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I cannot work out how to parse these two lines from "The Good-Morrow":

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown

Here's the whole stanza, for context:

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.

1 Answer 1

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tl;dr

The speaker is saying, "Let it be the case that that sea-discoverers have found new worlds. Let there be maps that have shown many such worlds to others," and implying, "So what?"

The next line explains why the lovers can dismiss those achievements. They have no need for voyages of discovery or for maps, because each has the other as a world to explore, and each is a world for the other.

Grammar

The grammatical construction is a bit obscure to modern readers. To begin with, the anastrophe, or grammatical inversion of syntax, needs disentangling. In typical word order, line 12 would read: Let sea-discoverers have gone to new worlds. The past tense imperative mood is uncommon, but explicable. Consider two parents discussing the fact that their son often stops by an ice-cream parlor:

"He goes to the ice-cream parlor every day!"
"So what? Let him go."

Put this entire exchange in the past tense:

"He went to the ice-cream parlor every day!"
"So what? Let him have gone."

This construction is unusual, but not unheard of. For example, here is a snippet from a 2014 novel:

Sophie's heart was clattering around inside her ribcage like a church bell; please don't let him have gone out.

Mansell, Jill. The Unpredictable Consequences of Love. London: Headline, 2014. p. 371. Accessed at archive.org 4 April 2024.

Or here is an example from a Latin grammar from nearer Donne's day:

Let him have gone to the War.       Irè ad bellum Cic. pro Ligar

Turner, William. Exercises to the Accidence; Or, an Exemplification of the Several Moods and Tenses, etc. 1706. 2nd ed. London: Edmund Palmer, 1713. p. 16. Accessed at archive.org 24 April 2024.

The quotation is from Cicero's Pro Ligarius:

Sed ierit ad bellum, dissenserit non a te solum, uerum etiam a fratribus; hi te orant tui.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Pro Quintus Ligarius. 46 BCE. Section 35. Accessed at the Latin Library 4 April 2023.

A modern translation renders this:

Granted that he went to the war, granted that he differed not from you alone, but from his brothers; these your petitioners are your friends.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Pro Ligarius. 46 BCE. Translated N H Watts (1931). Section 35. Accessed at attalus.org 4 April 2024.

The sense is that even conceding that Quintius Ligarius went to war against Caesar, those asking for mercy toward him are nevertheless Caesar's friends, not enemies.

We could similarly paraphrase Donne's lines as: "Granted that sea-discoverers went to new worlds; granted that those worlds have been mapped; we are nevertheless unimpressed, because we are the entire world to each other."

Background: New geographies, new cosmologies

The poems in Donne's collection Songs and Sonets were written at the turn of the 17th century, likely between 1590 and 1611. The preceding 100 years had been a time of the great voyages of exploration and discovery. Columbus's 1492 voyage to America, Vasco da Gama's 1497 discovery of a sea route to India, and the 1519–1522 circumnavigation of the world begun under Ferdinand Magellan revolutionized the geographic understanding of the earth. Europeans became widely aware of the existence of an entire continent to the west and an entire ocean beyond. America was called the New World, in contrast to the Old World of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The OED's first citation for "New World" is from 1549:

ſome ceaſe not to wade thorough the large ſeas enuironned on all ſydes with death, now into the east, and now into the weaſt, and many times into the new world, to become riche.

Thomas, William. The Vanitee of this World. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1549. image 9. Accessed at archive.org 3 April 2024.

These novelties were not confined to the terrestrial. Galileo Galilei's observations of the heavens through his purpose-built telescope led to such discoveries as the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. The understanding of the universe itself was revolutionized as the Copernican heliocentric model replaced the Ptolemaic geocentric one. These new worlds necessitated new maps, such as those in Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) and Thomas Digge's appendices to his father Leonard's A Prognostication Everlasting (1576; links are to the 1605 edition).

Maps and the new worlds that they represented were material and conceptual objects of wonder. The heroism of explorers and the sheer incredibility of their discoveries engaged the Renaissance mind in the same way that news of exoplanets or early galaxies spotted by the James Webb telescope engage ours today, inspiring awe and even a sense of unreality: the remoteness of those vast, hitherto unimagined worlds is beyond our everyday comprehension.

Also astonishing to Donne's contemporaries was the richness of the new world. To the conquistadores the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, being five times larger than London, seemed like a city in a dream. The legend of El Dorado spurred many an adventurer to search for the fabled city of gold. And as the quotation from William Thomas given above indicates, enterprises related to the new world did in fact make many Europeans wealthy.

The New World in "The Good-Morrow"

This background allows us to understand the power of Donne's lines. The speaker says that he and his beloved regard each other with the same sense of awe and wonder that others regard the new geographical and cosmological worlds and the maps on which those were represented. The "little room" in which the lovers are awakening after their night together is "an everywhere": it encompasses the entire universe. The two lovers are themselves "new worlds," each one rich and uncharted territory for the other. They can therefore remain confined in their room with no need for sea voyages and maps. Their explorations of each other furnish the same discovery, wealth, and wonder as journeying to the new world or looking at its maps.

Also relevant here is the commonly held view that the human body is a microcosm of the entire universe. This Neoplatonist belief was popularized by such physicians as Paracelsus and William Harvey. In his pathbreaking work On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, Harvey wrote:

Cor animalium, fundamentum eſt vitæ, princeps omnium, Microcoſmi Sol, à quo omnis vegetatio dependet, vigor omnis & rober emanat.

Harvey, William. Exercitatio Anatomica De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus. 1628. With an English translation and Annotations by Chauncey D. Leake. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1928. Part I, p. 3, emphasis added. Accessed at archive.org 4 April 2024.

Translation:

The heart of animals is the foundation of their life, the sovereign of everything within them, the sun of their microcosm, that upon which all growth depends, from which all power proceeds.

ibid., Part II, p. 3, emphasis added.

Donne's speaker wittily exploits the idea that the human body is a microcosm: if each body is a world, then each lover is a new world to the other, and their erotic explorations are as marvelous as anything sea-discoverers have mapped.

Donne's Contemporary Writers

Other writers made use of the new world for their imaginative purposes as well. Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest, on first encountering a human other than her father, says:

                  O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in it!

(V.i.215–218)

Since Miranda has fallen in love at first sight with Ferdinand, the man she is looking at, the parallel with Donne's poem is evident. Andrew Marvell too wrote about the discovery of the Bermudas, connecting the beauty and plenty of the islands to the glory of God:

He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night;
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.

And matching Donne for audacity, Thomas More's Utopia exploits the discovery of the new world to propose a radical vision for human society, using the existential improbability of those far-off lands to give his work plausibility and himself plausible deniability.

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  • This gives a fantastic view on the historical background, but I still don't get the grammatical justification. I've never seen "Let" combined with what looks like the present perfect tense ("Let ... have gone", "Let ... have shown"). Was that a commonly done thing in English back then?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 4 at 7:41
  • 3
    Definition 13 here. As Verbose says, it means 'let it be the case that...'. Commented Apr 4 at 8:39
  • @Randal'Thor just for you, I added a section on the grammar. (And another paragraph on blood circulation, if grammar doesn't get your heart pumping.)
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 5 at 7:28
  • Thank you for this amazingly detailed answer! It has helped a lot. The syntax was the main sticking point for me, but now I see how the words are meant to fit together. For anybody else who is having trouble making sense of how the words fit together gramatically, the following paraphrase might help. My insertions are in brackets: "Let (there be) sea-discoverers (who) to new worlds have gone, Let (there be) maps to other(s), (which) worlds on worlds have shown, (Just) Let us possess one world, (for) each hath one, and is one."
    – Thomas
    Commented Apr 5 at 12:37

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