Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 9. The Progresse of the Soule

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 9. The Progresse of the Soule

During the last year of his residence in the household of Sir Thomas Egerton, Donne began the composition of a longer and more elaborate satirical poem than anything he had yet attempted, a poem the personal and historical significance of which has received somewhat scant attention from his biographers. The Progresse of the Soule. Infinitati Sacrum. 16 Augusti 1601. Metempsycosis. Poema Satyricon was published for the first time in 1633, but manuscript copies of the poem, by itself and in collections of Donne’s poems, are extant. That he never contemplated publication is clear from the fact that he adopted the same title, The Progresse of the Soule, for the very different Anniversaries on the death of Elizabeth Drury.

Starting from the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, it was Donne’s intention, in this poem, to trace the migrations of the soul of that apple which Eve plucked, conducting it, when it reached the human plane, through the bodies of all the great heretics. It was to have rested at last, Jonson told Drummond, in the body of Calvin; but the grave and dignified stanzas with which the poem opens show clearly that queen Elizabeth herself was to have closed the line of heretics whose descent was traced to the soul of Cain, or of Cain’s wife:

  • This soul to whom Luther and Mahomet were
  • Prisons of flesh; this soul which oft did tear,
  • And mend the wracks of the Empire and late Rome,
  • And lived when every great change did come.
  • Writing to Sir Thomas Egerton in the following February, Donne disclaims all “love of a corrupt religion.” Yet, during the preceding year, he had been busy on an elaborate satire, delineating, from a Catholic standpoint, the descent and history of the great heretics from Arius and Mahomet to Calvin and Elizabeth. There can be little doubt that the mood of mind which found expression in this sombre poem was occasioned by the execution of Essex in the preceding February. Nothing, for a time, so clouded Elizabeth’s popularity as the death of her rash favourite. Up to the time of the outbreak, Egerton himself had been reckoned of Essex’s party; and Wotton, through whom Donne had first, probably, been brought within the circle of Essex’s influence, was one of those who went into exile after the earl’s death.

    It would have been interesting to read Donne’s history of heresy, and characters of Mahomet and Luther, great, bad men as he apparently intended to delineate them; but the poem never got so far. After tracing through some tedious, not to say disgusting, episodes the life of the soul in vegetable and animal form, Donne leaves it just arrived in Themech,

  • Sister and wife to Cain, Cain that first did plough.
  • The mood in which the poem was conceived had passed, or the poet felt his inventive power unequal to the task, and he closed the second canto abruptly with a stanza of more than Byronic scepticism and scorn:
  • Whoe’ere thou beest that readest this sullen writ,
  • Which just so much courts thee as thou dost it,
  • Let me arrest thy thoughts; wonder with me
  • Why ploughing, building, ruling and the rest,
  • Or most of those arts whence our lives are blest,
  • By cursed Cains race invented be,
  • And bless’d Seth vex’d us with astronomy.
  • There ’s nothing simply good nor ill alone;
  • Of every quality comparison
  • The only measure is, and judge opinion.