Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne

By Elizabeth M. A. Hodgson | Go to book overview
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5
The Anniversaries: “The Idea of a Woman”

John Donne's Anniversaries on the death of Elizabeth Drury have been controversial ever since they were published. Their fascination and difficulty come from their “extravagancies” of tone and subject, for in The Anniversaries Donne creates “an enormous picture of the complete decay of the universe caused by the death of a girl of no importance whom Donne had never seen.”1 This is and has been the fundamental problem in The Anniversaries, and critics have dealt with it, mostly, by treating Elizabeth Drury as something other than herself. Donne plainly invites this, for in letters he disclaimed knowledge of the real Elizabeth Drury and is reported to have explained that she was simply “the idea of a woman.”2The Anniversaries also do not attribute particular virtues or characteristics to Elizabeth Drury; Donne does not describe how kind she was to the poor, how noble her future husband was, what color her hair was, what education she had, or even (aside from the title) who she was. The poems' praise of Drury with platonic and theological terms like “the best, and first originall” (Anatomy, 225) and “an unvext Paradise” (Anatomy, 363) has encouraged critics to analyze not the biographical function of The Anniversaries but rather how Donne uses Drury as a metaphor, a symbol, or a substitute.

This critical translation of Elizabeth Drury has occurred in several stages. In the most basic strategy, Donne's high praise of this young woman is taken to represent praise of some other figure or force, as Milgate summarizes: “'she' has been variously said to represent the Virgin Mary, the Church (Anglican or Roman, or both), Queen Elizabeth, Astraea, the Logos, Wisdom, or St. Lucy.”3 Hall explains that Drury is “so inclusive a symbol that she is the 'ghostly paradigm of things,' the archetypal woman as symbolized in the cabala's Shekinah, the Neoplatonic Paradisal Woman, the eternal consort of God in Proverbs, the Augustinian Sapientia.”4 Many critics go further, focusing on what Drury

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