Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Trumpet, Watchtower, and Refrain in Donne's Second Anniversarie: A Response to Michael Ursell, Sarah Powrie, and Ryan Netzley *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Trumpet, Watchtower, and Refrain in Donne's Second Anniversarie: A Response to Michael Ursell, Sarah Powrie, and Ryan Netzley *

Article excerpt

Michael Ursell, Sarah Powrie, and Ryan Netzley all comment on both The First Anniversarie: An Anatomie of the World and The Second Anniversarie: Of the Progres of the Soule; Ursell touches upon "A Funerall Elegie" as well. But their essays focus with particular energy on the Progres, casting light on "what one learns inside the poem" (Netzley 4). Each essay provides opportunities for textual explication that its author does not fully exploit. My response, then, takes the form of three interlocking close readings.

1. Michael Ursell's "Pneumatics of Inspiration"

Michael Ursell establishes that, in the Anniversaries, Elizabeth Drury "embodies an indeterminate, non-Aristotelean connection between spirit and matter" (Ursell 46). More problematic is Ursell's claim that, in the trumpet image at the end of The Second Anniversarie, "a divinity" is "breathing through" the poet (48). Noting the degree to which both the First Anniversarie and the Second blend contempt for the physical world with apparently contradictory images in which body and soul are intimately connected, Ursell finds the key to understanding Donne's poem in the Stoic concept of pneuma-"a substance conceived in Aristotelean thought and then reshaped in stoic philosophy, which straddles the conceptual boundary between material and immaterial" (Ursell 47). This is an excellent insight, but Ursell's claim that "pneuma shows up in [Donne's] poems and sermons in the Latinate form 'spirit'" (47) is imprecise, for Donne in fact uses the plural term "spirits" to convey that concept.1 The distinction is important because the most common definitions of "spirit" in the singular all emphasize its immateriality: it is the "vital principle" that "gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements," "incorporeal or immaterial being, as opposed to body or matter; being or intelligence conceived as distinct from, or independent of, anything physical or material," "the disembodied soul," and "[a] supernatural, incorporeal [...] being" (OED "spirit, n.," 1.a. and d; 2.b.; 3.a.; my emphases). And while the singular "spirit" was also used in early English texts to refer to pneuma, that is, to "one or other of certain subtle highly-refined substances or fluids [...] formerly supposed to permeate the blood and chief organs of the body," this definition was applied "in later use only [to the] pl." form of the word (OED "spirit, n.," 16.a.). By the sixteenth century, the pneumatic "vital spirit" that is central to Ursell's argument was almost always referred to by the plural term "vital spirits" (see OED "vital, adj.," 2.a.).2

Even more to the point, the plural-as Ursell's quotation from "A Funerall Elegie" demonstrates-is Donne's preferred term for the vital substance that mediates between the material and the immaterial. Donne uses it, for example, in "The Extasie": "[O]ur blood labours to beget / Spirits, as like soules as it can, / Because such fingers need to knit / That subtile knot, which makes us man" (61-64; Donne, Complete Poetry 132). These lines provide a better point of departure for exploring pneuma in the Anniversaries than does Giorgio Agamben's account of Stoic pneumatology (qtd. in Ursell 48). For as the lines from "The Extasie" show, Donne associates "spirits" less with the macrocosmic elements of air and fire than with the blood, a microcosmic humor that-like air-is hot and moist. In "labouring] to beget," the blood unites the male and female principles and paradoxically reverses the sequence of their actions in sexual reproduction, where the act of begetting leads to the labor of childbirth, rather than vice versa. The blood's work involves knitting, yet another kind of female labor. But as the antecedent of "such fingers" is not clear, the lines are ambiguous: are the spirits themselves the busily working digits that "knit" together body and soul? Or are they the "subtile knot" knit by the fingers of the blood, imagined as a branching network of vessels? …

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