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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

II. Poetics of the Body

Thinking Through the Body: Corporeality and Interiority in Donne

Michael Schoenfeldt

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It is wrong to call anyone a materialist simply because he attempts to say spirit in terms of matter, as if that were a sin... It is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of poetic thinking, that attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter. (Frost, 1949, 41)

1In the second Anniversary, “Of the Progress of the Soul,” Donne famously describes the spiritual purity of Elizabeth Drury in decidedly corporeal terms. Bestowing characteristics of sentience and percipience on her flesh, Donne notes that

her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought. (ll. 244-46)

2In this paper, I want to examine the complex relationship of the soul to the body in Donne’s poetry, a relationship that makes such striking utterances possible. I want to help us begin to enter a world where bodies could be imagined to speak and think, where blood could be characterized as eloquent. Throughout his career, Donne was fascinated and troubled by the relationship between bodies and souls. As Robert Ellrodt argues, “The soul or the spirit, the body or the flesh, are indeed the two poles of Donne’s speculation: his mind, alert and tense, moves along an axis which at once opposes and unites them” (Ellrodt, 1999, 188). He sometimes used aspects of contemporary soul-body theory with irreverent precision, turning their philosophical perplexities into a pretext for erotic seduction in “The Ecstasy” and Elegy 16 “On His Mistress.” But he also used the anxious installation of a core self within a corporal body to interrogate some of the deepest mysteries of human existence. I want to investigate the way that Donne thinks and feels through the body, anchoring his inveterate fears, desires, hopes, and persuasions in a decidedly corporeal language. What emerges from such an exploration of Donne is not a consistent vision of the soul-body relationship, but rather a consistently rigorous investigation of the ontological and lyric possibilities of their various models of contiguity.

3This investigation has both physiological and aesthetic dimensions. T. S. Eliot’s famous description of Donne as a metaphysical poet whose sensibility had not yet suffered the devastation of dissociation relies of course on the terms of Donne’s own praise of Elizabeth Drury’s eloquent corporeality: “a thought to Donne was an experience,” Eliot writes; “it modified his sensibility” (Eliot, 1921, 247). What Eliot emphasizes as a principle of poetic sensibility I would like to look at as a function of early modern physiology. I would like to suggest that much of what we value in Donne emerges from his aggressive participation in the various possible permutations of soul-body dispositions. Donne’s investigations of soul-body relations emerge from within a physiology that imagined souls and bodies as far more closely connected than we post-Cartesians tend to allow. As I have recently argued, the Galenic regime of the humoral self that predominated in Donne’s England prescribed the total involvement of ethical and psychological phenomena in physiological processes (Schoenfeldt, 1999).

4We can glimpse Donne’s attitude to this physiology in that curious book that Donne composed, probably early in his career, called the Paradoxes and Problems. In Problem 8 of the Paradoxes and Problems, devoted to the spurious question (so like the brittle bravado on exhibit in the Songs and Sonnets) of why the most beautiful women are always the falsest, Donne asks: “Doth the mind so follow the temper of the body, that because those complections are aptest to change, the mind is therefore so too? Or as Bells of the purest metall retayne the tinkling and sound longest: so the memory of the last pleasure lasts longer in these, and disposeth them to the next” (Peters, 1980, 30). Complexion here designates not skin color, but the complex internal balance of humoral fluids, of which skin served as one indication. Donne’s Paradox 4 argues that “our complexions and whole bodyes we inherit from parents, our inclinations, our minds follow that. For our mind is heavy in our bodyes afflictions, and rejoyceth in the bodyes pleasures” (Peters, 1980, 7). Paradox 6, asserting that the Gifts of the body are better than those of the Minde, argues similarly that “the body makes the mind... And this mind may be confounded with Soule, without any violence or injustice to Reason or philosophy, then our Soule (me seemes) is enabled by our body, not this by it... Are Chastity, Temperance, or Fortitude guifts of the mind? I appeale to phisicians whether the cause of these be not in the body” (Peters, 1980, 11-12). Daring to suggest that virtue is derived from the body’s humoral composition rather than from strenuous ethical effort, Donne here courts a rigid physiological determinism that was identified in the period with a notorious tract by the classical Roman physician Galen entitled Ouod Animi Mores. There Galen argues, in the words of a popular sixteenth-century humoral theorist named Juan Huarte:

that the maners of the soule, follow the temperature of the body, in which it keepes residence, and by reason of the heat, the coldnesse, the moisture, and the drouth, of the territorie where men inhabit, of the meates which they feed on, of the waters which they drinke, and of the aire which they breathe: some are blockish, and some wise: some of worth, and some base; some cruel, and some merciful. (Huarte, 1594, 21-23)

5In the Paradoxes, Donne explores the cultural anxiety that emerged from this physiological doctrine; he wonders whether selves are so deeply embodied that their character and their moral decisions issue from the particular composition of those bodies.

6The Paradoxes and Problems are playfully, even willfully perverse, but as John Carey remarks, “In the Paradoxes Donne defused the subject by pretending he was fooling. But he was not. The question of the body’s primacy continued to perplex him” (Carey, 1981, 162). In a letter of 1608, probably to Sir Henry Goodyer, Donne meditates on the particular mixture of matter and spirit that is humanity: “We consist of three parts, a soul, and body, and mind: which I call those thoughts and affections, and passions, which neither soul nor body hath alone, but have been begotten by their communication, as music results out of our breath and a cornet.” (Gosse, 1899, l: 184) Thought and emotion are here the music produced by the mystical communication of body and soul. This communication, moreover, was absolutely necessary to any notion of human life; as Donne later remarks in a sermon, “In the constitution and making of a natural man, the body is not the man, nor the soul is not the man, but the union of these two makes up the man” (Sermons 2, 261).

7Such a sense of self has powerful poetic implications. The vividly dramatic beginning of Satire 3--"Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids/Those tears to issue which swell my eye-lids"--invokes the powerful blend of psychological state and bodily fluid that the Paradoxes explore. The emotion of pity wars with the spleen, the organ thought to cause anger. As T. S. Eliot remarks, Donne does not just look into his heart and write; rather he “look [s] into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts” (Eliot, 1921, 250). For Donne, moreover, the relationship between body and soul is the medium not just of philosophy but also of panegyric. Donne says of Elizabeth Drury in the Second Anniversary that “we understood/Her by her sight,” as if the highest praise he could muster is that her flesh became a transparent register of her interior self (ll. 243-44). In “Resurrection, imperfect,” Donne similarly suggests that anyone who saw the resurrected Jesus “would have justly thought this body a soul” (l. 21).

8A profoundly materialist poetics, then, emerges from Donne’s particular engagement with the matter of existence. Donne was, in D. C. Allen’s apt phrase, intensely interested “in the intrinsic agonies of his own viscera” (Roberts, 1975, 322). These agonies range from the spectacular details of physical decomposition, which have received so much attention in recent work, to the protracted if more mundane pains of emotional separation, which we have tended to ignore. I want to suggest that one of the signature genres and gestures of Donne’s poetry, the valediction, takes on such profound meaning for him because of his deep investment in the embodied nature of self. If the true self is just a temporary inhabitant of an instrumental but otherwise meaningless shell, one need not fret too deeply about physical separation from those that one loves. But if one’s core being is constituted not only within but also by one’s body, separation from that which one loves becomes a kind of death in a sense far deeper than metaphor can approach.

9Indeed, the little deaths of farewell recur throughout Donne’s poetry with a frequency at least equal to those “little deaths” of sexual orgasm that derive from the medical belief that every orgasm shortened one’s life. The speaker of “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” for example, hopes that he and his beloved can part without overt emotional display, comparing their parting to the quiet, imperceptible death in sleep of virtuous men. The comparison, parting is like death, indicates the agonizing finality of the separation. The speaker shuns “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” because he is terrified that such displays of exorbitant emotion will show that he and his beloved are just “Dull sublunary lovers... whose soul is sense.” If they are such terrestrial lovers, their love “cannot admit/Absence, because it doth remove/Those things which elemented it.” If he were indeed certain that they were not such terrestrial lovers, he could have ended the poem at line 20, with the confident declaration that their refined if ineffable love is so “Inter-assured of the mind” that they “Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.” But as Elaine Scarry has remarked in her study of Donne’s corporeality, “For Donne, touch is the model for all the senses” (Scarry, 1988, 88). This blazon of body parts that he pretends not to miss betrays in its pair of spondees, “Care less, eyes, lips”, the emotional weight these body parts, particularly effectual for expressions of intimacy, truly hold for the speaker. The speaker of the “Valediction,” that is, knows with the seductive speaker of “The Ecstasy” that “pure lovers souls” must “descend/ T’affections, and to faculties,/Which sense may reach and apprehend,/Else a great prince in prison lies.” This announced need for an explicitly corporeal medium for desire is why physical separation is so threatening. The brilliant pair of images that conclude the “Valediction”, the “gold to aery thinness beat” and the “stiff twin compasses”, resolutely resist decorporalization; instead they locate a deeply spiritual love in the refined but resolutely material medium of the two final images. As John Freccero, one of the poem’s finest readers, remarks, “Among English poets who underwent the influence of Italian love poetry of the Renaissance, John Donne stands out as one who sought to reconcile the errant soul to its body once more” (Roberts, 1975, 279). The “fixed foot” of the compass, moreover, supports this reconciliation by completing the blazon of body parts begun earlier in the poem. The miraculous phenomenon by which the heavy metal gold is pounded into atmospheric lightness, and the physically conjoined behaviors of the two feet of a compass, become for Donne the deeply material registers of his profound emotional commitments over distance.

10The “Valediction: of my Name in the Window” attempts to find some material correlative that will defeat the psychological devastations of material absence. The speaker fantasizes that engraving his name in the window of his mistress can create a kind of real presence, in his absence, in his mistress’s mind. If, as the speaker of “The Ecstasy” remarks, “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,/But yet the body is his book,” the text of his name in the window will at least give his beloved something to read in his absence. The poem, though, quickly turns the parting into various deathscenarios—first “this ragged bony name” becomes “My ruinous Anatomy,” a surgical post-mortem. The speaker then asks his beloved to “daily mourn” since he “die [s] daily” in his separation from her. Finally, he renders the entire poem the “idle talk” of a dying man, the product of a near-death hallucination produced by the trauma of separation.

11Other poems develop the trope of parting as death. The speaker of “The Legacy” declares to his beloved that “I die/As often as from thee I go.” The speaker of “The Expiration” enunciates a word whose sound is fatal to him: “go.” The speaker of the Song, “Sweetest Love,” views his parting from his beloved as a “feigned death” that will prepare him for the real one to follow. The speaker of “Elegy 12” describes the “Darkness” and the “hell” he is “to suffer when [his] love is gone.” “A Valediction: of Weeping” imagines that separation of the lovers entails their total annihilation: “So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.” Like the speaker of “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” the speaker of this poem seeks to suppress the emotional outbursts that signal inner grief: “Weep me not dead,” he asks, as if her emotions were fatal to him. He develops the idea of their death at parting through the unexpected venue of an image of their conjunction: if they are one, then the sighs that were thought to shorten one’s life actually shorten the life of the beloved: “Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,/Whoe’er sighs most, is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death.” Here, emotional excess is fatal, not just to the person experiencing it but also to the object whose absence it laments.

12“The Dissolution” begins like the first Anniversary with the death of a female, “She is dead”, and laments in gritty detail the profound corporeal decay that ensues when all things “To their first elements resolve”, the Aristotelian elemental substances of earth, air, fire, and water. The speaker of this poem links the extremity of grief he experiences to these primary elements, which he sees as constitutive of his own emotional being: “My fire of passion, sighs of air,/Water of tears, and earthy sad despair,/Which my materials be” (ll. 9-11). This solvent passion, moreover, burgeons rather than diminishes with the expenditure of emotion: “My fire doth with my fuel grow.” The poem turns on the notion that as the body of the beloved decays into “those things which elemented it,” to borrow a phrase from the “Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” so does the speaker find his grief over her death driving him to a parallel dissolution.

13This deeply embodied sense of self that Donne displays renders the real presence of the beloved so delicious in poems such as “The Good Morrow” and “The Sun Rising,” and the physical absence of the beloved so disturbing in the various valedictory poems. Donne’s supple imagination, though, could develop strategies for manipulating the doctrine of embodiment to provide a source of unexpected comfort amid absence. In “The Relic,” for example, the speaker imagines that “a bracelet of bright hair about the bone” might be a “device” for ensuring that Donne and his beloved meet at the “last busy day,” the Resurrection, when souls will gather up those body parts dispersed through corporeal dissolution. Here death is the pretext for reunion of body parts and lovers, not a powerful metaphor for the emotional devastation of parting.

14The overtly religious poems offer a curious variation on this theme of embodiment. In “A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s last going into Germany,” parting is not just death but an act of ritual sacrifice: ”I sacrifice this Island unto thee,/And all whom I loved there, and who loved me.” The poem becomes a severe document of division rather than a lyric record of the longing for reunification: it is “this bill of my divorce to all,/On whom those fainter beams of love did fall.” In the poem’s final gesture, moreover, the speaker admits to choosing “An everlasting night” which sounds very much like death.

15Holy Sonnet 19, “Oh to vex me” discovers a surprising form of comfort in the entrenched embodiment of extreme emotional states. Recording the passionate extremes of a constantly inconstant devotional demeanor, the speaker describes himself as the unwilling victim of a series of forces outside his control:

when I would not
I change in vows, and in devotion.
As humorous is my contrition
As my profane love, and as soon forgot:
As riddlingly distempered, cold and hot,
As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.
I durst not view heaven yesterday; and today
In prayers, and flattering speeches I court God:
Tomorrow I quake with true fear of his rod.
So my devout fits come and go away
Like a fantastic ague: save that here
Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.

16In a recent reading of Donne’s attitude to corporeality, Nancy Selleck argues that the speaker of this poem “uses the humoral body as a metaphor for his spiritual condition” (Selleck, 2001, 159). I would argue that the humoral body is not just a metaphor for his condition; it is in fact the necessary medium of his spirituality. For the passions the poem describes were themselves inextricably bound up with the humors and with disease. As Thomas Wright observes in the popular handbook on the emotions, The Passions of the Minde: “Passions ingender Humours, and humours breed Passions” (Wright, 1604, 64). Donne’s sonnet, moreover, links its emotional extremes with the illnesses of distemper and an ague; in doing so, it appeals to contemporaneous physiology, in which extreme passion was thought to cause, and to issue from, disease. As Thomas Venner remarks in the Via Recta ad Vitam Longam. Or, A Treatise wherein the right way and best manner of living for attaining a long and healthfull life, is clearly demonstrated:

seeing that the affections and perturbations of the mind are of such force for the overthrowing of the health and welfare of the body, I advise all such as are respective of their health, to bridle all irrational motions of the mind, by the reason and understanding and labour by all means to observe a mediocrity, in their passion, wherein consisteth the tranquillity both of mind and body. (Venner, 1650, 330)

17Donne’s unsteady speaker achieves the opposite of the salutary tranquility idealized by Venner. Most tellingly, Donne’s speaker describes his optimal spiritual experience as occurring on those occasions when his body betrays his spiritual terror in behavior mimicking disease: “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.” His quivering flesh is an awestruck version of Elizabeth Drury’s eloquent blood: both testify to the capacity of the body to generate and express emotion and cognition. Both, that is, are ways of thinking through the body, of discovering deep spiritual truths in the behavior of corporal matter.

18Donne, then, explores in his poems a complex and intricate linkage of thought, feeling, and corporeality. Astute reader that he was, Samuel Taylor Coleridge grew exasperated with Donne’s frequent but inconsistent recourse to soul-body perplexities. Donne, he writes, “was a poor Metaphysician; i. e. he never closely questioned himself as to the absolute meaning of his words.—What did he mean by the ‘Soul’? what by the ‘Body’?” (Smith, 1975, 278). That which distresses Coleridge, Donne’s profound but elusive engagement with body-soul relations, is in fact the source of much of Donne’s compelling lyric power. William Empson, always one of our finest critics, argues that “To revere the dichotomy between matter and spirit leads to hopeless confusion when reading Donne, because though he too is badgered by it he keeps playing tricks with it, feeling that it ought to be transcended. What is more, though I presume he knew they were tricks, he did not think of them as such completely wild tricks as the hardening of our intellectual outlook makes us do now” (Empson, 1957, 99-100). I have tried in this essay to get us to soften our outlook a bit, to think beyond our own post-Cartesian dualisms, and to enter briefly into the range of possibilities for body-soul relationships that blessed and haunted Donne. Donne’s particularly aggressive take on this physiology may indeed be one origin of the profoundly material poetics that we so value in Donne. Whether blushing or trembling, coming or going, Donne’s various speakers perform what Frost calls “the height of poetic activity” in their anxious but determined effort to discover meaning amid the mouldering matter of existence.


Works Cited

Allen, Don Cameron. 1943. “John Donne’s Knowledge of Renaissance Medicine.” Reprinted in Essential Articles, ed. Roberts.

Carey, John. 1981. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. New York: Oxford University Press.

Donne, John. 1953-62. Sermons. Ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson. 10 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. 1921. “The Metaphysical Poets.” Reprinted in Selected Essays, 1950. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Ellrodt, Robert. 1999. Seven Metaphysical Poets: A Structural Study of the Unchanging Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Empson, William. 1957. “Donne the space man.” Reprinted in Essays on Renaissance Literature, 1993. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freccero, John. 1963. “Donne’s ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Reprinted in Roberts, Essential Articles.

Frost, Robert. 1949. Selected Prose. New York: Collier, 1949.

Gosse, Edmond. 1899. The Life and Letters of John Donne. 2 vols. London: William Heinemann.

Huarte, Juan. 1594. The Examination of Men’s Wits. Ed. Carmen Rogers. Gainesville: Scholars Facsimiles & Reprints.

Peters, Helen. Ed. 1980. John Donne: Paradoxes and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Roberts, John R. Ed., 1975. Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne’s Poetry. Hamden: Archon Books.

Scarry, Elaine. 1988. “Donne: ‘But yet the body is his booke.”Literature and the Body: Essays on Popidations and Persons. Ed. Elaine Scarry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schoenfeldt, Michael. 1999. Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selleck, Nancy, 2001. “Donne’s Body.” Studies in English Literature 41, pp. 149-74.

Smith, A. J. 1975. John Donne: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Venner, Thomas. 1650. Via Recta ad Vitam Longam. Or, A Treatise wherein the right way and best manner of living for attaining a long and healthfull life, is clearly demonstrated. London.

Wright, Thomas. 1604. The Passions of the Minde in Generall. Ed. Thomas O. Sloane. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1971.


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