John Donne's Use of Space
Lisa Gorton
Merton College, Oxford
Rhodes University, Grahamstown, SA

Gorton, Lisa. "John Donne's Use of Space." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 / Special Issue 3 (September, 1998): 9.1-27 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/gortjohn.htm>.

This essay was the winner of the John Donne Society Award for Distinguished Publication in Donne Studies (1999).

  1. Donne's writing shows he was fascinated by new discoveries. He took up the modern idiom of maps and discovery with delight. But he was also deeply attached to the past, and his assumptions about space belonged to an old tradition: a cosmographic rather than cartographic way of imagining space. This paper is about Donne's spatial imagination: its cosmographic assumptions, and its many contradictions -- between old and new ways of imagining the cosmos, between cosmographic and cartographic ways of imagining the world, and between his spatial imagination itself and his narrative voice.

  3. We are almost always aware of where Donne's speakers are, but he creates that sense of place with startling economy: with prepositions rather than descriptions. His characters inhabit peculiarly simplified locations and spatial arrangements: a town under siege; a "little roome"; a "pretty roome"; a room encircled by the outside world, by spies, by pilgrims, by cosmic spheres or the sun; centres and circles. It was not the appearance but the shape of space that interested Donne, and he used the same shapes over and over again in his poetry and prose, as if they formed a kind of language for thinking about relationships; as if he had a spatial apprehension of a thought (rather than the "sensuous apprehension of a thought" for which Eliot praised him), and imagined a relationship's intangible configurations of power, passivity, privacy and fusion in spatial terms, as shapes.[1]

  5. We can see that Donne's writing is full of circles: symbolic, loving, social and spiritual. We can argue that he phrased ideas to himself in spatial terms. However, our distance from his assumptions about space makes it difficult for us to understand why. His spatial language took forms and meaning from a traditional conception of space, which seems very odd to us today. We generally think of space as a characterless abstraction. We think of it without picturing circles, or considering forces. We think of space without imagining the cosmos.[2] But space was a different story for Donne. It was material, forceful, meaningful, full, and arranged into concentric circles. This was the concept of space the new philosophy called into doubt, while cartography offered an alternative way to picture it, in two rather than three dimensions, and all these contradictory ways of imagining space play against each other in the foreground of Donne's poetry. However, the traditional interpretation of space formed the background to his spatial imagination. He expected space to mean something; to take certain shapes, which indicated forces.

  7. The tradition came out of the belief that the cosmos was a finite sphere, with nothing outside it. Plato laid out cosmic space in spheres in the Timaeus. Aristotle adapted and developed this arrangement in his lectures On the Heavens and in Physics by making it part of his explanation of why things moved as they did.[3] Plato described "space" as the "receptacle" or fundamental and characterless substance in which changing qualities enacted themselves.[4] Aristotle identified Plato's space (kh"ra) with his own prime matter.[5] Like Plato, he rejected the opinion of the atomists. Space was not a three-dimensional void in which particles moved.[6] It was the outcome of material dimension, hence his denial that "space" as we might imagine it -- as a void or three-dimensional abstraction -- existed at all.[7]

  9. Augustine built the idea that space was a set of concentric spheres into Christian philosophy when he interpreted the Book of Genesis in accordance with it in The City of God.[8] It became an assumption necessary to understanding how and why things moved, with Aquinas' interpretation of Aristotle's Physics,[9] and quasi-doctrinal once Aquinas based certain of his proofs that God existed upon Aristotelian premises,[10] and concluded his Commentary upon Aristotle's Physics on the triumphant note:
  10. And thus the Philosopher ends his general discussion of natural things with the first principle of the whole of nature, who is over all things, God, blessed forever, Amen.[11]
    Of course, there were very many variations upon this cosmic scheme, many of them highly creative, but almost all of them were variations upon the common theme of cosmic "cohaerence . . . just supply and . . . Relation," operating across the concentric spheres of space the symbolic value of the traditional scheme explained why the "new Philosophy" called "all in doubt."[12]
  11. Variations were fitted onto the following basic model. The cosmos was centred upon earth and arranged in concentric spheres.[13] The sphere enclosed by the orbit of the moon was called the sublunary sphere and the sphere above it, the celestial sphere. In the sublunary sphere everything was always becoming something else, living and dying, but the celestial sphere was made from better, purer, simpler stuff than the sublunary sphere, and the heavenly bodies lasted for all time, and moved for all time in a regular pattern. The pattern could be understood numerically as a set of ratios. Their purity was associated with their supposedly circular motion, and contrasted with the rectilinear motion of sublunary things, which moved up and down and came together and fell apart because they were composite. They were made from the four elements of earth, water, air and fire, each of which naturally belonged to a different sphere of the sublunary realm, and sought its natural place, so pulling natural bodies up and down and apart.

  13. Perhaps this description has led us to picture the cosmos as a set of concentric spheres, set up like an armillary sphere. But we have to be careful not to imagine an abstract arrangement in three dimensions. Space was material, and the shapes of space had force and meaning. In the Almagest Ptolemy wrote that "almost every particular attribute of material nature becomes apparent from the peculiarities of its motion from place to place. [Thus we can distinguish] the corruptible from the incorruptible, by [whether it undergoes] motion in a straight line or in a circle. . . and passive from active, by [whether it moves] towards the centre or away from the centre."[14] Like Plato, Aristotle and his Christian followers made "the contrast between circular and rectilinear motion a symbol of the contrast between the eternal and the transient, hence also between the psychical and the physical, even the divine and the mortal."[15]

  15. These metaphysical attributes of space allowed Donne to imagine metaphysical relationships in spatial terms; in terms of the sphere, circle, centre, circumference and set of concentric circles that gave shape to space in the closed cosmos, where space took shape and meaning from the forms that filled it.[16] But the new philosophy of the seventeenth century challenged this idea of the cosmos,[17] so calling "all in doubt,"[18] a doubt caught up by an odd moment in Donne's 1609 satire, Ignatius His Conclave. Copernicus is in hell, arguing he deserves a leadership role there because he threw the world into confusion with his new cosmology, and doing well until Ignatius argues that Greeks such as "Heraclides, Ecphantus, & Aristarchus" said the earth moved long before he did and, besides, he "may be right" in what he said.[19] And even Satan could not be certain. The new philosophy brought uncertainty with it, and while Bacon pictured a ship sailing past the old bounds of knowledge in the frontispiece to his New Atlantis, Donne referred to it as a sign of the frailty and decay rather than the progress of human knowledge in "The first Anniversary," as if the old certainties were not wrong, but "lost."[20]

  17. Donne's poetry plays upon the uncertainties of the time. He co-opts them to his own uncertainties: his radical changes of perspective; his radical juxtapositions of different perspectives; his balancing of possibilities. He uses different ways of imagining space to illustrate different attitudes, sometimes referring to the new philosophy, and sometimes writing as if he'd never heard of it. He chooses the philosophy that illustrates what he wants to say. In a letter to a friend he writes, "methinks the new philosophy is thus appliable well, that we which are a little earth should rather move toward God, than that He . . . should move toward us."[21] But in "The Sunne Rising" he fits the old philosophy onto that same image of a circle and its centre, for the lovers' position at the centre of the cosmos indicates the central importance and centrifocal tendency of their love. He chooses the philosophy that illustrates what he wants to say. However, he fits both philosophies and both relationships onto that one image of a circle and its centre, and the arrangement of relations that it represents in spatial terms.

  19. That image takes its shape and meaning from the shape and meaning of space in the "closed cosmos," where space is arranged in concentric circles. Donne describes the cosmic arrangement as "natures nest of boxes: the heavens contain the earth; the earth, cities; cities, men. And all these are concentric . . ."[22] and contained by "all the vaults and circles of the severall spheres of heaven" (S. 4. 5.150). This image of concentric circles appears over and over again in his writing, working like a master-image upon which he maps many, various, and sometimes contradictory ideas.

  21. For instance, he uses this image of concentric circles to illustrate his sense of the proper relationship between social ranks. He writes,
  22. as in the heavens there are but a few circles that go about the whole world, but many epicycles, and other lesser circles, but yet circles; so of those men which are raised and put into circles, few of them move from place to place, and pass through many and beneficial places, but fall into little circles, and, within a step of two, are at their end, and not so well as they were in the centre, from which they are raised . . .
    Here he maps a social hierarchy onto the architecture of concentric circles in the heavens, so we picture the spatial arrangement and movement of people, with that mix of abstraction and visualisation that is so curious in his imagery.[23]
  23. Donne maps the relationship between friends onto the same model. In a letter to Goodyer of 1609 he writes,
  24. The first sphere only which is resisted by nothing, absolves its course every day; and so doth true friendship well placed often iterate in act or purposes the same offices. But as the lower spheres, subject to the violence of that, and yet naturally encouraged to a reluctation against it, have therefore many distractions and eccentricities, and some trepidations, and so return but lamely and lately to the same place and office; so that friendship which is not moved primarily by the proper intelligence, discretion, and about the natural centre, virtue, doth perchance sometimes, some things, somewhat like true friendship; but hath many deviations. . .
    What an extraordinary way to compare friendships! His image comes from Plato's Timaeus, source of the idea that a first sphere moved without resistance around inner spheres facing resistance.[24] The model has the advantage of letting him map many different human relationships onto one master-image, so he can compare friendships, and not just friends. And it sets those human relationships within the vast and impersonal terms of the universe. It exposes those human relationships to the immense and impersonal terms of the cosmos, as the lover in "A Lecture upon the Shadow" exposes his own relationship to cosmic immensity. Another writer might use the contrast to diminish the relationship. Donne uses it to clarify the value of the relationship, for its very vulnerability becomes the measure of its intensity.
  25. Donne organises "Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward" around the same image, of intelligences moving spheres:[25]
  26. Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
    The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
    And as the other Spheares, by being growne
    Subject to forreigne motions, lose their owne,
    And being by others hurried every day,
    Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
    Here the image of the enclosing sphere of the sun, and the sun, contains the physical movement of the speaker "Riding Westward." Once again Donne contrasts the purity of the higher sphere and intelligence with the "distractions and eccentricities" of the speaker moving in a lesser sphere,[26] to provide a spatial image of the speaker's complaint about distractions of "Pleasure or businesse."
  27. This poem concerns the death of Christ. Since Christ's incarnation contracted "That All, which always is All everywhere" into the "little roome" of humanity,[27] it seems fitting that the speaker breaks the logic of the cosmic arrangement, as he does with the paradox,
  28. Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
    And turne all spheares at once, peirc'd with those holes?
    But he also breaks the logic of the cosmic arrangement with the introduction of cartographic imagery -- the East and the West of the poem. The contradiction between cosmographic and cartographic imagery expresses divine grace in spatial terms, for the sun reaches both East and West and overarches all the world. This adds to the irony of the last clause, "I'll turne my face" -- an irony that plays upon the religious ironies of prevenient grace, for the sun moves to shine in the face of those who ride westward. And all the movements traced in the poem -- the path of the rider, westwards, and the arc of the sun overhead, and the turning of his back and the turning of his face -- help to illustrate the to-and-fro movement of the rider's consciousness.
  29. Different and sometimes contradictory perspectives can play together on Donne's imaginative sites. This is part of the peculiar power of the rooms in Donne's poetry, I think: they counter-balance love against the awareness of an outside world unkind to love. Lovers in Donne's Elegies often retreat to rooms "ambush'd round with houshold spies": a "husbands towring eyes," a jealous husband, an "Hydroptique father . . . with glazed eyes," "spies and rivals . . . [and a] fathers wrath."[28] Their rooms are images of a love staked against the outside world, measuring its value by its dangerousness.

  31. The lovers in Donne's Songs and Sonets do not only stake their rooms of love against the outside world. They take over the outside world. Their contraction of the world, thus, finds an image and equivalent in the "contraction" of the Elegy-form into the stanzas, or "little rooms," of the Songs and Sonets (Donne plays on the pun in "The Canonization"). In the Elegies the lovers "themselves exile" in rooms "close and secret, as . . . [their] soules."[29] In many of the Songs and Sonets, they answer exile as defiantly as Coriolanus, with "I banish you."[30] Many of Donne's Songs and Sonets gather excitement as the lovers transform withdrawal: they are shut out from the world; they shut out the world; they are the world. We see the dynamic shift in "His parting from her." First the lover says, "come Night,/ Environ me with darkness." But soon he claims he could give darkness to the night, "and say,/ Out of my self, There should be no more Day." He makes himself the active centre of the darkness. The lover in "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day" also makes himself the negative centre of the poem. Nature mocks him -- "Yet all these seem to laugh / Compar'd with me . . ." -- as it mocks the lover in "Twicknam Garden" who looks upon happiness from outside: the trees laugh. But both lovers work from the margins, to create a world that centres upon them: "Hither with christall vyals, lovers come"; "Study me then, you who will lovers be . . ."

  33. We see the same dynamic in "The Canonization." Here society rather than nature mocks the lover with its ongoingness: "Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?" But the lover defies the world's definitions: "Call us what you will, wee are made such by love." In the following stanzas he builds a room for love, and a world around it. This impulse for living and loving, despite the world, sends a quickening pulse through these stanzas. We feel the same sudden creative power in "The Sunne Rising," when the lover stops trying to shut out the sun and starts demanding it centre upon the room of his love. The lovers do not simply stake out a room against the world, but find a whole world in their room. They become their own "mirrors and . . . spies," taking over from the "houshold spies" of the Elegies:[31] "wee in us finde th'Eagle and the Dove"; "She'is all States, and all Princes, I, / Nothing else is."[32] We feel a sudden corresponding expansiveness in the poem.

  35. When the lovers transform their withdrawal, they demand we fit our imagining of "That All, which always is All everywhere" into their "little roome."[33] It is no longer only a matter of pitting different perspectives against each other. It is a matter of fitting them together. These rooms demand a startling imaginative juxtaposition equivalent to the startling visual juxtaposition of "A bracelet of bright haire about the bone," or the startling temporal juxtaposition of "his first minute, after noone, is night."[34] "'Tis greatest now, and to destruction / Nearest," he writes in "The Progresse of the Soule."[35] Such opposites are never simply opposites, in Donne, but formed upon each other; the lover in "A Lecture upon the Shadow" sees, "We doe those shadowes tread." The closeness of opposites in Donne's vision gives the dramatic "cleernesse" of contrast to every emotion; it is this awareness of shadows that makes the "cleernesse" "brave."[36]

  37. Our pleasure in the imaginative power of the lover is undercut by our knowledge of the sun's unstoppable passage in "The Sunne Rising ," as our confidence in "The Canonization" is undercut by knowing the power is imaginative. When we read "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning ," we know mourning may be postponed, but morning cannot be. The lover stakes a place for love in a world we know he does not control, for his own images remind us of its range and its variousness. The lover's confidence is a kind of courage. Against the knowledge that "paine is true" he sets the reality of pleasure.[37]

  39. His celebration of "one little roome" as "everywhere" plays tricks of scale -- "the world's contracted thus."[38] But he also plays different perspectives off against each other by switching from cosmographic to cartographic imagery. Each way of imagining puts the poet in a different imaginative position. A cosmographic sense of space put the poet imaginatively at the centre of a three-dimensional universe, whilst a geographic sense of space puts the poet imaginatively above and apart from a two-dimensional representation of the world. Their juxtaposition creates the imaginative equivalent of irony: an irony, or split-vision, the reader experiences for, since Donne's imagery is spatial, his settings are images, not simply to see, but to inhabit.

  41. In "The Good-morrow" he says,
  42. Let sea-discovereres to new worlds have gone,
    Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,
    Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.
    Here the difference between a cartographic and cosmographic imagination is caught in the contrast between the verbs, "showne" and "possesse." We picture the maps piled on top of each other. This is one outcome of sea-discovery, for the people at home: a vision of the surface of the world. But then he seeks to "possesse" a world, and this is the world one has and one is: the cosmos, or macrocosm of the human microcosm.[39] This is the system that puts people at its centre. And from this point, the lover imagines himself and his beloved as the two halves of the earth: "Where can we finde two better hemispheares . . . ." They are the world other people looked upon in the map.[40] The reader sees them from both perspectives, picturing both the world in Maps and the hemisphere in each lover's eye.
  43. Such imaginative irony is remarkable because it does not play the present off against the future or the past (though that kind of irony is also found in Donne's poetry). It plays spatial perspectives off against each other. It is an irony caught in the very present moment of the speaker's experience, making dividedness part and parcel of the full creative consciousness of the speaker. This can give Donne's poetry a poignancy clear of nostalgia and cynicism, for the speaker's awareness of a world elsewhere, that will not wait for lovers, makes his here and now seem both more precious and more precarious.

  45. The contradictions within Donne's spatial imagination create a perspectival irony. But Donne does not only play different spatial perspectives off against each other. He also plays his spatial vision off against his narrative voice. So many of his love poems are set at the edge of some delight, and written in resistance to the inevitable; poems forbidding the sun, or the morning, or the break of day. But when his speakers assert power over time, they actually imagine power over space: the power of gold, beaten "to aery thinnesse," to reach across space; the power of a compass to organise sequence into a coherent spatial image; the power of lovers to reach beyond time into the celestial sphere. They try to fit time into the atemporal patterns of space.

  47. The image of concentric circles is beautifully expressed in "Loves Growth" where he turns time itself into an expanding set of concentric circles:
  48. . . . as in water stirred more circles be
    Produced by one, love such additions take,
    Those like so many spheres, but one heaven make . . .
    He transforms a passage of years into a pattern of circles, using spatial imagery against time, denying its ability to change the lovers' relationship, just as the lover in "A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning" uses the image of compass-drawn circles to deny time will keep the lovers apart.[41] Donne's speakers often wield the image of a circle against time in this bitter-sweet, teasing way. Here his wit offers a way to live in the valedictory moment.
  49. There is, of course, a long tradition associating eternity with circles.[42] It was built into the old cosmology and its associated physics.[43] However, a circle can defeat time in two ways. It can defeat time by turning into itself, over and over again, making every ending a beginning. This is how God makes a Christian life into a circle. Donne says "God is a circle himselfe, and he will make thee one" (VI. viii. 175). Such immortality is a kind of timelessness. However, he says immortality is qualitatively different from eternity. He imagines a different kind of timelessness for God. God's eternity is "not a Circle where two points meet, but a Circle made at once; This life is a Circle, made with a Compasse, that passes from point to point; That life is a Circle stamped with a print, an endlesse and perfect Circle, as soone as it begins . . . (S. 2. 9.200). God's eternity is without sequence, and Donne imagines it as a space, describing God as "millions upon millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven."[44]

  51. The lover in "A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning" echoes a biblical phrase when he says his love, like the logic of a circle "makes me end, where I begun." Donne gives the source of the phrase in a Sermon: "When I begin, says God to Eli, I will make an end; not onely that all Gods purposes will have their certain end, but that even then, when he begins, he makes an end . . . as a Circle is printed all at once, so his beginning and his ending is all one" (S. 4.3.96).[45] But the difference I mentioned, between God's printed circle and a human being's drawn circle, comes into play here. The lover is trying to get beyond the human condition of time by treating it as a space. The image of time as a circle rests upon the belief that there is a world apart from time, and his logic is the illogical logic of faith and love. He ignores the time intervening between his ending and beginning, and the fact that a lover can return where but not when nor as he began. His circle cannot be printed; it must be drawn out. This fallacy runs like a crack through his argument and makes us feel nervous, and that nervousness is an essential part of the brilliance of the poem. It is Donne's fencing partner. It's why the argument feels courageous.

  53. Donne's poetry presents the conflict between love and time in the conflict between his spatial imagery and his narrative style. A scenario is non-discursive. But Donne's poems are emphatically discursive. Though his speakers claim to be safe from time, the evolution of their argument reminds us time is passing as they speak.[46] His lovers must find their place in a world of time, and they must defend their space against that world of time; a world that threatens to break into their spatial enclaves and break up their perfect moments. We feel the conflict between space and time as a premonition of failure or decline. The confidence of Donne's lovers is edged by our fear and we feel the brave, defiant brilliance of their arguments with the inevitable.
1. Barbara Everett writes that, for Donne, "a familiar place was pre-eminently a fact of consciousness." "Donne: A London Poet" Proceedings of the British Academy LVIII (London: Oxford UP, 1972) 5. [Back]

2. As Moreau writes, "la pensée moderne se distingue de la pensée antique précisément en ceci, que l'idée d'Univers est pour elle hors d'usage." "L'Idée d'Univers dans la Pensée Antique" Biblioteca del Giornale di Metafisica 10 (Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1953) 5. Moreau dates the change from Descartes, who no longer includes a consideration of the Universe in his explanation of our perception of things in it. [Back]

3. Aristotle, On the Heavens I and II with introduction, translation and commentary by Stuart Leggatt (London: Aris and Philips, 1995). [Back]

4. Plato, Timaeus, Critias, Clitophon, Menexus, Epistles trans. R.G. Bury (London: Heinneman for the Loeb Classics Library, 1929) 16-20. [Back]

5. Aristotle, Physics trans. and ed. W.D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936) 4.2, 209b 11-13. [Back]

6. See G. E. R. Lloyd's summary of alternative early Greek concepts of the universe in "Greek Cosmologies," Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) 141-63.[Back]

7. As an "immobile three-dimensional extension which, so far as its own definition is concerned, is empty of body." The quotation is taken from Richard Sorabji's introduction to David Furley and Christian Wildberg's translation of Philiponus' commentary upon Aristotle's Physics -- The Corollaries on Place and Void with Simplicius, Against Philoponus on the Eternity of the World (London; Duckworth, 1991) 9-10. The passage is worth quoting in full: "We think of space as three-dimensional. But Aristotle had denied there was such a thing as three-dimensional space. The nearest equivalent is the place of a thing, which he defines as the two-dimensional surface of its immediate surroundings. This definition, which captivated the middle ages, never really gained much ground with the ancient Greeks . . . [Simplicius] himself defines place or space in a more familiar way as an immobile three-dimensional extension which, so far as its own definition is concerned, is empty of body. He does not think it ever is empty, in fact, or even can be empty, any more than matter can exist without form. But on the other hand, he defends the use of thought experiments involving the impossible. If per impossibile the cosmic layers of earth, water, air and fire were not there, what would remain beneath the heavens would be this same extension empty of body . . ." See also Richard Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion. Theories in Antiquity and their Sequel (London; Duckworth, 1988) 5-43. The relevant passage in Aristotle is the fourth chapter of Book Four of the Physics. [Back]

8. He said that ". . . the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels -- all these alike could come into being only through him who IS." He said "that the two greatest bodies of the universe, at the opposite extremes of the universe, are linked and connected by two intermediary elements, air and water" (City 22.11 and see Timaeus 32A). He also accepted the Aristotelian theory that place exerted a force over its appropriate bodies; indeed, he fitted human desires into this logic, saying, "Bodies tend by their weight to move towards the place proper to them. Weight pulls not only downwards, but to its proper place: fire tends upwards, stone downwards; moved by their weight, things seek their right place . . . Out of their place, they are not at rest; they come to rest in being brought to their right place. My weight is my love: wherever I am carried, it is by that that I am carried." Confessions 13. 9.10. See also De Gen as litt. 2.1.2; 4.3.7-8; 18.34; City of God 11.28. [Back]

9. R. Blackwell, R. Spath, and W. Thirlkel, trans., with an introduction by V. Bourke, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics by Saint Thomas Aquinas (London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963). [Back]

10. That "everything that is in process of change has that change initiated in it by something else" and "we cannot go on to infinity in the line of initiators of change and things in the process of change," in his Summa contra gentiles I.13.4, cited in C. Martin, ed., The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas; Introductory Readings (London and New York; Routledge, 1988; repr. 1989) 105. Also see Martin's analysis, 99-100, and Aquinas' parallel proof in Summa theologiae 1 q.2 a.3. [Back]

11. Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Book 8, lecture 23, 1172. [Back]

12. "The first Anniversary" 205 and 213-24 in Herbert Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912; repr. 1951) 1. 237. Hereafter cited as Poems. [Back]

13. Ptolemy writes; ". . . the heaven is spherical in shape, and moves as a sphere; the earth too is sensibly spherical in shape, when taken as a whole; in position it lies in the middle of the heavens very much like its centre; in size and distance it has the ratio of a point to the sphere of the fixed stars; and it has no motion from place to place." Ptolemy's Almagest, trans. and ed. G. J. Toomer (London: Duckworth, 1984) 38. [Back]

14. Almagest 36. [Back]

15. David Furley, "The Greek Theory of the Infinite Universe", Journal of the History of Ideas 42.4 (1981) 580. When we turn to Donne we will see how the metaphysical attributes of space encouraged him to imagine the relationship between active and passive parts in spatial terms; in terms of the sphere, circle, centre, circumference and set of concentric circles that gave shape to space in the "closed world," where space took the shape of the forms that filled it. [Back]

16. It took a radical thinker like Giordano Bruno to recognize that this symbolic geometry belonged to the old cosmology of concentric spheres and active spaces. As Bruno noted, Copernicus needed someone "to think out all that was involved in his discovery." Picking up from the atomists, Bruno argued that there were no fixed spheres, no limits, no circumferences; natural laws were unconditioned by place. (See "On the Infinite Universe and Worlds" trans. Dorothea Singer in Giordano Bruno [New York: Schuman, 1950] 251). Of course, Giordano Bruno's arguments were received with scepticism but the atomism that informed his thinking also influenced the thought of Scaliger, Telesio and Patritius (as M. Jammer argues in Concepts of Space [Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1957] 80-89). Jammer points out that the new concept that space is undifferentiated -- that "place does not affect the nature of things and does not affect their being at rest or in motion." This, as Gilbert argued in Philosophia Nova, is the necessary basis of seventeenth century physics. We find it, for instance, in Descartes's twenty-first principle "That extension of this world is likewise indefinite," and again in his twenty-second principle; "Thus the matter of the heavens and of the earth is one and the same" (Philosophical Works of Descartes trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1931] 265). The concept that space is undifferentiated led mechanistic philosophers to seek internal laws of matter, internal causes of motion, in contrast to the established neo-Aristotelian belief that the laws of the spatial hierarchy govern movement. In his preface to Jammer's book, Einstein noted Newton's debt to the atomists. [Back]

17. Giordano Bruno eulogised Tycho Brahe because his study of the comets showed they passed through the "fixed" and "perfect" spheres of heaven in his Italian dialogue "On the Infinite Universe and the Worlds," cited by H. Hoffding in A History of Modern Philosophy (London; Macmillan, 1900) 129. [Back]

18. With the double meaning, perhaps, of calling to all people in doubt, and calling all assumptions into doubt. "The first Anniversary" 205 in Poems 237. [Back]

19. Ignatius His Conclave ed. T. Healy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969) 19. [Back]

20. See lines 205-214 of "The First Anniversary" in Poems 237. [Back]

21. He says "that which is in the Center, which should rest, and lie still, is this peace," and "If one Milstone fell from the North-Pole, and another from the South, they would meet, and rest in the Centre; Nature would con-centre them" (S. 1.2.179 and 9. 7.179). [Back]

22. Devotions 10. Meditation. [Back]

23. Devotions 21. Meditation. And most remarked of the compass image in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." [Back]

24. Letters 1.225. Plato's Timaeus explained this spatial hierarchy by describing how the cosmos was made. He said God began with a material, soul; the self-mover that moves matter. He divided this soul into strips, which he fixed in two circles, one outside the other, and at a different angle. He called the outermost circle the circle of the Same. This circle would move forever at the same speed, for their was nothing to impede its motion. This circle housed and moved the fixed stars, and accounted for the regularity of their movement. He called the innermost circle the circle of the Different, breaking it into seven rings, again one inside the other: One for the sun, and moon, and five planets. The circle of the Same turned all within its circumference, but the circles of the Different also turned: some in a different direction from the circle of the Same; three turn at a similar speed, and four at speeds different from each other. This design accounted for the apparently variant movement of the "heavenly bodies," showing it was not really variant, but in accordance with a formula that formed the basis for the measures of time. See Timaeus 35b. [Back]

25. "Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward" 1-6 in Poems 336-337. [Back]

26. Quotation from the passage of Devotions 21. The Meditation is included in the preceding paragraph. [Back]

27. La Corona 2. "Annunciation" in Poems 319. [Back]

28. Quotations from "His parting from her," "Iealousie," "The Perfume" and "On his Mistris" respectively, in Poems, 100-104; 79-80; 84-86 and 111-113. [Back]

29. "Iealousie" 28 and "The Perfume" 12 in Poems. But in "A Lecture upon the Shadow" the lover argues, "That love hath not attain'd the high'st degree,/Which is still diligent lest others see." [Back]

30. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus 3.3.154 ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969). [Back]

31. Quotations from "The Canonization" 42 and "His parting from her" 41. [Back]

32. Quotations from Poems, "Twicknam Garden," 28-29; "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day" 44-45; "The Canonization" 14-15; "The Sunne Rising" 11-12. [Back]

33. La Corona 2. "Annunciation" in Poems 319. [Back]

34. "The Relique" and "A Lecture upon the Shadow" in Poems 62-63 and 71-72. [Back]

35. "Metempsychosis: The Progress of the Soul" 338-339 in Poems 293-316. [Back]

36. "A Lecture upon the Shadow" 8 in Poems 71-72. [Back]

37. Though he satirises the kind of lover who dare not suffer, and would rather love the "image of her whom I love, more then she" in this poem. "The Dreame" 15 and 1 in Poems 95-96. [Back]

38. Quotations from "The Good-morrow" and "The Canonization" in Poems 7-8 and 14-15. [Back]

39. Plato established the correspondence between the cosmos and the human form in the Timaeus. [Back]

40. It is interesting to note the variant reading of l. 13 that Grierson records, "Let Maps to other worlds our worlds have showne." See Poems 7-8. [Back]

41. Donne was probably playing upon Proclus' criticism of the "fallacy of spatialization" (to quote Bergson); the circle ends where but not when it began. [Back]

42. Donne says "One of the most convenient hieroglyphicks of God, is a Circle . . ." (S. VI. viii. 173). [Back]

43. But one remarkable tendency of Donne's spatial imagination is that if he imagines a circle is timeless he will also, conversely, imagine something that transcends time as circular. He pictures virtue, for instance, as a circle: "virtue is even, and continual, and the same, and can therefore break nowhere, nor admit ends nor beginnings." Edmund Gosse, Life and Letters of John Donne 2 vols. (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959) 1.178. [Back]

44. This image of eternity as a timeless space is the one Hobbes, Descartes and Newton refuted. The image belongs to the old cosmological idea that a timeless space surrounds and limits the temporal world. The idea makes time and eternity contrary to each other, positioning reality in the immutable beyond. Donne does not pre-empt Einstein when he imagines time as a space, because his images of time as a space partner his idea that eternity is a space surrounding the space time occupies. Donne imagines time as a space when he wants to defeat time, and he calls upon the old cosmological opposition between time and space to do so. [Back]

44. Donne's explanation itself echoes another passage in the sermons where he contrasts the circle drawn across time in this life with the circle of the next, made without passage. [Back]

46. R. J. Quinones argues that this sense of time is a modern phenomenon in The Renaissance Discovery of Time. [Back]

Works Cited


© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).