Friday poem (Monday): An Anatomy of the World

29 03 2010

Tuesday update: Sorry for posting a naked poem—Wordpress was all wonky last night.

Anyway.

I have, of late, become preoccupied with the medieval period in Europe history, or, more accurately, with the intellectual history of that long moment of transition between medieval times and modernity.

The ‘whys’ of a such a preoccupation I’ll save for another post. But given my current backward glance, a poem from that moment seemed appropriate.

John Donne is not, strictly speaking, a medieval poet: He was writing at the turn of and into the 17th century, a time which might be pegged as ‘early modern.’ But he fits into that long moment of transition during which old certainties about the place of God in nature were crumbling under the onslaught of observation and a kind of deistic theorizing. 

Three centuries later Yeats noted that ‘the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, but the intellectual revolutions of  the 17th century were in many ways far more unsettling than the political revolutions of the  20th: How was man to know who he was if his God were pushed into the recesses of the heavens, and mere mechanism replaced divinity and grace?

The section, below, from Donne’s elegy for a friend’s young daughter allows us entry into that disorienting new world—the world we now take for granted as our own. Reason and science and deduction will lead us forward, it was argued then (and now)—nevermind the past.

In mourning this young girl, however, Donne shows that a world without a past is a world without meaning; to take things apart may yield a new kind of knowledge, but it may also leave us dismantled.

from An Anatomy of the World

And new philosophy calls all 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.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, . . .


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