In "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," John Donne's use of the verb "elemented" to characterize the love of "sublunary lovers" sounds only mildly unidiomatic. It is generally glossed as meaning "composed,"(n1) and the OED cites several other writers who use it in that sense around the same time. But the word is rather learned than popular, and the English language contexts in which Donne's contemporaries use it do not communicate a full sense of its learned references.(n2) For that we must turn to the medieval Latin term and concept from which it was derived: elementata.
Judged by classical standards, the characteristic medieval use of the term is also mildly unidiomatic, a fact which makes it stand out so that we may trace the development and discussion of the special concept for which it stands. Indeed Theodore Silverstein has to a large extent done so,(n3) and the term, even in the earliest occurrence he cites, appears in a context which by the look of it has special relevance to Donne's poem. That context is William of Conches's attempt, around 1130, to define the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) by combining traditional cosmology derived from Plato(n4) with the physiology of Galen, newly acquired through the Arabs. He thus places the four elements in a single perspective with such bodily parts as Donne's "eyes, lips, and hands" (although William actually names "humors, bones, hands, and feet"). These bodily parts, Williams says, are not elements (elementa) but things elemented (elementata), as also are earth, water, air, and fire as we perceive them, for the true elements in their purity are not available to the senses but must be known by the intellect. Hence, in Donne's terms, lovers "whose soul is sense" would have nothing available to them except elementata, things "elemented."
The next development seems to be the contrasting use of elementa and elementata in the translations, done in 1133 and 1140, of Albumasar's Introductorium Maius, the sources of which include Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy (Lemay 43). In Albumasar the terms are used as equivalents of, respectively, Aristotle's stoicheia and his somatica, as employed in his De Generatione et Corruptione (Lemay 74 and 87), and the whole process of coming-to-be and passing-away, including that of Galenic physiological items, is a strictly sublunar phenomenon controlled by the stars in a Ptolemaic universe. According to Albumasar, the sublunar world is composed of elements and things elemented. The four bodily humors (coleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic) are mixtures of things elemented. Elements cannot be known sensibly, but things elemented can, for such qualities as color and taste are their properties.(n5) Albumasar has thus located bodies, according to Aristotelian element-theory, firmly in the sublunar realm of the Ptolemaic cosmology which informs Donne's poem, 9-20, the immediate context of the term "elemented."
Dominicus Gundissalinus, in about 1150, treats the materials we have been discussing so as to call attention to the difference between corporeal and incorporeal substances,(n6) and in so doing he contrasts elemented things not only with elements but also with incorporeal substances. Elemented things are corporeal, mixtures resolvable into the corporeal elements which the sublunar world wholly comprises. Although both elements and elemented things are sublunar, the elemented things are lower, so to speak, being ontologically posterior to the elements and far from those superlunar substances which are neither elements nor elemented, which are unavailable to sense impression but available to intellect. Hence Donne's superior lovers, unlike others, are able to be "inter-assured of the mind." Their love is "so much refined" because it is not elemented but is in fact of the Aristotelian fifth essence, which is incorporeal, the purest of substances.(n7)
From the writers I have been quoting and from their associates and followers there developed a tradition of philosophic discourse in which the term elementata makes key distinctions. The conceptions continued to be discussed in the characteristic language here illustrated; the term was recorded in later medieval glossaria and survived even in some Renaissance dictionaries.(n8) Exactly where Donne learned of it is uncertain, but it seems that he did learn of it, and such information affects one's reading of the poem. It helps to locate the sublunar lovers more precisely at a very low point on the scale of being and thus separates their love more widely from the love which the poem celebrates. And it points to the poem's richness and complexity simply by providing the scholastic framework in which alone the term "elemented" has its full meaning, and thus, incidentally, gives additional substance to Douglas Bush's remark that the "essential quality of Renaissance poetry is its medievalism" (Bush xii). Most of all, I think, it confirms one's conviction that John Donne knew what he was talking about and had a firm intellectual grasp on the bearings of the ideas his poetry invoked.
(n1). The most reductive version of the gloss is that of Grierson 2:41: "`Elemented' is just `composed,' and the things are enumerated later, 20. `eyes, lips, hands.'"
(n2). The good Latinist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, however, saw that Donne had in mind something metaphysical (literally, in the philosophical sense). From Donne's usage he derived for the verb element the definition, "to make as a first principle."
(n3). Silverstein is tracing elementum as a substantive, but rerum elementata is functionally equivalent, as may be seen by comparing the two translations of Albumasar (discussed below) where John of Spain uses the single substantive and Hermann of Carinthia uses the phrase. John's translation remains in manuscript whereas Hermann's went through five Renaissance editions between 1485 and 1515. My references are to Hermann's translation.
(n4). The tradition developed in commentaries on the Timaeus and in them was fused with the Aristotelean doctrine of elements. See Dijksterhuis 119-20.
(n5). Introductorium Maius IV .2 (Venice, 1489), fol. C V: "Commixtiones vem colera: sanguis: flegma: mehocolica . . . elementis nature quidem inest & proprietas sua cuique non autem color neque sapor que in rebus elementatis insunt."
(n6). "Et substantia corporea, quae est corpus, diuisa est in corpus, quad est elementum, et in corpus, quad est elementatum tantum, ut omnia sensibilia a luna inferius, et in corpus nec dementum, nec elementatum, ut omne corpus, quad est a luna superius. Corpus, quad elementatum est taotum, secundum elongationem sui a motu superiorum aduenientibus caliditate et frigiditate, siccitate et humiditate distinctum est in illa prima quattuor simplicia corpora, quae dicuntur elernenta, ex quibus omne mundanum corpus hoc, sublunare scilicet, integraliter componuntur. Proles uero mundane eorum commixtione et conuersione generatur" (Gundissalinus 44).
(n7). It is called "quinta . . . nature" in Albumasar, fol. a5 v.
(n8). Silverstein 161-62 quotes from Giovanni Balbi, Summa que Catholicon appcilatur .,, emendata per prcstantem virum magistrum Petrus Egidium . . . (Leyden, 1520), s.v. elementum, and Matthew Martin, Lexicon philologicum (Frankfurt, 1655), s.v. elementum.
Albumasar. Introductorium Maius. Venice, 1489.
Bush, Douglas. Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition. 1937. New York: Norton, 1963.
Dijksterhuis, E. I. The Mechanization of the World Picture. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961.
Grierson, H. J. C. The Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912.
Gundissalinus, Dominicus. De Processione Mundi. Ed. G. Bulow as Die Dominicus Gundissalinus Schrift "don dem Vorgange der Welt." Beitrage z. Geschichte d. Philos. d. Mittelalters 24. Munich, 1925.
Lemay, Richard. Abu Ma `shar and Latin Aristotelianism in the Twelfth Century. Univ. of Beirut Publications of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Oriental Series 88. Beirut, 1969.
Silverstein, Theodore. "Elementatum: Its Appearance Among Twelfth-Century Cosmogonists." Medieval Studies 16 (1954): 156-62.
By Edgar S. Laird, SOUTHWEST TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY