"Lines Which Circles Do Contain": Circles, the Cross, and Donne's Dialectic Scheme of Salvation

Article excerpt

The vast importance attached to the figure of the circle in the theological and cosmological constructs of 17th-century writers is by now a critical commonplace.1 In the works of John Donne, the circle assumes the status of controlling metaphor: it is a figure which at once represents the perfection of God, the cycles of Nature and of the human beings caught up therein, and the solipsistic repetitions of sin. "God hath made all things in a Roundnesse," he maintains in a sermon, "from the round superficies of this earth, which we tread here, to the round convexity of those heavens which ... shall be our footstool, when we come to heaven, God hath wrapped up all things in Circles" (Sermons 7: 396). Focusing primarily on Donne's divine poems, this essay will attempt to bring together and relate his most significant references to circles and, on the basis of these and his ideas about the figure of the cross, to propose a geometric model which embodies his scheme of salvation.

A circular conception of human existence is, of course, integral to the most fundamental archetypes of literature and religion: imaginative assimilation of the natural cycles of decay and regeneration informs the reincarnation myths found in so many cultures. The movements of the sun lead us to associate the east with birth and the west with death; the rotation of the circle of human life is thus toward the west. Created humanity's starting point on its circle is twelve o'clock, for unfallen man stands metaphorically upright. Ben Jonson reflects this notion in The Forrest, as he associates masculine perfection with the noon hour:

At morne, and even, shades are longest;

At noone, they are or short, or none:

So men at weakest, they are strongest

But grant us perfect, they're not knowne.

("Song. That Women are but Men's Shaddowes" 7-10)

Starting from twelve o'clock, then, the westward movement of human beings would be reflected by a counterclockwise rotation of their circle.

For Donne, the order of Nature, in which humanity lives, is a morally neutral one; in Holy Sonnet 9, he recognizes that "poisonous minerals, and ... that tree, / Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us, / ... lecherous goats" and "serpents envious / Cannot be damned" (1-4). Still, while minerals, plants, and animals may lack the culpable souls possessed by human beings, Nature has nonetheless had God's blessing withdrawn from it since Adam's fall: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life" (Genesis 3: 17). It follows, then, that if human life is involved in the now-accursed cycles of natural fruition, the motion of fallen humanity's circle will be directly contrary to that of the circle signifying God.

The anti-divine circularity of human endeavor is a theme of "The First Anniversary":

We seem ambitious, God's whole work to undo;

Of nothing he made us, and we strive too,

To bring ourselves to nothing back . . . . (155-57)

Similarly, in "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward," Donne begins by declaring "Let man's soul be a sphere" (1) and proceeds to lament that, in their fallen state, "Pleasure or business ... our souls admit / For their first mover, and are whirled by it" (7-8). The poet confesses that such is the case in his own life; thus, being primarily concerned with the things of this world, he appropriately follows the sun of Nature in its westward course. But the true "sun," the Son of God, is being raised on the cross in Jerusalem and thus setting in "the east": "There I should see a sun, by rising set, / And by that setting endless day beget" (10-12). And, though Donne admits that now "I turn my back to thee" (37) in his Good Friday journey, he prays for purification and grace and vows that, having once received them, "I'll turn my face" (42) toward the east and follow instead the direction defined by the Saviour's circular sun-like journey. …