—John Donne, conclusion from An Anatomy of the World, Wherein, by occasion of the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented. The First Anniversary (1611)
There comes a point in the poetical life of John Donne when the satirical, love-obsessed, fashionably depressed young man gives way to the solipsistic cleric and philosopher. This seems to happen right around the time of this poem, the “First Anniversary,” written for Donne’s wealthy patron, Sir Robert Drury. The poem marks the death of Drury’s beloved daughter Elizabeth, who passed away in December 1610 at the age of fourteen. On the surface, it is about the dark world her departure left for her loved ones. Donne contrasts this world with the one that continues about its business, not noticing Elizabeth’s passing—a world that offends the aggrieved. His commemoration of tragic loss now seems a bit clichéd, but its conceit is brilliant: it is not the death of Elizabeth we mark, but the death of the world. Surely Donne means this in a philosophic sense—the sense of Heraclitus, who taught that one cannot step into the same river twice—as well as in a Christian sense.
Yet, as with so much of Donne’s work, the poem contains many layers of meaning. Most are related more to Donne and his life than to Elizabeth. He is, after all, the poem’s voice. It is the transformation of his world we are examining. And indeed we know, not simply from this poem, that his life was being transformed; that his way of relating to the world was evolving. The author of slyly erotic poetry is fading away. Another Donne is coming in his place.
Some of this transformation was related to the religious politics of his day. Donne’s family was devoutly Catholic. His brother Henry was arrested and brutally tortured over his suspected links to a Catholic insurrection, and once harbored a Catholic priest, which was then regarded as an act of treason. He died a gruesome death from bubonic plague at Newgate Prison. The experience affected Donne deeply. He later came under intense pressure to distance himself from his Catholicism, and then to take orders as an Anglican. Donne could have ignored this pressure only at great peril, since it came directly from the king and senior court officials (note this curious language in the poem: “All just supply, and all relation;/ Prince, subject”). Ultimately, he succumbed, writing anti-Catholic tracts and taking Anglican orders. From John Donne, Catholic, occasional poet, and minor lawyer, emerged John Donne, Anglican divine.
These facts surely help us better understand the words “new philosophy calls all in doubt,/ The element of fire is quite put out.” The “new philosophy” becomes Protestantism, the force of the Reformation, the force that shattered Donne’s world, and the force he embraced in order to survive (“For every man alone thinks he hath got/ To be a phoenix”). But it is also a new spirit of inquiry, a love of science, a rejection of the old constraints of dogma. It is the new world being born in England, one filled with new tensions and conflicts. Donne’s attitude toward this transformation is at once pained and ambivalent: “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” he writes. Hardly the words of a zealous convert, but nevertheless those of a man treading a new path, uncertain where it will lead. They might also be read as prophesying a world to come: England, on the path to civil war.
What, in the end, is Donne’s “Anatomy of the World”? Is it an effort to provide solace? Or is it a work filled with sorrow for a world extinguished, and with joy and foreboding about the world that has taken its place? “She, she… she” he writes, in an odd refrain found also in the lyrics of a John Dowland song popular in Donne’s time (posted below). But this “she” is more than Elizabeth, and more even than a female archetype. For Donne sees in human history a long chain of worlds shattered and replaced, of men and women born and remade, of life everlasting and transfigured. It is a powerful and solemn vision.
Listen to Glenn Gould perform Orlando Gibbons’s Fantasy in C Major, composed around 1612.
Listen to John Dowland’s “Say Love, If Ever Thou Didst Find,” from the Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires (1603), here in a performance by Anthony Rooley and The Consort of Musicke: