John Donne, “The Anatomy of the World”

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).

Luxuria: The Temptation of Lilith

John’a poem from C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress

When Lilith means to draw me
Within her secret bower,
She does not overawe me
With beauty’s pomp and power,

Nor, with angelic grace
Of courtesy, and the pace
Of gliding ships, comes veiled at evening hour.

Eager, unmasked, she lingers
Heart-sick and hunger sore
With hot, dry, jewelled fingers
Stretched out, beside her door,

Offering with gnawing haste Her cup, whereof who taste, (She promises no better) thirst far more.

What moves me, then, to drink it?
—Her spells, which all around
So change the land, we think it
A great waste where a sound
Of wind like tales twice told
Blusters, and cloud is rolled Always above yet no rain falls to ground.

Across drab iteration
Of bare hills, line on line,
The long road’s sinuation
Leads on. The witch’s wine,
Though promising nothing, seems
In that land of no streams,
To promise best—the unrelished anodyne.

An Essay on Man: Epistle II, Alexander Pope

An excerpt from “An Essay on Man: Epistle II” by Alexander Pope (as printed in Comment magazine)

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . . . . .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

T.S. Eliot (1920)

Faces, by Micheal O’Siadhail


Neat millions of pairs of abandoned shoes
Creased with mute presence of those whose

Faces both stare and vanish. Which ghetto?
Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz, Riga, Kovno.

Eight hundred dark-eyed girls from Salonica
Bony and sag-breasted singing the Hatikvah

Tread the barefoot floor to a shower-room.
Friedlnder, Berenstein, Menashe, Blum.

Each someone’s fondled face. A named few.
Did they hold hands the moment they knew?

I’ll change their shame to praise and renown in all
The earth… Always each face and shoeless footfall

A breathing memory behind the gossamer wall.

(From The Gossamer Wall)

Accessed at

Enjambment and the Provisionality of Suffering (?)

Here is another example of why I love studying Hebrew poetry. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp points out that enjambment (love how that b is jammed in there) expresses meaning in Lamentations through giving “provisional” meaning in the first line of a couplet only to have this “half” meaning counteracted by the second. Here’s an example from Lamentations 2:22. We read:

2014-12-12 03.56.31 pm“He summoned as if a festival day”

And the couplet finishes:

2014-12-12 03.56.59 pm

“my terrors on every side”

[Dobbs-Allsopp points out that this provisional expectation and resulting surprise is destroyed, for instance, by the NRSV’s translation: “You invited my enemies from all around / as if for a day of festival.”]

What I find interesting about this particular form of expression is how it reflects the purpose of Lamentations. Lamentations is most basically the expression of shock at brutally overturned expectations of blessing. Yes, the author admits that the sin has precipitated the suffering, but the tonal emphasis of the book is on the suffering. For example, the poet says, “For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater / than the punishment of Sodom” (ESV). As an expression of shock, this use of enjambment exactly parallels the experience of the poet, an expectation of festival overturned by terrors on every side.

But to generalize even a bit more, this is also the universal experience of suffering. We all have a sort of imaginative construal of how things are and how things will be that is dramatically overturned when we encounter suffering. This is why suffering creates such profound mental pain. It involves a temporary split in the imaginative construal of the world. The characteristic orientation of the soul to find meaning in God’s purposes crashes against the present orientation of the soul, the overwhelming and bracing reality of evil. This fixation on present evil overthrows this characteristic sense of meaningfulness. (e.g. Coulehan, 2009)

But this raises the question of whether even this present suffering might be yet overturned by another couplet of experience? Perhaps I have only a “half” meaning at this moment? What if there still exists a possibility of meaningfulness being restored?

Still, while this possibility might exist, we must recognize that lingering in the shock of reversal is exactly what Lamentations enables us to do. Lamentations gives us words to voice this divided soul. On one level it validates our construal; it tells us that all is not right and that we are justified in feeling that the world is chaos, or even feeling that God is our enemy. In this sense, it is just the ordinary case of dealing with the sometimes dreadful particulars human life as we have no other alternative but to take them, in time, moment by moment. I can only taste human experience in the present tense with the full poignancy of the recent past. There is no future experience for humans, only future imaginative projection.

This moment by moment limitation of humanness is precisely what Augustine was complaining about in his Confessions. His thirst for the eternal was at least partially the thirst for seeing everything “as it is”, to experience the eternal, past, present, and future at once. So for the Christian the dramatic grief of suffering is not culpable, as if we just needed to think differently to begin with. Grief is just the response of the human soul coming to terms with particular evil in particular time. And the degree to which we finally judge this particular evil in particular time as irreconcilable with a meaningful whole is the degree to which we tend to deny the existence of meaning, or God himself. Voltaire was a good example of one did this.

Lamentations, however leads us not to this sort of despair, but ultimately to a prayer mingled with a question. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us Why do you forget us forever … why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old–unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”

This question of rejection, of the loss of all meaningful resolution remains for us all, will the final couplet of things to come alter the provisional meaning of our present experience?

“Remember, O Lord”


Jack Coulehan, “Compassionate Solidarity: Suffering, Poetry, and Medicine,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), 585-603.