The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Finding Humor in Selfhood: The Permeability of Body and Soul in the Works of John Donne

Corinne Zeman

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Within recent years, early modern scholarship has converged on two issues: first, the permutations of the humoral body, and second, the notion of a “Cartesian moment,” which witnessed the divorce of corporeality and cognition. This thesis touches on each field, situating them in relation to John Donne’s writings. It poses the possibility of humoral selfhood—a sense of self that is insecure, much like the body that is governed by inscrutable humors.

1. Introduction

Contemporary scholarship holds that the seventeenth century was a pivotal age, which witnessed a high-stakes transformation of personhood. Heralded as the “Cartesian moment” (owing to the interventions of René Descartes), it saw the birth of modern individualism.[1] This narrative—and the assumption of an ideological break—offers a serviceable gauge, a means of evaluating disparities between modern and early modern thinking. For instance, in the post-Cartesian world, we have isolated cognition from corporeality. We maintain that our souls and bodies are the poles of an ontological scale. Though early moderns weathered the lure of an undemanding dualism, they resisted its simplicity. And thus, their sense and model of selfhood were not easily demarcated. They drew from an amalgam of physical and emotional considerations; for the early modern, writes Michael Schoenfeldt, “bodily condition, subjective state, and psychological character [were] fully imbricated” (1).

On the fringes of modern history, John Donne was a bastion of ontological complexity. His identity, and that of his speakers, is not reducible to a simple binary. Instead, we can attribute his complexity to a (somewhat erratic) reliance on humoralism, a medical paradigm that speaks of a material, permeable self. In its simplest iterations, the humoral body was a landscape that literalizes one’s vicissitudes. For my purposes, to shed light on Donne’s understanding of selfhood, I turn to a less studied component of humoral discourse—its image of the body relative to the soul. Delving into the body-soul dyad allows us to refine scholarly understandings, to examine the dualistic and anti-dualistic models that vied for dominance. Though humoralism is a frequent lens for literary analysis, critics have simplified it, divorcing it of the soul and its bearings on intellectual history.

Though rooted in classical thinking, humoralism, when in reference to the body-soul dyad, upends our conventional wisdom. It supposes that the body is an enigma, conferred with an autonomous will, and that the soul is penetrable, subject to instability. I argue that the consequence of this pairing—its assumption of a porous body and soul—was the appearance of humoral selfhood, of a dyad that was not rigid or well proportioned. Rather, when molded in Donne’s hands, selfhood was vacillating and frictional.

With regard to the body, Donne’s use of humoralism is unambiguous. The appearance of humoral bodies—specifically, in “Love’s Growth” and “Elegy XIII”—was of considerable consequence. It placed physicality at the center of poetic narratives, at the heart of concrete and metaphysical dialogues. To clarify, when speaking in humoral terms—“physicality” is not a simple emphasis on the body, but on one that has a particular bodiliness, which is fickle, fitful, and skirting on the edges of guile. If imagined as a constituent of the body-soul dyad, the humoral body receives further significance. Indeed, for Donne, it bore a number of implications. It precluded the possibility of harmony and of an uncomplicated self by proxy. In Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Donne will go so far as to pit body and soul as metaphysical rivals.  

But as I intend to illustrate, Donnean selfhood was far from static, poorly outlined by catchalls or generalities. Adopted in a transitional epoch, his approach to personhood existed in several incarnations. Elsewhere, he railed against pre-Cartesian contingency, against the threat and complications of a humoral self. In “The Ecstasy,” he idealized the relationship between body and soul. Though equally humoral, their interactions are rid of conflict, embodied by a near-romantic longing. This shifting representation is the upshot of his philosophical qualms, of a tacit antipathy for the context-dependent self. “The Second Anniversary: Of the Progress of the Soul” exemplifies Donne’s inconsistencies, as it contains a startling degree of ideological fluctuation. Ultimately, I seek to argue that Donnean selfhood—i.e., Donne’s understanding of ontology, replete with questions of faith and agency—was inconsistent, but a logical artifact of its historical moment.

2. Introduction to Humoralism and Aristotelian Metaphysics

Before proceeding, it is necessary to define “humoralism,” to situate it in and understand its implications for intellectual history. Propounded by Hippocrates and popularized by Galen, humoralism, in its sundry manifestations, was a prevailing doctrine of the early modern era. Within it, the body doubled as a microcosm of the universe—a “little world,” so to speak. Four elements were concretized in four humors, which coursed through the body’s viscera: blood, which was hot and moist, like air; yellow bile, which was hot and dry, like fire; phlegm, which was cold and moist, like water; and black bile, which was cold and dry, like earth. “Every subject,” writes Gail Kern Paster, “grew up with a common understanding of his or her body as a semipermeable, irrigated container in which [each of these] humors moved” (8).

Health and illness were explained as a balance or, alternately, an imbalance of these fluids. Their mixture dictated the operation of the body’s organs and the nature of one’s personality. As a rule, an excess of yellow bile created a choleric personality; an excess of blood, a sanguine personality; an excess of black bile, a melancholic personality; and an excess of phlegm, a stoic personality. Individuals received an overarching disposition at birth, but each organ, in its own right, had a unique personality—or in Paster’s phrasing, an emotional charge (11). But humoral balances were not strictly constitutional; they were also environmental. External agents could augment or reduce one’s quantity of humors. These “nonnaturals”—food and drink, sleep and wakefulness, motion and rest, quality of air, excretion and retention of substances, and the appearance of passions[2]—were imperative to well being. And thus, influenced by external considerations, governed by the actions of anthropomorphized organs, internal processes were unstable. Suffice it to say, the humoral body held a startling degree of agency.

Recently, critics have looked to humoralism as a touchstone of early modern thought. Unfortunately, their collective analysis has stalled. It is corralled in a discussion of the physical body or, within more inspired readings, of social contact. They fixate on how corporeal representations are drafted in humoral terms, presuming that the body is the sole subject of humoral conditions.[3] Again, critics have arrogated these terms—specifically, the notion of permeability—to touch on the tenuous dynamics of the coterie and court.[4] But they, too, are engrossed in bodily life. They operate under the belief that physicality is a narrow field.

One cannot discount these critics’ efforts, for humoralism was vital to the sixteenth-century ideation of bodies. But critics overlook a vital, if less emphasized, component of humoral theory: its mention of the soul. Inherent within it is the belief that the body and soul are twinned entities, yoked by “spirit,” a vapor that was “generated by the heat of the heart” and utilized “for the exercise of the interior as well as the exterior senses” (Ficino 111). It would be insufficient to hold that the humoral body is subject to its environment, for it is permeable in all regards. That is to say, if the body is the ceaseless subject of restructuring, of interweaving elements, it is incapable of isolation from one’s soul. To the extent that it interacts with external stimuli, it is reliant on and liable to affect the soul. Naturally, this notion—that a volatile body retains clout over one’s soul—was troubling.

In light of this uncertainty, pre and early modern authors sought to define the body-soul relationship. They hoped to understand their composition, to forge a philosophical-cum-psychological discourse. A running thread was the Aristotelian supposition that one is composed of vegetative, sensitive, and intellective souls. The vegetative, found in all living beings, was responsible for growth; the sensitive monitored one’s perceptual and appetitive faculties; and the intellective, particular to humans and angels, was vital to the maintenance of will and memory. The vegetative and sensitive souls are figural emblems of the body. The intellective bears a greater likeness to the twenty-first-century “soul.” According to Robert Burton, Donne’s contemporary, it“commands the other two in men, and is a curb unto them, or at least should be, but for the most part is captivated and overruled by them; and men are led like beasts by sense, giving reins to their concupiscence and several lusts” (140-41). The instability of this dynamic, manifest in Burton’s contempt, mirrors the instability of the humoral body and of the early modern self. Admittedly, for contemporary readers, Aristotelian philosophy may feel extraneous to Galenic physiology. But by the year of Donne’s birth, they were jointly impressed on early modern minds. Their intersection informed an understanding of humoralism—or more exactly, of physical and spiritual health.

3. Donne’s Epistemological Qualms

Given that this model proliferated, it is unsurprising that Donne borrowed from the language of humoralism. But I must draw a distinction between Donne’s functional vocabulary and his understanding of epistemological models. I must begin by stating that Donne was a polymath, devoted to the study of medicine, philosophy, and theological history. He was “convinced that knowledge is the first ingredient in godliness, the ingredient which man himself provides and which draws down the grace needed to finish the work of sanctification” (Geraldine 123). He had, therefore, endeavored to keep abreast of scientific and cultural tides.

Of these tides, few were more pronounced than alterations in bodily conceptions. Belief in humoralism had waned in the sixteenth century, for early modern anatomists sought to resolve—and to an extent, succeeded in settling—the structural mysteries of the human form. In particular, the discoveries of Andreas Vesalius (and three years before Donne’s death, of William Harvey) inspired doubt in humoral precepts. Needless to say, they were not instantly debunked; daily rituals were not divested of their influence. Still, as innovations emerged, precepts were challenged. And Donne, an avid reader, could speak with authority on these challenges. He acknowledged that the tenets of Galenic thought were outdated, so why does its imagery recur in his poems?

In part, the answer lies in its shifting meaning. “Humorous,” which, prior to the seventeenth century, referred exclusively to one’s humors, became interchangeable with capricious (Selleck 153). It signified changeability, in lieu of a bodily condition, and was appropriated in discussions of whimsical, impulsive, and unruly behavior. The early moderns internalized—and oriented their vocabularies around—the chief component of humoral theory: belief in the context-dependent body. In several of Donne’s works, there are allusions to classical humoralism, but, in a greater percentage, there are allusions to this early modern gloss. He discusses the implications and dangers of humoral selfhood—not merely of the humoral body. For instance, in “Holy Sonnet XIX,” he writes,

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:

Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot

A constant habit; that when I would not

I change in vows, and in devotion.

As humorous is my contrition

As my profane love, and as soon forgot. (1-6, emphasis added)

Here, Donne forges a textbook illustration of a modernized humoralism. Its focus is on vacillations without reference to the state of humors. Conceivably, its use is symptomatic of scientific advance, of an implicit aversion to humoral particulars.

Ignatius, His Conclave serves as a key illustration of Donne’s reservations. Written in 1611, it is a piece of tongue-in-cheek prose. Within it, Paracelsus,[5]whose theories furthered the scope of humoralism, appears as a supplicant before Lucifer. The latter, attended by Ignatius Loyola, stands in judgment, reflecting on which of several thinkers—Paracelsus, among them—deserves admission into a higher echelon of Hell. Paracelsus emerges from the procession, claiming that he has “brought all Methodical Physicians…into so much contempt” and that, at his behest, “all remedies [are] dangerously drawn from [his] uncertain, ragged, and unperfect experiments, in trial whereof… men have been made carcasses” (124, 125). This proclamation is satirical, but is nevertheless caustic. Donne’s choice of allegations is pointed: Paracelsian remedies are “uncertain,” nebulously outlined and enacted. I noted that a key indictment of the humoral body was its inscrutability, its reliance on the erratic movement of fluids and organs. Whether in reference to bodies or remedies, the condemnation of uncertainty is cutting. It recalls that Donne had placed a premium on the attainment of knowledge. And by the same token, he had nursed an aversion to ignorance. In the “Third Satire,” he condemns three varieties of intellectual bankruptcy: “a lack of awareness, leading to imprudent and improvident behavior”; “culpable ignorance, impeding the attainment of truth”; and “the deliberate manipulation of another’s mind by confusing, misguiding or coercing the ability to think for himself” (qtd. in Geraldine 116). Paracelsus, here, is culpable of the third.

But by fixating on the instability of health, Donne reveals an underlying discomfort: a sense of agitation over the first—man’s “lack of awareness.” Embedded in this critique, in the defamation of Paracelsian inaccuracy, is a critique of the humoral paradigm. By virtue of the agency that it bestows on the body, it precludes an understanding of biology. That is to say, as it assumes that the body is fragmented, directed by imperceptible fluids, humoralism is stripped of an empirical quality. To be sure, Paracelsus’s discourse is interrupted by a witty aside, trained on the pitfalls of humoralism. “Ignatius,” writes Donne, “had observed a tempest risen in Lucifer’s countenance; for he was just of the same temper as Lucifer, and therefore suffered with him in everything, and felt all this alterations” (126). Without question, Donne is commenting on the permeability of the humoral and Paracelsian bodies. In reference to humoral temperaments, he puns on “temper” and “tempest,” equating humoral experience with a storm of fluctuations. And so, Lucifer and Ignatius are susceptible to one another’s influence, obliged to suffer an alteration in the other’s emotions.

Though this portrait is unfavorable, its conclusion is mitigating. At Ignatius’s prompting, Lucifer declines to admit Paracelsus into a greater stratum of hell. The agenda is clear: Donne holds a certain aversion to Paracelsian philosophy, but will not impeach it in its entirety. Nor will he impeach the whole of Galenic philosophy, from which he derives his images and conceptual bearings. In this respect, Ignatius, His Conclave is an apt representation of Donne’s relationship with humoralism. Donne is not committed to its particulars, which he finds troubling and unreliable, but recognizes that it has redeemable qualities. Its appearance in prose and poetry is laden with possibilities, e.g., an occasion for commentary on human contingency, on the failures or limitations of scientific thought, and lastly, on the facets and permutations of the body-soul dyad.

4. Inconstant Bodies: Humoralism in “Love’s Growth” and “Elegy XIII”

Naturally, the reverberations of humoralism are palpable in Donne’s corpus. They extend beyond the bounds of bodily health, beyond a discourse on the presence of humors. For instance, in “Julia,” a thirty-two lined poem, organized into couplets, he crafts an image of a choleric constitution. With some imagination, he, then, broaches the subject of sexual identity. In less explicit terms, “Love’s Growth,” a lyrical poem of twenty-eight lines, explores an environment’s impact on the body. It is peppered with commentary on the realities of human caprice. For the purposes of this thesis, their pairing underscores the twin focus and re-writing of humoralism. The former draws on traditional Galenism, on a paradigm that points to and literalizes its humors. The latter is symptomatic of changing, abstracted manifestations, ones in which permeability, in lieu of the body, stands at the fore.

In “Elegy XIII,” or “Julia,” Donne draws extensively from a humoral lexicon. Although the elegies brim with indecency, “Elegy XIII” is a singular creation, best treated as a character assassination.[6] Unabashed and unmitigated in its scorn, it renders an image of Julia, the speaker’s mistress. What is striking (the speaker’s vehemence, notwithstanding) is the nature of Donne’s imagery. It is reminiscent of an unfortunate blazon, a poetic catalogue of a woman’s features that was common in Elizabethan poetry. Decidedly physical, it is steeped in the language of humoralism and of Greco-Roman mythology.

At the poem’s inception, Donne embarks on a register of Julia’s limbs. He suggests that she has “eyes of fire, / Burning with anger” (15-16); “breath like to the juice in Taenarus” (19); “hands” that are “used more to spill / The food of others than herself to fill” (21-22); and a mind that houses “Legions of mischiefs, countless multitudes / Of formless curses, projects unmade up, / Abuses yet unfashion’d, [and] thoughts corrupt” (24-26). The blazon is a fitting template for humoralist writings, for its partitioning of the body resembles the partitioning of humoral organs. Just as the humoral body is composed of individuated organs, the blazon confers each structure with a unique descriptor. More importantly, the personification of limbs accepts that the body is animate, capable of machinations that are distinct from the mind. In this manner, Donne capitalizes on and extends the logic of the blazon. He is not content to subdivide the body, but goes so far as to enliven each fragment.

Beyond its organization, “Elegy XIII” is overtly humoral. Though Donne was partial to woolier iterations, “Elegy XIII” is beholden to traditional Galenism—in its imagery, if not in its takeaway. It is dotted with the mention of fluids—ostensibly, in reference to the shifting liquids of a humoral body. Donne speaks of “showers of envy” (9), “vomit” (3), “swell[ing] veins” (3), “juice” (19), the act of “spill[ing]” (21), and “springs” (20). And in the poem’s conclusion, “No poison’s half so bad as Julia,” he equates his mistress with an instable liquid (32). In themselves, these phrases are suggestive, but their context is unequivocally humoral. To publicize “calumny” and “slander,” Julia “vomit[s] gall” and “swell[s] her veins,” effectively “tear[ing] opinion e’en out of the breast / of dearest friends” (3, 4-5). Here, the body is cast as the source of emotional stirrings. In accordance with humoralism, it receives a remarkable degree of agency.

As Donne enumerates Julia’s behaviors and traits, a definite characterization—or in humoral terms, temperament—emerges. Her life, as the speaker imagines it, is an exercise in “jealousy” (8), “anger” (16), and “vice” (12). Almost certainly, she is intended to have a choleric disposition. According to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, choleric individuals were “bold and impudent, and of a more harebrain disposition, apt to quarrel, and think of such things [as] battles [and] combats… and if they be moved, most violent, outrageous, ready to disgrace [and] provoke any” (28). Certainly, Julia, who is cast in the language of violence, abides by these parameters. And her coloring—that is, the description of her complexion—substantiates this reading. “Color,” notes Elizabeth D. Harvey, “[was] integral to the humoral tradition as a visible indicator of the balance of proportions, evident in the color of the complexion, and to the theory [that emotions were] apparent in movements of the blood” (Krier and Harvey 82). Traditionally, each of the four humors aligns with a color. A choleric disposition was paired with yellowish tones. A number of Julia’s descriptors (chiefly, “gall” (3), “fire” (15), and “sun” (29)) may be interpreted as yellow or as an allusion to a sallow complexion.

Interestingly, though Donne describes a choleric personality, Galenic writings held that a hot/dry female was a rarity. They suggested that women tended toward a phlegmatic (i.e., cold and moist) disposition, for their bodies were feebler, their faces paler, and their skin more moist than those of men. If ruled by a potent emotion, they were moved to tears, welling from a natural dampness. On the other hand, their lack of warmth, coupled with the softness of feminine bodies, predisposed them to transient rages. Yellow bile, explains Levinus Lemnius, could “[speed] all the body over, and causeth a sudden boyling of the blood about the heart” (274). But, ultimately, women could not sustain their anger because it required an inborn heat. It is curious, then, that Julia is persistently ireful. Perhaps, her loathsome nature lies in the transgressiveness of her sexuality.

A masculine disposition would not, in itself, indicate a gender deviation. So, it is significant that Julia is likened to Orcus, the bearded god of the underworld; is alienated from the sphere of domesticity (“her own child / scapes not the showers of envy” (8-9)); and is allied with grotesque or gender-neutral creatures, i.e., a “Chimera” (15), a “night crow” (17), and a “Mastix” or plague (14). The final couplet is clinching. It functions as a resounding note on Julia’s associations with masculinity, with the physicality and behaviors of the male gender. On completing his tirade, the speaker suggests that he “blush[es] to give her half her due” (31). For humoralists, the act of blushing had signified an affective volatility, which was regarded as a feminine quality. It is telling that the male speaker reddens, for, in his relationship with Julia, he emerges as the feebler figure. In addition to blushing, his sole appearances are moments of impotence: he depreciates his “reproof” as “mild” and concedes that he “know[s] not how” Julia effects her intrigues (13, 21).

I do not mean to suggest that humoralism was ensnared in sexual politics. Rather, it provided a physiological—and to an extent, aesthetic—justification of behaviors. Certainly, Julia is estranged from the feminine ideal, but her failure to comply is symptomatic of semantic choices. By Donne’s lifetime, humoral dispositions were not seen as fixed; they did not have steady purchase as a measure of identity. But here, the speaker posits that Julia has a choleric personality—that she cannot be perceived as angry or envious, for, more precisely, she is the embodiment of anger and envy. In short, for Donne’s speaker, her outward appearance mirrors the contents of her blood. In this respect, “Elegy XIII” is not a passive regurgitation of humoral precepts, but a caricature of precepts at play. Donne pits humoral theory as a shaky rationalization. It reveals how physiology was appropriated in discussions of identity—even if, in actuality, physiology could not be conferred with blame. And it speaks to the manner by which physicality could eclipse cerebrality—in literary representations, if not in the everyday. The sentient whole—here, Julia—is subordinate to individual features and to the command of internal humors; intellective components are negligible, if mentioned.

Perhaps, then, it is significant that “Julia” broaches the subject of sexual identity. Though the body is stage-center, it has a multiform purpose. It behaves as a springboard for the discussion of gender and as a template for the construction of harangues. And if “Julia” is representative of early modern dialogues, one can assume that they—that is, discussions of corporeality—held wide implications. They did not remain in narrow borders, confined to innocuous images of the human physique. Rather, they extended into, and exerted their influence on, the realm of selfhood.

With that said, because of the literality of its images, “Elegy XIII” is a something of an oddity in Donne’s corpus. That is not to claim that he deals only in abstraction, but that his representations of the physical are tethered to the transcendental. On this particular score, “Love’s Growth” is emblematic. Critics have submitted that it is Donne’s signative composition, for it houses a matrix of Donnean tropes, including erotic wordplay, the mention of temporality, and an inherent paradox. For the most part, critics hold that it is a repository for alchemical and astronomical language. Its mentions of elemental purity and of celestial bodies are parsed as smirking allusions.[7] But this reading, founded on a reasonable assessment of Donne’s biography, is incomplete. Donne took a pointed interest in alchemical writings, but, with equal vigor, he had studied the works of humoralists. “Love’s Growth” is best understood as a humoral composition, illustrative of how human contingency is corporeally imagined.

On first inspection, it offers a simple thesis: the speaker’s love, having weathered its first winter, is amplified by the coming of spring. He begins,

I scarce believe my love to be so pure

As I had thought it was,

Because it doth endure

Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;

Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore

My love was infinite, if spring make it more. (1-6)

The yoking of seasons and affections is not novel; in fact, it is indebted to Petrarchanism, the leading tradition in sixteenth-century English poetry. Nonetheless, the opening is laden with significance, establishing the tenor and direction of the overall work. First, couched in its lines, there is a hint of humoral rhetoric. In particular, the inclusion of “Vicissitude” points to the instability of human sentiments (4). And second, there is a subtle paradox. Donne intimates that the speaker’s love is concurrently fixed and ever growing. This premise—namely, the dialectic between constancy and changeability—is a near constant of humoral theory.

Under the tenets of humoralism (and not to mention, in the collective imagination), heat is allied with passion and eroticism. It was suggested that an inborn excess of blood—the humor that is noted for heat and moisture—manifested in a penchant for amorous activity. A warm environment might increase these quantities—or in Donne’s phrasing, “add to love new heat” (25). It is unsurprising, then, that the appearance of spring—or of springtime temperatures—incites a rise in the speaker’s taste for romance. To this end, Donne’s diction is increasingly sexual. Later stanzas contain suggestive verbs, which may be seen as allusions to male genitalia: “grown” (16), “enlarged” (18), “awakened” (20), “bud out” (20), and “stirr’d” (21), to name a few.

Less overt, but of equal import, is the suggestion that “Love,” with the coming of spring, is “no greater, but more eminent” (15). “Eminent”—or eminere inits Latin formulation—may be deciphered as “protruding” (“eminent,” OED 1B).[8] The presence of erotically charged lyrics—and chiefly, of references to a male’s sexual arousal—is not inadvertent. Nor is it gratuitous. Donne sought to imply that sexual practice is a means of augmenting love—a Neo-Platonic quibble that was ever-present in his writings (most notably, in “The Ecstasy,” to be discussed below). He draws on the rhetoric of elemental science to indicate that Love is endowed with physical properties. He concludes, “Love’s not so pure, and abstract as they use / To say,” but is “mix’d of all stuffs,” of “vexing soul” and of “sense” (11, 9). In earlier readings, the use of “pure,” “abstract,” and “mix’d” was seen as an allusion to alchemical processes; but without much difficulty, one can imagine that Donne is referring to the literal mixing of humoral fluids. By evoking this image, by infusing his portrait of Love with a tactile quality, he contends that Love is not exclusively mental. It is also physical, dependent on somatic faculties. Its subsequent anthropomorphization (“Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do” (14)) is decisive. It submits that “Love” is capable of material action, that it may thrive in and is borne by the body.

How does an emphasis on carnality relate to humoralism—or more broadly, to conceptions of the self? The answer lies in the semantic conflation of physicality and emotionality. Donne proposes that a variation in one’s affections—that is, in the scope of one’s love—is comparable to the transformation and stimulation of organs. On a fundamental plane, this submission is humoral, for it equates the body with the experience of emotions. And on a simpler plane, it presupposes that humans are changeable, that their bodies are subject to alteration. It is fitting, then, that the whole of the poem is an exercise is conditionality. The speaker imagines that Love is strengthened by a season’s approach, that emotions are tied to organs, and that one’s body is in a constant state of flux. Each assumption is a corollary relationship: If the body is subject to a certain condition, then an outcome will occur. Ostensibly, the speaker has internalized these relationships—to the point that his understanding of the body is grounded in contingency.

In “Elegy XIII,” Donne tenders the image of an innately vile woman, whose disposition is rooted in internal organs. Here, however, the speaker is the product of an external landscape. He is transformed—and in his mind, bettered—by an unwitting response to stimuli. He is increasingly loving, but does not recognize that his emotions are tied to the climate. We may assume that Donne does, that he hoped to unmask his speaker’s folly. And hence, the reader wonders if the speaker’s ardor is impervious to winter.

With regards to the stability of humoral identities, it would appear that “Elegy XIII” and “Love’s Growth” are mutually defeating works, but, in actual fact, they are complimentary. They embody the poles of humoral theory—namely, constitutional fixedness and environmental sensitivity. Their specific coupling shows how humoralism had shaped notions of early modern selfhood. Their implications were far-reaching and, for Donne, would alter the scope and valence of the body-soul dyad.

5. Introduction to the Body-Soul Dyad

Insofar as humoralism shaped the Donnean body, it is vital to articulations of the body-soul dyad. When he looks to the field of metaphysics, Donne draws on a humoral lexicon, building on themes that he explored with the body. What emerges is a humoral soul, an entity that interacts with and is comparable to the humoral body—in its portrayal, if not in its stakes. Indeed, for a sizable portion of early moderns, the body and soul were inter-reliant. Their relationship did not abide by a strict dualism, but rested on the belief that individuals receive a three-part soul, two parts of which are tied to the body. As one might expect, this arrangement begot complications for the imagining of soul and body—and certainly, for the imagining of their rapport. “To be human,” explains Elaine Scarry, “is to be at once body and soul; but, like any pair of friends, the two are forever tilting out of balance, overbalancing and rebalancing” (71). The mention of friendship is fitting, for a considerable trope in seventeenth-century sermons was the likening of the dyad to a heteronormative marriage. For instance, Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down and Connor, had preached,

[T]he soul and body make a perfect [marriage], when the soul commands wisely, or rules lovingly, and cares profitably, and provides plentifully, and conducts charitably, that body which is its partner, and the yet the inferior. But if the body shall give laws, and by the violence of the appetite first abuse the understanding, and then possess the superior portion of the will and choice, the body and soul are not apt company, and the man is a fool and miserable. (qtd. in Osmond 283)

The woman/body was expected to obey the husband/soul, but was potentially unruly. In a word, their relationship was tenuous. Presumably, Donne was acquainted with this conception, for, in his writings, the body and soul do not share a static amity. Rather, they experience a spectrum of conditions, oscillating between peaceable and vexed.

In part, Donne’s ambivalence is the upshot of the body-soul debate, of the contest between schools of thought. Though impressions varied, the early moderns can be apportioned between two groups. With its roots in Neo-Platonism, the first had derogated the body, presuming that the soul was of greater import and substance. The second, to which Donne belonged, did not subscribe to hierarchy. Neither soul nor body was pitted as an inferior entity. Each was cast as a requisite of human life, dependent on the maneuverings of the other.

The latter view, notable for its unwillingness to marginalize the body, had its foundations in Pre-Reformation Christianity. In the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers would reconfigure terms in which the body and soul were cast. But in the Middle Ages, explains Susan Zimmerman, Catholicism had “hypostasized the body, . . . privileging the material principle over that of the spiritual in the Christian system of belief” (25). In its writings and doctrine, it collapsed the boundaries between materiality and spirituality—specifically, in the presentment of mysteries and phenomena, i.e., the resurrection and transubstantiation of Christ; relics and shrines, consecrated as the emblems or sites of saintly bodies; and Purgatory, in which the dead are subjected to bodily suffering. Under this framework, it was “impossible to speak of immortal souls without clothing them in their quite particular flesh,” without inferring “that persons are in some sense their bodies, not merely souls temporarily inhabiting matter” (Bynum 235, 224). A comparable thread emerges in the Donnean corpus—namely, in that physicality is insinuated in matters of spirituality and emotionality. Though Donne converted to Protestantism in later years, one easily supposes that Catholic materiality stood at the root of his bodily conceptions. Through the whole of his career, he maintained that the body was a co-constituent of the self. This model is profoundly anti-dualistic, for it assumes that the body and soul have an overlapping functionality. In this respect, it has unmistakable ties to humoralism—to the theory that body and soul are porous entities, altered by and answerable to the other.

When discussing the body-soul dyad, Donne, as before, draws on a humoral lexicon—though, now, a theological discourse acts as its underpinnings. The inclusion of Christian precepts does not diminish the impact or centrality of humoralism. On the contrary, by binding humoralism to spiritual concerns, it broadens the latitude and would-be ramifications of the former. Donne does not content himself to representations of the humoral body, but also offers an image and explication of the humoral soul.

6. The Rebel Flesh: Treason in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

On the subject of the body-soul dyad, few works, if any, are as explicit as Devotions, or Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in My Sickness. Composed in 1624, it offers a series of musings on the nature of illness, which was a topic of endless fascination for Donne. Prior to analyzing Devotions, it is necessary to examine the background and themes of devotional literature, which, in the Christian tradition, has enjoyed a rich history. To clarify, a devotional is a religious tract that is neither doctrinal nor theological, but is intended for personal edification.

Two themes are relevant to the discussion at hand. First, a substantial number hold that illness, in the words of Ramie Targoff, “provided an unusual, perhaps unique occasion in which the body and soul might share…identical states of being.” (132). The early moderns subscribed to the doctrine of original sin, presuming that the soul was irreversibly sinful—or spiritually ill. The body, similarly, was perceived as fallen, but its health obscured an underlying iniquity. Moments of physical degeneration “creat[ed] a sudden, unanticipated opportunity, as it were, for the physical and spiritual to be as one”—to be equally embroiled in the throes of disorder (132). Still, it is reductive to say that illness was a boon.

A second theme—and the more alarming of the two—held that illness was a negation of free will, that it entered the body without rational consent. In contrast to the supposition that illness aligned body and soul, it presupposes that the body will undermine and infringe on the soul. In short, the appearance of disease might topple their balance of power. This pairing of themes points to the contentiousness of the body-soul dyad—that is, to the extent that early moderns had wished for its unity but had expected hostility. Certainly, Devotions will build on this premise.

Devotions is divided into twenty-three entries, each of which reports on a particular stage of illness. Each entry receives a tripartite structure: a Meditation, which houses commentary on the human condition; an Expostulation or “debatement with God”; and a Prayer. Stringent organization was common in devotional literature, but, in this context, it is deceptive. From its structuring, one could imagine that Devotions is a methodical composition, intended as highly edifying or posed as a rational tract. But in point of fact, it ricochets between extremes—from frenetic to becalmed, dejected to content. Its sole constant is its uniquely personal style. It is safe to assume that the autodiegetic narrator is Donne, who, while writing, was recovering from an unnamed illness. Hence, Devotions canbe distinguished from Donne’s poetry, in which the speaker is obscured. This distinction is necessary. It would not be far-fetched to say that it offers an encapsulation of Donne’s ideology. And thus, Devotions is an indispensable work, which will detail Donne’s perception of the body-soul dyad.

As Devotions is a reflection on disease, the body, in lieu of the soul, has first billing. Both will receive their due, but, in the very first Meditation, Donne is preoccupied with the former. He begins,

Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surprised with a sudden change, and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name. We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work: but in a minute a cannon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; a sickness unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiosity; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant. O miserable condition of man! (33)

When reading these sentences, one cannot overlook their intensity. Though somewhat elegant, their pacing is brusque, peppered with exclamations and segmented by grammatical pauses. Several are unnecessarily long, littered with repetitive phrasing. For instance, on three occasions (twice in the aforementioned passage, once at the Meditation’s close), Donne refers to the “miserable condition of man.” This redundancy—and the choice of stream-of-consciousness—is purposive. The passage is intended as an imitation of fevered ramblings—that which Donne, in the midst of illness, was liable to deliver.

Without question, the Meditation’s focus is bodily fluctuations, which Donne decries as “sudden” and “unsuspected” (33). Humankind, for all its forays into medicine, is ill prepared to combat them. Though unnamed, humoralism is at the heart of this concern, targeted as a source of ignorance—or at the very least, as a clumsy defense in the campaign for physical health. Donne begins with an allusion to a humoral remedy, the regulation of “nonnaturals”—one’s “meats, and drink, and air, and exercises” (33). Under its guidelines, the maintenance of health is “a long and a regular work,” similar to the construction and “polish[ing]” of a “building” (33). Beleaguered by sickness, he supposes that it is futile work. For Donne, the operable frailty of Galenic medicine is disconcerting.

Curiously, though, in this passage and in substantial fractions of Devotions, Donne relies on humoral tropes; in fact, they underlie the lion’s share of conceits. For example, his suggestion that a body is an edifice, assembled from “stones,” is comparable to the belief that the body is a “little world,” composed of classical elements (33). And it is not accidental that the passage speaks of several fluids (“urine,” “these rivers of blood, sudden red waters,” and “sprinkling water”) and on the ill effects of a “natural melancholy” (33).

I previously noted that Donne drew on a humoral lexicon, though discomfited by its imperfections; but with regards to Devotions, I must adjust that statement. Once again, it is clear that Donne takes issue with humoral philosophy, with the piecemeal image that it affords. But here, with greater emphasis and precision, he takes issue with the humoral body—with his body. That is to say, he supposes that the body is saddled by changeability, by the considerable pitfalls of a humoral entity. And this supposition, when pertaining to his body (as opposed to the bodies of poetic avatars), is distinctly worrying. Humoral disequilibrium, capitalized on and manipulated in “Elegy XIII” and “Love’s Growth,” is, in this context, problematic. And thus, as the Meditation progresses, it is increasingly fraught, swamped with ruminations on flux and the ravages of unanticipated disease.

For instance, Donne sketches an image of atmospheric violence. He offers a register of meteorological conditions, describing, “earthquakes…sudden shakings; these lightnings, sudden flashes; these thunders, sudden noises; these eclipses, sudden offuscations and darkening of his senses; [and] these blazing stars, sudden fiery exhalation” (33). The likening of bodily change to climactic instability is apt, for the weather, like the body, was a subject of early modern puzzlement. The choice of baleful weather points to a very real fear—the fear that the body, in its perpetual vicissitudes, could rip one from one’s bearings. In literal terms, it could deprive one of one’s senses, if only through the onslaught of sickness.

On a side note, it is worth mentioning that Donne offers a moralistic explication of variability. Though he remains in a humoral framework, he touches on Christian conceptions—principally, the ideation of disease as an externalized mark of sin. Amid musings on bodily caprice, he writes, “God…had put a coal, a beam of immortality into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out by our first sin; we beggared ourselves by hearkening after false riches, and infatuated ourselves by hearkening after false knowledge” (33). The propensity to sin is portrayed as a desire for “false” supplements, for an alteration in God-given resources. In Christian writings, “false” is a loaded term, signifying a degree of faithlessness, i.e., the worship of “false idols.” In view of this connotation, Christianity holds that sin is the inverse of love; it is an act of hatred against God and against the self, for it dooms its enactor to a hellish afterlife. Comparably, “in the circular logic of early modern humoralism,” disease should be understood as “a failure of self-love, because self-love is the name for those God-given natural appetites that allow any thing to remain itself” (Paster 160). Donne, relying on Christian and humoral rhetoric, has adopted this logic. He conflates physical degeneration with a failure to protect himself from sin—and by extension, from change. Admittedly, it is difficult to reconcile this thought with the larger work, for Donne charges that the body’s “disorder” is “undeserved” (33). Of course, Devotions, intended as a window into a diseased mind, is often riddled with contradictions—all of which merit discussion.

On the whole, Meditation I can be seen as an impassioned reflection on human volatility. The inconstancy of the humoral body was, for most early moderns, lamentable, but Donne was not interested—at least, not exclusively interested—in bemoaning its repercussions. Rather, he sought to chart them. And so, as Devotions progresses, he reveals what it is, and what it means, to be conferred with a fickle physicality.

From the first Meditation to the tenth, there is an undoubted evolution of thought. By the tenth, Donne is in the greatest throes of his illness. Haunted by the overhang of death, he re-focuses his narrative. In these latter pages, he places a greater premium on the division of the self—on the dialectic between its constitutive elements, body and mind (or soul, as the seat of rational faculties). Neither is relegated to the narrative periphery, but is evaluated in connection with the other. Each is modeled in humoral terms, but, for the sake of brevity, I will say that humoralism is only explicit in the juxtaposition of heat/dryness (“the fever, the fire”) and coldness/wetness (“the dropsy, the flood”) (69).

On the subject of the body, Meditation X is less preoccupied with variability than with the peril of secrecy. It fixates on inscrutable motivations, on the source and reasoning for bodily vicissitudes. Building an elaborate conceit, Donne writes,

Twenty rebellious drums make not so dangerous a noise as a few whisperers and secret plotters in corners. The cannon doth not so much hurt against a wall, as a mine under the wall; nor a thousand enemies that threaten, so much as a few that take an oath to say nothing. God knew many heavy sins of the people, in the wilderness and after, but still he charges them with that one, with murmuring, murmuring in their hearts, secret disobediences, secret repugnances against his declared will; and these are the most deadly, the most pernicious. And it is so too with the diseases of the body; and that is my case. (69)

The body, explains Jonathan Sawday, is comparable to a treasonous subject, “hoarding its own knowledge of illness, and hiding within itself the constitution of the rival who, unless the rack prevailed, would eventually unseat the rule and order of the body’s erstwhile owner” (34). In this context, “owner” translates to soul. Equating political insurrection with illness was typical of Jacobean England, but this analogy, with its utter anthropomorphization of the body, is unique. To each fluid and to the body at large, Donne assigns a near-human capacity for conspiracy. “The pulse, the urine, [and] the sweat,” he writes, “all have sworn to say nothing” (69). Needless to say, one’s fluids are incapable of swearing, but they are personified and personalized, gifted with the ability to grant or withhold allegiance. To this end, Donne is careful in his choice of pronouns, distinguishing between “they,” his organs, and “I,” his actual “self”—or in franker terms, his mind.

At its fundamental core, the Donnean body is an enigma, governed by an autonomous will—a will that the mind cannot comprehend or preemptively countervail. When alerted to this reality, Donne, as in Meditation I, is moved to the presentment of violence. At this point in the narrative, he foregoes an examination of weather; in its place, he selects an insidious cluster of images. He alludes to “cannon[s],” “d[ying] upon the rack,” the tendency “to destroy and execute himself,” the “drown[ing of] the world,” “the fever, the fire, [that] shall burn the furnace itself,” and to “a thousand enemies,” “the most deadly, the most pernicious” (33, 69). These images suggest that Donne is at war with illness, but, on a graver note, they imply that his body is at war with the mind. The repetition of “torment” (“torment of sickness,” “tormented with sickness,” “till the torment come,” “those torments which induce that death”) is similarly suggestive, for it conjures images of jailed torture (33). Operating under this conceit, the Donnean body performs a dual role: it withholds information and subjects the mind to invasive torture.

For Donne, clearly, the relationship between body and mind was fraught with agonistic tension. Still, one cannot diminish his fears as a hypochondriacal fixation. It is not illness that he loathed, but what it signified: the possibility of damnation, of a body that is encumbered by sin. Elsewhere, the assumption of a sinful body is a means of devaluing the flesh. For Donne, the opposite occurs. Sinfulness—or more precisely, the body’s ability to contravene morality, to tyrannize a pious mind—is an extension of the body’s potency. By necessity, then, it is central to selfhood and to the ultimate fate of humanity. For if the body is liable to perpetuate harm, mortal or venal, and the mind is an ill-suited combatant, then admittance to Heaven is an ever-fragile possibility.

The Expostulations deal in this uncertainty, in the precariousness of heavenly recompense. Almost exclusively, they question whether God has forsaken Donne. With varying degrees of ire and dejection, they suppose that he was abandoned, that his union with God has suffered, if not been severed, by the body’s calculations. Targoff has alleged that these statements are “perversions wrought by the body, whose suffering [in times of sickness] obstructs the otherwise faithful pronouncements of the believer’s spirit” (135). Though I am inclined to accept that the Donnean body exacted power, verbal or otherwise, to suppose that illness is the cause of his spiritual reservations is to dismiss the extent of his apprehension. That is to say, it dismisses the extent to which Donne had imagined his body as formidable. Such power—as Donne had conceived of it—did not abate in times of health. Hence, by Devotions’ close, Donne’s faith—and on a broader scale, his sense of self—remains on unsound footing.

In his final Meditation, though he is liberated from the fetters of illness, a fear of relapse paralyzes him. “Upon a sickness, which as yet appears not,” he writes, “we can scarce fix a fear, because we know not what to fear; but as fear is the busiest and irksomest affection, so is a relapse (which is still ready to come) into that which is but newly gone” (126):

It adds to the affliction, that relapses are (and for the most part justly) imputed to ourselves, as occasioned by some disorder in us; and so we are not only passive but active in our own ruin; we do not only stand under a falling house, but pull it down upon us; and we are not only executed (that implies guiltiness), but we are executioners (that implies dishonour), and executioners of ourselves (and that implies impiety)…. [A]nd so my meditation is fearfully transferred from the body to the mind, and from the consideration of the sickness to that sin, that sinful carelessness, by which I have occasioned my relapse. (125-26)

In these parting thoughts, Donne crafts a conceptual knot. He binds sin to sickness to the body to the mind; each is interwoven, fully responsible to and for the others. In some respects, the tenuousness of Donne’s bearings echoes the tenuousness of his wellbeing. And so, one cannot maintain that he was reduced to alien thinking, to “perversions” that were non-existent in times of health. We should conclude that ontological anxieties were Donne’s stable, if unfortunate, company.

7. The Idealized Dyad: The Romance of Body and Soul in “The Ecstasy”

But if we take Devotions at face value, as I suggest we should, a difficulty arises: what is to be done with the remainder of Donne’s corpus—with works that do not share its antagonism or in which the body and soul are allies? Such works are scarce; after all, Donne, a self-purported melancholic, had thrived on conflict. But they do exist and are among the ranks of celebrated works. For our purposes, they point to the multi-dimensionality of the body-soul dyad, to the manner by which Donne projected selfhood onto a variable spectrum.

The first is “The Ecstasy,” which, at seventy-six lines, is the longest of Donne’s Songs and Sonnets. Arguably, of his works, it is the object of greatest scrutiny and analytical debate. Some have held that it a sophistic ploy, envisioned as a means to erotic ends. Others suppose that it is a Neo-Platonic treatise, geared toward the spiritualization of love. Through the haze of clashing criticism, it is clear that “The Ecstasy” is diametrically opposed to Devotions. If the latter had pitted body against soul, the former points to their mutual necessity—and indeed, to their possible camaraderie.

To understand that body and soul are jointly invoked, one needs to recall the title. Ecstasy, or ekstasis, is a state of rapture in which the body is briefly freed of sensation, enabling the soul to contemplate the divine. But the soul’s ejection from the sentient body is not a dismissal of corporeality. By definition, ekstasis requires that one return to the body, to the world of physical movement and experience. This caveat will alter, if not act as the primary agent of, the poem’s course.

The poem opens with two lovers on a riverside. As they lie on the “pregnant bank,” motionless like “sepulchral statues,” their souls “[go] out,” readily traversing the “distance” between bodies (2, 18, 16, 24). The speaker praises their psychic union, noting that the lovers’ souls share a “language” (22). But the praise of souls is short-lived, for “The Ecstasy” soon reaches its volte:

But, O alas! so long, so far,

Our bodies why do we forbear?

They are ours, though not we; we are

Th’ intelligences, they the spheres.

We owe them thanks, because they thus

Did us, to us, at first convey,

Yielded their senses’ force to us,

Nor are dross to us, but allay. (49-56)

The speaker insinuates that bodies are of comparable import, that “we owe them thanks” because they endow humanity with perceptual powers. The souls may be “th’ intelligences,” but they are inhibited by lack, by the absence of a medium for expression (52). And “so must pure lovers’ souls descend / to affections, and to faculties,” for “[l]ove’s mysteries in souls do grow, / but yet the body is [its] book” (65-66, 71-72). “Book” is an apposite image, for it joins material expression—i.e., pages, composed on paper or vellum—to the immateriality of language. Here, the body acts as a canvas for the physical expression of sentiment, for love is futile if its articulation is barred. And thus, the body and soul are allies—or in the schema of Devotions, coconspirators, equally implicated in the search for superlative love.

But how can this be? I have suggested that Donne was ever frustrated by the body’s machinations and yet, here, it is a tool of bliss. Can we dismiss Donne as a fickle theorist? On the contrary, if “The Ecstasy” is put to greater scrutiny, Donne’s preoccupation with physicality is overt. Humoralism and a whisper of anxiety are its driving forces—to the point that one wonders if, for Donne, an affable dyad was a fantasy.

The ubiquity of embodiment is the greatest indication of an underlying worry. Though it deals in ethereal matter, “The Ecstasy” is committed to terrestrial and corporeal images. For instance, the lovers’ souls are said to be “mix’d” of elements (35); are endowed with “strength,” “color” and “size” (38); are “knit” to bodies by the “fingers” of an unspecified hand (63); and are likened to “equal armies”—that is, to hordes of humans (13). For its part, the body is doubly physical: sweat is imagined as a “fast balm” that may “spring” and “cement” hands (6, 7); eyes are “thread[ed]” on a “double string” (7, 8); and “pictures in our eyes”—or in simpler terms, reflections—are likened to “propagation” (11, 12). The concretization of intangible entities is telling, for it says that Donne is unable to conceive of disembodied agents. In this respect, Donne trumps his speaker’s logic. The concentration of physicality obscures the latter’s intention—the marriage of body and soul. It does not lend itself to the image of a composite love, but to the marginalization of nonphysical qualities.

The strangest instance of forced materiality is at the poem’s center. The speaker supposes that the souls of lovers may intermingle and fuse, stating,

We then, who are this new soul, know,

Of what we are composed, and made,

For th’ atomies of which we grow

Are souls, whom no change can invade. (45-48)

The yoking of souls with unchanging “atomies” is an arresting conceit—if not for the suggestion that souls have skeletons, then for its allusions to humoral philosophy. I have stated that humoralism begot trepidation, for its dogma held that the body is subject to flux and is, to a degree, unknowable. Here, in one stanza, Donne touches on each concern. Though the speaker suggests that he now “know[s] / of what [he is] composed” and that “no change” will occur, he is undercut by Donne’s choice of language (45-46, 48). He is undermined by the omnipresence of flux-riddled images, i.e. the semantic vacillation between “one” and “two,” found in the first, second, third, ninth, eleventh, and nineteenth stanzas (e.g., “Sat we two, one another’s best” (4, emphasis added)). In more general terms, to suppose that “atomies” are unchangeable is to ignore an apparent reality: the poem bears witness to a motley sum of changes, to the admixture of souls and copulation of bodies. Flux, in short, is its poetic norm.

The intrusion of a humoral anxiety suggests that the body and soul are not ontological poles, for each is permeable and yoked by limitations. It illustrates that Donne, in the midst of a lyric on love, is troubled by the possibility of an imbalanced dyad. It is feasible that his emphasis on materiality is a volitional assertion, a means of controlling the poetic and interior bodies. That is to say, by submitting his body for public appraisal, by speaking of “eyes” and “hands” and “fingers,” he performs a self-vivisection—an investigation into and the effective subdual of a troubling physique (8, 5, 63). Of course, he is only partially successful. His fears offset, if not outshine, his speaker’s confidence. It is clear that he is unable to endorse an idealistic assessment of the body-soul dyad—at least, with any degree of permanence.

8. A Vacillating Viewpoint: Shifting Paradigms in “On the Progress of the Soul”

As a rule, then, Donne dithers between cynicism and idealism, between the quixotic appraisal of a body-soul romance and a less-than-favorable belief in mutual hostility. But his dithering does not recur on a work-by-work basis. It is best to say that competing systems are at constant play, availing themselves on Donne’s perspective and lyrics. Ideological impermanence is manifest in—and perhaps, can be identified as the catchword of—“On the Progress of the Soul: The Second Anniversary.” Written in 1612, it is an extended panegyric for Elizabeth Drury, the late daughter of Sir Robert Drury. It, like Devotions, is without parallel in English literature—intermittently commemorative, frequently philosophical, and consistently inconsistent. As one might expect, critics deride it as a failed endeavor. But its contradictions are illuminating. More often than not, they pertain to the rendering of body and soul.

“The Second Anniversary” is an imagined journey—a tortuous expedition in which a soul is steered to Heaven. At times, its flight is exultant, cheered by the expectation of celestial joys. At others, it is despairing—a series of episodes in which the soul mourns, and expressly yearns for, its body. One might predict that the aforementioned soul is Elizabeth Drury. But to the reader’s (and Robert Drury’s) surprise, it is said to be Donne’s. His soul is placed at the poetic fore, catapulted through postmortem motions, through the hypothesized end of an earthly sojourn. And so, in the vein of Devotions, “The Second Anniversary” is a personal exploration of the body-soul binary.

In significant portions, Donne adheres to a conservative course, regarding the body as an ephemeral prison. He refers to it as a “putrefie[d]” corpse, wayward when segregated from a fleeing soul (40). He imagines that it “call[s to] its soul,” just as a “beheaded man” might harken after his brain (14, 9). Elsewhere, Donne is less macabre, echoing many of the sentiments that are found in “The Ecstasy”—specifically, the notion that body and soul are amicably dependent. In fact, Donne returns to a metaphor that is found in “The Ecstasy,” suggesting that a virtuous soul creates “our best, and worthiest book” (319). (Donne had written in “The Ecstasy” that “[l]ove’s mysteries in souls do grow, / but yet the body is [its] book” [71-72].) Ostensibly, Donne wavered between impractical naiveté, the assumption that body and soul may affably interact, and the desire to mortify the body, as early moderns were wont to do.

This indecision is interesting, but hardly novel. A third vein is of greater, and more curious, bearing: the conception of bodies as potent entities or, alternately, of souls as enfeebled. Early on, Donne writes, “The World is but a Carcass; thou art fed
/ By it, but as a worm, that carcass bred” (55-66). “Thou” is in reference to the eponymous soul, which is not merely reified, but decried as parasitical—as if it requires the sustenance of a decomposing body. Once more, Donne draws on a trope that was introduced in “The Ecstasy”: the materiality of souls. Here, the soul is immersed in the Bakhtinian grotesque, in the notion that entities, perversely rendered, are a site of unruly exchange. “The essential principle of grotesque realism,” writes Nancy Selleck, “is degradation: in its emphasis on the material body, it turns its subject into flesh and brings the spiritual and the abstract down to the material bodily level, down toward the fruitful earth and the womb” (163). Its frequent subject is the human whole, but here, it is the soul—the least material and least blemished (or blemish-able) aspect of human experience. Donne is brazen as he submits the soul to a grotesque re-writing. On the one hand, the omnipresence of physicality is a means of conflating the body with self, with the experience of a psychosocial world. On the other, it is a means of abasing the soul, which, as we saw in Devotions, is situated in theological jeopardy. If Donne had perceived Heaven as an eschatological certainty, he would have been ill disposed to ill treat the soul. As is, its manner of abasement—that is, its embodiment—gestures to its cause for jeopardy: the existence and collusion of a noncompliant body.

As the work progresses, this premise is iterated and expanded. Donne writes,

Think further on thyself, my soul, and think,

How thou at first was made but in a sink;

Think that it argued some infirmity,

That those two souls, which then thou found in me,

Thou fed upon, and drew into thee, both

My second soul of sense, and first of growth.

Think but how poor thou was, how obnoxious,

Whom a small lump of flesh could poison thus.

This curdled milk, this poor unlittered whelp

My body, could, beyond escape, or help,

Infect thee with original sin, and thou

Could neither then refuse, nor leave it now. (157-68)

On first glance, these lines abide by a traditional line. They derogate the body as a “lump of flesh,” as a “whelp” that pollutes the soul—much like “curdled milk” in the body (164, 165). But if Donne derogates the body, he upbraids the soul, rebuking it for reliance on and susceptibility to its host. He reproves it as “obnoxious,” which, in early modern jargon, meant “liable, subject, exposed, or open to a thing” (“obnoxious,” OED 1a). The implications of an “open” soul are vast—specifically, as an allusion to humoral penetrability. But in this passage, Donne is working toward a concrete end: an explication of “original sin” (167). The speaker supposes that the soul is fashioned in a “sink” or cesspool (158). If applied to the body, it may be glossed as an extension of the grotesque, as an allusion to the festering liquids of one’s stomach. It follows that the soul was conceived in the body, or ex traduce, through the propagation of parents. Traducianist leanings are contrary to Christian precepts, to the assumption of an ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) origin. So why does Donne, a Protestant preacher, draw on a heterodox position? In short, it preempts “divine responsibility for human sinfulness,” for it supposes that the soul has a corporeal genesis, untouched by a divine hand (Targoff 82). The body, then, is the source of human iniquity.

That is not to say that Donne perceives the body as the seat of sexuality, as did his contemporaries. Indeed, its fault is not in its sensuality, but in its usurpation of agency. The question of agency—or more exactly, who of body and soul has the corner on volition—is persistent in Donne’s corpus. And as before, it affixes to the issue of knowledge. “Poor soul,” Donne laments, “in this thy flesh what dost thou know?/ Thou know thyself so little, as thou know not,/ How thou did die, nor how thou was begot” (254-56). The Donnean soul is not cognizant of its existence; it cannot function when unaided by a sentient body. By a similar vein, a body is lifeless if divorced of the soul. They are an image of total dependence, of utter reliance on mutual performance.

Beyond question, this emphasis on symbiosis, on the inextricability of body and soul, is humoral. As it is a lengthy composition, “The Second Anniversary” is littered with humoral allusions, with the detailing of fluids and organs, but Donne’s emphasis on inter-affectedness is its appropriative apex. It captures the heart of humoral theory—the notion that body and soul are equally permeable, equally altered. And as the “Anniversary” reaches its conclusion, Donne, once more, is drawn to the hazard of flux. He writes,

You are both fluid, changed since yesterday;

Next day repairs, (but ill) last day’s decay.

Nor are, (although the river keep the name)

Yesterday’s waters, and today’s the same.

So flows her face, and thine eyes, neither now

That saint, nor pilgrim, which your loving vow

Concerned, remains; but whilst you think you be

Constant, you are hourly in inconstancy. (387-400)

With marked simplicity, Donne envisions the body and soul as “fluid” (387). In the purview of this thesis, a “fluid” body is old hat, but the notion of a mutable soul is far from stale. It suggests that divine benediction is insecure—and in fact, is as tenuous as bodily health. One cannot overstate that the conception of a fluid soul was troubling—specifically, when canon dictates that the soul is immortal. And if the soul is subject to change, it can be assumed that little is constant.

9. Conclusion

This thesis has examined Donne’s interest in physicality, his imagining of an inconsistent, insubordinate body. I have argued that his anxieties did not end with corporeality, with the prospect of illness or of carnal sin. It is equally clear that he had fixated on selfhood, on identifying what is and what constitutes the “self.” For Donne, the latter existed in the material and immaterial realms, in the motion of joints and in the passage of a Heaven-bound soul. His local anxieties—about illness, sin, and the process of embodiment—are inseparable from his fascination with selfhood. And so, as he pondered the body, he examined the likelihood of a mutable will and of a nebulous fate. Both are intangible phenomena with tangible consequences, apt to alter his physical behavior, apt to affect his spiritual bearings. The outcome of his ruminations was an insecure self—or rather, a humoral self. I noted that “humorous,” by Donne’s lifetime, was synonymous with capricious. But if we apply “humorous” to selfhood, it is better glossed as uncertain. Humoral selfhood has only the appearance of caprice, for the human mind cannot understand its vagaries. Hence, in an ironic twist, uncertainty is the lone constant of humoral entities. Of course, Donne took issue with the validity of humoral theory, but there is little doubt that he co-opted its logic. And its upshot, as I have suggested, was an uneasy dyad.

In truth, “dyad” is an inapt description, for, in Donne’s writings, the interplay of body and soul is not dualistic. He does not parcel tasks between them, nor does he render them in dissimilar terms. To an extent, the absence of a categorical divide is a mark of orthodoxy, for, in a period that is denoted as the “Cartesian moment,” Donne chafed against Descartes-variety dualism. Though he wavered in his commitment to humoralism, he had, generally speaking, espoused an outmoded model—one that was obsolete by the century’s close.

Still, it is understandable that he clung to this paradigm. Donne’s manner of selfhood—humoral selfhood—is a logical precursor to Cartesian ideology. If its watchword is uncertainty, then the Cartesian watchword is inelasticity. It seems likely that indeterminate identities were anathema to the early modern palate. And in due course, the early moderns had chosen to displace them. It is also logical that a man in Donne’s position, standing at the crossroads of philosophical thought, would champion an inconsistent, flux-centric paradigm. That is to say, the Donnean model is comparable to and a clear product of its historical moment: a tangle of contradictions, typified by change. In a sense, Donne’s take on personhood is anticipatory and backward looking, a vestige of an earlier age and the portent of a novel school. In its most basic tenets, Donnean humoralism is a testament of this complexity, of the confusion that surrounds and is inherent in intellectual revolution. It implicates bodies in spirituality, enmeshes souls in corporeality, and denies that either is—or could become—a fixed entity. This is an image of ontological hybridity—of selfhood that does not stand for rigid categories, for the demarcation of boundaries that are ever-present in modern dialogue. It is, in short, an ideological muddle.

It is apropos, then, that we herald Donne as the author of metaphysical discourse. Typified by the yoking of disparate objects, metaphysicality is patent in his construction of self, in the manner by which he binds body to soul, undaunted by supposed contrasts. That is not to say that Donne was a casuist or mere rhetorician; rather, that he holds an acute interest in bodily and spiritual matters—and quite visibly, in their interchange. I have assessed a small sampling of Donne’s writings, but his emotiveness—the fact that his theorizing had a personal incentive—bleeds through. Posturing cannot cage it, nor may metaphor eclipse it. Just as his body is tied to his soul, his writings are tied to humoral selfhood.

For all its uncertainty, humoral selfhood (and the literature that ponders it) offers a panoramic image of human experience. It devises a polyvalent self, rid of crude binaries. Yes, it is troubling, spiritually and physically. But for modernity, which, as a rule, looks to the crises of an inexact future, there is something admirable in its candor. And for Donne, caught in the mêlée of dualistic and anti-dualistic models, it is a fitting paradigm—one that captures the contingencies of this epoch.


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[1] Descartes held that a substance could take two forms: matter or mind.  The latter was self-aware, capable of cogent thought. With regards to the former, he had championed a mechanistic view, supposing that bodies are machines, abiding by deterministic laws.

[2] The “passions” are liquid elements that move in conjunction with the humors, provoking emotion and action. One’s quantity of passions could alter quantities of the four humors, and vice versa. For more on the passions, consult Gail Kern Paster’s Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespeare Stage, Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Mind in General, or Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion by Mary Floyd-Wilson, Gail Kern Paster, and Katherine Rowe.

[3] Gail Kern Paster, Jonathan Sawday, and Elizabeth D. Harvey engage with humoralism, providing impressive explications of its theories and implications for selfhood, but none touches on the humoral soul.

[4] “Donne’s Body,” penned by Nancy Selleck, suggests that Donne’s emphasis on physicality is immersed in Galenic language, symptomatic of a desire to engage with (and perhaps, be subsumed by) his environment, i.e., his social peers. In a comparable vein, Douglas Trevor’s “John Donne and the Scholarly Melancholy” proposes that Donne suffered from a humoral imbalance, which manifested in continual introspection and isolation from courtiers.

[5] In word, if not in practice, Paracelsus had rejected the tenets of Galenic medicine. His system was presented as an alternative to classical models, but, in its overarching doctrines, was not incompatible with humoralism. Paracelsus professed that the body’s health relied on the harmony of man with nature, or of the microcosm in the macrocosm. Galenism was rooted in a comparable principle: the juxtaposition and equipoise of interior and exterior conditions. It is on this subject—the relationship of man to his environment—that Donne bears a debt to Paracelsian writings. Hence, mentions of Paracelsus in the Donnean corpus, whether favorable or unfavorable, should not be parsed as a dismissal of humoralism.

[6] This singularity of purpose has, in part, placed “Julia” under the banner of dubia.  It is one of two elegies that is regarded as noncanonical, for a handwritten inscription in a 1639 edition of Donnean works, owned by George Thomason, proposed that it was “[n]ot licensed nor Dr. Donns.” This note, coupled with the fact that “Julia” did not appear in the original 1633 collection, has prompted a number of critics to question its authenticity. But arguments against its legitimacy—made primarily by Helen Garner, John T. Shawcross, and Roger E. Bennett—are not universally accepted. It should be said that “Julia” appears in the 1635 edition and all subsequent collections, prior to the intervention of twentieth-century scholarship. From a thematic standpoint, “Julia” is well suited to Donne’s corpus. Although it is a matchless example of vituperative language, it is easily seen as a satirical reworking of the blazon. Certainly, Donne took liberties with his compositions, consistently flouting the norms of poetic language. One can surmise that he had relished the creation of “Julia,” which Herbert J. C. Grierson has identified as a “witty sally.”

[7] Donne’s references to the “stars” and “sun,” writes Nancy P. Brown, reveal an “interest in contemporary scientific investigation” (326). She imagines that “Love’s Growth” is a treatise on the heliocentric universe, though it parades as a disquisition on love. Julia M. Walker expounds on this reading, arguing, “Donne employs both information and processes from… astronomy [and] alchemy and other Renaissance and Medieval systems of knowledge to make a… powerful, [yet] subtle, statement about the nature of… love” (48).

[8] Brown has offered an alternative reading of “eminent,” suggesting that it points to Donne’s “insistence on the spiritual and transcendental quality of… love.” She explains that “eminent” is “associated in Scholastic theology with the description of… divine attributes”—that is, of God’s perfection and “ineffably pure essence” (326).