Verse > John Donne > The Poems of John Donne
John Donne (1572–1631).  The Poems of John Donne.  1896.
The Progress of the Soul
First Song
I SING the progress of a deathless soul,
Whom fate, which God made, but doth not control,
Placed in most shapes; all times, before the law
Yoked us, and when, and since, in this I sing.
And the great world to his agèd evening        5
From infant morn, through manly noon, I draw.
What the gold Chaldee, or silver Persian saw,
Greek brass, or Roman iron, is in this one;
A work to outwear Seth’s pillars, brick and stone,
  And—Holy Writ’s 1 excepted—made to yield to none.        10
Thee, eye of heaven, this great soul envies not.
By thy male force is all we have begot;
In the first east thou now begin’st 2 to shine,
Suck’st early balm, and island spices there,
And wilt anon in thy loose-rein’d career        15
At Tagus, Po, Seine, Thames, and Danow dine,
And see at night thy western land of mine;
Yet hast thou not more nations seen than she,
That before thee one day began to be,
  And thy frail light being quench’d, shall long, long outlive thee.        20
Nor holy Janus, in whose sovereign boat
The church, and all the monarchies did float!
That swimming college, and free hospital
Of all mankind, that cage and vivary
Of fowls, and beasts, in whose womb, Destiny        25
Us and our latest nephews did install
—From thence are all derived, that fill this All—
Didst thou in that great stewardship embark
So divers shapes into that floating park,
  As have been moved and inform’d by this heavenly spark.        30
Great Destiny, the commissary of God,
That hast mark’d out a path and period
For everything, who, where we off-spring took,
Our ways and ends seest at one instant. Thou
Knot of all causes, thou whose changeless brow        35
Ne’er smiles nor frowns, O vouchsafe thou to look
And show my story, in thy eternal book.
That—if my prayer be fit—I may understand
So much myself, as to know with what hand,
  How scant or liberal this my life’s race is spann’d.        40
To my six lusters almost now outwore,
Except thy book owe me so many more,
Except my legend be free from the lets
Of steep ambition, sleepy poverty,
Spirit-quenching sickness, dull captivity,        45
Distracting business, and from beauty’s nets,
And all that calls from this, and to others whets,
O let me not launch out, but let me save
Th’ expense of brain and spirit, that my grave
  His right and due, a whole unwasted man may have.        50
But if my days be long, and good enough,
In vain this sea shall enlarge or enrough
Itself; for I will through the wave and foam.
And shall in sad lone ways, 3 a lively sprite,
Make my dark heavy poem light, and light.        55
For though through many straits and lands I roam,
I launch at Paradise, and I sail towards home;
The course I there began shall here be stay’d,
Sails hoiséd there, struck here, and anchors laid
  In Thames, which were at Tigris and Euphrates weigh’d.        60
For the great soul which here amongst us now
Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue, and brow,
Which, as the moon the sea, moves us; to hear
Whose story with long patience you will long
—For ’tis the crown and last strain of my song—        65
This soul, to whom Luther and Mahomet were
Prisons of flesh; this soul, which oft did tear
And mend the wracks of th’ empire, and late Rome,
And lived when every great change did come,
  Had first in Paradise a low, but fatal room.        70
Yet nor low room, nor than the greatest, less,
If—as devout and sharp men fitly guess—
That Cross, our joy, and grief—where nails did tie
That All, which always was all, everywhere;
Which could not sin, and yet all sins did bear;        75
Which could not die, yet could not choose but die—
Stood in the self-same room in Calvary,
Where first grew the forbidden learned tree,
For on that tree hung in security
  This soul made by the Maker’s will from pulling free.        80
Prince of the orchard, fair as dawning morn,
Fenced with the law, and ripe as soon as born,
That apple grew, which this soul did enlive
Till the then climbing serpent, that now creeps
For that offence, for which all mankind weeps,        85
Took it, and to her whom the first man did wive
—Whom and her race only forbiddings drive—
He gave it, she to her husband; both did eat;
So perished the eaters, and the meat;
  And we—for treason taints the blood—thence die and sweat.        90
Man all at once was there by woman slain,
And one by one we’re here slain o’er again
By them. The mother poison’d the well-head,
The daughters here corrupt 4 us, rivulets;
No smallness ’scapes, no greatness breaks their nets;        95
She thrust us out, and by them we are led
Astray, from turning to whence we are fled.
Were prisoners judges, ’twould seem rigorous;
She sinned, we bear; 5 part of our pain is, thus
  To love them whose fault to this painful love yoked us.        100
So fast in us doth this corruption grow,
That now we dare ask why we should be so.
Would God—disputes the curious rebel—make
A law, and would not have it kept? Or can
His creatures’ will cross His? Of every man        105
For one, will God (and be just) vengeance take?
Who sinn’d? ’twas not forbidden to the snake
Nor her, who was not then made; nor is ’t writ
That Adam cropp’d, or knew the apple; yet
  The worm and she, and he, and we endure for it.        110
But snatch me, heavenly spirit, from this vain
Reckoning their vanities; 6 less is their gain
Than hazard still, to meditate on ill,
Though with good mind; their reason’s like those toys
Of glassy bubbles, which the gamesome boys        115
Stretch to so nice a thinness through a quill
That they themselves break, and 7 do themselves spill.
Arguing is heretics’ game, and exercise
As wrestlers perfects them. Not liberties
  Of speech, but silence; hands, not tongues, end heresies.        120
Just in that instant when the serpent’s gripe
Broke the slight veins, and tender conduit pipe,
Through which this soul from the tree’s root did draw
Life and growth to this apple, fled away
This loose soul, old, one and another day.        125
As lightning, which one scarce dares say he saw,
’Tis so soon gone—and better proof the law
Of sense than faith requires—swiftly she flew
To a dark and foggy plot; her, her fates threw
  There through th’ earth-pores, 8 and in a plant housed her anew.        130
The plant thus abled to itself did force
A place, where no place was; by nature’s course,
As air from water, water fleets away
From thicker bodies, by this root throng’d so
His spongy confines gave him place to grow;        135
Just as in our streets, when the people stay
To see the Prince, and so fill 9 up the way
That weasels scarce could pass, when she comes near
They throng and cleave up, and a passage clear,
  As if for that time their round bodies flatten’d were.        140
His right arm he thrust out towards the east,
Westward his left; th’ ends did themselves digest
Into ten lesser strings; these fingers were;
And as a slumberer stretching on his bed,
This way he this, and that way scattered        145
His other leg, which feet with toes upbear.
Grew on his middle part, 10 the first day, hair,
To show that in love’s business he should still
A dealer be, and be used well, or ill.
  His apples kindle; 11 his leaves force of conception kill.        150
A mouth, but dumb, he hath; blind eyes, deaf ears;
And to his shoulders dangle subtle hairs;
A young Colossus, there he stands upright;
And as that ground by him were conquered,
A leafy garland wears he on his head        155
Enchased with little fruits, so red and bright,
That for them you would call your love’s lips white,
So, of a lone unhaunted place possess’d,
Did this soul’s second inn, built by the guest,
  This living buried man, this quiet mandrake, rest.        160
No lustful woman came this plant to grieve,
But ’twas because there was none yet but Eve;
And she—with other purpose—kill’d it quite.
Her sin had now brought in infirmities,
And so her cradled child the moist-red eyes        165
Had never shut, nor slept since it saw light.
Poppy she knew, she knew the mandrake’s might;
And tore up both, and so cool’d her child’s blood.
Unvirtuous weeds might long unvex’d have stood;
  But he’s short-lived that with his death can do most good.        170
To an unfetter’d soul’s quick nimble haste
Are falling stars and hearts’ thoughts but slow-paced.
Thinner than burnt air flies this soul, and she
Whom four new coming and four parting suns
Had found, and left the mandrake’s tenant, runs        175
Thoughtless of change, when her firm destiny
Confined and enjail’d her, that seemed so free,
Into a small blue shell, the which a poor
Warm bird o’erspread, and sat still evermore,
  Till her enclosed child 12 kick’d, and pick’d itself a door.        180
Out crept a sparrow, this soul’s moving inn,
On whose raw arms stiff feathers now begin,
As children’s teeth through gums, to break with pain;
His flesh is jelly yet, and his bones threads;
All a new downy mantle 13 overspreads;        185
A mouth he opes, which would as much contain
As his late house, and the first hour speaks plain,
And chirps aloud for meat. Meat fit for men
His father steals for him, and so feeds then
  One that, within a month, will beat him from his hen.        190
In this world’s youth wise Nature did make haste,
Things ripen’d sooner, and did longer last.
Already this hot cock in bush and tree
In field and tent o’erflutters his next hen;
He asks her not, who did so taste, nor when,        195
Nor if his sister or his niece she be;
Nor doth she pule for his inconstancy
If in her sight he change, nor doth refuse
The next that calls; both liberty do use.
  Where store is of both kinds, both kinds may freely choose.        200
Men, till they took laws which made freedom less,
Their daughters and their sisters did ingress
Till now, unlawful, therefore ill ’twas not.
So jolly, that it can move this soul, is
The body, so free of his kindnesses,        205
That self-preserving it hath now forgot,
And slackeneth so the soul’s and body’s knot,
Which temperance straightens; freely on his she friends,
He blood, and spirit, pith, and marrow spends;
  Ill steward of himself, himself in three years ends.        210
Else might he long have lived; man did not know
Of gummy blood, which doth in holly grow,
How to make bird-lime, nor how to deceive
With feign’d calls, his nets, or enwrapping snare,
The free inhabitants of the pliant air.        215
Man to beget, and woman to conceive,
Ask’d not of roots, nor of cock-sparrows, leave.
Yet chooseth he, though none of these he fears,
Pleasantly three, than straiten’d twenty years,
  To live, and to increase his race himself outwears.        220
This coal with overblowing quench’d and dead,
The soul from her too active organs fled
To a brook; a female fish’s sandy roe
With the male’s jelly newly leaven’d was,
For they had 14 intertouch’d as they did pass;        225
And one of those small bodies, fitted so,
This soul inform’d, and abled it to row
Itself with finny oars, which she did fit.
Her scales seem’d yet of parchment, and as yet
  Perchance a fish, but by no name you could call it.        230
When goodly, like a ship in her full trim,
A swan, so white that you may unto him
Compare all whiteness, but himself to none,
Glided along, and as he glided watch’d,
And with his arched neck this poor fish catch’d.        235
It moved with state, as if to look upon
Low things it scorn’d, and yet before that one
Could think he sought it, he had swallow’d clear
This, and much such, and unblamed devour’d there
  All, but who too swift, too great, or well armed were.        240
Now swam a prison in a prison put,
And now this soul in double walls was shut,
Till melted with the swan’s digestive fire,
She left her house, the fish, and vapour’d forth.
Fate not affording bodies of more worth        245
For her as yet, bids her again retire
To another fish, to any new desire
Made a new prey; for he that can to none
Resistance make, nor complaint, sure is gone.
  Weakness invites, but silence feasts oppression.        250
Pace with the native stream this fish doth keep,
And journeys with her towards the glassy deep,
But oft retarded, once with a hidden net
Though with great windows—for when need first taught
These tricks to catch food, then they were not wrought        255
As now, with curious greediness to let
None ’scape, but few and fit for use to get—
As in this trap a ravenous pike was ta’en,
Who, though himself distress’d, would fain have slain
  This wretch; so hardly are ill habits left again.        260
Here by her smallness she two deaths o’erpass’d;
Once innocence ’scaped, and left the oppressor fast.
The net through-swum, she keeps the liquid path,
And whether she leap up sometimes to breathe
And suck in air, or find it underneath,        265
Or working parts like mills or limbecs hath
To make the water 15 thin, and air like 16 faith,
Cares not, but safe the place she’s come unto
Where fresh with salt waves meet, and what to do
  She knows not, but between both makes a board or two.        270
So far from hiding her guests, water is,
That she shows them in bigger quantities
Than they are. Thus her, doubtful of her way,
For game and not for hunger, a sea-pie
Spied through this traitorous spectacle, from high,        275
The silly fish where it disputing lay,
And to end her doubts and her, bears her away.
Exalted she is, but to th’ exalter’s good;
As are by great ones, men which lowly stood,
  It’s raised, 17 to be the raiser’s instrument and food.        280
Is any kind subject to rape like fish?
Ill unto man they neither do nor wish;
Fishers they kill not, nor with noise awake;
They do not hunt, nor strive to make a prey
Of beasts, nor their young sons to bear away;        285
Fowls they pursue not, nor do undertake
To spoil the nests industrious birds do make;
Yet them all these unkind kinds feed upon;
To kill them is an occupation,
  And laws make fasts and Lents for their destruction.        290
A sudden stiff land-wind in that self hour
To seaward forced this bird, that did devour
The fish; he cares not, for with ease he flies,
Fat gluttony’s best orator; at last,
So long he hath flown, and hath flown so fast,        295
That, leagues o’erpast at sea, now tired he lies,
And with his prey, that till then languish’d, dies.
The souls, no longer foes, two ways did err,
The fish I follow, and keep no calendar
  Of th’ other; he lives yet in some great officer.        300
Into an embryon fish our soul is thrown,
And in due time thrown out again, and grown
To such vastness, as if unmanacled
From Greece Morea were, and that, by some
Earthquake unrooted, loose Morea swum;        305
Or seas from Afric’s body had severed
And torn the hopeful promontory’s head.
This fish would seem these, and, when all hopes fail,
A great ship overset, or, without sail
  Hulling might—when this was a whelp—be like this whale.        310
At every stroke his brazen fins do take,
More circles in the broken sea they make
Than cannons’ voices, when the air they tear.
His ribs are pillars, and his high arch’d roof
Of bark, that blunts best steel, is thunder-proof.        315
Swim in him swallow’d dolphins without fear,
And feel no sides, as if his vast womb were
Some inland sea; and ever as he went
He spouted rivers up, as if he meant
  To join our seas with seas above the firmament.        320
He hunts not fish, but, as an officer
Stays in his court, at his own net, and there
All suitors of all sorts themselves enthrall,
So on his back lies this whale wantoning,
And in his gulf-like throat sucks everything        325
That passeth near; fish chaseth fish, and all,
Flyer and follower, in this whirlpool fall.
Oh, might not states of more equality
Consist? and is it of necessity
  That thousand guiltless smalls, to make one great, must die?        330
Now drinks he up seas, and he eats up flocks,
He jostles islands, and he shakes firm rocks.
Now in a roomful house this soul doth float,
And like a prince she sends her faculties
To all her limbs, distant as provinces.        335
The sun hath twenty times both crab and goat
Parched, since first launch’d forth this living boat. 18
’Tis greatest now, and to destruction
Nearest; there’s no pause at perfection;
  Greatness a period hath, but hath no station.        340
Two little fishes, whom he never harm’d,
Nor fed on their kind, two not throughly arm’d
With hope that they could kill him, nor could do
Good to themselves by his death—they did not eat
His flesh, nor suck those oils, which thence outstreat—        345
Conspired against him; and it might undo
The plot of all, that the plotters were two,
But that they fishes were, and could not speak.
How shall a tyrant wise strong projects break,
  If wretches can on them the common anger wreak?        350
The flail-finn’d thresher, and steel-beak’d sword-fish
Only attempt to do what all do wish.
The thresher backs him, and to beat begins;
The sluggard whale yields to oppression,
And to hide himself from shame and danger, down        355
Begins to sink; the sword-fish upward spins,
And gores him with his beak; his staff-like fins
So well the one, his sword the other plies,
That now a scoff, and prey, this tyrant dies,
  And—his own dole—feeds with himself all companies.        360
Who will revenge his death? or who will call
Those to account, that thought and wrought his fall?
The heirs of slain kings, we see, are often so
Transported with the joy of what they get,
That they revenge and obsequies forget;        365
Nor will against such men the people go,
Because he’s now dead to whom they should show
Love in that act; some kings by vice being grown
So needy of subjects’ love, that of their own
  They think they lose, if love be to the dead prince shown.        370
This soul, now free from prison and passion,
Hath yet a little indignation
That so small hammers should so soon down beat
So great a castle. And having for her house
Got the strait cloister of a wretched mouse        375
—As basest men, that have not what to eat,
Nor enjoy aught, do far more hate the great
Than they who good reposed estates possess—
This soul, late taught that great things might by less
  Be slain, to gallant mischief doth herself address.        380
Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant,
The only harmless great thing, the giant
Of beasts, who thought none had, to make him wise, 19
But to be just and thankful, loth to offend
—Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend        385
Himself he up-props, on himself relies,
And foe to none, suspects no enemies—
Still sleeping stood; vex’d not his fantasy
Black dreams; like an unbent bow carelessly
  His sinewy proboscis did remissly lie.        390
In which, as in a gallery, this mouse
Walk’d, and survey’d the rooms of this vast house,
And to the brain, the soul’s bed-chamber, went,
And gnaw’d the life-cords there. Like a whole town
Clean undermined, the slain beast tumbled down.        395
With him the murderer dies, whom envy sent
To kill, not ’scape; for only he that meant
To die, did ever kill a man of better room;
And thus he made his foe his prey and tomb.
  Who cares not to turn back, may any whither come.        400
Next, housed this soul a wolf’s yet unborn whelp,
Till the best midwife, nature, gave it help
To issue. It could kill, as soon as go.
Abel, as white and mild as his sheep were
—Who, in that trade of church and kingdoms there        405
Was the first type—was still infested so
With this wolf, that it bred his loss and woe;
And yet his bitch, his sentinel, attends
The flock so near, so well warns and defends,
  That the wolf—hopeless else—to corrupt her intends.        410
He took a course, which since, successfully,
Great men have often taken, to espy
The counsels, or to break the plots of foes.
To Abel’s tent he stealeth in the dark,
On whose skirts the bitch slept; ere she could bark,        415
Attach’d her with straight grips; yet he call’d those
Embracements of love; to love’s work he goes,
Where deeds move more than words; nor doth she show
Nor much resist, nor needs he straiten so
  His prey, for, were she loose, she would nor bark nor go.        420
He hath engaged her; his, she wholly bides;
Who not her own, none others’ secrets hides.
If to the flock he come, and Abel there,
She feigns hoarse barkings, but she biteth not;
Her faith is quite, but not her love forgot.        425
At last a trap, of which some everywhere
Abel had placed, ends all his loss and fear,
By the wolf’s death; and now just time it was
That a quick soul should give life to that mass
  Of blood in Abel’s bitch, and thither this did pass.        430
Some have their wives, their sisters some begot,
But in the lives of emperors you shall not
Read of a lust, the which may equal this.
This wolf begot himself, and finished
What he began alive, when he was dead;        435
Son to himself, and father too, he is
A riddling lust, for which schoolmen would miss
A proper name. The whelp of both these lay
In Abel’s tent, and with soft Moaba,
  His sister, being young, it used to sport and play.        440
He soon for her too harsh and churlish grew,
And Abel—the dam dead—would use this new
For the field; being of two kinds thus made,
He, as his dam, from sheep drove wolves away,
And, as his sire, he made them his own prey.        445
Five years he lived, and cozen’d with his trade;
Then hopeless that his faults were hid, betray’d
Himself by flight, and by all followed,
From dogs, a wolf; from wolves, a dog he fled.
  And, like a spy to both sides false, he perished.        450
It quicken’d next a toyful ape, and so
Gamesome it was, that it might freely go
From tent to tent, and with the children play.
His organs now so like theirs he doth find,
That why he cannot laugh and speak his mind,        455
He wonders. Much with all, most he doth stay
With Adam’s fifth daughter, Siphatecia;
Doth gaze on her, and, where she passeth, pass,
Gathers her fruits, and tumbles on the grass;
  And wisest of that kind, the first true lover was.        460
He was the first that more desired to have
One than another; first that e’er did crave
Love by mute signs, and had no power to speak;
First that could make love faces, or could do
The vaulter’s somersaults, or used to woo        465
With hoiting gambols, his own bones to break,
To make his mistress merry, or to wreak
Her anger on himself. Sins against kind
They easily do, that can let feed their mind
  With outward beauty; beauty they in boys and beasts do find.        470
By this misled, too low things men have proved,
And too high; beasts and angels have been loved.
This ape, though else through-vain, in this was wise,
He reached at things too high, but open way
There was, and he knew not she would say nay.        475
His toys prevail not, likelier means he tries.
He gazeth on her face with tear-shot eyes,
And uplifts subtly with his russet paw
Her kidskin apron without fear or awe
  Of nature; nature hath no gaol, 20 though she hath law.        480
First she was silly and knew not what he meant.
That virtue, by his touches chafed and spent,
Succeeds an itchy warmth, that melts her quite;
She knew not first, nor cares not 21 what he doth,
And willing half, and more, more than half wroth, 22        485
She neither pulls nor pushes, but out-right
Now cries and now repents; when Thelemite, 23
Her brother, entered, and a great stone threw
After the ape, who, thus prevented, flew.
  This house, thus batter’d down, the soul possess’d a new.        490
And whether by this change she lose or win,
She comes out next where th’ ape would have gone in.
Adam and Eve had mingled bloods, and now,
Like chemic’s equal fires, her temperate womb
Had stew’d and form’d it; and part did become        495
A spongy liver, that did richly allow,
Like a free conduit on a high hill’s brow,
Life-keeping moisture unto every part;
Part hardened itself to a thicker heart,
  Whose busy furnaces life’s spirits do impart.        500
Another part became the well of sense,
The tender well-arm’d feeling brain, from whence
Those sinewy strings, 24 which do our bodies tie,
Are ravell’d out, and fast there by one end,
Did this soul limbs, these limbs a soul attend.        505
And now they join’d, keeping some quality
Of every past shape; she knew treachery,
Rapine, deceit, and lust, and ills enow
To be a woman. Themech she is now,
  Sister and wife to Cain, Cain that first did plough.        510
Whoe’er thou beest that read’st 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,        515
By cursèd Caïn’s race invented be,
And blest 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.        520
Note 1. l. 10. 1635, Holy Writ [back]
Note 2. l. 13. So 1635; 1633, begins [back]
Note 3. l. 54. 1633, And shall in sad love ways
  1635, And hold in sad lone ways [back]
Note 4. l. 94. So 1635; 1633, corrupts [back]
Note 5. l. 99. So 1635; 1633, She sinned, we here [back]
Note 6. l. 112. 1635, vanitie [back]
Note 7. l. 117. So 1635; 1633 omits and [back]
Note 8. l. 130. So 1635; 1633, 1669, th’ earth’s pores [back]
Note 9. l. 137. So 1635; 1633, Princess, and so filled [back]
Note 10. l. 147. So 1635; 1633, parts [back]
Note 11. l. 150. So 1635; 1633, kinde [back]
Note 12. l. 180. So 1635; 1633, unclothed child [back]
Note 13. l. 185. So 1635; 1633, All downy a new mantle [back]
Note 14. l. 225. So 1635; 1633 omits had [back]
Note 15. l. 267. So 1635; 1633, the wether [back]
Note 16. l. 267. So 1639; 1633, airlike [back]
Note 17. l. 280. So 1635; 1633, It raised [back]
Note 18. l. 337. 1635, his living boat [back]
Note 19. l. 383. So 1635; 1633, who thought no more had gone, to make one wise [back]
Note 20. l. 480. 1639, goal [back]
Note 21. l. 484. So 1635; 1633, now cares not [back]
Note 22. l. 485. So 1635; 1633, half Tooth [back]
Note 23. l. 487. So 1635; 1633, Tethelemite [back]
Note 24. l. 503. 1669, sinew strings [back]
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