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How John Donne uses the prevelant theories of Astronomy

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Today, we have a thorough understanding of the structure of our universe. We know that the earth is round, is the third planet from the sun, and the sun is the center of our universe. We also know that the space around our universe simply goes on forever – it is infinite. We know a great deal more, but these are the basics, and it is these fundamental facts that took humans so long to truly understand. It took mankind thousands of years of study and observation to accurately know the universe, and throughout those years, many false theories were offered.

John Donne (1572-1631 A.C.E.) is a poet best known for his use of metaphysical conceits . His poetry and prose reflect a deep knowledge and understanding of theology, astronomy, law and alchemy (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 1233). During Donne’s lifetime, the Copernican Revolution erupted around him — he refers to both the old and the emerging astronomy theories: the Ptolemaic vs. the Copernican universe. In his poetry especially, Donne uses grandiose expression to describe what his speaker is feeling. Astronomical theory, therefore, with it’s elaborate and infinite construction, presented itself as a perfect conceit for Donne.

Ancient Greek astronomers developed the first theories on the structure of the universe. Plato (428-327 B.C.E.) had believed that a circle was the perfect shape and the universe was comprised of concentric spheres surrounding the earth; the planets, sun and moon circled the earth, following uniform circular motion (Seeds 46). It was also believed that our universe was hierarchal, divided into 2 separate parts: the Earth and the Heavens. The separate spheres were comprised of the basic elements of earth, water, air, and fire. The earth was within what was known as the sublunary sphere: that which was enclosed by the orbit of the Earth. The Celestial, outer sphere, was comprised of all other heavenly bodies (the planets, stars, sun and moon) and controlled by God and angels. The heavens were perfect, whereas the earth was imperfect.

Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 A.C.E.) created a mathematical model of the Aristotelian universe. This was a highly complex epicycle model, which explained the motion of the planets rotating around the earth, and their retrograde actions. Aristotle’s theory of the Earth being at the center of the universe, and Ptolemy’s supporting model were widely endorsed. The Catholic Church was the strongest supporter of the belief in the Ptolemaic universe or what the Church called the “Divine Order” (Dent 3). This support was given, for the Scriptures refer to the earth as the center of the universe . Since the Middle Ages, it was taught that the only path to true understanding was through faith and anyone who contradicted the geocentric theory was condemned of hearsay.

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543 A.C.E.) put forth his theory of a sun-centered universe . He proposed that the Earth and all the known planets revolve in separate circular orbits (spheres) around the sun. In addition, an outermost sphere carried all the stars around the sun. Having an outermost sphere was because the concept of an infinite universe had not yet been theorized. Thomas Digges later proposed this infinite hypothesis. He later broadened Copernicus’ concept by eliminating the outer sphere and suggesting the idea of universe and space being never-ending with stars at varying distances in an infinite space (Internet Shakespeare Editions).

Donne’s poetry reflects an innate knowledge of both the Ptolemaic and Copernican theory. His writing, although employing both theories, suggests the truth being that of Copernicus’. In “An Anatomy of the World”, Donne wrote that “…new philosophy calls in doubt: / the element of fire is quite put out; / the sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit / can well direct him where to look for it” (205-208). The fire being “put out” refers to the Copernican theory falsifying the concept of the four elements and their relation to the spheres. As a parallel, the Ptolemaic theory was also “put out”. Humanity’s perception of the universe had been gravely altered: what was thought to be fact was false and “no man’s wit”, or intellect, could offer direction; doubt prevailed over confidence.

Donne also used astronomical theories as a basis for his elaborate metaphors. In his “The Ecstasy”, the speaker is declaring the union of his and his lovers’ souls through their physical and spiritual love. The speaker is discussing the spiritual love they feel for one another, and the physical act of making love. The speaker is saying that the uniting of two souls is the purest and highest form of love, but to achieve this love is through the physical uniting of the bodies. The speaker asks his lover why they hesitate to show their physical love, pointing out that their bodies are theirs, and “[the lovers’] are / the intelligences, [their bodies] the sphere” (51-52). Here, Donne is referring to the Ptolemaic universe containing two classes of spheres: the Heaven and the Earth. Heaven is the “intelligences”, and in the Ptolemaic theory, what controlled the lesser, earthly spheres. Donne is saying that the actions of the lovers bodies, reflect the desires of their souls for it is the desire of the their souls which will drive their physical actions.

Donne also uses the falsity of the Ptolemaic theory as an instrument of metaphor in his poetry. In “The Sunne Rising”, the speaker is angry at the Sun for rising and awakening him and his lover. The speaker expresses this anger by insulting and proclaiming his superiority over the sun. He begins the poem by calling the sun a “busy old fool” (1) for rising. If thought about logically, the irony is, that based upon the new theories, the Sun is in fact immobile and not busy at all. Donne though, seems to be attempting to accentuate the flaws in the speaker’s argument against the sun, for the arguments are founded upon false beliefs. Perhaps this is done to emphasize the foolishness of the lover (and in turn: people in love in general). A conceit used by Donne in this poem is that of the lover’s bedroom becoming the world: “This bed thy center is, these walls, the sphere” (30). The speaker is insinuating that his bedroom is the center of the universe, just as the earth is the center of the Ptolemaic universe. The mentioning of the “sphere” is also significant as circles and spheres were considered the perfect shapes — the speaker believes him and his lover to be perfect also.

Ptolemy and Copernicus both presented ideas that Donne used to accentuate his writing. The Ptolemaic relationship between Earth and the Heavens mirrored Donne’s imagining of human lovers’ relationship — “dull, sublunary lovers'” (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” 13) compared to pure, celestial lovers. The Copernican theory reflected Donne’s doubts, for at first the Copernican theory did nothing but show how little man actually knew. John Donne expressed a profound and respectful knowledge of Astronomy in his writing. It only seems appropriate that as a zealous user of complex comparisons, he should live at a time when two extreme contradictory views of the universe existed.

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