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd and got, 'twas but a dreame of thee.

It is easy to remember this opening stanza as exclamation and hyperbole. In fact, Donne goes implacably near a nerve, in making continual hard allusions to the London or Leah world of the physical-actual, of yesterday and tomorrow—‘Did’, ‘wean'd’, ‘suck'd’, ‘snorted’, ‘got’; it is in between the ‘London’ words ‘did’ and ‘got’ (both of them, of course, sexual words too in Elizabethan English) that the innocently inward ‘wonder’ and ‘dreame’ must take their place. The poem's questions are serious where most ironic. ‘'Twas so’ is a charming, even social remark; only, what precisely is so remains in doubt, up to the very end of the poem, that finishes with an ‘If’—‘If our two loves be one’.

All Donne's best poems have ‘If’ in them. They are formidable poems, and themselves, because they fuse commitment with complexity; and their complexity derives from a world divided between Leah and Rachel, the social and the secret. It is this entirely new amalgam of the private and the public (or one unknown before the generation of Shakespeare and Donne) that necessitates, or so I would guess, such extraordinary effects as those notorious compasses that constitute the last third of the ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. The beauty of the poem lies partly in its structure, like that of a hazy and hypothetical nest of boxes in which the private conceals the public that conceals the private. As the first stanza frames the good man's death-bed with groups of sad and disagreeing friends (‘some of their sad friends doe say / The breath goes now, and some say, no’)—so does the poem give the lovers a frame of the ‘dull’ and ‘sublunary’ in human experience (‘whose soule is sense’). The ‘Valediction’ finds its centre—though the centre is the end—in something transcendental but not definable in terms of theology, and therefore expressed only as conceit, the grotesque and touching image of love as a pair of compasses. One leg of the ‘stiffe twin compasses’, that is ‘Thy soule’, sits in ‘the centre’:

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
          Like th'other foot, obliquely runne;
Thy firmness drawes my circle just,
          And makes me end, where I begunne.

It's often said (as by Carey) to be a sign of Donne's egoism that he shows so little of the human reality of the person loved. Slightly differently, Helen Gardner argues that the ‘Valediction’ must be a poem involving a mistress and not a wife, because a wife wouldn't have to conceal her grief at their parting (‘'Twere prophanation of our joyes / To tell the layetie our love’). Whatever the biographical ‘facts’, both arguments seem to me to confuse creative silence with social secrecy, to mistake dignity for adultery—to take Rachel for Leah. This is a poem full of uncannily solid bits of human reality—a dying man's breath, the shivering of those transparent spheres once thought to hold the universe together, a thread of molten gold, a pair of compasses: and in the writing they steadily rarify into idea, into proof of feeling. As the death-bed is (obliquely, implicitly) for friends and others a love-bed, so does parting become joining and dying, living. The fragmentariness of the poem's substances becomes ‘not … a breach, but an expansion’, a way in which a mere utilitarian tool of geometry can prove, secretly, through images with the peculiar tacit tenderness of ‘It leanes, and hearkens after it’, that love is radical to human experience, and as unbreakable as a circle drawn right.

But the circle remains a conceit, never quite uniform with sense. Donne's character is his hypotheticalness, his inability to turn Leah into Rachel for longer than the moment of the poem. Part of the splendour of ‘The Canonization’, possibly Donne's best poem, comes from the fact that its sanctification begins and ends (like the poem) in the hard world of Leah. ‘For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love’—and everything said in what follows is half a dialogue. Two remarkably witty opening stanzas portray the self at bay in the London or Leah world of activity without insight, engagement without love. With an almost Racinian purity or severity the poem finishes with this world now humbled and saved, begging for instruction after the death of the lovers. ‘Death’, because what comes between is an evocation, at once dry and passionate, of what life with Rachel is actually like:

Wee can dye by it, if not live by love,
          And if unfit for tombes and hearse
Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse;
          And if no peece of Chronicle wee prove,
                    We'll build in sonnets pretty roomes;
                    As well a well wrought urne becomes
The greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes,
          And by these hymnes, all shall approve
          Us Canonized for Love.

This is as witty as it is high, grandly ironical throughout (and irony is itself a secret medium). This is a stanza of a poem, and the Italian word ‘stanza’ means a room, as well as a piece of a poem, and so lies behind this stanza as a kind of mocking implicit pun, like a picture of the poet living (or dying) in a garret. Moreover, Elizabethans used the English word ‘sonnet’ (‘We'll build in sonnets’) to mean any small love-poem, just as they thought of ‘Chronicle’ as the essentially and contrastingly masculine, heroic thing, for important people (love, for Donne's and Shakespeare's period, was considered an experience and a subject fit for fools and women, not for grown men). Real men, in short, had tombs as big as the Albert Hall, and turned up in historical chronicles. Only unknowns and social failures live, like Donne, in small suburban houses, and make themselves at home in Songs and Sonets. This dazzling tragi-comic stanza manages to include all these things, mingling love and jokes and suffering with not only theology (‘Wee can dye by it’ is Pauline as well as sexual—the good soul dies daily) but something very like modern and self-scrutinising literary criticism. ‘Legend’ in the original Latin means ‘the stuff you have to read’. Through it, Donne's history becomes legendary, a literary myth. His unloved Leah of a life turns at last into the loved Rachel; the secret poem reaches its social reader.

Lukas Erne (essay date April 2001)

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SOURCE: Erne, Lukas. “Donne and Christ's Spouse.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 2 (April 2001): 208-29.

[In the following essay, Erne focuses on the poem “Show me deare Christ” as evidence of Donne's feelings about Catholicism.]

The life of John Donne is more fully documented than that of any other English poet before the eighteenth century. Its principal stages are well known and uncontested: birth in 1572 into a family of eminent recusants and martyrs; childhood in a devoutly Catholic home; apprentice years at university, the Inns of Court, and in military expeditions; employment by Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper, in 1598; fall from grace following his marriage to Ann More in 1601/2; years of frustrated ambition and hope; ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England in 1615; appointment as Dean of St. Paul's in 1621; and death in 1631. Not even the abundance of documents, however, can fully reveal the history of Donne's religious allegiances, connections, and beliefs from the time of his Catholic childhood and youth to his ordination to the Anglican priesthood and beyond.

To Izaak Walton, writing The Life and Death of Dr Donne (1640), the history of Donne's conversion still seemed straight-forward. Walton concedes and simultaneously excuses Donne's Roman Catholic upbringing by asserting that his mother advised his tutors to ‘instil into him particular Principles of the Romish Church’. In effect, Walton apologetically adds, ‘they had almost obliged him to their faith’.1 With independent reasoning dawning at the age of 18, Walton continues, Donne ‘betrothed himself to no Religion’ and a year later began ‘seriously to survey, and consider the Body of Divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church’. As a result, Donne saw that ‘truth had too much light about her to be hid from so sharp an Inquirer; and he had too much ingenuity, not to acknowledge he had found her’ (p. 25). Henceforth, Walton can pass over in silence the awkward topic of Donne's Catholic origins. When Donne is finally ordained, his transformation is equally smooth and absolute: ‘Now all his earthly affections were changed into divine love’ (p. 48). Although subsequent biographers have shown that Walton considerably telescoped the stages in Donne's religious development,2 the portrayal of Donne as a contented and loyal Anglican has remained strong, and may be summed up in J. B. Leishman's claim that Donne was ‘never less than whole-hearted in his allegiance to the Church of England, which, for him as for Hooker, was and remained the just via media between the “paintedness” of the Church of Rome and the “nakedness” of Geneva’.3

Once Donne had been raised to an important place in the English canon, he was increasingly claimed as not just a major poet but also an exemplary Anglican. The doggedness with which the question of Donne's conversion and his subsequent religious allegiances was discussed may be gathered from a heated debate in the Times Literary Supplement in 1956. The reviewer of Donne's Poetry by Clay Hunt thought that Donne had made a ‘conversion of convenience’,4 and unwisely suggested that Donne ‘must have felt that the death of his wife was a judgment on him for leaving the Roman Church’,5 later adding that ‘much of his scepticism might be accounted for as doubt as to whether he had done the right thing in leaving the Catholic Church’.6 Such contentious arguments came under heavy attack from Helen Gardner, J. B. Leishman, and Evelyn M. Simpson. Citing passages from Pseudo-Martyr,Essays in Divinity and, chiefly, from the Sermons (which Simpson was then editing), they did their best to show that ‘Donne was a sincere and convinced Anglican’.7 Whatever the quality of the reviewer's arguments may have been—and his speculation about the effect of Donne's wife's death does seem wild—Gardner's claim that the sermons constitute ‘the main evidence’,8 remains doubtful: if Donne had any doubts about his vocation, the pulpit would hardly have been the place for him to voice them.

The apologists' impassioned tone suggests how much they believed to be at stake, and dissenting voices have increasingly made themselves heard. Whereas Walton saw Donne's ordination as an answer to God's call, John Carey reads it as a ‘capitulation’ after a long period of vain attempts to gain advancement at court.9 Arguing that Donne's ambition was the motive for his apostasy, Carey also insists that ‘he never, in a sense, escaped [the] grasp’ (p. 35) of the Roman Church. The term ‘apostasy’ is pertinent, not because Donne is likely to have thought of his defection from Rome in this way, but because he must have been fully aware that it would be considered as such by his former co-religionists. Dominic Baker-Smith believed that ‘when Donne ceased to be a Papist and became an Anglican it is unlikely that he thought of it as a “conversion”: it was simply a purer realization of his Christian conviction, an advance in self-awareness’.10 This hardly seems plausible. When adherence to a religious denomination had a decisive impact upon one's social position, indeed when simply practising one's religion was punishable, conversion must surely have felt like a break. Samuel Johnson's account of conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism is very different from Baker-Smith's:

A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery, may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only super-adding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as any thing that he retains; there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.11

Grierson thought that this might well have applied to Donne.12

Carey's challenging but necessarily speculative study has been followed up most notably by Dennis Flynn, who shows that Donne was suspected of crypto-Catholicism well into the seventeenth century and that letters to his former employer Sir Thomas Egerton and to his father-in-law in 1602 reveal that they found nothing strange about the possibility of Donne seeking religious exile on the Continent.13

Certain aspects of Donne's poetry further complicate the question of his religious allegiance. In the autumn of 1601 Donne considered writing a satire in which he would have portrayed Queen Elizabeth as one of the world's great heretics. In several manuscripts of ‘A Litanie’—probably written in 1608—the stanza on the Virgin Mary is given the distinctly Catholic title ‘Our Lady’. Gardner thinks that ‘the variant is probably merely scribal’,14 a conjecture which it seems difficult either to disprove or to substantiate. Yet even if she is right, it indicates that the poem, which grants Mary intercessory powers in which most Protestants disbelieved, circulated among Catholics. La Corona, probably written around the same time, derives most of its ideas, phrasings, and structure from Roman Catholic worship, the rosary, the Roman Breviary, and the medieval Prymer. According to Gardner, ‘it is doubtful whether Donne felt there was anything particularly Catholic’ (p. xxii) about the poem, but Donne must have known what he was up to.

The poem on which debate over Donne's religious position has particularly centred is his sonnet ‘Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and cleare’, often referred to as ‘Holy Sonnet XVIII’. It shows Donne already several years into his Anglican ministry wrestling with the question of the true Church. It is significant that the sonnet has been appropriated in order to confirm biographical prejudice. As P. M. Oliver has recently pointed out:

In many cases the very scholars who were responsible for providing the standard editions of Donne's writing also saw it as their mission to repackage for their readers a Donne who, once he had made up his mind to throw in his lot with the church of England, was untroubled by doubt or divided loyalty.15

However, stripping Donne's poetry of such biographical presuppositions can reveal both an artistry and a man that are more complex and problematic than previously assumed.

‘Show me deare Christ’ has had a peculiar textual history. Unlike most of Donne's poems, it was not printed among the Collected Poems of 1633 nor in any of the subsequent seventeenth century editions of 1635, 1639, 1649, 1650, 1654, or 1669. It is extant in the Westmoreland manuscript which was purchased by Sir Edmund Gosse at the sale of the library of the earl of Westmoreland in 1892.16 The manuscript is in the hand of Rowland Woodward, a colleague of Donne's at Lincoln's Inn who later accompanied him to the Continent.17 Gosse printed the sonnet in his Life and Letters of John Donne (1899). His rendering is extremely careless, with a number of unwarranted capitalisations, two substitutions of ‘who’ for ‘which’, and many commas omitted with others added. Most distressingly, in line 3, Gosse has the nonsensical ‘robb'd and lore’ instead of ‘rob'd and tore’.

The sonnet was next printed in Herbert J. C. Grierson's Oxford edition, The Poems of John Donne (1912), and then in his anthology, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler (1921) which—partly owing to T. S. Eliot's famous TLS review18—rehabilitated Donne and his successors. Gosse's mistakenly capitalised ‘She’ in line 2, referring to the Catholic Church, passes into Grierson (as do three other minor deviations from the original), a mistake of some importance as the word may have been capitalised in Catholic usage. For his edition of 1949, John Hayward does not seem to have cared to consult the original manuscript and simply reproduced Grierson without alteration.19 It was left to Helen Gardner's edition of The Divine Poems to provide the first good text of Donne's sonnet in 1952:

Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and cleare.
What, is it she, which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which rob'd and tore
Laments and mournes in Germany and here?
Sleepes she a thousand, then peepes up one yeare?
Is she selfe truth and errs? now new, now'outwore?
Doth she,’and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seaven, or on no hill appeare?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travaile we to seeke and then make love?
Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights,
And let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she'is embrac'd and open to most men.

Gardner's edition has remained authoritative, and all subsequent editions are heavily indebted to it. But even though textually reliable, the sonnet as printed by her is accompanied by critical apparatus that is far from disinterested and—passed on as it has been by others, if with some variations—continues to hamper a thorough understanding of the poem. Gardner's awareness of the importance of ‘Show me deare Christ’ is shown by the fact that she devotes nearly seven pages to a detailed discussion of it while spending less than fourteen pages on the other eighteen Holy Sonnets.

The sonnet's late date is important. While there has been no agreement on the exact year of composition, no scholar seems to have doubted that it was composed after Donne's ordination in 1615. Its absence from the early printed editions suggests, as Gardner pointed out, that it was written ‘after his ordination, when he was anxious not to be thought of as a versifier’ (pp. 77-8). That Donne wrote some of his Holy Sonnets after 1615 is also indicated by Walton, who wrote that Donne ‘was not so fallen out with heavenly Poetry as to forsake that: no not in his declining age; witnessed then by many Divine Sonnets, and other high, holy, and harmonious Composures’ (p. 61). The sonnet that precedes ‘Show me deare Christ’ in the Westmoreland manuscript, ‘Since she whome I lovd, hath payd her last debt’, is likewise absent from the early printed editions and must have followed the death of Donne's wife in 1617. While this does not necessarily mean, as Gosse (vol. ii, p. 106) and Grierson (vol. ii, p. 225) held, that ‘Show me deare Christ’ must also have been written around the same time, it does support a late date. Gardner argues (p. 124) that the Protestant Church ‘which rob'd and tore / Laments and mournes in Germany and here’ recalls the battle of the White Mountain near Prague in October 1620 in which the Protestants had recently suffered a crushing defeat. She shows that the military defeat was widely lamented in England, including in one of Donne's sermons, and her suggestion makes good sense of the otherwise puzzling depiction of Protestantism in discomfiture. Strong evidence therefore supports and no evidence contradicts the argument that ‘Show me deare Christ’ was written several years after Donne's ordination.20

The sonnet consists of a series of questions bracketed by three petitions which the speaker addresses to Christ, the first and second being nearly identical—‘Show me deare Christ, thy spouse’ (l. 1), ‘Betray kind husband thy spouse’ (l. 11)—the third, ‘let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove’ (l. 12), preparing for the extravagant conceit in the subordinate clause of the final couplet.

The opening line is by now too well known to be read with much care. Its balanced structure highlights the sonnet's subject, the true Church, called Christ's ‘spouse’. The latter comes in central position framed by two commas, with two feet and four words on either side. Assonance and consonance further emphasise the point: ‘Show’—‘so’; ‘deare’—‘cleare’; ‘Christ’—‘bright’.

The series of questions is introduced by an exclamatory ‘What’, implying that the following questions are merely rhetorical. None of the churches on offer seems in any way bridelike: the Roman Church, with its elaborate ritual, images, statues, and coloured clerical clothes, looks more like a painted whore, further suggesting the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon with which Rome was often equated. The Protestant Church seems forgotten by Christ, ‘rob'd and tore’ rather than ‘bright and cleare’. Finally, the Genevan Calvinist Sleeping Beauty, allegedly waking up to the purity of the early Church after a millennium of corruption between the sixth and sixteenth centuries, contradicts Christ's promise that his church would always be with his followers (Matthew 28: 20) rather than in abeyance.

In carefully juxtaposing the three churches, the Roman Catholic, the Protestant in Germany and England, and the Calvinist in Geneva, the sonnet points out that all three lack the qualities belonging to the true Church. Donne does nothing to advocate the position of the Church of England rather than that of Rome or Geneva, even though the via media, as Hooker, Andrewes and others saw it, was not simply one of three ways, but the right one.21 George Herbert's opening of his poem ‘The British Church’ sounds like a corrective to Donne's ‘rob'd and tore’ woman:

I joy, deare Mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments and hue
                                                                      Both sweet and bright.(22)

Here are grounds, it would seem, to diagnose, as Carey does, ‘the lasting disorientation’ (p. 30) that Donne's apostasy entailed. Donne's latter-day hagiographers, however, imperturbably assert that nothing in the sonnet suggests that Donne was less than a contentedly settled Anglican: Evelyn Simpson insisted that it was ‘perfectly compatible with loyalty to the Church of England’,23 a statement Gardner was eager to surpass by writing that ‘the sonnet is not merely “compatible with loyalty to the Church of England”; it could hardly have been written by anyone but an Anglican’ (p. 122). Gardner's annotation and argument reveal the critical effects of such biographical assumptions.

To start with, she ingeniously attempts to manipulate the sonnet's meaning by proposing an analogy between Israel and the unbridelike woman who ‘rob'd and tore / Laments and mournes in Germany and here’: ‘I would suggest that Donne has seen a parallel between the captivity of Israel and the total collapse of the Protestants after the defeat of the Elector in the battle of the White Mountain, outside Prague, on 29 October 1620’ (p. 124). What sense would such a parallel make if we are not to extrapolate from it the idea that the German and English Protestant Church, though temporarily discomfited, really is God's chosen people—the very people whom the prophet Isaiah refers to as God's spouse (Isaiah 54: 5)? Donne's parallelism, however, is clearly not a far-fetched one between the captivity of Israel and the collapse of a Protestant army but the obvious one between the sonnet's three churches which are all equally unbridelike.

A more flagrant and highly influential misreading by Gardner concerns the two lines which occur at the heart of the sonnet:

Doth she,’and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seaven, or on no hill appeare?

The central position of these lines is important. The first six lines have shown Donne's cynical speaker—similar to the one we find in such love poems as ‘Goe, and catche a falling starre’, ‘The Indifferent’, and ‘Womans Constancy’—getting more and more impatient as his questions become increasingly elliptical and brief: one and a half lines, one line, half a line. Yet after line 6 the mood changes as the speaker seems to take stock, realising that the three churches, all equally unlike Christ's spouse, are not, may never have been, and may never be the true Church. That the three churches of line 8 stand successively for the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and German Protestant and the Genevan Calvinist churches seems at least a natural inference. Gardner, however, having previously perceived a parallel between Israel—temporarily in captivity but nevertheless the chosen people—and the Church in ‘Germany and here’, is eager to dissociate the latter from her ungodly companions: whereas ‘the Church on seven hills is the Roman Church, and the Church on no hill is the Genevan’, the Church on one hill, she flatly asserts, ‘is Mount Moriah, where Solomon built the Temple’ (p. 80). Gardner explains that ‘there was dispute between the Jews who worshipped there, and the Samaritans, who worshipped on Mount Gerizim; cf. Christ's words to the woman of Samaria: “The hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John, iv. 21)’ (p. 80). From where in the poem does one derive the knowledge that the one hill is Mount Moriah? How is it relevant to the rest of the sonnet? The footnote seems itself to require a footnote. For help, one turns to Gardner's detailed Appendix C (pp. 121-7) devoted to ‘The Interpretation of Donne's Sonnet on the Church’, only to find that it neither mentions Mount Moriah nor explains in any other way how a reference to Solomon's temple could be relevant in the given context.

The problem Gardner is trying to solve is clear enough: if Rome is on seven hills, as it surely is, and Geneva is on no hill, we are left with a hill which ought to be in ‘Germany and here’. Neither Wittenberg24 nor Canterbury, the two places that would most readily qualify, can in any way be said to be ‘on a hill’. The chief difficulty with Gardner's reading, however, is that the greatest part of what constituted Geneva in the sixteenth century is situated upon a conspicuous hill. It is true that, in another context, Donne opposed the Church of England to ‘a Church in the lake, [and] a Church upon seven hils’25 and Herbert, in ‘The British Church’, even refers to Geneva as ‘in the Valley’ (l. 19), but there need be nothing inconsistent about these different geographical descriptions. Geneva is, of course, on a lake. From a wider perspective, Geneva can be said to be ‘in the valley’ since the city and its surroundings are set between two mountain chains, the Alps in the south-east, and the Jura, to the north-west.

Donne must have known that Geneva is also on a hill. Logan Pearsall Smith may have exaggerated when claiming that in the seventeenth century ‘no good Protestant … would complete his foreign trip without a visit to this heroic city, the capital of continental Protestantism’,26 but Donne, even if his travels did not take him to Geneva,27 may have had opportunities to learn about the place from the numerous Marian exiles who returned from Geneva to London after Elizabeth ascended the throne. Fynes Moryson's massive Folio Itinerary (1617), dedicated to William, earl of Pembroke, the Lord Chamberlain, points out that the greatest part of Geneva is situated ‘vpon a Hill’ (p. 181).28 Most positively, Donne would have heard about Geneva through Sir Henry Wotton, ‘Donne's lifelong friend’.29 Wotton had spent fourteen months there in 1593/4, living in the house of Isaac Casaubon, the exiled French Huguenot theologian who was Professor of Greek at the Académie, which was situated on top of the hill. Given that the friendship between Donne and Wotton, begun in Oxford, was, in Walton's words, ‘continued in their various Travels, and more confirmed in the religious Friendship of Age’ (p. 15), had Donne ever entertained the idea that Geneva is on ‘no hill’ Wotton would surely have corrected it.

There can be no reasonable doubt then that Donne's ‘one hill’ refers to Geneva rather than to Gardner's far-fetched ‘Mount Moriah’. Nevertheless, her misreading remains entrenched. Five editions, all published in the last fifteen years or so, provide the following glosses to ‘On one, on seaven, or on no hill’:

Mt. Moriah, where Solomon's temple stood; the seven hills of Rome; the Genevan church stood on no hill.30

Mount Moriah, where Solomon built the Temple; or the seven hills of Rome; or Geneva, by its lake.31

Mount Moriah where Solomon built the Temple, the seven hills of Rome, and Calvin's Geneva, where there is ‘no hill’.32

Solomon's temple was built on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3: 1), Rome is a city built on seven hills, and Geneva is on no hill.33

The one hill alludes to Mount Moriah on which Solomon built his temple; seaven hills, to Catholic Rome; no hill, to Calvinist Geneva.34

Most annotations are necessarily highly derivative, but it is surprising that an edition which first appeared as far back as the 1950s can still exert such a pervasive and powerful influence. Its recent reprint in the Oxford Scholarly Classics series (Oxford, 2000) does nothing to diminish this influence.

If ‘one hill’ refers to Geneva, the church on ‘no hill’ appears logically to be the Protestant one ‘in Germany and here’. It is understandable that Gardner should wish to dissociate the latter from its disreputable Roman and Genevan company, but Donne himself is less than generous to the church whose minister he had already been for several years. It is twice mentioned as on a par with Rome and Geneva, all three being equally unbridelike and, it seems, all equally unlikely to be in the one location where Christ's spouse was in the past, is now, or ever will be.

Christ's spouse, of whom the speaker twice prays to be granted a vision, is a biblical image of the true Church that is used in analogy to the Old Testament equation of Israel with God's spouse.35 Editors, following Gardner, quote Revelation: ‘the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white’ (Rev. 19: 7-8). Just as pertinent, however, is St. Paul's admonition in his letter to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. … For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

(Eph. 5: 25-32)

As Christ's spouse in Donne is ‘bright and cleare’, so the glorious Church in Ephesians is without blemish; and whereas the latter has neither spot nor wrinkle, Donne's Roman Church needs to be ‘painted’.

The passage from Ephesians shows that the spouse is as much the church that has existed in history since Christ's incarnation—the Church Militant that is—as it is the apocalyptic Church Triumphant. The speaker's petition to see and unite himself with the true Church, therefore, is in earnest and of great urgency (a point that is poetically emphasised by the number of trochees in the first foot), rather than a rhetorical device that allows for the subsequent realisation that the true Church will only come into existence at the end of time. Misinterpretations that follow from Gardner's identification of Christ's spouse with the figure in Revelation rather than the Church Militant of Ephesians attempt to take the sting out of Donne's petition to be united with the true Church. If the latter has no earthly existence, then the fact that Donne finds no resemblance between the true Church and the church he represents is far from disconcerting. It is no surprise, then, to find that Leishman, an ardent defender of Donne's ‘whole-hearted … allegiance to the Church of England’, argues that ‘it is upon the vast and painful difference between these Churches on earth, whether mourning or rejoicing, and the Spouse of Christ, the promised Bride of the Apocalypse, that he is chiefly insisting’. Interpretations of ‘Show me deare Christ’ that depart from his reassuring assessment of Donne's attitude towards the Anglican Church are based, Leishman adds, upon ‘a complete misapprehension’.36

The same misunderstanding is at the heart of an analysis by Claude J. Summers who believes that the sonnet ‘exposes the poet's recognition of the preposterous irony involved in any quest for true religion that identifies Christ's spouse with a temporal institution’, and, accordingly, understands the sonnet's argument to be ‘that true religion may not be found in any earthly institution at all’ and can only be found ‘after the dangers and difficulties of life’.37 However, the true Church is not Christ's spouse because it is made up of sinless parts (it is not), but because it was ‘sanctif[ied] and cleanse[d]’ by Christ's death on the cross. So if ‘true religion’ is to be coterminous with ‘the true Church’, then Summers does justice neither to Donne's sonnet nor to his theology. Divines may have disagreed furiously about what the true Church was—whether it was visible or invisible, or whether the visible and the invisible Church were two aspects of the same church, whether it consisted of the baptised, of the elect, of the sum of orthodox Christians, or of the adherents to the Nicene ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’38—but Christians have always held, and so does Donne's speaker, that the true Church is a crucial object of humanity's earthly quest for the transcendent.

Helen Gardner's argument about the typically Anglican quality of Donne's sonnet needs to be questioned from yet another angle. In a letter to Goodyer (tentatively dated 1609 by Gardner and Timothy Healy), Donne professed that he considered ‘Rome’, ‘Wittemberg’, and ‘Geneva’ all ‘virtuall beams of one Sun’.39 Although the tripartite division is analogous to that in ‘Show me deare Christ’, the images employed are markedly different. While the sonnet stresses the unbride-like aspect of each of the three churches, the letter to Goodyer emphasises the unifying source from which all three originate. The two texts are complementary rather than either identical or contradictory: by providing access to the Christian life through baptism and professing the basic truths of Christianity, the three churches derive from the same centre, but by ministering to the faithful without mutual union in form or content, they are equally unbridelike. In the Essays in Divinity, Donne wrote:

I do zealously wish, that the whole catholick Church, were reduced to such Unity and agreement, in the form and profession Established, in any one of these Churches (though ours were principally to be wished) which have not by any additions destroyed the foundation and possibility of salvation in Christ Jesus.40

In fact, the plea for ‘Unity and agreement, in the form and profession Established’, though Gardner's biographical prejudice leads her to see it as bolstering the claim for Donne's loyal Anglicanism (p. 123), was more of a Roman Catholic than an Anglican priority. While Rome unwaveringly asserted that Christ wanted his church to be catholic, that is universal, in matters of doctrine and of church government (pointing to Christ's prayer ‘that they all may be one’, John 17: 21), Anglican divines (invoking the ‘“Cyprian Privilege” to be governed by [their] own patriarch’) tended to stress the rights of ‘independent’ or ‘particular churches’ based on a ‘formal separation’ with independent church government and ‘provincial synods’ with the right ‘to issue decrees in causes of faith’.41 Donne does not advocate a return to pre-Reformation times under papal authority, but he does insist on the desirability of a unified church in matters of faith and orders. He seems to have been fully aware that what Carey calls his ‘desire for a church that would swallow up all existing churches’ (p. 279) would be perceived as a Roman Catholic rather than an Anglican instinct: ‘Let a man be zealous, and fervent in reprehension of sin’, Donne writes,

and there flies out an arrow, that gives him the wound of a Puritan. Let a man be zealous of the house of God, and say any thing by way of moderation, for the repairing of the ruines of that house, and making up the differences of the Church of God, and there flies out an arrow, that gives him the wound of a Papist.42

Another, darker, reading could reinforce the suggestion that the sonnet displays a return of what Donne's conversion—or apostasy—had repressed. The sonnet's ending is disturbing on several counts. In its use of a sexual image whose spiritual tenor is opposed to its physical vehicle, it is paralleled by the ending of the Holy Sonnet ‘Batter my heart’:

                                                                                                    for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shal be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.(43)

As ravishment implies chastity, so, in ‘Show me deare Christ’, multiple adultery means truthfulness:

                              let myne amorous soule court thy mild Dove,
Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then
When she'is embrac'd and open to most men.(44)

Far from uniting with his spouse the Church, Christ is invited to stand by as a mari complaisant, if not to act as a pander. Even though he recognised the sonnet's ‘perilous balance’ at this stage, Frank Kermode thought that ‘the main point is the glorious difference of this from a merely human marriage’.45 Yet the glorious implication of the marriage between Christ and his spouse the Church is not normally a promiscuous wife but a polygamous husband. As the Church is Christ's spouse, so are her members. The address ‘kind husband’ exemplifies this glorious extension, allegorically illustrated by Christ's parable of the ten virgins and the (polygamous) bridegroom.46 In line 11 ‘Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights’ takes up the plea of the opening line, but gone are its straightforward meaning and balanced structure. The petition is not simply ambivalent, the word ‘betray’ wavering between disclosure and disloyalty; it is paradoxical. The passage from ‘kind husband’ to ‘thy spouse’ records a kind of apostasy. Whereas ‘kind husband’ implies the maximum intimacy and presupposes belonging to the Church, the need for Christ to betray his spouse to the speaker implies that the latter has unchurched himself. The line suggests a third betrayal apart from Christ's revelation or abandonment of his spouse: the speaker's own disloyalty to the Church.

If the conceit in the remaining lines evokes the possibility of the speaker embracing or entering Christ's spouse the Church, it thereby turns the spouse into a prostitute reminiscent of the whore of lines 2 and 3. The painted Roman woman of the beginning of the sonnet—initially denied to have any resemblance with the true Church—ends up in association with the spouse who is ‘embrac'd and open to most men’ at the sonnet's close. Moreover, the whore's openness ‘to most men’ appears to make her an advocate of the catholicity which Donne knew would be associated with the Roman Church. Perhaps it is not by accident that Helen Gardner refrains from commenting on how the image of the whore, once referring to the Roman Catholic Church, once to Christ's spouse, goes full circle.

As its absence from the early printed editions implies, ‘Show me deare Christ’ was not intended for a wide readership. Grierson, followed by Douglas Bush,47 thought that ‘it is clear enough why this sonnet was not published. It would have revealed Donne, already three years in orders, as still conscious of all the difficulties involved in a choice between the three divisions of Christianity’ (vol. ii, p. 235). It seems unlikely that we shall ever be able to determine why Holy Sonnets ‘XVII’ to ‘XIX’ in the Westmoreland manuscript were not included in any of the early editions. The bold conceit in the final lines, the attitude it displays towards Protestantism ‘in Germany and here’ and, perhaps, the date of composition may all be partly responsible. It is even possible that manuscripts did exist but that none could be procured in 1633.

Other examples confirm that the opinions Donne expressed were deeply affected by their expected recipients. The readers of a Donne eager for preferment or of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, could not expect to be told as much as private friends addressed in letters or as the ‘very restricted audience’ Arthur F. Marotti believes ‘Show me deare Christ’ to have been designed for.48 Where private Donne can put the Church of England on an unbridelike par with the churches of Rome and Geneva, public Donne made sure of advocating the church he represented against its opponents:

the Church of God, is not so beyond Sea, as that we must needs seek it there, either in a painted Church, on one side, or in a naked Church, on another; a Church in a Dropsie, overflowne with Ceremonies, or a Church in a Consumption, for want of such Ceremonies, as the primitive Church found usefull.49

Donne seems similarly divided in his attitudes towards the question of whether or not Catholics should be obliged to take the Oath of Allegiance to the monarch. In a letter to Goodyer of 1609, Donne writes that ‘there is a perplexity (as farre as I see yet) and both sides may be in justice, and innocence; and the wounds which they inflict upon the adverse part, are all se defendendo’.50 Here Donne is surprisingly balanced and understanding towards the Catholic position. He makes it clear that his opinion is for his friend's ears only: ‘To you that are not easily scandalized, and in whom, I hope, neither my Religion nor Morality can suffer, I dare write my opinion of that Book in whose bowels you left me’ (p. 160). However, Donne's refusal to come down on either side of the question in his letter to Goodyer did not prevent him from defending James's cause in Pseudo-Martyr (published January 1610), dedicated to the monarch himself, in what seems to have been an attempt to recommend himself for social advancement.51

In a letter to Sir Robert Ker of 1619 Donne insisted that Biathanatos, his treatise on suicide of 1607/8, had been ‘written by Jack Donne, and not by Dr. Donne’,52 a distinction Walton was only too happy to take up and construct around it his narrative of Donne as a latter-day St. Augustine, sinning Jack turning miraculously and irrevocably into the saintly Doctor. If the distinction between Jack Donne and Dr. Donne is useful, it is in distinguishing not the sinner from the saint, but the private from the public man. Where the former, in private letters or poems, could allow doubts and divided allegiances to transpire, balance the arguments of different factions and hint at possible Catholic connections, the latter, in his more public writings, held the party line. Mark Twain said that ‘biography is the clothes and buttons of the man, but the real biography of a man is lived in his head twenty-four hours a day, and that you can never know’.53 The final admonition is true enough, but in the quest for the ‘real biography’ we can do better, surely, than to mistake the clothes and buttons for the man. To claim then with Gardner that Donne's sermons constitute ‘the main evidence’54 of his religious allegiances is to miss the more interesting part of his complex mind and personality.

Donne's poem ‘To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders’ suggested to Gardner ‘an accent of warm sincerity … as in all Donne's references to his late-adopted profession’,55 where Marotti, more convincingly, has seen a ‘characteristic self-persuasive urgency rooted in Donne's uncomfortable mixture of secular and religious motives and his ambivalent feelings about his own vocation’.56 Even though his picture is altogether more complex, Bald also clings to the conversion narrative that accompanies Donne's ordination. Commenting on the years 1607-10 and on the inner conflicts displayed in the Holy Sonnets datable to these years, Bald writes:

The frequent outcome of such crises is conversion, either sudden or gradual, but Donne still had some years to wait before he was secure in the conviction of God's ever-present mercy. As yet there is no sense of release, or that his prayers have been fully answered. When the true date of most of the Holy Sonnets is recognized, however, a host of difficulties vanishes. One is no longer startled by the utter absence of inward peace, nor puzzled by the lack of any sense of priestly vocation. These sonnets were not written, as was earlier supposed, by a man in holy orders, but during a period of Donne's life when he had no vocation and felt keenly that he had no place in the divinely ordered scheme. His integrity, too, is vindicated, and one understands far better his prolonged hesitation to enter the Church.57

But even though most of the sonnets ‘were not written … by a man in holy orders’, Donne's sonnet on the Church was. ‘Show me deare Christ’ conveys neither post-conversion ‘inward peace’ nor a ‘sense of priestly vocation’. On the contrary, the outrageous final conceit clearly marks it as a poem by Jack Donne. Date all the Holy Sonnets to 1607-10 and the difficulties it presents vanish. Consider ‘Show me deare Christ’ as written ten years later and they reappear.

Left out of a biographical account whose narrative it does not fit, interpreted and annotated so as to conform to biographical prejudice, ‘Show me deare Christ’ fares badly in what are still the standard biography of Donne and the standard edition of his Holy Sonnets. It is a richer and more disturbed poem than it has been made out to be, and shows, several years after his ordination, how complex and divided a person Donne remained.


  1. Izaak Walton, The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert & Robert Sanderson (1927), p. 24.

  2. R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970; repr. with corr. 1986), pp. 68-72.

  3. The Monarch of Wit (1951), p. 269.

  4. TLS, 11 May 1956, p. 283.

  5. TLS, 16 March 1956, p. 164.

  6. TLS, 11 May 1956, p. 283.

  7. Evelyn Simpson, TLS, 25 May 1956, p. 320.

  8. Ibid.

  9. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1981), p. 81.

  10. ‘John Donne's Critique of True Religion’, in Albert James Smith (ed.), John Donne: Essays in Celebration (1972), p. 407.

  11. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. and enlarged by L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1934), ii. 105-6.

  12. ‘John Donne and the “Via Media”’, MLR 43 (1948), 305.

  13. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995), pp. 173-4.

  14. John Donne: The Divine Poems, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1952; 2nd edn., with corrections and additions, 1978), p. 84. I refer to and quote from the 2nd edn.

  15. Donne's Religious Writing: A Discourse of Feigned Devotion, Longman Medieval and Renaissance Library (London and New York, 1997), p. 6. See also Oliver's reading of ‘Show me deare Christ’ (pp. 205-8).

  16. The manuscript is now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. I would like to thank Diana Burnham of the Berg Collection for providing me with a facsimile.

  17. See Bald, John Donne, pp. 74-5, 146.

  18. ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, TLS, 20 Oct. 1921, pp. 669-70, often reprinted in collections of essays and anthologies.

  19. John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. John Hayward (1949), p. 287.

  20. David Novarr, The Disinterred Muse: Donne's Texts and Contexts (Ithaca, NY, 1980), p. 135, and Claude J. Summers, ‘The Bride of the Apocalypse and the Quest for True Religion: Donne, Herbert, and Spenser’, in Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (eds.), ‘Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse’: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Columbia, 1987), p. 77, have questioned Gardner's dating without suggesting a plausible alternative. They agree, however, on the plausibility of a late date.

  21. Peter White, ‘The Via Media in the Early Stuart Church’, in Kenneth Fincham (ed.), The Early Stuart Church, 1603-1642 (Basingstoke, 1993), pp. 211-30.

  22. The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford, 1941), p. 109. Even Vaughan's ‘Brittish Church’, despite her ‘ravished looks’, is cast in the role of Christ's lover in analogy to the couple in the Song of Solomon. See The Works of Henry Vaughan, ed. L. C. Martin, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1957), p. 410.

  23. A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1948), p. 101.

  24. Donne juxtaposes ‘Rome’, ‘Wittemberg’, and ‘Geneva’ in a letter to Sir Henry Goodyer. See John Donne, Selected Prose, chosen by Evelyn Simpson, ed. Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy (Oxford, 1967), p. 139.

  25. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. G. R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley, 1953-62), v. 251.

  26. The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1907), i. 23.

  27. There is no extant document proving that Donne ever visited Geneva. He may well have undertaken continental travels to Italy as early as c. 1590. Even though Bald (John Donne, p. 52) speculates that he may have passed through Switzerland, he may well not have visited Geneva considering he was still a Catholic at the time. His travels with Sir Robert Drury in 1611/12 and as chaplain to Viscount Doncaster in 1619 do not seem to have gone further south than Heidelberg, but if, as seems likely, he travelled from Paris to Venice with Sir Walter Chute during their stay on the Continent in 1605 and early 1606 (Bald, pp. 148-53), he may have passed through Geneva then.

  28. John Evelyn likewise noted—though after Donne's death—that the city was ‘built on a rising ground’. The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1955), ii. 524.

  29. Bald, John Donne, p. 13.

  30. John Donne's Poetry, ed. Arthur L. Clements, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edn. (New York and London, 1992), p. 119.

  31. John Donne, ed. John Carey, Oxford Authors (Oxford, 1990), p. 474.

  32. John Donne: Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions, and Prayers, ed. John Booty (New York, 1990), p. 110.

  33. John Donne: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. T. W. and R. J. Craik (London and New York, 1986), p. 281.

  34. The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides, Everyman's Library (1985), p. 446.

  35. See, for instance, Hos. 1: 2-3, Jer. 2: 1-7, Isa. 49: 14-21, 54: 1-10. For a scholarly discussion, see the chapter entitled ‘The Old Testament Background’, in Richard A. Batey, New Testament Nuptial Imagery (Leiden, 1971), pp. 2-9.

  36. The Monarch of Wit, pp. 269-70.

  37. ‘The Bride of the Apocalypse’, pp. 81, 78-9.

  38. See Anthony Milton, ‘The Church of England, Rome, and the True Church: The Demise of a Jacobean Consensus’, in Fincham (ed.), The Early Stuart Church, 1603-1642, pp. 187-210.

  39. Selected Prose, p. 139.

  40. Essays in Divinity, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson (Oxford, 1952), pp. 51-2.

  41. Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought 1600-1640 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 336-7.

  42. Sermons, ii. 58.

  43. Donne's conceit seems to have been striking enough to be taken up by Thomas Carew who, in ‘An Elegie upon the Death of the Deane of Pauls, Dr. John Donne’, first printed in the Collected Poems of 1633, addresses Donne's ‘brave Soule, that … committed holy Rapes upon our Will’ (pp. 15-17).

  44. See also William Kerrigan's analysis of these two passages in ‘The Fearful Accommodations of John Donne’, English Literary Renaissance, 4 (1974), pp. 337-63.

  45. John Donne, Writers and their Work (1957), p. 39.

  46. See the OED, spouse, sb., 3: ‘She looked upon it as the greatest honour to be in any thing the servant of the spouses of Christ’. See also Traherne's ‘Christendom’ where God's ‘Turtle Dov, / Is Peace and Lov, / In Towns: for holy Children, Maids, and Men / Make up the King of Glory's Diadem’ (ll. 117-20): Thomas Traherne, Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1958), ii. 110.

  47. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century 1600-1660 (Oxford, 1945), p. 133.

  48. John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison, 1986), p. 283.

  49. Sermons, vi. 284.

  50. Letters to Severall Persons of Honour, p. 160.

  51. See Carey, John Donne, pp. 31-3.

  52. Selected Prose, p. 152.

  53. Quoted by Dale Salwak in The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions (Basingstoke, 1996), p. ix.

  54. TLS, 25 May 1956, p. 320.

  55. Divine Poems, p. 132.

  56. John Donne, Coterie Poet, p. 277.

  57. Bald, John Donne, p. 236.

Susannah B. Mintz (essay date May 2001)

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SOURCE: Mintz, Susannah B. “‘Forget the Hee and Shee’: Gender and Play in John Donne.” Modern Philology, no. 4 (May 2001): 577-603.

[In the following essay, Mintz discusses gender ambiguity in Donne's poetry.]

Donne's ambivalence about self-other relations is well known to readers of Songs and Sonets. Poised at the brink between leaving and lingering, Donne's speakers navigate the competing urgencies of intimacy and autonomy, what Roy Roussell has described as “the twin inevitabilities of distance and desire.”1 In fact, we can think of the dilemma as a quadrupled one, overdetermined by the paradox that staying behind with the beloved entails both the pleasure of contact and the risk of being consumed by that contact, while parting rewards the adventurer with independence but no guarantee of his lover's faithfulness. To strengthen a self made vulnerable by the conflictual demands of this crowded psychical threshold, Donne deploys his linguistic skill—the “masculine perswasive force”2 so often invoked by critics—in terms that can seem to denigrate the very women for whom the poet professes love and to undermine even the most apparently genuine expressions of devotion.

Yet the threshold is not simply or consistently a space of anxiety in Donne's love poetry, and against the need to safeguard his male identity from threatening contact with women runs a countercurrent of playful transgressiveness where Donne exhibits not only an ability to recognize women's separate identity, but also, at his most explicitly revisionary, a desire to exceed the restrictions of binary gender roles. My goal here is to suggest that Donne frequently depicts self-other dynamics in ways that extend beyond the familiar accounts of his encounters with women (e.g., pleading or arguing with them, curiosity and fear about their difference from—or similarity to—him, worry that he will never fully know them) toward a more radical gesture of testing the boundaries of gendered identity. Overlapping realms of self and other, male and female, appear throughout the Songs and Sonets, in ways that suggest less a rhetorical (and ultimately aggressive) exchange of positions than an eager dissolution of outline: the speaker of “The Relique” claims “we lov'd well and faithfully, / Yet knew not what wee lov'd, nor why, / Difference of sex no more wee knew” (lines 23-25); the speaker of “The Dampe” ambiguously exhorts his audience to “Kill mee as Woman, let mee die / As a meere man” (lines 21-22); the lover of “The Undertaking” suggests we “forget the Hee and Shee” (line 20). Even the “expansion” endured by the parting couple of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”—who like gold are pounded into an “ayery thinnesse” (lines 23-24)—transforms the distance between them as polarized, gendered selves into a continuum of connectedness, uncovering the paradox of a separation that is also a form of union. Often, too, when Donne preserves a sense of self in relation to women without feeling annihilated by proximity to another's psyche, the connection is articulated through metaphors of sovereignty that describe both speaker and mistress: the lovers in “The Anniversarie,” who “Prince enough in one another bee” (line 14), or in “The Sunne Rising,” whom “Princes doe but play” (line 23).

Donne's manner of blurring boundaries between male and female has typically been regarded as a way of reentrenching conventional gender roles and of suppressing the assertiveness of female sexuality. In her discussion of the elegies, for example, Achsah Guibbory argues that the “effect” of “transferring conventionally ‘masculine’ terms … to the woman is not to question traditional distinctions,” but rather acts as a “strategy” designed to expose the essential monstrousness of the female body and “reassert masculine dominance” with a vengeance.3 Far from transgressing gender difference in any potentially liberatory way, Guibbory contends, Donne's acts of positioning himself as feminine or rendering the female in traditionally masculine terms are ultimately antifemale, motivated both by intense anxiety about the literal fact of a woman's monarchical rule and by a more general worry about women's potential influence over him in psychological or sexual ways. Diana Benet has similarly maintained that the poet is “generally conservative,” his elegies depicting sexual transgression in derisive terms that reinforce gender distinctions, making violation a crime to be “guilty” of.4 It has become something of a commonplace to speak of Donne's coercive “ventriloquizing,” as Elizabeth Harvey does in her discussion of “Sapho to Philaenis.” Harvey asserts that Donne's identification with Sappho “turns out to be an act of colonization”5 in which the male poet-speaker overpowers the woman by taking on her voice. Stanley Fish reiterates this notion of Donne as a desperate egotist: because “Donne occupies every role on his poem's stage,” he is “protected” from “the intrusion of any voice he has not ventriloquized.” Fish also suggests that Donne's attempts at gender reversal are doomed to collapse “in the face of a fierce and familiar desire to be master of his self”6—a fate that Janel Mueller once described, somewhat differently, as Donne's inevitably “gendered consciousness, his identity as a man.”7

Such discussions of Donne's efforts to consolidate his masculine identity through rhetorical force recall Thomas Laqueur's well-known claim that seventeenth-century conceptions of gender were bound up with a one-sex model of human physiology, in which the anatomical similarity between male and female bodies required elaborate discursive and educational codes to stabilize difference.8 Following this idea that gender preceded rather than derived from a sexed body, Mark Breitenberg writes that early modern male subjectivity is “inherently anxious,” because the body offered no certain ground of identity: “humoral psychology comprehends the male body as constantly in need of regulating its dangerous but nonetheless essential fluidity.” “If masculine identity is fundamentally unstable,” argues Breitenberg, “then the assertion of gender difference … functions as a way to compensate for the lack of anatomical guarantee of difference.”9 At the core of this struggle between body and discourse is the fact that “male and female seed were not seen as sexually specific,” as Anthony Fletcher explains, so that “there was seen to be in everyone some trace at birth of gender doubleness.”10 Breitenberg's claim that early modern male writers “stag[e] masculine loss and vulnerability for the purpose of maintaining control of the performance of one's gendered identity”11 suggests that the very conceptual ambiguity that allows for Donne's poetic “inversions” of gender might also be what produces, as Harvey and others maintain, a rhetoric of cementing difference.12

Yet Donne's recurring articulation of gender as a fluid realm of experience indicates that he was able to construe subjectivity and intimacy alike outside of a patriarchal ideology in which “woman” is first constructed and then regulated as a threatening Other. In an article on the sapphic epistle, Janel Mueller describes Donne's “‘what if’ imaginings” as the poet's efforts to “[bond] with Sappho across gender difference as a subject of otherwise unimagined or unimaginable possibility,” and to “[write] his way beyond the confines of a Renaissance social context.”13 Contrary to the notion of gender play as a carnival of transgressions that always, ultimately, reaffirms power hierarchies, I would agree with Mueller that a “what if” dynamic is at work in a number of Donne's poems. As I hope to show, Donne's courting of liminal experience often registers a disruption in discursively enforced gender identity and thus offers the possibility of both identification with women and a recognition of their separateness. By blueprinting Donne's play within the space-between, such familiar tropes as teardrops, maps and globes, windowpanes, and the compass bring into view this ability to resist the static constraints of the pairs (self-other, attachment-loss, male-female) that they themselves contain, as well as the poet's fascination with destabilizing gendered identity in a pleasurable, rather than a strictly policing, manner.

The notion of playing with and in threshold spaces, a central concern of object relations psychoanalysis, allows us to think anew about what might be at stake in a seventeenth-century male writer's figuration of gendered selfhood. D. W. Winnicott's concept of the “potential space” between subjects in which psychical play occurs provides an especially useful model for considering the ways in which Donne manipulates the paradox of an identity always both “male” and not fully male. (Winnicott himself notes that the “intermediate area … appears in full force in the work characteristic of the so-called metaphysical poets.”)14 By definition a borderland activity, to play in Winnicott's sense is to invite the paradox of simultaneity; the field of play is at once illusory and real, solitary and connected. In the dialectic of this “intermediate area” between self and other, the individual's “potential” for creativity and wholeness can be fostered, even as—or perhaps precisely because—the play space imbricates internal psychical reality with the external world. Winnicott defines play as a coalescence of reliability and intimacy, a psychic activity dependent on the self's trust that the other will neither abandon it nor intrude upon the privacy of its imagination. Anticipated by the “holding” space of nursing, play is intimate and intersubjective, a paradoxical realm in which self and other, interior and exterior, reality and fantasy, autonomy and attachment all coincide. It is the notion of loosening the borders of self in contact with the other—a way of being both “me” and “not-me” at once—that can help us to recognize how a writer like Donne might pose alternatives to his culture's construction of gender.

Winnicott's focus on the caregiving “environment” leads to a theory of selfhood in which no individual exists outside of its object relationships: “self” emerges from the “relational matrix,” a subject's ongoing engagement with real people in the external world as well as with internalized imagos. Because object relations theory does not, then, in Jane Flax's words, “require a fixed or essentialist view of ‘human nature,’”15 it becomes a useful method of exploring the representation of self-other relations in Donne's poetry, particularly in view of what Breitenberg calls “the specifically social basis of subjectivity in the early modern period.”16 A notion of intersubjective “play” founded on mother-infant interaction also accords with recent historical studies of childhood that have contested earlier conclusions about the formality and emotional indifference of parent-child relations in the early modern period. In an article addressing seventeenth-century attitudes toward infancy and nursing, Patricia Crawford argues that “contemporaries were aware of the close bonding which occurred between mother or nurse and child,” and that “maternal love was recognised as a strong bond,” a very symbol of “the closest human love.” Crawford offers evidence that breast-feeding was believed to provide “comfort” as much as nutrition to babies and to be a source of “pleasure” to infant and woman alike.17 Linda Pollock cites similar evidence that children were “wanted and valued,” regarded with “concern and interest” by their parents in the seventeenth century, and she contends that “the closeness of the parent-child bond” was “very much a dyadic one.”18

A further connection between object relations theory and early modern subjectivity derives from the peculiarly indeterminate nature of the body. I would argue that the early modern male infant resided, in effect, in a space of Winnicottian play, always “in-between”—subject to the instability of anatomy as well as to the absence of culturally enforced gender differentiation in the first years of life.19 To dissolve gender difference in poetic potential spaces—as Donne does—or to rest from the perpetual task of maintaining it is to evince the ambiguity of the body and to call up the psychical doubleness of a male infant's experience of the wholly female domain into which he was born. As Anthony Fletcher shows, early modern “manhood” was equated with “separation from the mother,” signalling an end to the “sexual twinship which began with conception and the concoction of male and female seeds.”20 But rather than insisting that Donne is forever at work to enforce that separation, denying a changeable self or the possibility of full engagement with women who might remind him of the discomfitting possibility of his own inconstancy, we can instead explore the way in which he plays with that very paradox. In this way, Winnicott's central paradigms—holding, play, and potential space—help advance a reading of those poems where Donne's speakers evoke the autochthonous pleasures of relaxing the borders of subjectivity.

Other readers of Donne who make use of psychoanalytic theories of play, most notably Anna K. Nardo in her formidable book, The Ludic Self, have tended to discuss threshold experience as the poet's way of assuaging conflicting fears about separation and engulfment. In Nardo's study, play becomes a mediatory outlook as much as an actual activity, taken up by the adult poet in order to cope with the resurgence of childhood conflicts newly triggered by the turbulent landscape of widespread social change. Describing the witty contradictions of so many of Donne's images and poems, Nardo presents Donne as a self-conscious “player,” fully aware of the fragility of the playworld his language creates.21 In a richly contextualized essay, William Shullenberger draws on both Nardo's and Lacan's discussions of mirroring in the mother-infant dyad, but focuses instead on triangulations in which a third party is invoked to witness acts of lovemaking (and acts of poetry making) so as to guarantee the self's stable identity. But while proposing that the most trusting moments of connectedness between adult lovers “have their experiential basis in the totalizing and exclusive intimacy of mother and child,” Shullenberger does not address the possibility that Donne's male speakers get beyond an emphatically male identity.22 Indeed, they remain stably, steadily male. And while Nardo does assert that “the conflict [Donne] felt so keenly between separation and union” necessarily entails the female other, her descriptions of Donne's play vis-à-vis that other do not connect the intermediate space with a specific interest in transgressing gender or with reconfiguring male-female relations.23

Yet it is in such moments of trespass that Donne articulates what may be his most nuanced sense of identity and of gender. Donne's overt linguistic wittiness suggests “play” in a literal sense, but he seems most actively to solicit the dialectic of play when his speakers move beyond the rules of logic and boundary and into intermediate psychical areas where they can enjoy what Winnicott called “rest”—a secure, pleasurable overlap of inner and outer, of self and other. Modern Donne scholarship seems to have moved away from an interest in the poet's “metaphysical” ingenuity and toward accounts of strain and incompletion, particularly in terms of his relation to women. Psychoanalytic readings tend to combine the two perspectives, suggesting that verbal inventiveness masks, exposes, and assuages anxiety all at once. But there is perhaps another way of thinking about gender and emotion in Donne. In what follows, I understand Donne's playfulness to serve less as a public display of his clever intellect, or as a defense against social upheaval, than as a way of rethinking the possibilities of gender and erotic connection. Through the liminality of teardrops, windows, even the transitional act of breathing, Donne creates poetic potential spaces in which speakers enjoy intimacy without threat and—even as they enter into imaginative revision of the contours of their own identity—respect the subjectivity of the women they address.

The opening stanza of “The Flea” provides a compelling example of Donne's play with gender. Here, the male seducer becomes identified with the female seduced through the mutual sucking of the insect:

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou denys't me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sinne, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
          Yet this enjoys before it wooe,
          And pampered swells with one blood made of two
          And this, alas, is more than wee would do.

(Lines 1-9)

The stanza radically revalues the domineering, “male” sexuality that the poem seems to be urging the woman toward. The speaker takes on the position not of the invasive flea whose behavior serves as vehicle of his argument, but rather that of the woman herself. He announces that he was “suck'd … first” (line 3), and the ambiguity of “this” in line 5 suggests that what “cannot be said / A sinne, nor shame” is at least on some level the speaker's experience of having been pleasured by that sucking—in addition to, or even superseding, the “mingled” blood that represents a more overtly heterosexualized genital coupling (and thus loss of virginity). Coursing beneath the overt terms of the seduction is a longing to do the passive thing, not just to penetrate but to be “pampered,” not simply to suck but to be sucked (with implications both of being nursed and of being “fucked”).24 And this sucking occurs before seduction and erection, which emphasizes that pleasure can be obtained prior to the more explicitly and conventionally masculine forms of sexual arousal signalled by “wooes” and “pampered swells.” Thus the stanza shifts its forward motion of desire and seems instead to linger in a moment of jouissance—where sucking and “being fucked” take precedence over the more obvious sequence from solicitation to tumescence to coitus to completion. Moreover, what the flea “enjoyes” seems identified as the specific pleasure of being able to suck both male and female bodies—and at least in part it is this, “alas,” that is more than the male speaker will do. Thus through the knottings of one elaborate conceit, Donne manages to identify himself both with the female body and with a kind of “bisexualized” erotic pleasure.25

The speaker of “The Good-Morrow” stakes a similar claim for a kind of sexuality that transcends the binarism of heterosexuality. The mood of wonder that opens the poem feels rich and tactile, and the stanza luxuriates in a polymorphous, sensual pleasure that is childlike and erotic at once:

I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I
Did, till we lov'd? were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?
'Twas so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd, and got, t'was but a dreame of thee.

(Lines 1-7)

The speaker meets the morning with innocent fantasy and curiosity, as if paying a kind of marveling, rapt attention to the surprise of good feeling. What the speaker wonders about, of course, is what they “did,” prior to a moment of loving that represents being “wean'd” from childish escapades. But the pleasure the stanza records is not the moment of adult sexuality that ostensibly inaugurates this “good morrow”; in fact, it is the pleasure of not being weaned. To be weaned is to be removed from and deprived of nursing at the breast; the speaker remembers—quite delightedly—having “suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly” (line 3). (Crawford writes that since weaning was considered “a major change in the child's life,” the appropriate age for it was the source of much discussion among physicians.)26 “Countrey pleasures” may be, as C. A. Patrides glosses in his edition, “rustic; hence unrefined,”27 but the phrase also connotes something instinctual and unruled.28 The allusion to the seven sleepers' mythic two-hundred-year sleep heightens the atmosphere of snug satisfaction, because it implies not just a space in which danger may be escaped but also a drawnout replenishment. The speaker increases the sense of restful content with “den” and “snorted,” which suggest a self so deeply comfortable that it can be unconscious of its surroundings.29 In these first few lines, pleasure is associated with deliberately and intensely “childish” behaviors—the greedy orality of suckling, the swaddled protectedness of sleep.30 Moreover, it is pleasure itself that the speaker sucks (rather than a breast or a body), as if it could be absorbed directly into the self—pure and undistilled.

The first is a stanza of affirmations, culminating in the speaker's unequivocal “'Twas so.” The abundance of pleasure emerges through repetition (“countrey pleasures” and “all pleasures”), as well as by the fact that in both instances the word is plural: pleasures proliferate. Indeed, in the speaker's compacted phrasing, “all pleasures fancies bee” (line 5) suggests not so much that all those prior pleasures are mere fancies, but rather—and more emphatically—that all pleasures and fancies exist. But for this adult, complicated, divided love, he seems to hint, pleasure could actually be. The ontological importance of the stanza lies in this metaphorical childhood, as a time of immediate gratification. In “The Good-Morrow,” desiring means getting, with no intervening wait to survive: “If ever any beauty I did see, / Which I desir'd, and got” (line 6-7). It is also a time in which being emerges out of a bond between self and other defined by sucking and experienced not as a connection between two ultimately separable things but as undifferentiated pleasure itself. The “dreame”-like quality of this prior existence reinforces its evocation of early attachment between infant and caregiver and the infant's capacity to “create,” through the illusion of omnipotence, what it needs. But the dreaminess also suggests a desire to do away with the barriers that make adult love so fraught with dangers. Here, difference itself is annulled: “all pleasures fancies bee.”

The fact that those prior pleasures are made meaningful in “The Good-Morrow” by their relation to the speaker's current love affair reminds us that the explicit comparison also works to affirm the rapture of the “adult” present love over “childish” past dalliances. The poem has traditionally been read in just this way, as a statement of mature, “mutually successful love-making,” to borrow David Daiches's phrase, in which younger flirtations are dismissed as insignificant.31 Yet the way in which the first stanza overlays a nostalgic fantasy of infant joy with those previous “fancies” complicates the idea that the poem charts a clear progression toward reciprocal, adult love. The first stanza of “The Good-Morrow” does not so much depict the activities of a literal childhood as it “wonders,” through the relational vocabulary of play and potential spaces (not being “wean'd,” “suck[ing],” sleeping, and seeing), about the possibility of an intersubjective eroticism free from anxiety and vigilance, physical “slaken[ing]” (line 21), or even actual death. This is made apparent in the first lines of the second stanza—“And now good morrow to our waking soules, / Which watch not one another out of feare” (lines 8-9)—which usher in the spectre of doubt and surveillance. Where many critics take the speaker at his word, supporting his bid for the strength of the relationship (“we are not afraid of anything”),32 I would argue that these lines are haunted by distrust, by a surprising unease that deepens through the remainder of the poem. Why the insistence that their looking at each other is not done “out of feare”? Is it possible that fear prevents them from looking at each other? The hopeful myth, that love “controules” one's “sight” (and so might stop a woman from looking at other men), leads only to the poem's poignant, final conditional—“If our two loves be one” (line 20)—a sudden contingency which seems to undermine its own confident assertion of mutuality. Wondering signals openness, but also wariness; the speaker begins the poem by working hard not to ask outright about his lover's prior loves. That the stanza then moves so quickly to a fantasy about childhood may point less to a kind of self-protective “regression” than, more provocatively, to a way of rearticulating the dynamics of intimacy. It is twoness that troubles the end of “The Good-Morrow,” as if the very difference seemingly required to maintain what Stephen Orgel has called “the integrity of the perilously achieved male identity” ends up unraveling the pleasurable sameness captured by the repetition of “we” at the start of the poem.33

If “The Good-Morrow” exalts the love of “thou and I” by rendering all else mere childish trifling, I would argue that it also inverts that trajectory, contrasting the intersubjective “we-ness” of potential space with doubt about the viability of intimacy in an era when conventional narratives about women make “sexuality itself … misogynistic.”34 The valediction poems tell similar stories of friction. As speakers prepare to depart across complicated thresholds, their ability to trust their lovers' faithfulness seems acutely stressed, and often some expression of the imminence of betrayal seeps into the frame of the poem. Nonetheless, Donne registers alongside the fretful worry an important recognition of women's separateness from the men who leave—an autonomy often indicated by speakers' suspicions that women have already “departed” long before the literal voyage that may occasion a valediction poem. While Donne may experience separation as a kind of trauma, his fear does not prevent him from acknowledging a woman's independence from his efforts—literal or poetic—to hold onto her. Again and again, the poems locate in women the very sensation of centered wholeness male speakers wish they themselves could experience. And, recurringly, these poems contain nodal points of pleasurable exchange between male and female subjectivity.

In “A Valediction of My Name, In The Window,” for instance, the speaker's concerns about what will take place in his absence—about who might take his place—both result from and give rise to a sense of his mistress's power over his emotional and bodily integrity. As the name in the window expands to represent the body of the absent lover, and as the boundaries between this name-body and the face-self of the mistress begin to merge, he comes to depend upon her eyes' ability to hold his body and self intact. Far from becoming dismembered by the gaze of a woman that reminds him of his inadequacy, and farther still from being able to strong-arm her vision, this speaker dismembers himself when he senses he is outside of a look that can restore and reconfigure him to wholeness. The power and importance of her look throughout the poem strongly counters such claims as Barbara Estrin's that “his vision controls.”35 And it strongly evokes the power of the mother's look, in the mirroring exchange of gazes in which the infant arrives at its own subjectivity even as it learns to negotiate the separateness of the mother who “holds.”

The “name engrav'd” (line 1) into the window, and by extension the self it represents, is rendered harder than glass, as hard even as the diamond that engraves it. In the first stanza, both the pane of glass and the self embodied there gain value by the lover's “eye,” which gives “price enough” to the name-engraved window (line 6). She—the female “other”—does the looking. In Barbara Estrin's reading, this happens only because the speaker “limit[s]—by contraction—the woman's vision.”36 Yet the imagined overlap of name and face within the window requires a specifically dialectical exchange of looks; she sees both herself and him when she looks into the window, as does he, looking back. The complex visual dynamics of Donne's windowpane anticipate Winnicott's notion of a cohering maternal gaze which establishes a fundamental sense of self-integration even as it introduces the presence, and therefore the separateness, of the other. Winnicott describes mirroring as intersubjective and mutual, because what mother and infant see as they gaze into each other's faces is the simultaneity of their own and the other's desires.37 In Thomas Ogden's words, “this constitutes an interpersonal dialectic wherein ‘I-ness’ and otherness create one another and are preserved by the other.”38 To look in this sense is thus once again to blur distinctions of subject and object. “Loves magique … undoe[s]” those “rules” (line 11) that demand separate bodies, separate consciousnesses, separate positions from which to “look”; to undo such rules is to transport oneself psychically, to confound the static linearity of gazer and gazed upon, so that the speaker becomes not “more himself” but rather her: “Here you see mee, and I am you” (line 12). Transparent, the window “confess[es]” (line 8) all that occurs on either side of it—glass will not conceal her actions once he has gone, but neither will it hide his watching. At the same time that glass is looked through, however, it can also superimpose their two “bodies”: her face looking, his name being seen.39 The speaker's manipulation of the frame of the window to capture her gaze and superimpose them leads Estrin to claim that “the ‘I’ binds the woman to him by imposing himself on her.” “When the ‘I’ says ‘I am you,’” Estrin writes, “he means: ‘I want you to think I am you—and I want to make myself think you are I—so that I can be confident that your fidelity and love are what I propose them to be: unfoundering.’ But his ‘I am you’ really is a way of saying ‘you are I.’ The lady is urged to give up her identity for his.”40 But the fact of being seen by her (“you see mee”) leads less to a consolidation of his autonomous existence through appropriation of her (not “I am me”) than to a collapse of their positions as separate selves (“I am you”).

Rather than imprisoning the woman within its boundaries, the windowpane functions as a play space whose threshold both speaker and lover cross over, moving beyond their real, physical selves and thus also their divided, gendered identities. It is this blending together, I think, far more than any scopic pleasure produced by, or masculine power producing, the exchange of looks, that brings forth a sense of “intirenesse.” The name engraved in the glass retains its shape because it manages to achieve the physical permanence that is otherwise elusive, denied by the kind of “departure” this valediction marks (the “plot” of parting provides a context for more psychological forms of separation). Its integrity cannot be “outwash[ed]” by the inundating fluidity of “showers and tempests” (line 15). But a certain kind of “intirenesse” (line 17)—to be so whole as to include each “point” and “dash,” all the smallest “accessaries” of one's “name” (lines 13-14)—the speaker finds only within his lover. She contains the “patterne” (line 18) of him within; he becomes her as she looks upon the overlay of their two “bodies” in the window. Thus while the engraved name may independently claim “firmnesse” and constancy—“all times,” he tells her, “[shall] finde mee the same” (line 16)—nevertheless he needs her to “better … fulfill” the “intirenesse” (line 17) that will bridge the space between, salve the hurt of parting.

The speaker's experience of being attached to his mistress is not univocal in “A Valediction of My Name.” If in one stanza he appears to celebrate their closeness so fully as to dissolve the distinction between them, in the next he reacts to the demands of that intimacy by losing hold of identity altogether, by breaking down into a variety of bones and body parts barely held together any longer by the name carved into the window. In stanza 3, the woman is filled with him in the way her face is “filled” with his name as she looks into the window, and somehow she brings the potential of his entirety into reality by containing the “patterne” of him within her. But no sooner is this sense of being housed within her uttered than it defracts into the “ragged bony name” (line 23) of the following stanza. It is as if the speaker's own expression of being so deeply embedded in the body of his lover (now figured explicitly as mother), so thickly entwined with her identity, overpowers the viability of the name that once withstood “showers and tempests.” If, without her, there is nothing to hold him together, if he must depend on her for the blueprint of himself that will “repaire / And recompact” him (lines 31-32), and if there is no fundamental “patterne” of him without her, then the leave-taking this poem commemorates must bring forth fears of chaotic unraveling, a dismembering that leaves his body-self “scattered” (line 32). Simultaneously, though, intimacy is itself a danger precisely because his lover becomes too large—or too constricting. What independent existence can his “self” attain if its very architecture relies, in order to be built, on a pattern she controls?

Thus the “scratch'd name” burgeons into a “deaths head,” ominously warning her of “lovers mortalitie” (lines 20-22). The name that could not be “outwash[ed]” (line 15) just the stanza before now signifies the awful temporality of a love unguaranteed and unguarantee-able, no longer impervious to the effects of tempests both external/poetic and internal/psychic. The glass that was both charmed and “grav'd” (i.e., made serious? legitimized?) by the name it held now shows not a gracefully “accessorized” name that sloughs off rain but a “ragged bony name,” a “ruinous Anatomie” (line 24) that itself seems to “ruin” the glass and the love it is meant to solidify. His fantasy of a window that places them one upon the other seems both to manifest an awareness of and to display back to him the extent to which his identity (signed by his name) is contained within her face, the sign of her personhood. To be her (“I am you”) is specifically to experience himself as within her, to want to be and to feel himself as contained. But this connectedness then evokes fears of being frighteningly loosened and dissolved. No small feat, then, that in the fifth stanza the speaker rebuilds himself. Declaring to his lover that “all my soules bee / Emparadis'd in you” (lines 25-26), he is newly confident that this core of connection between them will refashion again the “house” (line 30) of “Muscle, Sinew, and Veine” (line 29), literally fleshing out the skeletal “rafters” (line 28) that remain following the self-annihilation of the previous lines. In his absence, she will “repaire / And recompact” his “body” within her (lines 31-32).

The casement that contains the name works as a barrier and a passageway between the room within and the world beyond. When he imagined her face reflected in the window surrounding his name, the window became a limit; both her image and the name would look back at her (he would look back at her), inverting and turning inward her act of looking outward. Now, as he imagines her receiving and greeting a new lover, the window once again opens outward—literally, symbolically—to the world the speaker has himself entered, but from which he cannot help looking back, over his shoulder. These shifting attempts to manipulate and respond to space suggest forms of attachment that are liberating and threatening at once. Framing himself in the casement—to be “encased”—provides some firm sense of embodiment.41 To be embodied within the “face” of his lover is also to feel whole and (re)integrated. But the window that performs the superimposition also measures the limits of security, for there is a world beyond, one that seems excitingly full of possibilities and disturbingly populated by potential rivals for his lover's attentions. What happens to his name, his body and identity, if her face no longer looks through it in the window—if, indeed, the window is thrown aside to allow her clear view to another man's “name”? More central an image, perhaps, than even the name itself, the window is defined by a transparency evocative of a desire to “see-through,” to know but also to be known. Glass can be looked through as well as “look back,” like the eyes of a lover.

The fantasy of experiencing himself contained seems to allow the speaker to stop a motion that is both inevitable (the poem “bids farewell”) and feared. He is like a child looking in at a doorway to remind himself that the mother is there, reacquainting himself with her by her reassuring glance. Since he cannot look through the window in fact (and there is perhaps a voyeuristic wish here as well), he leaves something behind in fantasy and in the poem: a body scattered; a ruined anatomy; his bones, sinews, veins, and muscles—in short, himself, barely held together. In this context the phrase “being still with you” (line 29) takes on multiple meanings. The parts of him are still with her, with her as yet and always, waiting to be “bodied” again at his return. But there is also, I think, a wish to be in a kind of motionless overlap with her. This is what makes engraving so important; it grants a motionlessness to the speaker's body (and emotions, devotions?) that is itself an expression of her movement away from him and toward other lovers. Estrin suggests that the speaker, by pinioning the face of his mistress against his name in the window, denies the possibility of an “other” capable of moving out of the frame he has created. But the very engraving of the name in the window suggests how far the poem goes to acknowledge her separateness from him. The engraved name will never move as his real body and her real face so emphatically do. The repetition of “Till my returne,” “till I returne” (lines 31, 41) signals visions of the blank space of his absence, which is also her absence from him, conveying both his anxiety about these absences and his determination to return. If there is a subtle warning here, he is also assuring her, and himself as well.

Like the windowpane, the teardrop is one of Donne's most evocative representations of the delicate boundaries that separate as well as connect the self and the external world. Fragile, rarely solitary, of a shape so distinctively recognizable and yet so easily ruptured, the teardrop's thin membrane perfectly imitates the edges between people that Donne is always testing. The teardrop itself, though knowable, meaningful, and extant only on the outside surface of the skin, is also somehow always “looking” inward, because it is so much of the body's interior, always representing some internal state. Winnicott writes that “there comes into existence what might be called a limiting membrane, which to some extent (in health) is equated with the surface of the skin, and has a position between the infant's ‘me’ and his ‘not-me.’”42 Accordingly, it is through images of teardrops that Donne articulates his sense that boundaries can be so easily defocused in ways both pleasurable and threatening. The tear—like an eye or window—behaves like a tiny mirror, reflecting the face of the lover looking toward it; at the same time, the exquisitely delicate surface of a teardrop gives it its paradoxical quality, vulnerable to dissolution, but also, thrillingly open to exchange.

The dynamics of looking become ever more taut on the threshold of parting in “A Valediction: Of Weeping.” The implied face-to-face positioning of “Let me powre forth / My tears before thy face” (lines 1-2; he specifies her face, rather than her eyes) suggests that looks are being exchanged, that he looks into her face in search of her whole expression, which he then encapsulates in his tears. His tears, not her eyes, accomplish the reflecting: he is the reflecting surface; he looks at her to capture what she looks like and then integrates that look into himself, reproducing her in his tears while she faces him with her own face and being. It seems vitally important to this Donnean speaker that there is another body there, a face that looks back in a mutually created experience.43 Produced from within himself but reflective of her, his tears are now of self and other simultaneously; he seems to experience her as something that both originates from within himself and is superimposed onto his tears and then looked at through the commingling medium of his fluidity.

With her image contained in the tears that course across his face, the speaker can “stay” (line 2) and be still; it is as if her face “stays” him from the imminent leave-taking. “Here” (line 2) suggests, therefore, “with you” (and thus not “out there”), but also “over here, where I am, on my side of the boundary between us.” With her image imprinted upon them, but shed only in the “absence” of her as one lover faces another, tears measure an irreducible distance between them. At the same time, however, they contain an impression as vital as the seed of her, as if they could give birth to her. Such fullness is intensely pleasurable—he can contain her within himself, if only on the outskirts of his body, within the fragile membrane of the tear. (The metaphor of pregnancy is prefigured in line 3 by “beare”; they are “something worth” [line 4] for containing her in this way.)

But the fantasy of being pregnant with her—of needing, as it were, to give birth to her—implies that he does not already have a connection to her that fulfills him the way her image “fulfills” the tear.44 Those tears are, as he quickly remembers, produced by “much griefe” (line 7), and while the ostensible meaning is clear (he is leaving), the phrase connotes as well something far more interior, as if “griefe” has been accumulating within him over countless unspoken betrayals. Indeed, the rest of the line—“emblemes of more …” (line 7)—trails off vaguely, as if he cannot find adequate words with which to articulate the many reasons for these tears. His own descriptive metaphors work to belie what might seem important here to disguise: the progression from tears coined by her image to tears “pregnant” (line 6) with the “seed” of her leads him to the paradox of “fruits” (line 7), a word which carries suggestions of transgression and delight at once, as if the very objects by which he tries to hold her to him (in place?) become symbols of the kind of act that could breach that connection. The tears perform the transgressiveness, in fact, by “fall[ing]” (line 8) as he cries them.

The parts of him that successfully “contain” her—those tears—are always already on the move away from him as soon as they achieve shape and meaning outside of his eyes (he, his body and “self,” can never really hold her as his tears do). Tears always fall; they can never go back in, never return to connect with the body that forms them. It is this incessant “falling” that triggers the shift in tone and emotion in the second part of the first stanza. It is as if his own image of pregnant tears, seeming to grant a wonderful wholeness, requires that he track back to the dangerous sexuality of which pregnancy is a literal fruit and which causes even further pregnant tears. The tears that “bore” (line 8) her detach from his eyes and give birth to a “fallen” her. His desire, and attempt, to retain a sense of her in his tears ends up “falling,” measuring as it does so how little he can ensure that she will not “fall” after he departs (or, perhaps more acutely, even prior to this moment). Nor can he guarantee in her the stasis that is so important to him; as if to counter his own assurance that “I stay here” (line 2), he seems to accuse her, “thou falst” (line 8).

Nevertheless, the tear maintains its transformative powers, as the speaker redoubles his efforts to locate spaces in which their two subjectivities can experience a pleasurable melding. As the empty “round ball” (line 11) devoid of meaning becomes an identifiable, navigable “All” with maps of the world pasted upon it (line 14), so the value of a tear increases with her reflection “worn” within it; the “impression” (line 16) of her face makes the tear an all, the way she—if she could also be contained within him—might grant him the completeness of a world. It is as if she covers him like the overlain “copies” (line 11) of the continents and fills him from within like tears “pregnant of” (line 6) her, until the space they share “overflow[s]” (line 17) with tiny crystalline worlds of which both have been the creators—she with her face and looks and presence, he as the “workeman” (line 11) who cries the englobing tears. And while it seems that she too has begun to cry—“Till thy teares mixt with mine doe overflow / This world, by water sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so” (lines 17-18)—“thy teares” may also refer, in a way that underscores the spatial and psychic entanglements the poem depicts, to his own tears, which “belong” to her because her face gives them meaning and worth, because it is her relation to the speaker that elicits them, and, too, because they wet her face as he weeps. In the dissolution of tears, then, what is “hers” becomes indistinguishable from what is “his.”

The penetrability of the teardrop further demonstrates the exciting experience of exceeding the limits of one's boundaries. When lovers cry together, their tears intermingle, blurring distinctions by combining the positions of mourned-mourner, performer-spectator, self-other. The act of crying itself here repeats the reorientation of the gaze enacted by “A Valediction of My Name”: initially, it is the man's tears that are “pregnant” and pour forth uncontrollably, the man who is uncontained, flowing, fluid, while the woman watches. The many distortions of space (the proportions of the cosmos are stretched from micro- to macrocosmic, with teardrops reflecting faces and encapsulating worlds and a woman expanding to become the moon) exaggerates the poem's willingness to ignore outline and limitation, its eagerness to experience a comfortable at-one-ness. While it seems clear that, as Mark Breitenberg points out, water imagery symbolizes a constellation of anxieties in early modern texts—from maternal engulfment to the frightening fluidity of a humoural body to the real danger of shipwreck—Donne's use of the tear also unthinks anxiety, measuring a sensitivity to edges and to various ways of crossing or even dispensing entirely with boundaries—of the body, while crying; of tears, which dissolve; of the self, in love with another.45

Of course, these suggestions are not intended to supersede entirely the poem's culminating tone of despair. “More than Moone” (line 19), the woman here is an omnipotent woman who can house or fragment the body of her lover, look back in a mutual gaze, or look away with murderous unconcern. The woman who is more commands his very life; to be close to her is to experience his self as dangerously loosened, so unpredictable is her “spheare” (line 20). She can, and might, “draw up seas” (line 20) to drown him. And the imagined mourning seems to record what is coursing beneath this poem: that once he is gone (“dead” [line 21]), she is free (“dissolved”? [line 18]) to pursue other lovers. Indeed, his pleas to her to “forbeare / To teach the sea, what it may doe too soone” (lines 21-22), to “Let not the winde / Example finde” (lines 23-24), disclose the worry that sadness and separation may happen “too soone” (which sounds like “soon enough” and suggests an inevitability); that whatever actual danger exists in the literal plot of the poem is outweighed by the increase in harm she could cause (she sets an “example” that is more than the moon, the sea, and the wind together). Even the personified “winde”—already perceived as a malevolent force that “purposeth” (line 25) to do him some degree of “harme” (line 25)—might be impelled toward “more harme” by her example. So much danger may be offset by the possibility of them “holding” each other and of being held in a space that staves off unstoppable floods. The intermingling of breaths—her body contains his, his body her breath—works to control their lives and deaths. He wants them to “hold” each others' breaths by not sighing, and so maintain a feeling of keeping-in, of repletion and completion. But of course they cannot hold their breaths forever, and the inevitable breathing out (which he seems to watch and wait for in an agony of anticipation) is thus an unfathomable cruelty that “hastes the others death” (line 27). Yet the very imagery that conveys grief and doubt in “A Valediction of Weeping” serves also to modify, on a perhaps more subterranean level, the poem's tendency toward such expressions. Tears, coins, fruit, globes, maps, tides, sighs—each of these suggests overlap and exchange within liminal spaces that allow the speaker to play with the indeterminacy of selfhood and the undulating limits of relationality.

“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” in a similar way, complicates our sense of which subject position (self-other, male-female, traveler-left-behind) the speaker identifies with most emphatically. The opening analogy between parting lovers and dying men who “passe mildly away” and “whisper to their soules, to goe” (lines 1-2) makes the separation as natural—and the reunion as inevitable—as that of “virtuous” (line 1) bodies and souls. It may be the certitude of rejoining that renders death a mild passing (so subtle is this parting, in fact, that it is nearly imperceptible to others; as Geoffrey Hartman points out, “the evidence of life [hangs] on a word, on less than a word, on a vocal inflection or quantity, the difference between ‘now’ and ‘no’”);46 on the other hand, the stanza confuses one's sense of which—body or soul—is figured as leaving. It is as if they both “leave”: the one “passe[s],” the other is whispered at “to goe,” they move away from each other as if simultaneously, and neither “stays.” Saying good-bye, the speaker suggests, might be just as internal an event as this parting of body and breath—so private, others can't perceive it; so “mild,” it feels less like a wrenching breakage than like melting. Let us part, he seems to say, as if only gradually dissolving, separating out of oneness and into twoness in a way that is simultaneously a melding; and let us do this so quietly that no one else will notice. If the parting of body and soul will look like just one more exhalation of breath, so their parting should feel like just another normal parting.

Despite the speaker's confirmation that it is he who physically leaves (“I must goe” [line 22]), the poem expresses a familiar ambiguity: notice that it is the breath that leaves, not the men who hold the breath; and the soul that goes, not the male body that houses the soul. And if the instruction to “make no noise” (line 5) stems from a wish to protect “our joyes” from the misunderstanding of others, it also serves to soften the distress of separation, to allow each individual to “melt” (line 5). Such blending together seems delicious, rather than inundating. Mere earthly lovers, dependent on the body with its simple sensuality and reliance on the senses, cannot tolerate physical absence. But a love that can withstand “motion” is one independent of physical connection. Not having to rely on sight, touch, even the sound of each other's voices, their love is of the spheres, “innocent” (line 12) of the requirement of constant contact. So “refin'd” (line 17) is that love, they are made pure by it—made so subtle and precise, that they cannot even define what it is that they experience together, though they nonetheless escape the dull interpretation already belittled in the third stanza. The speaker makes explicit the terms of so fine a fit: to withstand physical separation, lovers must have internalized each other as sustaining imagos, carried within and related to as vividly as their physical selves. To be “inter-assured of the mind” (line 19) is to experience reciprocity and understanding as guaranteed—and “interassured” seems just the right phrase, since it conveys the mutuality and exchange that are so vital, along with the sense of being reassured of a continued affection. Separation means destruction to an infant; it feels annihilating, as if both object and self might never return. But when (or more specifically here, because) there is such psychical connection, the lovers' physical disconnection feels neither obliterating nor even disruptive of love itself: they can “care less” (line 20) about the absence of lips, eyes, and hands. In turn, the speaker can be “careless” about togetherness: he seems jaunty, playful, and confident.

Not to know “what [love] is” (line 18)—to be beyond (even prior to) explanations and definitions that would require observation of oneself and consideration of the self's interaction with another—suggests a doubled state of simultaneous union and exchange in which conceptions of “twoness” have no meaning. The “inter-assurance” of their minds creates an experience of oneness that, far from presupposing knowledge and experience of dualities, smudges all delimiting outline between their separate selves. So their “two souls therefore, … are one” (line 21) and, equally paradoxically, the space that keeps them apart is but a continuation of themselves and thus of their bond, just as the ends of a sheet of gold hammered to thinness stand apart, yet uninterruptedly attached:

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
          Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
          Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

(Lines 21-24)

This last image of “gold to ayery thinnesse beate” is an index of the speaker's willingness to tolerate distance, and it sounds less like a buttressing of a vulnerable self (increasing its sense of identity, in effect, by adding her identity) than like a liberating continuum of connectedness in which confident selves expand toward the other and lose rigid definition in that intimacy. Whatever disappointment might be felt by the loss, even abandonment, that parting entails is assuaged by the ability to remember good feelings and to remain “in contact,” as it were, intrapsychically.

The compass metaphor complicates this fantasy, if only because the physical reality of the device necessitates that the two souls previously figured as one are suddenly returned to a condition of divided twoness. Like one leg of a compass joined to the other, each lover's motion is now contingent upon the other's. She is “the fixt foot,” which “makes no show / To move, but doth, if the'other doe” (lines 27-28); he, “the other,” which “far doth rome” (line 30). She is “the center” (line 29), still and sure, that marks the home base of the circle circumscribed around her by the speaker's roaming. This would seem to substantiate some critics' belief that the compass is used here as an emblem of constancy and that the speaker means to express his belief in (or anxious wish for) his lover's fidelity.47 But the image also, once more, works to destabilize what the solidity of the compass would seem concerned to assure. That the “fixt foot” “makes no show” to move implies that it might at any moment, unpredictably, or perhaps that she moves internally, imperceptibly, emotionally—in short, in some way that cannot be measured by outward show. Her immobility is hardly guaranteed. The apparent readiness to follow after the “the other” foot, then, along with the joint that holds the two legs of the compass together, are both undone by doubts only the grammar works to evidence.

The speaker allows that “though [the fixt foot] in the center sit / Yet when the other far doth rome, / It leanes, and hearkens after it, / And growes erect” (lines 29-32). In a poem that has already subverted its own fiction through implications that it is the female other that “goe[s]” (line 22), and in which issues of selfhood and subjectivity are very much at play, the phrase “the other” seems suddenly to reverse the positions man and woman occupy in the terms of the compass analogy.48 Imagistically, “the other” defines the roaming man, but rhetorically it hints, once again, that the “self” of this poem—its male speaker—is aware of the potential roamings of his mistress. At the same time, he fashions himself as a wandering, transgressive other in terms of a stable “center” meant to establish origin and to contain his motion around her. Donne maximizes such “misidentifications” by relying on ambiguous pronouns: in four lines, three instances of “it” and one of “that,” detached from their referents, inhibit firm assignment of self and object (indeed, at line 31, “it” applies both to the man and to the woman). Furthermore, the fixed foot moves (already a paradox) not simply in a barely measurable circle controlled by the movement of “the other”; it actually “hearkens after” the other and “growes erect, as that comes home.” In the “hardly gendered bodies” of the seventeenth century, sexual arousal was not imagined in clearly differentiated terms; a woman's genitals were thought to “swell” and her “seed” to be ejaculated much like a man's.49 Thus the “firmnes” of the center foot of the compass, its excitement at the return of the wandering leg, may emphasize the speaker's need to ensure his lover's continued desire for him. At the same time, however (and granting that the fixed leg of a widened compass would, literally, straighten as the other moved inward), the overtly masculine image reverses conventional expectations about constancy, furthering the hint that it is the man who perceives himself as stationary. As she roams in a circle around him—a circle that will be narrowed only by her moving toward him—he wonders after her and grows erect at her return.50

“Such,” then, “wilt thou be to mee, who must / Like th'other foot, obliquely runne” (lines 34-35). “Such” here sets up a comparison whose elements are already deeply conflicted and unclear. On the surface, the word recovers the terms of the analogy from whatever may have problematized them in the previous stanza, and seems to confirm that she will be the one to lean and hearken after him. The syntactical progression of these lines, however, pulls out of shape what the simile at first tries to render. “Such” seems to work backward to the immediately preceding phrase—as if to say, “you will be to me ‘as [the one] that comes home’”; to the degree that the penultimate stanza has already confused one's sense of who stays, who leaves to roam, such a succession reinforces the subtext: he experiences himself as left behind by her. Thus “who” (in “Such wilt thou be to mee, who must … obliquely runne”) also seems detached, applicable to either of them grammatically as well as thematically. And which of them is “like th'other foot”? Must she, too, run? Do they both move, both grow erect at the prospect of reunion? Tellingly, the trope that is meant to show the two lovers in relation to each other in fact doubles them at first: they are “twin compasses” (line 26), identical.

The effect of so much layering of language and subjectivity (which may also be its point) is to call radically into question both the nature of the mourning the poem seems to prohibit as well as the identity of the individuals involved. The poem piles up images of attachment and motion, only to deny the fixity of meaning those very images seem to strive so much to assure. In the highly determined, seemingly stabilized space inside of which the poem comes to a close—the circle drawn by the compass in which, the speaker says, “Thy firmnes … makes me end, where I begunne” (line 36)—a kaleidoscopic interplay of position and movement threatens to bulge the outline of that perfect circularity (the course of “th'other foot” is “oblique”; the poem ends by being “begunne”).51 Thus the other must be invested with “firmnes” to make things “just,” to make him stop “running.” She must stand firm, straighten up, perhaps, even get excited for him, in order for him to return. He depends on that reliable durability to counter his own ambivalent roaming, to reassure him that his own wanderings are “just,” right, and safe, and to bring him around again to himself. And yet, simultaneously, she is the one moving, circling, wandering. The poem's figurative language allows two stories to be told at once.

I will conclude with a brief reading of “The Sunne Rising” as one of Donne's most singular poetic acts of playing with space. Thomas Docherty writes of the poem that the “fundamental point at issue is that the space is relativized and made mutable.”52 The world beyond the bed that contains the intertwined lovers is controlled by the speaker, first by a gesture of audacious dismissal, then by an act of encompassing inclusion. The window through which the voyeuristic sun intrudes is both barrier and passageway between two realms (as in “A Valediction of My Name”);53 the pair luxuriates in a loving “wee”-ness (line 25)—reinforced by the repetitions of “us” (lines 3, 23, 28), of “bed” (lines 20, 30), of “warme” (line 28), of “all” (lines 20, 21, 24)—that is distinguished from the particulated world of “boyes,” “ants,” and “the rags of time” (lines 6, 8, 10). It is just this sense of a union so solid as to be condensed into the solemnity of “Nothing else is” (line 22), that infuses the speaker with an illusion of magical control over the objects of the world. Secure in his bond with his lover/other, the speaker can make the “out-there” accord with his own expectations and desires—he can define not only the movement and proportion of the world (e.g., “the King will ride” [line 7], and “both the'India's of spice and Myne … lie here with mee” [lines 17-18]), but also the very configuration of the cosmos as well (“This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare” [line 30]). The bed and then the room the lovers inhabit in “The Sunne Rising” are first isolated from the bother of kings and suns and “ants,” then expand to encompass all of that, to become the whole world. In Robert Wiltenburg's words, “The Sunne Rising” strikes us with its “imperative mood, gigantic, engorged with the physical and emotional immediacy and sufficiency of its experience of love,” an experience through which the self discovers “the power not only to shape itself … but to shape the world to itself.”54

But there is something else at work in the poem, too, other than a childlike belief in magical omnipotence. Rather than representing separation, with disturbing implications of unknowability and loneliness, the window in “The Sunne Rising” takes on the intermediate nature of potential space, allowing the speaker imaginatively, and pleasurably, to push away (“goe chide,” “goe,” “tell” [lines 5-8], “call,” “looke” [line 16]) or pull in (“shine here to us” [line 29]) what lies beyond. The speaker mediates his perception of what lies beyond the threshold of the window through his trust in the depth and durability of his relatedness to his lover.55 The intensity of the poem's articulation of potential space (neither “all-me” nor objects beyond the self's control) renders the “contract[ion]” (line 26) of the final stanza more an experience of “holding”—in which “wee” are “happy” (line 25) and “warme” (line 28) and the “center” of “every where” (line 29)—than the oppressive space of “The Good-Morrow”'s “one little roome.” In that in-between area, the speaker articulates not so much a fantasy of self-centered omnipotence as an absenting of self in deference to his mistress. Thus the line that critics so frequently seize upon as proof of Donne's colonizing stance toward women might be more provocatively read as a profound acknowledgment of one woman's utter completeness: less a strident “she is all the states, and I am all the princes” than a loving She is all states and all princes. Aye.

The cumulative evidence of the readings I have presented here suggests that the genderedness of Donne's poetic imagination is not as emphatically, certainly not as consistently, “masculine,” or masculinist, as has so often been claimed. In a recent study of Donne's “articulations of the feminine,” H. L. Meakin juxtaposes “Donne's attempts to ‘emprison’ the various figures of the feminine” with “the ‘excess’ which is woman beyond the margins of patriarchal discourse.”56 In the threshold spaces mapped out by images of liminality, however, it is just this sort of hierarchical schema that Donne reconfigures, repositioning male self and female other in ways that elude stock oppositions of “center” and “margin.” If certain poems in Songs and Sonets point up the limitations of identifying Donne as consistently evacuating or appropriative of women, so, too, do they suggest that Donne's recognition of women extends beyond simple tributes paid from uncomplicatedly conventional, gendered positions. While there can be no intermediate space without eventual separation, no recognition of separate subjectivity without acknowledging the difference-between, the question of what Donne does with difference remains an intricate one. The very breadth and richness of recent Donne scholarship points to the impossibility of confining Donne to a unified style of relating to female others (there may be no poet so capable of rhetorical escape as Donne), yet I would argue that it is equally untenable to maintain that Donne's identifications with women serve unequivocally, or univocally, to suppress them and to reassert the primacy of his own masculine identity. Through the conceptual metaphors of play and liminal space, Donne liberates his speakers from anxieties about gender by exploiting the very notions that tend to produce anxiety in the first place, maximizing rather than reductively denying the ambiguity of gendered identity. In the kinds of moments explored in this article, acts of identification become ways of questioning—transgressing—the very terms of being male, being a self, and loving an other.


  1. Roy Roussell, The Conversation of the Sexes: Seduction and Equality in Selected Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 7.

  2. Donne, “Elegie XVI, On his Mistris,” line 5, in The Complete English Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides (London: St. Martin's, 1974). All subsequent references to Donne's poetry are to this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by line number.

  3. Achsah Guibbory, “‘Oh, let me not serve so’: The Politics of Love in Donne's Elegies,” in Critical Essays on John Donne, ed. Arthur F. Marotti (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994), pp. 17-36, quotations on pp. 29-30.

  4. Diana Trevino Benet, “Sexual Transgression in Donne's Elegies,” Modern Philology 92 (1994): 14-35, quotations on 34, 33.

  5. Elizabeth D. Harvey, “Ventriloquizing Sappho: Ovid, Donne, and the Erotics of the Feminine Voice,” Criticism 31 (1989): 115-38, quotation on 126.

  6. Stanley Fish, “Masculine Persuasive Power: Donne and Verbal Power,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 223-52, quotations on pp. 246, 242.

  7. Janel Mueller, “A Woman among the Metaphysicals: A Case, Mostly, of Being Donne For,” Modern Philology 87 (1989): 142-58, quotation on 145.

  8. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  9. Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 14, 31.

  10. Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500-1800 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 57-58.

  11. Breitenberg, p. 6.

  12. The word “inversions” comes from Ronald Corthell's Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: The Subject of Donne (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), p. 59.

  13. Janel Mueller, “Troping Utopia: Donne's Brief for Lesbianism,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 182-207, quotation on p. 184.

  14. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. xi.

  15. Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 110.

  16. See Breitenberg, p. 10.

  17. Patricia Crawford, “‘The Suckling Child’: Adult Attitudes to Child Care in the First Year of Life in Seventeenth-Century England,” Continuity and Change 1 (1986): 23-51, quotations on 36, 41, and 32.

  18. Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 103, 268, and 203.

  19. Pollock writes that “the age of seven, rather than being the age when adult status was achieved, may simply have been the age when gender differentiation was regarded as appropriate.” See A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children over Three Centuries (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1987), p. 55.

  20. Fletcher (n. 10 above), pp. 86, 89.

  21. Anna Nardo, The Ludic Self in Seventeenth-Century English Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

  22. William Shullenberger, “Love as a Spectator Sport in John Donne's Poetry,” in Renaissance Discourses of Desire, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), quotation on p. 53.

  23. Nardo, p. 53.

  24. In his discussion of “The Flea,” Thomas Docherty writes that “the letter ‘s’ often took the form of the ‘long s,’ making it look very like an ‘f.’” See John Donne, Undone (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 54.

  25. See Richard Rambuss's discussion of the homoerotics of Donne's religious poetry in “Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 253-79.

  26. Crawford, p. 34.

  27. Patrides, ed. (n. 2 above), p. 48.

  28. Ilona Bell renders the phrase “cunt-ry” to underscore not so much the infantile sensuality being described but still a more oral one than the weaning intercourse of “lov'd.” See “The Role of the Lady in Donne's Songs and Sonets,Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 113-29, quote on 123.

  29. Patrides notes that some manuscripts read “slumbred we in the seaven sleepers den?”; “slumbred” connotes, perhaps even more evocatively than “snorted,” a slow, heavy atmosphere (p. 48).

  30. As Docherty notes, “there is clearly a great deal of stress laid on the pleasures of orality in the poetry” (p. 232). But he also mentions, in discussing “The Flea,” the orthographic ambiguity of the word “suck'd,” which merely blurs the distinction between those earlier, insignificant dalliances and the current, epitomized affair (p. 54).

  31. David Daiches, “A Reading of ‘The Good-morrow,’” in Just So Much Honor: Essays Commemorating the Four-Hundreth Anniversary of the Birth of John Donne, ed. Peter A. Fiore (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972), 177-88; quotations on pp. 183, 188.

  32. Bell suggests that “watch not one another out of feare” stems directly from Donne's unsanctioned relationship with Ann More: “Donne proclaims the uniqueness of the lovers who are confined to ‘one little roome,’ but he also shows the limitations and worries of lovers who cannot appear together in drawing rooms” (p. 47).

  33. Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989):15.

  34. Ibid., p. 14.

  35. Barbara Estrin, Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 205. See also Estrin's earlier version of her reading of this poem in “Framing and Imagining the ‘You’: Donne's ‘A Valediction of my Name in the Window’ and ‘Elegy: Change,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (1988): 345-62.

  36. Estrin, Laura, p. 205.

  37. See D. W. Winnicott, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development,” in Winnicott, Playing and Reality (n. 14 above), pp. 111-18.

  38. Thomas Ogden, “On Potential Space,” in Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Therapy, vol. 3, The Implications of Winnicott's Contributions, ed. Peter L. Giovacchini (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1990), pp. 90-112, quotation on p. 94. And as Bell (n. 28 above) writes of “The Sunne Rising,” “the speaker's eyes are fixed unflinchingly on the lady's … because he is inordinately concerned with her response” (p. 120).

  39. Compare the “superscribing” of one name over another in the penultimate stanza of “A Valediction of My Name” (line 57).

  40. Estrin, Laura, p. 204.

  41. Again, I disagree with Estrin, who states that the woman is “imprisoned” by the speaker's need for her to see and be him, and that “she must remain constantly in place at the window” (“Framing and Imagining the ‘You,’” p. 350). The speaker can engrave only his own name in the fixed location of the window.

  42. D. H. Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (New York: International University Presses, 1965), pp. 37-55, quotation on p. 45.

  43. Daniel N. Stern notes the importance of a mutual look in The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 102.

  44. Again, there is an echo of “A Valediction of My Name, in the Window” and the speaker's desire to be “fulfilled” by his lover.

  45. See Breitenberg (n. 9 above), p. 15.

  46. Geoffrey Hartman, Saving the Text (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), quoted in Docherty (n. 24 above), p. 106.

  47. See, e.g., Graham Roebuck's essay “Donne's Visual Imagination and Compasses,” John Donne Journal 8 (1989): 37-56, in which he states that “the main feature of Donne's famous conceit—the compasses as emblematic of constantia (the ‘firmness’ of the ‘fixed foot’)—is a commonplace of the period” (p. 37). John Freccero, in “Donne's Compass Image,” in John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), pp. 11-26, writes that “Donne chose to compliment his beloved on her constancy, her faith, with this emblem” (quotation on p. 23).

  48. I prefer to speak in terms of the poem's “fictional” plot, though critics seem to agree with Walton here, that Donne wrote the poem prior to leaving for the continent with Sir Robert Drury in 1611.

  49. See Fletcher (n. 10 above), p. 56.

  50. In view of the fact that the twin compasses are both “stiffe” at line 26, Thomas Docherty argues compellingly for a homoerotic element in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (pp. 74-75).

  51. Roebuck reproduces numerous examples of compasses from maps, emblem books, and navigational guides in use in Donne's era “to probe the relationship of visual representation to poetic conceit in order to enhance our understanding of Donne's imagination” (p. 37).

  52. Docherty, p. 31.

  53. The “Sunne” intrudes like a little boy (“unruly son”) and a meddling father (“old foole”) as well as an aroused voyeur, as if to coalesce the speaker's multifaceted relation both to the woman he loves and to the world in which that love takes place.

  54. Robert Wiltenburg, “Donne's Dialogue of One: The Self and the Soul,” in Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the Twenty-First Annual Conference, ed. Mario A. di Cesare (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), pp. 413-27, quotation on p. 421.

  55. For a compelling discussion of the importance of thresholds, doors, windows, vehicles, closets, and so forth, in the child's development of “inner” psychic space and psychological separation from the mother, see Anni Bergman, “From Mother to the World Outside: The Use of Space during the Separation-Individuation Phase,” in Between Reality and Fantasy: Winnicott's Concepts of Transitional Objects and Phenomena, ed. Simon A. Grolnick and Leonard Barkin (New York: Aronson, 1978), pp. 145-65.

  56. H. L. Meakin, John Donne's Articulations of the Feminine (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 20.

Michael Schoenfeldt (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Schoenfeldt, Michael. “‘That spectacle of too much weight’: The Poetics of Sacrifice in Donne, Herbert, and Milton.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31, no. 3 (fall 2001): 561-84.

[In the following essay, Schoenfeldt considers the theme of sacrifice as developed by post-Reformation religious poets, including Donne, suggesting that seventeenth-century writers imagined sacrifice as an interior experience rather than a physical event.]

But how then shall I imitate thee, and
Copie thy fair though bloudie hand?

—George Herbert

If you can't imitate him, don't copy him.

—Yogi Berra

This essay began with a question that has been rattling around in my head since I first began studying devotional poetry: Why did the scenario of the Christian sacrifice prove such a vexed and perplexing subject for lyric poetry in seventeenth-century England? Why, that is, did the Passion shift from being a site of the deepest imaginative engagement for medieval Catholic writers to a comparatively marginal subject, which challenges and defeats the best efforts of mortal devotees? As Donne in “Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward” deliberately rides away from the east, the scene of the sacrifice, so does Protestant lyric devotion in seventeenth-century England move away from identification with the spectacularly gruesome suffering of the crucified Christ toward the apprehension of the extravagant mercy ensuing from Jesus' victory over sin and death on the cross. There are many reasons for this change, but a central reason is a renewed emphasis in Reformed religion on the Davidic and Pauline notions that the only sacrifice God desires occurs neither in sanctified architectural space nor in explicit corporeal suffering but rather in the interior spaces of the believer. Sacrifice is not so much a ritual action as a devotional state achieved in the temple that is the heart of the devout.

In The Poetry of Meditation, Louis Martz helped revive the study of seventeenth-century religious lyrics by locating a range of these poems amid the practices of Catholic, and specifically Ignatian, meditation. Martz demonstrates how Ignation meditational structures urge devotees to exercise their imaginations in order to envisage the Passion of Jesus, and to position themselves emotionally in relation to this vivid scene of profound suffering.1 To exemplify this process, Martz cites texts such as Luis de la Puente's Meditations, a work which enjoins the believer to

set before mine eyes Christ Jesus crucified, beholding his heade crowned with thornes; his face spit upon; his eyes obscured; his armes disjoincted; his tonge distasted with gall, and vineger; his handes and feete peerced with nailes … and then pondering that hee suffereth all this for my sinnes, I will drawe sundrye affections from the inwardest parte of my heart, sometimes trembling at the rigour of God's justice.2

Martz argues cogently that “such practices of ‘composition’ or ‘proposing’ lie behind the vividly dramatized, firmly established, graphically imaged openings that are characteristic” of poets such as Donne and Herbert.3

If these writers look toward the scene of the Passion, however, they do so through squinting eyes amid slumping postures, as if they were glimpsing a trauma too immense for human comprehension. The poems explored in this essay—Donne's “Goodfriday, 1613,” Herbert's “Sacrifice” sequence, and Milton's “Passion”—are not so much vivid dramatizations of the sacrifice as they are performances of the enormous difficulty of apprehending what is, in Donne's words, a “spectacle of too much weight for mee.”4 These writers ask how the immense suffering of the Christian sacrifice can be represented in poetry, free of the inevitable anesthesia of memory and the distorting fictions of the imagination. They record not just the immense spiritual benefits that ensue from the sacrifice of the suffering Jesus but also the prodigious psychological costs of that beneficent sacrifice for the mortal worshipper. They offer a way of engaging with the Passion that is not so much a poetry of meditation as it is a poetry of immolation.

Passion is in this context an enormously rich and elusive term, designating both the enormous agony of Jesus and the swirl of emotions that this suffering instills in the individual believer. What becomes for these poets the central subject of the Passion, then, is not the tortured body of Jesus but rather the ethical, intellectual, and finally emotional difficulty of accepting unequivocally the extravagant mercy achieved by the extravagant agony at the center of the Christian dispensation. By looking at the suffering Jesus, these writers confront the excruciating paradox of a religion of love whose central symbol is an instrument of torture and death. As Herbert remarks in his poem “The Crosse,” this symbol is a “strange and uncouth thing” that makes him “sigh, and seek, and faint, and die.”5 For Herbert, the cross, emblem of Christ's suffering, spurs a series of contradictory emotions that ultimately embody in the individual believer a harrowing if diminished version of the original passion of Jesus.

Donne's poem of the same name entails by contrast a breathless flow of conventional if clever quandaries, dispersing its concern about corporeal suffering into the proliferation of intellectual paradox. Even this poem dedicated to the central symbol of Jesus' suffering asserts the superiority of spiritual to material agony, announcing that the former is far more salutary for the afflicted soul.

Materiall Crosses then, good physicke bee,
And yet spirituall have chiefe dignity.
These for extracted chimique medicine serve,
And cure much better, and as well preserve;
Then are you your own physick, or need none,
When Still'd, or purg'd by tribulation.


Whereas physical suffering functions like Galenic medicine, aiming at health by restoring a healthy humoral balance, spiritual suffering works like Paracelsan chemical distillations, which drive out the seeds of disease through the introduction of antagonistic alchemy.6 For Donne, the homeopathic paradoxes of the cross prescribe terrestrial tribulation as a cure for spiritual disease.

Debora Shuger has recently argued that “Christ's agony provides the primary symbol for early modern speculation on selfhood and society. The tortured and torturing males who supply the dramatis personae of the Crucifixion … also haunt the interior landscape of the Puritan automachia.”7 For Shuger, passion narratives “attempt to produce a specific version of Christian selfhood—a divided selfhood gripped by intense, contradictory emotions and an ineradicable tension between its natural inclinations and religious obligations.”8 Donne, Herbert, and Milton certainly discover a kind of Reformed subjecthood in the attempt to come to terms with the Crucifixion. Whereas the goal of Catholic meditational writers is to imagine the self in the scenario of the Passion in order to cultivate the extreme passions it arouses, Donne, Herbert, and Milton discover the difficulty of that act of imagination, and stumble upon the corollary truth that the fitting object of sacrifice is the tacitly arrogant self that would claim to be able to respond appropriately to this event. Whereas the Catholic meditational writers emphasize the emotional affect the event stirs, Donne, Herbert, and Milton focus on the psychological effect of the Passion.

These poets, then, engage in a poetics of interior sacrifice, one that relocates the sacrifice from the rituals of liturgy to the labyrinths of psychology. The Reformed rejection of the Mass as an efficacious sacrifice and nonconformist criticism of the sign and symbol of the cross together signal a move away from Christ's suffering as the central devotional focus of the believer.9 Much of the Reformation, particularly in England, entailed a series of questions about how to reconfigure in one's own conduct the bloody sacrifice at the core of the Christian belief in the atonement. Should one focus on the intense suffering of that sacrifice, and attempt to recreate it imaginatively? Should one focus on the ritual meal of communal love that reenacts that sacrifice? Or should one explore the immense pressures that the sacrifice places on quotidian ethical conduct? How might the sacrifice best assume a real presence in the devotional life of the individual believer?

Part of the problem has to do with a misleading early modern definition of sacrifice as it applies to the violent suffering of Jesus. In A Christian Dictionary, Thomas Wilson defines sacrifice as “A sacred action, wherein the faithfull Jews did voluntarily worship God, by offering some outwarde thing unto his glory, thereby to testifie his chiefe dignity and dominion over them, and their servitude and submission unto him.” When applied to Christianity, though, this definition is complicated, because as Wilson writes, “Christ Jesus beeing the trueth and substance, who in the offering of himselfe once upon the crosse, hath fully apeased Gods wrath.”10 The term that had been used to describe an action that humans perform on behalf of God now designates an act of divine suffering performed on behalf of humans. It is a word, then, that assumes the burden of human obligation to God while describing a unique action that God took on behalf of humanity. Christ's unique status, as human and God at once, only complicates the definition further. Christian sacrifice entails the stunning idea that God incarnated himself into the creation so as to experience the pain of being one of his own creatures, and so to regenerate a mode of intimacy between creature and creator. As such, sacrifice obligates mortals to respond to God in a way that is by definition unavailable to them.

Sacrifice had always possessed something of an interior trajectory in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In its original meaning sacrifice was a sacred meal eaten either by the deity alone or by both deity and worshipper together. The early sacrifices were thought to provide God with his necessary food; an animal was burned on the altar so that Yahweh could enjoy its sweet savor. But in the Davidic Psalms, the psalmist bestows a symbolic and internal meaning on what had been an external ritual action: “O Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew foorth thy praise. For thou desirest not sacrifice: else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (51:15-17).11 Sacrifice here is located in the believer's heart and emotions. In Romans 12:1, Paul develops this internalization of sacrifice into an ethics of self-control—“Beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that yee present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable sacrifice.” In Psalm 51 we see sacrifice taking place in the believer's emotions; in Paul, it is the believer's self-regulating actions. Sacrifice, then, can designate a ritual performance, an interior state, or a principle of self-regulation.

Reformed practice in England tended to deemphasize ritual and to reemphasize the affective and ethical components. In The Saints Humiliation, for example, Samuel Torshell glosses the passage from Psalm 51 in order to demonstrate the full nature of the internal sacrifice that the Christian God demands:

The heart is naturally strong, proud, stiffe, and rebellious, but it must be beaten from its owne height, and layd levell and flat before Gods foot-stoole; it must be wounded and lie bleeding before God, it must shake and tremble at his presence. … Such humiliation … is called Gods sacrifice, because God himselfe is the Author of it, he onely breaks us and fits us for his owne Altar. …

Wee must be waxe in the hand of God … a piece of soft waxe might be moulded to any fashion. … If ever wee have Comfort wee must be of ductible, following dispositions, to be … fashioned by his rod unto humilitie and submission. … To be, not what wee are, or of our selves would be but willingly what he will have us be. … A perfume smells sweetest when 'tis bruised or crusht, and when wee are stamped before God in the sence before declard, wee yeeld a pleasant savour to his Nosthrills.12

Self-fashioning here is explicitly opposed to the process by which one labors to make oneself a fitting sacrifice to God. The devotional goal is to render the self as wax in the hand of God. As a perfume releases its odor when pounded and bruised, so are God's forceful manipulations of his creatures the occasion for their becoming a pleasing sacrifice to him.13 Where Catholic devotional writers tended to emphasize the careful composition of the place of Jesus' original sacrifice, Reformed writers stressed the necessary decomposition of self that would internalize the energies of that sacrifice.

Both Catholic and Reformed writers emphasize the immense importance of welcoming the fashioning afflictions of God; in doing so, they give the experience of pain a central place in the spiritual imagination. Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain has taught us to understand the cruel calculus by which the imposition of pain is an exercise of power intended to destroy the subjective world of the sufferer.14 While this model works wonderfully for the texts of twentieth-century torture that Scarry explores, it works less well for the early-seventeenth-century accounts of sacrificial suffering examined here. These writers, and Donne in particular, imagine pain as constitutive rather than destructive of the subject.15 Part of the reason for this is a profound difference about where spiritual authenticity might reside. Where we imagine selfhood to reside in the experiences, memories, and desires that produce the quirks we call personality, early-seventeenth-century English writers imagine such quirks as encrustations that must be purged if true selfhood is to emerge. What is solicited, even demanded, is the complete and overwhelming imposition of affliction so intense that the caprices of fallen personality might be completely consumed.

It is important that we not pathologize as masochism such aspirations to corporeal suffering, however aberrational they may seem to us. It is also important that we attend to them, since these aspirations supply the scale by which we can gauge the full weight of the Passion on Donne's religious imagination. Donne's remarkable poem “Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward” is a marvelous example of the difficulty that Donne experienced in coming to terms with the sacrifice, as well as the corollary difficulty that readers have had in coming to terms with Donne's abiding interest in corporeal suffering. Most critics have been so impressed by the rich intellectual heritage of the dazzling opening conceit, which likens the speaker's own terrestrial motions to those of the planets, that they have largely ignored the equally stunning corporeal terms in which the poem ends. This self-consciously brilliant opening has provided a consummate field on which both an older historicism in search of intellectual lineage and a new criticism in search of metaphorical ingenuity could strut its stuff.16 About halfway through the poem, though, Donne finds himself guilty of precisely those procedures in which so much criticism of Donne is complicit—subordinating that body whose movement is the subject of the opening conceit to an obsessive concern with discursive rationalization of its motions. The poem begins with a cogent if inevitably inadequate comparison, likening a human soul to a sphere:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
Th'intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne,
Subject to forraigne motions, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure of businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules form bends toward the East.


The very facility with which Donne prosecutes this vigorous analogy, though, arouses suspicion; indeed, Donne subsequently envisages his Savior's body as encompassing, literally and metaphorically, those spheres whose soul-like motions initiated the poem. The speaker asks with a trepidation that belies the confident metaphors of the opening:

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once pierc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd and torne?


As Donald Friedman has argued, “The physical reality of pain, blood, and torn flesh will [finally] supplant the self-protecting conceptual intricacies of spheres, intelligences, and irrational motions.”17 The grandiose opening is reimagined as a glorious but misleading fiction that dissolves under the stare of his suffering Savior. But even Friedman's compelling reading of the poem as a movement from “ratiocinative bloodlessness” to the Savior's blood seems unwilling to consider the speaker's ultimate turn from the suffering body of his Savior to the fervent demand that his own body suffer in like fashion. Arguing that “the light and clarity of ‘remembered’ wisdom” rather than the intense pain of corporeal punishment is the subject of the poem's end, Friedman allows the cerebral art of memory to supplant the corporeal discipline the poem invokes.18

In “Goodfriday,” though, the speaker concludes not by recollecting in tranquility his Savior's suffering but by asking that the suffering of his own body ultimately replace the process of rationalizing his geographical trajectory away from the direction of his suffering Savior:

I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity. …


At the end of “Goodfriday,” then, the speaker no longer addresses himself but rather a God he does not look at, yet who watches him. Heartfelt supplication supplants meditative rationalization.

The poem's conclusion pointedly juxtaposes the speaker's horrified refusal to look at God with a sense of the mortal subject's complete visibility before God. The speaker cannot return God's gaze, he says, until God has properly punished him. Although both Foucault and feminist film theory have taught us to conceptualize the gaze as an inherently intrusive, even oppressive phenomenon, Donne was fascinated by a contrary notion: the immense comfort that can emerge from a sense of complete visibility before God, and the corollary fear that God will not deign to bestow such a gaze upon him. The ultimate terror, Donne argues in a sermon, is

that that God, who hath often looked upon me in my foulest uncleannesse, and when I had shut out the eye of the day, the Sunne, and the eye of the night, the Taper, and the eyes of all the world, with curtaines and windows and doores, did yet see me, and see me in mercy, by makeing me see that he saw me, … [that that God] should so turne himself from me.19

As the fabrics of privacy are rendered a transparent fiction before the penetrating gaze of the omniscient God, Donne finds consolation rather than paranoia in visibility, even in the moments of his “foulest uncleannesse.” His greatest fear is not that his sins will be seen, but rather that God will turn away from him, just as he turns from God in “Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward.”

In a sermon praising the “extraordinary austerity” of John the Baptist, Donne links images of riding and corporeal punishment in ways that illuminate the dilemmas of his “Goodfriday” poem:

he that uses no fasting, no discipline, no mortification, exposes himselfe to many dangers in himselfe … my body is the horse I ride … my business lies at Jerusalem; thither I should ride … my horse over pampered casts me upon the way, or carries me out of the way … must not that be my way, to bring him to a gentler riding, and more command, by lessening his proportions of provender. S. Augustine meanes the same that S. Paul preached, I beat down my body, says he, and bring it in subjection; And, (as Paulinus reades that place) Lividum reddo, I make my body blacke and blue; white and red were not Saint Pauls colours.

(Sermons, 4:152-53)

As in “Goodfriday,” corporeal punishment compensates for the innate misdirections of the body. The black and blue of bruised flesh are the colors under which the devout Christian rides.

As Donne turns away from his God in “Goodfriday,” moreover, we need to glimpse not just a spiritual trajectory but also a profound violation of social decorum, since in the liturgy of bodily demeanor, one was never supposed to turn one's back on a superior. To say “I turne my back on thee” to a figure of authority is an act of overt defiance. Indeed, when Queen Elizabeth failed to approve the earl of Essex's nomination for the position of commander of the English forces in Ireland. Essex “turned his back upon her in such a contemptuous manner as exasperated her to such a high degree, that she gave him a box on the ear, and bid him go and be hang'd.”20 Donne attempts to render this contemptuous posture as covert solicitation of a far more severe form of physical punishment than the box on the ears that Essex received. “When the Lord comes to us,” Donne remarks in a sermon, “though he come in corrections, in chastisements, not to turne to him, is an irreverent and unrespective negligence” (Sermons, 5:370). Donne, though, never turns around in the poem. Relatedly, even the speaker's wish to be punished is stated as a command—“punish mee, / Burne off my rusts, and my deformity, / Restore thine Image.” As such, it offers an unstable blend of command and submission to the superior to whom the speaker desires to submit unconditionally.21 Punish me, the speaker says, and only then will I offer you, the highest superior, the common respect of showing my face rather than my backside.

Donne's speaker is nevertheless able to recreate in painstaking detail the somatic details of the Passion he cannot visually confront, and in doing so participates, albeit provisionally, in the Catholic meditative practices Martz describes. Christ's hands are “pierc'd with those holes,” his copious outpouring of blood makes “durt of dust,” his “flesh” is “rag'd, and torne.” When turning to the prospect of his own suffering, however, the speaker initially opts for euphemism: “I turne my back to thee, but to receive / Corrections.” Authoritarian periphrasis, though, soon gives way to a graphic language which does not flinch from the excruciating pain it implores: “O think mee worth thine anger, punish mee, / Burne off my rusts, and my deformity.” Instruments of torture are imagined as tools of purification.

While we read these lines, we need to keep in mind the linkages that Donne would have felt acutely between Catholic religious practice and bodily punishment. The poem's fervent attention to Mary involves a proto-Catholic mode of devotion that Protestant authorities discouraged. In “The Litanie,” Donne certainly had exalted Mary's role in salvation in ways that could be construed as Catholic: Mary is “That she-Cherubin, / Which unlock'd Paradise”; she is likewise a figure who can be addressed in prayer: “As her deeds were / Our helpes, so are her prayers; nor can she sue / In vaine, who hath such titles unto you” (38-39, 43-45). In a sermon, though, Donne argued against such Mariolatry: “God forbid any should say, That the Virgin Mary concurred to our good, so, as Eve did to our ruine. … The Virgin Mary had not the same interest in our salvation, as Eve had in our destruction; nothing that she did entred into that treasure, that ransom that redeemed us” (Sermons, 1:200). To describe Mary as “Gods partner here, [who] furnish'd thus / Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us” (31-32), was to risk sounding like the proscribed and persecuted religion he had ostensibly left. The poem's final request to be thought worthy, moreover, nudges it into the realm of Catholic theology, which emphasized merit rather than grace as the avenue to salvation, even if it is only a worthiness to be punished, not to be saved. Although Donne dares not glance eastward until properly punished by his God, then, he does dare to speak in theologically risky ways, both to his God and to those of his contemporaries who were privileged to see the poem in one of its many manuscript versions.

As John Carey has reminded us, Donne's own family had suffered greatly for espousing just the kind of proto-Catholic sentiments displayed in “Goodfriday.”22 As Donne remarks in Pseudo-Martyr, “no family … hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the Teachers of Romane Doctrine, then it hath done.”23 Carey imagines Donne poised precariously between two horrible prospects of punishment: on the one side, he was threatened by the severe corporeal sanctions against Catholics of the English government, and on the other he was confronted with the even more terrifying prospect of eternal hell as the punishment for apostasy.24 His success at avoiding these punishments depends, in so many ways, on how he responds to the sacrifice. In one of his sermons, Donne imagines acutely the terrifying moment in which a damned soul experiences “a sodain flash of horror first, and then he goes into fire without light” (Sermons, 2:239). “Goodfriday” hopes for a very different kind of fire, one that will “Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,” but Donne nevertheless remains anxious about the similar caloric medium shared by the purifying fires of God's mercy and the horrifying fires of eternal damnation.

Purification and punishment, furthermore, are imagined in these poems as media of self-fashioning. The fires will not consume the speaker but rather will restore God's image in him in order to occasion God's recognition of him; he will be punished “that thou mayst know me.” This is a peculiar thing to say to an omniscient being, quietly placing limits on that being's capacity to know his creatures.25 At the same time, it implies that Donne has the perverse power to make himself unrecognizable to his maker. The poem longs for God to use pain to sacrifice the congenitally perverse subjectivity of its speaker in order to reveal a more authentic if less individuated self within. Original sin, Donne suggests in a sermon, “hath banished me out of my self” (Sermons, 6:116-17). God's attentive afflictions, he hopes, will end this exile. Although the opening gambit of the speaker of “Goodfriday” is to divorce soul and body as an explanation of his own divided will, his solicitation of punishment intends to reunite them, since torture is an action imposed on the body but perceived in the mind. He longs to experience the pain that would wean him from the pleasant world that draws him away from his God.26 An emphasis on how Christ suffered for humanity precipitates a devotional mode in which humanity longs to suffer for God.

Where Donne's account of the Passion concludes with a focus on the salutary and constitutive violence that God directs toward humans, Herbert's account of the Passion explores the spiritual and psychological vertigo that issues from the attempt to internalize an impossible sacrifice. Where Donne could not bear to look at his suffering Savior, Herbert ventriloquizes the bitter laments of his. In doing so, Herbert draws on a vast medieval tradition based in Jeremiah. Herbert's “The Sacrifice” has in fact been the subject of one of the major critical debates of the last century: where William Empson finds the poem exemplary of his final type of ambiguity, in which completely opposite sentiments are held in uneasy suspension, Rosemond Tuve argues that Empson's ingeniously ambiguous readings evaporate in the harsh light of the scholarly tradition. While the initial battle seems to have gone to Tuve, Empson appears to have won the war. While Tuve is correct that many of the phenomena that Empson explores are traditional, what is significant is Herbert's particular amplification and contextualization of them. As J. A. W. Bennett, no friend to Empsonian ingenuity, observes, the tone of Herbert's “Sacrifice” is “harsher and more ironic than that of any medieval antecedent, or of any contemporary presentation.”27 It is this harsh irony that Tuve would dampen, and that Empson has given us ears to hear.

Herbert, moreover, lays out such traditional liturgical patterns at the threshold of his temple of devotion in order to stage an aggressive dialogue with them. He does this first of all through sequence. The preceding poem is “The Altar,” a shaped poem that welcomes the reader into the lyrics of “The Church,” and which identifies through its form the symbolic place whereby the sacrifice of Jesus is reenacted in the liturgical practices of the Church of England. But it also signals the pressures of sacrificial interiorization—the altar looks like an “I,” and the substance of the altar is revealed to be the hard stones of a mortal heart, stones that only God can cut. As such, the poem uses the psalmic internalization of sacrifice to align Hebraic sacrificial rituals with the sacrifice of Jesus, and with the contemporaneous liturgical practices designed to replicate that sacrifice. The speaker prays in the poem's conclusion that God will “let thy blessed Sacrifice be mine, / And sanctifie this Altar to be thine” (17-18). The final couplet of “The Altar,” then, advertises the purpose for which the altar was constructed—it is a place where humans can reenact the sacrifice of God.

But the subsequent poem, “The Sacrifice,” demonstrates just how difficult it is for a mortal to feel secure in the performance of this sacrifice. Its interrogatory refrain—“Was ever grief like mine?”—reiterates the uniqueness of the event it dramatizes, and so haunts the injunction to respond to it. There is a profound structural irony in the existence of a poem in which a mortal poet assumes the voice of the suffering God telling his creatures that they cannot appropriate the sacrifice represented therein. Throughout the poem, bitter irony underscores the vast distance between God's behavior toward his creatures and those creatures' cruel treatment of their maker. Herbert's Jesus proves quite the ironist, turning it repeatedly against the creatures who mock and torture him. “The princes of my people make a head / Against their Maker” (5-6), he laments, punning bitterly on the aggressive and creative meanings of make. Similar syntactic patterns and linguistic puns run throughout the poem: “They use that power against me, which I gave” (11); “At their commands / I suffer binding, who have loos'd their bands” (46-47); “Then from one ruler to another bound / They leade me” (53-54). Jesus, moreover, is charged with just the kind of violent impertinence that his creatures so grotesquely display: “Then they accuse me of great blasphemie, / That I did thrust into the Deitie” (61-62). His torturers will prove guilty of just the gesture for which they accuse Jesus, thrusting quite literally into the deity: “Nay, after death their spite shall further go: / For they will pierce my side, I full well know” (245-46).

Herbert's Jesus seems particularly offended by the social indecorum to which he is made subject:

Herod in judgement sits, while I do stand;
Examines me with a censorious hand:
I him obey, who all things else command.


Though commanding “all,” Jesus is forced to defer to a petty mortal lord. Mortal treatment of Jesus here resembles the disrespect Donne performs in turning his back on his superior. Herbert's Jesus, moreover, is subjected to abuse by those creatures who are lowest on the social hierarchy—“Servants and abjects flout me” (141). He announces that

A King my title is, prefixt on high;
Yet by my subjects am condemn'd to die
A servile death in servile companie.


Herbert's Jesus here announces the political dimension of his sacrifice; rather than creatures offering a gift of gratitude to their creator, here the creator and king is sentenced to death by his subjects and creatures. The universe is maliciously turned upside down.

This total ontological reversal produces a hidden propriety in the pathetic attempts of Jesus' torturers to engage in corrosive irony:

They bow their knees to me, and cry Hail King:
What ever scoffes or scornfulnesse can bring,
I am the floore, the sink, where they it fling:
                                                                                Was ever grief like mine?
Yet since mans scepters are as frail as reeds,
And thorny all their crowns, bloudie their weeds;
I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds:
                                                                                Was ever grief like mine?


Mortals mock this figure who claims he is king, yet the joke is on them, because the object of their mockery is the celestial king. As the mob urges Jesus to use his power to help himself—“Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down”—Jesus again transubstantiates their mockery into truth by describing the kenosis as an occasion when he had already performed the descent they urge: “Alas! I did so, when I left my crown / And fathers smile for you, to feel his frown” (221-23).

“The Sacrifice,” then, indicates repeatedly that the event which the speaker of “The Altar” prays to appropriate is unfathomable and unreachable by humanity. The final stanza of “The Sacrifice” emphasizes this point through a bitter ambiguity that renders promise and threat, gratitude and revenge, indistinguishable:

But now I die; now all is finished.
My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head
Onely let others say, when I am dead,
                                        Never was grief like mine.


Is the final statement direct or indirect discourse? As Empson brilliantly argues, the last two lines contain an excruciating ambiguity.28 Are these “others” to suffer for their sinful treatment of their Savior so that they too will lament “never was grief like mine”? Or are these others to acknowledge the uniqueness of Christ's sacrifice, and the subsequent inability of mortals to make it their own? Are the “others” his torturers, or his followers, or is this distinction sustainable in the face of indiscriminate mortal arrogance? If it is taken as direct discourse spoken by others, then the poem's final utterance is Jesus' vengeful promise that others shall suffer for the way that he has been made to suffer. If it is indirect discourse, then the poem's final utterance depicts the inimitable uniqueness of Christ's sacrifice. Either through terror or incapacity, mortal responses to this stunning event are quailed.

Rather than resolving the ambiguity, the poem opens out into the next poem, “The Thanksgiving,” in which a mortal attempts to respond to the voice of the suffering Christ, to fulfill the wish expressed at the end of “The Altar” to make Christ's sacrifice his own. What emerges is a deeply sincere but implicitly ludicrous imitation of the “King of griefs.” The speaker of “The Thanksgiving” proposes to respond to the voice of his suffering lord by imitating him: “But how then shall I imitate thee, and / Copie thy fair though bloudie hand?” (15-16). He slowly comes to realize, though, that the imitatio Cristi is from a Reformed perspective an impossible and ultimately misguided form of devotion that arrogates to the self the prerogatives of God alone. As Martin Luther had proclaimed at the beginning of the Reformation,

all hypocrites and idolators essay to do those works which properly pertain to divinity and belong to Christ solely and alone. They do not indeed say with their mouth: I am God, I am Christ, yet in fact they arrogate to themselves the divinity and office of Christ. And so, in fact, they say: I am Christ, I am saviour, not only of myself, but also of others.29

By staging the voice of the sacrificial Christ and his own wish to imitate it, Herbert deliberately installs the furnishings of Catholic meditation in a deeply Reformed temple. As Ilona Bell observes, “much as Sidney and Donne raided and exploded the Petrarchan conventions, Herbert used and doomed the familiar images, postures, and goals of Catholic meditation.”30 Herbert performs a devotional imitation whose aggressive failures entail a heartfelt act of sacrifice and praise.

The speaker of “The Thanksgiving” begins as if he has just finished reading a text of the last stanza of “The Sacrifice,” and is meditating upon the ambiguities contained therein. “O King of grief,” he asks, “How shall I grieve for thee, / Who in all grief preventest me?” (1, 3-4). The word prevent here, like the ambiguity at the end of “The Sacrifice,” looks in two directions at once: the word means not only “to act before, to anticipate,” but also “to forestall, balk, or baffle. … To cut off beforehand, debar, preclude.”31 Christ's immense sacrifice prevents the speaker not only chronologically but also qualitatively; it is a grief that is both prior and unparalleled. Linked to prevenient, the theological term for the manner in which God's grace anticipates human needs, prevent infers the way that God's sacrificial mercy places an infinite burden on the mortal devotee. The speaker of “The Thanksgiving” suggests that Jesus' moment of greatest despair—when he had cried, “My God, my God, why dost thou part from me?”—was “such a grief as cannot be” (10). He nevertheless proposes to match God's beneficence with his own pious yet misguided good works as a way to “revenge me on thy love”:

If thou dost give me wealth; I will restore
          All back unto thee by poore.
If thou dost give me honour; men shall see,
          The honor doth belong to thee.
I will not marry; or if she be mine,
          She and her children shall be thine.
My bosome friend, if he blaspheme thy name,
          I will tear thence his love and fame.
One half of me being gone, the rest I give
          Unto some Chappell, die or live.
As for thy passion—But of that anon,
          When with the other I have done.


As is the case so frequently with Herbert, the verse-form participates actively in the meaning: the alternating long and short lines represent the pulse of poverty and wealth that would be part of this false spiritual economy, even as the sing-song rhythm suggests the glibness of the speaker's response. When he turns to the subject of the Passion, though, the meter falters, as the speaker stutters into authenticity, realizing that humans can never offer a sacrifice that would in any way match that of Jesus.

Among the more ridiculous proposals is the speaker's suggestion that he can imitate God's foreknowledge:

For thy predestination I'le contrive,
          That three yeares hence, if I survive,
I'le build a spittle, or mend common wayes.


The very claim depends upon the contingency of his survival, a contingency that completely undoes the parallel between his own actions and God's. The poem concludes with the speaker stammering at his inability to find any mode of response to Christ's sacrifice: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that—/ Alas, my God, I know not what” (49-50). His broken syntax represents the internal violence the sacrifice demands. The poem in some sense ends where it begins, wondering how to grieve for a figure who prevents all grief.

It is appropriate that part of the battle between Empson and Tuve over “The Sacrifice” had to do with just how original the poem is, because the speaker of “The Thanksgiving” confronts the issue of originality head-on when he asks, “How then shall I imitate thee, and / Copie thy fair though bloudie hand?” (15-16). Is the follower of Christ to parrot the words of Christian tradition, or is he or she to engage in a creative imitation which will attempt to emulate Christ's sacrifice? In “The Crosse,” Herbert's poetic confrontation with the symbol of the suffering figure that utters “The Sacrifice,” the speaker complains about the excoriating contradictions of his mortal existence before discovering the essence of the cross in his own psychological agony:

                    Ah my deare Father, ease my smart!
These contrarieties crush me: these crosse actions
Doe winde a rope about, and cut my heart:
                    And yet since these thy contradictions
Are properly a crosse felt by thy Sonne,
With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done.


His momentary conformity with God's will is expressed not only in the submissive sentiments of the last four words but also in their origin in the Lord's Prayer. Embracing the excruciating paradoxes of mortal existence as an interior version of Christ's suffering precipitates a viable response to the symbol of Christ's sacrifice. In the Ancilla Pietatis, Daniel Featley, a moderate conformist, had asserted the productive discipline of assimilating the phrases of the Bible into one's devotions:

For in these we ought most of all to denie our selves, and to captivate, not onely our thought to the conceptions, but our tongs to the words and phrases of the inspired Oracles of God.32

Although imitating the sacrifice of God entails for Herbert a misguided mode of devotion, imitating the words of God, making them your own, entails the ultimate sacrifice—that of the self and its language. In the self-immolation of a fully biblical stylistics, Herbert points to what it might mean to “copie thy fair though bloudie hand.” The poem thus serves as a provisional answer to the devotional dilemma uncovered in “The Thanksgiving.”

Although Christ announces in the last stanza of “The Sacrifice” that “all is finished,” the problem of responding devoutly to this vexed historical moment has only just begun. The poem that follows “The Thanksgiving,” “The Reprisall” (originally entitled “The Second Thanks-giving”), demonstrates that the only sacrificial offering the speaker is capable of making is surrendering any illusions he might have about his capacity to imitate Christ's sacrifice. He begins by conceding that “There is no dealing with thy mighty passion” (2) and says that even if he would die for his Savior, he would be in arrears, since Christ was blameless and died for all: “Though I die for thee, I am behind” (3). He complains bitterly that God has chosen to “outgo” him both in “eternal glorie” and in corporeal agony:

                    Ah! Was it not enough that thou
By thy eternal glorie didst outgo me?
Couldst thou not griefs sad conquests me allow,
                    But in all vict'ries overthrow me?


Herbert here allows the implicit competition of sacrificial gift-giving to emerge. It is a potlatch that mortals can never win. The conclusion, though, promises that through “confession” the speaker will “come / Into thy conquest” (13-14). He offers to turn his agonistic and competitive energies inward, bifurcating the self in order to “overcome / The man who once against thee fought” (15-16). In doing so, he inaugurates an unending division of the sinful self that becomes, ultimately, a lyrically productive liturgy of interior sacrifice.

The lyrics of The Temple are in many ways an extended series of such reprisals. Herbert's poem entitled “Goodfriday” begins in the interrogative mode, wondering what mode of response a mortal can generate to this scene of suffering:

                    O my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy bloud?
How shall I count what thee befell,
                    And each grief tell?
                    Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one starre show'd thy first breath,
                    Shall all thy death?


The last twelve lines of this poem, written in a different meter and originally comprising in the Williams manuscript a separate poem entitled “The Passion,” transform the speaker's effort to compose a response to the sacrifice into a prayer to be made the vehicle of divine writing:

Since bloud is fittest, Lord, to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloudie fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sinne:
That when sinne spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes,
All come to lodge there, sinne may say,
No room for me, and flie away.
Sinne being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sinne take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.


Herbert wittily hopes that by assimilating the sacrifice of his God into the marrow of his being, he will at once crowd out sin and invite that God to enter and to write the story of his passion in his subject's own blood. Where Donne on Good Friday interrogates the possibility of beholding his bleeding God, Herbert longs on that day to have God compose his own story in Herbert's blood.

I would like to conclude this symptomatic study of seventeenth-century sacrificial poetics by glancing at Milton's surprisingly pathetic attempt at a Passion poem, and to suggest that it has more in common with Donne's and Herbert's deservedly canonical lyrics than we might think. The poem was probably intended as a companion-piece to Milton's gorgeous “Nativity Ode”; it is written in the same meter and rhyme scheme as the opening stanzas of that poem. The precocious twenty-one-year-old poet obviously planned in these two poems to cover the birth and death of his Savior. While the subject of Christ's birth brought out the best in the young poet, the subject of his suffering and death brought out his worst. While he could strut proudly into Bethlehem, he could only steal disconcertedly around Golgotha. “The Passion” consists of eight stanzas that swaddle the subject with ludicrous clichés before the poet abandons the effort entirely. Milton begins “The Passion” by describing the subject and style of the “Nativity Ode”—

Ere-while of Musick, and Ethereal mirth,
Wherwith the stage of Ayr and Earth did ring,
And joyous news of heav'nly Infants birth,
My muse with Angels did divide to sing.(33)

This lyric exaltation is a striking contrast to the “sorrow” and “notes of saddest woe” he must now sing, a lugubrious subject he experiences as undesirable and constraining: “These latter scenes confine my roving vers, / To this Horizon is my Phoebus bound” (22-23). Milton seems to be trying to urge his muse to transport him to the scene of the Passion, perhaps by borrowing Ezekiel's chariot, or by asking “som transporting Cherub … / To bear me where the Towers of Salem stood” (39-40). But it is as if his muse were riding westward on what is probably Good Friday, 1630, and will not allow herself to be directed toward that ponderous subject. The poem ends in a bathetic image of the poet's tears impregnating a cloud; Milton here sounds like Crashaw on a bad day:

Or should I thence hurried on viewles wing,
Take up a weeping on the Mountains wilde,
The gentle neighbourhood of grove and spring
Would soon unboosom all thir Echoes milde,
And I (for grief is easily beguild)
Might think th'infection of my sorrows loud,
Had got a race of mourners on som pregnant cloud.

Milton then appends an explanatory note to the poem: “This subject the author finding to be above the yeers he had, when he wrote it, and nothing satisfi'd with what was begun, left it unfinisht.”

Yet Milton carefully printed the incomplete poem in both the 1645 and the 1673 editions of his poems, as if the fragment had some meaning for him. Moreover, any poet who could compose Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and perhaps Samson Agonistes while blind and in political defeat, could have completed a comparatively slight lyric on the highly conventional subject of the Passion if he had wanted to. But he did not, and the sacrifice recedes from the horizon of this decidedly religious poet. In Paradise Lost, the suffering of the cross is mentioned only briefly as an abstract figure (12.413-25); Milton is in this epic far more interested in moral rectitude than in salvific suffering. When Abdiel is welcomed back into heaven, for example, the angels salute him as one who “for the testimonie of Truth hast born / Universal reproach, far worse to beare / Then violence” (6.33-35), Paradise Regained is likewise focused on the Son's rejection of temptation, not on his carnal suffering. It is “one mans firm obedience fully tri'd / Through all temptation” (1: 4-5) that allows paradise to be regained. In both epics Milton deliberately relocates the atonement from a scenario of corporeal martyrdom to a moment of ethical decision. Only in the vivid suffering of Samson Agonistes do we get some of the attention to corporeal affliction that had been a crucial element in earlier Passion narratives, and here it is far removed from a sacrificial context. With Milton, the Passion drops away as a subject of religious and poetic inquiry; its energies are absorbed by the ethical pressures of temptation and the continual persecution experienced by the one just man in a world of woe.

I want to argue that Milton cherished this short and flawed lyric in part because it participates in a subgenre of works dedicated to the idea that the sacrifice inevitably defeats human response. It is not just that Milton could not finish the poem, but that its unfinished and unsuccessful nature represents something substantial and meaningful. The subject was not just beyond the poet's years, but beyond the capacity of any Christian to fathom. In its very incompleteness, then, and even in its aesthetic inadequacy, the poem offers a formal version of the stuttering inability to respond to Christ's sacrifice that concludes Herbert's “The Thanksgiving,” or of the willed avoidance of the Passion that structures Donne's “Goodfriday” poem.

Golgotha, then, proved a particularly difficult hill for seventeenth-century English devotional poets to climb. Donne saunters away from it, Herbert stammers his inability to deal with it, and Milton incompletely circles it before turning his attention to other matters. If a poetics of sacrifice emerges from these poems, it is in the realization that Christ's sacrifice ultimately defeats poetry. As a poetic subject, the sacrifice demands that one perform the inexpressibility topos writ large. In the work of these three very different poets, we can see how the subject of the Passion at once elicited and discouraged lyric response. If subsequent English poetry largely follows the trajectory of Milton in pursuing other subjects for religious verse, we can nonetheless prize the remarkable lyric achievements of Donne and Herbert as they produce riveting aesthetic documents from their own spiritual and poetic impediments.


  1. Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954; rev. 1962).

  2. Luis de la Puente, Meditations (1605), 1:59-60; quoted from Martz, Poetry of Meditation, 49. See also Anthony Raspa, The Emotive Image: Jesuit Poetics in the English Renaissance (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1983); A. D. Cousins, Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw (London: Sheed and Ward, 1991); and Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy, and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  3. Martz, Poetry of Meditation, 31.

  4. “Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward,” line 16, cited from The Divine Poems of John Donne, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). All citations of Donne's sacred poems are from this edition, given by line numbers. I am not suggesting, of course, that these works are the only available lyric engagements with the Passion; rather, I wish to treat them as symptomatic of a larger trajectory of seventeenth-century devotional writings from corporeal suffering to ethical injunction. Notable poetic engagements with the Passion that I do not explore here include Amelia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum (1611), which I discuss in detail in “The Gender of Religious Devotion: Amelia Lanyer and John Donne,” in Religion and Culture in the English Renaissance, ed. Debora Shuger and Claire McEachern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 209-33; and Nicholas Breton's “The Countesse of Pembroke's Passion” (n.d.).

  5. “The Crosse,” lines 1-2, in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941). All subsequent references to Herbert's poetry are from this edition given by line numbers.

  6. Donne's medical metaphor may be chosen with great care here, since the Millenary Petition, which had asked that “the cross in baptism … may be taken away,” cited the king's own Galenic model of the king as physician to his people: “For, as your princely pen writeth: ‘The king, as a good physician, must first know what pecant humours his patient naturall is most subject unto, before he can begin his cure,’” (The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688: Documents and Commentary, ed. J. P. Kenyon [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966], 132). The dispute over the sign of the cross in baptism is analyzed in David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 124-48.

  7. Debora Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 127.

  8. Ibid., 7.

  9. See Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 124-48.

  10. Thomas Wilson, A Christian Dictionary (London, 1616), 505.

  11. All biblical quotations are from the Authorized Version.

  12. Samuel Torshell, The Saints Humiliation (London, 1633), 102-3, 111.

  13. Tellingly, Herbert uses the same image of fragrance released by violent manipulation both to depict his own devotional longings in “The Odour” and to describe God's delicious sacrifice in “The Banquet.”

  14. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

  15. In Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563-1694 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 9, John Knott argues similarly that in Foxe's martyrology “pain does not have the obliterating effects described by Elaine Scarry. Foxe's Marian martyrs affirm their identity as true Christians by gestures, such as clapping their hands in the flames, and memorable last words.”

  16. I am thinking here particularly of the erudite essays of A. B. Chambers, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward: The Poem and the Tradition,” English Literary History 28 (1961): 31-53; and Chambers, “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’: Looking Back,” John Donne Journal 6 (1987): 185-212.

  17. Donald Friedman, “Memory and the Art of Salvation in Donne's Good Friday Poem,” English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973): 431.

  18. Ibid., 426.

  19. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-62), 5:266. Further citations are given in the text by volume and page numbers.

  20. Thomas Birch, Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols. (London, 1754), 2:384.

  21. The gesture is, to borrow the terms of Wilbur Sanders's discussion of a similar moment in “Batter my heart,” so “fiercely willed that it destroys the possibility of its own fulfillment” (John Donne's Poetry [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971], 130).

  22. John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

  23. Quoted in Carey, John Donne, 20.

  24. Donne's residual Catholicism is explored by Richard Strier, “John Donne Awry and Squint: The ‘Holy Sonnets,’ 1608-1610,” Modern Philology 86 (1989): 357-85; and by Dennis Flynn, John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

  25. In his “Hymn to God the Father,” Donne would engage in a similarly outrageous version of this topos, reminding God that “when thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For I have more.”

  26. In Sonnets 50 and 51, Shakespeare explores a similar topos, imagining a speaker who is riding away from a friend and into affliction: “My grief lies onward, and my joy behind” (Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Stephen Booth [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977]).

  27. J. A. W. Bennett, Poetry of the Passion: Studies in Twelve Centuries of English Verse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 158-59; Rosemond Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 19-99.

  28. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: New Directions, 1947), 226-33.

  29. D. Martin Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. C. F. Knaake, et al. (Weimar, 1883), 40:404; quoted in Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 702 n. 1.

  30. Ilona Bell, “‘Setting Foot into Divinity’: George Herbert and the English Reformation,” Modern Language Quarterly 38 (1977): 222.

  31. Ibid., 228.

  32. Daniel Featley, Ancilla Pietatis: Or, The Hand-maid to Private Devotion (London, 1626), 107.

  33. The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), lines 1-4. All citations of Milton are from this edition.


John Donne World Literature Analysis


Donne, John (Poetry Criticism)