Trumpet, Watchtower, and Refrain in Donne’s Second Anniversarie: A Response to Michael Ursell, Sarah Powrie, and Ryan Netzley
Theresa M. DiPasquale
Published in Connotations Vol. 25.2 (2015/16)
Teresa DiPasquale offers an “interlocking close reading” of the three articles that (in Connotations 25.1) started a critical debate on John Donne’s “The Second Anniversarie” to offer additional textual explication of the poem, gathered by the synthesis of the scholarly essays.
Michael Ursell, Sarah Powrie, and Ryan Netzley all comment on both The First Anniversarie: An Anatomie of the World and The Second Anniversarie: Of the Progres of the Soule; Ursell touches upon “A Funerall Elegie” as well. But their essays focus with particular energy on the Progres, casting light on “what one learns inside the poem” (Netzley 4). Each essay provides opportunities for textual explication that its author does not fully exploit. My response, then, takes the form of three interlocking close readings.
Michael Ursell’s “Pneumatics of Inspiration”
Michael Ursell establishes that, in the Anniversaries, Elizabeth Drury “embodies an indeterminate, non-Aristotelean connection between spirit and matter” (Ursell 46). More problematic is Ursell’s claim that, in the trumpet image at the end of The Second Anniversarie, “a divinity” is “breathing through” the poet (48). Noting the degree to which both the First Anniversarie and the Second blend contempt for the physical world with apparently contradictory images in which body [→ page 257] and soul are intimately connected, Ursell finds the key to understanding Donne’s poem in the Stoic concept of pneuma—“a substance conceived in Aristotelean thought and then reshaped in Stoic philosophy, which straddles the conceptual boundary between material and immaterial” (Ursell 47). This is an excellent insight, but Ursell’s claim that “pneuma shows up in [Donne’s] poems and sermons in the Latinate form ‘spirit’” (47) is imprecise, for Donne in fact uses the plural term “spirits” to convey that concept.1) The distinction is important because the most common definitions of “spirit” in the singular all emphasize its immateriality: it is the “vital principle” that “gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements,” “incorporeal or immaterial being, as opposed to body or matter; being or intelligence conceived as distinct from, or independent of, anything physical or material,” “the disembodied soul,” and “[a] supernatural, incorporeal […] being” (OED “spirit, n.,” 1.a. and d; 2.b.; 3.a.; my emphases). And while the singular “spirit” was also used in early English texts to refer to pneuma, that is, to “one or other of certain subtle highly-refined substances or fluids […] formerly supposed to permeate the blood and chief organs of the body,” this definition was applied “in later use only [to the] pl.” form of the word (OED “spirit, n.,” 16.a.). By the sixteenth century, the pneumatic “vital spirit” that is central to Ursell’s argument was almost always referred to by the plural term “vital spirits” (see OED “vital, adj.,” 2.a.).2)
Even more to the point, the plural—as Ursell’s quotation from “A Funerall Elegie” demonstrates—is Donne’s preferred term for the vital substance that mediates between the material and the immaterial. Donne uses it, for example, in “The Extasie”: “[O]ur blood labours to beget / Spirits, as like soules as it can, / Because such fingers need to knit / That subtile knot, which makes us man” (61-64; Donne, Complete Poetry 132). These lines provide a better point of departure for exploring pneuma in the Anniversaries than does Giorgio Agamben’s account of Stoic pneumatology (qtd. in Ursell 48). For as the lines from “The Extasie” show, Donne associates “spirits” less with the macrocosmic elements of air and fire than with the blood, a [→ page 259] microcosmic humor that—like air—is hot and moist. In “labour[ing] to beget,” the blood unites the male and female principles and paradoxically reverses the sequence of their actions in sexual reproduction, where the act of begetting leads to the labor of childbirth, rather than vice versa. The blood’s work involves knitting, yet another kind of female labor. But as the antecedent of “such fingers” is not clear, the lines are ambiguous: are the spirits themselves the busily working digits that “knit” together body and soul? Or are they the “subtile knot” knit by the fingers of the blood, imagined as a branching network of vessels? The ambiguity mimics the spirits’ subtlety, their liminal status as a corporeal/non-corporeal substance that flows across the threshold between material and immaterial, feminine and masculine.
In The Anniversaries, too, Donne uses the word “spirits”—in its pneumatic sense—in association with blood and sexual reproduction. The word occurs twice in the poems: once in line 13 of the Anatomy (in which the world’s corpse is drained of pneuma, having “bled” at length—like a Roman suicide in a tub of warm water—“in a common Bath of teares […] / Which drew the strongest vitall spirits out” [12-13]) and once in the lines Ursell quotes from “A Funerall Elegie”: “those fine spirits, which doe tune and set / This Organ, are those peeces which beget / Wonder and loue” (27-29).3) Both passages suggest that Elizabeth Drury was the world’s pneuma and that her departure has unraveled “the subtile knot” between the macrocosm and its soul.
But do Donne’s Anniversaries themselves also function pneumatically? The conclusion of The First Anniversarie defines poetry as having a “middle nature” between “heauen,” which “keeps soules,” and “The graue,” which “keepes bodies” (473, 474). It does not follow, however, that “Donne’s poem is itself like” the “spirits” that sublime physical matter into spiritual substance (Ursell 48-49). Quoting lines 27-29 of A Funerall Elegie out of context, Ursell claims that the “poem […] describes itself as an ‘Organ’ played by ‘spirits’” (47); but this is a problematic paraphrase. The preceding lines describe the “world” (21) [→ page 260] as a macrocosm containing all of the parts of a human body; it has “armes, […] braines, […] tongues, […] hearts, […] stomachs, […] backes, […] hands, […] [and] feet” (each of these parts being supplied by a certain class of human beings, specifically “Princes, […] Counsailors, […] Lawyers, […] Diuines, […] The Rich, […] the Pore, […] Officers, […] and Merchants”) (22-25). “But,” lines 27-30 explain, “those fine spirits, which doe tune and set / This Organ, are those peeces which beget / Wonder and loue; And these were shee; and shee / Being spent, the world must needes decrepit bee.” “This Organ” is, then, the body of the world, which was “tune[d] and set” by the spirits that “were shee”; her pneumatic action made the world’s corpus an instrument capable of harmonious sound. And, given the catalogue of body parts in lines 22-25, the speaker’s statement in lines 27-30 subtly implies that what is missing from a world deprived of “those fine spirits” are gonads: either female reproductive organs (implied by their being identified as “shee”), without which the world is barren, or testes and the semen they produce (implied by their ability to “beget”), without which the world is impotent. Without “those peeces”—those parts (or “distinct portions of which something is composed” [OED “piece, n.,” 2.a.]), the world’s body is stripped of fecundity. When Elizabeth passes out of the world, “shee / Being spent,” the “fine spirits” are depleted, leaving the corpus mundi “decrepit”—“completely exhausted” (OED “decrepit, adj.,” 3.a.) like the sexually drained males of The First Anniversary, who pour out their spirit in sexual activity and thus “kill [themselves] to propagate [their] kind” (110).4) I stress the sexual and gendered charge of Donne’s language in describing the world’s loss of pneuma to highlight a key aspect of the Anniversaries that is neglected by Powrie and Netzley as well as Ursell: these poems constitute what I have elsewhere called “Donne’s monumental tribute to the sacred feminine” (DiPasquale, Refiguring 8).
The word “peeces” can also mean “item[s] of artistic composition” (OED “piece, n.,” 1.c.), so Ursell is right to read “A Funerall Elegie” meta-poetically; but the poem stresses its own limits rather than its powers. The speaker asks, “Can these memorials, ragges of paper, [→ page 261] giue / Life to that name, by which name they must liue?” and answers, quickly and near-despairingly, “Sickly, alas, short-liu’d, aborted bee / Those Carkas verses, whose soule is not shee” (11-14). He then goes on to draw a clear analogy between “Carkas verses” and the mortally “wounded […] world” (21) that now lacks its “fine spirits” (27). Indeed, the effect of the poem as a whole is to lament its own lack of pneuma, to underscore that “an Elegie” cannot be the dwelling place of the “spirits” that could render it full of and one with the soul it celebrates.5)
The word “spirits” does not appear in The Second Anniversarie, though its opening passage does feature an image—that of “a beheaded man”—in which the outflowing blood takes the soul along with it: “at those two Red seas, which freely ran, / One from the Trunke, another from the Head / His soule” has sailed away (9-12). Ursell claims that the related image of the “Lute, which in moist weather, rings / Her knell alone, by cracking of her strings” (19-20)—which is grouped with the image of the executed man—evokes pneuma; but in fact the eerily ringing lute, along with the twitching of the beheaded corpse (9-17), the ship that continues to move forward even after it has struck sail (7-8), and the “Ice, which crackles at a thaw” (18), all denote “motion in corruption” (22), which arises from residual energy—the “force of that force which” previously made it “runne” (8, 7)—and is thus a mere simulacrum of active mobility.
By comparison with the “Carkas verses” of “A Funerall Elegie” and the melancholy “knell” of the self-playing lute in The Second Anniversarie 19-20, the trumpet metaphor with which The Second Anniversarie concludes is undeniably positive and does—like Donne’s analogy between The First Anniversarie and Moses’ song (461-66)—imply a divine mandate. But the image does not evoke “divinity breathing through” the poet or imply that “the poet turned trumpet recomposes […] as poetry” the vital spirits lost in Elizabeth’s death “and blows them back into the world by the end of” the poem (Ursell 48). These descriptions misrepresent the extreme modesty and restraint of Donne’s metaphor, which distances the poet from the divine authority [→ page 262] that empowers him and makes clear that his poem operates very differently from the vital spirits animating a living body.
The poet/speaker notes that, since he is writing in France, he could claim religio-poetic license and invoke the name of the saint his poem praises. But he nevertheless comes down firmly on the side of Reformed practice. Elizabeth herself, he says, would not “be content, / To take” the poem for the poet’s “second yeeres true Rent, / Did this Coine beare any other stampe, then his, / That gaue [her] power to do, [him] to say this” (519-22). The coinage metaphor, with its refreshingly frank reference to a patron-commissioned poem as paying the artist’s “Rent,” is very far from evoking pneuma. It does assert that the poem bears God’s imprint, but a piece of gold or silver bearing the divine seal is not a living body into which the divine breath has been infused; rather, it is legitimate currency in the exchange between heaven and earth. Donne’s metaphor here thus points less to divine inspiration than to the poet’s concern that readers will think his poem “true” (520) and that those readers (including the bereaved Robert and Anne Drury on earth and their daughter Elizabeth Drury in heaven) will respond positively to it.6) As long as he refrains from idolatrous counterfeiting, he is empowered by God to “say” what Elizabeth “do[es]” and thus to keep producing legitimate coinage, but God does not speak through “this Coine.”
Having called his poem a form of current money, the poet moves on to another metallic metaphor that has been read as pointing to his priestly or prophetic vocation:
Since his [God’s] will is, that to posteritee,
Thou [Elizabeth Drury] shouldest for life, & death, a patterne bee,
And that the world should notice haue of this,
The purpose, and th’Authority is his;
Thou art the Proclamation, and I ame
The Trumpet, at whose voice the people came. (523-28)
Ursell cites Barbara Lewalski’s influential interpretation of these concluding lines as alluding “generally to the biblical metaphor of the [→ page 263] prophet as trumpet of the Lord, blasted by inspiration and proclaiming God’s will to the people (Judges 6:34, Ezekiel 33:3-5, 32)” and “more specifically to the special responsibility and privilege of the priests under the Law to blow trumpets to assemble the congregation for war and for various civic functions, and also to solemnize feasts and celebrations” (Lewalski 277-78).7) But Lewalski’s terms “generally” and “more specifically” are problematic, for the specific example does not fit the category. The trumpet-blowing priests of Numbers 10 (which Lewalski quotes at some length) are not examples of the trumpet-blowing prophets in Ezekiel.8) In Numbers, God instructs Moses to “Make […] two trumpets of siluer […] that thou mayest use them for the assembling of the Congregation […] And the sonnes of Aaron the Priest shall blow the trumpets” (Numbers 10:2, 10:8; emphasis mine). It is this use of the trumpet for summoning that Donne evokes with the past-tense construction “at whose voice the people came.”
In his sermons, Donne would explore the metaphor of the prophet and minister as God’s trumpet, associating both the priestly and the prophetic functions of ordained ministers with the trumpet warning-blast that the prophet Ezekiel, as watchman, was to sound.9) In the conclusion of the Second Anniversarie, however, the trumpet sounds a call to assemble rather than a warning. The two kinds of trumpet sound are different, as is clear from the passage in Numbers (10: 3-10) immediately following the Lord’s instructions to Moses for making the silver trumpets; God here sets up an elaborate system of different kinds of blowing: one a signal summoning the Israelite leaders, another calling the entire congregation to assemble, and others functioning as alarms, calls to battle, and ceremonial blasts solemnizing the liturgy of sacrifice. As “the Trumpet, at whose voice the people came,” the poet/speaker of The Second Anniversarie is like one of the trumpets that the sons of Aaron blow to summon the people. Elizabeth, not Donne or his poem, embodies prophetic “Proclamation” (527), the official declaration of God’s “will” (523). God is her Maker, the Author whose “purpose” and “Authority” are made manifest through her. It is thus she, God’s Proclamation, who speaks [→ page 264] with a divine breath or is imprinted by divine authority, a proclamation being “a formal order issued by a monarch or other legal authority, and made public” (OED “proclamation, n.,” 1.a.) not only orally, by the voice of a herald, but in writing.10) The trumpet-voice of the poet/speaker—even though it is not produced by divine breath—has also done its part to serve the divine will; “the people” who “came” in obedience to its call have—if they have read through to line 528 of The Second Anniversarie and taken in this past tense description of themselves—seen in print what God proclaims through Elizabeth Drury.
Sarah Powrie’s “Augustinian Interiority”
While Ursell over-states Donne’s claim to divine inspiration, Sarah Powrie argues that The Second Anniversarie succeeds as a work of art only insofar as its speaker—whose self-proclaimed identity as the maker of the poem she does not acknowledge—“fail[s] to access” the “inexpressible mysteries” that would be revealed to him through Augustinian meditation on “the wordless language of the soul’s inner thought” (13).
Powrie brings to bear on her interpretation a compelling analysis of a passage from De Trinitate in which Augustine carefully distinguishes between the speculum or glass through which human beings may read the truths written in our own souls, and a specula or “watch-tower, from the height of which we see something at a greater distance” (Powrie 10; quoting Augustine, De Trinitate 15.8). She notes that Augustine’s interior dialogues stress inward orientation as the only reliable means to attain wisdom and that, in On the Trinity, Augustine draws on 1 Corinthians 13:12—“we see now through a glass darkly, but then face to face”—“transform[ing] Paul’s ‘dark glass into a metaphor for illuminative contemplation” in order to suggest “that the soul’s self-reflection on its interior sacredness represents a powerful foretaste of the beatific vision” (Powrie 4). “It is thus unusual, and perhaps even perverse,” Powrie concludes, that in The Second Anniversarie, [→ page 265]
Donne would place the image of a watchtower in the midst of his reflection on the soul’s knowledge, since it seems to defy Augustine’s exhortations. Nonetheless, the image’s external orientation accurately captures the speaker’s recurrent preoccupation with the world’s curiosities and attractions. (11)
But is this the only conclusion one might draw? Might not one grant Powrie’s thesis—that the poem “both engages and resists techniques of Augustinian interiority” (1)—and yet describe that resistance as spiritually fruitful? Might one judge it, that is, in Donnean rather than Augustinian terms?
The passage that includes the “watch-towre” image is the fourth of the poem’s seven meditations: the one focusing on the soul’s “ignorance in this life and knowledge in the next” (marginal annotation). Within this passage, the image of seeing from the watch-tower—as contrasted with seeing through spectacles—is the transition between the first part of the meditation and the second:
When wilt thou shake of this Pedantery,
Of being taught by sense, and Fantasy?
Thou look’st through spectacles; small things seem great,
Below; But vp into the watch-towre get,
And see all things despoiled of fallacies. (291-95)
In these lines, the speaker does not, like Augustine, stress “withdrawing from the physical senses and engaging the interior senses which are capable of interpreting the interior text of memory” (Powrie 5). Instead, he insists that the only way to move from “ignorance” to “knowledge” is to leave this world altogether, to ascend to heaven—or to engage in the highest levels of contemplation, which provide a limited foretaste of heavenly vision.
As the speaker continues, he blends present and future tense, describing the soul’s heavenly knowledge in terms that evoke a contrast, not between outward and inward sense, but between spatially- and temporally-bound earthly senses and a celestial perspective neither limited by restrictive spatial configurations nor drawn out in the laborious processes of time: [→ page 266]
And see all things despoyld of fallacies:
Thou shalt not peepe through lattices of eies,
Nor heare through Laberinths of eares, nor learne
By circuit, or collections to discerne.
In Heauen thou straight know’st all, concerning it,
And what concerns it not, shall straight forget. (295-300)
What thou “shalt not” do and “shall straight forget” (future, lines 296 and 300) when one obeys the command “vp vnto the watch-towre get / And see” (imperatives that, like all second person imperatives in English, use what sounds like present tense to urge future action) is here blended with what “thou straight know’st” (present, line 299) there. The watch-towre here is thus “Heauen” itself or the height of contemplation, which Richard of St. Victor refers to variously as “the intellectual sense,” “the intellectual heaven” and “the intellectual watchtower” (Mystical Ark III.ix-x).11)
In The Second Anniversarie 291-300, Donne’s speaker specifically distinguishes the kind of vision possible from the “watch-towre” with the distorted perspective provided by “spectacles.” Surely these are the speculum of 1 Corinthians, understood as a trope for our limited earthly knowledge of God as compared to the “face to face” knowledge to be experienced in heaven. Donne takes a similar approach to St. Paul’s speculum in an Easter 1628 sermon that Powrie cites in an endnote: “While the dark glass signifies the partial, fragmented, and mediated nature of human knowledge, the latter denotes its completion and ‘perfection.’ […] In earthly life, we see ‘obscurely in respect of that knowledge of God, which we shall have in heaven’” (Powrie 16n29; quoting Donne, Sermons 8: 219, 229). In the sermon, Donne quotes from Augustine repeatedly but also asserts a doctrine that contrasts with Augustine’s emphasis on interiority as Powrie describes it; far from inisisting upon the soul’s “withdrawing from materiality and engaging its interior rational powers” (Powrie 3), the preacher urges that
our sight of God here, our Theatre, the place where we sit and see him, is the whole world, the whole house and frame of nature, and our medium, our glasse, is the Booke of Creatures, and our light, by which we see him, is the [→ page 167] light of Naturall Reason. […] [S]ee God in every thing, and then thou needst not take off thine eye from Beauty, from Riches, from Honour, from any thing. […] The naturall man sees Beauty, and Riches, and Honour, but yet it is a question whether he sees them or no, because he sees them, but as a snare. But he that sees God in them, sees them to be beames and evidences of that Beauty, that Wealth, that Honour, that is in God, that is God himselfe. […] There is not so poore a creature but may be thy glasse to see God in. (Sermons 8: 220, 221, 224).
By comparison with Donne in this sermon, the speaker of The Second Anniversarie is actually quite wary of the distractions that the wonders of nature may afford. But when read in light of the sermon and the over-arching contrast between earthly and heavenly knowledge that is the point of The Second Anniversarie’s fourth meditation, the image of the “watch-towre” does not demonstrate “the speaker’s recurrent preoccupation with the world’s curiosities and attractions” (Powrie 11). Rather, it suggests an image of the afterlife that the fifth and seventh meditations elaborate: a state which, though the beatific vision (the subject of the sixth meditation) constitutes its “essential ioie” (443), nevertheless includes “accidentall ioyes” (382) arising from saintly company and from the temporal yet permanent joy of “arriual” that “neere decaies” (489) but instead grows “euery day,” since there, “ioies strength is neuer spent; / And accidentall things are permanent” (487-88).12)
Donne does not use a watch-tower image in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:12, but he does muse upon Paul’s declaration that, in heaven, God will “be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28):
What shall we see, by seeing him so, face to face? not to inlarge ourselves into Gregories wild speculation, Qui videt videntem omnia, omnia videt, because we shall see him that sees all things, we shall see all things in him, […] rest we in the testimony of a safer witnesse, a Councell, In speculo Divinitatis quicquid eorum itersit illucescet; In that glasse we shall see, whatsoever we can be the better for seeing. (Sermons 8: 234).13)
The speaker of The Second Anniversarie comes close to “Gregories wild speculation” when he says that one can see “all things” from the [→ page 268] vantage point of the watch-tower but pulls back by specifying “all things despoyld of fallacies” (The Second Anniversarie 295). Again, Richard of St. Victor provides a helpful gloss:
Thinking is from imagination; meditation, from reason; contemplation, from understanding. […] Understanding occupies the highest place; imagination, the lowest; reason, the middle. Everything that is subject to the lower sense is also necessarily subject to the higher sense. Thus, it is evident that […] those things which imagination and reason grasp, as well as things which they are not able to grasp, are perceived by the understanding. Thus, see how widely a ray of contemplation that illuminates everything expands itself. […] These things have been said for the sake of those people who consider […] inferior things unworthy either to be perceived by the understanding or to pertain everywhere to contemplation. […] [C]ontemplation is always concerned with things, whether manifest in their nature, known intimately by means of study, or perceived from a divine showing. (The Mystical Ark I.iii; trans. Zinn 156-57).14)
Like Richard, Donne’s speaker believes that ascending “the intellectual watchtower” (Mystical Ark 235) does not mean leaving behind all concern with “inferior things” (Mystical Ark 156); on the contrary, that ascent brings the mind to a height from which it can “see all things despoyld of fallacies” (The Second Anniversarie 92).
Ryan Netzley’s “Radical Empiricism”
For Ryan Netzley, perception is a key theme of The Second Anniversarie; he argues that it “is interested in […] expanding the parameters of what can be seen” and reads the contemplative watchtower of lines 293-98 as facilitating such expansion: it “rectifies the lack of proportion inherent in the inductive reasoning that attends empirical perception, not any fundamental weakness in empiricism itself” (Netzley 36).
Netzley’s thesis—that Donne’s Second Anniversarie “advanc[es] a radical empiricism in which particularity is not subject to an abstract universal conceived as its governor” (19)15)—has strong implications [→ page 269] for poetics and for religion that do not fall within the purview of his essay but that are central to Donne’s project in the poem. Specifically, such empiricism constitutes a liberating alternative to Sidney’s Neo-Platonic poetics, which relies upon the poet’s ability to provide particulars answerable to an abstract ideal and elevates the poet above the philosopher and the historian because the “knowledge” of the former “standeth so vpon the abstract and generall, that happie is that man who may vnderstand him, and more happie, that can apply what he doth vnderstand,” whereas, “the Historian wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should bee, but to what is, to the particular truth of things, and not to the generall reason of things, that his example draweth no necessarie consequence, and therefore a lesse fruitfull doctrine” (Defence, D1r-D1v). The particulars of the Sidneyan poet’s language, then, remain—despite Sidney’s exalted claims for poesy—very much subject to philosophical abstractions; “for whatsoeuer the Philosopher saith should be done, [the poet] giues a perfect picture of it by some one, by who[m] he presupposeth it was done, so as he coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example” (D1v). For Sidney, the particulars of the poet’s “words set in delightfull proportion” (E2r) thus remain in service to a governing universal: virtue, defined in Christian and specifically Protestant terms. Donne’s “radical empiricism” as Netzley defines it, which involves not so much the elimination of universals and categories as the elevation of individual examples to the status of universals, worthy of examination for their own sake, anticipates imagism in ways that help to explain Donne’s popularity among the Modernist poets and grounds itself in a sacramental poetics that unites sign and signified more seamlessly than Sidney’s poetics will allow.16)
That said, Netzley’s argument could be strengthened if he were to dig more deeply into the prosodic particulars of Donne’s poem, especially the fascinatingly irregular refrain that delineates its structure and helps to teach the reader that “we learn directly […] from time, especially the experience of temporal arrivals,” that one acquires “knowledge” not through “category recognition,” but via [→ page 270] “the repetition and modification of particular instances” (Netzley 29). A close reading of the poem’s refrain lines demonstrates that, “if we are going to learn from a poem or an occasion,” we must do so by “perceiving its pattern of regularity (not rule) as an event in the present, as opposed to recognizing it after the fact, as a result of various deductive procedures” (Netzley 29). Netzley himself begins such a reading. Noting that the repetition of the refrain in The First Anniversarie “is almost identically stated throughout,” while “The Second Anniversarie is a much more multifarious affair,” he claims that the first refrain of the Progres is modeled on the refrain of the Anatomy but that “subsequent iterations […] dilate” the “compact formula” thus established, and that these dilated refrains “occur with increasing frequency” (35).
Netzley’s outline of the refrains is, however, incomplete and only partially accurate. As Louis L. Martz first argued in 1947, and as most critics have agreed (with slight disagreements about the lines of demarcation between sections), the poem is structured into an introduction, seven sections including seven meditations and their attendant eulogies, and a conclusion.17) Demarcating this structure are, I would argue, seven iterations of the refrain rather than the five recorded by Netzley; and while these iterations occur at intervals that vary from as few as 40 to as many as 100 lines, the intervals do not steadily decrease, but fluctuate in a manner that confirms Netzley’s thesis—that is, in an empirically observable manner, but in a way that no formula, not even one of “increasing frequency,” can predict.18)
The first refrain, which Netzley correctly describes as mirroring and modifying that of The First Anniversarie, occurs at line 81: “Shee, shee is gone; shee is gone; when though knowest this […].” But the second refrain is not, as Netzley asserts, line 247; it is line 147: “Shee, shee embrac’d a sicknesse, gaue it meat.” While this line echoes line 81 only by anaphora—beginning, as line 81 does, with the repetition of “Shee, shee”—it becomes recognizable as a refrain line in the way that Netzley argues it should: not by conforming to an established rule, but by emerging as a line of demarcation between the second section [→ page 271] of the poem’s body and the third. The first section (lines 45-84), as Donne’s marginal annotation explains, is “A iust disestimation of this world” concluding with a eulogy of Elizabeth Drury as “Shee, shee” whose being “gone” from the world has confirmed its status as “fragmentary rubbidge” (81, 82). The second section (lines 85-156) contemplates “our state in our death-bed” (marginal annotation) and eulogizes Elizabeth Drury as “Shee, shee” who willingly surrendered her perfect body to sickness and death and thereby taught that death is the only gateway to heaven. The third section meditates on the “Incommodities of the Soule in the Body” (marginal annotation), concluding with a eulogy of Elizabeth as “Shee, shee,” who—though “richly, and largely hous’d” in a body as soul-like as a body can be, “is gone” from that dwelling and from the world (247).
In each case, as in The First Anniversarie, the refrain line’s double “Shee” follows a series of the female pronoun in the preceding lines that are extensively modified by dependent clauses and various illustrative phrases but that lack a predicate and thus thrust the reader forward toward the refrain line in which, at last, the long-deferred predicate is to be found. In the first meditation, the “Shee” of this sort surfaces in lines 67, 75, and 77. In the second meditation, they occur at lines 122-23 and 143; and in the third, at lines 220-21, 226, 235, and 241. Several features of Donne’s poem make the distinction between the anticipatory “shee” and the “shee” of a refrain line hard to maintain, however. One such feature is the variability of the verb used in the refrain: the first refrain’s intransitive present tense verb “is” and its predicate adjective “gone” are replaced in the second refrain with the transitive past tense verbs “embrac’d” and “gaue”; “is gone” returns for the third and fourth refrains, but the fourth (which Netzley lists as the third) is nevertheless different from the first and third because, as Netzley shows, it is dilated to three lines and does include modifying phrases and dependent clauses of the sort that the reader has come to think of as signaling further deferral of the refrain and its long-delayed predicate: “Shee, shee, not satisfied with all this waite, / (For so much knowledge, as would ouer-fraite / Another, did but Ballast [→ page 272] her) is gone” (315-17). The “waite” of line 315 is particularly witty, for while in context it means “weight,” it puns on “wait” even as the reader is being made to “wait” until line 317 for the subject’s predicate.
The pattern that emerges verifies Netzley’s thesis; for it is one of unpredictable variation rather than of rule, one that requires constant empirical observation and a willingness to follow where the language leads rather than to hunt down established characteristics. Observing Donne’s technique, Edward Tayler notes that
“Donne’s structural repetends […] gathering momentum as we read, constitute the main source of the expectations the poet arouses in the course of the work. […] Meaning resides in the perception of difference, and while in theory we must concede that the meanings are in an absolute sense endlessly deferred, in practice we extract meanings, and artistic satisfactions, as we proceed. […] Of course, if we do not see the structural norms that the poet has established through his repetends, we cannot see the variations.” (105)
Donne’s challenging pattern of variation continues with the fifth refrain, which Netzley also omits from his list. The fifth section of the poem’s body, which extends from line 321 to line 382, meditates on “our company in this life and in the next” (marginal annotation) and eulogizes Elizabeth as one who, in her earthly life, constituted in herself both a sovereign state and a Church—thus embodying these macrocosmic communal entities within her microcosm and modeling what Netzley identifies as “the conflation of particular and universal, or rather the treating of universals as particulars” (41). The anticipatory “shee”s of this section occur at lines 357, 359, and 376 and are intermingled (in a way that again supports Netzley’s thesis by violating what might otherwise seem to have been an established rule) with grammatically complete clauses in which “Shee” has a predicate (“shee made wars, and triumph’d,” “shee made peace,” “Shee did high iustice; […] shee crucified”; shee gaue pardons”; “shee pardond all”; Shee coynd”; Shee gaue protections” [361, 363, 365, 367, 368, 369, 370]). When the refrain at last occurs in lines 379-80, moreover, it has morphed from the expected “Shee, shee is gone” of [→ page 273] the first and third refrains to “Shee, shee doth leaue it [i.e., the world], and by Death, suruive / All this.” In replacing the intransitive “is gone” and the transitive past tense “embraced” with the transitive present tense verbs “doth leaue” and “suruiue,” the poet points to Elizabeth as an active agent who maintains her God-given “power to do” (522).
The sixth iteration of the refrain is also a category-challenging specific: while it features the usual intransitive verb phrase “is gone,” it lacks the double “Shee” that has signaled the first three refrains. Indeed, in identifying lines 448-50 and line 467 as an iteration of the refrain, Netzley treats what I would think of as the fourth section’s anticipatory “shee” passage as the beginning of the fourth refrain. How lovely is this disagreement, which arises from the poem’s own openness! For while line 448 baits readers with a refrain-like construction (a complete clause with the subject “Shee” and the predicate “is gone before”), they must then make their way through eighteen and two fifths lines of dependent “who” clauses of the same kind that have delayed the refrain in earlier meditations—before they encounter the next grammatically altered refrain in the final three feet of line 467: “shee to Heauen is gone.” Here, “gone,” used with “to,” functions (despite the present tense “is”) as the past participle of the verb “to go,” in the sense “To move, travel, or proceed to or towards a specified place” (OED “go, v.,” 29.a.) rather than in its adjectival senses “left or departed; no longer present” and “departed from life; dead” (OED “gone, adj.” 1.a. and b.). In the end, whether one perceives the sixth refrain as altered, dilated, contracted, or bifurcated, the radical empiricism Netzley sees in the poem urges us not to classify it but to experience it in its quirky uniqueness.
The seventh and final refrain spans lines 507-09 and repeats and expands the active, participial “to Heauen is gone” construction of the sixth: “Shee, who by making full perfection grow, / Peeces a Circle, and still keeps it so, / Long’d for, and longing for’it, to heauen is gone.” These lines deepen the sixth refrain’s emphasis on the celestial destination of Elizabeth’s “go[ing]” by including as adverbial [→ page 274] modifiers the active and passive versions of the verb phrase “long for,” thus conflating her status as the subject and the object of desire. This “long’d for” and “longing” movement allows her to accomplish a mathematical miracle: she “Peeces”—that is “mend[s], make[s] whole, or complete[s] by adding a piece or pieces” (OED “piece,” v. 1.a.)—“a Circle,” the geometrical symbol of perfection that can be altered and remain perfect, only through the expansion of its entire circumference to match the expansion of its radius. This process of “making full perfection grow” is yet another way of asserting that “universals”—such as the idea of a “Circle” and the abstract ideal of “perfection”—are “more than the additive product of particular parts or the imposition of a governing structure onto disorderly phenomena” (Netzley 29). Every positive real number—including all positive irrational numbers, though such numbers cannot be exactly represented by a finite number of integers—can be represented by a corresponding circle with a radius that is the length of that number. Donne’s radical empiricism frees the mind to take the (perfect) measure of every single one.
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