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John Donne’s Metaphorical Voyage

 

 

PART 2

 

 

 

“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

 

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 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 further 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.44

 

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. 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, actually 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 specificity of Donne’s imagery may 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.

 

 

 

Notes

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.

 

 

Works Cited

 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.

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