John Donne & the Telescope


                                          Le silence eternal des ces espaces infinis m’effraie


                                                                                       – Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1669)*


If John Donne began as a poet of light then he ended as a poet of darkness. He made this clear in his final sermon ‘Death’s Duel’:


  ‘for this world is but a universal churchyard, but our common grave, and the life and motion that the greatest         persons have in it is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their graves by an earthquake.’


By the end of his life Donne’s vision was bleakly eschatological – he spoke of the stages of man’s life unravelling as ‘a snake out of dung’ (John Donne: The Major Works, ed. John Carey, ‘Death’s Duel’, p.405). This essay will contend that the telescope was a central contributing factor to Donne’s pessimistic world-view.


The age of discovery


Before Galileo’s experiments the universe had been understood as one where “the fixed stars’ were still patterns of pure gold … the region beyond this sphere [the primum mobile] was still identified with heaven … and the human soul [was] a compound of fire and air which at death proceeds upwards through the planetary spheres to be reunited in its own personal star with the divine matter of the empyrean’ (Seventeenth Century Science and the Arts, Stephen Toulon and Douglas Bush, p.4-5). But by the time of the Enlightenment such a comprehensive view had transfigured into Pascal’s horror-vision of ‘those infinite dark spaces’.


The paradigm-shift between the Ptolemaic and Copernican-Galilean world views engendered serious implications for religion and philosophy. The universe was no longer the polished instrument Ptolemy believed it to be: strictly delimited with merely one hundred and forty-four stars, the motionless earth being at the centre of the universe orbited by the sun (which like the other heavenly bodies was pushed around by angels) and beyond that an immutable sphere that constituted God’s kingdom and the home of Christian souls. What Galileo revealed to the world in 1611 was a universe of infinite possibility and of uncircumscribed area. Previous astronomers had not only been incorrect about local matters like the moon – which was not polished and round but ‘is everywhere full of vast protuberances, deep chasms and sinuosities’ (Quoted in Science and Imagination, Marjorie Nicolson, p.14) –  but Galileo verified the work of his predecessor Tycho Brahe and contemporary Kepler when he affirmed the existence of stars that had not been accounted for in the divine schemata or ‘map’ of the heavens.


Tycho Brahe who discerned, or believed he did, a new star in 1573, a nova, in the constellation of Cassiopeia and Kepler who discovered a similar phenomenon in the constellation of Serpentarius in 1604, did not happen upon anomalies but were the first to recognize that the number of stars in the heavens was not fixed. Such discoveries combined with Galileo’s telescopic investigations led to a crop of new findings confirming Kepler and Brahe’s hypothesis – the universe was indeed composed of stars of the universe ‘so numerous as to be almost beyond belief … stars in myriads, which had never been seen before’ (Science and Imagination, Marjorie Nicolson, p.14). In addition to this Galileo proposed the existence of four ‘new stars’ or satellites about Jupiter and a new theory concerning the nature of the Milky Way.


Such revelations in addition to theories such as Copernicus’s heliocentric solar-system (which Galileo accredited), the elliptical orbits of the planets (proposed by Brahe), and the motion of the Earth turning in its axis (discovered by Gilbert), provided the Elizabethans with an entirely new view of their universe. The heavens were no longer ordered but ‘chaotic’ and in constant motion. The edges of the universe were no longer immutable but infinite and expanding in volume and possibility.


The role of the telescope


The telescope was the implement that connected human beings to the universe, that brought ‘man to heaven, and heaven again to man.’ (‘To Mr. Tilman after he had Taken Orders’, Donne, ll.50). It had prime cultural importance as a symbol for human ingenuity and achievement, and acted as a striking metaphor for man’s struggles with the infinite. Even the august poet John Milton, responding to the romance of the instrument, fancifully imagined Galileo at work, heralding that ‘optic glass the Tuscan artist views / At evening from the top of Fiesole.’


It is impossible that both the invention of the telescope in 1608 in Holland by the spectacle-maker Leppershey and the sensational activities of Galilie Galileo in Florence would have by-passed Donne. Indeed news of the ‘magical’ capabilities of the ‘optick magnifying Glasse’ spread fast. H.C. King estimates that only a year after its origination ‘telescopes were on sale in Paris … In May, Dutch trunks, perspectives or cylinders as they were called, appeared in Milan, a little later in Venice and Padua and, by the end of the year, they were being made in London.’ (The History of the Telescope; H.C.King, p.32).


Donne’s friend and correspondent Sir Henry Wotton, a British diplomat, was the first to inform the King of the miraculous discovery, and some critics have even suggested that Donne himself met Kepler.* Johnson also affirms the close connections that existed between artists, writers and scientists of that day. As he puts it: ‘The English scientist of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were … actively associated with a large circle of persons famous for the parts they played in the history and literature of the Elizabethan age’ (Astronomical Thought, Johnson, p.288). For someone as well versed in contemporary affairs as Donne, someone of whom Bush remarks ‘Of all poets of the century … had perhaps the most up-to-date stock of scientific information’ (Douglas Bush, ‘Science and Literature’, p.36), it is unthinkable that Donne was not aware of these momentous advances. It is even possible that Donne had a telescope of his own.


The new-fangled telescope does not feature, itself, very heavily in Donne’s poetry though he does make reference to it in his ‘Obsequies to Lord Harrington’: ‘Though God be our true glasse, though which we see / All, since the being of all things is he, / Yet are the trunks which does us to us derive / Things, in proportion fit, by perspective…’ Reference to a telescope also occurs in his poem to Mr Tilman, ‘If then th’ Astronomers, whereas they spie / A new-found Starre, their Opticks magnifie…’ Finally, Donne mentions the telescope in a Sermon preached in the Evening of Christmas Day, in which he turns the idea of the telescope on its head: human beings do not look out into the heavens, God looks onto them – ‘God’s perspective glass, his spectacle, is the whole world … and through that spectacle the faults of princes, in God’s eye, are multiplied far above those of private men.’


However, it was not the telescope as an object that concerned Donne, but what it signified and the new world-view or universal-view it posited. Therefore its traces in Donne’s work are registered by his fathoming of the universe as a new and threatening place. Because of Donne’s many social roles: as a Catholic man of letters, as cleric and theologian and as the dean of St Pauls, Donne had an extremely ambivalent relationship with the telescope and its counterpart, the ‘New Philosophy’. It was both the ‘cozening shadow’ and a glorious statement of human autonomy. In 1611 Donne spoke of Galileo as he ‘who of late hath summoned the other world, the stars to come nearer to him, and give him an account of themselves’. However, both the sun-centred universe and the universe of infinite expanse and multiple worlds that it anticipated, contradicted doctrinal teaching. Donne’s confused response to the telescope is obvious in his work, leading him towards a conflict of feeling and unresolved doubt. Though Donne was an astral poet and idealist, his personal piety was conditioned upon the depositions of a stable Ptolemaic universe. In upsetting one of Donne’s central metaphors, his central poetic constellation, the telescope exposed an irreducible problem in his poetry. This essay will explicate through a consideration of space, time, and proportion, how an appropriation of the Galilean universe, and the terms of its discourse, disorientated, destabilised and undid Donne.


Early work


In his earlier poetry, or pre-Galilean verse such as ‘A Valediction of my Name in the Window’, the ‘stars have supremacy’ (ll.36) and ‘all the virtuous powers … are / Fixed in the stars’ (ll. 33-4). The stars ‘portend’ (l.39) and thereby fulfil the role allotted to them in the Aristotelian paradigm where, as Robert Burton’s phrase suggests, the stars ‘do incline, but not compel.’ (Seventeen Century Science and the Arts, Stephen Toulin and Douglas Bush, p.36).They have cosmic significance and even consciousness, but they are still controllable, and have a clearly defined role. This is well evidenced by Donne’s An Epithalamion Or Marriage Song on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine being Married on St Valentines Day. Here Donne forges a beautiful metaphor between Lay Elizabeth’s jewels, her ‘rubies, pearls and diamonds’ and the ‘stars’ which she can take out of their ordered place, ‘their several boxes’ and use them to make ‘a constellation’ of her face. Such stars are decorative adornments.


However as the new-born stars that Kepler and Brahe noticed begin to appear in Donne’s poetics (he speaks of ‘Two new stares lately to the firmament’ To the Countess of Bedford III. l.68), Donne’s treatment of the stars subtly but significantly changes. In Ecclove 1614, December 26 he refers to ‘wombes of stares’ (l.25). This image that appears to denote warmth and security, actually signifies everything but, as Donne makes quite clear in his last sermon: ‘…neither is there any grave so close or so putrid a prison, as the womb …’ (John Donne: The Major Works, ed. John Carey, ‘Death’s Duel’, p.403). Charged with new meaning, the universe and its powdering of stars do not fill Donne with the same solace as it once did. Nowhere is this more in evidence than his famous poem ‘The First Anniversary’, part of his series An Anatomy of the World. If Donne is the ‘ideal expositor of cosmic extensions’ (Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher, p. 114) then nowhere is his exposition more extensive and pervasive than in this poem.


An Anatomy of the World


In ‘The First Anniversary’ Donne meditates upon the death of his young virgin niece Elizabeth Drury. Through her death he presents a picture of a world bereft and aimless, a ‘sick world’. Her ‘name defined thee, gave thee form and frame’, and the loss of her as a ‘glue’ has caused the world to disintegrate. As he says, ‘mankind feeling now a general thaw.’ Drury is presented here as an embodiment of ideal virtue and patience – she was to the world an ‘intrinsic balm’ and ‘preservative’.

But as the specialised scientific word ‘Anatomy’ suggests, Donne uses the emergence of the ‘New Philosophy’ as a symptom of the world’s deterioration. In-keeping with the new Brunonian theories about infinite worlds, Donne imagines the memory of Drury influencing a ‘new world’ which avoids Eve’s sin. But in this world, birth is the pre-requisite for human fallibility, just as the night-like womb is later equated with death. Even in the act of propagation we are damned to fornicate and therefore sin, Donne laments, ‘We kill ourselves to propagate our kind.’


However at this point the ‘general maim’ of the earth has not tainted the grace and order of the ‘universal frame’, a phrase that Donne uses much in earlier poetry and which implies the orderliness of the pre-Galilean universe, but which also implies his ability to see it as possessing a fixed unit of meaning. Then the famous lines:


And new philosophy calls all in doubt,

The element of fire is quite put out,

The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him, whereto 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 anatomies.

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;

All just supply and all relation.



Circles & proportion


For Donne, the ‘new philosophy’ had ushered in doubt about the ‘proportion’ of the universe. As he explains ‘the world’s beauty is decayed, or gone, / Beauty, that’s colour, and proportion.’ He links this to two of the new revelations about the universe yielded by the telescope; the first being the shape of the moon, the second the elliptical orbits of the planets. In a sermon of his, Donne comments on the importance of the ‘circle’ to him: ‘One of the most convenient Hieroglyphicks of God, is a Circle; and a Circle is endless; whom God loves, he loves to the end: and not only to their own end, to their death, but to his end, and his end is, that he might love them still.’ Donne was a poet who drew usefully on the roundness of the earth, seeing it in A Valediction of Weeping as a ‘round ball’ and thus likening its ‘globe’-like nature to tears. He also admired the ‘circular’ motions of the planets, and took them as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life as in To the Lady Bedford where he states that ‘perfect motions are all circular (l.31). Therefore, for Donne the ‘pock-marcked’ surface of the moon and the elliptical orbits of the planets would not only introduce new doubts about the surface of the earth, but would suggest the lack of any general and governing cohesion.


In 'The First Anniversary' Donne bemoans the perverse, to his mind, action of the planets, which leads to a fundamental inconsistency in the universe, ‘nor can the sun / Perfect a circle, or maintaining his way / One inch direct; but where he rose today / He comes no more.’ He links the ‘pock-holes’ and ‘warts’ that Galileo saw in the moon with new cavernous ‘vaults’ in the earth, as signifying the presence of hell on earth. Donne sees the world as an ‘ugly monster’ characterised by ‘discord and rude incongruity’, lacking in ‘solidness’ and ‘roundness’. He scorns the new attempt to delineate the planet and fix proportion onto it. For Donne, the ‘net thrown upon the heavens’ (the lines on atlas maps) which he calls ‘meridian’s and ‘parallels’, are endemic of man’s arrogance and complacency, ‘We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content t’obey our pace.’ This ‘proportion’ he declares is ‘lame, it sinks, it swells’. Yet later in his ‘Obsequies to the Lord Harrington’, he moderates his position and apparently derives pleasure from ‘tropic circles’, and satisfaction from ‘the same roundedness, evenness, and all / The endlessness of the equictial’ (ll.114-5).




However, this ambivalent treatment of motifs is typical of Donne in relation to the ‘New Philosophy’. From poem to poem he poses oppositions and contradictions, trying his best to adapt his Ptolemaic poetry to the new theories, but struggling. The verbal confusion indicates Donne’s efforts to reinvent the scientific language of his post-Galilean age, but he fails to adapt to it. In this way his poetry begins to resemble the craggy surface of the moon that he ostensibly disapproves of.


Such disproportion is plain to see in 'The First Anniversary' where the metaphysical symmetry of his poetic style is disrupted and his lines are no longer lucid and flowing but noticeably labyrinthine and tormented. The syntax is knotted, the sentences enjambed and paratactic. As Angus Fletcher notes:


‘Donne understood full well what the New Science … was telling the Elizabethans … But he allowed the older vision of things to enter the picture even as he was showing his knowledge of the new. This double mirror, the twinned antithetical knowledge, is what makes his work begin to possess a baroque combination of classical structure and external flux of surface.’ (Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher, p. 126).


But Donne’s concerns about proportion were not merely aesthetic concerns – a sense that the beauty and perfection in shape of the Ptolemaic universe had been jeopardised by the new philosophy – it was closely connected to the poet’s quest for meaning in the universe. For good design implies meaning, it also implies, especially for a clergyman, a designer – in Donne’s case an omniscient God. Just as the notion of a heliocentric universe threatened the Christian idea of the earth as the pinnacle of creation, and the suggestion of infinite stars and galaxies, as Empson showed, posed problems for a religion dealing with individual redemption, so too did the imperfection implicit in an elliptical orbit, or the arbitrariness of stars popping in and out of existence, threaten the idea of an immutable heaven. Donne tried to personally reconcile all these theories to religion in his poetry, by transplanting the language and metaphors of science into his work, but he must have known, as a reasonable man, that these theories were probably correct, and that Science was a powerful and perhaps deadly foe to the established church.


In a letter to Sir Henry Goodyer (1609) Donne boasts to his friend on his turning of the new scientific language and concepts to his own devices of metaphor and illustration:


‘I often compare not you and me, but the sphere in which your resolutions are, and my wheel, both I hope concentric to God: for methinks the new astronomy is thus applicable well, that we which are a little earth should rather move towards God, than that He which is fulfilling, and can come no whither, should move towards us.’ (John Donne: The Major Works, ed. John Carey, p.190).


This is a key example of Donne gleefully re-appropriating the new idiom of science to serve his own purposes, but there is also disingenuousness in tone here, which undermines this attempt and suggests that Donne, at heart knew that such metaphors were barren of truth.


Great empiricists


If science was the new enemy of religion, many of its proponents can also be seen as enemies of the metaphysical traditional in writing. Indeed a man of Donne’s rhetorical powers could no doubt do much to wrangle with the terms of the ‘new philosophy’ in his poetics, but he was also running contrary to the stream of scholarly consensus in doing so. For the Jacobean era heralded in the empirical rationalism of Bacon, of Galileo and most importantly of Sprat who pioneered the notion of a clean and purified scientific discourse purged of rhetorical flourish in his ‘Manner of Discourse’. As Johnson elucidates, ‘Sprat denounces the rhetorical ‘Ornaments of speaking’ as degenerate, for they support the passions and subvert reason. He cannot “behold without indignation how many mists and uncertainties these specious Tropes and Figures have brought on our Knowledge’, how ‘this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors’ has reached a stage almost beyond cure.’ (Astronomical Thought, Johnson, p.112). Science wished to offer a whole new range of similtudes and comparisons that were ‘solid and masculine’, such intentions were contrary to the perhaps, by now, slightly outmoded Elizabethan compositions of poets like Donne.


This empirical treatment of language, which privileged the importance of observation and disowned metaphor was entirely at odds with Donne’s poetics, indeed poetry in general. Metaphor and the world of literary figures, was native land for Donne. One could almost say that it was a pre-condition or at least a rational consequence of a Ptolemaic intellectual environment which asserted a relationship of correspondence between all of God’s creation. The poetical and scientific climate that nourished the days of Donne’s youth ‘were founded on a Christian belief in the unity and order of the whole creation’ (Seventeenth Century Science and the Arts, Stephen Toulin and Douglas Bush, p.38). According to this world view all men, creatures, and vegetation had their own place in a hierarchical scheme. It is no surprise that metaphysical poetry flourished in a period in which metaphor and analogy was built into the accepted theological and scientific world view.


However under the auspices of the Galilean system, such comparisons were no longer valid. The chain of meaning had been broken. It is little wonder then that Sprat and his school were so keen to do-away with metaphor. Thus, both here and elsewhere, when Donne tries to impregnate his metaphorical poetry with the new language of science, he was doing a highly subversive and unorthodox thing. In The First Anniversary, Donne explicitly laments the breakdown of the metaphorical structure of the universe, ‘Th art is lost, and correspondence to … / If this commerce ‘twixt heaven and earth were not Embarred…’ Ironically, even as Donne says this, The First Anniversary is very cavalier with its use of scientific face and literary finish. But what is clear, both in his poetry and his prose is that these baroque experiments did not work. His crow-barring of metaphysical and new philosophical subject matter produced a laboured and jarred effect. Consider ‘The Calm’. In this poem a rather spurious connection is made between human activity ‘But meteor-like save that we move not, hover’ (l.22). This seems like a redundant metaphor, put in for entirely gratuitous reason except that it invokes some recent scientific work done by Brahe into Haley’s comet. The same applies for the statement by Donne that ‘the whole frame of the world is the Theatre, and every creature the stage, the medium, the glasse in which we may see God.’ Glasse clearly refers to the telescope – but surely there is something uncomfortable in the suggestion that we may see God in a telescope knowing as we do that we will see nothing of the kind – the telescope was almost heretical in the role it played in refuting accepted teachings about the order of the universe.


Space & Time


Connected to Donne’s quest for coherence and meaning in the universe was the new conception of time and space that Galileo’ findings prompted. We are all familiar with the opening lines of Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress: ‘Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime’. This concern about time and its slipperiness was a recurrent topos for Donne also. Though references to man’s helplessness in the face of history abound in Donne’s earlier work, as in Donne’s Song, where he sings, ‘O how feeble is man’s power, / That if good fortune fall, / Cannot add another hour, / Nor a lost hour recall!’ (ll.16-20). This view of time is also tempered by the quiet vision of The Calm where the sea is ‘smooth as they mistress’ glass’ (l.18). However, the apocalyptical vision of post-Galilean physics offers no such solace. In The First Anniversary he mourns the new picture of the world that Gilbert inaugurated, where the earth not only revolved around the sun, but also rotated on its own axis, ‘Alas, we scarce live long enough to try / Whether a new made clock run right, or lie.’ There is a terrible urgency, even panic in his tone, ‘If man were anything, he’s nothing now: Help, or at least some time to waste allow’. As Fletcher notes, ‘his thoughts always negotiated with the New Science over this desire for calm, for in the incipient restructuring of cosmic knowledge he sees a source of perpetual hyperactivity.’ (Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher,p.118).


Yoked together with new idea of time and motion was the concomitant notion of ‘space’ that Galileo’s discoveries provoked. Time and time again Donne’s poetry focuses on the quiditas that constitutes the gap between the earth and the heavens, what lies ‘betwixt’ them. In the Ptolemaic paradigm, Donne could confidently contemplate a universe separated into concentric circles, each sphere having a role to play. However in the world-view that he increasingly builds up in his poetry, a world view where the expanse of the universe is infinite, there is a frightening new awareness of the nothingness and darkness of the solar-system. Donne meditates upon the hollowness of ‘space’ relating it through pun to the emptiness of a pause: ‘My body, my soule, and I shall sleepe a space’. Both in this idea of galvanized time, and the nothingness through which planets moved there is a reflection of Montaigne-like doubt where ‘Constancy itself is nothing but a more languid motion. I cannot fix my object; it goes muddled and reeling by a natural drunkenness.’


The body universal


Donne was a poet who wrote constantly of the flawed, sick and infirm nature of our earthly world. But he also regularly equated the world with the human body – a play-on-words or conceit that was no doubt an extension of the idea of the ‘earth-bound body’. In Elegy on the Lady Marckham Donne says that ‘Man is the World, and death th’ Ocean’ and in Holy Sonnet V he explains that ‘I am a little world made cunningly’. Donne’s contempt for the earth as a whole became more marked in his later poetry, perhaps as a result of knowing that the earth was not a unique case, but only one planet among a number of others. What then is the corollary for mankind? In-keeping with Donne’s parallelism, the human form reflects the planets growing infirmity and palsy. In a demise of  humanist values, at his death-sermon Donne presents man as being perilously and pitifully ill-equipped to confront the ‘jaws and teeth of death’. It seems that in the face of the absolute and the lack of comfort it offered Donne, the telescopic vision of the world manifests itself most strongly in his work. Struggling with his fear of death, he had to constantly reassure himself of the principle of reincarnation and the promise of Heavenly reward.


Telescopic conceits


In many ways the work of John Donne resembles a telescope. Like a telescope it magnified the very small into the very big, projecting outwards from man to the earth and the cosmos. Like the lens of a telescope his work was abstracted through the glass of his mind and its language. Like its tubular covering, his work was mounted in darkness.


If Fletcher is right in saying that ‘the task of the poet then would be to negotiate interaction between the absolute and the perpetually changing – to encourage, as it were, a more perfectly Ovidian worldview,’ (Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher, p.121) then we can only conclude that Donne failed, but he failed not without trying. Donne was thwarted by contradictory impulses: on one hand he was willing to endorse the new philosophy that the telescope birthed and he was excited by the progress of the natural sciences. On the other he was threatened by the implications these discoveries had for his faith, and oppressed by their implications for the universe as a whole. Every instance of Donne’s treatment of the cosmos post-1609 is marked by this opposition. Donne tries to reconcile the mutability of the earth to the ‘absolute’ of the universe, but he could not. He could not because the universe was no longer absolute, but relative, and there is no comfort to be derived from comparing a transitory world with a transitory universe. His only recourse was to attempt to unify both world views in a hashing-together of the old and the new. But this too was doomed to failure as his uncontrolled metaphors and parallels demonstrate.


The result of this excursus into the scientific universe was that it yielded rotten fruit for Donne. He was laden with unwanted knowledge: of the gyrating earth, its haphazard elliptical motion, the infinite and vapid extensions of the universe with its lack of order and purpose. It was really a place lacking in ‘proportion’, ‘beauty’ and bereft of the symbolic order and resonances of the Ptolemaic model. Therefore, it is of little surprise that the telescope and its visions slowly faded out of Donne’s poetry.  He had reached an impasse. The death of his wife absorbed his attention as subsequently his own death was to do. His poetry though, stands to prove Kuhn’s contention that paradigm shift induces a ‘loss of coherence’ for many, and testifies to what Kuhn meant when he dryly remarked that ‘old conceptual schemes never die’ (Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher, p. 118).




* Le silence eternal des ces espaces infinis m’effraie, ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread’ from Pascal’s Pensées

*Donne himself met Kepler – See ‘Heaven’s Net: The Meeting of John Donne and Johannes Kepler’, by Jeremy Bernstein




The Influence of the Telescope on John Donne’s Prose and Poetry