John Donne's Metaphorical Voyage

The language of the poet of his age mirrors the language of the Age of Exploration.

Christopher Dow




During the Renaissance, the wisdom and knowledge of classical Greek and Roman writers provided fertile ground for the new-found growth of Renaissance learning and philosophy. At the same time, Renaissance expansion into the physical world provided invaluable cross-pollination that increased the fecundity of Renaissance intellectual expansion. Of particular importance for the English was the physical exploration of the globe, necessary to garner wealth and maintain national security in the face of the rising might of other European countries, especially Spain. A prime exponent of English exploration was Richard Hakluyt, whose encyclopedic work, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, widely and favorably publicized the exploits of English explorers and travelers. Records of journeys such as those detailed in Hakluyt’s work endowed English literature with new metaphors based on exploration and discovery. These metaphors are strongly and particularly expressed in the literary work of John Donne, and indelibly mark his writing with an evolution that provides an insight into the poet’s work.


Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries was first published in 1590. While the great age of European exploration and travel was waning even before the second edition appeared in 1600, there was still tremendous interest in voyages for adventure and profit.


“The sagas of those who ventured with Renaissance curiosity and boldness across uncharted seas into the unknown beyond were enough to stir any man’s imagination, and few writings of the time are without some reference to the exploits they record.”1


Moreover, adventures of the sort Hakluyt publicized are of particular interest to the hearty and adventurous young. John Donne, born in 1572, was an eighteen-year-old student when the first edition of Voyages and Discoveries appeared, and he could not have helped being inspired by these tales of adventure. As A. C. Partridge points out, “Donne’s imagination was powerfully influenced by his most recent reading, not of the poems of his contemporaries, but of encyclopedic treatises.”2 Donne was sufficiently influenced that he undertook his own voyages. “Donne not only went abroad but travelled so extensively that several of his friends actually thought of him as a traveler.”3 Initially, he spent time on the European Continent, and “it is probable that his travels [there] extended over the three years ending in 1591.”4 He also joined two sea expeditions, the first to Cadiz in 1596 and the second to the Azores in the following year.5


While much of Donne’s work cannot be dated accurately, certainly Juvenilia: Or Paradoxes and Problems belongs to the period of his own great explorations.


“The evidence suggests that the ‘Paradoxes’, the verse satires, most of the elegies, some verse epistles, some lyrics, a few prose letters and ‘The Progress of the Soul’ predate Donne’s marriage in 1601. Most of this work seems to be the product of Donne’s time at the Inns of Court and just after.”6


Even as early as this, Donne was making use of the metaphor of exploration. The section of Juvenilia titled “Problem: Why Does the Pox So Much Affect to Undermine the Nose?” refers to mice as “Indian vermin” that “defeat elephants by gnawing their proboscis.”7 A few lines later he says that the “Cold was able to show the high-way to noses in Muscovia.”8 The first of these two references alludes to one early aim of English exploration: the establishment of an easy and profitable overland route to the Orient. Journeys by men like Anthony Jenkins, who traveled through Russia into the Middle East during 1558 and 15599, were originally undertaken to discover such a route, and subsequently publicized by Hakluyt. The second quote is a more specific reference to the abortive pursuit of a Northeast Passage to the Orient. Hakluyt mentions several such voyages, beginning with the expedition lead by Sir Hugh Willoughby in 1553, and ending with Stephen Burrough’s exploration as far as the mouth of the River Ob and inland to Moscow from 1556 through 1557.10


The youthful excitement of adventure is particularly notable in Donne’s early poems, written during the years of the first edition of Voyages and Discoveries and his own travels. One excellent example is “Elegy XVIII: Love’s Progress,” attributed to the early 1590s.11 The poem itself is constructed around a conceit that mimics exploration. As the title, “Love’s Progress,” indicates, the pursuit of love is like a journey of exploration. The poem treats the body of the poet’s lover as if it is a new world to be explored. As with any exploration, this journey has a beginning, incidents of discovery and adventure, and an end. Donne begins the poem, in fact, by immediately referring to the end: “Whoever loves, if he do not propose / The right true end of love, he’s one that goes / To sea for nothing but to make him sick.”12 What Donne says in these first lines is that love, like any voyage of exploration and discovery, should have a profitable outcome. Indeed, at the end of the poem he says that “Rich Nature hath in women wisely made / Two purses”13, conflating the fiscal rewards of exploration with the physical rewards of love.


Donne continues his extensive use of the metaphor of exploration in the third line, which intimates that the turmoils of love can be likened to the tossing of a ship in storm, for both cause sickness.


“Donne’s experience with ships . . . is enough to prepare us for one of the main currents of his imagery from this source—the tendency to recall the more unpleasant aspects of sea travel and to consider all such travel as symbolizing progress through any medium beset with countless and inexorable perils.”14


The metaphor is extended when he refers to a woman’s brow as the sea, which causes problems for voyagers no matter what its aspect. “The brow becalms us when ’tis smooth and plain, / And when ’tis wrinkled, shipwrecks us again.”15 He then likens her nose to the major meridian which divides the hemispheres of the earth, which are her cheeks.16 Her lips are a creek of safe anchor17, her breasts Sestos and Abydos flanking the Hellespont18, and her abdomen “a boundless sea” dotted with “island moles.”19 All these geographical features are encountered on the journey to “her India.”20


“Again and again among these images we find the “East,” and “India” serving as symbolic of all that is precious and desirable. . . . In Elegie XVIII, “Love’s Progress,” it becomes the goal of the lovemaker’s explorations.”21


India, whose deltaic shape, fabulous treasures, and exotic sexuality successfully merge the pleasures of love with the profits of a successful voyage, is a particular and potent metaphor.


As with any exploration there are adventures and difficulties along the way. From the beginning of the actual search, Donne is pregnant with allusions to journeys of adventure and discovery. “The hair a forest of ambushes, / Of springes, snares, fetters and manacles.”22 These lines allude to aboriginal attacks in the jungles of both Africa and the Americas. But Donne engages the conceit of exploration even more fully than as simple descriptive detail. He utilizes an explorative methodology that literally reflects the entire thrust of the English endeavor to explore and exploit the world.


The English people had entered late in discovering new trade routes to the East and new lands to the West. As a nation, England had to make the effort to discover new and apparently circumspect routes, like the Northeast and Northwest Passages. It was hoped that these routes would lead more directly to the treasures that were the goals of exploration and, at the same time, avoid the perils of the known trade routes. Donne’s conceit of exploration in “Love’s Progress” becomes thematic as he mirrors the English method in his metaphoric pursuit of the sexual reward of love. He begins the journey of love by describing the route most often followed, which is downward from the head of the woman to “her India.” There are, though, he points out, many difficulties in following this standard route—storms, shipwrecks, becalmings, savage ambushes, dangerous straits, and vast oceans to cross—before arriving at the source of the treasure. He suggests that the lover, like the English explorer seeking alternative, although less-direct routes to the Orient, would do better to embark upon a different and less traveled route which leads more leisurely and with fewer difficulties to the treasured prize.


“Love’s Progress” is a plethoric catalogue of exploration metaphors. Few other poems utilize the conceit as fully, but even so, metaphors of voyage abound in other works.


“Scattered through Donne’s imagery are other items connected directly or indirectly with the records of exploration: the storminess of the Bermudas, the Mediterranean as transition between two worlds, the energy of the Russian merchants (who came to London after the Willoughby and Chancellor expeditions to “Muscovy”), and that epitome of all that is opposite—the Antipodes.”23


In “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” for example, Donne says his mistress’s girdle is “a far fairer world encompassing,”24 giving her hips a planetary image circumnavigated by her apparel. Further down, his explorations of her body become explorations of new lands:


“Oh my America, my new found land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,

My mine of precious stones, my empery,

How blessed am I in thus discovering thee!”25


The poet equates his lover’s body with the tangible reality and treasures of new land that he physically explores and, in the exploration, achieves personal possession.


“The Sun Rising” has two metaphors of voyaging. “Both the Indias of spice and mine”26 refers to journeys to the East, which, by this time, might be reinforced by Hakluyt’s rendition of Ralph Fitch’s epic travels across India and Southeast Asia to the Pacific shores of the continent.27 And the last line says, “This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.”28 Here Donne likens love to possession, to encompassing the sphere of the earth, an accomplishment achieved by Sir Francis Drake and other Englishmen within Donne’s lifetime.29


Some of Donne’s poems make relatively minor use of metaphors of exploration. The one reference in “The Canonization” asks, “What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?”30 Other poems make somewhat more extensive use of exploration metaphors. “A Valediction: Of Weeping” contains one stanza replete with imagery of travel.


         “On a round ball

A workman that hath copies by, can lay

An Europe, Afric, and an Asia,

And quickly make that, which was nothing, all,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A globe, yea world by that impression grew.”31


The importance of this stanza emerges upon closer examination. The earth is referred to as a “round ball . . . A globe, yea world.” The intimation is that the earth is now looked upon as a single unit whose boundaries, if not complete details, are now known. Indeed, “A workman that hath copies, can . . . quickly make that, which was nothing, all.” In fact, the world is so thoroughly explored that a workman—a common craftsman, not an artist—can easily make copies. But copies are not original discovery, and these lines mark a subtle change in Donne’s attitude, or perception, of exploration.


“The Good Morrow” expresses this change more succinctly. “Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, / Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown, / Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”32 Clay Hunt suggests that in these lines “the imagery of exploration and discovery expands the intellectual and emotional suggestions of ‘makes one little room, an every where’ in a dramatically powerful and richly significant conceit.”33 While this may be true, the lines also provide an almost prophetic definition of the change that the metaphor of exploration begins to take for Donne. He says, in effect, that maps provide only a counterfeit form of exploration that is in no way comparable to authentic tactile possession of the world. Unfortunately, as pointed out above in reference to “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” the boundaries of that world are now fully known and mapped, and the excitement of original exploration and discovery are at an end.


For Donne, until now, the metaphor of exploration has demonstrated a personal and sensual immediacy. The world, symbolized by woman, is not something to be simply looked at and thought about, but should be physically embraced and explored with a voluptuous sense of discovery and wonder. As Donne matures, however, the tactile imagery he has utilized to deliver the metaphor of exploration alters. The alteration finds full expression in two poems: “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “Hymn to God My God, In My Sickness.”




Copyright 2020 by Phosphene Publishing Company

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