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"All this seed pearl": John Donne and bodily presence.


This article argues that John Donne's engagement with and privileging of the body lies at the creative core of his work. Donne's poetry and prose courts heresy and generates drama as he elevates the body to a status equal with or even superior to the soul, a crucial component of selfhood that is ultimately key not only to earthly but heavenly life. It is in the bodily self, with its sexuality, its illness, and its promise of resurrection, that this consummate "metaphysical" poet locates the soul and the treasures of its existence.


Although we routinely describe John Donne as the consummate "metaphysical poet," scholars and college literature instructors rarely address the peculiarity of the fact that this metaphysical insists so often on the presence of bodies, front and center, in his writing. There are a few notable exceptions: Ramie Targoff deftly explores the "parting of body and soul" as "the great subject of Donne's writing"; Nancy Selleck argues that Donne's use of "humoural imagery not only challenges the wide-spread view of his own 'individualism,' but also complicates recent critical discussions of Renaissance selfhood"; and Stephen Pender examines Donne's descriptions of his sick body in the Devotions to assess his "attitudes toward medical thought" (Targoff 2008, 2; Selleck 2001, 150; Pender 2003, 217). Despite these important inroads, however, most writing about Donne and the body either assumes an easy dualism or remains compartmentalized, detailing Donne's fascination with the resurrected body or bodily affliction at various stages of his career, but offering less insight into the way Donne's engagement with bodies forms a consistent creative thread from his earliest paradoxes and witty poetic performances to his final, brooding meditations and sermons. Sublimed, vapoured, crushed, or beaten into new forms, physical bodies are at the core of Donne's most striking poetic moments, representing a range of human emotions and experiences. Not merely flesh and blood, Donne's bodies share important qualities with metals, liquids, and crystals, and imbue his poetry and prose with a dazzling imagistic density. Considering this profound interest in the material world, and the human body in particular, it is perhaps not surprising that he even insists on bodily presence in poems and sermons that contemplate the nature and state of the soul. But some of Donne's more unorthodox musings, such as the eleventh Paradox, go further still, granting shocking precedence to the body: "I say again, that the body makes the minde ... and this minde may be confounded with the soul without any violence or injustice to Reason or Philosophy: then the soul it seems is enabled by our Body, not this by it" (1990, 15).

This dependence of the soul upon the body is unorthodox not only because it privileges flesh over spirit, but also because it implies that the soul may not be immortal and can reasonably be expected to die with the body. Materialism of this kind was heterodox, at best--a sure marker of atheistical thought--which is perhaps why Donne expressed it in one of the witty "Paradoxes" that he later nervously characterized in a letter to his friend Henry Goodyer as "nothings" (1990, 64). (1) But although he dismissed his argument as a joke, the body's relationship with the soul continued to intrigue him, and Donne remained deeply ambivalent about it throughout his career. Finally, after years of arguing both sides of the issue, he entered the Church and officially endorsed the view that the soul separated from the body at death. But he continued to mull over the topic, nearing heresy as he insisted that the soul depended on the body for completion, relishing every detail as he described the final resurrection which would unite man's dispersed elements, insisting on the body's presence to validate spiritual reality. Throughout Donne's writing, the juncture of body and soul is a terrific place of imaginative free play, an invisible boundary where spiritual essence blends into material substance and seeming opposites are joined. As such, it takes an important place in his poetic repertoire, where contraries like life and death, lovers and compasses, meet in striking conjunctions. But the body/soul interdependence may hold still more significance, for in their final, eternal union--in his ability to assert his own bodily presence even in the holiest of holies--Donne ultimately appears to have found promise of the constancy, privilege, and power which eluded him for so much of his life.

I. Sex, Science, and Convention

At the most basic level, many of Donne's secular love poems and elegies emphasize the body's centrality as a display of sexual bravado. "Let my body reign," commands the narrator of "Love's Usury," while another, in Elegy XIII ("Love's Progress"), dismisses the soul and mind in order to concentrate on woman's "centric part" (1990, 94, 60). To treat such a moment too seriously risks wasting a very carefully constructed dirty joke--Donne sets it up with the innocent-sounding observations that ancient men often placed their sacrifices "not in altars ... but pits and holes" and that "Although we see celestial bodies move/Above the earth, the earth we till and love" (60). But more typically the bawdy wit plays its own centric part in a far more complex argument. Donne's "Air and Angels," for example, moves from the intangible and mysterious to the sensual and concrete as souls are "enabled" by their bodies. The poem's beginning opens itself to the strangeness of love, grasping at fleeting, vaporous images:
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see. (Donne 1990, 101)

Perhaps, as Raymond Waddington and others argue, the opening is a kind of coy joke, as the speaker cleverly excuses his escapades with other women by arguing that he saw images of his new love in them--or, as a contemporary popular song makes the same argument, "you can't call it cheatin'/Cause she reminds me of you" (Waddington 1990, 59-60; Gin Blosssoms 1992). But the disembodied voice and "shapeless flame" seem less concrete than that. The real key to these lines is their elusive spirituality, which becomes functional only when joined to a body. This border crossing is key to the prurient shock as that "lovely glorious nothing" comes into focus not as a lambent spiritual presence, but as a pun on the vagina ("no-thing" for vagina is a favorite seventeenth-century pun; the joke is parallel to the one in Shakespeare's Sonnet 20, where the speaker's "master-mistress" is the perfect love object in every way, except that Nature added "one thing" too much [2008, 1953]). As Donne's poem continues, this movement across the borders of body and soul continues in both directions:
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is
Love must not be, but take a body too. (Donne 1990, 101)

The bawdiness is there, with the "limbs" animated into erotic action by the soul. But this is also a powerful description of the soul diffused through and empowering the body even as the body facilitates the senses, perceptions, and actions that feed the soul and join it to its mate. If the soul gets dragged into a ribald argument for sex, the sexual body achieves a crucial status as actuated soul.

Although various anatomists were working to confine the soul specifically to the heart or pituitary gland, the idea that the entire soul was diffused through every part of the body, "all in all," was very current in Donne's time. Plato, Plotinus, the Church Fathers Augustine and Aquinas, and a whole range of Neoplatonists had advanced the concept, grounding it in the best philosophical and theological authority (Waddington 1990, 40-45). Donne's insistence that this diffused soul relies comprehensively on bodily presence--on sense--was far more controversial. In fact, it inverted the ordinary relationship from these sources, which tended to see the body as something of a hanger on, enabling us to witness the soul's action in the world but ultimately a hindrance to a soul that would realize its full infinite potential only when freed from earthly dross.

Nevertheless, Donne found valued support in the writings of Tertullian, a Church Father who had actually argued that the soul was composed of corporeal matter. (2) Indeed, Donne even found "scientific," medical reasons for privileging the body. Attempting to prove that the "Gifts of the Body are Better than those of the Mind" in the Eleventh Paradox, Donne asks "Are Chastity, temperance or fortitude gifts of the mind? I appeal to physicians whether the cause of these be not in the body" (1990, 16). According to contemporary Galenic medicine differing temperaments arose from varying mixtures of phlegm, blood, bile, and black bile in the body. As Michael Schoenfeldt notes, "the philosophical question which such a notion of self entails, for us and for the Renaissance, is just how the physical body and non-physical spirit interact" (1999, 8). Schoenfeldt maintains that "to choose one's diet is in this regime an act of self-fashioning in the most literal sense, and requires intense self-scrutiny" (21). This conception of the disciplinary, balancing, role of bodily functions is an example of the way the best contemporary corporeal theory has complemented and modified Mikhail Bakhtin's notion that the bodily functions of eating and defecation primarily offered a model of festive release from repressive control. (3) But humoral theory could have an even more elemental impact than just offering a model of disciplinary self-fashioning: after all, if behavior, personality, and mood were determined by the body, this could even imply, as Donne's paradoxes suggest, that the soul was just another physical product.

Donne draws on related ideas in "The Ecstasy," which opens with lovers transfixed "like sepulchral statues" on a bank while their souls hang between them, engaged in some sublime but unknowable communication (1990, 121). After considering the elusive love which "Interanimates two souls," Donne's speaker turns to the bodies which, he reasons, first facilitated love by attracting the lovers to one another and which ultimately must bring this love to fruition (122). It is worth noting that this movement from souls to bodies is precisely the opposite of what we typically expect from "metaphysical" poetry. The term "metaphysical" is a later imposition upon poets who never really described themselves that way. And from the beginning, this (pejorative) term has implied not only that metaphysical conceits unite unlike objects, but also that the effect of this union is a move from palpable to impalpable. Dryden's description of Donne, from which Samuel Johnson first derived the term "metaphysical poetry," already implies the movement away from the things of this world: "He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign" (1974, 7). As with so much else, Johnson helped cement the terms of the debate over "metaphysical poetry" when he picked up Dryden's phrase and said that the poets in this school "neither copied nature, nor life, neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of the intellect" (1975, 11). Metaphysical wit, in this view, openly rejects the trifecta of nature, life, and matter, to engage with obscure abstractions and high-flown controversies.

Even as later commentators celebrate what Johnson decried, they have often retained this sense that metaphysical poetry moves from body to soul and spirit, ultimately soaring up and over the world. Robert Ellrodt, for example, writes astutely about the way metaphysical poetry derives from the particularities of the world and the self, but he nevertheless affirms that "the 'metaphysical' mind is characterized by an aptitude for transcending the immediate facts of human experience" and an "eagerness to go beyond the particular experience in search of a totality" (2000, 123). Even Helen Gardner, who cautiously avoids most generalizations about the metaphysical style, believes that Donne's purest conceits become "air-borne," a phrase that implies both inspiration and a Johnsonian flight above matter (1967, xxix).

However in "The Ecstasy," as in so many of his poems, Donne seems to care less about the flight than the landing. Ideal as spiritual intermingling may be, only bodily union makes love whole and human beings complete, and for this there is a medical explanation:
As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man:
So must pure lovers' souls descend
T' affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies. (Donne 1990, 123)

The "spirits" begotten by the blood were supposed in Galenic medicine to unite the soul to the body. The blood produced "vital spirits" which moved into the brain, where they were refined into "animal spirits." A substance like soul in its purity and lightness, these spirits were then forced by the brain along the nerves and into the muscles, where they operated the limbs. (4) Without the "subtle knot" uniting these spiritual and material substances, Donne argues, the soul would be useless and incapacitated; without sexual intercourse uniting two bodies love would be equally imprisoned. His argument is for the body, with a focus on delicate unions where opposite kinds meet.

Even in his relatively early poems this emphasis on the body's importance was not always confined to demonstrating his skills at seduction and firing off anatomical jokes. Donne's "Satire III," which wrestles with the difficulties of finding "true religion," concludes that the search for spiritual truth must include "Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too/The mind's endeavours" (1990, 31). It is an unusual intrusion of bodily effort into a poem where the drama seems to play out against an otherwise moral and allegorical landscape, famously centered around a "huge hill" of "Truth" (30). What are these bodily deeds? Donne, who seems here to be rejecting the Catholic faith of his father--which included plenty of scope for flagellating, fasting, and otherwise putting the body through its paces--leaves the question unanswered. What is clear is that in this poem that begins with the memorably physical line "kind pity chokes my spleen" he isn't ready to move past the body, even if he is ready to move away from a Catholic doctrine of works (29). (5)

Moments of religious crisis aside, in Donne's early poetry the sexual act remained the most irresistible place to explore the body's "deeds," even in situations where it may not have been entirely appropriate. Arthur Marotti observes that Donne was "unable to accept the Neoplatonic or Petrarchan underpinning" of complimentary poetry, and that this sometime led him into a dangerous familiarity with his patrons (1986, 214). The speaker in Donne's verse letter to the young Countess of Huntingdon, for example, knows the Petrarchan and Neoplatonic conventions, but rejects this sighing, unconsummated love: "The honesties of love with ease I do,/But am no porter for a tedious woo" (1990, 69). Donne's problem is not primarily philosophical but poetic--the Petrarchan conventions implied absence, physical distance, and Donne finds them poetically stale. "Neither will I vex your eyes to see/A sighing ode, nor cross-armed elegy," he announces, since "I hate that thing whispers itself away" (68). And so Donne gestures toward the traditional Petrarchan idealization of soul over body only to simultaneously complicate it, concentrating not on the distinction, but the juncture of the two: "The soul with the body, is a heaven combined/With earth, and for man's ease, but nearer joined" (69). The poem's argument may assert the Countess's superiority to mere mortals and envision her animating them from a distance, but its poetic gravitational pull remains the centric part, the easy familiarity of a body in action, a heaven combined with earth.

For all the complexity and seriousness with which Donne explores the reliance of the soul on the body, however, it never became a fixed and consistent position, and this creates a tension in the corpus of Donne's poetry. Donne's poems try out the relationship from every angle, often arguing for the unequivocal superiority of the soul and its independence from the physical. "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," for example, famously argues that love can continue despite physical separation, as lovers' souls stretch to till the distances between them (1990, 120). Likewise, even while attempting seduction, the narrator of Elegy II ("To his mistress going to bed") notes that souls must be "unbodied" to "taste whole joys" (13). Elsewhere, in "The Progress of the Soul" and "The Anniversary," Donne relies on standard descriptions of bodies as "prisons of flesh" or imagines a love so strong that it continues between souls even after bodies are dead (73, 103).

Yet the imagery that expresses these sentiments is insistently physical, dancing on the borderline where one essence meets or changes into the other. Souls stretch to the "airy thinness" of gold leaf in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," or they become liquid in "The Expiration," as a kiss "sucks two souls" (Donne 1990, 120, 134). In "An Elegy upon the Death of Mistress Bulstrode," graves become alchemical limbecks, refining bodies into a spiritual essence, as Donne's poem wrestles with the consequences of true spiritual and material union, proclaiming that only a "separation, no divorce" can temporarily push souls apart from their bodies in death (188). Perhaps the most extraordinary product of this struggle is found in "Of the Progress of the Soul: The Second Anniversary," in the description of Elizabeth Drury's body:
She, of whose soul, if we may say, 'twas gold,
Her body was th' electrum, and did hold
Many degrees of that; we understood
Her by her sight, her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought. (Donne 1990, 224)

All the more remarkable for their inclusion in a poem which elsewhere upholds the traditional Christian idea that the soul is a prisoner trapped in the body, these lines collapse the distinction and make the body a sentient being. Electrum is an alloy of silver and gold, brighter and stronger than its separated elements. In this figure of the body/soul relationship, the soul is not simply encased in the body, but melded with it through a molten liquefaction. The image of blood speaking in the cheeks captures the quick responsiveness of a young girl's blush and is again underpinned by Galenic ideas, which saw the flushed face as the product of near-spiritual "vapours." By effectively making the entire organism an eloquent, intellectual being, this thinking body manages to unify flesh and soul even more subtly than the "knot, which makes us man" in Donne's "The Ecstasy" (1990, 123). With characteristic ambivalence, however, "The Second Anniversary" almost immediately begins chastising the corrupted bodies of the rest of mankind, urging us to cast away our "brittle" shells and free our souls from their "prison" (224). "Poor soul," asks the speaker who bas just described an eloquent, thinking body, "in this thy flesh what dost thou know?" (224).

II. Bodily Consolations

It might seem reasonable to assume that Donne would resolve this ambivalence in his religious poetry, where his position on the soul and the body is of utmost, eternal importance. But this is not the case. John Carey argues that "so uncongenial did Donne find it to imagine his soul existing apart from his body that, at the period when he was writing the Holy Sonnets, be adapted the heretical view that the soul would die with the body and be resurrected at the last day" (1990, 208-09). This is slightly misleading. Donne's Holy Sonnets actually embrace both heretical and orthodox views, although their inconsistency only helps demonstrate Carey's larger point: Donne's imaginative needs dictated his theology, not the other way around (Carey 1990, 209-10). The third of Donne's Holy Sonnets, for example, presents an orthodox depiction of the soul separating from the flesh at death. The soul views the face of God while the body waits for reunion in the grave:
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body, and soul, and I shall sleep a space,
But my'ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint. (Donne 1990, 174)

Note that Donne identifies himself, the "I," with the body that "shall sleep a space" rather than with the disembodied "ever-waking part" that instantly sees the face of God. Heightening the ambiguity, some of the most authoritative manuscripts of Donne's poems drop the line about the "ever-waking part" altogether and replace it with the equivocating "or presently, I know nott, see the face." (6) So it isn't entirely surprising that Holy Sonnet IV ("At the round earth's imagined corners") imagines the resurrection in decidedly unorthodox terms, as bodies and souls rise from a temporary death: "arise/From death, you numberless infinities/Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go" (1990, 175). Likewise, Holy Sonnet XV ("I am a little world made cunningly") agrees that "both parts must die" (179). In both orthodox and unorthodox formulations Donne keeps the body firmly in view. He never seems to have liked the idea of leaving it behind.

Ultimately, when he took orders and became Dean of St. Paul's, Donne preached the sanctioned view that the soul separated from the body at death. But his sermons remain uneasy about it, depicting the bodiless state as a dissatisfying one, a form of incompleteness and absence. Ramie Targoff notes that Donne's "Second Anniversary" dramatizes "a soul that remains attached to its own earthly flesh against its better theological interests," and this might function as a perfect description of Donne himself, repeatedly ascending the pulpit to deliver sermons where the body becomes the object of outsized creative interest (2008, 81). His divided loyalties run right through his final Sermon, "Death's Duel"--which has the rarely noted subtitle "A Consolation to the Soule, against the dying Life, and living Death of the Body." Just as the title promises, Donne's sermon begins with an elaborate condemnation of the body. From the tune the embryonic child is "taught cruelty, by being fed with blood," material existence is nothing but a kind of dying, as the spirit is bound "by cordes of flesh" (1953-62, 10:232-33).

The souls "Consolation," conventionally, conies when God grants release from this bondage. "He hath the keys of death," Donne says, "and he can let me out at that dore, that is, deliver me from the manifold deaths of this world, the omni die and the tota die, the every dayes death and every houres death, by that one death, the final dissolution of body and soule, the end of all" (1953-62, 10:235). It wouldn't seem to get much more definitive than that. Donne's final dissolution, severing spirit from material, is a perfectly acceptable conclusion for a seventeenth-century Protestant sermon, an opportune moment to begin a peroration on the joys of heaven, the grace of God, or even the superiority of heavenly to earthly bodies.

For example, this was basically the approach taken by Thomas Adams, who dedicated various printed sermons to Donne and preached next door to him at St. Gregory by Paul's, a parish church in the shadow of the cathedral. When Adams offered parishioners his own consolation for the moment when "death shall manumit and set free our soules from the prison of the body," he described the separation as an unambiguous good (1619, 5). The "purer part" is then glorified, and "meets with the triumphant church in bliss," and then, Adams assures his audience, "our miseries are past, our conflict is ended, & teares are wiped from our eyes" (5-6). Adams dwells not on earthly bodies, but on the communion of the saints in heaven. "Parents, children, kindred, friends" will all meet again, but in bodies that are decidedly different, "not with a carnall distinction of sexe, or corrupt relation which earth afforded. No man carries earth to heaven with him: the same body but transfigured, purified, glorified" (7). Finally, Adams drives home his message that the dissolution of the soul from the body is an escape with a homely metaphor that shows why his prose was justly celebrated as among the best of its kind in its day: "It is some delight to the merchant, to sitte by a quiet fire, and discourse the escaped perills of wrackes and stormes. Remove then your eyes from this earth; whether you be rich, for whom it is more hard; or poore, for whom it is easier: and know, it is better living in heaven together, then on earth together" (8). The structure of Adams' Christian consolation is clear and elegant, moving from corrupted life, to death, to glorious spiritual communion.

The contrast with Donne is stark. After describing the supposed "final dissolution of body and soule, the end of all, " Donne's next sentence slams on the brakes (1953-62, 10:235). "But then is that the end of all?," he asks. "Is that dissolution of body and soule, the last death that the body shall suffer? (for of spirituall death wee speake not now). It is not" (10:235). Rather than moving forward, luxuriating in the soul's consolation, Donne revels for page after page in the details of "corruption and putrefaction and vermiculation and incineration" which await the body (10:235-36). Each of these changing material states represents another kind of death, and by implication another stage of life, for a dynamic body that stays in morbid motion long after the soul has flittered away. At this point in the sermon, Donne in fact seems essentially to lose interest in the soul, except when he pauses to remark the peculiarity of those Christians who will still be alive at the second coming and therefore will not experience bodily corruption, but "a dissolution, and in the same instant a reintegration, a recompacting of body and soule" (10:238). He never writes a word about the soul in bliss, but he offers wonderful detail about the families of worms that will spring from the body, providing entire geneologies of maggots who are simultaneously "my mother, and my sister, and my selfe," and who "shall feed, and feed sweetely upon me" (10:238). Donne fixates on the body's continuing generative capabilities, its capacity to breed and feed, to host a pageant of vividly imagined life even as the soul inhabits some unimaginable after-life.

Ultimately, the final consolation of the soul is not that the body is miserable and needs to be abandoned anyway, but that the same body, after all its mutations, will rise again. "This death of incineration and dispersion, is, to naturall reason, the most irrecoverable death of all, and yet ... 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, as shal never passe into any other" (Donne, 1953-62, 10:239). Where Adams and many of his contemporaries would emphasize change, Donne's refrain is "same ... same ... same." It is a remarkable refusal to make the obvious point or settle for the obvious image of souls and transfigured bodies in bliss.

Indeed, in some of his sermons Donne's imaginative language seems to completely negate the idea that the soul is ever severed from the body. In a sermon preached in 1619, about the same time Adams offered his homely consolation, Donne spectacularly describes the human at death "as a Colossus, one foot in one, another in another land, one foot in the grave, but the other in heaven; one hand in the womb of the earth, the other in Abrahams bosome" (1953-62, 2:267). Citing Tertullian in a 1623 Easter sermon, he also insists that Christians should "Never go about to separate the thoughts of the heart, from the colledge, from the fellowship of the body. ... All that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body" (4:358). Although this is delivered as part of an Easter sermon, the sense is basically the same as audacious Paradox Eleven, as is his insistence that when the soul is separated from the body at death it will be "the lesse perfect, for this separation" (4:358). And not only the writer of the paradoxes, but also Donne's libertine poetic narrators could easily agree with the sermon's pious sentiment that "to constitute a man, there must be a body, as well as a soul" (4:357). Donne's resurrection sermon becomes not a paean to spiritual transcendence but a celebration of the body, "disolved and liquefied in the Sea, putrified in the earth, resolv'd to ashes in the fire, macerated in the ayre," but finally triumphant (4:359).

If anything, even as he cautiously accepts that the soul will separate from the body at death, Donne amplifies the idea first proposed in Paradox Eleven, that the soul is utterly dependent on the body. "The Eares are the Aqueducts of the water of life," he once told his audience, "and if we cut off those ... this is a castration of the soul, the soul becomes an Eunuch, and we grow to a rust, to a mosse, to a barrennesse, without fruit, without propagation" (1953-62, 5:55). Donne's language veers wildly off the rails as he pursues the bizarre image of a decaying, castrated soul, but the unhinged imagery aptly reflects the unsettled nature of Donne's attempt to justify, in a public forum, materialist leanings that he had previously expressed only in defensive paradoxes and dark poetic conceits. After all, even in the "Second Anniversary," where he produced the lovely image of Elizabeth Drury's thinking body, Donne had ultimately fallen back on the standard position that "in this thy flesh" the soul "know'st thyself so little," a limitation that can he resolved only when we leave "our living tomb" (1990, 224). In his Whitsunday sermon about the soul's castration, Donne seems to be working without such a safety net. Not only does the supposedly eternal soul depend upon the body to remain healthy and fecund, but its impairment must also be imagined in terms of the body's pains, of gelding, infertility, the failure of physical potency. As in his poetry, Donne's metaphysics are strikingly physical.

Perhaps this is why, rather than dwelling on the separation at death, Donne's sermons expend massive intellectual energy imagining the resurrection where body and soul will be united. This will be the final, perfect union, and the fact that it will include man's actual, physical body is so important to Donne that he repeatedly imagines the elaborate puzzles God will have to solve to get it all back together. This passage, from another Easter sermon, is typical:
  God shall re-compact and re-compile those Atoms and graines of dust,
  into that Body, which was before. ... Where mans buried flesh hath
  brought forth grasse, and that grasse fed beasts, and those beasts
  fed men, and those men fed other men, God that knowes in which
  Boxe of his Cabinet all this seed pearl lies ... shall recollect
  that dust, and then recompact that body, and then re-inanimate that
  man, and that is the accomplishment of all. (1953-62,7:103, 115) (7)

The miraculous process which will transform grass and dust into bodies of flesh and bone, then unite these bodies with their souls, belongs to the same category of imagery as Elizabeth Drury's thinking flesh. And, as with that early imagery, Donne's poetic concerns threaten again and again to override all sense of decorum.

There is perhaps no better example than the wedding sermon Donne preached at the marriage of Lady Mary Egerton, daughter of the powerful Earl of Bridgewater, to Richard Herbert, in 1627. Donne's sermon at first seems reasonably well suited to its occasion, as he discusses the possibility of marriage and love in heaven--a topic in keeping with the ceremony's seriousness and its mood as a celebration of wedded love. But as soon as he begins discussing the afterlife Donne starts worrying about the bodies of the departed and seems irresistibly drawn to stomach-churning possibilities for their destruction and reconstruction. How, for example, will God find "all the splinters of that Bone, winch a shot hath shivered and scattered in the Ayre? Where be all the Atoms of that flesh, which a Corrasive hath eat away. ... In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a Body drowned in the general flood?" (1953-62, 8:98). It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the bride, groom, and elite wedding guests gathered at the Earl of Bridgewater's London home wanted to hear. Then again, perhaps they also cared less about decorum than about watching Dr. Donne work his strange alchemy, as he transformed the base and low into the precious and refined:
  One humour of our dead body produces worms, and those worms
  suck and exhaust all other humour, and then all 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 revolutions, and still, still God knows in what (Cabinet
  every seed-Pearle lies. (Donne 1953-62, 8:98)

Once again, Donne returns to the image of dispersed body parts as so many minute pearls in a cabinet, a piece of Renaissance furniture that functioned both as a safe and a display case for wondrous and precious things.

A hard exterior which held a hidden jewel, the cabinet was in fact a fairly popular metaphor for the body containing the soul. As the Puritan minister Edward Calamy put it in 1643, "the body is but the Cabinet, the Iewell is the soule. And if the Iewell be safe in Heaven, no great matter to have the Cabinet broken" (1643, 57). Alternatively, the soul itself was seen as a cabinet wherein various virtues or secrets were locked--in the Defence of Poesy Philip Sidney suggests that poetry is a particularly efficacious tool to "plant goodnesse even in the secretest cabinet of our souls" (2004, 15). What is so unusual about Donne's use of the metaphor is that the treasure is the body, not the soul. While Calamy and most of Donne's peers couldn't care less if the bodily cabinet was smashed as long as the precious jewel it contained was safe in heaven, Donne makes the body the rare, startling jewel that God goes to extreme lengths to preserve. Donne does not merely invert the image, but offers a complete reassessment of the body's value.

In doing so, he perhaps captures better than either Sidney or Calamy the spirit of the Renaissance cabinet--especially the "cabinet of curiosities" or "Wunderkammer" which flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (8) The odd objects in the cabinets often held a value that could not be calculated by standard economies--a fragment of bone, a piece of mummy, or a strange stone from the Americas might not have an obvious worth or exchange value, like a book, quantity of gold, or loaf of bread. Yet the owners of these objects considered them too precious to expose to the common view, too rare to risk losing. Moreover, as Anthony Allan Shelton notes, the gift exchange of such odd but conventionally worthless objects among the elite was "a means of reinforcing the sense of self worth they enjoyed as a class, just as the degree of comprehensiveness of a collection could be reflected in the degree of esteem a collector enjoyed among his peers" (1994, 187). These strange material objects, in short, had an emotional resonance out of all proportion to their worth in the system typically used to attach values to material things.

Donne's bodies have a similar resonance. Changing states, touched by the divine, these bodies achieve the ultimate union of body and soul--an electrum where both elements are equally pure and will stay that way forever. In Donne's poetry and prose the idea that "contraries meet in one," as he put it in Holy Sonnet 19 ("Oh, to vex me"), is both the tragedy and the beauty of existence (1990, 288).

III. Conclusion: Better Than Angels

One reason for Donne's focus on the relationship between the body and soul, especially in their divine, resurrected form, may have been his belief that this relationship qualified him for the supreme honor of asserting his full presence in the holiest of holies. On several occasions in his sermons he reminded his audience that it was not just his soul, but its union with his body that would make him superior even to the angels. The "Angels shall feed and rejoyce at my resurrection," he explained, "when they shall see me in my soul, to have all that they have, and in my body, to have that that they have not" (1953-62, 5:230). Elsewhere, he envisions his grand entry to heaven in terms that seem almost confrontational--making it clear that the angels will not just rejoice to have Donne join them, but will stand in awe as he overleaps them. "As soone as my soule enters into Heaven," he notes proudly as he sets the scene, "I shall be able to say to the Angels, I am the same stuffe as you, spirit and spirit, and therefore let me stand with you" (4:46). And then he throws down his trump card: "So at the Resurrection of this body, I shall be able to say to the Angel of the great Counccll ... Christ Jesus himselfe, I am of the same stuffe as you, Body and body, Flesh and flesh, and therefore let me sit downe with you, at the right hand of the Father in an everlasting security" (4:46-47).

This vision of final glorification--of being better even than angels--comes from a man who was perhaps more familiar with rejection and negation. Donne's life was marked by years of thwarted ambition, as he struggled, mostly without success, to gain secure patronage and a place of honor in the world of courtly power and privilege. For most of his life before he finally gave up his hopes of becoming a successful courtier, he lived and worked on the outskirts of the glimmering world where he wanted to be--commuting an hour to London on horseback, slaving away in his "close prison," a drafty house in Mitcham, and writing long, despondent letters about his inability to be valued by others according to the worth that he felt he possessed (1974, 19). (9)

But even in those letters, as he suffered physically from the damps and drafts rising from the basement below his humble study, Donne was fixated on the idea that this worth derived from a whole self, both body and soul, that would ultimately allow him to overcome his chronic undervaluation. To his good friend and rather more successful courtier Henry Goodyer, he complained that "All shadows are of one colour, if you respect the body from which they are cast (for our shadows upon clay will be dirty, and in a garden green and flowery) so all retirings into a shadowy life are alike from all causes, and alike subjet to the barbarousness and insipid dulness of the country" (1974, 63). Physically and emotionally disconnected from the corridors of power, he was languishing. But if fortune had taken a cruel turn, he could withstand it, since "we are so composed that if abundance or glory scorch and melt us, we have an earthly cave, our bodies, to go into by consideration and cool ourselves; and if we be frozen, and contracted with lower and dark fortunes, we have within us a torch, a soul, lighter and warmer than any without: we are therefore our own umbrellas and our own suns" (63). It is truly a bizarre conceit, as worthy as any of Johnson's reprobation.

However, it also expresses in a way that only Donne can the sense of bodily self, both a heat we can feel and a place we can go, so that turning inside becomes as much a physical as an emotional or cognitive act. This experience the angels could never know, and in Donne's view they seem diminished for it. On earth, the body remained important for Donne because it was the way we apprehended the soul and communicated with the world. In heaven, it remained important, at least in part, because its union with the soul was a perfection which could rectify earthly failures, allowing him to keep his identity intact while asserting his presence at the very throne of God.


(1) For Donne's view as one of the "leading tenets of atheistical thought" in the sixteenth century, see Carey (1990, 149). For a more detailed discussion of Donne's views on the soul and their relation to theological and philosophical tradition see Targoff (2008, 8-16).

(2) See Carey (1990, 148). For one of Donne's citations of Tertullian's doctrine, see his 1623 Easter sermon (Donne 1953-62, 4:358).

(3) See Bakhtin (1968). For other works that have been inspired by and have modified Bakhtin's view of socio-corporeal function, see Stallybrass and White (1986); Stallybrass (1986, 123-42); and Faster (1993).

(4) For more on the pneumatic action of the spirits, sec Carey (1990, 253).

(5) Most scholars agree that "Satire III" marks an important moment in Donne's apostasy from Catholicism, although there remains some disagreement over whether it indicates his final break with the church, his embrace of Protestantism, or the beginning of a more extended period of skepticism. For an overview of the debate and endorsement of the view that the poem is an early product of Donne's long and radical skepticism, see Strier (1993, 283-322)

(6) See for example the St. Paul's manuscript (SP1), available online at

(7) For some of Donne's other imaginative depictions of the resurrection see "A Sermon Preached at Lincoln's Inn (Donne 1953-62, 3:105-07) and "A Sermon Preached at St. Dunstans January 15 1625" (Donne 1953-62, 6:362-64).

(8) For the vogue for these cabinets of curiosities, sec Shelton 1994, 180-89. For continental collections, see Pomian, 1990 30-78.

(9) For more on this period in Donne's life, see Carey 1990, 46-116 and Stubbs 2007, 204-306.

Works Cited

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Boston: Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Calamy, Edmund. 1643. The Noble-mans Patterne of True and Reall Thankfulnesse Presented in a Sermon. London. Online at Early English Looks Online. <http:\\>.

Carey, John. 1990. Life, Mind and Art. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber.

Donne, John. 1953-62. Sermons of John Donne. 10 Vols. Ed. George Potter and Evelyn Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press.

--. 1974. Letters to Severall Persons of Honour. 1651. Reprint. Hildesheim:: Georg Olms Verlag.

--. 1990. John Donne. A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. John Carey Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dryden, John. 1974. A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In The Works of John Dryden. Vol. 4, ed. A.B. Chambers et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellrodt, Robert. 2000. Seven Metaphysical Poets: A Structural Study of the Unchanging Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Johnson, Samuel. 1975. The Lives of the English Poets: A Selection. Ed. John Wain. London: Dent.

Marotti, Arthur. 1986. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Paster, Gail Kern. 1993. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern Europe, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pender, Stephen. 2003. "Essaying the Body: Donne, Affliction, and Medicine." In John Donne's Professional Lives, ed. David Colclough. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Pomian, Krzysztof. 1990. Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schoenfeldt, Michael. 1999. Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Sidney, Philip. 2004. The Defence of Poesy. In Sidney's The Defence of Poesy and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Gavin Alexander. London: Penguin.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allan White. 1986. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stallybrass, Peter. 1986. "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed." In Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret Ferguson, et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strier, Richard. 1990. "Radical Donne: Satire III." ELH 60: 283-322.

Stubbs, John. 2007. John Donne: The Reformed Soul. New York: WW Norton.

Targoff, Ramie. 2008. John Donne, Body and Soul. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waddington, Raymond, 1990. "'All in All: Shakespeare. Milton, Donne, and the Soul in-Body Topos." English Literary Renaissance 20.1: 40-68.

Blaine Greteman is an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa. He has published articles in Renaissance Quarterly, English Literary History, Time and Ode Magazine.
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