Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1994 v30 n2 p169(18)

"Lines which circles do contain": circles, the cross, and Donne's dialectic scheme of salvation. Fischler, Alan.

Abstract: The works of John Donne reveal the 17th century writer's dialectic scheme of salvation. Donne envisioned three circles as representing the world's of humanity, God and sin. Sin was in the middle, surrounded by humanity, with God on the outside. The cross of Christ, when drawn upon these circles, represents the means by which humanity still has contact with both God's world and the world of sin. Following the cross from its middle, man's fall, decay, recomposition and ultimate oneness with God can be accounted for.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994 Southern Illinois University

The vast importance attached to the figure of the circle in the theological and cosmological constructs of 17th-century writers is by now a critical commonplace.1 In the works of John Donne, the circle assumes the status of controlling metaphor: it is a figure which at once represents the perfection of God, the cycles of Nature and of the human beings caught up therein, and the solipsistic repetitions of sin. "God hath made all things in a Roundnesse," he maintains in a sermon, "from the round superficies of this earth, which we tread here, to the round convexity of those heavens which ... shall be our footstool, when we come to heaven, God hath wrapped up all things in Circles" (Sermons 7: 396). Focusing primarily on Donne's divine poems, this essay will attempt to bring together and relate his most significant references to circles and, on the basis of these and his ideas about the figure of the cross, to propose a geometric model which embodies his scheme of salvation.

A circular conception of human existence is, of course, integral to the most fundamental archetypes of literature and religion: imaginative assimilation of the natural cycles of decay and regeneration informs the reincarnation myths found in so many cultures. The movements of the sun lead us to associate the east with birth and the west with death; the rotation of the circle of human life is thus toward the west. Created humanity's starting point on its circle is twelve o'clock, for unfallen man stands metaphorically upright. Ben Jonson reflects this notion in The Forrest, as he associates masculine perfection with the noon hour:

At morne, and even, shades are longest;

At noone, they are or short, or none:

So men at weakest, they are strongest

But grant us perfect, they're not knowne.

("Song. That Women are but Men's Shaddowes" 7-10)

Starting from twelve o'clock, then, the westward movement of human beings would be reflected by a counterclockwise rotation of their circle.

For Donne, the order of Nature, in which humanity lives, is a morally neutral one; in Holy Sonnet 9, he recognizes that "poisonous minerals, and ... that tree, / Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us, / ... lecherous goats" and "serpents envious / Cannot be damned" (1-4). Still, while minerals, plants, and animals may lack the culpable souls possessed by human beings, Nature has nonetheless had God's blessing withdrawn from it since Adam's fall: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life" (Genesis 3: 17). It follows, then, that if human life is involved in the now-accursed cycles of natural fruition, the motion of fallen humanity's circle will be directly contrary to that of the circle signifying God.

The anti-divine circularity of human endeavor is a theme of "The First Anniversary":

We seem ambitious, God's whole work to undo;

Of nothing he made us, and we strive too,

To bring ourselves to nothing back . . . . (155-57)

Similarly, in "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward," Donne begins by declaring "Let man's soul be a sphere" (1) and proceeds to lament that, in their fallen state, "Pleasure or business ... our souls admit / For their first mover, and are whirled by it" (7-8). The poet confesses that such is the case in his own life; thus, being primarily concerned with the things of this world, he appropriately follows the sun of Nature in its westward course. But the true "sun," the Son of God, is being raised on the cross in Jerusalem and thus setting in "the east": "There I should see a sun, by rising set, / And by that setting endless day beget" (10-12). And, though Donne admits that now "I turn my back to thee" (37) in his Good Friday journey, he prays for purification and grace and vows that, having once received them, "I'll turn my face" (42) toward the east and follow instead the direction defined by the Saviour's circular sun-like journey.(2)

God's circularity has its own unique significance. "The circle," writes Marjorie Nicolson, "implied both the beginning and the end of all created things" (34-35). As such, it is an apt representation of the Being who is at once Alpha and Omega - who is self-contained as a circle is, and all-containing as the circumference of the spiritual cosmos. Both the metaphor and the rationale for its use are explicitly stated by Donne in a sermon: "Fixe upon God any where, and you shall finde him a Circle; He is with you now, when you fix upon him; He was with you before, for he brought you to this fixation; and he will be with you hereafter, for |He is yesterday, and to day, and the same for ever'" (Sermons 7: 52) - just as a circle is always the same. God's circle is, of course, a perfect one, but it is nonetheless ever-changing and kinetic. Donne says that the soul of Elizabeth Drury "to heaven is gone" where "by making full perfection grow" she "Pieces a circle, and still keeps it so" ("Second Anniversary" 509, 507-8). The idea of the dynamic divine circle, removed from the context of linear time, is also invoked in Holy Sonnet 15, which praises "The Father, having begot a Son most blessed, / And still begetting (for he ne'er begun)" (5-6): beginnings and endings are one in God's sphere.

It is appropriate that the motion of God's circle should be, as "Good Friday, 1613" suggests, toward the east, archetypally conceived of as the source of life; it is likewise appropriate that the sphere of post-lapsarian humanity should turn, in accord with the cycles of Nature, away from this source. And it follows that motion contrary to that of the natural order may prove to be redemptive, for it tends in the direction of God. If we start, again, from the top of a circle, such motion must be not only eastward but also clockwise. Both kinds of movement are suggested in the passage of "A Funeral Elegy" which describes the uniting of Elizabeth Drury's soul with its maker:

... as a sundered clock is piecemeal laid,

Not to be lost, but by the maker's hand

Repolished, without error then to stand,

Or as the Afric Niger stream enwombs

Itself into the earth, and after comes (Having first made a natural bridge, to pass

For many leagues) far greater than it was,

May't not be said, that her grave shall restore

Her greater, purer, firmer than before? (38-46)

A. J. Smith notes that "Donne follows the common opinion in the sixteenth century that the Niger flows eastward into the Nile" (Donne, Complete English Poems 604n); both its current and the movement of the alternative simile's clock replicate the life-directed motion of the divine sphere and thus furnish appropriate vehicles to express the soul's journey toward God. Ticking likewise toward salvation was the clock-like soul of the deceased Lord Harrington:

Why wouldst not thou then, which hadst such a soul,

A clock so true, as might the sun control,

And daily hadst from him, who gave it thee,

Instructions, such as it could never be

Disordered, stay here, as a general

And great sundial, to have set us all?

("Obsequies to the Lord Harrington, brother to the Lady Lucy,

Countess of Bedford" 149-54)

Harrington's movements responded to the promptings of God and might, by example, have pointed others in the proper clockwise direction.

La Corona, a series of sonnets for which the figure of the circle provides both the structure and the subject matter, emphasizes the opposition between this divine circularity and that of Nature.(3) The focus is on the events of Christ's life on earth, but these represent an emphatic reversal of the cycle of Nature, insofar as Christ's birth occurs in Nature's season of death, while his crucifixion takes place in the revivifying springtime. The same implicit contrast is present in the "Anniversary" poems, which celebrate the absorption of Elizabeth Drury's soul into the divine circle, but leave the bereaved natural world whirling through cycles that bring the anniversary of her death back again and again. The opposition between divine and natural circles is made explicit in La Corona, which distinguishes two kinds of crowns: the poet prays for Christ's perpetually flowering "thorny crown" (Sonnet 1, 7), representing God's glory, rather than the "vile crown of frail bays" (5) that rewards fame on earth. But even this former crown, pertaining as it does to Christ's incarnation, has its roots in the natural world and is further contrasted, in "Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness," with the crown of spiritual glory which is the ultimate reward of the blessed: "By these his thorns give me his other crown" (27).

Still, neither the differences between, nor the contrary motions of, the divine and human circles cause Donne to despair; rather, humanity provides the antithesis to a divine thesis, and their opposition culminates in a dialectic synthesis which, for Donne, is the essential condition of salvation. His conception of this process is discussed below; here, though, we need to understand how the dialectic excludes the third circle of Donne's cosmos, which I have nominated "Sin's round." If the circle of God is self-contained and all-containing, the circle of sin is a parody of it, being self-contained and all-excluding. That is, most codes of morality broadly define sin as satisfaction of the self to an extent that precludes performance of duties to entities outside the self, such as God or one's fellow men and women; thus, sin's essence is a self-referential exclusivity. George Herbert, from whom I have borrowed the name for this sphere, apprehends both the parodic and circular aspects of sin: in his poem entitled "Sinnes round," he describes an anti-creative process of creation, wherein the Word made flesh is mimicked as the poet's sinful thoughts produce sinful words which produce sinful deeds, which in turn lead circularly to new sinful thoughts. This solipsistic repetition is likewise conceived as circular by Donne: in "A Hymn to God the Father," he describes his life as a series of sins which ends "when I have spun / My last thread" (13-4). And if the sinner's life whirls as a wheel does, merciful God must follow him in circles in order to save him. "When thou hast done" with forgiveness of the poet's sins, says Donne to God in the same poem, "thou hast not done, / For, I have more" (5-6): as in a circle, the ending of the process leads directly into its beginning anew.

Sin's round does not, however, stand as an antithesis to God's circle - a relationship which would admit the possibility of synthesis and new birth - but rather as a negation of the divine. Its every movement corresponds to and aims to cancel out some initiative of God; its constituent elements demonically replicate aspects of the divine. In earlier literature, Dante's three-headed Satan is an obvious parody of the Trinity; in Donne's own century, Satan, Sin, and Death assume this status in Paradise Lost. And there is horrific circularity involved in the relationship of the latter two figures: in raping his mother Sin, Death literally re-enters the channel whence he came into the world, and the monsters engendered by this rape do the same:

... for when they list, into the womb That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw My bowels, their repast; then bursting forth Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round, That rest or intermission none I find. (2: 798-802)

Donne's previously quoted description of a divine parent "having begot a Son ... / And still begetting (for he ne'er begun)" provides a mirror image to Milton's lines; so, too, does the Christian conception of a Being who is both son and impregnator of the same woman. A similar parodic relationship is established by "The First Anniversary," as the subtraction of the informing, virtuous soul of Elizabeth Drury from the already fallen natural world causes the cycles of Nature to dwindle into the rounds of sin:

The clouds conceive not rain, or do not pour In the due birth time, down the balmy shower. Th'air doth not motherly sit on the earth, To hatch her seasons, and give all things birth. Spring-times were common cradles, but are tombs; And false conceptions fill the general wombs. (381-86)

Christ's springtime tomb and the unnatural conception that filled Mary's womb are the divine originals for this demonic parody. Insofar as the movements in Sin's round thus mimic and parallel those of God, we may conjecture that the motion of this circle imitates the divine clockwise motion. Its constricted solipsism makes it the most inward of the three spheres in Donne's cosmos.

But if we reconstruct this cosmos as three concentric circles turning independently of one another (see Figure 1), we have a situation in which the divine and the human can neither touch nor affect one another - in other words, we are left in an unredeemed universe in which fallen humanity must remain alienated from God. For creator and creature to come together, there must be some sort of linear imposition upon these circles - a spiritual highway system, as it were. In a sermon preached on a text from Psalms, "And all the upright in heart shall glory," Donne refers both to the circularity of sin and the straightness of the path that must be traveled by the Christian who wishes to transcend not just the sphere of sin but that of the natural world:

The disposition that god proposes here in those persons, whom he considers, is Rectitude, Uprightnesse, and Directnesse. God hath given Man that forme in nature, much more in grace, that he should be upright, and looke up, and contemplate Heaven, and God there.... For, the word of this Text, |Iashar,' signifies |Rectitudinem,' and |Planiciem'; It signifies a direct way; for, the Devils way was Circular, Compassing the Earth; But the Angels way to heaven upon Iacobs ladder, was a straight, a direct way. (Sermons 7:243-44)

Elizabeth Drury's soul marks out one such way," as its journey from the human to the divine sphere takes the form of a straight line:

And as these stars were but so many beads Strung on one string, speed undistinguished leads Her through those spheres, as through the beads, a string, Whose quick succession makes it still one thing; As doth the pith, which, lest our bodies slack, Strings fast the little bones of neck, and back; So by the soul doth death string heaven and earth .... ("Second Anniversary" 207-13)

"A Valediction: of Weeping" suggests that a circular sphere, by itself, is nothing - its shape, after all, being that of a naught or a zero - but holds that an overlay can act upon it as God the Creator acts upon the primal void:

On a round ball A workman that hath copies by, can lay An Europe, Afric, and an Asia, And quickly make that, which was nothing, all, So doth each tear, Which thee doth wear, A globe, yea world by that impression grow .... (10-16)

Similarly, in "Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness," where Donne's "physicians by their love are grown / Cosmographers" and the poet is the globe that they study (having become "their map, who lie / Flat on this bed" [6-8]), the experience of being imposed upon - as a globe is when, after being compressed into two dimensions, the lines drawn upon it turn it into a map - sets up a situation conducive to salvation: "As west and east / In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection" (13-15).

But Donne's ultimate concern is with a linear imposition that provides paths to redemption not just for individual souls but for all humankind. As noted earlier, the contrary rotations of his divine and human circles put them in potentially fruitful dialectic opposition to one another, but there must be some connective filaments in order for the shock of these contrary motions to be transmitted between them: only then can there be clash and synthesis. Without such filaments, God would be inaccessible and virtually dead to human beings, while they would remain fallen away from God and condemned to perpetual death by original sin: death, in short, would be the appropriate center to a cosmos composed of unconnected concentric circles. Eusebius relates the well-known story of how the Emperor Constantine was saved from the damnation of false belief by his vision of a cross superimposed on the circular sun; for Donne, the same linear imposition resolves both the geometrical metaphor for, and spiritual reality of, humanity's alienation from God.

The incarnation of Christ may be taken as an emblem of an eventual apocalyptic synthesis between divine and human contraries (the "new heaven and new earth" foretold by Revelation); the cross is the instrument through which Christ makes this ultimate resolution possible. And, in the full working out of the dialectic, the cross not only provides the connections between the divine and human circles but is itself a meeting place for these two contraries - in other words, the cross, too, becomes an emblem of the final synthesis. For Donne argues that God as well as humanity is saved upon the cross from a state in which each would be dead to the other:

Son of God hear us, and since thou By taking our blood, owest it us again, Gain to thy self, or us allow; And let not both us and thy self be slain .... ("A Litany" 244-47)

Both creature and creator are redeemed from virtual death: the one from eternal damnation, and the other from a type of death figured in many of Donne's love poems - that of parting forever from the being he loves. It follows, then, that the instrument of such redemption should combine the divine and the human within itself just as the redeemer who died upon this instrument combined the two. Humankind is redeemed by its own faith intersecting with God's grace; God is "redeemed" by his own sacrifice intersecting with humanity's willingness to accept it. Thus, each becomes part of the other's cross - that is, part of the instrument of the other's redemption.(4) Accordingly, the cross that transects Donne's cosmos must be drawn with one perpendicular representing the divine Christ, and the other representing mortal humanity (see Figure 2).

In his poem on "The Cross," Donne perceives types of this figure all around, and conceives them as covering the whole of humanity's circle: "All the globe's frame, and sphere's, is nothing else / But the meridians crossing parallels" (23-4). But if the cross extended no farther than "the globe's frame" - that is, the circle of Nature - humankind would have no means of transcending its sphere and would consequently be left whirling through endless repetitions of death and regeneration, while Christ, as a deity caught within this cycle, would become merely another type of the dying and reviving vegetation god conceived by pagan cultures. Thus, Donne's expressly Christian scheme of salvation must place the cross not only over humanity's circle but over the entire cosmos, with the final intersections at the circle of God.

The extension of the vertical perpendicular to this point is articulated in "Good Friday, 1613," where Christ is described as "that endless height which is / Zenith to us, and to our antipodes" (23-4). The "zenith," of course, is the highest point in the heavens, which constitute God's circle, and Donne's description tells us that Christ's perpendicular touches this circle twice, at opposite ends of the cosmos. In the interim, after abandoning his original pure essence, Christ is first incarnated into the natural world and then, taking upon himself humanity's sins, enters Sin's round to suffer crucifixion and death upon the cross. The harrowing of hell is Christ's triumphant exit from the circle of sin - a time when the Saviour "enlightened hell / And made the dark fires languish in that vale" ("Resurrection, imperfect" 6-7). The resurrection itself brings him briefly back into the natural world before he re-ascends to his original state of divinity (see Figure 2).

If Christ's line is vertical, humanity's perpendicular must be horizontal. Like Christ's, it spans the entire cosmos. In "The Second Anniversary," Donne addresses his spiritual self thus:

Then, soul, to thy first pitch work up again; Know that all lines which circles do contain, For once that they the centre touch, do touch Twice the circumference; and be thou such; Double on heaven . . . . (435-39)

The soul's "first pitch" was its original oneness with God in Eden; its second intersection with the circumference of God's circle will come when that oneness is restored in the apocalyptic new Paradise described by the final chapter of Revelation. In the time between, original sin impels humanity into the cycles of fallen Nature; subsequently, each human being comes to experience the mortality that punishes this sin. That the process of dying takes us into Sin's circle is implied by Donne's description of sickness as a state in which "Satan's sergeants round about thee be" ("Second Anniversary" 102); death then follows, and the ravages of the curse that comes from sin conclude with the decay of the corpse: "Think that thy body rots, and . . . / Think thee a prince, who of themselves create / Worms which insensibly devour their state" ("Second Anniversary" 115,117-18). Human beings return briefly to the natural world in the moments before the Last Judgment, when "souls . . . to your scattered bodies go" (Holy Sonnet 7, 4);(5) the final apocalyptic movement restores humanity to the divine circle in unity with God (see Figure 2).

"And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die," (Holy Sonnet 10, 14) asserts Donne at the conclusion of his best-known poem; this prophecy, too, is fulfilled by the imposition of the cross over the cosmos. In a universe of unconnected concentric circles, representing the alienation of humanity from God, death was the appropriate center, but now Christ's death cancels out eternal death for humankind as the perpendiculars of the cross intersect at this center. We may say, then (in the spirit in which Donne uses the controlling image of "The Cross"), that death is literally crossed out and eliminated by virtue of the meeting - the dialectic clash and synthesis - of the divine and the human. And Sin's round, which exists not as a contrary to but a negation of God and is thus excluded from the dialectic process, must itself be negated, just as death is. Again, the notion of a circle as a zero may underlie the concluding prayer of "A Litany": "As sin is nothing, let it no where be" (252).

This saving dialectic synthesis of human and divine contraries takes a variety of forms in Donne's poetry. As noted above, Christ is both the means by which this synthesis is effected on the cross and the synthesis itself, for he is God and man in one. In addition, for Donne, a priest and a poet, both priesthood and poetry emerge as earthly embodiments of this synthesis - types of the anticipated apocalyptic conciliation of contraries. In "To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders," the fledgling priest is described in distinctly dialectic terms:

How brave are those, who with their engines, can Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man? These are thy titles and pre-eminences, In whom must meet God's graces, men's offences, And so the heavens which beget all things here, And the earth our mother, which these things doth bear, Both these in thee, are in thy calling knit, And make thee now a blessed hermaphrodite. (47-54)

That the priestly synthesis of the heavenly and earthly is conceived as a "hermaphrodite" suggests that the essential natures of both thesis and antithesis are preserved in him - just as they are in the apocalyptic "new heaven and new earth."

As for poetry, the paradoxes with which Donne's divine verse abounds may also be read as representations of this dialectic clash. However glitteringly ingenious they may be, these paradoxes have solemn points to make; did they not, they would stand condemned in Donne's own mouth, for he prays to be delivered from those moments "When we are moved to seem religious / Only to vent wit. . . " ("A Litany" 188-89). Cleanth Brooks's classic commentary illuminates the serious implications of the poet's paradoxical method: "For us today, Donne's imagination seems obsessed with the problem of unity; the sense in which the lovers become one - the sense in which the soul is united with God. Frequently. . ., one type of union becomes a metaphor for the other. It may not be too far-fetched to see both as instances of, and metaphors for, the union which the creative imagination itself effects. For that fusion is not logical; it apparently violates science and common sense; it welds together the discordant and the contradictory" (18). For a Christian, God incarnate in human form would be the great instance of the sort of "fusion" Brooks describes; building upon his hypothesis, then, we may take the synthesizing poems produced by Donne's imagination as reflective of the great synthesis which is Christ. The comparison between poems and Saviour becomes explicit in the dedicatory poem to La Corona, "To Mrs. Magdalen Herbert: of St. Mary Magdalen," which exhorts the saint's namesake to:

Take so much of th'example, as of the name; The latter half; and in some recompense That they did harbour Christ himself, a guest, Harbour these hymns, to his dear name addressed. (11-14)(6)

The Holy Sonnets provide the best illustrations of Donne's dialectic method, as well as the clearest reflections of God's. As Christ brings the circles of God and humanity into fruitful opposition with each other through imposition of the connective and synthetic cross, so the usual formula for the dialectic of Donne's poetry involves the divine or spiritual effect of a given force - a "thesis" - butting up against the natural, bodily, and entirely antithetical effect of the same force. The red blood of Christ defies natural law by dyeing "red souls to white" (Holy Sonnet 4,14), as does a fiery zeal for God "which doth in eating heal" (Holy Sonnet 5, 14). Similar paradoxes pervade Holy Sonnet 14, where rising is achieved by overthrow (just as it is in a revolving circle) and chastity through ravishment; in Holy Sonnet 18, the fidelity of Christ's spouse (the true Church) asserts itself "When she is embraced and open to most men" (14). And, though the poet begins Holy Sonnet 19 by expressing his vexation that "contraries meet in one" (1), he is moved nearer to God by this very circumstance, as sickness begets health in the "devout fits" which "come and go away / Like a fantastic ague" (12-13).

Reflecting upon the crucifixion in "Good Friday, 1613," Donne speaks of "those hands which span the poles, / And turn all spheres at once" (21-22). Smith cites "tune" as an alternate reading for "turn" (Donne, Complete English Poems 652n), but eitherword conveys an image of Christ on the cross harmonizing the formerly discordant motions of the circles of God and humanity. To be sure, this image is a sad one, as the horizontally extended hands of the Saviour are "pierced with . . . holes," just as his vertical "height which is / Zenith to us and to our antipodes" is disgracefully "Humbled below us" (22, 23-25). But it is the extension of these perpendiculars across "all spheres" that saves humanity ("But that Christ on this Cross, did rise and fall, / Sin had eternally benighted all": 13-14) and permits transcendence of Nature and re-entry into God's circle, the starting point of human history. Thus, in lines 3-5 of "Upon the Annunciation and Passion falling upon one day. 1608," Donne may speak immediately of the incarnate Christ but seems ultimately to refer to redeemed humanity when he celebrates "man" who is "so like God made in this, / That of them both a circle emblem is, / Whose first and last concur . . . ."

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1947.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
____. The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter. Berkeley: U of California P, 1953-61.
Duncan, Joseph E. "Resurrections in Donne's 'A Hymne to God the Father' and 'Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse.'" John Donne Journal 7 (1988): 183-93.
Hall, Michael L. "Circles and Circumvention in Donne's Sermons." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (1983): 201-14.
Jonson, Ben. Poems of Ben Jonson. Ed. George Burke Johnston. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1954.
Maurer, Margaret. "The Circular Argument of Donne's La Corona." Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 51-68.
Milton, John. The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton. Ed. Douglas Bush. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. The Breaking of the Circle. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1950.
O'Connell, Patrick F. "La Corona: Donne's Ars Poetica Sacra." The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 119-30.
Severance, Sibyl Lutz. "Soul, Sphere, and Structure in 'Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.'" Studies in Philology 84 (1987): 24-43.
Sherwood, Terry G. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984.
Thomas, John A. "The Circle: Donne's Underlying Unity." The Need Beyond Reason and Other Essays. College of Humanities Centennial Lectures 1975-76. Provo: Brigham Young UP, 1975. 89-103.

(1) Nicolson is certainly the seminal work on this issue. The significance of the circle for Donne, in particular, has been explored in Thomas, but there is little overlap between this earlier essay and the present study: Thomas pays more attention to Donne's prose than his poetry, and is unconcerned with proposing a scheme or pattern in which Donne might explicitly or implicitly have arranged the different circles of his spiritual cosmos. Also focused on Donne's prose is Hall. Some of Hall's points parallel those I make about the poetry: he, too, argues that Donne employs the image of the circle "to emphasize the gulf between the human and the divine, excluding man from God's circle and isolating him within a circle of his own, separate from God, cut off by original sin" (202) and notes Donne's belief that "God has provided in Christ a means of transcending the earthly cycle of birth and death" (203). Less relevant to this issue than one might expect is Sherwood. While holding that "Christ, his life, the Church, man's soul, man's life, and the history of salvation - all are 'circles,'" (13), Sherwood's book is not substantially concerned with elaborating on the circularity of the particular items on this list nor with exploring the relationships of these circles to one another: though it includes intensive consideration of issues central to Donne's religious ideas, its references to circles are scattered and casual. (2) For an analysis of the symmetry of this poem's structure, and an argument that "[t]hrough this symmetry, Donne creates his formal trope of poem as circle, corresponding to the metaphor of soul as sphere," see Severance. (3) For a detailed and cogent analysis of this structure and its significance, see Maurer. (4) In a sermon, Donne explains how human beings may come to share with Christ the experience of the cross: "Our Saviour saith, |Hee that will follow me, let him take up his crosse and follow me.' . . . The afflictions of the godly crucifies them. And when I am come to that conformity with my Saviour, as to fulfill his sufferings in my flesh,' . . . then I am crucified with him, carried up to his Crosse . . ." (Sermons 2: 299-300). (5) On the importance of bodily resurrection in Donne's religious thought, see Duncan (especially 189-90). Duncan observes that "The body is essential to Donne's view of the resurrection to glory and of heaven. Very explicitly, he states, |I am not received into heaven, if my body be left out.' He rejoices that it will be the same body, though transfigured"(189). Clearly, in order to claim this "same body," the soul must make a return to the world of Nature before taking the final step on the path toward reunion with God. (6) For a complicated but compelling analysis of how the poet of La Corona transcends the "self-centered individualism" of the sequence's first sonnet and, "through dying and rising with Christ" in the subsequent sonnets reaches the point at which "The gift that the poet finally presents to God in La Corona is the divine image itself" embodied in the poems, see O'Connell.