Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Learning from Anniversaries: Progress, Particularity, and Radical Empiricism in John Donne's the Second Anniversarie *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Learning from Anniversaries: Progress, Particularity, and Radical Empiricism in John Donne's the Second Anniversarie *

Article excerpt

John Donne's Anniversaries commemorate the death of Elizabeth Drury, a young woman whom Donne never met. Although Robert Drury, Elizabeth's father, likely commissioned the poems, they appear, nonetheless, to be textbook examples of exploitative abstraction. Donne uses Drury's death to meditate on broader issues about the sinfulness of the world, the new science, and the possibilities for renovation in this life.1 This essay argues, however, that The Second Anniversarie evades the charge of exploitation by advancing a radical empiricism in which particularity is not subject to an abstract universal conceived as its governor. In other words, the poem does not leave the process of abstraction alone to do its dirty work, running roughshod over Elizabeth Drury's life to make a more important point. Donne's attention to particularity challenges the notion that specific instances act as examples (or counter examples) for a larger rule. And, in turn, that challenge alters how readers should conceive of repetition, and, thus, the very temporal phenomenon that the poems commemorate-an anniversary. After all, these poems, like all poems of commemoration, are not just reminders of something that happened in the past but are also spurs and exhortations to change in the present. In that sense, they are decidedly pedagogical poems, teaching readers to learn from events by attending to the particularities of an occasion, not to the ways in which it is similar to some other happen- ing or phenomenon. This essay, then, teases out the radically empirical and particular understanding of learning that these poems present, one that ends up being decidedly antinomian in its refusal to subject singularities to universal laws.

1. Universality, Particularity, and Time

Donne's Anniversaries are meditations on the nature of commemorative events, but they also explore the nature of temporal progress, conceived either as degeneration or renovation.2 These poems, and The Second Anniversarie in particular, do not merely imagine time as a general structure that organizes experience; instead, they explore how it is that we perceive movement into the future, as opposed to recognizing its past occurrence. In The Second Anniversarie such perception is very much a matter of attending to concrete particularities, not so that we might treat them as examples of a universal rule, but rather so as to orient our meditations toward the future. After all, that is the nature and the promise of anniversaries: the first one always implies a second, but does so only via the repetition of specific events. That is, anniversaries are a predictable sequence of commemorative instances, but one whose connections are merely chronological and numerical. The links between moments are entirely extraneous to the particular character of both the commemorating and commemorated occasions. As such, they refuse to present their own perpetuation as the expression of a universal law that governs their development in time. In the end, these poems challenge the notion that thought (and poetry) always arrogates to itself the aim of permanence and thus necessarily includes a denigration of individual transience. In that respect, the Anniversaries are very much a set of poems about the futural and temporal possibilities of thinking.3 The Second Anniversarie only highlights this concern when the speaker repeatedly enjoins his own soul (and sometimes, perhaps, the reader's) to "think" (85-185), in effect counseling us on how we should perceive and interpret the world, as well as on the meaning of Elizabeth Drury's exemplarity.

The poems' central conceit, of course, is that Elizabeth Drury matters, that she is more than a mere example, more than an illustration of a general truth: she acts as an epitome of or catalyst for the dilated temporal processes described, both anatomy and progress. The First Anniversarie insists that the world is Drury's own microcosm: "She to whom this world must it seife refer, / As Suburbs, or the Microcosme of her" (235-36). …

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