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Science, Poetry, & Higher Wisdom in John Donne’s “The Anniversaries”

Science, Poetry, & Higher Wisdom in John Donne’s “The Anniversaries”

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Published by Andrew N. Adler
Science, Poetry, & Higher Wisdom in John Donne’s “The Anniversaries”
Science, Poetry, & Higher Wisdom in John Donne’s “The Anniversaries”

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Published by: Andrew N. Adler on Jun 22, 2011
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Science, Poetry, &Higher Wisdom inJohn Donne’s “TheAnniversaries”
By Andrew N. Adler
Copyright © 1996 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Venus retards her not, to inquire, how sheCan, (being one star) Hesper, and Vesper be;He that charmed Argus’ eyes, sweet Mercury,Works not on her, who now is grown all eye;Who, if she meet the body of the sun,Goes through, not staying till his course be run;…But ere she can consider how she went,At once is at, and through the firmament.And as these stars were but so many beadsStrung on one string, speed undistinguished leadsHer through those spheres, as through the beads, a string,Whose quick succession makes it still one thing…
mages of the trajectories of celestial bodies recur throughout both of the“Anniversaries.” When analyzed, these images cohere into a hierarchy. Not surprisingly, the poetsometimes claims that Elizabeth Drury’s view of the heavens dispenses with the inaccurate,fallen perceptions and logic of earthly star-watchers. Indeed, it pays to adopt provisionally Frank Manley’s designation: Elizabeth’s
Sapientia vs
. our
But, as discussed in this essay, theinteraction between reason and perception, and their relationship to any Higher Wisdom, remainscomplex, with the poem itself carving out an intermediate position in the hierarchy. Toanticipate: three groups of people attempt to describe, delimit, and control supernal objects —first, the astronomers and astrologers; second, Elizabeth’s soul in its flight to Heaven; and finally,Donne’s “imprisoningof Elizabeth
a celestial being in flight. To explain the latter twosequences, I begin with the scientists in “An Anatomy.”According to the poem, astronomers employ both their reason (intellect) and their senses:
the heavens enjoy their spherical,Their round proportion embracing all.But yet their various and perplexed course,
in divers ages, doth enforceMen to
find out 
so many eccentric partsSuch divers down-right lines, such overthwartsAs disproportion that pure form (1.251-57; emphasis added).
Next, other observable irregularities further detract from the astronomers’ attempts toorder the cosmos into symmetric grids (1.257-85). Still, such attempts are not totally in vain, for
From “The Second Anniversary,” lines 197-202, 205-10. Hereinafter, I designate lines from the “Anniversaries”parenthetically in my main text, e.g., “(2.197-202, 2.205-10).”
Frank Manley, ed.,
John Donne: The Anniversaries
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1963), pp. 46-49.
Adler 2the poem expresses more than one view of science. In the pessimistic vein delineated by bothManley and A. J. Smith, scientific theories must derive from abstract deductions. Suchabstractions in turn must originate in the supply of perceived images synthesized by “fantasy”and presented to the intellect.
Consequently, scientific “discoveries” are tied ponderously toobservation. On this view, in a postlapsarian world, it doesn’t matter whether the celestial bodiesare “really” disproportioned or, instead, if confused human logic or perceptions have engendereda disproportion in our understanding. For, conflating the possible causes of distortion, the poemrepeatedly strikes the crucial note — that we sublunary beings can no longer envision purespheres above, and therefore we should forget our pedantic rationalism altogether.
In fact, just as astronomers’ attempts to rein in the stars and “make heaven come to us”(1.282-83) apparently are ridiculed, so, too, are the analogous efforts of astrologers to “bringheaven hither, or constellate anything / So as the influence of those stars may be / Imprisoned…”(1.392-94). In the latter case, Donne explicitly enumerates confusion both in the heavens
inour comprehension of them.
On the other hand, “The Anniversaries” implicitly concedes a more humanistic view of science, wherein theories originally constructed by the imagination force order onto an otherwiseinexplicable universe. For example, if Kepler had plotted the inexact data at his disposal, henever would have noticed elliptical orbits if he hadn’t already in part preconceived the “laws of nature” that constituted his conclusion. Thus, when Kepler saw ellipses in the sky, we can nowsay that those figures were more fabricated than perceived. Yet Kepler also conceived that“man’s ability to discover harmonies, and therefore reality, in the chaos of events is due to adirect connection between ultimate reality; namely, God, and the mind of man.”
Of course, someof Donne’s skill aims at satirizing the ellipse because it isn’t a circle. Still, I contend that the poet
See annotations to 2.292.
Frye and Manley take this position. See Manley, op. cit., pp. 44-47.
“The art is lost, and correspondence too. / For heaven gives little, and the earth takes less, / And man least knowstheir trade, and purposes” (1.396-98).
See Gerald Holton,
Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973), pp.69-90. Quotation is from p. 84.

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