Title: Donne's imperfect resurrection.
Subject(s): RESURRECTION in literature; DONNE, John -- Criticism & interpretation
Author(s): Frontain, Raymond-Jean
Source: Papers on Language & Literature, Fall90, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p539, 7p
Abstract: Focuses on John Donne's use of the subject of resurrection as the central trope of his imagination, informing his religious as well as his amorous work. Meaning of the title of Donne's work `Resurrection, imperfect'; Ruth E. Falk's interpretation of the meaning of Donne's work.
AN: 9610231626
ISSN: 0031-1294
Database: TOPICsearch
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Works Cited

Resurrection, as Kathryn R. Kremer astutely observes, "represents an image of complete and perfect unity--of man and God, of the real and the ideal, of body and soul, of the individual and the collective, of present and future, of time and eternity, of subject and object, of man's beginning and end" (23). Concerned as Donne was with discovering a unity that could rescue man from his mortal destiny of fragmentation and dissolution, resurrection became the central trope of his imagination, informing his religious as well as his amorous work. "Cum credimus, nihil desideramus ultra credere; when I believe God in Christ, dead, and risen againe according to the Scriptures, I have nothing else to beleeve," affirms the preacher (S 10: 151).[1] One would expect at least one poem in which he meditated at length on the mystery of the resurrection, as he does in "Resurrection, imperfect." What is surprising is that Donne did not finish it, a conclusion suggested by the Latin tag appended by an unknown hand to the 1633 printed version: "Desunt caetera" 'the rest is lacking.' The ambivalent "imperfect" in the title was for many years regarded as a comment on the unfinished state of the text.[2] In 1958, however, Ruth E. Falk provocatively suggested that both the title and the Latin end tag are not only Donne's own, but serve to emphasize that "the resurrection of the soul, as represented by Christ, is perfect but the resurrection of man is an unfinished task, and will remain so until the end of the world." It is possible to take this further still with the understanding that the word "imperfect" is a comment as well upon one of the two orders of "planetary" resurrection which are contrasted in the poem, and a statement of man's final inability to comprehend one of Christianity's most difficult mysteries.

The "wound" taken by the "old Sun" on "friday last"--that is, the eclipse of the sun from noon until 3 P.M. while Christ suffered on the cross (Matt. 27.45)--suggests the imperfection of nature as a result of original sin, as opposed to the perfection of supranature which redeemed humankind from that sin and so allows us to "eclipse" or transcend the natural order of sin and death. Two days have passed, the speaker declares in line 1, and the "old Sun" has yet to "repast" or recover from that wound. As Shawcross glosses the line, "repast" also means "to pass beyond." The two "suns" seem to compete, and the poem works to contrast both them and the orders which they incarnate, in effect extending the conclusion reached in an undated Trinity Sunday sermon, that "in his re-assuming his body in the Resurrection," Christ changed the course of nature and so proved himself the lord of nature.[3]

This interpretation is most obvious in terms of age. The "old Sun," created on the fourth day of the world (Gen. 1.14-19) and functioning daily since, has been eclipsed in strength and vigor by "A better Sun"--Jesus, the Son of God and Light of the World. Like the "Busie old foole" in "The Sunne Rising," whose "age askes ease" (1,27), the "old Sun" in "Resurrection, imperfect" is feeble and needs rest. The "better Sun," youthful and more vigorous, actually rose before the elderly planet on Easter Sunday morning (4), for as Matt. 28.1-7 records, when the two Marys went to the tomb "as it began to dawn," the body of their crucified Lord had already risen from the dead. "Old," then, signifies both a comparison (the planet is more aged than the just-resurrected, glorified body of Christ) and a derogation (the planet is weaker).[4]

The conflict is further developed in terms of mission and powers, for other limitations of the planet Sun are stressed in lines 4-12:

A better Sun rose before thee to day,
Who, not content to 'enlighten all that dwell
On the earths face, as thou, enlightened hell,
And made the darke fires languish in that vale,
As, at thy presence here, our fires grow pale.
Whose body having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to Heaven, would, that he might allow
Himselfe unto all stations, and fill all,
For these three daies become a minerall. . . .

As part of the natural order, the "old Sun" is "content" to enlighten only "all that dwell / On the earths face." But through his Harrowing of Hell, while his mortal part was consigned to the tomb, the Son penetrated both spatially below the "earths face" where the other's light has never reached, and temporally to the Jews and virtuous pagans who lived even before his light had been made incarnate.[5] Thus, while the "old Sun" has power over the physical world, the "better Sun" easily "allow[s] / Himselfe unto all stations" or regions, his light "fill[ing] all" (1011). The sun, omnipotent in the natural order, is here relatively powerless, its sphere of influence more narrowly circumscribed than that of the "better" sun. Indeed, the power of nature, the speaker suggests, is entirely relative: just as a fire's light pales before the light of the sun, so the sun's light fades before the more powerful spiritual revelation of the Son.

The conflict between the physical and spiritual orders, between nature and grace, develops in the alchemical conceit that dominates the poem. Alchemists believed that the sun possessed the transmutative power to change into gold the minerals buried beneath the earth's surface when they were warmed by its heat.[6] For three days the inanimate body of the crucified Christ likewise lay as "a minerall" beneath the earth's surface; but He was already "all gold when he lay downe" only to rise on Easter Sunday morning "All tincture"--that is, as the quintessence or most highly refined material (12-14). But Donne pushes this alchemical conceit even further. Tincture is a necessary agent for changing low and imperfect metals in nature to higher and purer ones. Medicinally, it purges elements of their base qualities and supplements their good ones. Because the "better Sun's" powers are spiritual, not merely physical, Christ is able to "dispose / Leaden and iron wills to good" (14-15). The "old Sun" is incapable of enlightening the human heart, which the "better Sun" harrows even as he did Hell, the light of his grace reducing the darkness of sin until, spiritually converted, men struggle to control their sinful impulses and, spiritually rarified, become more like Christ himself.[7]

Monotonously repeating daily what the "better Sun" has done once and for eternity--and performing merely on a physical plane what the "better Sun" does "unto all stations"--the "old Sun" in its natural resurrection is but an imperfect copy of the supranatural one, the paradigm of all resurrections (S 3: 97). Like the speaker of "The Sunne Rising" who, having attained a state of bliss which allows him to transcend the limitations of time and mortality symbolized by the sun running its diurnal course, the speaker of "Resurrection, imperfect" can patronizingly tell the "old Sun" to stay in bed and rest, for its services are no longer needed, having been superseded.

The poem's final lines, however, both suggest why any description of the perfect resurrection is ultimately imperfect, and move towards a realization of the value of the albeit imperfect daily resurrection of the "Old Sun." Scripture records that no mortal witnessed Christ's resurrection from the tomb, which makes the Resurrection a matter of faith, something to be taken on "the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11.1). Hypothesizing the existence of someone so piously credulous as to believe the soul can be seen leaving the body after death,[8] the speaker insists that the transfigured body which arose from the tomb would have appeared so glorious and so unlike any other body that a witness could only have concluded it was not a body but a soul, and not even the soul of any individual but that "of the whole" (17-22). The hypothetical witness's foolish credulity reminds us that such a transfiguration could not be seen--or if it could, that its blinding intensity could not be withstood. Any attempt to describe the perfect Resurrection is itself false or imperfect. Thus, on one level Donne has written himself into a corner and "Des-unt caetera" (if the comment is Donne's)--he discontinues writing. But on another level, in describing in derogatory terms the imperfect "resurrection" of the sun, the speaker has described as much as can be put into words. Human intelligence, limited to what it can read in God's book of nature, teases from what can be seen the evidence of that which cannot. The sun's resurrection, imperfect as it is, is the best emblem of that "better" resurrection that is available to man. "Desunt caetera" the rest is lacking because it cannot be told: "The Resurrection of Christ, was so far from being cleare and obvious to the best, and the best illumined understandings, as that, though Christ himself had spoken often of his Resurrection, to his Disciples, and Apostles, yet they did not clearly, thoroughly, (scarce at all) understand his Resurrection. . . . Christs Resurrection, even after it was actually accomplished, was still a mystery, out of the com-passe of reason" (S 7: 99-100). Any description of the Resurrection is in its very attempt imperfect; and the imperfect resurrection of the "old Sun" is all that human eye has seen and speech can tell.

  1. Donne argues this same point at greater length in his Easter 1623 sermon (S 4: 355): The Heathen confesse Christs death; To believe his Resurrection, is the proper character of a Christian: for the first stone of the Christian faith, was laid in this article of the Resurrection; In the Resurrection only was the first promise performed, Ipse conteret, He shall bruise the Serpents head; for, in this, he triumphed over Death, and Hell; And the last stone of our faith, is laid in the same article too, that is, the day of Judgement; of a day of Judgement God hath given assurance unto all men (saies S. Paul at Athens) In that he hath raised Christ Jesus from the dead. In this Christ makes up his circle; in this he is truly Alpha and Omega, His comming in Paradise a promise, his comming to Judgement in the clouds, are tied together in the resurrection: And therefore all the Gospell, all our preaching, is contracted to that one text, To beare witnesse of the Resurrection. . . .
  2. The 1633 Poems of J D prints the Latin tag, but as John T. Shawcross points out, it is omitted in both Trinity College Dublin, a Group II manuscript, and O'Flaherty, a Group III manuscript. See Poems 1633 161-62; Complete Poetry 486-87. "The title refers to the fact that the poem is incomplete," comments Shawcross 353. Likewise, Smith 659 glosses the poem as incomplete, and Patrides 451 explains "'imperfect' in that the poem is unfinished." Donne's earlier modern editors--Grosart, Grierson, and Gardner--do not comment at all. Conviction that the poem is incomplete has forestalled discussion of it except in terms of the alchemical conceit in 12-16; see n6 below. Hughes's conclusion that "the fact 'Resurrection' is a fragment makes it impossible to see the full scope of Donne's intentions" (130) seems to express the otherwise unstated attitude of the interpretive community, for it is the least commented upon of Donne's poems.
  3. For, Mutare naturam, nisi qui Dominus naturae est, non potest: Whosoever is able to change the course of nature, is the Lord of nature; And he that is so, made it; and he that made it, that created it, is God. Nay, plus est, it is more to change the course of Nature, then to make it; for, in the Creation, there was no reluctation of the Creature, for there was no Creature, but to divert Nature out of her setled course, is a conquest upon a resisting adversary, and powerfull in a prescription. (S 3: 295) This Christ did "in his re-assuming his body in the Resurrection," among other acts. Cf. the argument in Sermons 2: 208-09 that in defeating death, the "better Sun" proved that he was not subject to the laws of nature: "Again, the penalty of death appertaining only to them, who were derived from Adam by carnall, and sinfull generation, Christ Jesus being conceived miraculously of a Virgin, by the over-shadowing of the Holy Ghost, was not subject to the Law of death; and therefore in his person, it is a true answer to this Quis homo? Here is a man, that shall not see death. . . ."
  4. The seventeenth-century idea that the world was decaying has been extensively explored, most notably by Harris; Nicolson; Guibbory, esp. ch. 3.
  5. The re-creative power of the Harrowing of Hell is linked with those of the Incarnation and the Resurrection in the sermon preached Whitsunday 1623(?): "That which had power to open Heaven [by the crucifixion, making salvation possible to men] in his descent hither, and to open hell in his descent thither, to open the wombe of the Virgin in his incarnation, and the wombe of the Earth in his Resurrection, that which could change the frame of Nature in Miracles . . . cannot be meerely, absolutely nothing, but the greatest thing that can be conceived" (S 5: 81). Death becomes a rebirth, hell the womb from which renewed life comes. Hulme traces the development of the idea of Christ's descent into hell (lxiii-lxvii).
  6. Donne refers to the alchemical process in the Somerset epithalamion:
The earth doth in her inward bowels hold
Stuffe well dispos'd, and which would faine be gold,
But never shall, except it chance to lye
So upward, that heaven gild it with his eye. (61-64)

Similarly, Milton's Satan bespeaks the inability of any observer, in surveying the "plant, fruit, flower ambrosial, gems and gold" which adorn heaven's surface,

not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till touched
With heaven's ray, and tempered they shoot forth
So beauteous, opening to the ambient light.
(PL 6.472-81; cf. 3.608-12, 8.95-96)

Cf. MacDonald 134. I depend upon Duncan's recovery of Donne's alchemical images and values throughout this paragraph and the next. Significantly, what little comment exists on Donne's poem is in this regard: see Grosart 2.xxxvi; Maxwell; Mazzeo 83-84; Crashaw 347; Lindon.

7 Christ's resurrection is the argument for men's resurrection, Donne insists. So that the Resurrection of Christ is argument enough to prove, that Christ is made Lord of all; And if he be Lord, he hath Subjects, that do as he does; And so his Resurrection is become an argument, and an assurance of our Resurrection too; and that is as far as we shall go in our second part [of the sermon], That first Christs Resurrection is proofe enough to us of his Dominion, if he be risen, be is Lord, and then his Dominion is proofe enough to us of our Resurrection, if he be Lord, Lord of us, we shall rise too: And when we have paced, and passed through all these steps, we shall in some measure have solemnized this day of the Resurrection of Christ; and in some measure have made it the day of our Resurrection too. (S 4: 346)

Likewise, "He is risen, not only raised, and therefore the Son of God; and risen for our Justification, therefore we are risen in him" (S 9: 212). Alchemically renewed by the action of the arisen sun. man paradoxically is transformed by death in that his body can be resurrected from the earth: "Thou that was once nothing, wast made this that thou art now; and when thou shalt be nothing againe, thou shalt be made better then thou art yet" (S 3: 97). As the poet says in "Resurrection, imperfect," Christ's resurrection is "of power to make even sinfull flesh like his" (16).

8 In "The Extasy" Donne employs a similar device of a hypothetical witness, although in the case of the love poem it is a reliable witness who has been educated in love's philosophy and so who is capable of recognizing, after overhearing their "dialogue of one," the identity of the ecstatic lovers. The credulous witness in "Resurrection, imperfect," however, is more like the superstitious French among whom Donne lived as he followed in meditation the progress of Elizabeth Drury's soul to heaven in the Second Anniversary 511-16.

Works Cited

Crashaw, Elund. "Hermetic Elements in Donne's Poetic Vision." John Donne: Essays in Celebration. Ed. J.A. Smith. London: Methuen, 1972.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. C.A. Patrides. London: Dent, 1985.

-----. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A.J. Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

-----. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1967.

-----. The Divine Poems of John Donne. Ed. Helen Gardner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978. This edition cited in text.

-----. Poems 1633. Rpt. ed. Menston, Engl.: Scolar, 1969.

-----. The Sermons of John Donne. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter. 10 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1953-1962.

Duncan, Edgar H. "Donne's Alchemical Figures." ELH 9 (1942): 257-85.

Falk, Ruth E. "Donne's Resurrection, Imperfect." Explicator 17 (1958): item 24.

Grosart, Alexander. "Essay on the Life and Writings of Donne." The Complete Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. London, 1873.

Guibbory, Achsah. The Map of Time: Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Ideas of Pattern in History. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Harris, Victor. All Coherence Gone. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1949.

Hughes, Richard. The Progress of the Soul: The Interior Career of John Donne. New York: Morrow, 1968.

Hulme, William Henry, ed. The Middle English "Harrowing of Hell" and "Gospel of Nicodemus." Extra Series No. 100. London: EETS, 1907.

Kremer, Kathryn R. The Imagination of the Resurrection: The Continuity of a Religious Motif in Donne, Blake, and Yeats. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1972.

Lindon, Stanton J. "Mystical Alchemy, Eschatology, and Seventeenth-Century Religious Poetry." Pacific Coast Philology 19 (1984): 79-88.

MacDonald, Ronald R. The Burial-Places of Memory: Epic Underworlds in Vergil, Dante, and Milton. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.

Maxwell, Herbert. "All Tincture." Notes and Queries 168 (1935): 104.

Mazzeo, J.A. "Notes on John Donne's Alchemical Imagery." Renaissance and Seventeenth Century Studies. New York: Columbia UP, 1964.

Milton, John. The Poems of John Milton. Ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler. London: Longman, 1972.

Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. The Breaking of the Circle: Studies in the Effect of the "New Science" on Seventeenth-Century Poetry* New York: Columbia UP, 1960.