Title: MOSES, DANTE, AND THE VISIO DEI OF DONNE'S "GOING TO BED" ,  By: Frontain, Raymond-J., ANQ, 0895769X, Jan93, Vol. 6, Issue 1
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In John Donne's "Going to Bed" multiple references to theophanic experience, or to the reception of some divine revelation, combine to support the speaker's plea to his mistress that she reveal herself completely to him as she undresses for bed and so allow him to experience an ecstasy that is simultaneously sexual and spiritual.[1] The poem turns upon the parenthetical qualification made within lines 38-43: "Like pictures or like books gay coverings made / For lay-men, are all women thus array'd. / Themselves are mystick books, which only wee / (Whom their imputed grace will dignifie) / Must see reveal'd." The woman is, thus, both a revelation designed for the chosen few and the guardian of that revelation; both the "mystick book" and the superior spirit with power to impute to the speaker the grace necessary to make him worthy of receiving the coveted message. Rather than being "the celebration of simple appetite" or "a pornographic poem . . . intended to arouse in the reader the appetite it describes," as C.S. Lewis claims (102)--that is, a description of a situation in which the woman is verbally manipulated by a chauvinistic voyeur--the poem is a self-consciously powerless but audacious speaker's petition to be permitted the full extent of the woman's revelation. "Knowledge" of her will entail both sexual orgasm and the impartation of a mystical knowledge whose exact nature cannot be specified to the general reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, "Going to Bed" not only intensifies the erotic nature of the scene which Donne borrowed from Ovid's Amores 1.5, but shares several significant features with The Revelation of John: a complex pattern of sight images; a process of revelation from God through a host of angelic media; the idea of the "mystick" text whose meaning is not necessarily clear, perhaps is even deliberately obscure; and a distinction between those capable and those incapable of spiritual discernment. In attempting to provoke a sexual apocalypse, Donne seems to be playing upon the Greek derivation of that word. Kalyrnma is a shroud or wedding veil, and thus apocalypse means "revelation or disclosure by unveiling"--a suggestion still enacted in our practice of leading the veiled bride into church and raising her veil at a certain moment in the ceremony.[2] And, although "Going to Bed" was probably written before Donne .began studying Hebrew with John Layfield, one of the greatest Hebraists of his day (Bald 281-82), Donne did not need to know the multiple meanings of the Hebrew verb yada (among them, "to have knowledge of" and "to have sexual intercourse with") to grasp the biblical association of knowledge with sexual intercourse that has come down to us in the euphemism of knowing someone "in the biblical sense."[3]

Thus, it should not be surprising to discover two additional references to theophany or to visio dei within the poem, neither of which has been publicly noted insofar as I can determine. First, lines 17-18, in which the speaker tells his mistress, "Now off with those shooes, and then softly tread / In this loves hallow'd temple, this soft bed" echo Exodus 3:6, in which the voice from the Burning Bush commands Moses to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. In both cases, removal of footwear is preparatory to one member of the relationship's entering into the realm of the holy, as well as to the reception or impartation of divine knowledge. Curiously, the voice from the Burning Bush commands Moses to lead the Israelites to "a land flowing with milk and honey" while Donne's speaker progresses to the discovery of "my America! my new-found-land!" Thus, both Moses and the speaker of "Going to Bed" are directed to a promised land of varying spiritual and sensual significance.

Second, the comparison made in lines 13-14 of the splendor revealed by the woman's gown falling off her shoulders to the revelation of "flowry meads" when, as the day progresses, the shadow of a neighboring hill "steales" away, is similar to the analogy made in mystical writing between the inability of looking fully upon God and the necessity of shading one's eyes when looking upon the sunlit world. For example, in Dante's Paradiso 23, Dante and Beatrice have ascended to the eighth sphere where Dante is inspired by Beatrice's own blissful expectation with a yearning for something yet unseen. The heavens grow more and more resplendent and Beatrice's face glows, aflame with joy as the triumph of Christ is made manifest in a light so bright it blinds the pilgrim. Only after Beatrice coaxes him to open his eyes again by reminding him that it is useless to attempt to defend oneself against "la sapienza e la possanza / ch'apri le strade tra 'l cielo e la terra, / onde fu gia si lunga disianza" ("the Wisdom and the Potency / that opened the roads between the earth and Heaven, / the paths for which desire had long since waited"---lines 37-39), does the pilgrim steel himself to sustain the radiance of her smile. She then directs him to look upon that "bel giardino / che sotto i raggi di Cristo s'infiora" ("fair garden blossoming beneath Christ's rays"-lines 71-72). Giving himself up to what he calls "the battle of the feeble brows," the pilgrim exclaims at the mercy of Christ who has partly withdrawn to prevent Dante from being blinded by his savior's brightness:

Come a raggio di sol, che puro mei
per fratta nube, gia prato di fiori
vider, converti d'ombra, li occhi miei;

vid' io cosi piu turbe di splendori,
folgorate di su da raggi ardenti,
sanza veder principio di folgori.

O benigna vertu che si li 'mprenti,
su t'essaltasti per largirmi loco
a li occhi li che non t'eran possenti.

(Under a ray of sun that, limpid, streams
down from a broken cloud, my eyes have seen,
while shade was shielding them, a flowered meadow;

so I saw many troops of splendors here
lit from above by burning rays of light,
but where those rays began was not in sight.

O kindly Power that imprints them thus,
you rose on high to leave space for my eyes--
for where I was, they were too weak to see you!)

                                    [lines 79-87]

In Canto 22, Beatrice's joyous expectation of the pageant of the souls of the redeemed and of the effulgent forms of Christ and the Virgin Mary was compared to that of a bird awaiting sunrise. Christ as the sun whose glory illuminates the splendor of the created universe, and the "flowered meadow" as the Book of Nature in which the Christian may read God's revelation, are tropes which inform Donne's own image of the "flowry meads," available to him in Dante and elsewhere.[4] But whereas Dante the pilgrim is grateful for the "broken cloud" which diffuses the divine radiance, Donne's speaker gleefully anticipates the unmediated revelation of his mistress's naked glory.

Through such allusions Donne attempts to integrate the sexual and the spiritual. I cannot agree with Clay Hunt that "the artistic paradox of the Elegy--its mixture of bumptious, perverse wit with excited philosophic speculation and strong emotion--is never fully resolved in the poem" (21).[5] Rather, the poem is a very successful, playful and witty expression of what T. Anthony Perry calls "erotic spirituality"--that is, an appreciation of woman as neither Eva nor Ave, as neither pure spirit nor clay-bound flesh, but as both at once. As the speaker of one of the Holy Sonnets is able to conclude upon the death of "she whome I lovd": "Here the admyring her my mind did whett / To seeke thee God; so streames do shew the head."[6]


1. Clay Hunt was the first to discuss the poem in terms of its "intricate and detailed analogy between the ecstatic physical consummation of this affaire de corps and the consummation of a purely spiritual love in the religious ecstasy of the Beatific Vision" (21).

2. In this context I am reminded of a lyric by Emily Dickinson: " 'Morning'--means . . . / Just revelation--to the Beloved-- . . . / Brides--an Apocalypse" (141).

3. The Geneva Bible, for example, translates the phrase so. The gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalen, which Donne could not have known directly but whose ideas are implicit in the Spanish mystical literature he studied, further develops this association; see Pagels (18ff).

4. Donne's reading of the Inferno is substantiated both by his reference to the poem in Satyre IV and by his criticism of it in a prose letter to his friend, ambassador to the Venetian Republic Sir Henry Wotton. I am currently completing a study of Donne's indebtedness to Paradiso in his Second Anniversary.

5. Docherty's comments are just as extreme, asserting that the poem is a demand for "acknowledgement of the power which . . . [Donne's phallus] is supposed to give him" (82). Even more extreme is R.V. Young's using lines 39-43 to browbeat the proponents of a specifically Protestant poetic, insisting that the doctrine of imputed righteousness is being "ridiculed" by Donne rather than creatively appropriated (33-34).

6. For Kremen, "the eschatological and the erotic incorporate each other," the resurrection of the body in sexual experience prefiguring the resurrection of the soul (90-91). "In the songs and sonnets Donne presents the resurrection of the body in sexual love as a prefiguration and 'remembrancer' of the 'hypostaticall union' of man and God in Christ in heaven, which sanctions this figural incorporation of the eschatological into the erotic" (122).


Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970.

Dante. Paradiso. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1982.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Docherty, Thomas. John Donne, Undone. London: Methuen, 1986.

Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "Donne's Erotic Spirituality: Ovidian Sexuality and the Language of Christian Revelation in Elegy XIX." Ball State Forum 25 (1984): 41-54.

Hunt, Clay. Donne's Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954. 18-31.

Kremen, Kathryn R. The Imagination of the Resurrection: The Poetic Continuity of a Religious Motif in Donne, Blake, and Yeats. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1972.

Lewis, C. S. "Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century." Rpt. Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Modern Essays In Criticism. Ed. William R. Keast. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random, 1979.

Perry, T. Anthony. Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebrero to John Donne. University: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1980.

Young, R.V. "Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Theology of Grace." Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Eds. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1988. 20-39.


By Raymond J. Frontain