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The date of John Donne's 'A Valediction: Of My Name in the Window: 'a response.

The suggestion that the 'love and grief' which have their 'exaltation' in line 38 are not just analogous but literal references to the planets Venus and Saturn and their actual situation in the sky at the time the name was engraved is ingenious and interesting. Some sceptical arguments may be put against it. For instance, Donne's allusions to astrologers in Elegy XI, 'The Bracelet', 59-68, and Satire I, 59-64, are scathing, and for a poet of his period his specific uses of astrological terms are notably rare, elsewhere not much more than 'heaven's influence' in 'The Ecstasy' 57-8, and a fanciful glance in 'The First Anniversary' 377-8. The zodiacal names such as Bull, Crab, and Goat in 'To the Countess of Huntingdon I' 38, 'The Progress of the Soul' 336, 'The First Anniversary' 265, and 'A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day' 39, are simply astronomical. Since the poem as it stands clearly separates 'the stars' from 'love and grief' in the two halves of an analogy, reading not 'Since all the virtuous powers . . . And, too, this name was cut When love and grief . . .' but 'As all the virtuous powers . . . So, since this name was cut When love and grief . . .', the reader is not overtly compelled to make 'love' and 'grief' more than the literal dominant emotions. An astronomical interpretation of line 38 therefore hangs somewhat fragilely on the identification of love and grief with Venus and Saturn, which cannot be supported from anywhere else in Donne's poetic corpus, and is made less probable by Donne's general lack of mention of the technicalities of astrology.

However, he could have learnt of them here by word of mouth from a follower of the art; the addressee of the poem, if such a person literally existed, might have told him of the match between their situation and the stars. In 'Love's Alchemy' he wrote 'Hope not for mind in woman', and remarked of Ann in a letter of 10 August 1614 to her brother, Sir Robert More (Folger MS L. b. 539), that 'to myselfe, who can releive myself upon books, solitarines was a litle burdenous, I beleevd yt would be much more so, to my wyfe, if shee were left alone', suggesting a level of education more apt to accommodate a belief in astrology in spite of the condemnation of the Church. Alternatively, as argued below, he could have picked up the significant data as a casually browsing book-lover.

Having said all that, a hypothetical year of composition may indeed be worked out on the grounds ingeniously explained by Tony Kline, and even a month. J. C. Eade, The Forgotten Sky (1984), 64, lists the Ptolemaic degrees of exaltation of planets in the zodiac: Venus has its exaltation in Pisces 27 and Saturn in Libra 21. It is obviously necessary to base any inferences on the dates of their occurrences accepted in Donne's time rather than those supplied in modern ephemerides or a computer programme for astrologers. To a bookish but unmathematical person such as Donne, the day-by-day planetary and zodiacal positions were available ready-computed in J. Stadius, Ephemerides . . . secundum Antwerpiae longitudinem ab Anno 1554, vsque ad Annum 1606. Iam recens ab Auctore auctae (Cologne, 1581), superseded by D. Origanus, Ephemerides nouae annorum XXXVI, incipientes ab anno [Greek Text Omitted] 1595, quo IOANNIS STADII maxime aberrare incipiunt, & desinentes in anno 1630 (Frankfurt-am-der-Oder, 1599). The dedication of the latter is dated 1 December 1598, so that, since the preliminaries were customarily the last part of a book to be printed, the volume could have been ready for publication quite early in 1599. (The ten-day difference between the ephemerides' Gregorian calendar and the Julian Calendar in use in Donne's England has been ignored below as insufficient to affect what must be less precise dating.)

The only times during Donne's poetic career (within a span, that is, of nearly thirty years either way, the time it takes Saturn to complete its revolution round the sun and the zodiac) when Saturn and Venus were thought to lie in their degrees of exaltation simultaneously may be derived from the tables of Stadius (S) and Origanus (O) as follows:
Saturn in Libra 21

S                          O

10-18 Oct. 99        13-21 Oct. 99

31 May-6 July 00           -

Venus in Pisces 27

S                          O

23 Jan. 98         22-3 Jan. 98
5 Mar. 99           5-6 Mar. 99

16 Apr. 00        16-17 Apr. 00

Although Venus of course achieved its precise degree of exaltation in Pisces 27 during each of its three periods in that sign, Saturn's one exaltation (or two, according to Stadius) in Libra 21 lay outside all Venus', so the poem's possible reference could only be based on the commonly accepted approximation which deemed it sufficient for the planet to be within the sign (see Eade, ibid., and 132-4, 138, 141-2, 145 (Chaucer), and OED2 quotations under 'exalt' v. 5 (Culpepper, 1652), and 'exultate' pple. (Chaucer)). The durations of Saturn and Venus in the signs of their exaltation according to Stadius and Origanus may be inferred thus:
Saturn in Libra

S                            O

13.10.97-6.4.98       21.10.97-24.3.98
7.7.98-3.10.00         18.7.98-29.9.00

Venus in Pisces

S                            O

30.12.97-24.1.98     30.12.97-25.1.98
11.2-6.3.99               11.2-7.3.99
23.3-18.4.00             24.3-19.4.00

Since Sir Thomas Egerton married her aunt in October 1597, Ann More might already have been living in York House when Donne joined the Lord Keeper's secretariat there late in 1597 or early in 1598 (R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970; corr. repr. 1986) 93, 537), but it seems improbable that Donne would have become sufficiently at home and intimate with his mighty employer's niece to engrave his rather public memento for her by January 1598. The planets' period of coincidence in exaltation in February-March 1599 seems more in step with the likely progress of the love-affair.

Line 3 of the poem implies that some time has elapsed between the engraving of the name and the occasion of writing. To hazard a date for the latter, we may push speculation somewhat further. Donne might have envisaged going to Ireland in April 1599 with Egerton's sons Thomas and John and other friends, in the train of the Earl of Essex (whose instructions as lieutenant and governor-general were issued on 26 March), as he had on the Cadiz and Islands expeditions in 1596 and 1597. However, the experiences described in his verse-epistles 'The Storm' (to Christopher Brooke, who later gave away the bride at Donne's clandestine marriage) and 'The Calm', and the attitude of Elegy 20, 'Love's War' (which, however, may well have been written before 1596), suggest that he might have been unwilling to interrupt his more congenial and promising career under Egerton. More plausibly, though Donne may well have made shorter journeys to or with the Queen's court outside London (Bald, 102), if early 1599 was the date of the engraving, his one documented absence from London in that year was in September for the younger Thomas Egerton's funeral in Chester (Bald, 105). However, the poem's statement only that 'this name was cut When love and grief their exaltation had', allows an indeterminable space of time between that and the departure lamented.

Regarding Donne's unusual awareness of precise astronomical data, the September 1599 journey might well have allowed time enough for Origanus' Ephemerides to reach London and, simply as a new book on a stationer's stall, catch the witty lover's eye. As Mr Kline notes, the planets' third coincidence in their signs of exaltation in March-April 1600 seems too late for the poem if written to Ann More at York House, since she presumably left soon after 20 January 1600, when her aunt died (Bald, 109). There appears to be no evidence that Donne visited Losely before his marriage; even had he done so, he might have been more inhibited about engraving his name in the house of so choleric a father, a man of whom Donne was later so nervous that, instead of informing Sir George of the marriage face to face, he enlisted the Earl of Northumberland as messenger (Bald, 133). Thus we might refine and extend Mr Kline's hypothesis to date the cutting of the name in a window at York House to late February or early March 1599, and the writing of the poem to later that year, perhaps after the younger Sir Thomas Egerton had died of wounds in Dublin Castle on 23 August and before his funeral in Chester Cathedral on 26 September.

Mr Kline adduces further support for this historical placing from the poem's possible puns on Ann's surname. Line 9's 'more' does not translate into the alternative sense so elegantly as in the 'Hymn to Christ' and 'Hymn to God the Father' (and, perhaps, Holy Sonnet XVII), but it would be a characteristically witty quibble to make the glass embody three natures: theirs in its own shine and transparency, her beauty, and his sincerity. That the two uses of 'more' in line 40 pun on More (= 'a loving More', 'a sad More') is also plausible, though Donne's puns usually make neater sense syntactically. Since her father, Sir George, was actively searching among the gentry for a husband for Ann with wealth to match his own (Bald, 128-30), the allusion to a hypothetical suitor's 'wit or land' in line 45 might be implicitly contrasting Ann's current preference for Donne's wealth of wit with that of her father, either of which might sway her choice.

ROBIN ROBBINS Wadham College, Oxford
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Title Annotation:English poet
Author:Robbins, Robin
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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