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Resurrecting John Donne

In a letter of 1607 to his close friend Sir Henry Goodyer, Donne minutely rehearsed the flaws inherent in both hypotheses: traducianism, he points out, makes it hard to see how the soul might have any “naturall immortality,” whereas the infusion theory leads one to question the beneficence of God, who is pictured as endlessly forcing, against their will, sinless souls into corrupt, fallen bodies—“the soul is forced to take this infection, and comes not into the body of her own disposition.” Traducianism leaves the supposedly divine soul dangerously undifferentiated from the “matter” of the rest of our flesh, while infusionism involves God in the dubious practice of contaminating pure souls by stuffing them into inherently sinful bodies.

Still more dizzying are Donne’s attempts to envisage the task awaiting the Creator when the last trumpet eventually blows. For Donne fervently believed that he, and all the saved, would be reunited on resurrection day with their earthly bodies, down to the very last particle. His disquisitions on this theme have an especially personal charge:

Ego, I, I the same body, and the same soul, shall be recompact again, and be identically, numerically, individually the same man. The same integrity of body, and soul, and the same integrity in the organs of my body, and in the faculties of my soul too; I shall be all there, my body, and my soul, and all my body, and all my soul.

The ardent literalism of such a passage points up an anxiety about fragmentation and separation that runs like a leitmotif through Donne’s writings. How, he wonders again and again, will God reassemble all the different bits of all the different people who have died over the centuries?

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? In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a Body drowned in the generall flood? What cohaerence, what sympathy, what dependence maintaines any relation, any correspondence, between that arm that was lost in Europe, and that legge that was lost in Afrique or Asia, scores of yeers between?

This is from a sermon that Donne preached, with ghoulish inappropriateness, at the wedding of the Earl of Bridgewater’s daughter in 1627. Our decaying corpses produce worms, he goes on, and these worms eat us and then die, dry out, molder into dust, and this dust is blown into a river, and that river water enters the sea, where it “ebbs and flows in infinite revolutions, and still, still God knows in what Cabinet every seed-Pearle lies, in what part of the world every graine of every mans dust lies.” The great day come, nothing daunted by the dispersals Donne has itemized in such unnerving detail, God

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.

Atop his urn then, swathed in his winding sheet, Donne was rehearsing not his fast-approaching earthly demise—he died some two weeks later—but the moment of his resurrection, or more precisely, Targoff suggests, the moment just before his resurrection. For unlike the figures in all other resurrection monuments of the period, Donne has his eyes closed, as he does in the frontispiece to Deaths Duell, and as he did while posing for the “choice Painter”: the moment is at hand, but has not quite arrived, body and soul have been reunited, but he has not yet ascended, and Targoff compares his savoring of this moment, just before the grand climax, to his savoring at the end of “To his Mistris Going to Bed” the moment just before his lover discards a different kind of “white lynnen” shift:

As liberally, as to a Midwife shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white lynnen hence,
There is no pennance, much less innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Critics have long pointed out the continuities between the imaginative patterns developed in Donne’s religious and his secular poetry. Theological issues recur regularly in the Songs and Sonnets,3 while the Divine Poems often make disconcerting use of sexual imagery: at the end of “Show me deare Christ,” for example, he figures the Church as at its best when it’s like an all-accommodating prostitute and open to all comers (“Who is most trew, and pleasing to thee, then/When she’is embrac’d and open to most men”); and the plowing, appropriating, and violating that Fish discerns in the love poems turn from active to passive in a Holy Sonnet like “Batter my heart, three person’d God”:

for I
Except you’enthrall mee,
never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except
you ravish mee.

Targoff is particularly interested in the way the separation at death between body and soul that Donne so dreaded relates to his many poems about the separation of lovers; it was Donne who coined the word “valediction” for saying farewell, and his various “Valediction” poems, but many others also, make copious use of the soul/body distinction as a way of insisting on the superlative nature of the bond between the lovers, as a consolation for a forthcoming departure. The opening stanzas of “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” directly compare the approaching separation of the speaker and his beloved to the moment the soul leaves the body:

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
The breath goes now, and some say, no.

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No teare-floods, nor sigh- tempests move….

The word “melt” may contain a reference to alchemy, in which Donne was much interested, for alchemy was also a means of inquiring into the way the physical and the spiritual could be first sifted apart and then reunified in a rarefied form. The lovers, Targoff argues, are being asked to behave like gold in an alchemical experiment that would have involved separating elements, refining them, and then recombining them; and, at the level of poetic alchemy, the word may have served as the catalyst for Donne’s vision of the lovers’ souls as still joined, despite his departure:

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

The frequency with which Donne stages scenes of separation suggests that the drama of leave-taking had a particular fascination for him: “So, so, breake off this last lamenting kisse,/Which sucks two soules, and vapors Both away…”; “Since she must go, and I must mourn, come night,/Environ me with darkness, whilst I write…”; “Sweetest love, I do not goe,/For wearinesse of thee….” It was a conventional enough topos for a lyric poet, but Donne’s farewell scenes are invested with an ingenuity and urgency unmatched in the work of other poets of his time. Their power and resonance are related by Targoff to a deep-seated worry about “securing future continuity in the face of present rupture.” The challenges to that “future continuity,” however, derive not so much from the fact that he must go on a trip somewhere as from a pervasive sense of the instability and fickleness not only of his lover—Donne’s poetry is full of abrasive denunciations of unfaithful women—but of himself too.

It’s partly because his poems are so self-consciously making statements that function as actions that it’s futile to try to derive from them a stable set of beliefs; Donne makes use of ideas and images rather as the soul in The Progresse of the Soule migrates through its various incumbents. At times his jousting about constancy turns nasty, as at the end of “Communitie,” where he declares:

Chang’d loves are but chang’d sorts of meat,
And when hee hath the kernell eate,
Who doth not fling away the shell?

Change is the prevailing condition that Donne’s poems both enact and anatomize. Yet it’s also in response to the constantly looming threat of dispersal and dissipation that he occasionally fashions static tableaux, such as that of the entranced lovers of “The Extasie,” who are presented as an unmoving icon of constancy, their hands “firmely cimented/With a fast balme,” their “eye-beames twisted” as if their eyes were threaded “upon one double string.” While their bodies “like sepulchrall statues” lie on the violet-strewn bank, their souls engage in a series of dense and abstruse metaphysical arguments about souls and bodies, though these eventually result in a decision to return to the realm of the physical:

So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turne wee then….

Many of Donne’s most arresting lines are those presenting an image or moment frozen in defiance of the “generall flood” of time and change:

When my grave is broke up againe
Some second ghest to entertaine,
(For graves have learn’d that woman-head
To be to more then one a Bed) And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright haire about the bone….

The lovers of “The Relique,” we learn, have come up with this “device” as a way of enjoying a short reunion on resurrection day; the woman will have to visit his grave to retrieve the strands of her hair that he wears as a bracelet, so she can be physically “recompact” before her ascension into heaven. The poet’s hope is that the gravedigger who had been about to bury another corpse on top of his will take pity, and leave him to await the day of judgment undisturbed. As so often in Donne, it is the weird fusion of a complex, indeed outlandish train of reasoning with a jaggedly particular concrete image that delivers such an unexpected shock to the nervous system. Bony arm and still-shining hair are somehow both dead and alive at once. And it is the same distinctively Donnean mixture of the animate and the inanimate, of the physical and the conceptual, of the implausible and the rational, of self and other, of the intimate and the cosmic, that drives his most famous image of lovers united, in fantasy at least, in body and soul:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
And growes erect, as that comes home.

  1. 3

    A new edition of The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, edited by Theodore Redpath, has just been reissued by Harvard University Press.

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