"I launch at paradise, and saile toward home": The Progresse of the Soule as Palinode
Wyman H. Herendeen
University of Houston

Herendeen, Wyman H. "'I launch at paradise, and saile toward home': The Progresse of the Soule as Palinode." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 9.1-28 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/herendeen.htm>.

  1. The sixteenth of August is the second day in the Feast of the Assumption of the Body of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, and also the feast day of Saint Roch. It is a time of special intercession for the soul of man to fortify him against frailty and to heal the mortal flesh.[1] One of eight two-day feasts known in the Roman Church as "principal doubles," the Feast of the Assumption was prepared for by a vigil and celebrated on the "principal" feast days of the fifteenth and sixteenth; the mass was repeated each day of the week throughout the octave, with some variant readings and "sequences" focusing on aspects of the festival. It is one of the most important and festive events of the liturgical year, accompanied by triumphal processions and public celebrations comparable to those during Holy Week and Corpus Christi, which were also sacramental in focus. The mood of the celebrations of the Feast of the Assumption reflected some of the uniqueness of the event celebrated. Commemorated is not the death of Mary's mortal body and the transcendence of her soul; rather, her feast celebrates the assumption of her body into heaven, the flesh untainted and so immortal. Her feast days, then, celebrate body and soul, and look forward to the promise of a New Jerusalem. They are uniquely joyous, lacking the mixture of joy and sorrow that accompanies Christocentric feasts, with their awareness of the division between body and soul that defines the fallen human condition.[2]

  2. The Feast of the Assumption emphasizes particular aspects of Mary's religious significance. In her humanity, she is the tabernacle or "shrine" of Christ; what is miraculous about her is her purity and freedom from original sin. Among those qualities stressed on the second day of her feast is her fertility without loss of innocence. Incarnation of spirit in flesh and humanity without the taint of mortality are two major aspects of her feast.[3] The duality is central to her role as human vessel for Christ and as intercessor fortifying mankind against the evils of carnality, and they culminate in the mass on the second day of her feast, on the sixteenth. By some traditions, the day was also associated with Mary's parents, Joachim and Ann, and so with the beginning of the redemptive process that would remove mankind from the pilgrimage of history. But it was also a day to be mindful of the corruption as well as of the divinity of the flesh, for it was the feast day of Saint Roch. Patron saint of the sick, he was associated with mankind's vulnerability to the temptations of the world and with the weakness of the flesh. Born with the stigma of the cross, he was a reminder that the human condition is one where the spirit and flesh are imperfectly mixed.[4]

  3. The sixteenth of August, then, brings together Mary, whose human "fullness" and "grace" represent the marriage of body and soul, Saint Roch the healer of the fallen flesh, and Ann and Joachim, whose infertility was answered by the miraculous conception of Mary. As part of one of the most important of the festivals of the liturgical year, the day is a kind of "holy Janus" or "Knot of all causes" marking the end and the beginning of the progress of the soul in the material world. A day to remind the communicant of the paradoxes and implications of the incarnation, it might be thought of as the "Commissary of God" (IV). For the person contemplating a vocation, poetic, political, or otherwise, or conscious of the crossroads dividing the contemplative and active lives, as Donne was when he assumed the motto "Per Rachel ho servito, e non per Lea," it might well represent a day of special significance.[5]

  4. In 1601, the sixteenth of August was about one month before Ann More's scheduled return to London and the momentous threshold that Donne and she crossed soon thereafter. It is also the day that Donne dates his INFINITATI SACRUM . . . Metempsychosis or The Progresse of the Soule. This poem, commonly regarded as a satiric fragment, is generally accepted as his most embittered work, partaking of the same cup of disillusion as its near contemporary, Hamlet.[6] With its largely unrelieved vision of human bestiality, it is viewed as Donne's "most ambitious and most disappointing poem" as well as his most disappointed. According to Hughes, its "Existential disappointment . . . penetrates into the very existence of man," driving Donne ultimately to the decision to leave it unfinished and unpublished.[7] Those accepting the completeness of the work see the abruptness of its ending as the irrepressible outburst of its barely suppressed satiric distaste for its own subject.[8]

  5. But there is also quite a different poem in The Progresse of the Soule -- one concerned with the spiritual questions raised by the day it commemorates. It is a finished work, not a fragment, the art and nature of which are in part defined by its formal, textual, and intertextual relationships to other of Donne's poems. There are, in fact, firm textual links that join with thematic parallels to give a striking coherence to the satire as an approach to the "La Corona" poems and the "Holy Sonnets," which follow it in the early editions. In fact, The Progresse of the Soule exhibits a self-consciousness on Donne's part that is signaled by its prefatory letter and by its place at the opening of the major manuscript and the first printed editions of Donne's poems, where it immediately precedes the seven "La Corona" sonnets and the twelve "Holy Sonnets."[9] The poem's liminal position before the sonnet sequences, in fact, helps to explain some of its enigmatic qualities. Thus, the poem that I will be discussing is one that we understand differently when we see that it does not stand alone. Particularly through these different links between the "La Corona" sonnets and The Progresse of the Soule, Donne initiates the redefinition of his poetic vocation and effects a transfer from profane to sacred poetic. Furthermore, Donne's subject, the transmigration of the soul, like that of the "La Corona" poems, is the miracle of incarnation, disguised in Pythagorean robes. As we will see, Donne's treatment of his subject is also a re-examination of his craft; in transforming the text of The Progresse of the Soule he makes his profane progress the beginning of a spiritual triumph that carries his reader through the "Holy Sonnets" and into the rest of the volume.


  6. This is not to deny the deep satiric strain of The Progresse of the Soule, or its mock epic or parodic elements, but what has been overlooked is how the very self-awareness of its satiric voice contemplates the avenue of escape from its own body into another literary incarnation:

    But if my dayes be long, and good enough,
    In vaine this sea shall enlarge, or enrough
    It selfe; for I will through the wave, and fome,
    And shall, in sad lone wayes a lively spright,
    Make my dark heavy Poëm light, and light.  (VI)

    That is, the poem makes its theme of metempsychosis, and its self-inscribing poetic form, the vehicles for its own transformation to another body and voice. As a causeway leading to the "La Corona" poems, its secular transmigrations of the soul are replaced by liturgical variations on the theme in "Annunciation" and "Ascension," for example. The poetic incarnation of the spirit or voice of the poet is not only inherent to metamorphic writing and central to the satire, but is also part of the religious theme that carries over into the sonnets.

  7. The Progresse of the Soule that I am describing will be more recognizable when seen in the context of its genre, and so a word about the literature of metempsychosis is in order. Most scholarly discussion of Donne's poem, has been concerned with explicating Pythagorean theories and identifying Donne's probable sources. The exercise seems unnecessary since the Pythagoreanism is burned off in the furnace of the satire. Demonstrating Donne's knowledge of metempsychosis seems doubly gratuitous when we recall the centrality of the theme in the classical and Christian canon (with familiar examples ranging from epic, to satire, to spiritual biography, and drama), and secondly, its popularity with his generation in particular.[10] The overriding idea of The Progresse of the Soule, the restless movement of the "deathlesse soule" from mortal body to mortal body, lies behind the locus classicus for such works, Ovid's Metamorphoses, with its genealogy of the gods, the decline from the Golden Age, and the triumphal apotheosis of Caesar. The same idea is put to more satiric use in metamorphic work such as Spenser's Mother Hubberd's Tale, which traces the unchecked progress of craft and vice (the allegorical fox and ape) through the world abandoned by Astrea. These generic and thematic similarities make The Progresse of the Soule Donne's most Spenserian satire.[11]

  8. Many other works of the decade before and after Donne's poem testify to the acute interest in metamorphic and metempsychotic literature: portions of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Harington's Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622), William Browne's Britannia's Pastorals (1613), and Edward Herbert of Cherbury's "Satire I" (1608) most interesting among them.[12]Two works in particular have direct ties with Donne and his satire, suggesting his importance in perpetuating the theme during his generation. One, which echoes the closing stanza of The Progresse of the Soule, is Hamlet, where vice reigns unchecked in Denmark while the unhousled spirit of King Hamlet seeks reincarnation in the son. The other, itself an incarnation of Donne's satiric theme and recognized by him in a commendatory poem, is Volpone, where Jonson's Androgyno, the eunuch infertile in two sexes, harbours the soul of Pythagoras. Clearly we do not have to demonstrate the extent of Donne's familiarity with metamorphic themes when the literature of the late Elizabethan and the Jacobean courts invokes them so consistently. The formal and other concerns, however, inherent in metamorphic literature help to explain what Donne is doing in The Progresse of the Soule.

  9. Whatever the genre, works treating metamorphosis and metempsychosis have similar formal and thematic elements. The metamorphosis emphasizes the disembodiment of the soul, and conversely metempsychosis emphasizes its serial reembodiment. Both turn on the same paradox of incarnation and the interpenetration of spirit and matter. In terms of form both are susceptible to the open-ended episodicity that we see in Ovid's epic and Donne's metempsychosis. The changes in body or soul may be rung for as long as the reader will listen -- amplificatio is the essence of the carmen perpetuum, both its charm and its horror. The tension between containment and formlessness is therefore thematically and formally central to metamorphic literature. This tension is critical for Donne's The Progresse of the Soule, and in the Epistle he explicitly associates it with Pythagorean theories and his metamorphic theme: "the Pithagorian doctrine doth not onely carry one soule from man to man, nor man to beast, but indifferently to plants also: . . . How ever the bodies have dull'd her other faculties, her memory hath ever been her owne, which makes me so seriously deliver you by her relation all her passages from her first making" (Epistle, 26). In the poem itself he exploits the opportunity for expansion and regularly calls our attention to the serial nature of his narrative and "progress" -- "through many streights, and lands I roame" (Milgate, VI). But no less emphatically, he contrasts this with the maker's desire for containment that is thwarted by the metamorphic theme: "For this great soule which here amongst us now / Doth dwell . . . / Had first in paradise, a low, but fatall, roome" (Milgate, VII). Although his theme is largely secular and satiric, he defines it in terms of the paradox of incarnation and typological analogues that capture the conflation of divine and human history. Donne uses this tension between form and content to explore the distinction between sacred and profane art. The one contains an infinitude in a narrow space:

    Great Destiny the Commissary of God,
    That hast mark'd out a path and period
    For every thing; who, where wee of-spring tooke,
    Our wayes and ends seest at one instant; Thou
    Knot of all causes.  (IV)

    This is God's way; its compass is as narrow as the eye of a needle. Donne contrasts this with the amplitude and formlessness of his own poem, where the restless spirit eludes confinement in its endless journey through space and time:

    But if my dayes be long, and good enough,
    In vaine this sea shall enlarge, or enrough
    It selfe; . . . .
    For though through many streights and lands I roame,
    I launch at paradise, and saile toward home.  (VI)

    This is man's way, the way of the world.

  10. This overt contrast between divine form and the poet's form is an important manifestation of Donne's poetic self-consciousness in The Progresse of the Soule. He calls attention to the comprehensiveness of divine incarnation -- "paradise, [in] a low, but fatall roome" (VII) -- and his own poetic form's failure to frame the imagination. From the very start of the poem he announces the inadequacy of his own art measured against God's; for Donne this intensifies to the extreme of the satirist's disdain for his own creation. This recognition leads to an act of renunciation, so that The Progresse of the Soule becomes its own self-denial. In what is a major literary palinode, Donne writes himself as poet out of existence. Thus, having explored the odyssey of the soul through fifty-one stanzas of corruption, Donne reiterates the paradox of the restless soul in the mortal body, and abruptly aborts his narrative with a direct address to the reader:

    Who ere thou beest that read'st this sullen Writ,
    Which just so much courts thee, as thou dost it,
    Let me arrest thy thoughts; . . . .  (LII)

    Stopping his outward journey, he turns inward to the mystery at the heart of the poem:

    wonder with mee,
    Why plowing, building, ruling and the rest,
    Or most of those arts, whence our lives are blest,
    By cursed Cains race invented be,
    And blest Seth vext us with Astronomie.  (LII)

    Having made this recognition of the interpenetration of good and evil and the limitations of human understanding, Donne ends the poem with the same paralyzing moral conundrum that stunned the Prince of Denmark:

    Ther's nothing simply good, nor ill alone,
    Of every quality comparison,
    The onely measure is, and judge, opinion.  (LII)

    In aborting his narrative, Donne concedes the incomprehensibility of our experience in the material world and the inadequacies of profane art.

  11. Taken on its own, Donne's poem is an admission of defeat resulting in a formal self-denial. The dissatisfaction, or lack of closure, in a palinode should not be mistaken for incompleteness. The act of denial implicitly acknowledges an alternative to what is denied, and thus potentially becomes an opportunity for affirmation. We can better understand Donne's point in thus abandoning his secular muse if we recognize the progress' identification with another form of metamorphic literature, the triumph. In many ways the terms "progress" and "triumph" are interchangeable. Both are charged with paradoxical and inconclusive elements. In classical and Christian history and literature, the triumph is anarchic and processional, ritualistically carnivalesque, celebratory and elegiac. As the name reminds us, the triumph simultaneously celebrates defeat and victory, death and life; both dimensions are present, and they are discrete -- death is not denied its reality nor mortal life its limitations. For both profane and sacred triumphs, this is not a ritual of renewal, but of birth to another existence. "Doubleness" and seemingly incompatible modes of experience are inherent to the occasion of the triumph and to the processional, dramatic, and literary forms it takes. This is particularly true of the celebrations for the Virgin Mary.[13] Thus, whether we are talking about military and civic celebrations, such as Aurelian's extravagant apotheosis through his triumph, Diocletian's mysterious triumph before his abrupt retirement, or the trionfi of the liturgical year, the occasion marks a victory over one life and the commencement of another kind of being -- as emperor embodying the soul of Jupiter, in apotheosis, ascension, or in transubstantiation. The victory of the triumph lay in its anagogical nature -- it celebrates itself out of one existence into another.

  12. In form, the triumph resembles the metamorphosis and the progress. We might say that the "progress" is something of a Protestant, or at least English triumph -- the queen is never more sacramental than in her progress through the land. The locus classicus for the triumph was of course the Trionfi of Donne's poetic alter-ego, Francesco Petrarca, and they share many of the kinds of problems (critical, textual, and even biographical) that we encounter in Donne's poem and also some of the solutions. The similarities are revealing.[14] In the Trionfi Petrarch too has exploited the qualities that contribute to the semblance of artistic inconclusiveness, such as their infinitely expandable scope, the tension between form and formlessness, and between spiritual and sensual. As in Donne's satire, they present us with problems of conflicting authority, and the disjunction between the poet's identity as creator and as man, and so are predominantly ironic. Petrarch's triumphs begin with love -- with the poet Love's slave -- and end in eternity -- with the poet defeated by Time, Death, and Oblivion. In his triumphs, the poet celebrates his defeats. In the "Triumph of Eternity," where his ultimate failure is sung in his last great poetic achievement, Petrarch imagines himself outside of time, safe at last. Similarly, Donne is defeated by the multiplicity of the soul's incarnations and the limitations of the material world, and he too calls a halt to his poem, and so is victorious through defeat. For both Donne and Petrarch, the only real victory is through ceasing to be and becoming another; departing one form and entering another.


  13. As a formal recusatio, or self-denial, The Progresse of the Soule wills its own silence but without reinscribing itself in another form. Although it does not, Donne clearly marks the way to the new life and poetic through textual and other details announcing its liminal position among his other poems, ultimately effecting that transfer from profane to sacred poetic. The transfer itself is prepared for within the context of the collection of poems. Thus, through its significant dating, its epistle, its textual and thematic links with other poems, the palinode becomes a cipher or passage through which we pass into the 1633 volume. These together encourage us to see The Progresse of the Soule as the "holy Janus" to the volume in which it appears, and to note other devices that help to explain the paradox of Donne's opening palinode.

  14. Such a view runs counter to the longstanding tradition, originating with Ben Jonson, that The Progresse of the Soule was an aberrant monster destined for destruction. The view that Donne himself abandoned the poem is further advanced by Grierson's illogical argument that the "different use of the same title which Donne made later to describe the progress of the soul heavenward . . . shows that he had no intention of publishing the poem."[15] It seems more logical to argue from the evidence -- that in the anniversary poems Donne simply continues his exploration of the metempsychotic theme within the reformed poetic of devotional verse, the one a progress of the soul to heaven, the other a parody of that form.[16] What can be affirmed is that the major early manuscript and printed collections containing the poem and its epistle show that it was conceived as a book and probably intended for publication. Furthermore, the textual history suggests very strongly that its position at the opening of the collected Poems (1633) was its intended place. In spite of excellent textual scholarship on The Progresse of the Soule, its links with the "La Corona" poems have been all but overlooked, and their placement at the opening of the 1633 Poems has never been examined.[17] The placement itself may not have originated with Donne, but the textual links that will be discussed obviously do, and this and other supporting evidence strengthens the arguments for the coherence of the volume and for the presence of significant poetic groupings.

  15. The printed text of 1633 has a particularly strong sense of coherence created, in part, by preliminary apparatus that hints at careful editorial supervision. It is the edition that adheres most closely to the major Group One manuscripts.[18]Contributing most to this sense of order is the placement of The Progresse of the Soule at the beginning of the volume, just before the "La Corona" poems and the "Holy Sonnets," and the arguments for its place there help to explain some of the unresolved problems of Donne's opening palinode.

  16. The 1633 Poems is a very bookish book that calls attention to its organization in several ways. It has an opening epistle, "The Printer to the Understanders," that contains a number of anticipations of Donne's own Epistle prefacing The Progresse of the Soule a few pages later. The printer's letter is followed by a single encomium by the satirist John Marston. Both the printer and Marston address the same themes that Donne's letter and opening poem address, often in the same language: they mark the disjunction between body and spirit through the contrast between picture and poem:

    I see in his last preach'd, and printed booke,
    His Picture in a sheete; in Pauls I looke,
    And see his Statue in a sheete of stone,
    And sure his body in the grave hath one:
    Those sheetes present him dead, these if you buy,
    You have him living to Eternity.  (A2v, 1633)

    Immediately following Marston's verses, and recapitulating some of his themes, is Donne's Epistle introducing The Progresse of the Soule. It too serves to accentuate the self-consciousness of the collection, its composition, coherence, and even the poet's authority in writing it: "Now when I beginne this booke, I have no purpose to come into any man's debt; how my stocke will hold out I know not; perchance waste, perchance increase in use."  Seeing The Progresse of the Soule as a process of exploring his poetic vocation, Donne acknowledges that it is not a poem of self-definition, but of becoming. Apropos of the poem's tension between form and the elusiveness of content, the Epistle tells the reader how the poem itself serves reader and author as a passageway, not as a room. It begins: 

    Others at the Porches and entries of their Buildings set their Armes; I, my picture; if any colours can deliver a minde so plaine, and flat, as through light as mine.

  17. The Progresse of the Soule is the fitting opening to a collection as concerned with questions of authorship as Donne's Poems (1633) is. The problems of poetic form and authority that we have already identified within the poem, as well as its identifiably Donne-like imagery and idiom, resonate throughout the collection. For the Donne reader, the language of The Progressse of the Soule is strikingly allusive. With its "streights," "low rooms" and tombs, its conflation of calvary and paradise, its maritime imagery, and "mingled blood," The Progresse of the Soule is a veritable poetic "commissary" for the collected poems. Images and ideas conveyed in the often coarse, disengaged voice of the satire are refined through the emotional immediacy that Donne gives to the metaphysical lyric. His use of recapitulated phrases and images from The Progresse of the Soule is part of his calling us to order and his refinement of our hearing. Its proleptic language makes The Progresse of the Soule resonate through the volumes as no other of Donne's works could.[19]

  18. It may be that The Progresse of the Soule "came something saucily to the world," but it was not a waif. Its best modern commentators have been content to hold it at arm's length from the other work -- not even Hughes or Rose bother to find it brothers or sisters among the canon, although they grant it the important but idiosyncratic claim of poetic bastardy. But significantly, Donne's early editors made no attempt to isolate the poem; rather, they consistently linked it in a cluster of closely integrated works, although neither the cluster nor the integration has been examined. These details joining the poem to its immediate neighbors in the text, and leading us into the volume generally, help us to neutralize the denial of the palinode and lead us to the discovery of an alternative poetic.

  19. Thus, part of the immediate aesthetic satisfaction of Poems 1633 comes from the clearly marked transition from the acerbic opening poem, with its ultimate rejection of one kind of poetry, to the prayerful "La Corona," with its assumption of a triumphal crown:

    But doe not, with a vile crowne of fraile bayes,
    Reward my muses white sincerity,
    But what thy thorny crowne gain'd, that give mee, . . . .  (5-7)

    All of the early editions place The Progresse of the Soule adjacent to the seven devotional sonnets of the "La Corona" sequence, followed by the "Holy Sonnets." When The Progresse of the Soule is moved to the middle of the volume in the 1635 and later editions, the "La Corona" poems, still followed by the "Holy Sonnets," go with it, so that the grouping and its transitions remain intact.[20] Considering how irreverent, carnal, and nasty the narrative of The Progresse of the Soule is, this placement immediately adjacent to Donne's most serene meditations is an unlikely one -- someone knew that they went together and why. It is clear that John Marriot and M. F., or Miles Fletcher (publisher and printer), knew where they should be placed, and that those involved in later editions, including Donne's son, tacitly accepted the connection.[21]

  20. Something of the coherence and implications of the cluster opening the 1633 volume can be appreciated by a glance at the three sequences involved. First, and most obviously, they move from the extreme of secular satire to the serenity of a liturgical sonnet sequence, and then to a mixture of two extremes in the agon of body and soul in the "Holy Sonnets." They present three different ways of understanding mankind's place in the transient world of time and the senses. Donne makes his point by organizing each of the three opening works around a numerological pattern that helps define his thematic variations. The Progresse of the Soule, with its satiric focus, treats the journey of the disenfranchized soul through 152 stanzas suggesting the secular year. The "La Corona" poems, with their salvational focus, give us a holy week of seven sonnets, ending in "Ascention." Its liturgical dimension asserts a different relationship between mankind and time than that which we encounter in the satire -- one that is illuminated by Sarah Appleton Weber's remarks about the liturgical poetry: "[I]n order to understand the relationship between the liturgy and the medieval lyric, it is necessary to study the liturgy . . . as both a history and a method of formulating history."[22] Each of the three opening poems gives us a different way of "formulating history." The twelve "Holy Sonnets" originally in the 1633 Poems, and third in the opening cluster, give us a view of mankind's progress through time in terms of the struggle between spirit and body, faith and despair; it is more ambiguous and dramatic than the simplified images of mankind in time provided by the first two works. The significance of the numerological pattern linking these three works calls for detailed analysis; my limited objective here is to call attention to a pattern that leads the reader into the volume and that contains clues that help to explain the poems themselves. At this point, I want to look at the specific threads firmly connecting The Progresse of the Soule to the "La Corona" poems.

  21. In virtually all the early editions, firm textual links join La Corona and The Progresse of the Soule, angels in company of the devil. They are greatest in the 1633 edition, where, as opening poems, their pairing is most conspicuous and the progress that they mark from one poetic to another is clearest. Through these textual threads we learn something of Donne's intentions for these two works and can read the "Holy Sonnets" with greater insight. The sharp initial contrast that they provide most effectively defines the moral and aesthetic poles of the collection, and the devotional sonnets offer specific answers to the dilemmas we have seen in the secular progress. In the "La Corona" sequence the self-imposed silence of The Progresse of the Soule is broken; the problem of poetic diffuseness is resolved in the divine aesthetic of unity, and the poet, in sharing the thorny crown and rejecting the "fraile bayes," participates in the miracle of incarnation and Godly concision. The typology and theological hermeneutic of the first sonnet answer directly the paralysing conundrum that called an end to The Progresse of the Soule:

    The ends crowne our workes, but thou crown'st our ends,
    For, at our end begins our endlesse rest,
    The first last end, now zealously possest, . . . .  (9-11)

    The double ending and new beginning area exactly what is called for by the triumphal form, and they are consistent with other poetic forms celebrating the Virgin Mary.[23] The first sonnet answers the closed but unresolved last stanza of the satire in other specific ways: its divine authority and the certitude of salvation replaces mutability and "opinion"; "endlesse rest" relieves the exiled soul and the unresolved conclusion of the preceding poem. Serenity and timelessness replace the doubt and anxiety of human history and the itinerary of the disembodied soul.

  22. Although the first of these sonnets replies in many particulars to the unease of The Progresse of the Soule, what emerges most clearly is how it reiterates the denial of "fraile bayes" and then identifies another aesthetic. The "La Corona" sequence then enlarges on the meaning of the new life that comes with the new art. The Progresse of the Soule poses a metaphysical problem, of the immortal soul in a mortal body, but confined to the ontology of a satiric secular realism, it simply gives up, wills itself out of its impasse. The "La Corona" sonnets pick up the same question from the perspective of the poetic of salvation.[24] Thus, the sonnets reply very specifically to questions raised in The Progresse of the Soule; the central mystery to each is the incarnation, and their principal metaphor is poetry itself, which engages the problem through is fusion of form and content.

  23. Still more specifically, Donne consciously rewrote parts of the earlier satire in the style of his new poetic. Sonnet 2, "Annunciation," obviously picks up the theme of the metempsychosis. It is explicitly a reworking of the theme of the frustrated soul in the frail flesh. In stanza eight of the satire Donne figures this typologically in the cross. In "Annunciation" he literally rewrites his central metempsychotic theme of spirit in flesh by using the type of the quickened flesh and the promise of life through Mary. Thus, "Annunciation" repeats and transforms the image of the crucifixion in The Progresse of the Soule with a meditation on life and the Virgin's humanity. The paradox of incarnation that is at the centre of the secular satire is repeated in the sonnet in the light of a new spiritual experience and a new aesthetic:

    That All, which alwayes is All every where,
    Which cannot sinne, and yet all sinnes must beare,
    Which cannot die, yet cannot chuse but die,
    Loe, faithfull Virgin, yeelds himselfe to lye
    In prison, in thy wombe; . . .  ("Annunciation" 2-6)

    We recall the significantly different phrasing in The Progresse of the Soule (VIII):

    That all, which alwayes was All, every where;
    Which could not sinne, and yet all sinnes did beare;
    Which could not die, yet could not chuse but die;
    Stood in the selfe same roome in Calvarie,
    Where first grew the forbidden learned tree, . . .  (VIII)

    Changing "was" to "is," "could" to "can," the sonnet explores its subject according to its salvational rather than its passional view. The Progresse of the Soule's vision of human inadequacy and the failure of the flesh is replaced by the miracle of the incarnation and purposefulness of life. The conditional human perspective of "could not die" takes on a Calvinist certitude that places human experience in the hands of divine authority to give it meaning: he who "cannot die, yet cannot chuse but die, / Loe, faithfull Virgin, yeelds himselfe to lye / In prison, in thy wombe." The Protestant perspective here is one that subordinates self to divine will in the language and ontology of the liturgy. Throughout, the sonnet urges the soul to accept its divinity and not to kick against the pricks of mortality. The restless soul of The Progresse of the Soule has become the passive and willing agent of life.

  24. Donne continues to rewrite The Progresse of the Soule, making (as he promised) his "darke heavy Poëm light, and light" (VI) in the process: the "fatall room" of failed history and reform ("This soule to whom Luther, and Mahomet were / Prisons of flesh" [VII]) becomes the true miracle of "infinitati sacrum" in the Virgin's conception: "Thou'hast light in darke; and shutst in little roome, / Immensity cloysterd in thy deare wombe." ("Annunciation" 13-14). The "streight cloyster" (XXXVIII) that the discontented satirist felt demeaned the soul has become, for the accepting spirit of "Annunciation," the "cloystered" vessel of redemption and life in the "deare wombe" of Mary. The miracle of "multum in parvo," which is that of the annunciation, is also the artistic goal of the sonnet form. The holy sonnet is the answer that the Protestant poetic can offer the embittered satirist, whose ten-line stanzas are like aborted sonnets that fail to contain the spirit of the poet. The artistic complaint lying behind the word "streightened" gives way to the celebration of the "immensity" "cloystered" in the sonnets. In its form, this incarnation is the end of all incarnation, and of the progress of the soul.

  25. "Annunciation" establishes the firmest links with The Progresse of the Soule and sets the pattern for presenting the incarnation in its new poetic, for transforming gall to balm. The incest that taints much of The Progresse of the Soule becomes the miracle of transmigration of the soul and divine coherence: "yea thou art now / Thy Makers maker, and thy Fathers mother" ("Annunciation"). No longer perplexed by endlessness, the Christian poet can "salute the last, and everlasting day." Each of the "La Corona" sonnets addresses aspects of the problem of the incarnate soul and answers them, not with the Pythagorean response of metempsychosis or transmigration, but with the answer of transcendence and salvation.

  26. What Donne does, then, is to juxtapose his classical and secular learning -- his Pythagorean view of the human condition -- with his triumphal and Christian one. The two poems provide two perspectives on human experience: the one profane, seen in terms of the secular year, its fifty-two weeks and the ages of man, and the other seen in the salvational framework of the Christiad and the holy week. This relationship between the two supports readings such as Susan Snyder's, which see The Progresse of the Soule as a parody of Du Bartas' Sepmaines. The parody, however, is renounced, and the problem of incarnation is rewritten within the embrace of divine time in "La Corona."[25]

  27. The two sequences are two kinds of progress -- the secular progress and the spiritual triumph. They are pendent poems, or dependent ones in that we only understand the inconclusiveness of the one from the conclusiveness of the other -- the author of "La Corona" is ultimately different from the classical, secular author who announces his debt to the ancients in the Epistle to The Progresse of the Soule. The Donne divided between the extremes of the sacred and the profane is the man we see in the "Holy Sonnets" and other poems. But however we view the spiritual anxiety of the twelve often dark sonnets following the "La Corona" sequence, they are free of the cynicism and despair of The Progresse of the Soule. If we approach the poetry through the opening progress and its victorious triumph, as we in fact do in the early editions, we find the tug-of-war between flesh and spirit less troublesome because we see that they are free of the hopelessly human perspective of the satire. When we read The Progresse of the Soule in its proper place, in the proximity of the "La Corona," we see Donne snaffling his rebellious muse, and then hear the calm voice of the poet invoke his divine muse through prayer:

    Deigne at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,
    Weave'd in my low devout melancholie, . . . .  ("La Corona" 1-2)

  28. True to the triumphal form, Donne's sonnets celebrate the death of self; the perpetual loss of the body is over, the strife of history no longer his; he now nothing else is but his muse:

    Oh, with thy owne blood quench thy owne just wrath,
    And if thy Spirit, my Muse did raise,
    Deigne at my hands this crowne of prayer and praise.
      ("Ascention" 3-4)



1.  For the full texts of masses during the octave of the Feast of the Assumption, see The Sarum Missal (especially 2:85 and 462-67); for its place in the liturgical calendar and other "principal doubles," see (1:8); for Saint Roch, see (2:213-15). The Feast of the Assumption, of course, does not figure nearly as prominently in the Anglican rite: compare The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, and The Elizabethan Prayer Book. The "sequences" (or verse meditations) for each day of the feast stress aspects of the Virgin Mary's unique role as exemplum for mankind. The readings for the second day, and for the octave generally, provide an illuminating gloss to Donne's poem. Exactly where Donne was in his journey to Anglicanism in 1601 is not clear; he knew the Catholic calendar, of course, and Bald (116) feels (among others) that in 1601 Donne still held to his Catholic beliefs.

2.  See Weber (149-51), for some of the distinctive characteristics of the events associated with Mary and her feasts, her place in the liturgical year, and how it contrasts with other major days of obligation such as Easter and Christmas. Weber (86), also points to the seasonal dimension of the triumphal summer festival in honor of the Assumption.

3.  See The Sarum Missal (2:464, 466-67).

4.  See The Sarum Missal (2:213-15), for the sequence and scriptural readings for Saint Roch; for August sixteenth as feast day for Joachim and Ann, see Attwater (186). The masses for the Blessed Virgin and Saint Roch offer virtually antithetical views of human mortality: the former stresses the strength and purity of the flesh and Mary's example as victor over sin, while the latter admits to human frailty, worldliness, decay, and the need for miraculous intervention to resist corruption. Taken together, they offer three meditative approaches to the day's liturgical significance.

5.  In my discussion of The Progresse of the Soule and its place among Donne's poems, I refer to the 1633 edition, although for the satire I will use the edited text of Milgate in John Donne, The Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters. The characterization of Donne here is based largely on Bald's discussion of the signal events in his life during 1601 (119-24), including his membership in Parliament, his becoming a landholder, the culmination of the Essex debacle, the anticipated return of Ann More, and his new friendship with the Herberts. As Bald and others point out, the motto shows his awareness of a growing rift between the active and contemplative lives; but we should remember the source of the motto in Petrarch's Rime sparse, found in Petrarch's Lyric Poems (206): it is a deeply ambiguous poem about the confusion between spirit and flesh, and the love inspired by them. The day's association with Ann, mother of Mary, makes it symbolically important for Ann More.

6.  The poem is often seen as a spiritual cousin of Shakespeare's bitter portrayal of corruption at court; the affinity seems to go beyond the close resemblance between the concluding triplet of the satire and Hamlet (2.2.249-50).

7.  See Bald (123); Hughes ("The Progress of the Soul" 72) is quoting Paul Tillich to emphasize his point.

8.  Increasingly, critics have tried to find an inner coherence to the work, in spite of the abruptness of the conclusion: Tepper (262-6), for example, sees it as complete but inevitably and intentionally fragmentary; Gardner ("The Metempsychosis of John Donne"), seeing the poem as a political satire, essentially a jeu d'esprit whose mock-incompleteness is part of its rhetoric, offers among the first serious defences of its wholeness. Arguments for inner-coherence tend to depend on its parodic qualities, in effect recognizing its inability to stand alone; see, for example, Tepper and also Snyder (392-407).

9.  For analysis of the manuscript groupings and textual history, I am grateful to the work of Grierson (1.lvi-ciii), Gardner (Divine Poems lvii-lxxvi), and Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets (lxiv-lxv), and Milgate (xli-lxxiv). Although the critical tradition has seen The Progresse of the Soule as a spiritual turning point" (Hughes 71) for Donne, the argument isolates the poem from other works, rather than linking it with them. Close textual and thematic analysis of the poem and its place in the 1633 text has never been attempted.

10.  See Hulse (5-6), speaks of the popularity of metamorphic literature during the 1590s. His study defines metamorphic verse mainly in terms of the epyllion; although it is really a sub-genre of the epic with metamorphic themes, it has many of the characteristics described here, including the Ovidian core from which the works grow (24).

11. See Van Wyk Smith (17-25, 141-52), following Gardner's lead, sees Donne's poem as a political satire on Robert Cecil, and having roots in the beast fable and parodies of accounts of the soul's ascent to heaven; he locates Donne's closest model in Edmund Spenser's Mother Hubberd's Tale.

12.  Each of these has a serial episodicity to it; the erotic epyllion studied by Hulse tends to focus on one Ovidian episode isolated from the series (24). I am grateful to John Shawcross for calling my attention to Edward Herbert of Cherbury's satiric progress, and for his critique of this paper in its preliminary stages.

13.  See Weber (151) describes the "double movement" that characterizes poems celebrating the Virgin Mary. The Assumption is well-suited to the form of the triumph; the duality of her feast calls attention to the separation between her earthly and her heavenly existence, the one identified with the five earthly joys and the other with the seven heavenly joys. This characterization of the triumph incorporates information analyzed in my article ("Petrarch's Trionfi and the Rhetoric of Triumph " 87-96); Sticca's article in this collection ("Petrarch's Triumphs and its Medieval Heritage" 47-62) explores some of the liturgical elements in the triumph.

14.  Petrarch's Trionfi was far and away the most influential example of the literary triumph. Bernardo's essay ("Triumphal Poetry: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio," 33-45), explores some of the civic and religious dimensions of the literary triumph in Boccaccio and Dante as well. Dante's Vita Nuova has some of the transcendent qualities of the spiritual triumph in Donne's "La Corona," but The Progresse of the Soule and Petrarch's Trionfi share the same ironic, earthly perspective that underscores their deep literary kinship.

15.  See Grierson (2.218-219).

16.  Smith's argument for the parodic element of The Progresse of the Soule invites such a comparison with the poems on Elizabeth Drury.

17.  Gardner noted the echoes in passing only in 1952 (Divine Poems 57); in her important analysis of The Progresse of the Soule in 1972 she makes no mention of these links (see note 8). Perry's excellent study of the liturgical dimension of the "La Corona" sonnets  (217, 277 n.15) cites Gardner and says that the repeated lines show us Donne combining "amorous and religious language" (217).

18.  Notably Cambridge MS. 57; see Milgate  (xlii-xliii).

19.  Some of the satires might, however, compare in proleptic language and imagery.

20.  In later editions additional material of no particular textual authority is occasionally added to the sonnets; the sequences remain intact.

21.  By 1637, Donne's son had begun to show interest in his father's literary estate and had a hand in preparations for the 1649 edition (Grierson 2.lxv-lxviii). Grierson stresses that 1635 and later editions have no special authority to recommend them, and that 1633 not only shows competent editing, but has the greatest textual authority (lxiv-lxvi).

22.  See Weber (3); her introductory chapter provides a useful explanation of how the liturgy and liturgical literature represent ways of shaping, and explaining the shape of, history and time. Fowler (61), points out that triumphs frequently employ numerological and other symbolic structures.

23.  See Weber (151).

24.  See Lewalski (256-59), and Ferry (221-227) both respond to the sequence's tension between a liturgical and communal voice and the private language of the poet-priest; together with Martz's discussion (105-12), these studies capture the ambiguous balance of Protestant and Catholic elements in the emblematic sequence.

25.  See Snyder (394-97), and Tepper (263-66).

Works Cited

    © 2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
    (RGS, LJ, WSH, 09 May, 2001 )