Donne the Discoverer
John Donne, Elegy XIX – To His Mistress Going to Bed (pub. 1669)
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!”
Ah, how many an undergraduate has sat semi-aroused in a drowsy fantasy while some desiccated professor droned on about this poem ….
The poem (full text here) is dated 1669 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which is the year it was added to Donne’s Poems — those who are curious about such things can consult Grierson’s edition for details on the publication history and manuscript tradition. It must have been written much earlier, perhaps in the late 1590s or early 1600s, which could well make it the first reference to Canada in literature. (Of course I’m aware Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada in at the time Donne wrote, as Canada as we know it didn’t yet exist. This blog, however, will embrace a philosophy of inclusiveness: if it’s part of present-day Canada, then it counts.)
Already we can see certain themes that all Canadians will recognize coming into focus.
The first and most obvious is the idea of Canada as a just-discovered wilderness waiting to be plundered. This is implicit in the comparison of “new-found-land” to the body of the woman – as the poet wants to reveal and exploit her body for his pleasure, so Europeans wanted to map and exploit the New World for their profit (note “mine of precious stones”). And note the possessive: “my new-found-land”. She is his own personal New World, just as the “new-found-land” unquestionably belongs to England’s empire (note “empery”).
And then we notice “America” (with a capital A, unlike the lower-case “n” on “new-found-land,” as though the United States were already marked out for greatness and we for obscurity) and the questions begin. Is “new-found-land” a proper name equivalent to the modern “Newfoundland”? Or is it a generic term in apposition to “America,” essentially repeating the same idea? Perhaps Donne includes all of the New World under the term “America,” and “new-found-land” is just another way of saying the same thing – and introducing a rhyme for the punning “manned” in the next line.
How Canadian – even when confronted with a reference to Canada, we can’t quite believe it.
And yet Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England in 1583, and the Newfoundland Colony was established in 1610; the name could certainly have reached Donne’s ears. And considering that his poems originally circulated in manuscript, and that copy-editing was hardly standardized at that time, we shouldn’t read too much into (or out of) the vagaries of capitalization and punctuation.
In a way, it seems fitting that this early reference to Canada should be wreathed in a mist of uncertainty – did he really mean us? Or was he just aware of a New World in an unspecified way, and brought in the terms that suited the purposes of his own poem with little (or no?) thought for the concerns of future Canadians? Impossible, finally, to say.
But it remains – the name of our easternmost province, caught in the dense network of Donne’s verse, immortal there if nowhere else.