Dr. Donne &
Sir Edmund Gosse

by Jeremy Bernstein



In 1917 Albert Einstein published a paper on cosmology—indeed the first significant modern paper on the subject—that was sufficiently implausible that he felt compelled at one point to write, “In the present paragraph I shall conduct the reader over the road I have myself traveled, rather a rough and winding road, because otherwise I cannot hope that he will take much interest in the result at the end of the journey.” When it comes to the principal subject of this essay, Sir Edmund Gosse, I know what he meant, and for this reason I shall conduct the “reader over the road” that led me to that rather unlikely figure. In 1983 I was sent for review Daniel Boorstin’s Discoverers —a book that gave a kaleidoscopic and not always accurate tour of the entire history of scientific discovery in 745 pages. On page 316, I came across the following laconic sentence: “In 1619, when Donne visited the Continent, he took the trouble to visit Kepler in the remote Austrian town of Linz.” That was it. No explanation was offered. No discussion was presented of what Johannes Kepler and John Donne could possibly have found to say to each other. Indeed, how did such an incredibly implausible meeting ever take place? Were there any consequences? On all of this Boorstin was mute, and, worse, he did not even give a reference, so that one had no idea where to follow this up.

That was in 1983. For the next thirteen years, this matter rested unresolved, gnawing away somewhere in the back of my mind. Finally, in the fall of 1996, taking advantage of that leisure which retirement from full-time teaching affords, I decided that once and for all I would run it to ground. It wasn’t easy. But with the help of colleagues from various parts of the country I finally succeeded. It turned out that the existence of this meeting was a discovery of the historian of science Wilbur Applebaum, who was then at the University of Illinois. He is now a professor emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Applebaum, he later informed me, had been rifling serendipitously through Johannes Kepler’s Gesammelte Werke—the great multi-volume compendium of everything Kepler ever wrote—when he came across a letter from Kepler to a woman (no one has been able to identify her) describing a visit that had taken place some time earlier of a “Doctore Theologo” whom he identifies as Donne. The “doctore,” he notes, was traveling “with His Royal Majesty’s envoy, Mr. Doncastre [sic].” This is a reference to Lord Doncaster —James Hay—whom King James I of England had chosen to lead what turned out to be a futile mission to the Continent to head off the Thirty Years War.

Applebaum published a brief note on his discovery in the Philological Quarterly. He pointed out, incidentally, that the editors of Kepler’s Werke had misdated the letter. They had given it as 1608, which is wrong for many reasons including the fact that Donne only received a “Doctore”—honoris causa— from Cambridge in 1615. (Donne was an Oxford man and getting this degree from Cambridge required some very powerful arm-twisting by the King.) Applebaum told me that he had great difficulty convincing the people then responsible for Kepler’s collected works that someone there had made a mistake. In any event, among the few scholars who noted Applebaum’s discovery was the Harvard astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. In his biographical sketch of Kepler in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Gingerich makes a brief reference to the visit in terms almost identical to the language Boorstin used (presumably that is where Boorstin got his information) but with no reference to Applebaum. Incidentally, Gingerich also notes that a year after Donne’s visit the British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton—former ambassador to Venice now on a special royal mission which was a sequel to Doncaster’s and similarly came to nothing—had also visited Kepler. He seems to have suggested to Kepler that Kepler come to England. It is unclear whether this was a concrete offer or just a general invitation but, whatever it was, Kepler declined.

This solved the problem of the reality of the visit. But the Kepler letter itself was, at least at first sight, something of an anticlimax. It is quite clear from the letter that, apart from his association with Doncaster’s mission, Kepler did not have the remotest idea who Donne was. This is especially ironic since we know for a fact—Kepler tells us—that he had read Ignatius, His Conclave, Donne’s polemic satire against the Catholic Church, and especially the Jesuits, which he published in 1611 in both Latin and English. (Kepler did not know English, so whatever conversation he had with Donne must have been in Latin, since Donne did not know German.) Donne had published Ignatius anonymously, and there is no evidence— indeed such circumstantial evidence as there is, is negative—that Kepler had any idea that it was Donne who had written it. From the letter, it is clear that Kepler’s only concern was that Donne use his influence to expedite the distribution of Kepler’s new book, Harmony of the World, in England. But why did Donne want to visit Kepler? Here we seem to come up against a brick wall.

Donne went on this mission with a heavy heart. His wife had died two years earlier after having given birth to her twelfth child, which was still-born. He would have been quite content to stay in England with his remaining children, but King James ordered him to accompany Doncaster as chaplain to the mission. Before leaving England, Donne announced that he was not going to write any letters from the Continent. He did, in fact, write a few, but none that I have found make any mention of his visit to Kepler. Nor does any other contemporary document which I have been able to turn up. Still, in the hope that some scrap of commentary might exist, I have taken to reading all the various biographies, collections of letters, and historical studies of Donne that I can get hold of. Once one starts this, one is inevitably led to the figure of Sir Edmund Gosse.

In 1899 Gosse published a two-volume biography of Donne titled The Life and Letters of John Donne. To understand the significance of this, one must realize that since the first version in 1658 of Izaak Walton’s life of Donne—later incorporated in Walton’s Lives published in 1670—not a single full-scale biography of Donne had been written by anyone. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that it was Gosse’s book that brought Donne’s poetry back to life. With few exceptions (such as Coleridge), from the seventeenth century until the end of the nineteenth most critics would have agreed with Samuel Johnson when he wrote in his Lives of the Poets:

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they wrote only verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.
But by the middle of the twentieth century quoting Donne had become almost a cliché. To take one remarkable example, when in 1962 General Leslie Groves, who had been in charge of the making of the atom bomb, wrote to Robert Oppenheimer to ask him how, in fact, he had chosen the name Trinity for the atomic test site in New Mexico, Oppenheimer replied that he thought that it was because he had been reading Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” and in particular the fourteenth. The poem begins:
Batter my heart, three personed God; for You As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek

to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me,

and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make

me new.

If Einstein had not created the theory of relativity in 1905, then it would certainly have been created anyway. The facts would have demanded it. Likewise, if Gosse had not written his great biography in 1899, then Donne would surely have been rediscovered anyway. The poetry would have demanded it. But the course of history would have been different. It was Gosse’s book, and his encouragement, that led Herbert Grierson to produce his great edition of Donne’s poetry—the first real edition—in 1912. All the other editions are in some sense a footnote to Grierson. But it was not only Donne who was discovered or rediscovered by Gosse. Gosse, who had taught himself all the Scandinavian languages, introduced Ibsen, among other Scandinavian writers, into England at a time when no one was interested in him. Gosse got to know Ibsen and later wrote his biography. He championed Robert Louis Stevenson, with whom he had an especially close friendship. They met in 1874, when Stevenson was almost unknown, and two days before Stevenson’s death in Samoa twenty years later, Stevenson wrote his last letter to Gosse. It began, “I was not born for age. . . .” Gosse also wrote a biography of Swinburne, whom he knew well. He was a close friend of Henry James and often visited Thomas Hardy. Late in his life, he championed the work of Gide, whom he got to know well also. He did, however, have some blind spots. He could not abide Joyce’s Ulysses and had no use for the poetry of Eliot or Pound, although he greatly admired Yeats, Kipling, and Robert Graves, all of whom he knew and encouraged before they were famous. When Gosse died on May 16, 1928, he was arguably the most distinguished and best-known man of letters in England.

I use the term “man of letters” deliberately. I don’t know quite what else to call him. The only figure closer to our time that I can think to compare him to is Edmund Wilson. One wonders what of Wilson’s anyone will read fifty years from now. In all of Gosse’s gigantic production, the only book that is still widely read is his autobiographical memoir, Father and Son, which he published in 1907. No one reads Gosse’s poetry or his verse plays, and almost no one reads his literary studies, some of which had been newspaper or magazine columns that were immensely popular in their day. But few who have read Father and Son come away unmoved. The book may have been the first autobiography, at least in English, that relates with such intimacy and power the struggle of a son, Gosse, to break free from the overburdening presence of his father. It ends when Gosse is seventeen and has come to London alone. We don’t know exactly why; Gosse does not tell us. What is almost inconceivable is that the seventeen-year-old boy in that book would become Sir Edmund Gosse. To unravel that mystery we have to look beyond the book itself.

Edmund William Gosse—his family and close friends always called him “Willy”—was born on September 21, 1849, in the London borough of Tottenham. His father, Philip Henry Gosse, was a well-known naturalist who over the years wrote and illustrated several beautiful books—now collector’s items—mainly about British marine invertebrates. The elder Gosse is considered to be one of the original inventors of the aquarium (he certainly invented the name). While in his early twenties, Philip had a conversion to a kind of born-again fundamentalist Christianity, which led him to join an extreme Calvinistic congregation known as the Plymouth Brethren. It was through them that he met his first wife, Emily Bowes, who was, if anything, more piously puritanical than he was. Of his mother and father, Gosse writes in his autobiography, “Each was lonely, each was poor, each was accustomed to a strenuous intellectual self-support.” They were married in 1848, and Gosse was born a year later. As he later wrote, “In this strange household the advent of a child was not welcomed, but was borne with resignation.” This bleak assessment is not entirely supported by several letters that Ann Thwaite cites in her biography Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. From Philip Gosse to his wife: “I do long to kiss him again and you too, my own love.” But such warmth did not communicate itself to Gosse, at least as he remembered it a half-century later. There is, however, no dispute as to the discipline Gosse found himself subjected to. Gosse’s mother had been informed as a child that any sort of story-telling was a sin. As a result, Gosse writes,

Not a single fiction was read or told to me during my infancy. The rapture of the child who delays the process of going to bed by cajoling “a story” out of his mother or his nurse, as he sits upon her knee, well tucked up, at the corner of the nursery fire,—this was unknown to me. Never in all my early childhood, did anyone address to me the affecting preamble, “Once upon a time!” I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming birds, but I had never heard of fairies. Jack the Giant-Killer, Rumpelstiltskin and Robin Hood were not of my acquaintance, and although I understood about wolves, Little Red Ridinghood was a stranger even by name.
And this from a child who would grow up to be the foremost British literary critic of his age!

In 1857 two events occurred of decisive importance to Gosse and his father. The first had to do with science. Although Darwin did not publish Origin of Species until 1859, its beginnings date back at least two decades earlier. In 1830 the geologist Charles Lyell published the first edition of his seminal book, Principles of Geology. Lyell’s thesis was that present geological conditions developed uniformly from the past—if you like, an evolutionary theory of geology. Darwin had Lyell’s book with him when he sailed on the Beagle in 1831, and the two men saw a good deal of each other after Darwin returned. In its simplest form, this theory conflicted with the biblical notion that the Earth was created entire in one catastrophic event. In his memoir, Gosse describes the effect that this had on his father:

My Father had never admired Sir Charles Lyell. I think that the famous ‘Lord Chancellor manner’ of the geologist intimidated him, and we undervalue the intelligence of those whose conversation puts us at a disadvantage. For Darwin and [the British botanist Joseph] Hooker, on the other hand, he had a profound esteem, and I know not whether this had anything to do with the fact that he chose, for his impetuous experiment in reaction, the field of geology, rather than that of zoology or botany. Lyell had been threatening to publish a book on the geological history of Man, which was to be a bomb-shell flung into the camp of the catastrophists. My Father, after long reflection, prepared a theory of his own, which he fondly hoped would take the wind out of Lyell’s sails, and justify geology to godly readers of “Genesis.” It was, very brief- ly, that there had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms, but when the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.

Philip Gosse wrote a book in which he adumbrated his masterpiece. He called it Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. The “omphalos” was a sacred Delphic icon—thought to be a conical stone—which symbolized the navel or center of the Earth. But to the author of Omphalos the issue had to do with the navel of Adam. Did Adam have one? He appears to have been created with all the attributes of a full-grown man including, presumably, a navel. If this miracle had happened, then why was it so difficult to imagine that God had created the Earth with all the fossils and other signs of age in place? This picturesque view of God as an antiquarian landscape artist is still with us in some of the more lunar Creationist literature. After the publication of his book in 1857, the senior Gosse waited for an outpouring of grateful appreciation. Instead, there was total hostility. Gosse quotes from a letter his father received from his friend, the author Charles Kingsley, who had a great interest in natural history. He wrote that he could not “give up the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years’ study of geology, and believe God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie.” The reaction that this storm of criticism produced in his father was total withdrawal. As Gosse notes, “. . . he closed the doors upon himself forever.”

It was during this very time that Gosse’s mother died. The great thing about Father and Son is that it is neither angry nor judgmental. Gosse loved both his father and mother. He simply wanted more air. Indeed, although Gosse does not say this in so many words, if his mother had not died when he was still very young he might well have remained suffocated forever. His mother died of breast cancer after having suffered terribly as much from an experimental treatment she tried as from the disease itself. Her last words, repeated several times to Gosse and his father, were, “Take our lamb, and walk with me!” As Gosse notes, “. . . what a weight, intolerable as the burden of Atlas, to lay on the shoulders of a little fragile child!” For a period of time, which Gosse remembered with pleasure, he was sent to live with relatives. But then his father took a house in St. Marychurch in Devonshire near the sea. Here, there was a small community of “Saints,” and Philip became their spiritual leader. There is a photograph of Gosse and his father from about this time which, even if one did not know the people involved, has the sort of power that a great portrait painter can sometimes achieve. Both are dressed in black—the sort of outfits, one imagines, they would wear on a visit to the “Saints.” The senior Gosse has a Bible in his right hand, with his left firmly around his son. The “lamb” appears to be firmly in hand. It is the expression on the younger Gosse’s face, however, that lifts this portrait into greatness. He is not exactly looking at the Bible, and he is not exactly not looking at it. There is something in his eyes that lies between anger and fear. His mouth is a rigid line. He could have been thinking of anything. In fact, it was at about this time, Gosse tells us in Father and Son, that he made the discovery that he had a “self”—a part of him that was his and his alone and which no one including his father (above all his father) could penetrate.

Gosse did not know what to make of this discovery, but he knew that it was terribly important. It might have led nowhere, except that in 1860 Gosse’s father remarried. The senior Gosse’s second wife, Eliza Brightwen, came from a wealthy Quaker family. When she married the fifty-year-old Philip, she was a forty-seven-year-old spinster. She loved young Gosse and the feeling, which was life-long, was mutual. As pious as she became—she joined the elder Gosse’s congregation—she had a taste for the arts and for poetry. The ban on reading fiction and poetry was lifted, but selectively. Gosse was permitted to read the poems of Sir Walter Scott but not the novels, although he was allowed to read the novels of Dickens. For the first time, he was allowed to attend school—a local school and then a boarding school. He began reading poetry voraciously, as well as writing it. And he began his study of languages. At the age of seventeen, he could note in an application for a position that he could speak German, write French, read Greek, Latin, and Italian, and that he had what he called a “rudimentary acquaintance” with Danish, Swedish, and Hebrew. He had scored very well in the so-called Senior Cambridge examinations and was without a doubt better educated than if he had gone to any of the great public schools. But there was no question of his going to a university. It was time for him to go to work, and the only question was at what.

Father and Son ends in 1867 with Gosse come alone to London to live. Though we are not told as much, what had happened was that Edmund’s father, who had (even after the disaster of Omphalos) continued his very successful career as a popular naturalist, pulled every string he could think of to get his son the position of “Junior Assistant” —really a low-paying clerk’s job—in the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum. Never was anyone so over-qualified for a job. Gosse remained at it with essentially the same salary until 1875. In the meantime, he continued both his study of languages—adding Norwegian and Icelandic—and his poetry writing. Gosse wanted more than anything else in life to be a great poet. If only one could acquire genius by hard work! Gosse worked very hard as a poet—indeed at everything—but the poems, alas, cling limpetlike to the page. They refuse to soar. I do not think anyone knows how hard Donne worked to write a poem but my guess, based on nothing but intuition, is not very. Whereas Donne, in keeping with the practice of the time, handed out manuscript versions of poems to his friends like greeting cards, Gosse was desperately concerned about getting his poems published, if only to get critical reaction to them. His first collection, Madrigals, Songs and Sonnets, appeared in 1870, when he was still working full-time as a clerk. It was a collaboration with his friend John Blakie, and it sold twelve copies.

In the meantime, the relentless struggle with his father over his spiritual life went on. Just before he moved to London, Gosse had had an epiphany in which he had tried desperately to find the Lord and had failed. As he writes in Father and Son, “From that moment forth my Father and I, though the fact was long successfully concealed from him and even from myself, walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul with ‘the thick o’ the world between us.’” It wasn’t that simple. Philip Gosse knew perfectly well that his son’s faith was drifting away. Since he could not be in London to take his “lamb” by the hand, he attempted to do so by post. Letters rained down on Gosse like lead hammers. If he tried to reply to them evasively this would produce still more letters. As he writes in the epilogue to Father and Son, “Over such letters as these I am not ashamed to say that I sometimes wept; the old paper I have just been copying shows traces of tears shed upon it more than forty years ago, tears commingled with despair at my own feebleness, distraction, at my want of will, pity for my Father’s manifest and pathetic distress.” The struggle went on, although with diminishing intensity, practically until his father’s death in 1888. What Gosse told no one until close to the end of his own life was that in his final hours his father had turned violently away from God. He had come to realize that despite all his piety he was going to die without a sign from his Lord. He felt betrayed, and he went to his death in a state of rage.

A friend of mine some years ago told me that a physics colleague of ours, who was noted in equal parts for his genius and his abrasive personality, had decided to seek the counsel of a psychoanalyst. My friend thought that this was a good idea, but he hoped the analysis would not “take the edge off.” One wonders whether, if Gosse had gone to a university (something which he obviously deserved to do), it would have taken the edge off—the edge, in this case, of the ferocious autodidacticism that stayed with him all his life. On the positive side, however, it might have given him better scholarly habits. His friend Henry James once commented that Gosse had “a genius for inaccuracy,” something that a rigorous university tutorial might have alleviated. All of Gosse’s critical books are full of mistakes of detail. Many of them are pedantic but many are not. I was interested to note that in the best modern biography of Donne, John Donne: A Life by the late R. C. Bald, there are some forty footnotes referring to Gosse, most of them pointing out errors in Gosse’s two-volume biography.

No doubt there would have been even more errors if Gosse had not been able to use the material gathered over many years in a country parish by a curate named Augustus Jessopp. In his introduction to the first volume of his biography (1899), Gosse writes,

More than fifty years ago, when [Jessopp] was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he began to make collections illustrative of the character and writings of Donne. He could find no publisher to undertake such an enterprise. . . . In 1855 Dr. Jessopp brought out a reprint of [Donne’s] Essays in Divinity with copious and learned notes which were little valued by reviewers of forty years ago, but which now prove how eminently well Dr. Jessopp was fitted to illuminate the theological characteristics of the great Dean of St. Paul’s. After that, until 1897, the general public had no means of knowing how persistent was Dr. Jessopp’s interest in everything connected with Donne, except through his excellent article in the “Dictionary of National Biography.”
He continues:
Many years have passed since, by a mere accident, I discovered how lively was still the enthusiasm felt for the Dean by our admirable historian of East Anglia. I, also, had been making collections for the biography, and my first impulse was to place them unreservedly in Dr. Jessopp’s hands. . . .

He claimed, however, that I should join him in the delightful labour. We soon found, however, a great difficulty in the road of our collaboration. In his own words Dr. Jessopp “has never been able to feel much enthu- siasm for Donne as a poet,” whereas to me, even to his last seraphical hour in his bedchamber at St. Paul’s, Donne is quintessentially a poet.

Gosse was close to abandoning the project when Jessopp decided in 1897 to let Gosse write the biography and turned over all of the relevant materials.

Between the time we left Gosse in the British Museum and the time when he began his biography of Donne, a great deal had happened to him. In 1875 he was offered a job as translator to the Board of Trade. There was a very substantial raise in salary that enabled him to marry. He chose for his bride Ellen (“Nelly”) Epps, the daughter of a surgeon. She was well-educated and was a talented artist, and theirs was a very happy marriage. The Gosses had two daughters and a son, who seem to have been brought up with all the intellectual stimulation that Gosse was deprived of in his own childhood. (The house was filled with books, and when Gosse died his library was sold for a small fortune.) One of the conditions of Gosse’s new job was that he was to be allowed to continue his literary activities. He published biographies of Congreve and Gray, and several studies of European and English literature before he began working on his biography of Donne. The work at the Board of Trade was erratic but could be very demanding. Sheaves of dispatches would sometime arrive in the morning in various languages dealing with tariffs and trade and would have to be translated by the afternoon. (Reading about this vaguely reminded me of Einstein toiling away in the patent office in Bern while creating the theory of relativity in his spare time.)

I said at the outset that I was led to Gosse because I was trying to learn how Donne’s interest in Kepler and in the New Astronomy—a term seemingly first used by Kepler—had come about. What were Donne’s feelings about this science, which in its day was at least as disturbing to the established order as was Darwinism in the nineteenth century? One does not learn much from Gosse. Gosse does point out that it had “hitherto escaped notice” that Donne was “completely captivated by the recent epoch-making discoveries in the science of astronomy.” We now accept this as one of the clichés about Donne—although I think that Donne understood less of these discoveries than most people realize. In any event, it was Gosse who first pointed out the connection. He tells us that “Donne had been steeping himself in the sensational expansion of the New Astronomy,” but he does not tell us how Donne heard about it in the first place. In this, Gosse is no worse off than his successors. Even Professor Bald, as I will now discuss, does not seem really to have a clue, or at least a clue that stands up to scrutiny.

Professor Bald offers two scenarios. The first is a notion that seems to have been invented by the late Marjorie Hope Nicolson. Nicolson thought that Donne had somehow gotten hold of a manuscript copy of Kepler’s science-fiction novella Somnium, the first version of which Kepler wrote in 1609, although it was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death. This is the novella that describes an imaginary voyage to the Moon. At least three things are wrong with Nicolson’s theory. In the first place, there is no evidence that any copy of this manuscript had reached England at the time we are discussing. In the second place, Donne marginally refers to Kepler in a note to Biathanatos, a tract he produced a year before Kepler wrote his draft. In the third place, if Donne had read Somnium, why wasn’t this mentioned by Kepler in the letter he wrote describing their meeting? Kepler was almost childlike in his need to be appreciated. Is it conceivable that if Donne had mentioned reading this work some years earlier Kepler would not have shouted this from the housetops?

The second theory considered by Bald is that Donne had heard about Kepler from the very interesting British scientific polymath Thomas Hariot. It is true that Hariot had carried out a correspondence with Kepler. But the letters were few and infrequent and had to do with optics, not astronomy. That Donne had ever met Hariot remains unclear, yet Donne had somehow gotten hold of De Stella Nova, Kepler’s book on the “new stars” (supernovae that had recently been observed), not long after its publication. I do not know how, and neither Bald nor Gosse has enlightened me.

On the matter of Galileo, we can I think be a little more precise. Galileo had in late 1609 managed to construct a telescope powerful enough to make interesting astronomical observations. In January 1610, he made several stunning discoveries: new stars, the moons of Jupiter, as well as mountains on our own Moon. In March, he reported on this in his great book Sidereus nuncius. The book was published in Venice when the English ambassador to that city was Donne’s friend from Oxford —Henry Wotton. Alas, we do not have a letter from Wotton to Donne describing his reaction to Galileo’s book (Donne often complained that Wotton was a dilatory correspondent), but we do have a letter from Wotton to the First Earl of Salisbury dated March 13, 1610. Salisbury was, at the time, the king’s lord treasurer so that in some sense Wotton was writing to the Jacobean court. This is what he reports:

Now touching the occurents of the present, I send herewith unto his Majesty [King James] the strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it) that he hath ever yet received from any part of the world; which is the annexed book [Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius] (come abroad this very day) of the Mathematical Professor at Padua, who by the help of an optical instrument (which both enlargeth and approximateth the object) first invented in Flanders, and bettered by himself, hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter, besides many other unknown fixed stars; likewise the true cause of the Via Lactea, so long searched [i.e., that it was made of stars]; and lastly, that the moon is not spherical, but endued with many prominences, and, which is all of the strangest, illuminated with the solar light by reflection from the body of the earth [during eclipses], as he seemeth to say. So, as upon the whole subject he hath first overthrown all former astronomy—for we must have a new sphere to save the appearances—and next all astrology.`F For the virtue of these new planets must needs vary the judicial part, and why may there not yet be more? These things I have been bold thus to discourse unto your Lordship, whereof here all corners are full. And the author runneth a fortune to be either exceeding famous or exceeding ridiculous. By the next ship your Lordship shall receive from me one of the above-named instruments, as it is bettered by this man.

I do not know if Donne received a similar letter or if he saw this one, but I do know that by the end of the year of its arrival he had written Ignatius, His Conclave, which describes a voyage to the Moon. In Donne’s voyage, the Moon has been made accessible by drawing it close to the Earth with a Galilean telescope. By the next year, Donne .bfn 1 “A new sphere . . .” refers to the notion, in the pre-Keplerian version of the Copernican system, that celestial objects were attached to spheres which revolved. The observed motions of stars and planets were not uniform and circular so that spheres in various eccentric positions had to be added to “save the appearances.” Wotton did not understand, and neither did Donne, that the real New Astronomy was Kepler’s discovery that planets moved in elliptical orbits—curves in space—and not on attached spheres. I see no evidence from anything that Donne wrote that he had the slightest grasp of this. .efn had published An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary with its indelible lines

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.
This then raises to me one of the most puzzling questions of all: why did Donne seek Kepler out in Linz? What was he hoping to learn?

There seems to be no known comment from Donne about the visit itself. But we do know something about his attitude toward science and religion. One of Gosse’s great contributions was to attempt to order the inchoate mass of Donne’s correspondence which had partially been published without regard for date or even the identity of the persons to whom they were addressed. The first of these publications was by Donne’s son in 1651, and another, equally unruly, was published in 1660 by Sir Toby Mathew. Gosse and Jessopp did their best to bring some coherence to these collections. One long epistle from Donne to perhaps his closest friend, Sir Henry Goodyer, with whom he exchanged letters as often as once a week, Gosse dates as sometime in April of 1615. The letter deals with Catholics and Protestants and the New Astronomy. The following few lines jumped out at me:

I will not, nor need to you, compare the religions. The channels of God’s mercies run through both fields; and they are sister teats of His graces, yet both diseased and infected, but not both alike. And I think, that . . . Copernicism in the mathematics hath carried earth farther up, from the stupid centre; and yet not honoured it, nor advantaged it, because for the necessity of appearances it hath carried heaven so much higher from it. . . .
I wonder if Gosse when he read this thought back to his father. For Philip Henry Gosse, the new science had carried heaven just so much farther away.
From The New Criterion Vol. 16, No. 7, Mar. 1998
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