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Finely Woven Webs

Quick: what’s the first poem by John Donne you can think of?

Let’s say – for the sake of argument – you thought of “The Flea,” which has at least graced most high school English literature curricula. This poem…well, it seems a bit cruel to toss it to hormone-addled teenagers. But life is cruel, particularly if you are a hormone-addled teenager. The poem’s speaker hopes to persuade his lady to become his lover by making two points: (1) here’s a flea which bit you, and that won’t be any worse than losing your virginity, and (2) by the way, that flea also bit me, so our blood is already intermixed.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.

Was ever woman in this humor woo’d? The flea – a miniscule, inconvenient creature, and potential herald of infestation – as a metaphor for sex is one thing (see Ovid for confirmation), but what Donne’s speaker argues next is even stranger:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

It isn’t so much that the (potential) lovers have become or are somehow living inside the flea; rather, their blood stands in as a synecdoche for their bodies. Mingle these “two bloods” inside the flea and you have a representation in miniature of the sought-after consummation of sex. The flea itself becomes the site of this theoretically holy union, rising in status from bed to temple to cloister as the speaker presses his point. (Ahem.) The insect also suggests a way around the objections parents might well raise – “more than married” already, eh? – for, within, the lovers ought to be safe from the cares of the outside world.

Not quite. The final stanza finds the lady squashing the flea: “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?” Doesn’t she realize she’s just murdered the very vessel of their physical union? Oh, but she has an argument of her own: “Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou / Find’st not thyself, nor me the weaker now.” Were the flea such a vital piece of the sexual puzzle, she points out, killing it would make us very bad people – and it hasn’t, so it isn’t. Well, then, answers the speaker, “Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, / Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” He’s slung her argument back at her, how can she resist, so now they’re certain to get their rocks off, right? Alas, there the poem ends. We’ll never know.

What I find most fascinating about “The Flea” is not its wit and not its conceit, but the notion that a drop of blood could represent a person in whole. “This flea is you and I,” argues the speaker, because it contains “one blood made of two.” Isn’t that an odd thing? The notion gets even odder when we draw in another of Donne’s Songs and Sonnets – but first, I think, a brief anatomy lesson is in order.

Donne himself explains the pre-Cartesian conception of the human body and its relationship to the soul in one of his sermons:

In the constitution and making of a natural man, the body is not the man, nor the soul is not the man, but the union of these two makes up the man; the spirits in a man which are the thin and active part of the blood, and so are of a kind of middle nature, between soul and body, those spirits are able to do, and they do the office, to unite and apply the faculties of the soul to the organs of the body, and so there is a man.

In the early seventeenth century the body was construed by various writers, theorists, and practitioners as a complicated hydraulic system. Donne was writing before the wider dissemination of William Harvey’s work on the circulatory system, but the notion that the body’s vessels transported blood to the various organs had been in place since Aristotle’s idea of the tripartite soul. This idea held that the soul divided itself among three sections of the body, and that each section was governed by one representative organ.

To proceed from the earthly to the sublime, the lowest part of the body contained the vegetative soul, seated in the liver; this portion of the soul oversaw the most basic functions of the human body, functions like growth and reproduction, which even the simplest of plants (i.e., vegetative matter) could also accomplish. The vital soul resided in the heart, lord of the torso, to carry out the activities humans had in common with animals: a beating heart, the intake of air, digestion. Last and most important was the head, which held the brain, which in turn held the animal soul, which only human beings, being rational creatures, were granted. (“Animal” here refers, via some quirk of translation, to the anima, the whole human soul, rather than to our fellow beasts.)

Angel of Death taking the soul of a dying man; from Reiter’s Mortilogus, 1508

This configuration remained popular through the seventeenth century, though it acquired a bit of filigree as the years passed. One noted addition was the commingling of vegetable “spirits” (something distinct from the soul) with various spiritual organ secretions which circulated upward to produce a quasi-sacred “animal” spirit in the brain.

Animal spirit is a rather brilliant thing: the soul, being ensconced in the brain, uses some sort of interface to connect with the animal spirit, and to send it through the nerves. The animal spirit, so the theory goes, gets pumped by the soul for movement and perception, or it retracts back into the brain to send the soul information about the outside world.

Even more fascinating is precisely where the interface is located, where the transformation from vital to animal spirit takes place – for such a specific location would provide much more than a gateway into the functions of the immortal and rational soul. It would provide the observer with nothing short of a glimpse of the soul itself, acting upon the body. The crucial question in the seventeenth century (and no less now) was how did the body and the soul interact? Such a question did not fall only in the domain of medicine, anatomy, and theology; these various fields had far more porous boundaries than they do today, so each discipline could drew upon the others to attempt an answer. Yet it is, I think, the metaphysical poetry of the period that comes closest, and most beautifully, upon a solution.

Donne himself takes up the gauntlet.

“The Flea” is but a glimpse into the problem of the soul-body relationship: if this flea “is you and I,” and within the flea are merely the “two bloods” of the lovers, then “you and I” may combine to form “one blood,” and to marry two souls. But how is it that the seemingly insubstantial blood may come to stand for the intricate interconnection between physical and spiritual? If our blood signifies each of our selves, where is our identity located? How do we discern the artery connecting body and soul?

The answer may lie in Donne’s exquisite “Ecstasy.” The overarching “plot” of “The Ecstasy” initially seems easy to make sense of, despite the extraordinary difficulty posed by its details. Two lovers strive for a more perfect union. First they attempt to bring together their bodies but fail to do so:

to ’intergraft out hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

Donne’s lovers crave union, but their physical connection leaves them short of their desires. The simple “intergrafting” of fingers and imagined pictures in one another’s eyes only go so far, particularly since, as the narrator coyly reminds us, “it was not sex” that would ultimately conjoin the lovers. So when physical means prove unsuccessful, the lovers coax their souls heavenwards for another try at commingling:

As ’twixt two equal armies, Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls, (which to advance their state,
Were gone out,) hung ’twixt her, and me.
And whil’st our souls negotiate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay

This upward flight, which separates souls from bodies, represents the ecstasy in question, and seems better to achieve the “intergrafting” by gaining the lovers that for which they long. The ecstasy allows the lovers’ souls to cohere and for the lovers themselves to transform into “all mind,” making of the two “a new concoction” mixed by love, which “makes both one, each this and that,” thereby creating a subtle balance whereby the two are at once a whole entity and distinct parts and where each soul informs and repairs the “defects of loneliness” in the other soul – to put it another way, so that the two are connected all in all and all in every part.

But there is a price to be paid: the “negotiation” of the souls’ demands that the bodies be left behind, inert and deathly, “like sepulchral statues.” Moreover, the “we” attaches itself in these lines not to the souls but to the bodies that have been abandoned, suggesting that this ecstatic separation still fails to achieve the ideal merger that the poem is searching for:

But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love, these mixed souls, doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this and that.

Both lovers maintain their distinctness (being “each this and that”) at the same time as they, paradoxically, become “both one.” Love possesses this peculiar power, the lovers claim, a power which “[i]nterinanimates” the souls. Yet even this kind of creation proves inadequate.

It is at this point in “The Ecstasy,” in response to the fundamental problem of how two discrete entities can be fully united even as they preserve their distinction, that the metaphor of the subtle knot enters the poem. For the inmixed souls separated from the bodies – with which the poet identifies the lovers’ selves – remain incapable of achieving the necessary kind of connection. Instead, the body must reappear to offer a different model. Thus, the souls are now recalled to the bodies: the lovers

owe them [the bodies] thanks, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.

The very fact of the ecstasy depends upon the bodies: without a physical compulsion there would be no need for the lovers to strive for a higher, more perfect form of marriage. Not only are the lovers’ physical selves that which draw them to one another in the first place, but contemplation of the limitations of physicality lead to the ultimate admission (by the “we” of the lovers’ ecstasied souls) that both spirit and matter are required in a quintessential union. In fact, the bodies point the lovers to the fact that there exists in physical form the very entity responsible for “mak[ing] us man.”

And what is that entity? It is the interface I mentioned above: the connection between body and soul, the moiety set aside for the communication between physical and spiritual. Donne knew where this interface lay:

[O]ur blood labors to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man

Subtle expresses the workings of something keen, deft, or nearly imperceptible. Yet the word bears another, older meaning, of which Donne would certainly have been aware: it derives from the (inferred) Latin subtelis, subtexlis, meaning “finely woven,” words themselves formed from the conjunction of sub- and tela, texla, meaning “woven stuff” or “web.” The “spirits” or “fingers” doing the weaving represent the most sublimated substances in the human body. But extracts from the blood, passed through and purified by the body’s organs and arterial systems, are not in themselves sufficient: finally, they have to create the web-like structure that binds the all too material body to the immaterial soul, the “knot” that crowns the glory of God’s creation. The word subtle hints at this process even as it marks the fact that such a structure would have to be so refined as to be virtually invisible.

This structure was, I think, what anatomists termed the rete mirabile, the “wonderful net” or “miraculous web,” or, better yet, the “subtle knot.”

This was a network of tiny arteries held (erroneously) to lie at the base of the brain, and to mark the spot where the soul actually connected to the body. What might have given the rete mirabile its power was the fact that it simply did not exist in human beings (though it does in ungulates – which is a fine vocabulary word in and of itself; a gold star if you can find a way to work it into casual conversation): it was a holdover from an ancient anatomical tradition which was, at the time Donne was writing, in heated dispute. Such dispute would ultimately lead to Descartes famously proposing the pineal gland as the location of this subtle knot.

“rm” indicates the rete mirabile of a sheep

But a gland is ultimately less mysterious, less interesting, and less capable of generating poetic metaphors than Donne’s subtle knot. The knot had a wonderful tenacity in seventeenth-century thought and poetry because of its metaphorical utility. Consider, for example, the following lines from Donne’s First Anniversary:

For of meridians, and parallels,
Man hath weav’d out a net, and this net thrown
Upon the heavens, and now they are his own.
Loath to go up the hill, or labor thus
To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.

The measurements of longitude and latitude with which the globe was being described encase not merely the world, but the entire universe. But the poetic investment in these lines extends even beyond the physical universe. A common anatomical analogy held that the heavens are to the earth what the brain is to the body: the net Donne describes knits the eternal soul to the temporal body, the metaphysical to the physical, even as it binds macrocosmos to microcosmos.

More dangerously, however, the net also becomes an emblem for imprisonment: Consider the “chains / Of nerves, and arteries, and veins” that Andrew Marvell’s trapped soul has to endure, articulated in his “Dialogue Between the Body and Soul.” And this, too, is another function of the rete mirabile. The rete, like a fishing net with its struggling fish (see Donne’s The Progress of the Soul), encloses the soul and subjugates its power to the nerves of the body. By putting the soul under the body’s control, it can equally be, as we see with Marvell’s soul, the agent for an immense amount of pain – to worry at the connection between body and soul is not a task to be undertaken lightly. It is this conjunction of promise and difficulty that also becomes evident when we review Donne’s “Ecstasy” through the lens of contemporary anatomy:

[O]ur blood labors to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man.

The subtle knot, woven by the spirits, hidden beneath the brain, the work of a metaphor upon anatomical imagination, so minute as to be invisible but charged with holding our most valuable possession – the thing, in short, “which makes us man” – is nothing either more or less than the wonderful net. And yet it is also the product of “labor” and “need” – not just of the body, but also of anatomists and poets.

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Lianne Habinek is a Phd candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience. She hosts the weblog The Subtle Knot.