Donne's Imagery: A Study in Creative Sources

By Milton Allan Rugoff | Go to book overview
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XIX
RIVERS AND SEAS

All that was said by way of introduction to the chapter on "Sea Travel and Exploration" concerning Donne's acquaintance with travel by water might well be repeated here as background for a brief consideration of the images he takes from streams, rivers and seas themselves. It must be said that the knowledge of these things which Donne does display is in no way so technical or complex that it might not have been attained through casual contacts. Although there is much in these images that suggests real interest, there is all in all little in Donne of that attraction to the sea as symbol of the mysterious, to the play of light on water, or to the infinite patterns of current and eddy, that has distinguished the work of many poets.

The most elaborate figure in this group, running through two pages of prose, pictures the world as a sea. Disturbances are tempests, he says; changes in men's bodies and minds are ebbs and floods; and purposes beyond understanding, waters bottomless to sounding lines. Convenient but not really satisfying, this world is like sea- water which quenches no thirst, and as the world is only a stopping place, so the sea is only a place of passage. In both, the great devour the smaller, and, finally, a man spending some thought on this world and some on heaven is like a ship partly below water, partly above.1 The sense one gets from such a figure of the sea as a place of danger and difficulty is borne out by image after image. Nor is it hard to understand why an Elizabethan traveller, knowing only sail-driven vessels, should look upon the

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