John Donne laments that a sort of wisdom by which the world had “coherence” is dead, and only her ghost haunts his forever changed world. Donne lived during the great overturning of the Elizabethan world picture. That world and its wisdom are so dead now that we scarcely remember what they were (Lewis and Tillyard, e.g.).
So, why is it worth remembering? It is worth remembering that the past four hundred years have been a spasm of recovering a world that made sense, that the spasm is subsiding at a blinding speed. Science has brought us stunning technology, but not more wisdom. Donne would surely wail the louder for Western Civilization today. We are left with competing claims for power, a deep loneliness, and a groaning to be reconciled to ourselves, our world, and a God we cannot seem to reach.
She, of whom th’ancients seem’d to prophesy,
When they call’d virtues by the name of she;
She in whom virtue was so much refin’d,
That for alloy unto so pure a mind
She took the weaker sex; she that could drive
The poisonous tincture, and the stain of Eve,
Out of her thoughts, and deeds, and purify
All, by a true religious alchemy,
She, she is dead; she’s dead: when thou knowest this,
Thou knowest how poor a trifling thing man is,
And learn’st thus much by our anatomy,
The heart being perish’d, no part can be free,
And that except thou feed (not banquet) on
The supernatural food, religion,
So did the world from the first hour decay,
That evening was beginning of the day,
And now the springs and summers which we see,
Like sons of women after fifty be.
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, and now
She that should all parts to reunion bow,
She that had all magnetic force alone,
To draw, and fasten sund’red parts in one;
She whom wise nature had invented then
When she observ’d that every sort of men
Did in their voyage in this world’s sea stray,
And needed a new compass for their way;
She that was best and first original
Of all fair copies, and the general
Steward to fate; she whose rich eyes and breast
Gilt the West Indies, and perfum’d the East;
Whose having breath’d in this world, did bestow
Spice on those Isles, and bade them still smell so,
And that rich India which doth gold inter,
Is but as single money, coin’d from her;
She to whom this world must it self refer,
As suburbs or the microcosm of her,
She, she is dead; she’s dead: when thou know’st this,
Thou know’st how lame a cripple this world is
John Donne, “An Anatomy of the World”
Also, just for fun, my very poor attempt at reading with a 17th century (like) accent. I like to read poetry aloud to really experience it, and so I just hit record as I did so (purify and alchemy are all wrong I think).