Existence and Existents in Donne’s “The Good-Morrow”

The Good-Morrow
by JOHN DONNE

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow
to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers
to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Third Edition, 1983)


Students of 17th-century English literature will no doubt be familiar (perhaps painfully familiar) with the notion that Man is a “microcosm”; namely, that man represents, in himself, his life, and, most especially, his mind, the entirety of the cosmos or “macrocosm.” In actual fact the idea is as old as philosophy itself. As Aristotle said in the De Anima, “The [human] soul is, in a sense, all things.” More than a facile literary analogy, in John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” the use of microcosm indeed presents an artistic compression of an important philosophical synthesis. While a superficial reading may see in the poem only a wit’s illustration of conjugal love — or even a whimsical justification for adultery — perhaps an expansion may cure a reduction.

Those who find no truth in the assumption that a poet’s poetry flows from his philosophy should find the presented hypothesis useless. But those who have any familiarity with so-called Scholastic thought — namely, the philosophy and theology of the medieval universities — will see its influence radiating from “The Good-Morrow” (and indeed from many of Donne’s poems). That exquisite paradox which “makes one little room an everywhere” is a poetic manifold offspring to the medieval debate over Universals — that is, of how the “many” are “one.” As the most elegant solution to the “problem of the one and the many” was posited by St. Thomas Aquinas, the following analysis considers Donne through the lens of Thomism specifically.

A few of the principles of reality, as per St. Thomas, which this essay finds applicable to “The Good-Morrow,” may be roughly summed up thus: (1) there are many things, many substances, objects possessed of an act-of-existence — call them “existents”; (2) every existent has an “essence” which it shares with all members of its species — that “form” which makes a thing this being and not that; and (3) “essences” limit “existents.” Finally, God is Existence Itself (ipsum esse subsistens) — originary, uncreated “Be”-ing. Incorporating a Platonic doctrine into a largely Aristotelian mode of thought, finite beings (“existents”) participate in God’s being (“existence” per se), by doing simply that: “be”-ing. The essence, or definition, of a thing, however, limits its participation in that ultimate act-of-existence which God alone Is. Therefore, things in and with their essences are “many”: what they have in common, existence, makes them “one.”

This leads to — the more important point when dealing with “The Good-Morrow” — a hierarchical understanding of beings, which answers the question, To what degree does each substance, by its essence, participate in the ultimate Act-of-Existence, God Himself? In a nutshell and from the top-down, there are God, the Nine Choirs beginning with the seraphim (the highest of pure intellectual substances, or Intelligences) and ending with the angels (the lowest of the Intelligences). Below the angelic hierarchy is the human intellect or spirit, by nature composite with the human body which it animates, forming the creature called Man. Below man reside the lesser animals and plants — with their non-spiritual, or non-intellectual, souls; minerals, the elements, quanta, and finally raw, formless matter (which, strictly speaking, does not “exist” at all, not on its own, but only qua united to an intelligible form).

In the unity between the utterly corporeal and the utterly spiritual, that utterly perplexing being right in the center, Man — the noblest of the earthly and the most menial of the spiritual — what does one find? In man one finds the unity of all lower beings: the elements, minerals, the vegetable, the animal. Man has everything the material cosmos has to offer. Man also has the nobility of the intellect, which enables him to participate in the life of goodness, truth, and beauty, in which none of the lower creatures participate. Now the angelic hierarchy, it should be noted, governs the motions, fate, and chance of even our material universe: intellectuals rule the macrocosm. The irony called man, lowest in the order of intellectual beings, yet highest of all material beings, might more profitably be thought of as one thinks of Tolkien’s Elves — as some obscure creature who, somehow in between the natural and the supernatural, participates in both spheres. Man can vegetate, man can meditate. God governs, angels govern, man governs (however poorly).

So far the treatment has been of “man” in the inclusive sense, including both men and women. But Donne is relational: if the, as it were, species “Men and Women” divide the genus “Man,” then individual men lack completion in and of themselves. St. Thomas also discovered that, since God is the ultimate Act-of-Being — uncreated, existence par excellence — anything appropriately predicated of God is integral to His omnicomprehensive Act-of-Being: in God, existence and essence are indistinguishable: “that He is” is “Who He is” (cf. Exodus 3:14). The proposition, then, that “God is love” amounts to saying “being and love are one.” To participate properly in the arts of love means “be-ing more.” Donne’s lovers, therefore, require an enriched constitution, to participate more fully in being, by loving. This act, ultimately, may yield new acts-of-being (posterity). Man looks at Woman (“My face in thine eye”), and Woman looks at Man (“thine in mine appears”) — they ask, “where can we find two better hemispheres?” The lovers are two halves of a whole — and each lover’s surrender to the other unites and enhances their participation in God’s Act-of-Being.

Donne’s lovers (the speaker and the object of the speaker’s affection) have everything, the world and all it contains: they have intellect — which can know, and tends toward, universal being, which, in its form, teleologically orients itself toward that “one” (all existence) which emanates forth from and unites “the many” (all substances or things) — as well as will, the origin of love, especially self-sacrificing Christian and conjugal love. They can fall into their animal nature or merely vegetate. They have in each other the whole world, “each hath one, and is one” — thus love “makes one little room an everywhere.” In that the intellect and will of man contain the all, the microcosm always tends toward the macrocosm.

Love requires proper fitting, so to speak. The scheme, for the individual man and the individual woman who have been united, needs remain united, “for love, all love of other sights controls.” The lover needs to know that he and the beloved do “not watch one another out of fear,” that they remain within the proper order of being: death follows upon unfaithfulness, an unraveling of creation’s tapestry. If indeed lovers possess “true plain hearts” — if lover and beloved have a love which is “mixed equally,” harmonious within the order of creation and the hierarchy of being, and thus safe from death, then their salvation, which God initiates, self-perpetuates in the sacramental marriage bed. In this light, if lover and beloved “love so alike that none do slacken, none can die,” the sexual pun even increases the profundity, showing the truth of being and love at all layers of the lovers’ shared experience, indeed on all layers of existence. For if their love for God, their love for each other, and their love for God through their love for each other yield the perfection of true love — whether in a kind of reciprocal training in virtue by perpetual self-sacrifice for the other, or in posterity, or in both — then in true love they shall remain, even though they go through the paradox of bodily death. Since by salvation “none can die,” bodily death — and in a sense the resurrection of the body after death and purgatory — a “good-morrow to our waking souls” triumphantly results, the microcosm’s destination beyond even the macrocosm (where the macrocosm might even appear relatively microcosmic?), in which all lovers, upon sight of their First Love — Existence Itself, to Whom they had been striving throughout life — truly realize the meaning of the poet’s seemingly “idealistic” sentiment: “If ever any beauty I did see, which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.” All existents are but a dream, a dim mirror, of Existence.