John Donne

W. Milgate (ed.), John Donne: The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters

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To the Countesse of Bedford


  • Editor’s Note5But as, although a squint lefthandednesse
  • 6  Be'ungracious, yet we cannot want that hand,
  • Critical Apparatus7So would I, not to'encrease, but to expresse
  • 8  My faith, as I beleeve, so understand.
  • 9Therefore I study you first in your Saints,
  • Editor’s Note10  Those friends, whom your election glorifies,
  • Editor’s Note11Then in your deeds, accesses, and restraints,
  • Editor’s Note12  And what you reade, and what your selfe devize.
  • Critical Apparatus13But soone, the reasons why you'are lov'd by all,
  • 14  Grow infinite, and so passe reasons reach,
  • Editor’s Note15Then backe againe to'implicite faith I fall,
  • Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus16  And rest on what the Catholique voice doth teach; pg IN3 pg IN4
    LUCY, COUNTESS OF BEDFORD. From the portrait at Woburn Abbey, by kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Bedford


    From the portrait at Woburn Abbey. Reproduced by kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Estates.

  • pg 9117That you are good: and not one Heretique
  • Critical Apparatus18  Denies it: if he did, yet you are so;
  • 19For, rockes, which high top'd and deep rooted sticke,
  • Editor’s Note20  Waves wash, not undermine, nor overthrow.
  • 21In every thing there naturally growes
  • Editor’s Note22  A Balsamum to keepe it fresh, and new,
  • 23If'twere not injur'd by extrinsique blowes;
  • 24  Your birth and beauty are this Balme in you.
  • Editor’s Note29Yet, this is not your physicke, but your food,
  • 30  A dyet fit for you; for you are here
  • Editor’s Note31The first good Angell, since the worlds frame stood,
  • 32  That ever did in womans shape appeare.
  • 33Since you are then Gods masterpeece, and so
  • Editor’s Note34  His Factor for our loves; do as you doe,
  • Editor’s Note35Make your returne home gracious; and bestow
  • Editor’s Note36  This life on that; so make one life of two.
  • 37   For so God helpe mee,'I would not misse you there
  • Editor’s Note38   For all the good which you can do me here.

Notes Settings


Critical Apparatus
To the Countesse of Bedford. MSS.: C 57, H 49; L 74, TCD; Dob, O'F. Title from 1633, Σ: Another to the Countis of Bed. L 74: To the Countess of B. TCD.
Editor’s Note
l.1. Reason is our Soules left hand, Faith her right. The relative places of these two faculties in 'reaching divinity' constituted an important problem in Mediaeval and Renaissance philosophy; for an account of the main traditions of thought, see D. C. Allen, The Legend of Noah (Illinois Studies in Lang. and Lit., xxxiii. 3–4, 1949), Ch. 1. Donne frequently takes up the subject: 'Mercy is Gods right hand, with that God gives all; Faith is mans right hand, with that man takes all'; 'A Regenerate man is not made of Faith alone, but of Faith and Reason'; 'Mysteries of Religion are not the less believ'd and embrac'd by Faith, because they are presented, and induc'd, and apprehended by Reason' (Sermons, vii. 370; vi. 175; i. 169; etc.).
Critical Apparatus
3 blessing Σ: blessings 1633, C 57, H 49, Gr
sight MSS.: light 1633, Gr
Editor’s Note
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'.
Critical Apparatus
4 far C 57, H 49, Dob; faire 1633, L 74 TCD: omit O'F (b.c.)
Editor’s Note
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.
Editor’s Note
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.
Critical Apparatus
7 to'encrease] to encrease 1633
Editor’s Note
l. 10. your election glorifies: like those whom God 'chooses' to be saved. Cf. 2 Pet. i. 10–11.
Editor’s Note
l. 11. accesses, and restraints: the granting of access, or refusing it, i.e. the giving or withholding of her favour.
Editor’s Note
l. 12. what your selfe devize: what the Countess herself writes (and also, perhaps, how she plans her life generally).
Critical Apparatus
13 by] of Dob, O'F
Editor’s Note
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.
Critical Apparatus
16 voice MSS.: faith 1633
Editor’s Note
l. 16. Catholique voice: the general consensus, to be accepted as faith. The reading 'faith' for 'voice' is found only in S and RP 31 among the manuscripts; here and in 1633 'voice' has been independently altered, I think, either by repeating 'faith' from l. 15, or by thoughtless substitution of the more obvious phrase.
Critical Apparatus
18 so;] so. 1633
Editor’s Note
l. 20. wash. wash harmlessly over. The Countess's goodness resists all denigration.
Editor’s Note
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.
Critical Apparatus
25 But] But, 1633
Editor’s Note
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).
Editor’s Note
l. 28. what: whatever (intended to harm you).
Editor’s Note
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.
Editor’s Note
ll. 31–32. The first good Angell, etc. Cf. Sermons, ix. 190: 'to recompence that observation, that never good Angel appeared in the likenesse of woman, here are good women made Angels', etc.
Editor’s Note
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.
Editor’s Note
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.
Editor’s Note
ll. 35–36. bestow This life on that: devote this life on earth to the life of heaven, live your life here as part of eternal life, and so make one life of two: for'this, and the next, are not two Worlds' (Sermons, iv. 240).
Editor’s Note
l. 36. make one life of two. The Countess's angelic work in this life will make one life of two also in another way—when she (already an angel) and Donne (who by her influence will become one) meet as redeemed spirits in heaven. Faithful souls are 'alike glorifi'd As Angels' (the Holy Sonnet, 'If faithfull soules', 11. 1–2), and in this state she and Donne will be united. In the 'Obsequies' on the Countess's brother, Lord Harington, Donne complains that he did not 'stay, t'enlarge' God's kingdom, 'By making others what thou didst, to doe' (ll. 213–14), even though (like the Countess here) 'he was joyned in commission With Tutelar Angels' (ll. 227–8). This commission, however, the Countess discharges.
Editor’s Note
l. 38. Compare: 'Truely I would not change that joy and consolation, which I proposed to my hopes, upon my Death-bed, at my passage out of this world, for all the joy that I have had in this world over again' (Sermons, vii. 360). All the good that might accrue to Donne from contemplating the Countess in this life would not compensate for his not being able to join her in heaven.
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