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Incorporating the Corporeal: John Donne's View of Body and Soul
After only a cursory glance at the works of John Donne, especially those written after he took orders in the church, a reader might easily assume that Donne was a devout man whose theology was relatively orthodox. And in many ways, this might be true. What is not quite orthodox in John Donne’s theological leanings is his approach to the issue of the relationship between body and soul. Donne’s views, as expressed in his works, have a tendency to vary somewhat, even within a single poem.
This is the case in Of the Progress of the Soul from Donne’s Second Anniversary. Both The First Anniversary and The Second Anniversary were written for a patron of his, Sir Robert Drury, after the death of Drury’s daughter Elizabeth. The Second Anniversary in particular focuses on the passage of the soul from one life into the next (or as Donne prefers to think of it: from one room into the next). Donne, however, is not content to focus only on the soul. To him, the body is of equal or greater importance, and thus the two must be explored together.
Of the Progress of the Soul
"By force of that
force which before, it wonne,
Or as sometimes in a beheaded man,
Though at those two Red seas, which freely ran,
One from the Trunke, another from the Head,
His soule be saild, to her eternall bed,
His eies will twinckle, and his tongue will roll,
As though he beckned, and cal’d backe his Soul,
He graspes his hands, and he puls up his feet,
And seemes to reach, and to step forth to meet
His soule […]" (7-17)
There is an illusion here to Lucretius' epic poem De rerum natura , in which a very similar scene takes place, though in Lucretius’ poem the beheaded man is specified as a soldier (The Epithalamions 155). Ramie Targoff pins down the key difference in the two men’s reaching gestures as a distinction between a reflex and a farewell. In Lucretius’ work, the corpse goes through a natural rendering up of his spirit, but Donne expresses something more purposeful—a beckoning, a call (“Traducing the Soul” 1498). Donne’s beheaded man is reluctant to part with his soul. In the next few lines of the poem, he compares this wrenching of soul from body both with the jolting sounds of the crack of ice and of a string breaking on a lute (lines 18-20).
This reluctance of the body to separate from the soul, and vice versa, is a common theme for Donne. Given the views of Donne’s contemporaries, and the scholars who had come before him, Donne gives a surprising amount of importance to the body’s role in relationship to the soul. He even goes so far as to imply that the soul is dependent on the body (Greteman 27). Donne himself states that “all that the soule does, it does in, and with, and by the body” (qtd. in Selleck 149). Stemming from this notion, Donne refuses to give up on the idea that it is unnatural for the soul to be separated by the body.
Throughout his poetry and prose, Donne wrestles with defining the relationship between body and soul, but it was not until he became part of the clergy in 1615 that he “officially endorsed the view that the soul separated from the body at death” (Greteman 27), though some of his sermons still seem to indicate that he does not believe the soul will be severed from the body (Greteman 36). Three years earlier, when he wrote The Second Anniversary , Donne seemed to be already playing with this idea of separation at death, though he insisted that death was a difficult process for both the body and the soul, illustrated in lines 7-17 which are quoted above.
The Material Soul
"The World is but a Carkas; thou
By it, but as a worme, that carcass bred;
And why shouldst thou, poore worme, consider more,
When this world will grow better then before,
Then those thy fellow-wormes doe thinke upon
That carkasses last resurrectione." (55-60)
In this passage, Donne rather shockingly materializes the soul. The “thou” here still refers back to the soul that was addressed only ten lines before (“O my insatiate soule”), meaning that the “poore worme” who feeds off the dead body of the world is in fact the soul. A rather degrading comparison for the usually elevated soul, especially considering that traditionally worms were thought of as oblivious and insensitive (The Anniversaries 177). The “World” here is described as a carcass, a dead body. Donne gently rebukes the “worme” for considering more than this world (or body), reminding the soul of the coming resurrection.
The resurrection, for Donne, is another point of particular interest. Many of his sermons were spent trying to explain or speculate as to how the resurrection would work. A passage from one of his Easter sermon reads this way:
"God shall re-compact and re-compile those atoms and graines of dust, into that Body, which was before…Where mans buried flesh hath brought forth grasse, and that grasse fed beasts, and those beasts fed men, and those men fed other men, God that knows in which Boxe of his Cabinet all this seed pearl lies…shall recollect that dust, and then recompact that body, and then re-inanimate that man, and that s the accomplishment of all." (qtd. in Greteman 37)
This reunion between body and soul is extremely important to Donne who believes that a man cannot be fully man without his body. Though the soul may be in blissful paradise for a season, eternal life will only be perfected when God calls for the resurrection of the body. David Hirsch explains that “Donne’s overriding concern for the preservation of the body is therefore bound to spiritual concerns, because if one’s immortal soul can ‘understand, and grow and see’ only within one’s proper body, that body must be prevented from decaying and disintegrating into nothingness” (Hirsch 80). Hence the time and energy spent speculating how God will go about reconstructing these bodies that have been scattered over the earth.
Also important to Donne is that the resurrected body is the same body that the soul knew in earthly life. He says:
"This death of incineration and dispersion, is, to naturall reason, the most irrecoverable death of all, and yet…by recompacting this dust into the same body and reanimating the same body with the same soule, hee shall in a blessed and glorious resurrection give mee such an issue from this death, as shal never passé into any other." (qtd. in Greteman 36)
Blaine Greteman suggests that this obsession with having the same body and same soul in a heavenly setting is caused by a need for Donne to “keep his identity intact while asserting his presence at the very throne of God” (Greteman 40).
The Origin of the Soul
"Thinke further on they selfe, my
soule, and thinke
How thou at first wast made but in a sinke;
Thinke that it argued some infermitee,
That those two soules, which then thou foundst in mee,
Thou fedst upon, and drewst into thee, both
My second soule of sence, and first of growth.
Thinke but how poore thou wast, how’ obnoxious,
Whom a small lump of flesh could poison thus.
This curdled milke, this poore unlittered whelpe
My body, could, beyond escape, or helpe,
Infect thee with originall sinne, and thou
Couldst neither then refuse, nor leave it now." (157-168)
The first two lines of this passage invite the soul to think about its original creation or birth. Line 158 states that the soul was made in a “sinke,” which during Donne’s time indicated a cesspool or a sewer. If the term is applied to the body, which it likely is meant to be, it would probably refer to the stomach when it is full of waste (The Anniversaries 183).
This idea of the soul being created in the body stems from a theory called traducianism or ex traduce. Very basically, those who ascribe to this theory believe that “the soul is formed inside the body through ‘propagation from parents’” (John Donne, body and soul 11). This idea can be traced back to Augustine, who was trying to wrestle through the issue of the origin of the soul with some of his students. In a letter that he wrote to Jerome, Augustine mentions that though traducianism is a theory that he cannot support, he is tempted towards it because it explains away any implications of “divine responsibility for human sinfulness” (John Donne, body and soul 82). Aside from this one point, Augustine tends towards the other more accepted theory regarding soul origin—ex nihilo.
Ex nihilo, as with the creation of the world, implies that the soul was created by God out of nothing, and therefore must be placed in the human body where it is inevitably infected by sin (hence Augustine’s concern that the theory implies that God is in fact responsible for human sin). This is the theory that the church and most of Donne’s contemporaries ascribed to, and it is the one that Donne declared for himself, but only after taking orders (The Anniversaries 183). Interestingly, Donne seems to fluctuate back and forth between the two ideas in The Second Anniversary. Directly after lines 157-158, Donne speaks in terms that imply ex nihilo (“Infect thee with originall sinne, and thou / Couldst neither then refuse, nor leave it now”).
The Immortality of the Soul
"Poore soule, in this thy flesh
what do’st thou know?
Thou know’st they selfe so little, ‘as thou know’st not,
How thou did’st die, nor how thou wast begot.
Thou neither knowst, how thou at first cam’st in,
Nor how thou took’st the pyson of mans sin.
Nor dost thou, (thou thou knowst, that thou art so)
By what way thou art made immortall, know." (254-260)
Here is another passage where Donne uses terms that imply ex nihilo, and here he also addresses the idea of the immortal soul.
The immortality of the soul was a highly debated subject during the early Renaissance—not necessarily in regards to whether the soul was immortal or not (that seems to have been widely accepted), but rather the debaters were trying to prove the soul’s immortality through various and contradictory reasoning. By Donne’s time most scholars seemed to accept the idea put forth by Petrus Pomponatus—the immortality of the soul is an issue that must be accepted by faith and not by reason (The Anniversaries 188).
Though Donne expressed a very similar idea to Pomponatus (“The Resurrection of the Body is discernible by no other light, but that of Faith… [qtd. in Hirsch 82]), he still attempts to explain the soul’s immortality. Hirsch sees Donne as accepting the assertion that “the material soul’s immortality is defined by its atomic nature” (Hirsch 81).
The atomic theory is one that on several occasions Donne seems to support for the body, and the theory could also conceivably transfer to his view of the soul. Sometimes referred to as “atomy,” this theory suggests that every thing that is composed of matter can be broken down into “irreducible, indestructible material unit[s]” known as atoms (Hirsch 74). This indestructibility lends something like immortality to all material things—an idea that Donne would have especially liked, considering the importance he places on the body and the need he has for its complete resurrection. Donne’s desire to make the soul dependent on the body would make the atomic theory attractive, since it allows for the soul to be both material and immortal.
The passage above also presents an interesting depiction of the soul’s lack of self-knowledge. Donne implies that the soul knows nothing of its own origin or immortality, and as a result is erroneously attracted to the body (John Donne, body and soul 100). This attraction is part of the reason why the wrench of soul from body at death is such a painful thing. And not only is the soul incapable of self-knowledge, but it is also unable to know the body that it inhabits, as illustrated in the following passage:
The Actuated Soul
"Knowst thou but how the stone doth
The bladders Cave, and never breake the skin?
Knowst thou how blood, which to the hart doth flow,
Doth from one ventricle to th’other go?
And for the putrid stuffe, which thou dost spit,
Knowst thou how thy lungs have attracted it?
There are no passages so that there is
(For ought thou knowst) piercing of substances.
And of those many opinions which men raise
Of Nailes and Haires, dost thou know which to praise?
What hope have we to know our selves, when wee
Know not the least things, which for our use bee?" (269-280)
Greteman writes that Donne believes that souls are “enabled” by their bodies (Greteman 28). In his discussion, Greteman is referring to the body’s fulfillment of the soul’s sexual desire, but it seems reasonable to apply the concept to other aspects of the soul-body relationship as well. According to Greteman, Donne sees the soul as “diffused through and empowering the body even as the body facilitates the senses, perceptions, and actions that feed the soul…” (Greteman 29). When the relationship is seen in this way, the body can be thought of as an “actuated soul.”
But of course, the passage above describes the soul’s inability to understand its host body, which indicates that either the body is in complete control of the relationship or else the flow between body and soul cannot be perfected, at least in its earthly state.
The Prison of the Soul
"Shee, of whose soule, if we may
say, ‘twas Gold,
Her body was th’ Electrum, and did hold
Many degrees of that; we understood
Her by her sight, her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her bodie thought…" (241-246)
Though elsewhere in this poem Donne refers to the more traditional idea that the soul is a prisoner trapped inside the jail of the body, these lines present a slightly different idea. The term “electrum” refers to an amalgam of gold and silver, which is supposedly stronger than the separated elements, shines more brightly, and “has the property of detecting poisons” (The Epithalamions 164). So Donne presents the idea that the soul (gold) when combined with the body (silver) creates something stronger and brighter. And, if the definition of the electrum is taken literally, perhaps the body-soul combination is even more resistant to the poison of sin.
The Fluidity of the Soul
"Poore couse’ned cose’nor, that
she, and that thou,
Which did begin to love, are neither now.
You are both fluid, chang’d since yesterday;
Next day repaires, (but ill) last daies decay.
Nor are, (although the river keep the name)
Yesterdaies waters, and to daies the same.
That saint, nor Pilgrime, which your loving vow
Concernd, remaines; but whil’st you thinke you bee
Constant, you are howrely in inconstancee." (391-400)
Here Donne speaks of the tendency of both the body and the soul to change—there is “no permanent existence, [their] identity is not fixed” (The Epithalamions 171). The idea of the fluidity of body and soul is important to Donne, because Donne’s body is a humoral body (Selleck 149). Nancy Selleck recounts Thomas Browne’s humoral theory in this way:
"The humors (blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile) are the product of the body’s digestion of food, which is transformed into chyle in the stomach and then further concocted (i.e., cooked) into the humors of the liver. Not just blood, but all four humors travel through the veins nourishing the body; indeed, the parts of the body are said to be generated from them." (Selleck 150-151)
Selleck goes on to express that:
"The Anniversariese’s self-cannibalizing notion is a rhetorically extreme way of capturing the relationship of the humoral body to itself and to its world—its ongoing process of being remade by what it consumes and digests. And this happens not only with food. The humoral body is also continually influenced by its immediate surround, particularly air and climate." (Selleck 151)
This same fluidity and influence of surroundings can be applied to the psyche and, according to Donne at least, to the soul (“You are both fluid, chang’d since yesterday”). This idea of change and mutability are consistent themes in much of Donne’s work (Selleck 157).
The Resurrection of the Soul
"Onely in Heaven joies strength is
And accidentall things are permanent.
Joy of a soules arrival nere decaies;
Joy that their last great Consummation
Approches in the resurrection;
When earthly bodies more celestiall
Shalbe, then Angels were, for they could fall" (487-494)
At this point, nearing the end of the poem, Donne begins to explore the joys of heaven as compared to the joys of earth. Here he explains that the joys of heaven are indeed more glorious, if only for the reason that they are more permanent (John Donne, body and soul 103). This, of course, applies to the soul, which experiences the joys of heaven after that initial separation from the body at death. For Donne, this permanent joy also applies to the body, which will ascend at the “last great Consummation.”
The last two lines of this section suggest that after the resurrection of the body, mankind will be superior to the angels. Donne writes:
"As soone as my soule enters into Heaven…I shall be able to say to the Angels, I a the same stuffe as you, spirit and spirit, and therefore let me stand with you…So at the Resurrection of this body, I shall be able to say to the Angel of the great Councell…Christ Jesus himselfe, I am the of the same stuffe as you, Body and body, Flesh and flesh, and therefore let me sit downe with you, at the right hand of the Father in an everlasting security". (qtd. in Greteman 39)
According to Greteman, this desire for acceptance and glorification culminates Donne’s need to put such extreme emphasis on the role of the body in relationship to the soul.
And so the reader is given a brief overview of John Donne’s conception of the relationship between body and soul. In Of the Progress of the Soul, he expresses some of his points consistently, while on other aspects he wavers between more and less traditional views. Overall, it is clear that Donne’s attachment to the idea of the body is extreme. He views the body’s connection with the soul as more than just a jailer-prisoner relationship. He sees the body and soul more as equals—inter-dependent on one another and both reluctant to leave the other. In some ways, he sees the soul as inferior to the body, especially considering its lack of self-knowledge and awareness of its surrounding host. And, of course, ultimately, Donne believes that it is the resurrected body, combined with the same soul that it possessed on earth, that will make glorified humans greater than the angels and able to stand in the presence of the Almighty.
 All quotations from The Second Anniversary are taken from the collection of Epthalamions, Anniversaries, and Epicedes that was edited by W. Milgate and published in 1978.
 John Donne, The Sermons, ed. Goerge R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1953-62), 9:223, 2:84, 1:192, 4:358.
 Ibid., 62, 7:103, 115.
 Ibid., 10:239.
 Ibid., 8:98.
 Ibid., 8:98.
Donne, John. John Donne: The Anniversaries. Ed. Frank Manley. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.
---. The Epithalamions Anniversaries and Epicedes. Ed. W. Milgate. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. Print.
Greteman, Blaine. “‘All this seed pearl’: John Donne and Bodily Presence.” College Literature 37.3 (Summer 2010), 26-42. Print.
Hirsch, Davd A. Hedrich. “Donne’s Atmoies and Anatomies: Deconstructed Bodies and the Resurrection of Atomic Theory.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31.1 (1991): 69-94. Print.
Selleck, Nancy. “Donne’s Body.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41.1 (2001): 149-174. Print.
Targoff, Ramie. John Donne, body and soul. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.
---. “Traducing the Soul: Donne’s Second Anniversary.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 121.5 (October 2006): 1493-1508. Print.