“Firme Substantial Love”: Donne’s Penetrating Observations

  • Michael A. Winkelman
Part of the Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance book series (CSLP)


Donne’s poetry—though he once referred to as “prophane, imperfect, oh, too bad”—adds up to a sagacious if haphazard exploration of human amatory endeavors (BB, 26). T. S. Eliot recognizes how this probing sensuality informed Donne’s outlook in his own poem “Whispers of Immortality”:1

Donne, I suppose, was such another Who found no substitute for sense, To seize and clutch and penetrate; Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow The ague of the skeleton; No contact possible to flesh Allayed the fever of the bone. (9–16)

This splanchnic component is fundamental to Donne’s work. It would be reductive to identify it, or any other single master trope, as the key to unlocking the man, though professors have certainly made such claims before. For instance, one says his religious apostasy fully explains him; another, that it is his shift from a medieval to an early modern worldview.


Cognitive Approach Bubonic Plague Grand Slam Pleasurable Consummation Luteotropic Hormone 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1952).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The recent country song “Ticks” by Brad Paisley fits well into this tradition. For historical background, see Brendan Lehane, The Compleat Flea (London: John Murray, 1969) (p. 9 quoted supra); as well as Marcel Françon, “Un motif de la poésie amoureuse au XVIie siècle,” PMLA 61 (1941): 307–36; and David Brumble III, “John Donne’s ‘The Flea’: Some Implications of the Encyclopedic and Poetic Flea Traditions,” Critical Quarterly 15 (1973): 147–54. N.b. John Donne, Junior also composed a flea verse, apparently building on a sixteenth-century account by Thomas Moufet: “One made a Golden Chain with lock and key, / And four and twenty links drawn by a flea, / The which a Countess in a box kept warm, / And fed it daily on a milk-white arm.”Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See David Wilson, “La Puce de Madame Desroches and John Donne’s ‘The Flea,’” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971): 297–301; Cathy Yandell, “Of Lice and Women: Rhetoric and Gender in La Puce de Madame Des Roches,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 20 (1990): 123–35; Anne Larsen, “On Reading La Puce de Madame Des-Roches: Catherine des Roches’s Responces (1583),” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 22 (1998): 63–75; Todd Olson, “La Femme à la Puce et la Puce à l’Oreille: Catherine Des Roches and the Poetics of Sexual Resistance in Sixteenth-Century French Poetry,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32 (2002): 327–42; and Madeleine Des Roches and Catherine Des Roches, From Mother and Daughter: Poems, Dialogues, and Letters of Les Dames des Roches, ed. and trans. Anne Larsen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was frequently fatal to flea, rat, and human alike. Its DNA has recently been reconstructed by scientists using samples from human remains buried in London in 1348. Other researchers have uncovered fossilized giant fleas that fed on dinosaur blood during the Jurassic era. On the grand pestilence in England, see J. F. D. Shrewsbury, A History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Dover, NH: Alan Sutton, 1991); Colin Platt, King Death: The Black Plague and Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996); Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994); Rebecca Totaro, Suffering in Paradise: The Black Plague from More to Milton (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2005); and Ernest Gilman, Plague Writing in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    M. Thomas Hester, “‘This Cannot Be Said’: A Preface to the Reader of Donne’s Lyrics,” in John Donne’s Poetry, ed. Donald Dickson (New York and London: Norton, 2007), 344.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 99.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Juvenilia: or certaine Paradoxes, and Problemes, written by J. Donne (1633) in John Donne, Selected Prose, ed. Evelyn Simpson, Helen Gardner, and Timothy Healy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 6.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses; with Observations andInquiries thereupon (London: Jo. Martyn and Ja. Allestry, 1665), 210–11. The tale of “The Man and the Flea,” from Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Richard Pinson’s translation in 1500: “He that doth evyl, how be it that ye euyl be nat great, men ought nat to leve hym unpunysshed, as it apereth by thys fable of a man which toke a flee. Yt bote hym, to whom the man sayde in thys maner, Fle why bitest thou me & latest me nat slepe. And the fle answerd it is my kynde to do so, wherfore I pray the yt thou wylt nat putt me to deth. And the man began to laughe and saide to the fle thou maiste me nat hurt sore, neverthelesse the behoveth nat to byte me. Wherfore thou shalt dye. For men ought nat to leve no evill unpunysshed, howe be it that it be nat greate.” (Quoted and illustrated in Lehane, The Compleat Flea, 41.)Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    See, inter alia, Anke Bernau, Virgins: A Cultural History (London: Granta Books, 2007); Stephen Garton, Histories of Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 2004); Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler, eds., Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996). Much of the early literature on female sexuality revolves around the age-old Christian Ave/Eva binary.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    See, inter alia, Nancy Kulish and Deanna Holtzman, Nevermore: The Hymen and the Loss of Virginity (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1997); Karen Bouris, The First Time: Women Speak Out about “Losing Their Virginity” (Berkeley: Conan Press, 1993); and Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    John Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia for The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976), 297.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Theresa DiPasquale, “Receiving a Sexual Sacrament: ‘The Flea’ as Profane Eucharist,” in John Donne’s Poetry, ed. Donald Dickson (New York and London: Norton, 2007), 351–52. See also the Boy in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Do you not remember a’ [Falstaff] saw a flea stick upon Bardolph’s nose, and a’ said it was a black soul burning in hell-fire?” (2.3.40–42).Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 115.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    William Congreve, The Way of the World, ed. John Barnard (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1972), I.i.4–9. See also “The Rapture” by Donne elegist Thomas Carew, the leading Cavalier meditation on honor.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Useful entrées into the extensive and growing secondary literature on sexually explicit texts of the time include Ian Frederick Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and James Grantham Turner, Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England, 1534–1685 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1960).Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Ovid, The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley, 2nd. ed., The Loeb Classic Library 232 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / London: William Heinemann, 1985); Ovid, Thomas Heywood’s Art of Love: The First Complete English Translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, ed. M. L. Stapleton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000). Heywood’s work was also known as Loues School.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    C. H. Hereford Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925–52), VIII.864.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    For further analysis of this festina lente trope, see William Kerrigan, “Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick,” George Herbert Journal 14 (1990–91): 155–71; and Michael A. Winkelman, “Flirtation; or Let Us Sport Us While We May: An Assay and Manifesto,” The Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 49 (2007): 56–73.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Stephen Booth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), 443.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Christopher Ricks, Essays in Appreciation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 19–50. For additional remarks about “Farewell to love,” see the colloquium of essays in JDJ 18 (1999), 195–253; and A. J. Smith, “The Dismissal of Love: or, Was Donne a Neoplatonic Lover?” in John Donne: Essays in Celebration, ed. A. J. Smith (London: Methuen, 1972), 89–131.Google Scholar
  21. 31.
    Information in this section comes from Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple, The Science of Orgasm (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); as well as Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2004); Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (New York: Norton, 2008); and “Sex with a Partner Is 400 per cent Better,” New Scientist, February 25, 2006, 21.Google Scholar
  22. 35.
    Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores, and Whipple, The Science of Orgasm, 197–98. N.b. discomfort can also arise from the opposite situation, a sustained erection without orgasm, known as pelvic congestion or informally as “blue balls.” For a detailed description of the relevant mechanisms of vasodilation, see Sharon Moalem, How Sex Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (New York: Harper, 2009), 61–62.Google Scholar
  23. 36.
    Even climax has been “theorized.” For bizarre, Spinozan philosophical-religious-medical remarks, see Henri Atlan, The Sparks of Randomness, Volume 1: Spermatic Knowledge, trans. Lenn Schramm (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). For an unhelpful study wholly enthralled by French deconstructionism and in significant measure given over to interpreting pornography, see Murat Aydemir, Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  24. 40.
    “Wooe” (woo) in line 15 rhymes with “so”; it might be acknowl-edged that this wordplay could be unintentional. However, for what it’s worth, The Faerie Queene includes a similar pun on sorrow/sour, when Cupid lessens “the joyes of love”: “A thousand sowres hath tempred with one sweet, / To make it seeme more deare and dainty, as is meet” (VI.xi.i). Edmund Spenser, Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1912).Google Scholar
  25. 41.
    John Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin, eds., Seventeenth-Century British Poetry: 1603–1660 (New York and London: Norton, 2006), 44n. See also Smith, “The Dismissal of Love,” 117n1.Google Scholar
  26. 43.
    Sir Thomas More, Utopia (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1997), 52.Google Scholar
  27. 45.
    Cf. Ovid’s Amores, III.vii, in which he considers the possibility that some sort of potion or magic—an anti-Viagra—has rendered him impotent. In Christopher Marlowe’s translation: “What, wast my limbs through some Thesalian charms, / May spelles and droughs do sillie soules such harmes? /… / Why might not then my sinews be inchanted, / And I grow faint, as with some spirit haunted?” (27–36). The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 2: 378–80. For the Latin, see Ovid’s Amores, trans. Guy Lee (New York: Viking Press, 1969). On Donne’s figurative, colloquial use of “worm-seed,” see Siobhán Collins, “Riddling Wonders: Gold Coins and the Phoenix in Donne’s Genre-Defying Verse,” Appositions: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture 2 (2009): 1–14.Google Scholar
  28. 46.
    There is also a probable pun on damned / “indammag’d” in line 34, analogous to sin / “insinuating” when Satan sneaks into the Garden in Paradise Lost: “close the serpent sly / Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine / His braided train, and of his fatal guile / Gave proof unheeded” (IV.347–50). John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. David Scott Kastan (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2005).Google Scholar
  29. 48.
    Biathanatos, I.ii.2, in John Donne, Selected Prose, ed. Neil Rhodes (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 66.Google Scholar
  30. 49.
    John Donne, Essays in Divinity, ed. Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), 37, deitalicized.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Michael A. Winkelman 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael A. Winkelman

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations