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By Andrew N. Adler
Copyright © 1996 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Venus retards her not, to inquire, how she Can, (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 beads Strung on one string, speed undistinguished leads Her through those spheres, as through the beads, a string, Whose quick succession makes it still one thing…1
Images of the trajectories of celestial bodies recur throughout both of the
“Anniversaries.” When analyzed, these images cohere into a hierarchy. Not surprisingly, the poet sometimes 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 Scientia.2 But, as discussed in this essay, the interaction between reason and perception, and their relationship to any Higher Wisdom, remains complex, with the poem itself carving out an intermediate position in the hierarchy. To anticipate: 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 “imprisoning” of Elizabeth as a celestial being in flight. To explain the latter two sequences, I begin with the scientists in “An Anatomy.” According to the poem, astronomers employ both their reason (intellect) and their senses:
We think the heavens enjoy their spherical, Their round proportion embracing all. But yet their various and perplexed course, Observed in divers ages, doth enforce Men to find out so many eccentric parts Such divers down-right lines, such overthwarts As disproportion that pure form (1.251-57; emphasis added).
Next, other observable irregularities further detract from the astronomers’ attempts to order the cosmos into symmetric grids (1.257-85). Still, such attempts are not totally in vain, for
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).” 2Frank Manley, ed., John Donne: The Anniversaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1963), pp. 46-49.
Adler 2 the poem expresses more than one view of science. In the pessimistic vein delineated by both Manley and A. J. Smith, scientific theories must derive from abstract deductions. Such abstractions in turn must originate in the supply of perceived images synthesized by “fantasy” and presented to the intellect.3 Consequently, scientific “discoveries” are tied ponderously to observation. On this view, in a postlapsarian world, it doesn’t matter whether the celestial bodies are “really” disproportioned or, instead, if confused human logic or perceptions have engendered a disproportion in our understanding. For, conflating the possible causes of distortion, the poem repeatedly strikes the crucial note — that we sublunary beings can no longer envision pure spheres above, and therefore we should forget our pedantic rationalism altogether.4 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 “bring heaven 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 and in our comprehension of them.5 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 otherwise inexplicable universe. For example, if Kepler had plotted the inexact data at his disposal, he never 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 now say 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 a direct connection between ultimate reality; namely, God, and the mind of man.”6 Of course, some of Donne’s skill aims at satirizing the ellipse because it isn’t a circle. Still, I contend that the poet
annotations to 2.292. and Manley take this position. See Manley, op. cit., pp. 44-47. 5“The art is lost, and correspondence too. / For heaven gives little, and the earth takes less, / And man least knows their trade, and purposes” (1.396-98). 6See Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973), pp. 69-90. Quotation is from p. 84.
Adler 3 appreciates that an ellipse isn’t chaos, either. Donne does not glorify the theocentric aspects of the new astronomy, as does Kepler, yet Donne’s poem hardly relegates the new learning to the rubbish heap. Our first hint of some effect beyond satire arrives in the heroic language describing the astronomers’ fairly successful efforts to overlay their Reason via mathematics onto the chaotic stars:
For of meridians, and parallels, Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. … We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race They’re diversely content t’ obey our pace. (1.278-80, 1.283-84)
The poem next catalogues the earth’s disproportions, however, and the poem clearly hopes to contrast the astronomers’ line-drawing with some aspect of Elizabeth. The poet effuses, “She by whose lines proportion should be / Examined, measure of all symmetry…” (1.309-10). Her “lines” could refer to her own beautiful proportions. Arguably, however, the word indicates another layer of meaning: Her “lines” may allude to her “line-drawing.” But, her method of reining in the stars (finding “proportion”) turns out to mirror the scientists’ method. That is, her lines resemble our lines. Note, initially, that we invoke our (decayed) logic to fashion mathematical figures from abstract points:
…quantities Are made of lines, and lines from points arise, None can these lines or quantities unjoint, And say this is a line, or this a point… (2.131-34)
Next, we place such figures into the firmament to describe and control it, to bring it to us (via astronomy and astrology). Elizabeth does the same: As quoted in my epigram, her progress to Heaven requires “mak[ing]” a mathematical line from a string of stars. Like the astrologers (1.392) and astronomers (1.259), she literally joins stars together (i.e., she “constellates”). True, her Sapientia need not pause to name the planets, yet it must create a line, a “straight” route to God (2.299), by concatenating stars for her own purposes.
Adler 4 Furthermore, Donne employs tropes of perception to describe Elizabeth’s knowledge of and physical nearness to Heaven: She’s “grown all eye,” so that:
Heaven is as near, and present to her face, As colours are, and objects, in a room Where darkness was before, when tapers come.7
Yet Donne expressly portrays color and vision elsewhere in this elegy as a step removed, as filtered through “fantasy” — Scientia, not Sapientia.8 The poet probably could have substituted pure mathematical language for each of the cosmological images discussed above. We know how well he uses such pure language in imploring us to “double our thoughts on heaven.” But, such substitutions would have eviscerated both the form and the function of an Ignatian meditation. The poem does not jettison perception and reason but rather directs these faculties toward God, prior to an act of faith that transcends them. Thus, the mode of thought that allows us to see a grid of lines in the sky can serve the paltry (but not completely useless) end of mere navigation in an imperfect world; or, the same thought process can allow us to meditate upon a soul’s flight. A subdued Keplerian theocentrism of science re-emerges. In the same way that an inspired poet in Revelation can, according to Donne, justifiably “imagine corners” to the round earth,9 so Donne himself can apply this “imaginary” geometric logic to glorify God.10 Insofar as his meditation can’t possibly do Elizabeth justice, Donne selfconsciously situates his poetry in a “middle” world (1.473). He admits, in effect, that he uses mere earthly wisdom to describe the actions of a perfect soul. Yet Donne ingeniously amplifies the same metaphor in three different arenas. At the end of the First Anniversary, he writes, “Nor could incomprehensibleness deter / Me, from thus trying to emprison her” in “lines” of verse (1.469-70, 1.446). “Incomprehensibleness” connotes both
cf. somewhat contradictory description of heaven coming to the soul (not the other way around) in terms of approaching candlelight, at 2.85-89. 8See 1.250, 1.340-76, 2.292-98. 9“Divine Meditations,” No. 5, line 1. 10Compare “The Anniversaries” with the “plain map” metaphor of “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day. 1608,” line 21, and “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,” lines 13-15.
Adler 5 inability to contain within limits and inability to be grasped by our understanding.11 Yet our astronomers and astrologers confront the same difficulty: They, too, try to imprison celestial bodies with lines — i.e., render a symbolic description of a higher world — and they, too, necessarily fall short. Just as the astronomers gain some power over the sky by their classifications of it (some stars obey their pace), so Donne invokes the mysterious power of merely naming Elizabeth, “whose name refines coarse lines, and makes prose song” (1.446; cf. 1.37). One can even suggest a pun on “coarse lines” and the “course lines” of the galloping but named stars (1.283). But, all of these comparisons ultimately include Elizabeth’s soul itself, as a creator of a line through the stars coursing towards God (2.210). (She imprisons the beads of stars onto the string of her progress.) Donne’s poetry has tried to imprison Elizabeth imprisoning the stars, and she naturally escapes reduction to the language of logic and perception. Nevertheless, this is hardly an argument for poets to capitulate altogether. A similarly-structured argument that science is pointless also seems to fail. For, the pedantic rationalism of line-drawing among the dry cinders of the world in fact constitutes a relatively exalted activity. In its profound application of symbolic logic to a minutely-perceived object of study, Scientia imitates and prefigures the mysterious meditations of Sapientia. In a sense, “The Anniversaries” tries to satirize science but finds itself subtly and reluctantly relenting.
annotation to 1.469.
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