Donne: Soul, Size, and Scale

The Last Judgement: The souls of righteous, Andrei Rublev

The soul haunted every aspect of John Donne’s poetic life. His allusions to this intangible piece of our being made an appearance in his early love poetry and his religious work, comparing two souls in love to a microcosm of ecstasy in “Love’s Progress” and a soul ravished by sin to an usurped town in Holy Sonnet XVI. The soul also consumed his philosophical pursuits, as evident by his interest in Renaissance Neopythagoreans who subscribed to the Pythagorean doctrine of soul transmigration; of the soul judged by its Earthly impeccability; and of the soul’s desire for a unio mystica with the transcendental consciousness of God’s presence.

Donne employed scale to augment pain and suffering of the metaphysical concept of the soul as well as to the human experience in many of his Holy Sonnets, written during a series of personal illnesses and coronation into the Church of England. Donne quite literally flirted with it in his early work, using scale as a motif in many of his love poems to express the elevated state of intimacy two lovers feel in the midst of romantic passion. He also extensively used scale in Metempsychosis, a satirical meditation expounding the soul’s reconfiguration into a new body after death to serve as either punishment or reward for its past behavior, though Donne died before completing it.

In order to assess the cosmographical parameters of scale and what that means for Donne’s poetry, Stuart Christie writes that, generally, scale accounts for: “…masses redistributed in varying forms and sizes”, and that: “As the system organizing and aligning microcosmic and macrocosmic registers, scale likewise rationalizes shifting schemas of the perceived world”. It is true that scale allows us to comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible: the stars, the moon, and anything too vast for the mind to conceive, but for Donne, the incomprehensible happens to be the human soul. The notion of scale, unalike size, serves to offer a comparison point between two objects. Joshua Dicaglio reasserts this possibility in Scale Theory: “…in scaling, we are dealing with two very different experiences and putting them in relation. Scale is not either of these experiences alone but is an experience about two experiences”. Scale, in this metaphysical comprehension, can be defined as a fluctuating range that puts both conceivable and inconceivable objects in comparison in order to better understand their proportion relative to each other, and hence allow us to assume a symbolic magnitude. Donne stretches this idea beyond Earthly contrivances in his poetry and prose, using scale to make conceits and comparisons to what goes beyond our world. As Raime Targoff notes: “Donne moves between earthly and heavenly concerns, alternating watchfulness over the health of the body with anxiety over the fate of the soul”, and in doing so, he emphasizes “…the moment between the reassembly of his scattered body and its reunion with his soul”. Donne uses scale in an attempt to grasp at a realm beyond human understanding, desperately trying to access the eternal soul as something conceivable in order to place it on the same scale as other conceivable objects such as the human vessel.

These ideas relate to Donne’s interest in Earthly transcendence and the relationship of the soul to that ascension. As William Empson, in his article “Donne the Space Man” once famously and provocatively remarked: “Donne, from an early age, was interested in getting to another planet as much as the kids are nowadays”. Although Empson mainly discusses Donne’s love poetry—and how rapt infatuation transforms two lovers’ souls into a private, cosmic sphere—his insight on Donne’s perception of scale also lends itself to a later explanation of the Holy Sonnets and Metempsychosis. As a profound metaphysical poet, Donne’s hyperbolic manipulation of scale manifested in many ways throughout his life (grappling with death, punishment, and being in love) but Empson’s point remains, regardless of the poetic subject, as he writes: “In spite of his consistent interest Donne never took natural science seriously; from first to last… his contempt for adepts of natural philosophy can hardly be distinguished from contempt for natural philosophy itself”. Thus, Donne, in one way or another, has consistently been interested in distorting and dismantling the boundaries of Earth, science, and the cosmos in his writing.

To understand Donne’s repositioning in relation to scale, it is necessary to understand his biography. Early in his career, Donne was a noteworthy bachelor and paramour, establishing himself as a metaphysical love poet who used extreme amatory conceits to woo female subjects and convey sexual and romantic euphoria. However, during the latter half of his life, Donne moved away from his more salacious love poetry and began to work almost exclusively on philosophical meditations, Metempsychosis, and the Holy Sonnets (the latter published posthumously in 1633). He became a cleric for the Church of England in 1615, and thus siphoned much of his creative interest into exploring sin and redemption during the last fifteen years of his life, and especially after coming close to death during a bout of typhoid fever in 1623. Towards the end of the decade, he developed stomach cancer, an illness that gradually ate away at his remaining mental and physical strength until his death in 1631. There was a drastic mood shift in his writing as consequence, as Douglas Trevor writes: “John Donne’s prose and poetry are filled with reference to, as well as accounts of, his self-understanding as a melancholic… Donne often describes ecstatic religious experience with the same metaphors of earthly instability and material metamorphoses he used to catalogue his melancholic, self-destructive inclinations”. Between his indoctrination into the Church and his rapidly weaning health in the 1620s, it is no surprise that Donne interpolated scale to express themes of sin, punishment, and Christian redemption. Douglas remarks that his subsequent “obsession with decay, sickness, and degeneration” becomes especially present in his religious material, particularly as his approaching mortality harmonizes with his increased interest in death, the afterlife, and involvement in the Church. As a result, Holy Sonnets V, VI, and XIV reflect Donne’s desire to purge the soul in preparation for death, using size-related metaphors and hyperboles to assert this, and Metempsychosis elaborates on the effects of such successful (or unsuccessful) purging.

It’s clear then that Donne already views the soul as something to be proportionally altered, as established through a close reading of Metempsychosis. The term metempsychosis refers to the transmigration of the soul into another body after bodily death, which is exactly what Donne contemplates in his piece. To Donne, the resizing of the soul is a reflection of its goodness or lack thereof. Such an idea reflects Neopythagorean beliefs, which presumed this reconfiguration through the vessel of another being relied on the soul’s willingness to either purify or “perfect” its goodness or succumb to innate carnal debasity. Pico della Mirandola, a prominent figure in this movement recognized by Donne, postulated that: “in two discussions of the closely allied notion of reincarnation…each successive incarnation is a reward or punishment for the soul’s actions in a previous existence.”

Metempsychosis, although unfinished, is Donne’s final incantation of scale, repeatedly manipulating it in order to both punish and reward the soul through its “refitting” into a new vessel after death. He explicitly uses scale to posit the moral ascension or descension of the soul—despite the tangents and bouts of incoherency—perhaps as a way to reconcile his own mortality during his last few months on Earth.

In sections XVIII and XIX of Metempsychosis, Donne explores the imperfect soul’s reconfiguration into the body of a sparrow: “…firm destiny/ Confined and enjail’d her, that seemed so free/ Into a small blue shell, the which a poor/ Warm bird o’erspread…Out crept a sparrow, this soul’s moving inn/ On whose raw arms stiff feathers now begin/ As children’s teeth through gums, to break with pain”. Here, Donne is explaining the physical torture endured by a soul as it is tamped into a vessel much smaller and more ill-suited than the flesh of a human being. Words like “confined” and “enjail’d” merely reassert this point, stressing the cumbersome and painful reconfiguration of the soul into such a tiny body. If something is confined, it has no room to expand, which inherently suggests an agonizing re-fitting. Similarly, someone who is incarcerated must survive in a cell far too small to live suitably; the paltry size of jail cells is ultimately designed to be both physically and mentally tormenting. Beyond this, Donne even compares the ontological resizing in his poem to teeth tearing through adolescent gums; the unpleasant, protracted experience of the flesh being stretched and broken to make way for secondary teeth is an apt metaphor for the way a soul must feel as it adjusts to the cramped vessel of the sparrow. Donne’s use of negative diction frames this scalar adjustment as a punishment rather than reward; the soul is deigned to spend a lifetime in a constricted and uncomfortable space as a way to reconcile for the sins committed in its previous form. In this sense, the size of the human body serves as a measuring standard. Donne relies on scale in these sections to show how souls are punished through their reincarnated vessels. A measuring standard, DiCaglio writes: “…can function to relate any degree of perception (even nonvisual) to our usual experience by applying the proportion to the measure itself rather than to the visual (or nonvisual) difference”. So, if the soul had never known the spaciousness of its original vessel (the human), its transmutation into the sparrow would not feel so injurious because there would be nothing to compare it to.

Donne, although heavily emphasizing the tortuous downsizing of the soul, also mentions an upscaling in section VI of Metempsychosis. But before discussing the “scaling-down” of the soul, he hypothesizes what it would be like to progress upwards instead: “But if my days be long and good enough/ In vain shall this sea enlarge or enrough…For through the many straits and land I roam/ I launch at Paradise, and I sail towards home”. Here, Donne uses unfettered, boundaryless diction to describe what happens to a pure or “good” soul after death, thus solidifying his compliance with the Neopythagoreans and their scalar beliefs about metempsychosis and reincarnation. Although he is not explicitly mentioning the vessel being adopted here, Donne still uses language to suggest the expansion of the soul through the idea that the sea must enlarge itself in order to successfully transport this hypothetically “good” soul heavenwards. Not only that, but words like “roam”, “launch”, and “sail” all suggest grandness; they are associated with capacious modes of transportation—particularly ships—which can also be inferred through Donne’s use of the sea and straits in this section. In fact, he describes his subject as a “great soul” in section VII, using the ambiguity of the word “great” to simultaneously suggest both moral and physical eminence. These descriptions are in stark contrast to the way Donne previously described the soul of impurity– the stretching and breaking of children’s gums, the sparrow’s “raw arms and stiff feathers”, and so forth. Metempsychosis makes clear that “good” souls are scaled-up in their next life while those plagued by sin are condemned to vessels too small to live comfortably.

Regarding classical metaphysics in Metempsychosis and the grander idea of soul transmigration, M. van Wyk Smith notes that: “If gnosis and ecstasis, knowledge from God and liberation from the body, are the soul’s highest aim, the soul in Donne’s poem is clearly moving in the opposite direction” and that we have “…the power to choose whether to turn down the scale towards plants and beasts, or upwards towards the angels”. Specifically on the matter of transmigrating to plant or animal, as Elizabeth D. Harvey notes in “The Souls of Animals: John Donne’s Metempsychosis and Early Modern Natural History”: “Memory is the principle of continuity in the soul’s migrations through its somatic hosts. Although the vegetable and animal bodies into which the soul is incarnated do not possess the faculties that would allow for movement or speech, this soul can nevertheless mnemonically store its experiences until it finds a body that will allow it verbal expression.” This notion seems to suggest that the soul inhabiting a non-human vessel is self-inflicted punishment, at least to a degree. If, as humans, we have the power to decide our soul’s fate when our body retires. Voluntary and even sought-after punishment is not a foreign concept to Donne. In many of his Holy Sonnets, he begs for penance and forgiveness from God, but achieving this cannot be done without some form of discipline. Forcing one’s soul into a vessel that cannot talk (in the case of an animal) or worse – one that cannot talk or move (in the case of a plant), acts as the soul’s version of self-abuse, perhaps as a way to be “better” in its next lifetime.

Metempsychosis is not the only work that investigates this prospect in relation to death. A later poem of his anthology, Holy Sonnet XIV, is perhaps Donne’s most prominent meditation on ontological resizing. The notion that his soul must be cosmically tortured, rendered, and pressed down into nothingness in order to make space for a new and “purer” soul worthy enough for Heaven is explicitly conveyed through rather abusive and scalar language. As the poem begins: “Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend…Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new/ I, like an usurp’d town to another due/ Labor to admit you”. In these lines, Donne is applying scale to a soul seeking redemption, one that can only be purified through the stern hand of God’s corrective rod. This lends itself to the metaphor of the soul as an usurped town that must be completely demolished and rebuilt from the ground-up. Although this may not initially seem scalar, the action of destroying a town implies a rigid reduction, one that is similar to the way souls in Metempsychosis are reconfigured into new bodies after death. Furthermore, the decimation of this soul or town is described with crass, abusive words such as “break”, “blow”, and “burn”. In this regard, the soul is still being reduced through punitive amendment, much like the impure or tainted soul being forced into a sparrow. Donne then laments that his soul is impure because he is betrayed to the devil—God’s enemy—and must be divorced from such sin before he can even begin the atonement process. He concludes with the following plea to God before the couplet: “Take me to you, imprison me,” which reflects a blatant desire for punishment. As the parsing of Metempsychosis has already exhibited, incarceration is implicitly scalar. In this line, Donne is directly expressing the desire to be confined and restricted as an almost masochistic form of redemption. His speaker believes the only way into Heaven is through ontological resizing by extirpating and constraining the impious soul.

Although its language is quite overt, “Batter my heart” is not the only Holy Sonnet to bring forth concepts of metaphysical resizing. There are remnants of scalar language sprinkled in much of Donne’s work from his later years, particularly in Holy Sonnets V and VI. The fifth sonnet, also known as “I am a little world made cunningly,” reflects a similar mindset to Holy Sonnet XIV. Donne speaker once again laments over its adulterated state, calling on God to assist in the soul’s reformation process in preparation for Heaven. In the beginning of the poem he writes: “But black sin hath betray’d to endless night/ My world’s both parts, and oh both parts must die”. In these lines, Donne’s speaker declares that the only way to purify his soul is through literally and metaphorically killing it. He believes his “world” (meaning his soul), must due through fire and water, urging God to: “Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might/ Drown my world with my weeping earnestly” and “burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal/ Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal”. These requests reflect punishment through rather extreme abatement; if something is burned to the ground, it is eaten up and swallowed by flames, suggested by the line “doth in eating heal.” Once again, Donne is meticulously selecting forms of punishment relating to reduction. In this poem, it is no longer enough for his soul to be simply imprisoned – now it must be entirely discarded to nonexistence as it’s burnt into ash (arguably the smallest one can be physically reduced).

Holy Sonnet VI also shows traces of scalar confinement. Reduction equates to punishment yet again as Donne’s speaker accepts encroaching death, knowing that he is dying with human sin despite his attempts to be pious. The majority of this poem deals with the relinquishment of the soul, but a particular line worth calling attention to falls at the end of the poem: “So fall my sins, that all may have their right/ To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell”. The word that sticks out here is press, in part because it performs a multitudinous form of reduction, but also because the speaker believes only the physical body is worth punishing – his vessel shall go to hell for its sins, but his soul will remain intact. On one hand, the act of pressing the speaker’s body implies the type of physical confinement discussed in Metempsychosis, as in, literal pressing to flatten and reduce its size. However, “press” also has negative connotations, and in this case, the word is being used to describe both pain and reduction. If Donne is being pressed down to Hell, he is experiencing discomfort and punishment as a result of his body’s Earthly debasement. This Holy Sonnet, as well as the others discussed, acutely represent the way Donne uses scale and “sizing down” to convey justified pain for impurity.

There is a shift in the way Donne manipulates scale, particularly in the way he frames smallness. The poet’s interpolation of scalar configurations within his early love poetry resulted in metaphysical conceits and hyperboles that transform the body and soul into an individual microcosm, an intricate reflection of the universe. As Clay Hunt writes: “This is the conclusion which Donne derives from the concept in ‘The Goodmorrow,’ ‘The Canonization,’ and ‘The Sun Rising’… one is a world in oneself, or to oneself, and in that private world one can find all that other men desire; in fact – and here Donne wrests from the doctrine of the microcosm an idea which it did not normally carry – the private world of oneself is a better world than the world which ordinary men know.”

Those three works, “The Goodmorrow”, “The Canonization”, and “The Sun Rising”, effectively demonstrate the use of microcosm as a poetic representation of love and ecstasy. Scale works in Donne’s favor in these poems, positively framing the microcosm as a means to support the notion that intimate, untouchable privacy is better than the vastness of the Earthly world, at least when it comes to love. This mindset is in stark contrast to the way Donne characterizes smallness in his later poems, which, as indicated by pieces like Metempsychosis, are associated with pain and suffering as a result of deathbed reflection. In his love poems, however, minuteness is idealized for Donne – even coveted by the speaker. Empson elaborates on this point: “Besides, it is the whole point of a microcosm to be small; it is cosy to have your own island, cave, house in a tree… matter is very refined on Donne’s secret planet, as in Ptolemy, and this allowed him to treat his refined lovers as still material”. Instead of serving as a form of punishment for the sinful or imperfect soul, scalar “downsizing” is now a romantic motif.

“The Sun Rising” is a love poem renouncing and condemning the sun’s presence within the speaker’s bedroom. For cosmological context, Donne structured this poem around a Ptolemaic view of the universe, one in which the Earth is the center of the universe and is circled by both the planets and the sun. In “The Sun Rising,” Donne’s speaker implores the sun to cast its beaming gaze somewhere else because he is enveloped in his own, personal world with an Earth and a sun with his lover in bed beside him. Although he has not revealed this conclusion in the second stanza, its opening lines are still riddled with microcosmic allusions. Donne says: “Thy beams, so reverend and strong/ Why shouldst thou think?/ I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink/ But that I would not lose her sight so long”. Here, Donne is implying that despite the sun’s overpowering rays, he still has the power to shut them out by closing his eyes. Thus, the speaker is already laying the groundwork to develop the microcosmic conceit expanded in the final stanza. By diminishing–and almost patronizing–the sun’s omnipresence, Donne is invalidating its power to interlope within the world created in his bedroom. The stanza concludes with the line: “All here in one bed lay”, which suggests a scalar reconfiguration in itself.

Donne’s ability to remove the sun’s cogency through size emphasizes power through smallness. The third stanza is overflowing with microcosmic language, figuratively playing with scale through lines like: “She’s all states, and all princes, I/ Nothing else is” and “Thou, sun, art half as happy as we/ In that world’s contracted thus”. Donne does immense work in little words in this stanza, first solidifying his lover’s position as his own, personal world by stating that she is “all princes”—meaning she is every country and he is every prince—and that nothing else exists in Donne’s constructed microcosm besides his lover’s presence and his ability to warm the Earth (in this case, his lover) as the sun is normally meant to do. He again mocks the real sun after this declaration, sneering at its discontent over a couple who are happier without its presence, because in their personal microcosm, the sun is no longer needed. In the universe Donne has metaphorically constructed, everything he needs is in his bedroom. This idea is directly construed in the final line, where Donne says: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere/ This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere”. At this point, Donne’s scalar language is blatant. “The Sun Rising” is a direct demonstration in which smallness is posited as intimate and private, something positive, something to be coveted. It is no longer a source of punishment for the impure soul, instead acting as an elevated seventh heaven that can only be breached by two souls in love.

Although “The Sun Rising” is one of the most blatant uses of the microcosmic sphere, Donne injects this motif to express romantic intimacy in many other love poems. “A Valediction: of Weeping” may be more somber, and may not have the same undertones of limerence, but Donne still uses scale and the microcosm to expertly persuade the female subject to abstain from crying upon her separation from the speaker. In this poem, Donne’s works to console an assumed female partner to keep her emotions in check lest her tears drown the Earthly world and suffocate them both in mourning. Continual juxtaposition between emotion and the cosmos allows Donne to shrink the planets in the solar system in order to minimize their importance, thus augmenting the emotional distress of departing with a loved one felt by the pair of lovers. In this way, scale is inversely applied; instead of reducing the lovers to expound romantic desire, the planets are now being downsized to emphasize this feeling of longing. An interesting line to point out is: “O more than moon/ Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere/ Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear/ To teach the sea what it may do too soon”. As Empson writes: “Being more powerful than the actual moon, she [the subject] might be able to raise tides as high as the moon’s Ptolemaic sphere…so any tear of his with her reflection on it will take rank as a planet. Or rather, he first says this tear will become ‘All,’ a microcosm”. Meaning that all can be enveloped–or rather overtaken– by the female subject’s tears. Her sobs are not just droplets, either, but seas; Donne intentionally magnifies the lovers’ emotions to draw out their potency. This is merely reasserted in the second stanza, where Donne now tackles the task of shrinking the Earth as well as the moon to reassert this scalar theme. On the power of his lover’s tears, he once again remarks: “An Europe, Afric, and an Asia/ And quickly make that, which was nothing, all… A globe, yea world, by that impression grow/ Till thy tears mix’d with mine do overflow”. These lines indicate that not only do tears have the power to drown the moon, but the Earth as well; all continents become nothing, turning the Earth into one contiguous ocean. Thus, through this progression of drowning, both planet and moon become microcosms of loving sorrow. Now filled to the brim with mournful tears, the speaker and his lover have once again created their own microcosms. However, in this case, they have not been made in the likeness of ecstasy. Instead, Donne has used the scaling-down of cosmic globes and the scaling-up of romantic longing to allow his subjects’ tears to drown out the planet in which they live.

Donne’s obsession and articulation of the soul, especially in his love poetry, offers unparalleled emotional intimacy, the unlocking of worlds of all scales, large or small. I was particularly struck after experiencing the kind of love Donne is describing when reading “The Sun Rising”, the resounding feeling of impassioned resonance – as if this ardency, the rich, full-bodied feeling that’s often too large to be condensed into prose, has finally been articulated. If you’ve never been in love, the poem simply reads as another literary text, but otherwise, relating to the feelings Donne characterizes is a way of inserting yourself into the internal microcosm of two lovers. To me, being allowed to ascend past the words on the page and escape into Donne’s metaphysical ecstasy is a profound intimate emotional experience of transcendence. As Empson put it, Donne was undoubtedly a “space man”, always seeking what was beyond our Earthly realm, either it’s love, the soul, or poetry itself.