John Donne's Metaphorical Voyage
The language of the poet of his age mirrors the language of the Age of Exploration.
by Christopher Dow.
During the Renaissance, the wisdom and knowledge of classical Greek and Roman writers provided fertile ground for the new-found flowering 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, particularly 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, curious, 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 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 1559 (9), were originally undertaken to discover such a route and were 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 anchor (17), her breasts Sestos and Abydos flanking the Hellespont (18), 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 frank and exotic exuality 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) On a literal level, 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. Farther 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 reads, “This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.” (28) Here Donne likens love to possession by 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, such as maps and globes. 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.”
“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” contains Donne’s perhaps best-known conceit. The poem likens the affections between the poet and his lover to a compass—an instrument of cartography and other drafting work.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’other do. (34)
The compass imagery occupies much of the poem and is complex, but at the same time, it is curiously distant and uninvolving. David Novarr says:
The compass image comes as a surprise. Neither souls nor compasses strike us as subjects conducive to a concession about the humanity of love. If the appeal to the souls seems rarefied, that to geometry seems totally lacking in humanity. Moreover, if the argument about the nature of their love has to this point been made quietly, indirectly, associatively, the demonstration of the force of the compass analogy is made with attention to detail and logic. (35)
These observations point to Donne’s progressive tendency away from the personal and visceral toward the more distant and purely intellectual. The preponderance of cartographical images in the work of his middle years furthers this interpretation.
The interesting thing about this group [of poems] is that the only sizable cluster of related images in it...are the figures drawn from the use of the compass and various technical phases of navigation. (36)
But as the old saying goes, a map is not the terrain. For Donne, the world is no longer a tactile sensation but at one remove from immediacy, where the cartographical image—maps and navigational instruments—replace direct sensation as both medium of interaction with the world and expression of that interaction.
“Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” continues and embellishes the cartographical image:
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery
Per fretum febris, by these strains to die,
I joy, that in these straits, I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem. (37)
This extensively quoted passage certifies Donne’s loss of the world of immediate sensual experience and its replacement by the cartographical image.
In considering Donne’s images from navigation we saw how he was led—almost without consciousness, I venture to say—toward the technical niceties of the compass; so in these images from exploration we find another curious direction, another semi-technical field mined for the peculiarly accurate, mechanically precise parallels to experience that it can provide. (38)
In “The Good Morrow,” Donne had said that those who experience the world through maps, or representations of reality, have an inferior experience to the immediate and tactile. Now it becomes apparent that, in his own later use of the metaphor, exploration has moved away from immediate experience into the cartographical realm.
Donne introduces a refinement on the stock analogy between man and the world: as he lies in his sickbed, he is not the world itself but rather a map of it. To see the implication of this new twist in the analogy, one must recognize a special connotation which maps often had for the Renaissance imagination and particularly for Donne: he regularly thinks of a map as a scanty and inadequate picture of the world which it represents. (39)
But even if Donne thinks of maps as scanty representations, it is also true that he now peruses these cartographical representations of reality with greater regularity and pursues expression through them instead of directly embracing tactile experience of the world.
At last, in the final years of Donne’s literary output, the focus becomes even farther distanced from the immediate sensory experience typified by his earliest work. Just as sensory experience has run aground on the cartographical metaphor, the cartographical metaphor dissolves into the optical image. If immediate experience allowed Donne to directly touch and explore the world, and cartographical metaphors reduce that exploration to representative maps of a world already explored, then the optical imagery of “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628” makes of the world a distant reflection that is not only unreachable and untouchable, but dim and distorted as well.
The specific optical instrument Donne refers to in this sermon is a mirror.
The old writers in the optics said that when we see a thing in a glass, we see not the thing itself but a representation only; all the later men say we do see the thing itself but not by direct but by reflected beams. It is a useless labor for the present to reconcile them. (40)
He goes on to say:
The greatest flat glass that can be made cannot represent anything greater than it is. (41)
As the glass which we spoke of before was proposed to the sense. (42)
A glass [is] this which he calls an aenigma, a dark representation. (43)
The creature was our glass, and reason was our light. (44)
Interestingly, rather than the word “mirror,” Donne uses the word “glass,” which, by extension, includes other meanings besides mirror. First, it is the eye, the glass through which we all observe the world.
The connotations of the metaphor of the lovers’ eyes as “glasses” and “mirrors” enforces further the general metaphysical implications of these lines. This image is, of course, concretely descriptive of the reflecting surface of the eyeball, on which the phantasm of the beloved impinges. But both of these words...suggest also the merely mediate knowledge of ultimate reality which is all that most mortals can attain during earthly life. (45)
But “glass,” particularly for explorers, also signifies the spyglass, or telescope. This instrument is employed on ships to perceive distant objects, and its use was being extended into explorations of the heavens—God’s realm—by men like Galileo, who made many of his major observations during Donne’s lifetime.
The eye is a primary human sensory organ, and the mirror and the telescope are major tools that aid it in perceiving reality. But sight is also one of the least involving of the senses, for it does not touch the world or act upon it. Sight merely records, and as such, is more distanced from tactile sensation than even the cartographical image, for cartography at least furnishes, through its instruments, a physical intermediary between the poet and the world, for through these instruments the poet can still touch the world, or its representation. The instruments of the optical image, however, lend no such tangible contact and, in fact, can distort the images they provide.
Donne’s reliance on optical imagery in his later writings finishes the voyage of the metaphor of exploration which he began as a young writer inflamed with love and adventure. Perhaps optical imagery is more appropriate to the spirituality of the subject matter of his sermons, but it also indicates that his journey through the metaphor of exploration has not circumnavigated the globe but merely arrived at the Antipodes. While imagery of tactile exploration is immediate and clarifying, optical imagery is distant and distorting. Yet, though the specifics of Donne’s imagery might have polarized and his means altered, his goal has never really changed—he is still looking beyond the known in the best way he can. All along he has steadfastly sought the treasures that lie at the end of the voyage, and now he turns that exploration inward.
1 Milton Allan Rugoff, Donne’s Imagery: A Study in Creative Sources (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962) 137.
2 A. C. Partridge, John Donne: Language and Style (London: Andre Deutsch, 1978) 151.
3 Rugoff, 129.
4 Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography—Vol. V (London: Oxford UP, 1937-1938) 1129.
5 Stephen and Sidney, 1130.
6 George Parfitt, John Donne: A Literary Life (London: Macmillan, 1989) 13.
7 John Donne, Juvenilia: Or Paradoxes and Problems “Why Does the Pox So Much Affect to Undermine the Nose?”, The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 519.
8 Donne, Juvenilia, 519.
9 Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (London: Penguin, 1972). See: “1558—Voyage of Anthony Jenkins from Moscow to Bokhara.”
10 Hakluyt. See: “1553—Discovery of the Kingdom of Muscovy,” “1555—Second Voyage to Muscovy,” and “1556—Navigation and Discovery Towards the River OB.”
11 John Hollander and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literature of Renaissance England (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 520.
12 John Donne, “Elegy XVIII: Love’s Progress,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 520-522, lines 1-3.
13 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 91-92.
14 Rugoff, 130.
15 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 43-44.
16 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 47-50.
17 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” line 53.
18 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 60-61.
19 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 63-64.
20 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” line 65.
21 Rugoff, 140.
22 Donne, “Love’s Progress,” lines 41-42.
23 Rugoff, 141.
24 John Donne, “Elegy XIX: To His Fair Mistress Going to Bed,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 523-524, line 6.
25 Donne, “To His Fair Mistress Going to Bed,” lines 27-30.
26 John Donne, “The Sun Rising,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 525-526, line 17.
27 Hakluyt. See: “1583—Voyage of Ralph Fitch to Goa and Siam.”
28 Donne, “The Sun Rising,” line 30.
29 Hakluyt. See: “1577—Voyage of Francis Drake About the Whole Globe,” and “Voyage of Thomas Cavendish Round the Whole Earth.”
30 John Donne, “The Canonization,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 526-527, line 11.
31 John Donne, “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 533, lines 10-16.
32 John Donne, “The Good Morrow,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 524-525, lines 12-14.
33 Clay Hunt, Donne’s Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954) 59.
34 John Donne, “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 538-539, lines 25-28.
35 David Novarr, The Disinterred Muse: Donne’s Texts and Contexts (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980) 56.
36 Rugoff, 134.
37 John Donne, “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 554-555, lines 7-21.
38 Rugoff, 141.
39 Hunt, 100-101.
40 John Donne, “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628,” The Literature of Renaissance England, eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode (London: Oxford UP, 1973) 561.
41 Donne, “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628,” 562.
42 Donne, “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628,” 563.
43 Donne, “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628,” 563.
44 Donne, “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628,” 563.
45 Hunt, 83.
Donne, John. “The Canonization.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 526-527.
Donne, John. “Elegy XVIII: Love’s Progress.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 520-522.
Donne, John. “Elegy XIX: To His Fair Mistress Going to Bed.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 523-524.
Donne, John. “The Good Morrow.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 524-525.
Donne, John. “Hymn to God My god, in My Sickness.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 554-555.
Donne, John. Juvenilia: Or Paradoxes and Problems “Why Does the Pox So Much Affect to Undermine the Nose?” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 519-520.
Donne, John. “A Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s for Easter-Day, 1628.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 558-564.
Donne, John. “The Sun Rising.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 525-526.
Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 538-539.
Donne, John. “A Valediction: Of Weeping.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 533.
Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. London: Pengin, 1972.
Hollander, John, and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literature of Renaissance England. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
Hunt, Clay. Donne’s Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954.
Novarr, David. The Disinterred Muse: Donne’s Texts and Contexts. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Parfitt, George. John Donne: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Partridge, A. C. John Donne: Language and Style. London: Andre Deutsch, 1978.
Rugoff, Milton Allan. Donne’s Imagery: A Study in Creative Sources. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
Stephen, Sir Leslie, and Sir Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography—Vol. V. London: Oxford UP, 1937-1938.