Donne's Atomies and Anatomies: Deconstructed Bodies and the Resurrection of Atomic Theory

by David A. Hedrich Hirsch
Donne's Atomies and Anatomies: Deconstructed Bodies and the Resurrection of Atomic Theory
David A. Hedrich Hirsch
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

Donne's Atomies and Anatomies:
Deconstructed Bodies and the
Resurrection of Atomic Theory


While dissecting the body of a decaying Earth, John Donne marks the rebirth of heretical atomic theory in his First Anni- versarie. An Anatomy of the World:

new Philosophy cals all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out,

And freely men confesse, that this world's spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out againe to'his Atomis.
'Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone.

(lines 205-13)'

If one cuts away at the very word "anatomy," as did speakers of colloquial English in Donne's time, the dissection of parts might lead to an "atomy," or atom, the smallest piece of matter.2 Throughout much of his work Donne returns to this anatomical dissecting table, articulating in words the disarticulation of material decay, in an attempt to locate physical permanence and spiritual coherence. The revival of ancient atomism around the turn of the seventeenth century furnished Donne with a highly controversial theory of essence which could, in part, allay his persistent materialistic anxieties surrounding death and resur- rection. As a link between the visible and invisible, time and timelessness, and the embodied self's presence and absence, the

David A. Hedrich Hirsch, a graduate student at Harvard University, is currently beginning a dissertation on the homoerotics of sympathetic identi- fication in literary, political, and scientific representations of "brotherly love."

atom in its "immortality" provided the poet with a stabilizing center and limit to the dissolution of somatocentric identity, although Donne's an-atomical proofs would threaten to decon- struct his own argument, leading him to the limits of rational comprehension and a confrontation with religious faith.

At approximately the same time that he was (de)composing his Anatomy of the World,Donne's dissecting gaze was turned "Upon Mr. Thomas Coryats Crudities," a satiric analysis of Coryate's "corpus" in which Donne writes,

The bravest Heroes, for publike good

Scatter'd in divers lands, their lims and bloud.

Worst malefactors, to whom men are prize,

Do publike good cut in Anatomies,

So will thy booke in peeces.

(lines 51-55)

What becomes of the idea of a unified self when its representative form is shown to be decomposing into separate pieces? The anatomized "peeces" of Coryate's text are scattered for public good: some tissues will serve as pill wrappers, others will be used as backing in the spine of other books, and part of the book, "as Sybils was," might be lost to the wind. Although here the description of a book as a body is whimsical, I will argue that Donne's concern elsewhere with the scattered remains of the body is a profoundly serious effort to secure the permanence of an individual's physical representation of self. Would it be possible to recollect all the scattered pieces of the body and reconstruct the form and meaning of the original, or might some of the "tissues" be lost, incorporated into other "spines"?

By wielding figuratively the blade of an anatomist, Donne is forced to confront the double edge of this metaphorical tool: the anatomy is simultaneously an attempt to reveal order as well as a process which causes further decay. Devon Hodges has noted that "the [Renaissance] anatomist's passionate effort to get back to a solid unified truth leads him to interrupt that totality and transform it into fragmented matter," but when the anatomist is, like Donne, concerned not so much with the body as with the intangible "self" that the body represents, "a significant change has occurred: the spiritual and the abstract are replaced by the sensible and the visible."s This replacement, this reifying repre- sentation of the invisible "self" with the tangible body, is to some degree a defensive appropriation of the "reality" of biological firmness to prove more elusive truths of the spirit or p~yche.~

As a


figure of speech, the body in Donne's work is a signifying and empirically sensible trace of an individual's existence: if atomic theory can secure the permanence of the material body as signifier, then Donne might prove the immortality of the in(di)visible signified that the body-as-text represents. In proposing a discussion of Donne's metaphorical appropriation of anatomic and atomic theories, I wish to suggest some of the difficulties Donne confronts in representing the self as a unified object, understanding "repre- sentation" throughout my discussion as both a symbolic process of denying spatial and temporal absence through the manipulation of words and images, as well as the re-presentation of one's substantial self through resurrection's power to reincorporate the soul and scattered bodily parts, aspects of self separated with death's decay. By anatomizing the representative body to the limits of material dissection, Donne attempts to discover a radical immutability of selfhood which could refute his fear of dissolving into nothingness. He would cease his anatomy once he cuts to the material permanence of atoms, for the atom as the limit to the self's deconstruction might also serve as the origin of that self's reconstruction.

The elemental heart of atomistic philosophy is the idea that all things in existence are made of matter and empty space, and that this matter is composed of indivisible atoms which are too small to be observed. First proposed by Leucippius and Democritus in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., atomic theory was associated primarily with Epicurus, and Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, in the minds of Renaissance scholars.5 In contrast to atomism was Aristotle's theory of four elements (air, fire, earth, and water) of which all things are made, a concept earlier proposed by Empedocles. Lucretius, it should be noted, does not actually dismiss Empedocles' quaternary system, but argues that each of these "elements" must, in turn, be composed of atoms.

Although not strikingly controversial in itself, the atomic theory advanced by the ancients contains several corollaries which were indeed contradictory to later Christian theology. First, there is the idea that ex nihilo nihil fit, that nothing can come out of nothing, and therefore that the material universe has always existed, contrary to Genesis. Creation and dissolution were considered by ancient atomists to be random rearrangements of immutable atoms. Equally disturbing to church fathers is the insistence that the soul, being a material substance, is mortal and must be dispersed with the body after death. This heresy of "mortalism," taken together with Lucretius's fervent attack on conventional religion, caused later generations to view the atomists (often unjustly) as atheistic rebels. The atomistic revivalists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attempted reconciliation of atomic and Christian ideas, but the philosophy of atomic principles long remained under heretical suspicion.6

Given the suspect reception of atomism (and of "new philos- ophy" more generally) in the early seventeenth century, it is surprising that Donne, who took religious orders several years after the publication of the Anatomy, possessed a considerable number of books in his library devoted to scientific theory, atomic in particular. Geoffrey Keynes's partial inventory of the library lists works by several contemporary natural philosophers which apparently deal explicitly with atomism. Other philosophical and theological texts concern atheism and the immortality of the soul, their titles suggesting possible reference to the atomic theories of Democritus, Epicurus, or Lucretius7 But Donne's personal con- nections with Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland also known as the "Wizard Earl," were at least as important a resource as his private readings.8 "[A] learned and eager person, filled with strange scholastic knowledge," Percy was the central figure in what has been termed the "Northumberland Circle," a group of the most progressive men of science in England around the beginning of the seventeenth ~entury.~

Notable among the intel- lectual leaders of the Circle were Thomas Hariot, Walter Warner (who would later share his atomistic fervor with members of the famous "Cavendish Circle," including Thomas Hobbes), Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe, and, not surprisingly, Nicholas Hill, whose Philosophia Epicures, Democritiana, Theo- phrastica is one of the works previously mentioned from Donne's library. Of primary relevance here is the fact that virtually every scientific member of the group was an avowed atomist.1°

It might also be noted that Giordano Bruno, the highly controversial and vocal proponent of Democritean doctrine who was ultimately executed for heresy, spent three years (1583-85) in England during which time he published five groundbreaking tracts. Both Percy and Hariot are known to have read Bruno's work, but whether Bruno met with any members of Northumber- land's circle while in England is unknown." Edmund Gosse suggests that Donne might have had some exposure to Bruno's "forbidden writings" during a purported visit to Italy sometime between 1592 and 1596.12 In addition, Sir Francis Bacon's letters and notebooks reveal his intimacy with Percy, Ralegh, and Hariot during the years 1603-1608, and within the first two decades of the century Bacon wrote three tracts which show a detailed knowledge of Lucretius and a firm acceptance of atomistic principles (although Bacon later renounced his acceptance of atomism).l3


Donne had more than ample opportunity to absorb atomistic theory during the earliest years of its rediscovery in late-Elizabethan England, although the preceding presentation of influences paints an unjustly skewed picture of the age's receptivity to atomistic philosophy. Throughout the Middle Ages and most of the Renais- sance, the theories of Democritus and Epicurus were discounted on nearly all fronts. Charles Trawick Harrison notes that the "treat- ment of Epicurean doctrine in the strictures of Saint Augustine, Tertullian, and Lactantius was familiar from the Middle Ages, and undoubtedly tended to delay the study of Lucretius in the Renaissance-if not in Italy, at least in England, where moral considerations were more potent." Epicureanism, Harrison shows, was popularly conceived of as hedonistic heresy since the time of Cicero and Plutarch. Many of Donne's church colleagues preached fervently against the sins of Epicureanism. William Perkins, Lancelot Andrewes, and even Joseph Hall, who wrote introductory poems to Donne's Anniuersaries and was Donne's lifelong friend, were outspoken enemies of Epicureanism, although their familiar- ity with Epicurus's teachings seems limited to his much-quoted phrase, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die."14 Furthermore, even those commentators well-versed in Epicurean/ atomistic theory found much to decry. For example, Sir John Davies's popular Nosce Teipsum, a 1599 religio-philosophical refutation of contemporary ideas about the soul's mortality, singles out the Epicures as the chief targets of attack.15

Donne's involvement in the burgeoning atomic debate stems from his concern with permanence in the face of what seems to him an unavoidable recognition of decay and loss. As John Carey has pointed out, in John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, perhaps the most crucial foundation of Donne's thought is his conception of change as a seemingly inevitable unidirectional movement towards dis- solution.'6 Achsah Guibbory concurs that Donne's "map of time" is marked by an obsessive downward falling into decay." Donne's poetry and prose lay bare a dual sense of fascination and horror at the idea of nothingness. This "inintelligible" thing, nothingness, seems "a black hole into which everything intelligible slid," Carey says. "What's more, everything would slide into it, Donne believed, if God ceased to exercise his sustaining power" (Carey, p. 172). Donne's preoccupation with the dynamics and significance of material decay leads him to consider the possibility that God is, in fact, no longer in active contact with our world. In a sermon preached around 1625 Donne notes that "the Angels of heaven, which did so familiarly converse with men in the beginning of the world, though they may not be doubted to perform to us still their ministerial1 assistances, yet they seem so far to have deserted this world, as that they do not appeare to us, as they did to those our Fathers."18 Likewise, in "Paradox I" ("That all things kill themselves"), Donne considers the possibility of God's idleness, and this concept recurs periodically in the poetry.lg Yet even with God's sustaining power in effect, Donne remarks, the progress of decay is unchecked; in fact, it is a part of the Plan. Since the era of Aquinas's teachings and perhaps earlier, Aristotelian notions of the world's permanence had been refuted as contrary to biblical teachings of the Apocalypse; by Donne's time, the Earth's ultimate destruction was an entrenched idea in orthodox Chri~tianity.~~

However explicable this decay might be, it is nonetheless a recurrent source of uneasiness to Donne. The First Anniuersarie illustrates this anxiety more explicitly than perhaps any other of Donne's poems, and here Donne catalogs the final remains of our "Sicke world, yea dead, yea putrified, . . . Corrupt and mortal1 in thy purest part" (lines 56, 62). Corruption has been disassembling the world unceasingly since the beginning of time, disfiguring first the angels, then the newly created earth, then man and the rest of creation: "So did the world from the first houre decay, / The evening was beginning of the day" (lines 201-202). Humanity hastens this destructive process, as well:

We seeme ambitious, Gods whole worke t'undoe;
Of nothing he made us, and we strive too,
To bring our selves to nothing backe.

(lines 155-57)

Foremost among those hastening this destabilizing disintegration are proponents of "new Philosophy," who "see that this [world] / Is crumbled out againe to his Atomis."

Like their prototypes in the garden of Eden, these philosophers seem to destroy the harmonious unity of nature while they search for hidden secrets of the universe. But does the new philosophers' knowledge result in the complete destruction of materiality, or does it only discover the inherent mutability of conglomerate form? Donne's use of the term atomi in this anatomical context is more subtle than it might first appear. Atomi, the plural form of the Latin atomus, is derived from the Greek roots "a-," meaning "not," and "temnein," to cut. Thus, an atomus (or, later, atome) is an "irreducible, indestructible material unity," the limit to material disintegration or cutting up which is the "simple, indivisible, and indestructible" basic component of the universe.21 Donne also takes advantage of two other contemporary definitions


of atomi, "an anatomical preparation, especially a skeleton," or, more loosely, "an emaciated or withered living body."22 AS numerous critics have shown, Donne's persona in the First Anniversarie is a true anatomist, one who separates his analysis into distinct, "sundred parts," and shows the "disformity ," "decay," "disorder" and "want of correspondence" in the world through his disjoint manner of presentation.23 The poem itself is a struggle to dissect away, in the words of an Elizabethan surgeon, "those partes that be broken or cut, . . . that [which] is superfluous, as warts, wennes, skurfulas, and other lyke,"Z4 and to find somewhere, at the core of this crumbling mass, something indivisible, something incorruptible and eternal which will survive the destruction. Donne connotes several meanings of the word atomi to suggest a paradox: that which cannot be dissolved of the world's atomi (or skeleton) is in fact the world's atomi, or basic material components.

Donne's decision to stop his anatomy at the level of atoms is crucial to an understanding of his view of physical decay. Rather than argue that the Earth will be destroyed all at once, at the end of time, the Anatomy stresses its present slow decay by parts. The significance of this is revealed in a letter "To the Honourable L. the Lady Kingsmel upon the death of her Husband," where Donne begins by saying, "Those things which God dissolves at once, as he shall do the Sun, and Moon, and those bodies at the last conflagration, he never intends to reunite again; but in those things, which he takes in pieces, as he doth man, and wife, in these divorces by death, and in single persons, by the divorce of body and soul, God hath another purpose to make them up again."25 One might guess that the Earth would be included with the Sun and Moon as bodies dissolved at once, never to be reformed. But in the Anatomy Donne shows that the Earth "crumbled out againe to his Atomis" is dissolving in pieces, atomic pieces, furthermore, which are by definition immortal and which retain their integrity regardless of the dissolution of their molecular or superstructural arrangement in form.

John Swan's 1635 Speculum mundi suggests that this concern with the permanence of the world was by no means a Donnean idiosyncrasy. Swan defines the opposing arguments of the debate as follows: "1. If it [the world] be destroyed according to the substance, then it must be so destroyed, as that nothing of it be remaining. 2. If it be destroyed according to the qualities, then it shall onely be purged, the substance still abiding."26 Donne will not allow the material world to return to absolute nothingness in his Anatomy, and shows the structural rather than the elemental dissolution of physicality. He stops just short of the abyss and rests upon the permanence of atoms. Similarly, when Donne catalogues the destruction of the microcosmal body in the Devotions, the process of decay significantly stops once again at the atom: "Man, who is the noblest part of the Earth, . . . feeles that a Feuer doth not melt him like snow, . . . but calcine[s] him, reduce[s] him to Atomes, and to ashes."27 Hence death cannot reduce the body to nothingness-the body's atomi secure its immortal physicality. The An-atomy of the world is as much a search for the immortal soul of the world (the orthodox interpretation of the poem) as it is a search for the atomi of the world, physical relics which, as emaciated or skeletal remains or even immutable atomic elements, will survive with the soul despite death's disassembly.

This argument is potentially radical if one considers the necessity of physical death for spiritual rebirth as a cornerstone of Christian theology. This borderline-heretical (yet entirely human) yearning for bodily permanence is nevertheless repeated so often by Donne as to become a central trope in his poetic and prose works. It is no surprise that Donne's frequent descriptions of the wiping out of "intirenesse" usually contain within them a hope for avoiding dissolution, not only through Christian resurrection of the soul but also through some form of embalming, or physical preservation. "The Broken Heart," for example, despite being shattered by love's plague-like decay, possesses an integrity still potentially salvageable because "nothing can to nothing fall, . . . my breast hath all / Those peeces still, though they be not unite" (lines25-8). In the "Elegie to the Lady Bedford" ("You that are she and you, that's double shee"), death's division of a friendship is countered by the thought that

As of this all, though many parts decay, The pure which elemented them shall stay; And though diffus'd, and spread in infinite, Shall recollect, and in one All unite. (lines 23-26)

Likewise in "The Funerall," the speaker's skeletal integrity is safeguarded by a wreath of hair which, like his spinal cord, can "tye those parts, and make mee one of all":

Who ever comes to shroud me, do not harme

Nor question much

That subtile wreath of haire, which crowns my arme;

The mystery, the signe you must not touch,

For 'tis my outwarde Soule,

Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone, Will leave this to controule, And keepe these limbes, her Provinces, from dissolution. (lines 1-8)

Focussing on his body as a string of (dis)connected parts threatened by dissolution with the soul's departure, the poet expresses a very personal desire for the preservation of his specific body. Implicit in this argument is the monarch soul's eventual return to the bodily realm. This "crown" of hair, as metaphorical "signe," refutes the soul's absence as would a "Viceroy" or political representative maintain order in the "Provinces" during a monarch's progress.

In "The Dissolution" physical absence caused by death is once again negated by the continued presence of representative elements of the body. "Shee'is dead;" Donne writes,

And all which die

To their first Elements resolve;

And wee were mutual1 Elements to us,

And made of one another.

My body then doth hers involve,

And those things whereof I consist, hereby

In me abundant grow.

(lines 1-7)

The bodily dissolution of the poet's dead lover is countered by the suggestion that the two form a closed material system: the woman's elements do not disappear but are recycled into the poet's own self, whose "body then doth hers involve." Donne's reference in this poem to the elements of fire, air, water, and earth suggests that he accepts the Aristotelian explanation of physical substances, which was still generally believed in the early part of the seventeenth century, although increasingly subject to attack. illthough Donne often cites Empedocles' and Aristotle's four elements, the quaternary theory offered little stability on which to base the permanence of material forms. As he says in one of his later sermons, "In the Elements themselves, of which all sub- elementary things are composed, there is no acquiescence, but a vicissitudinary transmutation into one another; Ayre condensed becomes water, a more solid body, and Ayre rarified becomes fire."28By the time of The Second Anniversary, in fact, Donne writes that it is no longer believed "that our body'is wrought i Of Ayre, and Fire, and other Elements" (lines 264-65).Donne seems to agree with Lucretius's refutation of Empedocles, that if "the basic- elemerlts / Are made of soft matter [like fire, air, etc., which are themselves "perishable"], . . . / [Then a] universe made of them would certainly die / And everything, once again, would be born from nothing."29

Donne's attraction to the concept of the atom, then, is motivated by the permanence of physicality that such a concept offers. As Carey has stated, "Even if death meant only the separation of soul and body, it was still repugnant. The thought of the body helplessly mouldering through its long years of dissolution preyed on his mind" (p. 226). Carey suggests that Donne's obsessive fascination with resurrection is "not in any distinctive sense religious. It is a corollary of his preoccupation with changing states of matter. The dissolving and recompacting of deceased bodies . . . , the conjuring trick by which God turned dust into instant bodies appealed to Donne because it satisfied in a final and definitive way his desire for integration" (p. 220). It is precisely this preoccupation with disintegration and re-integration, with finding both the limit to destruction and the germ of creation, which makes the atom so attractive to Donne, but I find question- able Carey's severing of religious and material concerns. Donne's concept of selfhood is never purely materialistic, and the fate of the body is inextricably coupled with that of the soul.

"A Valediction of my name, in the window" marks this indelible coupling quite clearly. If the body is like a name, as the poem suggests, then the proper interpretation of such a text must necessarily take into account both the letter and the spirit of the nomos. The "Valediction" of the poem's title signifies a separation, and although the expressed conceit is the departure of the speaker from his mistress, "A Valediction of my name" also suggests a separation of a different sort. Donne likens the speaker's separation from the beloved to the soul's departure from the body, or, rather, the signified's separation from the signifying name. The name etched onto glass can be read as a re-presentation of the speaker's essence, the flesh made word.

"My name engrav'd herein" of the first line pre-scribes "such characters, as graved bee" in line 35, calling attention to the two possible definitions of both "engraved" and "character." What aspect of identity is a "name engrav'd"? It is an elusive definition of self reified by its conversion to written words etched permanently onto a mirroring glass. The characters of one's name, a collection of those specific letters which in their proper ordering constitute one's defining appellation, are analogous to the smallest basic components of one's physical body. (This is, by the way, an analogy proposed in De Rerum Natura, repeated at least twice in the first book alone.30) Thus, the engraving of one's name in a


mirror preserves a physical representation of the self just as a coffin locks up and (hopefully) preserves the bodies of "such characters, as graved bee." The implied conceit of the valediction, concerns the departure of the "firmnesse" of the speaker's physical presence from the integrated living union of his body and soul. Absence is rigorously denied by representation: as in "The Funerall," the speaker-soul's departure is not a total erasure of authorial presence because his representatives (or signatory agents) are yet visible in the bodily provinces.

The speaker's concern for a specifically physical preservation of identity is suggested by a changeless "point":

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.

(lines 13- 16)

To clarify what this "point" might be, the speaker adds that it is an illustration from "hard and deepe" learning. This "hard" "point" can be discovered only through a "deepe" "Anatomie," a progressive cutting up and dividing of the mortal body until one finds an immortal element still intact despite the scattering of bodily parts. The permanence of such points will make it possible to "recompact my scattered body." Just as the firmness of a name depends upon the integrity of its component letters, there can be hope for a resurrection of that scattered body only if one can find some permanent aspect uncorrupted by physical decay.

This preservation of the body is seen as absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of the soul. The reflective inversion of selves of stanza I1 ("Here you see mee, and I am you") posits the "you" of stanza V as both the intact body of the lady and the image of the speaker's own body:

Then, as all my soules bee, Emparadis'd in you, (in whom alone I understand, and grow and see). (lines 25-27)

This mirror transcription of selves will allow the soul, which during life could function only in the speaker's body, to function after his departure in the substitute body of his name etched on the glass, and in the body of the mistress whose reading of the name will cause her to "reflect" upon the disembodied speaker.

Donne's overriding concern for the preservation of the body is therefore bound to spiritual concerns, because if one's immortal soul can "understand, and grow and see" only within one's proper body, that body must be prevented from decaying and disintegra- ting into nothingness. Hence, the window's "magique" duplica- tion of mirrored selves and its ability to infuse within the lady the symbolic body of the speaker's identity (his name) make it possible for the lady to retain the "rafters of my body" inside herself for safekeeping until his soul can return for their repossession. In Lucretian optics, images are "filmy shapes / . . . sent off all the time from the surface of things," shapes actually made of "[mlany small particles, which could remain in the order / They were in before, and entirely keep their shape."31 Therefore the "patterne" or representation of self (be it the mirror's reflection or the representation of self through the engraving of one's name) is made of actual particles of the self's substance, which escape from the self's bodily surface only to be grasped, both figuratively and literally, by the eyes of the observer. This is the same airborne mode of particular transmission by which the stars affect the lower sphere and by which souls are believed to be infused from God into newborn children, as lines 33-35 suggest ("As all the vertuous powers which are / Fix'd in the stares, are said to flow / Into such characters") and as Donne discusses elsewhere.32

Here one might object that my an-atomic analysis of the "Valediction" is somewhat strained, seeing that the word "atom" is not even mentioned in the text. The same sort of exegesis could be performed on other poems of Donne's which do, indeed, use the term "atom" (some of which I will mention below), but I have chosen to concentrate on a poem less explicitly about atomism in order to emphasize one "point." Donne's concern for finding some immutable source of physical identity goes much deeper than mere toying with fashionable (or unfashionable) scientific tropes. Nor is his materialism simply reflective of a poet's sensuality or, perhaps, the carnality of a young man. Whereas Carey argues that Donne's objectification of states of love and confusion simply serves the need for poetic intensity (p. 165), the persistent return in Donne's work to images of bodily integrity and decay suggests not a scholastic manipulation of poetic conceit hut rather a fundamental (.on(-ern with physicality that Donne cannot escape even in his rranscendental religious meditation. What becomes clear by looking at Donne's work throughout his lifetime is that his conc,eption of self is deeply rooted in the integrity of his personal body, and that without some assurance of physical permanence, purely spiritual immortality is somehow incomplete.

Donne's materialist concerns at times lead him, furthermore, to the controversial suggestion that the soul itself might be composed of atoms, or, at least might be material in a sense related to the body's physicality. Just as he appropriated the atom for his discourse on the body's permanence, Donne relates atomic materiality with the changeless state of the soul in "The Exstasie":

Wee then, who are this new soule, know, Of what we are compos'd, and made, For, th'Atomies of which we grow, Are soules, whom no change can invade. (lines 45-48)

Donne seems to agree with Nicholas Hill's assertion that the material soul's immortality is defined by its atomic nature. Of course, this is not Donne's definitive statement on the nature of the soul, nor should I exaggerate its importance to Donne's conception of spiritual essence. A handful of other references throughout Donne's work, however, suggests his temptation to view the soul as a material substance, a controversial idea which grew more prominent as the century progressed.33 In the Juvenilia he writes 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 enhabled by our body, not this by that."34 It only follows from this that the soul itself must be material if it is to be "enhabled" by the physical body and if it can be "confounded" with the body-produced mind.35 Similarly, in the "Tenth Meditation" of the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, the soul is presented as a material substance which would decay were it not for God's special embalming skill: "That light, which is the very emanation of the light of God, . . . only that bends not to this Center, to Ruine; that which was not made of Nothing, is not threatened with this annihilation. All other things are; even Angels, even our soules; they move upon the same poles, they bend to the same Center; and if they were not made immortal1 by preservation, their Nature could not keep them from sinking to this center, Annihilation."36 Donne's "Holy Sonnet V" ("I am a little world made cunningly") suggests that the self is co~nposed "Of Elements, and an Angelike spright," both of which must die because of "black sinne." Furthermore the "Holy Sonnet VII" ("At the round earths imagin'd corners"), as Carey points out (pp. 222-23),posits the soul to be an object as mortal as the body, an entity which also must await the Apocalypse for a re-entry into life. This profoundly unorthodox idea of the soul as a dead object resurrected simultaneously with the body suggests that Donne was occasionally inclined toward mortalism, which he associated with "[tlhose Heretickes . . . called the Arabians" who affirmed "a temporary death of the soul, as well as of the body, but then they allowed a Resurrection to both soul, and body."37 While it must be granted that Donne exhibits only peripheral interest in the composition of the soul, and his belief in its immortality is for the most part unquestioning, I mean to suggest that when he does think about the soul's substantial reality, Donne is more than tempted to define it in material terms.38

Despite this relatively firm belief in the soul's immortality, Donne expresses some logical uncertainty in his discussion of bodily resurrection:

[Tlhe Resurrection of the Body is discernible by no other light, but that of Faith, nor could be fixed by any lesse assurance than an Article of the Creed. Where be all the splinters of that Bone, which a shot hath shivered and scattered in the Ayre? Where be all the Atoms of that flesh, which a Corrasive hath eat away, or a Consumption hath breath'd, and exhal'd away from our arms, and other Limbs? In what wrinkle, in what furrow, in what bowel of the earth, ly all the graines of the ashes of a body burnt a thousand years since? . . . [A111 dies, and all dries, and molders into dust, and that dust is blowen into the River, and that puddled water tumbled into the sea, and that ebs and flows in infinite revolution^.^^

The fact that "the Resurrection of the Body is discernible by no other light, but that of Faith" could not prevent Donne from ruminating on resurrective mechanics. Apparent in the preceding extract is his concern for not whole decaying bodies but, rather, the "splinters" of bone, scattered "Atoms of that flesh," and "graines of the ashes of a body burnt." The idea of atoms is particularly well-suited to Donne's acceptance of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" from The Book of Common Prayer, because another popular definition of atomus was "one of the particles of dust which are rendered visible by light,"40 a definition which stems directly from Lucretius.41 Donne's concept of resurrection is entrenched in this dust, yet the very difficulty of collecting and organizing this dust shakes Donne's sense of credibility. Other sermons repeat Donne's concern with the fate of atomic dust. For example, a sermon of 1621 expresses the following anxiety: "The knife, the marble, the skinne, the body are ground away, trod away, they are destroy'd, who knows the revolutions of dust? Dust upon the Kings high-way,


and dust upon the Kings grave, are both, or neither, Dust Royall, and may change places; who knows the revolutions of dust?"42 The recurrence of this image suggests a profoundly disturbed Donne, who seems horrified at the thought that the material remains of one's body can be so easily scattered and confounded with particles of that which it is not. In his own funeral sermon, Donne would once again describe the mingling of a monarch's dust "with the dust of every high way, and of every dunghill," and what seems to trouble Donne even more is the thought that this dust "may bee the dust of another man, that concernes not him of whom it is askt." The very idea of an integral self is swept away in a cloud of undifferentiated dust. "This is the most inglorious and contempt- ible vilification, the most deadly and peremptory nullification of man, that wee can consider." 43 If this dust, these atoms, are the only permanent pieces of one's body after the ravages of death and decay, what hope for resurrection can exist when these atoms are blown randomly by the wind?

In answer to his own question, "Where be all the Atoms of that flesh, which a Corrasive hath eat away," Donne responds, "still, still God knows in what Cabinet every seed-Pearle lies, in what part of the world every graine of every mans dust lies; and sibilat populum suum, (as his Prophet speaks in another case) he whispers, he hisses, he beckens for the bodies of his Saints, and in the twinckling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sate down at the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection." 44 In this passage, Donne makes elegant use of two definitions of atomus in illustration of the marvel of resurrection. First he finds the possibility for material reconstruction in the immutable "Atoms of that flesh" which outlive any mortal body's inevitable decay. Then, repeating the words of 1 Corinthians 15.52, he calls forth the precise Latin definition of atomus, "the twinckling of an eye," to explain the miraculous speed with which God rejoins these points of matter.45 Even if one were to doubt Donne's awareness of this strict translation from the Latin, one could suspect the poet-scholar's familiarity with the medieval definition of atomus as the smallest measure of time, equal to 15/94 of a second.46 Through "atomic economics," Donne utilizes his exegetical skills to cut to the core of meaning, finding in one term the expression of resurrection's possible mechanism as well as its impossible swiftness of action.

This conceptual linkage of the atom with time recurs in the Devotions as well as other sermons,47 and quite provocatively in the "Obsequies to the Lord Harrington." Lines 55-59, which read,

Yet at the last two perfect bodies rise,
Because God knowes where every Atome lyes;
So, if one knowledge were made of all those,
Who knew his minutes well, hee might dispose
His vertues into names, and ranks;

link the word "Atome" with the suggestive term "minutes," which can be read as both tiny particles of matter and tiny particles of time. The effect is a probing of the incomprehensible gap between death and rebirth, formlessness and reformation, the intelligible time of minutes preceding the Apocalypse and the vastness of eternity merely a twinkling of an eye later. In this critical space between time and timelessness is the infinitely minute atom.

Yet only God can know "his minutes well": humans know neither the revolutions of dust nor the exact date of their impending resurrection. The following expanded selection from the "Obsequies" reveals a strain in Donne's voice as he vacillates between the same profound interest in firm "atomies" and a religious mistrust of an-atomical formulations of truth:

But where can I affirme, or where arrest
My thoughts on his deeds? which shall I call best?
For fluid vertue cannot be look'd on,
Nor can endure a contemplation;
As bodies change, and as I do not weare
Those Spirits, humors, blood I did last yeare,
And, as if on a streame I fixe mine eye,
That drop, which I looked on, is presently
Pusht with more waters from my sight, and gone,
So in this sea of vertues, can no one
Bee'insisted on; vertues, as rivers, passe,
Yet still remaines that vertuous man there was;
And as if man feed on mans flesh, and so
Part of his body to another owe,
Yet at the last two perfect bodies rise,
Because God knowes where every Atome lyes;
So, if one knowledge were made of all those,
Who knew his minutes well, hee might dispose
His vertues into names, and ranks; but I
Should injure Nature, Vertue,'and Destinie,
Should I divide and discontinue so,
Vertue, which did in one intirenesse grow.
For as, hee that would say, spirits are fram'd
Of all the purest parts that can be nam'd,
Honours not spirits halfe so much, as hee
Which sayes, they have no parts, but simple bee;

So is't of vertue; for a point and one
Are much entirer then a million.

(lines 41 -68)

True to form, Donne discusses "fluid vertue" in terms of bodily analogy. Virtue, a defining principle of the soul, is discussed as if it were an invisibly small component of the body's internal liquid, carried through the bloodstream like the soul which Donne was tempted to view as a material substance. Granting this physicality, Donne is forced to recognize in lines 45-51 that virtue, like every component of the body, is constantly being depleted and renewed. (This concept, as well as the river imagery, is repeated in lines 155-62,and is strikingly reminiscent of Lucretius.48) The argument of lines 41-52 is thus a restatement of Donne's familiar search for physical permanence in the wake of bodily flux and decay. If the elusiveness of a self defined by virtue can be substantiated through analogical and metaphorical reification-"As bodies change. . . as if on a streame . . . So in this sea of vertuesH-then the continuing presence of the deceased Lord Harrington might be secured.

This metaphorical representation of a self, a re-embodiment of an absent presence and denial of the passing of "minutes," nevertheless threatens to elude the poet's grasp. The following couplet, "And as if man feed on mans flesh, and so / Part of his body to another owe," again recalls Lucretius,49 yet more im- portantly reveals a troublesome awareness of the conservation of matter. The consequences of this couplet are startling. As in other poems,50 Donne here adopts the view that there is a fixed quantity of "stuff" in the universe which is repeatedly re-used and redis- tributed throughout time and space. This thought, combined with the awareness of bodily flux in the previous lines, makes resur- rection a nearly unfathomable act of accounting. Donne is rephrasing here what St. Augustine called the infidels' "most difficult question of all" concerning resurrection: "Whose flesh shall that man's be in the resurrection, which is eaten by another man through compulsion of hunger; for it is turned into his flesh that eats it, and fills the parts that famine had made hollow and lean? Shall therefore he have it again that owned it at first, or he that eats it and so owned it afterwards?"5l Which parts of one's body are truly one's own, and which of these fleeting particles of matter will God opt to resurrect? Donne's materialistic bent has led him to an impasse: if his argument continues in its present direction, it must conclude that the reconstruction of an individual body is an absurd impossibility, because all material forms since the beginning of time have shared the same atomic elements.

Donne has reached a crisis of logic, for if he contends that virtues, like atomic pieces of the body, are permanent and recyclable, how then can one maintain one's specific identity immortally, when these pieces of self become the property or food of succeeding generations?

The following lines, "Yet at the last two perfect bodies rise, / Because God knowes where every atome lyes," while continuing to express the centrality of atomic theory to Donne's belief in bodily resurrection, reveal Donne's befuddlement in the conditional "if"-"if one knowledge were made of all those, / Who knew his minutes well, hee might disposeH- suggesting the limitations of human rational capability. The poet ultimately throws up his hands in defeat in lines 59-62, saying that anatomical division of this sort injures the unity of virtue's form. And in direct refutation of scholars like Nicholas Hill, who atomized the soul and described it as "the most noble part of matter" composed of a mingling of thing~,~2

Donne scorns the dissective impulse to turn "a point and one" into "a million" "purest parts." He must do so, given his inability logically to overcome the impasse reached at line 54.

Donne's knowledge of immutable parts can take him only so far, and has led him to irreconcilable contradiction. I should empha- size, however, that the existence of atomic foundations is never denied;53 as I have argued, Donne's belief in the immutability of atoms is prerequisite to his acceptance of the possibility of physical resurrection. Yet it exceeds the power of human intelligence to understand God's reconstructive power in toto, Donne suggests, and one must gloss over the rational difficulties of resurrection and contemplate entireties, not parts. As Donne says elsewhere,

[Blut when the question was, whether men so macerated, so scattered in this world, could have a Resurrection to their former temporal1 happiness here, that puts the Prophet to his Domine tu n6sti, It is in thy breast to propose it, it is in thy hand to execute it, whether thou do it, or do it not, thy name be glorified; It fals not within our conjecture, which way it shall please thee to take for this Re~urrection.5~

This death of incineration and dispersion, is, to natural1 reason, the most irrecoverable death of all, and yet Domini Domini sunt exitus mortis, unto God the Lord belong the issues of death, and by recompacting this dust into the same body, and reanimating the same body with the same soule, hee shall in a blessed and glorious resurrection give mee such an issue from this death.55


Donne's use of an-atomical analysis in the "Obsequies," having led him to an unbridgeable gap of logic, is likewise deferred and superseded by humble faith. His attempt to maintain the purity of individual identity must conclude that the self-as-body is made of parts "owned" by and owed to other generations, that the individual is always already divided, and that human reason cannot account for the mysteries of resurrection. The atom's significance defers to the Absolute Signified, God.

By materializing virtue, the soul, or the essence of individual identity into a permanent engraving or bodily component, Donne has sought to deny empirical absence by atomic reification. His metaphorical transubstantiations privilege bodily presence in an attempt to refute the immateriality of nothingness. It is this very insistence on the corporeal form, this search for proof of immortal morphology, which has led him to pursue an-atomically the morpheme atomus, to trace its shifting significance in the context of bodily degradation and resurrection. Yet this metaphor-based denial of absence, carried to its logical conclusion in the "Obsequies," takes Donne to the very absence he would evade. Faced with the logic of the conservation of matter, Donne's somatocentric insistence on material precedence ultimately negates his material integrity in "the most deadly and peremptory nullifi- cation of man." Far from securing an unalterable presence defined by the immutable atom, Donne's metaphorical evasion of destruc- tion deconstructs on the very basis of its prioritization of the material. What, then, can be the benefit of an analytical approach to knowledge of things permanent, if it necessitates the fallacious metaphorization of absence into presence, and results in logical blindness, in the blink, in the twinkling of an eye?

Donne's notes for a sermon given at St. Paul's on Christmas, 1621, provide the beginnings of an answer. In this sermon based on John 1:8, Donne says that

Knowledge cannot save us, but we cannot be saved without Knowledge; Faith is not on this side Knowledge, but beyond it; we must necessarily come to Knowledge first, though we must not stay at it, when we are come thither. For, a regenerate Christian . . . believeth [religious mysteries] for their own sake, by Faith, though he take Knowledge of them before, by that common Reason, and by those humane Arguments, which worke upon other men, in natural1 or moral1 things. Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sunne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinal1 Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumins us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light, finds out the Mysteries of Religion.56

Applying this to what I have discussed concerning Donne's atomism, it seems that atomic theory can begin to shed light upon resurrection and immortality, but cannot actually pierce through the veil of mystery shrouding God's acts. Donne "must necessarily come to Knowledge first," and he does so by an empirical analysis of the decay which shakes his egocentric desire for a permanence of self. It would be a mistake to assume that Donne's stance in the "Obsequies" represents a complete dismissal of an-atomical division and hypothesizing, for, after all, it is not simply the use of the light of reason which can be corrupt, but rather the motiuation behind one's search which might be impertinent.

In other words, Donne's attempt to illuminate the mysteries of resurrection by reasoning in an-atomistic terms can be seen as an affirmative effort to prove the possibility of physical reformation. Anatomy is Donne's (and God's) method "to preserve by destroy- ing. . . . Gods first intention even when he destroyes is to preserve, as a Physitians first intention, in the most distasteful1 physick, is health; even God's demolitions are super-edifications, his Anato- mies, his dissections are so many re-compactings, so many resurrections."57 It is apparent, however, that Donne feels not a little mistrust of dissective analysis. "Perfection is in ~nitie,"~~

he believes, and the cutting up of "intirenesse" seems a frightening and potentially dangerous act. How, after all, does such anato- mizing differ from the natural disintegration of physicality which so threatens Donne's fragile integrity of self? Both processes threaten to leave Donne stranded in the nothingness of decon- structed aporia. There seems no simple way to resolve Donne's contradictory impulses to find, on the one hand, an immutable form of matter which will secure resurrective possibility, and, on the other hand, to turn away from analyses which divide up entireties in anatomical dissection. This forward and backward movement, this hide-and-seek of the anatomized body, becomes a Freudian game of fort-da in which Donne attempts to master the threat of bodily absence. Donne is drawn to the scene of division and disintegration with a force equal to, if not exceeding, that force which repels him from the anatomical table.

Perhaps part of the difficulty for Donne is the realization that atomism relies on a faith in the invisible not dissimilar to religious


Faith. In this sense, even empirical analysis could not prove the necessary existence of an indivisible material part, and anatomical searches for permanence might even conclude, based on visual evidence, that there is no limit to physical divisibility and decay. So Donne turns away, as he does in the "Obsequies," and tries to think, instead, of intact form. But here he cannot rest. The central fear of returning to nothingness is released from Donne's uncon- scious in a repetitive compulsion to dwell on that very nothingness, whereas the other agents of Donne's psyche, his Reason and Faith, attempt to repress this horrifying concept by finding, on the one hand, an atomic denial of total bodily dissolution, and, on the other, a religious promise of resurrection. "Reason is our Soules left hand, Faith her right, / By these wee reach divinity." But when reason leads to a contradiction of religious teaching, "[tlhen backe againe to'implicite faith" Donne must invariably return.59

Donne's scorn for an-atomical analysis in the "Obsequies to the Lord Harrington" can therefore be seen as a defensive posture paradoxically similar to his fascination for the atom. Both are reactions against the threat of division which can lead to nothing- ness. In the atom, as in God, Donne finds a lost center, an invisible and indivisible source of immortality which strips death of any totalizing powers of destruction. "Reason,put t'her best Extension, / Almost meetes Faith, and makes both Centres one."'jO Taking a leap of faith into the invisible realm, Donne probes the gap between form, formlessness, and reformation, the gap between time and timelessness and between death and rebirth, and he finds in this gap the atom which is both the end of destruction and the beginning of regeneration. Nevertheless, Donne never completely mastered his "sinne of feareU6l that his material body would dissolve into nothingness. Just before death, Donne commissioned a stone sculpture and portrait drawing for which he posed as his own corpse in a winding-sheet. He bequeathed this paper image as a memento mori, a final representation through which his loved ones might re-member his fragmenting body, decaying in the tomb.62 Yet armed with faith in resurrection and his belief in atomic immutability, Donne could face death with at least the hope that his "engrav'd character," the identity of his particular body and soul, could survive through time immemorial. "All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language. . . . [God's] hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe. "63


I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful suggestions of Naomi Lebowitz, Barbara K. Lewalski, and Helen Vendler, who read this essay in its earlier drafts.

'Unless otherwise noted, the spelling and punctuation of Donne's poetry will follow The Comfilete Poetry of John Donne, The Anchor Seventeenth- Century Series, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).

2The OED suggests that one contemporary use of the term "atomi" stems from the aphaeresis of an-from "anatomy," an-being taken for the indefinite article. "Atomi" can therefore be read both as a single body for dissection and as the plural form of the Latin atomus, atom.

SDevon L. Hodges, Renaissance Fictions of Anatomy (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1985), pp. 6, 15. Hodges notes elsewhere (p. 129 n. 25) the relationship between the Greek root of "anatomy" (temnein,"to cut") and the term tomos, from which the English "tome" is derived, suggesting a provocative link between medical practices and the generic fragmentation of literary anatomies in the Renaissance. Although Hodges does not mention it, the term "atom" is traced back to the same root.

4Patrick J. Creevy has recently made a similar argument in "John Donne's Meditations Upon the Magnitude of Disease," Soundings 72,2 (Spring 1989): 61-73. Creevy explains both the benefit and danger in equating the "self" with the body: "The instant we identify ourselves with something substantial and material and particular, such as the body, or even with reified ideas, the clock begins to tick for us. Not completely trusting the immaterial and invisible, and associating ourselves with what visibly is,we begin to fear what is not yet but will be" (p. 65).

5See G.B. Stones, "The Atomic View of Matter in the XVth, XVIth, and XVIIth Centuries," Isis 10, 1 (1928): 445-65; and Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Efiicurus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928) for more extensive descriptions of ancient atomism and its impact on Renaissance philosophy. For a brief survey of Lucretian influence on British scientific poetry from Chaucer to Tennyson, see T. J.B. Spencer, "Lucretius and the Scientific Poem in English," Lucretius, ed. Donald D. Dudley (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 131-64. Unfortunately, neither Spencer nor Charles Harrison (in a study cited below) identifies Donne's substantial indebtedness to atomistic philosophy.

6An invaluable analysis of Renaissance arguments concerning Lucretian and Aristotelian debates on decay can be found in Victor Harris, All Coherence Gone (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 192-4 228 n. 48. Harris's study is one of the most cogent treatments of the concern with macro- and microcosmal decay in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although he appropriately points out that De Rerum Natura was used in the Renaissance to authorize the views of both those opposed to and those who supported the idea of historical decay (because Lucretian creation and destruction are random and cyclic events), Harris does not consider atomic permanence with reference to physical resurrection, as I do here, nor does he suggest that Donne's preoccupation with material dissolution is in any significant way a personal meditation on self-integrity. Harris does, however, provide an excellent study of the fundamental connection between religious conceptions of decay and the Fall and original sin, a causality to which I refer only incidentally in my own essay but one which was a significant part of the growing controversy surrounding ideas of decay and mortalism. Although

less relevant to my discussion here, Michael Macklem's The Anatomy of the World: Relations Between Natural and Moral Law from Donne to Pope

(Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1958) charts the change of attitudes between 1600 and 1740 concerning decay and natural order, and stresses the interrelationship between scientific and moral theories of the cause and effects of disorder. While the bulk of Macklem's study concentrates on the late- seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, pages 2-19 offer a brief introduc- tion to some of the concepts treated much more satisfactorily (in my opinion) hy Harris.

'Geoffrey Keynes, A Bibliography of Dr. John Donne, 4th edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), appendix IV, pp. 258-79. Among those books listed which may address contemporary debate on atomic theory or mortalism are Keynes's entries L11, L19, L32, L39, L84, L102, and L113. The rarity of these texts has precluded my obtaining copies for inspection, and my supposition of their content is open to dispute. It is clear, however, that Nicholas Hill's Philosophia ~picurea, ~emociitiana, Theophrastica (L102), mentioned else- where in this essav, does indeed discuss atomic theory and mortalism. Donne's


copy of Hill's text was apparently borrowed from Ben Jonson's library (Keynes, p. 271); for Jonson's (unfavorable) remarks on Hill's atomic theory, see his Epigram CXXXIII: On the Famous Voyage, lines 124-33.

8Dennis Flynn, in "Donne's Ignatius His Conclaue and Other Libels on Robert Cecil," JDJ 6, 2(1987): 163-83, 170-71, suggests furthermore that Donne may have had access to Percy's extensive private library, which contained numerous scientific works.

gEdmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1899), 1: 99-100. According to Gosse, Percy acted as Donne's 1602 "go-between" in dealing with his new father-in-law, Sir George More. Donne retained ties with Northumberland until at least 1622, in which year Donne presented two sermons in Percy's presence, one at Hanworth, the home of Percy's son-in-law James Hay (the Earl of Carlisle), and the second at Syon, Percy's own estate. See The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1953-62), 4: 163-77; 5: 245-67.

loRobert Hugh Kargon, Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 6-7, 41-42.

"Kargon, pp. 9-10.

12Gosse, 1: 56, 269. In a letter published in the TLS 27 June 1936, Richard Ince notes the probability that "Bruno's philosophy came to Donne by way of his friend and patron Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland" (p. 544).

'SKargon, pp. 43-7.

'*Charles Trawick Harrison, "The Ancient Atomists and English Literature of the Seventeenth Century," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 45 (1934): 1-79; 1, 4, 9-10. See also Harris, pp. 107-20.

15Sir John Davies, The Poems of Sir John Dauies, ed. Robert Krueger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 1-67, esp. 46-47, 57-63. Interestingly enough, Davies dedicates his book to "Henry [Percy] Earle of Northumber- land." As Harrison (pp. 13-5) makes clear, Davies was himself influenced by Joshua Sylvester's translation of Guillaume Du Bartas's Deuine Weekes and Workes,an "epic" of sorts both shaped by and in protest to Lucretius's poem. Du Bartas's influence on English philosophy and poetry concerning natural decay is discussed briefly in Harris, pp. 99-100.

16John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981). Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

IIAchsah Guibbory, The Map of Time (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986).

18Sermons,6: 323.

IgJohn Donne, Paradoxes and Problems, ed. Helen Peters (Oxford: Clar- endon Press, 1980), p. 2. Here and in future references I follow Peters's numbering of the Paradoxes.

ZOHarris, pp. 1-7.

ZIAmerican Heritage Dictionary: atom, 2.; atomism, 1.

220ED,atomi, 1.1, 2.

23Among readers who explicitly discuss the relationships between surgical and poetic anatomies, see Harold Love, "The Argument of Donne's First Anniversary," MP 64, 2 (November 1966): 125-31; Ruth A. Fox, "Donne's Anniversaries and the Art of Living," ELH 38, 4 (December 1971): 528-41; Barbara K. Lewalski, Donne's "Anniversaries" and the Poetry of Praise (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973); and, among more recent studies, Zailig Pollock, "'The Object and the Wit,' The Smell of Donne's 'First Anniversary,' " ELR 13,3 (Autumn 1983): 301-18; Thomas Willard, "Donne's Anatomy Lesson: Vesalian or Paracelsian?" JDJ 3, 1 (1984): 35-61; and Constance Elderhost, "John Donne's 'First Anniversary' As An Anatomical Anamorphosis," Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, ed. Wim Tigges (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), pp. 97-102.

24From Thomas Vicary's description of an Elizabethan surgeon's task, in The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man (1577; London: Early English Text Society, N. Triibner, 1888), p. 13.

25John Donne, Letters to Seuerall Persons of Honour, ed. Charles Edmund Merrill, Jr. (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1910), pp. 6-7. 26John Swan, Speculum mundi or a Glasse Representing the Face of the World (Cambridge: T. Buck and R. Daniel, 1635), p. 5; quoted in Harris,

p. 195.

21"Second Meditation" in John Donne, Deuotions Upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1975), p. 11.

28Sermons,7: 271.

ZgLucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. C.H. Sisson (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1976), p. 34. Compare Donne's handling of this idea of a second creation ex nihilo in "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day."

30Lucretius, pp. 36, 62.

31Lucretius, p. 106.

QSee "The Exstasie" (lines 57-60); and the "Obsequies to the Lord

Harrington" (line 161). Donne also used the idea of airborne transmission of atoms as a model for the dispensation of mercy; see Sermons, 6: 170-1. 33See George Williamson, "Milton and the Mortalist Heresy," SP 32, 3 (July 1935): 553-79. 34"Paradox VI. That the guifts of the body are better then those of the mind or of Fortune," Paradoxes, p.11. See also Helen Peters's editorial commentary,

p. 80.

35"Elegie XIII. Julia," which was first printed as Donne's but subsequently rejected from the canon, contains similar comments, likening the components of the mind to "Atoms swarming in the Sunne" (lines 23-30).

36Deuotions,p. 51.
37Sermons,3: 115.


38The one explicit doubting of the soul's immortality comes in one of Donne's humorous poems, "The Computation," where he asks jokingly at the end, "Can ghosts die?" In the "Eighteenth Meditation" of the Devotions, Donne catalogues various contemporary arguments about the nature of the soul, and ultimately concludes with Augustine that questions of the soul's composition and its introduction into the body are of less concern than is the fate of the soul after death. For a similar description of contemporary debate, see Donne's letter to Sir T. Lucey in Letters to Severall Persons of Honour, Merrill, pp. 11-16. Helen Gardner provides a short discussion of "Donne's Views on the State of the Soul after Death" in Appendix A of her edition of Donne's Divine Poems, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 114-1 7.

39Sermons, 8: 98. It seems highly possible that Donne's fascination with the revolutions of dust and the nullification of individual integrity which results from such a crisis of "ownership" was fostered by John Healey's 1610 translation of St. Augustine's The City of God (rpt.; ed. R.V.G. Tasker, 2 vols. [London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1945]), from which the following passage is taken: "as touching the putrefaction and dissolution of men's bodies, part going into dust, part into air, part into fire, part into the entrails of beasts and birds, part being drowned and dissolved into water-these accidents trouble them [the "infidels"] much, and make them think that such bodies can never gather to flesh again. . . . [Flar be it from us to think God's power insufficient to re-collect and unite every atom of the body, were it burnt, or torn by beasts, or fallen to dust, or dissolved into moisture, or exhaled into air" (2: 379,386).

'OOED, atom, 2.4.

"Lucretius, p. 47.

42Sermons, 3: 105-106. Similar passages can be found in Sermons, 3: 302; 4:

53. 43Sermons, 10: 239. 44Sermons, 8: 98. Compare Healey's translation of Augustine: "God forbid

that any corner of nature (though it may be unknown to us) should lie hid from the eye and power of the Almighty" (Augustine, 2: 386).

450ED, atom, 3, from the Greek atomos, "moment."

460ED, atom, 3.7.

47See, for example, Devotions, p. 11, and Sermons, 9: 173.

48Compare Lucretius, pp. 22-23, 74.

'gLucretius, passim, esp. p. 100, where the poet bids an old man to give up his hold on life "gracefully," because "the old is always pushed out to make way for the new; / And one thing is renewed at the expense of another: / Nobody ever ends in the pit of Tartarus; / The matter is needed for the new generations."

50Compare "The broken heart" (lines 25-28), "To the Countesse of Huntingdon" (lines 21-24), and "Elegie to the Lady Bedford" (lines 23-26).

S1Augustine, 2: 380. Augustine attempts to resolve this ambiguity of bodily ownership as follows: "The flesh of the famished man that hunger consumed is exhaled into air, and thence. . . the Creator can fetch it again. This flesh therefore of the man that was eaten, shall return to the first owner, of whom the famished man does but as it were borrow it, and so must repay it again. And his own flesh which famine dried up into air shall be re-collected and restored . . . and even if it were so consumed that no part thereof remained in nature, yet God could fetch it in an instant" (2: 386).

52Cited in Grant McColley's "Nicholas Hill and the Philosophia Epicuria," Annals of Sctence 4 (1939-40): 390-405, 393.

S3It might be noted that, up to this point, my argument is not dissimilar to readings of other Donne poems given by Murray Roston in The Soul of Wit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974). I second Roston's disagreement with critics such as J.E.V. Crofts, who argue that Donne's use of scholarly learning is mere "game playing," but I find simplistic Roston's suggestion that Donne's logic is nearly always anti-logical and aimed only at transcendental revelation

(p. 74). It seems clear that Donne indeed does point toward the inadequacy of logic alone in the securing of truth, but Donne's insistent foundation of both naturalistic and theological philosophies on the primacy of atomic perma- nence suggests that he is unwilling to completely abandon the use of logic, as Roston would have us believe.

54Sermons, 4: 58.

55Sermons, 10: 239.

56Sermons, 3: 359.

57Sermons, 9: 217. Donne's description of the dual nature of anatomy, which both preserves and destroys, bears some resemblance to Plato's "pharmakon," an unstable term which signifies a drug acting as a medicine and/or as poison. See Jacques Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy," Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 61-172. See also Lee Edelman, "The Plague of Discourse: Politics, Literary Theory, and AIDS," South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (Winter 1989): 301-16, for a timely discussion of the conflation of scientific and literary figures of speech in political discourse. Edelman's analysis of the "defensive production of the figure of literality" (p. 312) addresses some of the same issues I discuss concerning Donne's use of medicab'scientific metaphor.

58"Elegie: Loves Progress" (line 9). 59''To the Countesse of Bedford" ("Reason is our Soules left hand") (lines 1-2, 14-15). 60"Elegie On the untimely Death of the incomparable Prince, Henry" (lines 15-16).

61"A Hymne to God the Father," (line 13); see also Carey, p. 199.

%ee Izaak Walton, The Liues of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr.

Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert and Dr. Robert Sanderson, intro. George Saintsbury (1927; London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966),

p. 78; and R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970),

pp. 523-29. 63Devotions, p. 86.

  • Recommend Us