Gayathri Prabhu: Wit, Spirit, Text: John Donne in the Age of Discovery

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Open Discussion – Session 2

In discussing the poetry of John Donne, Dr. Prabhu provided an illuminating overview of the sweeping events of the 17th century, the ‘century of revolutions.’ The numerous paradigm shifts that occurred during this period – through the Reformation, the scientific revolution, the establishment of the Anglican Church, and imperialism – engendered profound anxieties about the new world, many of which, as Dr. Prabhu illustrated in her presentation, are reflected in the poetry of John Donne. The spirit of the age is perhaps most evocatively captured in Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World”; the “new philosophy” on account of which the sun and the earth are “lost” – a reference to the scientific revolution – rendering men adrift and ill-equipped to confront their changed realities. In many ways, on account of his professional position as the Dean of St. Paul’s, Donne was a microcosm of the larger tension between faith and reason in the 17th century. Many of his poems, such as “Hymn to God”, “My God”, “In my Sickness”, bridges the two worlds of religion and science, as evidenced through these lines:

… As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

Donne is often recognized as an exponent of ‘metaphysical poetry’ (a term coined by Samuel Johnson): a manipulation of the metaphysical ‘conceit’, a kind of extended metaphor. In Donne’s poetry, the manner in which the conceit is conceived and crafted draws from some of the crucial concerns of his times. In “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, for instance, the mistress in question is compared to the new colony:

O my America! my new-found-land
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d.

Again, in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, which has perhaps become the textbook example of a metaphysical conceit, the analogy of the man-woman relationship to a geometrical compass is intricately developed:

Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

This new fascination with measurement and geometry is part of a larger epistemic shift, as Foucault argues in his work The Order of Things. This shift is also reflected in other disciplines such as art, which Dr. Prabhu alluded to, through her discussion of Johann Vermeer’s painting of The Astronomer and the Geographer.

Dr. Prabhu’s talk was extremely refreshing, because it approached the discourses of religion and science from without, through the domain of art. In so doing, it succeeded in dispelling the post-lunch stupor that seemed to have overtaken the afternoon session (!). One was left wishing that we had a longer time to read some more of John Donne’s poetry, for, to use Dr. Prabhu’s pun, after this talk, we were far from being done with Donne…

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One response to “Gayathri Prabhu: Wit, Spirit, Text: John Donne in the Age of Discovery

  1. Pingback: 2013 Science and Religion Workshop | Barefoot Philosophers·

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