Contemporary Science in John Donne's Poetry

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      John Donne, like other great Elizabethan writers, was acutely aware of the current of ideas dominating the intellectual scene of his age. Possessing the recognition that all experience is part of a whole, his reaction to life was intricate and complex. Donne's imagery, which he uses to illustrate his argument, is drawn from a varied range of experiences, of which contemporary science is not the least.

      The Elizabethan age was one of great intellectual curiosity and discoveries. Donne drew freely from contemporary chemical ideas, making use of the latest scientific theory, or current superstition as the occasion demanded. Sometimes he accepts alchemy as valid, but at other times he calls it an imposture - as his need of the moment demanded. Again in the matter of astronomy, he draws from the Ptolemaic theory as well as the recent Copernican teaching.

The Elizabethan age was one of great intellectual curiosity and discoveries. Donne drew freely from contemporary chemical ideas, making use of the latest scientific theory, or of current superstition as the occasion demanded.
Contemporary Science

      Images drawn from astronomy abound in Donne's poems. They reflect the contemporary atmosphere in which both the old and the new theories held sway. The best mixture of the two systems is seen in one of the Holy Sonnets where Donne speaks of "the round earth's imagined corners...It blends the old view of earth being flat with the discovery of earth's roundness. The idea of earth's roundness is utilized in The Good Morrow to indicate the perfect world of the lovers-both of whom are the two hemispheres forming their self-sufficient world without sharp North or declining West. Here geographical knowledge is used effectively to convey feeling and thought, to contrast the outside world with the world of the lovers and to show that the world of love does not suffer the limitations of the physical world such as coldness or decline and death. In the same poem, Donne. uses a concept from medieval science that anything whose elements have been blended in proper proportions will remain perfect whatever dies, was not mixed equally".

      Medieval physiology and astronomy were quite current in the age of Donne. In The Ecstasy, the idea of the souls coming out of the body is derived from Plotinus. Further, it makes use of the idea that man is made of three elements she animal or sensual body, the logical or reasoning soul, and the intellectual soul. He also uses the belief of the blood containing certain spirits which acts as an intermediary between soul and body:

As our blood labours to get
Spirits as like souls as it can
Because such fingers need to knit
That sublet knot, which makes us man.

      In the same poem, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy is also used when he says

...we are
The intelligence, they the spheres.

      He compares the souls to the Intelligence which inhabits body (which is the sphere) to give it life and movement.

      In Love's Growth Donne draws his imagery from medieval science, medicine, astronomy and scholastic philosophy to illustrate the true nature of love. Love's Alchemy derives its imagery from medieval chemistry.

      From the sphere of geometry, Donne draws the ingenious image of the compasses for A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. He elaborates upon the likeness of the compasses to the lovers to illustrate (i) that the center does not move, unless the other legs of the compasses move (ii) if the compasses are closed, the legs are upright; and (iii) the moving foot, when the circle has been drawn, ends where it began.

      Geographical discoveries marked the Elizabethan age and in several of Donne's poems images are drawn from these. Allusions to maps, the Indies, cartographers, and sea discoverers abound in The Good Morrow, Hymn to God, The Anniversary, etc. But everywhere these ideas are merged with the feeling of the poem. They are used not for themselves, but for. illustrating some emotion or feeling. Furthermore, they appear spontaneous it seems as if these simply came to Donne's mind, illustrating what T.S. Eliot called the unification of sensibility and the sensuous apprehension of thought.


      What is important, however, is not so much that Donne draws upon the scientific idea prevalent at the time but that he makes effective use of it in his poetry. Certainly, the scientific images seem at first sight to be rather incongruent for the illustration of an emotion like love. But that was Donne's peculiar greatness - to unify his disparate experiences, to fuse thought and emotion. In some cases, the scientific imagery appears too far-fetched or fantastic, but on most occasions, Donne is successful in drawing images from contemporary scientific ideas. It is important to note, however, that Donne was a poet and not a scientist. Thus he uses scientific theories indiscriminately, taking up any which suits him at the particular moment.

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