3 blessing Σ
: blessings 1633
, C 57
, H 49
sight MSS.: light 1633, Gr
l. 3. your sight: seeing you. Cf. John xx. 29: 'because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed'.
l. 4. far faith: faith that grasps the truth at a distance. Cf. Heb. xi. 1: 'faith is … the evidence of things not seen'; and xi. 13: 'These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off.' In Group II, I think, 'far' has been misread as 'fair'; the compiler of 1633 was attracted by this reading, or himself misread his copy.
ll. 5–8. In writing his poem Donne uses Reason as men do in religion, not to increase their Faith, but to clarify ('expresse') it in their understanding.
7 to'encrease] to encrease 1633
l. 10. your election glorifies: like those whom God 'chooses' to be saved. Cf. 2 Pet. i. 10–11.
l. 11. accesses, and restraints: the granting of access, or refusing it, i.e. the giving or withholding of her favour.
l. 12. what your selfe devize: what the Countess herself writes (and also, perhaps, how she plans her life generally).
l. 15. implicite faith. Cf. Brown, Religio Medici, i. 5, 6, 10:
where the Scripture is silent, the Church is my Text …, where there is a joynt silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my owne reason … in Divinity I love to keep the Road; and, though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheel of the Church, by which I move, not reserving any proper Poles or motion from the Epicycle of my own brain … by acquainting our Reason how unable it is to display the visible and obvious effects of Nature, it becomes more humble and submissive unto the subtleties of Faith; and thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed Reason to stoop unto the lure of Faith.
16 voice MSS.: faith 1633
l. 20. wash. wash harmlessly over. The Countess's goodness resists all denigration.
l. 22. A
Balsamum. Paracelsus taught that every living body contained a sweet balsam or 'balm', a healing fluid which preserved the body and counteracted poisons (Hermetic and Alchemical Writings
, translated A. E. Waite, ii. 69–74, etc.). The balsam was exhausted by age, and the man, animal or plant then died; or it could be cut off from parts of the body by 'blows' from outside (e.g. a tight ligature round the finger eventually causes gangrene, since the balsam cannot reach the finger; cf. Sermons
, ii. 81).
'Every thing hath in it, as Physitians use to call it, Naturale Balsamum
, A naturall Balsamum, which, if any wound or hurt which that creature hath received, be kept clean from extrinsique putrefaction, will heale of it self' (Sermons
, vi. 116). In a letter to Goodyer written about the same time as this poem (Letters
, pp. 97–99), Donne says:
For vertue is even, and continuall, and the same, and can therefore break no where, nor admit ends, nor beginnings.… He is not vertuous, out of whose actions you can pick an excellent one. Vice and her fruits may be seen, because they are thick bodies, but not vertue, which is all light.… The later Physitians say, that when our naturall inborn preservative is corrupted or wasted, and must be restored by a like [i.e. balsam] extracted from other bodies; the chief care is that the Mummy have in it no excelling quality, but an equally digested temper: And such is true vertue … we have Christianity, which is the use and application of all vertue.
The idea that virtue is an indivisible whole comes from the opening and closing sections of Plato's Protagoras; cf. a later letter to the Countess, 'T'have written then', ll. 77–78, and 'Obsequies to the Lord Harington', ll. 50–51. Plato uses the uniform substance of gold as an image of the idea, as Donne does in his own way, in the letter to the Countess of Huntingdon, 'Man to Gods image', ll. 25–26. The alchemical processes gave him a number of other images of virtue as an animating force—balsam, mummy, tincture, the 'virtue' of a substance; see L. Stapleton, S.P. lv, 1958. An appreciation of Donne's usual thoughts and images enhances our sense of the
'wit' and resource with which here he achieves a rather different conceit; the Countess's birth and beauty are the balsam, her virtue is described in another way.
l. 27. methridate: a composite antidote against poisons supposed to have been used by King Mithridates VI of Pontus (120?–63? B.C.). Several different recipes are given (e.g. by Galen, De Antidotis, 11. viii, ix; Opera, 1586, iii, f. 115).
Donne distinguishes the qualities of the Countess given by nature (birth and beauty) from those acquired by education, 'learning', 'religion', 'vertue' (which are like mithridate, added to what is naturally in the body).
l. 28. what: whatever (intended to harm you).
l. 29. This mixture of learning, religion, and virtue is not a medicine, like mithridate, but the Countess's food. At the back of Donne's mind might have been the further story of Mithridates, that he tried to commit suicide by poisoning himself, but had so built up protection by taking mithridate in the past (almost as 'food') that the poison could not take effect; so, e.g., Forestus, De Venenis, 1606, pp. 30–32, 41.
l. 34. His Factor for our loves: God's agent ('Factor') winning our love for Him by illuminating (as angels do) the minds and consciences of men. She is a sort of tutelary angel to those about her,
do as you doe
: continue in this angelic function. Cf. another letter to the Countess, 'Honour is so sublime', ll. 52–54
: 'Goe thither still', etc.
l. 35. home: to heaven (whence angels are sent).
gracious: happy, fortunate, prosperous (cf. The Winter's Tale, 111. i. 22: 'gracious be the issue'; Measure for Measure, v. i. 76: 'her gracious fortune', etc.). Her return to her native heaven will be blessed, for she will be accompanied by the souls she had helped to save.