Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seeing the Invisible under the Microscope: Natural Philosophy and John Donne's Flea

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seeing the Invisible under the Microscope: Natural Philosophy and John Donne's Flea

Article excerpt

Proper Comparisons do the Imagination almost as much Service, as Microscopes do the Eye; for, as this Instrument gives us a distinct view of divers minute Things, which our naked Eyes cannot well discern; because these Glasses represent them far more large, than by the bare Eye we judge them; so a skilfully chosen, and well-applied, Comparison much helps the Imagination, by illustrating Things scarce discernible, so as to represent them by Things much more familiar and easy to be apprehended. (1) 

"MARK BUT THIS FLEA, AND MARK IN THIS,/How little that which thou deny st me is." (2) So begins John Donne's "The Flea," perhaps the most notorious seduction poem of the English Renaissance. The lyrics entomological conceit, questionable as an erotic strategy but thrilling in its inventiveness, has long been taken as the exemplar of metaphysical wit. Yet its sacrilegious bravura--e.g., its tethering of marriage rites to the lousiest of vehicles; its comparison of flea squashing to Christ killing--perhaps occludes the one way in which Donne's "The Flea" is actually quite ordinary. It envisions insect life as a formal and philosophical challenge for poetry. Industrious bees, lascivious bugs, dream-inducing Mabs, gnat-like fancies, ethereal glowworms, cavalier grasshoppers, parasitic Moscas, midsummer moths: infinitesimal creatures like these buzz innumerably through Renaissance literature. One unfamiliar with the early modern period might expect this thrumming multitude to exemplify mere flights of fancy, poetic curiosities with little substance. Yet as with Donne's metaphysical flea, the poetic insect--delicate, multifarious, obscure--regularly became a vehicle for abstract speculation, belying its ostensibly humble source.

This essay argues that the lingering influence of poetry's entomological turn can be discerned, unexpectedly, in that other portentous location occupied by bugs in early modern intellectual life: that space between glass slides, where fleas and their brethren were pressed into service by early microscopists. Historians have observed that the study of insects played an outsized role in the early Royal Society, because these creatures so effectively demonstrated the wonder-generating capacity of the new instrument. The microscope, after all, seemingly "revealed forms of life that were entirely new to science: new universes and societal structures of which nobody could have dreamt." (3) The panegyric is contemporary, though it fairly ventriloquizes the enthusiasm of the early Society. Yet then, as now, it overlooks an important detail. Universes of the subvisible had, in fact, been dreamt of for centuries, by poets. As Anna-Julia Zwierlein remarks of Mercutio's dream-inducing Queen Mab, "The physical evidence of microspace... is preceded by the mere idea of the subvisible." (4) The first-century BCE De Rerum Natura, for example, theorizes mobile subvisible realms purely on the basis of analogy. Its author, Lucretius, had no electron microscope or particle accelerator, and he certainly did not know Einstein's theory of general relativity. But many of his atomic speculations would, in the course of nearly two millennia, come to be corroborated. Insects, like Lucretian atoms, were key players in this vast imaginary, for in their intricacy and minuteness they intimated further subvisible worlds that were just beyond human perception.

At least since Marjorie Hope Nicolson's The Breaking of the Circle: Studies in the Effect of the "New Science" Upon Seventeenth-Century Poetry, scholars have readily identified the profound influence of natural philosophy upon imaginative literature. (5) But as that subtitle insinuates, the stimulus had too readily been understood as unidirectional. More recent scholarship, such as work by N. Katherine Hayles, Claire Preston, Elizabeth Spiller, and others, has helped correct the assumption that the production of knowledge went only one way. (6) Such a presupposition would indeed have been bizarre to early moderns themselves. …

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