Type: Literary Analysis
Pages: 3 | Words: 882
Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Although Donne is known primarily as a lyrical poet, who focuses on the theme of love, his works are also characterized by a philosophical, solipsistic and clerical slant. This is the case with The First Anniversary, the poem, which Donne wrote for Sir Robert Drury, his well-off patron. The poem highlights the death of Elizabeth, Drury’s dearly loved daughter, who decayed at the age of fourteen. Superficially, one may claim that the poem represents the world of sorrow and grief, wherein Elizabeth left the people she loved. Donne compares this world with the one that offends resentful people bitterly, since it does not notice Elizabeth’s departure and keeps going on without compassion. At the same time, Elizabeth’s soul is viewed as a tie that prevents things from disintegration, and once the soul is lost, the whole world falls down.

Despite the fact, that the poet uses many clichés to commemorate the tragic event, his conceit is striking: readers do not see the death of a young girl but the death of the world. Presumably, Donne imparts a philosophical meaning to this metaphor, which imbues the poem with different layers of meaning. Most of them refer not to Elizabeth but to Donne himself and his life, as well. He is the protagonist of the poem, and it is he, who shows the transformation of the world (his world). His world was changed. John, as well as Shakespearian Hamlet, claimed that the harmony of the universe had been substituted for unexplainable chaos that accompanied the change of historical epochs. As the artist painfully felt the imperfection of the “fallen to the atoms” world, all his life was dedicated to looking for a supporting point. That is why there is no wonder that, in The Anatomy of the World, readers do not find erotic lines (as in his earlier poems) but witness Donne’s inner frustration and agonizing pain.  

There are several reasons for these transformations; one of them is the religious politics of Donne’s time. The poet’s family was piously Catholic. John’s brother Henry was suspected of participation in a Catholic revolt. He also gave a refuge to a Catholic priest (a deed was equal to treason). Therefore, his brother was arrested and severely tortured; he died from bubonic plague at prison. This experience had an immense impact on Donne. Later, he was made to distance from Catholicism and became an Anglican (harpers.org). It was practically impossible to resist for Donne, since the pressure came from senior court officials and the king, “All just supply, and all relation;/ Prince, subject”. Finally, he gave in and started writing anti-Catholic tracts and working for Anglicans. 

These arguments shed more light on the lines “New philosophy calls all in doubt,/ The element of fire is quite put out”. Protestantism, the core of the Reformation, becomes “the new philosophy” that shatters the poet’s world; and he accepts this doctrine to survive, “For every man alone thinks he hath got/ To be a phoenix”. However, Protestantism also meant a rejection of dogma, a triumph of science, and love for inquiry. It was a completely new world emerging in England, imbued with new conflicts and tensions. Donne views this change both painfully and ambiguously, “It is all in pieces, all coherence gone”. These are the words of a man, who steps on a new, unknown path, although he does not know where it will lead. Perhaps, these words also prophesy England on its way to civil war (harpers.org).

Thus, The Anatomy of the World focuses on the issue of the creation of a new world; nevertheless, Donne also glorifies the old one too. The old world has feminine qualities, and this is how Donne describes its death, “She, she is dead; she’s dead: when thou knowest this, thou knowest how poor a trifling thing man is…”, The old world exists for the poet, but we can grasp this only after somebody’s death. He argues that the old world died “intentionally”  to give birth to the new one. The new world emanates from the old one, “She that was best and first original/Of all fair copies, and the general/ Steward to fate; She to whom this world must itself refer,/As suburbs or the microcosm of her[…]”. It is obvious from this excerpt that Donne still loves the old world, no matter how imperfect it may be, and longs for it. The concluding lines of the poem“She, she is dead; she’s dead: when thou know’st this,/ Thou know’st how lame a cripple this world is” render Donne’s bitter pain and sorrow for human fragility and the transformations that humanity has undergone throughout its history.  

As one may notice, Donne uses the pronoun “she” throughout the whole poem. This “she” does not refer to Elizabeth’s soul only and does not merely symbolize a female archetype. It seems that Donne uses “she” to refer to human history in general, which he finds to be a very complicated process. “She” is a long succession of worlds, which are broken into many pieces and, finally, replaced, of women and men who are born and changed of eternal and altered life. Exactly such a vision corresponds to Donne’s perception of the world, and this knowledge makes it easier for us to realize the implicit meaning of The Anatomy of the World.

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