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Affect, Perfume, and Early Modern Sensory Boundaries

Elizabeth D. Harvey

Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Volume 5, Number

3, Fall 2018, pp. 31-50 (Article)

Published by University of Nebraska Press

For additional information about this article

Access provided by Carleton University Library (15 Oct 2018 00:45 GMT)
Affect, Perfume, and Early Modern
Sensory Boundaries
Elizabeth D. Harvey

Part 1: The Circuit of Fear

In late November 1623 when English poet and Anglican priest John
Donne was fifty-one, he developed a life-threatening illness. It may have
been typhus, or perhaps relapsing fever, which was sweeping London at
the time. The sickness confined him first to his room and then to his
bed, where he wrestled with his symptoms and the strong possibility
that he would not survive. When Donne eventually recovered, he
anatomized his experience of mental and physical suffering and
his passionate conversations with God in Devotions upon Emergent
Occasions, a powerful account of his sensory and emotional body
poised on the threshold of death. At the nadir of his illness, Donne tells
us that he notices the physician’s grave concern:
I observe the Phisician, with the same diligence, as hee the dis-
ease; I see hee feares, and I feare with him: I overtake him, I over-
run him in his feare, and I go the faster, because he makes his pace
slow; I feare the more, because he disguises his fear, and I see it
with the more sharpnesse, because hee would not have me see it.1
In this extraordinary passage, we can witness what Brian Cummings
and Freya Sierhuis recently termed the intersubjective nature of affect.2
Donne watches and registers his physician’s fear; and as he does so,
the fear becomes contagious, transmitting itself to the patient as
infectiously as contamination or the relapsing fever travels between
bodies. Donne’s trepidation quickly outstrips its origin; when he thinks
the physician conceals his worry, the secrecy augments both the poet’s
apprehension and the certainty that his increasing dread is founded
in the medical observation of his progress. The insistent repetitions of
the word fear magnify its presence, scattering it through the text just as
it replicates and intensifies in the sickroom. The trajectory of affect is
reciprocal; in Donne’s account, fear becomes an emotional conversation
that articulates and responds in an increasingly urgent fashion. Donne
matches each manifestation of fear with a mirroring (“I see hee feares,
and I feare with him”), and the escalation is accelerated and intertwined
with corresponding fervency.3
Crucially for my argument, no actual words are spoken. Instead, the
exchange takes place through sensory traffic that is primarily, although
not exclusively, visual. How, we might ask, is fear apprehended and
transmitted? How do the senses join with affect to create sensory and
emotional conversations that shape social relations? We have observed
over the past two decades the emergence of sensory studies as a rich
field of exploration, and we now understand the operations of the
senses in complexly augmented ways. I explore here an appendix to
this influential research: how early modern sensory experience and
emotion are coupled on the one hand and, on the other, how this
sensory-affective pairing circulates within a social ecology that is
at, or just below, the threshold of consciousness. Donne’s heightened
sensitivity to interactions at the boundary of sensory apprehension
tunes his readers to the affective and bodily nuances that mold human
and environmental relations. He catalogs here and in the poem I
examine next, “The Perfume,” how the senses traverse and disrupt
somatic autonomy, an interaction that is often hidden from awareness
but that continually shapes human experience. I aim here to investigate
how sensation and emotion travel together through subliminal social
The exchange between Donne and his physician creates an environ-
ment, an affective domain that encompasses, lies between, and joins the
two men. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first appearance of
the word environment in Philemon Holland’s 1603 English translation
of Plutarch’s Moralia.4 In the section “Naturall Questions,” Holland En-
glishes a long passage on why the polyp fish, or cephalopod (octopus,
squid, cuttlefish), changes color. According to Theophrastus, the polyp
fish is a “fearfull and timorous creature by nature.” When it is “trou-
bled or amazed,” it alters its color, “even as men do.” The polyp becomes

32 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

an allegory of human behavior under the influence of fear; for just as
the fish seeks to blend with its environment, changing color so that it
can hide among the rocks, so do apprehensive human beings change
their behavior in order to render themselves less conspicuous. Not con-
tent with this explanation of affective camouflage, Plutarch expands on
Empedocles’s observations that all mortal things have “defluxions,” for
they slough off fragments or smells that move into the ambient world
and cleave to other bodies. When the polyp fish is afraid, it shuts itself
up, creating “rivels” and wrinkles in the soft, porous surface of its body
that then attract defluxions from other animate and inanimate bod-
ies. These moltings settle on the fish’s skin, causing it to blend with the
environment. Plutarch imagines all bodies—stones, brass, plants, and
animals—as deciduous, continually shedding parts of themselves into
an ambient world (“circumplexions and environments”) where they are
taken up and recirculated, a process that at least with cephalopods is
accelerated by fear.5
Plutarch’s explication of the polyp fish’s chameleon behavior illu-
minates two intertwined points that are central to this essay. First, his
account of defluxions suggests that bodies shed particles and odors
into the surrounding world that both constitute that environment and
continue to exert a vestigial effect on it. In several subsequent ques-
tions, Plutarch ponders how bodily traces linger in a landscape, how
hounds and hunters track wild beasts differently depending on weath-
er or season—in the spring, under a full moon, or when the ground is
covered with hoar frost.6 His answers implicate the ecology of scents
and vapors, since smell is a mechanism for defluxion, or shedding; as
Empedocles recognized, all things “yield a smell, in that there runneth
something always from them.”7 Plutarch explains that scents deposited
by the quarry on the earth can be confused in spring with the fragrance
of vernal flowers; that under a full moon the prey’s odors are partially
sucked up by the moon’s vapors; and that frost congeals, inhibiting the
diffusion of smells. In his account, the senses are always in ecological
dialogue with the ambient world.
Second, Plutarch provides an important connection between senso-
ry experience and affect. There is, of course, a long and complex histo-
ry of this philosophical and physiological relationship that implicates
the nature of consciousness and human sentience.8 What interests me
here is how in Plutarch’s account, when fish or human bodies depos-

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 33

it sensory traces in the environment, the process of sedimentation can
be affectively charged by the emanating body, the receptive other, or
both. Donne and his physician participate in a circuit of fear, just as the
polyp fish and the hunted prey leave affective footprints that are read
as sensory data. Turning attention to this affective-sensory coupling
means attending to the environment and to Aristotle’s foundational
insight that perception happens through a medium. Aristotle believed
that sensation is always mediated by a third term—most commonly
air or water—that interceded between the faculty of sensation and the
sensible object. Whereas Aristotle could identify the medium for sight,
hearing, or smell relatively easily, he had trouble specifying the medium
for touch, because that sense implicated the body, skin, or flesh as the
third term.9 I propose here to designate the environment as a medium
or third term in sensory-affective apprehension. I understand environ-
ment as an area that not only circumscribes the body but may also in-
clude it. The fearful polyp fish literally incorporates the environment
into the folds of its skin, just as we may breathe circumambient air. In
both cases, the sensory and affective environment infiltrates and merg-
es with the body; and in both cases, touch and smell are synesthetically
intertwined. The subliminal transmission of affect may have a material
basis, as I will suggest in my discussion of perfume. Chemical subli-
mation entails converting a solid into a gas without moving through a
liquid state; and smells, dependent as they are on air for dissemination,
are dispersed and exchanged within an environment. My conception of
intersubjectivity thus includes a capaciously defined intervening envi-
ronment that serves as a medium for the transmission of affect.

Part 2: Language, the Senses, and the Gestural Body

I’ve used a group of words to talk about emotional life: feeling,
affect, emotion, the passions. Although they are interconnected and
overlapping, it may be useful to clarify my terminology. Feeling is
rooted in sensory impression but quickly extends to encompass affect.
My interest in how the senses and affect are imbricated makes the term
simultaneously revealing and opaque because feeling conflates sensory
and affective registers. Affect is a more specific word that describes a
physiological experience, and it is especially useful for navigating early
modern knowledge, which saw affective experience as anchored in the

34 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

body. Emotion is a term, by contradistinction, that tends to describe a
psychological or interpretative experience.10 Fredric Jameson implicates
emotion in language, suggesting that emotion reifies an affective
experience by giving it a name.11 Rei Terada understands the term
passions as foregrounding the passive or active aspects of emotional
experience, an insight that, as we will see, is echoed by early modern
discussions of sensation. My exploration of the intersubjective sensory-
affective loop is specifically concerned with how sensory and affective
reception (being affected) swivels to sensory influence (affecting).
Terada introduces another important term, pathos, which encapsulates
the representational and vicarious aspects of emotional experience.12
Pathos directs attention to how emotion is deposited in language and
becomes accessible for an audience, a term that reveals how Donne
translates his own affective experience into an emotional language that
can, in turn, transmit that sensory-affective feeling to a reader.
Donne’s description of the intersubjective circuit of fear—the
communication of affect—reveals the close alliance for the early
moderns between affect and the senses. Thomas Wright, in his 1601
treatise The Passions of the Minde, tells us that “spinie braunches of
briarie passions” spring from the “league and conferderacie” they
make with the senses.13 He argues that the passions and the senses are
“like two naughtie servants” who owe more to each other than to their
master, that they are “joint-friends,” and that the “bonds and seales
of sensuall habits confirmed their friendship.” The passions are in his
estimation “drowned in corporall organs and instruments, as well as
sense.”14 The semantic legacy of our modern word feel braids together
sensory apprehension and emotion. If, for each human subject, sensory
and affective experience are imbricated, how does this complex
intertwining communicate itself to other human subjects? In her recent
influential study of the political ecology of materiality, Vibrant Matter,
Jane Bennett describes Spinoza’s conative bodies as “associative or (one
could even say) social bodies in the sense that each is, by its very nature
as a body, continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies.”
She draws on Gilles Deleuze’s insight derived from Spinoza that the
power “a body has to affect other bodies includes a ‘corresponding
and inseparable capacity to be affected.’”15 The experience of our
sensory bodies, in other words, is reciprocal, transmissible, and always
enmeshed in social relations.

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 35

The intertwining of sensory and affective registers and the
contagious reciprocity of emotional exchange has a counterpart in
early philosophical and medical debates about the phenomenology
of touch. Citing Aristotle and the Paduan anatomist Julius Casserius
Placentinus, Helkiah Crooke invokes in his 1615 anatomical treatise
Microcosmographia the central debate concerning sensory perception:
Does sensation occur because the organ of sense acts on an object, or
is the object itself the agent, making the sense organ merely a passive
recipient? Although Crooke ultimately reconciles his sources, arguing
that sensation must be a complex mixture of action and reception, a
dialectical interplay between the subject and the ambient world, he also
suggests that to “perceive is a kind of suffering,” for “sensation hapneth
in that which is moved and suffereth.”16 Crooke is, of course, activating
the etymon of “passive” from the Latin passivus (“to be acted on”), but
his language offers a physiology of feeling that links the senses to the
passions. The action of the senses is, he says, “a motien through a body
which suffers in the Sensation.”17 Suffering turns out to be reciprocal,
not unlike Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of mutual touching,
where to touch is also to be touched. For Crooke, sensation happens
when the sense is converted into the nature of the sensible thing, in
other words, through an alteration.18 The sensible object changes the
sense, transforming it to its own nature; and it is this conversion of
essence that causes suffering. In other words, sensation is, at its root,
an interactive and fundamentally associative function in which we are
always simultaneously agents and receivers of sensation. Affect thus
becomes the mental state that is a consequence of this sensorial and
emotional process of acting on or being the recipient of that action,
phenomenological conditions that prepare us for the fundamentally
associative, relational nature of sensation and the transmuting
properties of that exchange.
How does Donne intuit his physician’s fear, and how do we, as read-
ers, participate in the pathos of the affective circuit? Our own empath-
ic awareness of Donne’s alarm happens through the medium of writ-
ing, and our ability to sense his trepidation is communicated through
such rhetorical figures as repetition; gradatio, a stepwise escalation
that George Puttenham called the marching figure; chiasmus, an in-
verse mirroring; and prosopopeia, or personification. Donne’s linguis-
tic description of the apprehension of emotion may derive from what

36 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

mathematician and philosopher Brian Rotman has called, in Becoming
beside Ourselves, the gestural body. Rotman argues that alphabetic writ-
ing, born in the sixth century BCE in Judaic and Greek deployments
of writing, encrypted affect that typically saturated human speech, in
“tone,” with “those auditory movements of the body within utterance:
its hesitations, silences, emphases, sharpness, timbre, musicality, chang-
es of pitch, and other elements of prosody.”19 Whereas most alphabetic
writing in Rotman’s view eliminates the emotional nuances of spoken
voice, readers of Renaissance literature recognize poetry’s rich resourc-
es for encoding the gestural body in language: prosody, figuration,
rhyme, and other formal poetic and rhetorical features cataloged by
such writers as George Puttenham. This “speechless dialectic” involves
gestures that Francis Bacon called “transient hieroglyphs,” somatic pic-
tographs.20 As readers, we may receive this gestural language in two
ways: first, through the depiction of bodily or facial gesture in language
and, second, more experientially through the transposition of gestural
language into tropological figures designed to elicit readerly emotional
response. In Terada’s terms, reading engages pathos, for it makes emo-
tion vicarious.
Thomas Wright asserts that a whole book would be necessary to
catalog how the passions announce themselves in gesture, and he
therefore limits himself to a fairly cursory discussion of eye movements,
pronunciation, managing of the hands and body, and ways of going.21
These gestural hieroglyphs found the fuller expression that Wright
only touches on in the seventeenth-century physician and natural
philosopher John Bulwer’s encyclopedic attention to what he called
“speaking motions” and “discoursing gestures.”22 Bulwer codified these
gestures in his 1644 treatise, Chirologia, where he indexed a universal
language of the body, what he calls Vox Corporis. He claimed that the
“lineaments of the Body doe disclose the disposition and inclination
of the minde in generall,” and whereas the “Tongue speakesth to the
Eare, so gesture speaketh to the Eye.”23 He observed that those born
“deafe and dumbe” could nevertheless “argue and dispute rhetorically
by signes, and with a kinde of mute and logistique eloquence overcome
their amaz’d opponents.”24 Bodily gestures are, he argues, the “Tongue
and general language of Humaine Nature,” and some of the hand
gestures he cataloged in Chirologia were incorporated into present-
day British Sign Language.25 Bulwer described the sensory reception of

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 37

the gestural lexicon through the image of a gun firing: “The eye being
the nimbler sense, discernes the discharge before any intelligence by
conduct of the Vocall wave arrive at the eare.” He metaphorizes the
almost simultaneous “flash and report” of the “Piece going off ” as like
the birth of twins, for although “Speech and Gesture are conceived
together in the minde, yet the Hande first appearing in the delivery,
anticipates the Tongue.”26 He suggests by implication that gestural and
discursive language operate as virtually simultaneous systems, with
gestural communication supplementing or modifying, in perhaps not
always acknowledged ways, spoken language. This gestural substrate
undergirds language and social interaction and engages sensory
apprehension. Although in Bulwer’s example auditory and visual signals
are almost coincident, the eye not only is “nimbler” but also dominates
the ear, which may in turn obscure other sensory responses. Bulwer
does not mention smell, for instance; but Teresa Brennan, as we will see
shortly, understands the olfactory register as a primary medium for the
“transmission of affect.”27
When Donne experiences fear during his illness, he describes it as
a “stifling spirit, a spirit of suffocation” that often suppresses speech.28
Smothering language propels Donne into the register of gesture and
affect, allowing him to “hear” sensory-affective exchange, as if he had
grown a new ear, or what psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called “the third
ear.”29 Donne uses language in the subsequent expostulation and prayer,
however, to accommodate himself to fear, asking God to give him a
terror “of which he may not be afraid.” By this he means recognizing
the utility of his alarm, understanding that it is God’s way to prepare
him and that his trepidation is not his own at all; it is God’s fear. He
comforts himself with the recognition that his sickness is not just a
“natural accident” that subjects him to the capriciousness of nature.
Donne’s alteration of affect pivots on the repetition of “falling” into
God’s hands. Although it is “a fearfull thing to fall into [God’s] hands,”
this surrender shields him from “the infirmitie of Nature,” because in
falling into God’s hands, God “will never let me fall out of [his] hand.”30
Initially terrifying as a loss of control, an involuntary subordination of
the self to God’s overwhelming power, the chiasmic formulation inverts
the danger, containing it within the consolatory image of omnipotently
cradling hands. God changes in this image from unpredictably perilous
to inevitably comforting. Viewed from this perspective, illness is a

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rehearsal, the beginning of a transition into another state that is divinely
preordained. Dying is a mechanism of translation from one state to
another, for God’s pleasure will “dispose of this body, this garment,”
as preparation for death. Donne’s somatic symptoms—“heates,”
“sweats,” and “inundations”—are then recognized less as alarming
random signs than as instruments of catharsis and preparation.31
His fear is sublimated from the bodily experience of pain through
silent sojourning with gesture and affect into the art of linguistic and
emotional understanding. We witness what Placentinus might call an
alteration, a change that happens by means of a sensory and affective
encounter. Donne’s human rational understanding is supplemented by
listening with the soul’s ear to the realm of consciousness to which he
would normally not have access.

Part 3: Gesture and the Olfactory Envelope

John Bulwer’s treatise develops a syntax for the body and face that
correlates them with emotional states and “pathetique faculties,”
establishing a suggestive lexicon for our reading of facial and somatic
orientation in poetry. In Dorsality, David Wills anatomizes backward-
facing bodily movements, exploring the cultural and philosophical
consequences of turning one’s back. The front and back of the body
are each invested with positional significance; whereas front facing
engages vision (the etymological cognate of the visage) and the
instrumentality of the hands, a dorsal approach, Wills suggests, entails
extreme vulnerability. As he puts it, the “dorsal names the unseen, that
is not the same as the invisible. But what is behind cannot be seen
without a turning . . . it will come to us first of all through other senses:
perhaps still sometimes through that of smell, from out of an animal
past, but more likely through hearing, announcing itself in a whisper
or a shout, in a rumble or a murmur; and more importantly still,
through touch.”32 In Helkiah Crooke’s account, sensory traffic entails an
overlapping of sensory and fundamentally affective experience that we
might name intersubjective conversion. When David Wills describes
the phenomenology of dorsality, he suggests that what is behind us
comes to us first through the sense of smell. The hegemony of the visual
implicit in frontality can obscure our experience of the other senses.
I want to spend the remainder of this essay thinking about how the

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 39

olfactory is bound up with what Michel Serres called “a philosophy
of mingled bodies.”33 Let me emphasize that I am not here referring
simply to a physiological model of the humoral body and its putative
permeability, although the senses are anchored in this somatic nature.
My focus is instead on the more specific linkage between the senses and
the passions and on the intersubjective exchange of affect.
The magisterial work of French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu on
touch extends Freud’s foundational idea that touch and skin instantiate
the human psyche. Freud’s famous pronouncement that the ego is “first
and foremost a bodily ego,” which is “not merely a surface entity, but
is itself a projection of a surface,”34 undergirds Anzieu’s seminal work,
which while grounded in tactility, also theorizes the other senses. An
analysand of Jacques Lacan, Anzieu turned away in The Skin Ego (Le
Moi-peau) from the Lacanian emphasis on language in order to return
Freud’s somatic and neurological roots. Anzieu defines the skin ego as
the “mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the
early phases of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing
psychical elements, on the basis of its experience of the surface of
the body.  .  .  . Every psychical activity is anaclitically dependent upon
a biological function.”35 The skin ego is the interface that marks the
boundary between inside and out, and it is the primary means of
communicating with others. Touch is primarily but not exclusively
implicated in this process; Anzieu includes appendices in which he
explores how each of the other senses furnishes a sensory envelope. In
his case study for the “Olfactory Envelope,” he studies how aggression
literally emanates from the skin as smell.36 Affect is for Anzieu rooted
in the body, expressing itself in this case as a communicable sensory
signal, a scent, burdened with belligerence.
Anzieu’s olfactory envelope accords theoretically with Teresa
Brennan’s 2004 study, The Transmission of Affect, where she hypothesizes
that smell occupies a central role in disseminating emotion. Building
on neurological research, she calls the process of sensory and affective
communication “entrainment,” a kind of unconscious olfaction.
Biologists have identified pheromones as one of the chemical signals
that allow us to apprehend the “atmosphere” in a room, to pick up
someone else’s depression, or to respond to subliminal cues of erotic
desire. Smell, as recognized, is communicated through the medium of
air. Holly Dugan notes that a “history of smell is thus a history of the air

40 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

itself.” She cites Michel Serres’s claim that air “is a ‘vector of everything’
yet is also at the ‘very limit of the insensible.’”37 Brennan’s study urges
us to confront the fundamentally intersubjective nature of subjectivity,
for she posits that human beings are not self-enclosed monadic entities
but rather that their subjectivity extends beyond the margins of the
body and interacts with the ambient fields of other bodies.38 In order
to explore this interstitial space between subjects through early modern
intersections of the senses and the passions, I turn to Donne’s “Elegy IV:
The Perfume.”39
Critics praise “The Perfume” for its Ovidian wit and urbane humor.
The poem’s narrative scaffolding depicts a clandestine affair in which
the lovers successfully evade the father’s tyrannical vigilance and the
mother’s intrusive ruses but are ultimately betrayed by the lover’s lin-
gering perfume. The early critical tradition argued that the poem was
autobiographical and that it alluded to Donne’s secret courtship of
Anne More.40 Although the autobiographical parallels may be sugges-
tive, the poem is even more significant for its complex engagements
with smell and perfume. It offers evocative insights into early modern
understandings of erotic desire and its linkage to Anzieu’s olfactory en-
velope. Perfume is a prosthetic smell that can amplify, replace, or con-
ceal body odor, and it thus offers a heightened account of how an ol-
factory envelope might signify. It can create and reveal sexual desire;
and as a costly luxury in early modern England, it also signaled social
status. The poem’s speaker catalogs how the senses of touch, taste, sight,
and hearing are converted into forensic tools to betray the lover’s secret
visits; but despite the conversion of these intricately concocted senso-
ry modes of discovery, each strategy is ultimately ineffectual. Perfume,
whose traces persist long after its host body has departed, finally dis-
closes the clandestine trysts. It infiltrates the house, creating emotion-
al and sensory confusion for its inhabitants. Perfume’s “confound[ing]”
of the senses disables discrimination of “sick from sound,” of diseased
from healthy. Donne’s use of “sound” is itself ambiguous, however; for
the word designates both health and the acoustic, mimicking through
the pun perfume’s ability to disrupt. The structuring conceit of perfume
as revelatory agent opens the poem into a more profound consideration
of how the senses amplified and complicated social interaction through
the transmission of affect in early modern England.
Philip Stubbes, the sixteenth-century pamphleteer and author of

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 41

1583 The Anatomie of Abuses, castigates such English vices and excesses
as clothing, games, fashion, and perfume. In a chapter on musk, civet,
and sweet powder in England, titled in the upper margin “Costly
perfumes in England,” Stubbes explains through one of his interlocutors,
Philoponus, why perfume is objectionable.41 He cites Isaiah 3:24 in the
judgment against Judah and Jerusalem: instead of sweet perfume “they
shall have stench and horrour in the nethermost hel.”42 Spudeus objects,
arguing that he’s heard that sweet smells “corroborate the senses,
comfort the spirites, and recreate both the body and mind of man
greatly.”43 Philoponus counters with outrage: on the contrary, “palpable
odours, fumes, vapours, and smelles of Musks, Civets, Pomanders,
Perfumes, Balmes and such like ascending to the braine, doe rather
darken and obscure the spirites and sences.”44 Referring not only to the
“sweet washed gloves” of perfume wearers, Philoponus exclaims, “Is
this not a sweet Pride, to have Civet, Muske, sweete powders, fragrant
Pomanders, odorous perfumes, and such like, whereof the smell may
be felt and perceived, not onely all over the house, or place where
they be present, but also a stones cast off almost, yea, the bed wherein
they have laid their delicate bodies, the places where they have sate,
the clothes & thinges which they have touched shall smell a week, a
month and more after they be gone.”45 In other words, the danger of
perfume resides not only in its capacity to disguise sickness and evil
smells (it is, like cosmetics, deceptive), not only for its association
with venery and vice, but even more importantly, it untethers itself
from the body, roaming dangerously of its own volition. This insight
about its promiscuous mobility lies at the heart of Donne’s poem, for it
is perfume’s treacherous unwillingness to answer to the mastery of its
host body that looses it as a migratory agent. Like eroticism, to which
it is inextricably joined, perfume, and the smell of desire, is subversive
and uncontainable. It crosses the boundaries of the human, circulating,
leaving its imprint, transgressing the putative intactness of individual
subjectivity. Donne’s final apostrophe is a mock purgation in which he
claims that the gods enjoyed burnt offerings not because of the smell
but because it meant the perfume would be extinguished. Ultimately
disgusted with his betrayer, he consigns perfume to embalm the corpse
of the father, cementing its linkage to death. The final line of the poem,
however—the exclamation “What? Will he die?”—seems to reignite
hope and the desire that fueled it.

42 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

The elegy begins with an address to the mistress that enumerates the
familial impediments to the lovers’ trysts in juridical terms:
Once, and but once found in thy company,
All thy suppos’d escapes are laid on mee;
And as a thiefe at barre, is question’d there
By all the men, that have been rob’d that yeare,
So am I, (by this traitorous meanes surpriz’d)
By thy Hydroptique father catechiz’d.
Though he had wont to search with glazed eyes,
As though he came to kill a Cockatrice.
(lines 1–8)

Perhaps because of the influence of Donne’s time at the Inns of Court,

the courtier-lover is questioned “as a thief at bar” and threateningly
“catechized” by the protective father, an interrogation that may echo
the treatment of recusant Catholics.46 The father with his “glazed” eye
questions the lover as if he were seeking to exterminate a “Cockatrice,”
the mythical serpent-rooster hybrid whose eye beams were said to
“corrupt” and to kill the spirits of the brain and heart and to infect the
ambient air with its poison.47 Although the lovers successfully elude
detection by these paternal inquisitions, the cockatrice’s capacity to
poison the surrounding atmosphere anticipates perfume’s ultimately
treacherous capacity to hang in the air.
The invalid mother uses her bedridden condition to spy, watching
the mistress’s “entries and returns all night” (line 16). She, like the fa-
ther, attempts to inveigle a confession, using maternal subterfuge:
. . . when she takes thy hand, and would seeme kind,
Doth search what rings, and armelets she can finde;
And kissing notes the colour of thy face;
And fearing least thou’art swolne, doth thee embrace;
To trie if thou long, doth name strange meates;
And notes thy paleness, blushing, sighs, and sweats;
And politiquely will to thee confesse
The sinnes of her owne youths ranke lustinesse;
Yet love these Sorceries did remove, and move
Thee to gull thine own mother for my love.
(lines 17–26)

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 43

She scrutinizes her daughter for bestowed love tokens and exam-
ines her physical symptoms as assiduously as Donne’s physician does
in the Devotions. She watches for signs of pregnancy, feigning embrac-
es in order to check for swelling, suggests foods to ascertain new and
strange cravings, solicits confidences by admitting her own youthful
“ranke lustinesse,” and she searches her daughter’s gestural body for
the characteristic marks of lovesickness: alterations of color, sighs, and
sweats. Her catalog of cunning stratagems is a veritable sensory sweep;
for taste, hearing, sight, and touch are implicated in her quest to dis-
cover her daughter’s secrets. What is omitted, significantly, is smell, the
treacherous sense that ultimately betrays the lovers.
The third of the three twelve-line sections that form what we might
call the guardian architecture of the poem involves the little brothers,
who are sent into their sister’s chamber as spies, and the “grim-eight-
foot-high-iron-bound serving-man” (line 31) who bars the gate. The
line’s monosyllabic, heavily stressed beats enact a kind of military
power, and the hyphenated words in the 1633 edition close up the spaces
between words as if to display the impenetrability of entrance into the
house and, by extension, the mistress’s body. Both ruses exemplify
methods for protecting the body or polity; espionage is a mechanism
of infiltration and disguise in the service of gathering information.
Helkiah Crooke memorably designated the senses as the intelligencers
of the body; and early modern sensory imagery, such as Bartolomei
Del Bene’s Civitas veri, for instance, recruits each of the five senses as
sentinels at the portals of the body.48 The mistress’s little brothers mimic
erotic behavior, kissing and “ingl[ing]” at the knee, as if their innocence
could disguise their threat and as if the information they ingenuously
gather did not have to be extracted with bribes. The comic hyperbole
of the “grim-eight-foot-high-iron-bound serving-man” is likened
to the Colossus of Rhodes, that wonder of the world constructed to
commemorate Ptolemy of Egypt’s fourth-century BCE prevention
of the mass invasion of Rhodes by the Macedonian king, Antigonos.
Over thirty meters high (almost one hundred feet), the statue was
said to have had an armature of linked brass plates that formed its
skin, echoed, perhaps, in the hyphenated attachments between words
in “The Perfume.” Despite the colossal size of the serving man, which
inspires in Donne melodramatic mock fear, this menacing custodian is
ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting the lovers’ wiles.

44 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

Just over halfway through the poem, an exclamation breaks the
triumph of having eluded their watchers and marks a turn, a volta, to
the elegy’s real subject, perfume: “But Oh, too common ill, I brought
with mee / That, which betray’d mee to my enemie” (lines 39–40). That
the turn is signaled by the “Oh” introduces us to perfume through the
figure of a sigh, the inhalation or exhalation of breath, a nondiscursive
expression of affect. Aristotle, having designated air as the olfactory
medium, distinguishes smell from sight among different species,
noticing that whereas the human eyes are “curtained” by the “shelter” of
their eyelids, some animals lack this barrier. Claiming that the human
sense of smell is similarly “superior” to sight in its discriminatory
capacity, he tries to account for the curious fact that in humans the
olfactory sense is activated only on the inhale and that breathing in
may include a kind of curtaining mechanism.49 Perfume is, of course,
another form of discrimination in smelling, for it involves choosing one
odor that will dominate or even erase other smells.
In the elegy, Donne initiates his turn to perfume by linguistically
signaling breath in the “Oh,” and in what follows he furnishes a series
of scents. Smell works synesthetically. It is “loud,” and it “cried” at the
father’s nose. The acoustic work of perfume is carried into the poem’s
rhymes, marrying its noise to vision in the pairing of “cried” and “spied.”
Perfume’s effects are physical and immediate, for they invade the father’s
body through the simile of the tyrant, who smells the acrid sulfurous
saltpeter and charcoal of gunpowder and “shivers” and grows pale with
fear. Donne cannot resist a gibe at the father, for he imagines that had
the invasive odor been noxious, the father might have believed it to
exude from his own body—bad breath or stinking feet. But as it is, the
space of the house is as constrained and limited as an island on which
only “cattle” and “diverse dogs” are bred. The intrusion of the perfume
is as strange in this context as a “precious unicorn,” and the couple is
instantly undone by the importation of this luxury commodity into the
house. Although the lover successfully silences the other metonymic
signs of his courtly provenance, teaching his “oppressed shoes” silence
and his “whistling silks” forbearance, denying both the “speech” that
would announce his presence, perfume’s voice speaks loudly. At the
moment in the poem where Donne depicts perfume’s unconstrained
speaking, he apostrophizes it, giving it a face, a name, and a voice.
The poem’s allusion to the “precious unicorn” opens a window into

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 45

the history of cosmetic fragrance. Traditionally in England, perfumes
were floral and vegetable in origin, but the early modern period
witnessed the importation of musk-based scents for the first time.
Luxury commodities, these perfumes were derived from the musk
glands of animals, primarily the civet cat and the musk cat. Edward
Topsell describes the character of the musk cat, detailing the diverse
ways in which perfume was carried and dispensed. Casting bottles
perfumed a room or wide area; bottles for personal use became
aesthetic objects that proclaimed the cost of their contents; and gloves,
prosthetic skins, were imbued with scent, serving as the metonymic
figure for the effete courtier.50 Topsell lists the motivations for using
perfume, causes echoed in Donne’s poem: Perfume allows its wearer
to be “seen” (an interestingly synesthetic verb for scent). Or the user
is “delicate or wanton” or wishes to “shew their riches and abundance.”
Or as a prophylactic, it can “preserve from putrid or stinking ayre” or
guard against “cold and moist disease of the brain.”51 Topsell’s account
of the musk gland is both explicit and tied to perfume’s reputation in
England: the musk gland grows near the navel, he tells us, and when
the beast begins to be “luxurious” and prone to the “rage of venery
& carnall copulation,” the gland becomes engorged with blood. The
inflamed beast rolls on the ground; and as his lust “itches,” he rubs
himself on “stones, rocks, and trees,” dispersing his scent and the
carnality associated with it over the landscape. Perfume’s linkage to
sexuality is thus assured, and its usage is thereafter joined to erotic use.
Topsell notices that “luxurious women perfume themselves” with it
to entrap the “love of the wooers”; and just as “the thing it selfe” is a
“vice or sickness of the beast,” so is that vice transferred to its users.52
Donne notes perfume’s origins in bodily and social abjection—feces,
menstruation, wasting disease, prostitution, death:
Base excrement of earth, which dost confound
Sense, from distinguishing the sicke from sound;
By thee the seely Amorous sucks his death
By drawing in a leprous harlots breath.
(lines 57–60)

An odorous substance is exuded from the musk cat’s body that binds
its sweet smell to its somatic grounding in bestial, incontinent, uncon-
trolled functions.53

46 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

As Richard Halpern reminds us in Shakesepare’s Perfume, sublimation
has its roots in alchemy. Sublimation is a chemical process of
transformation—a conversion of liquid into solid, a distillation of
solids into liquids, movements that seek to reconcile body and spirit.54
Sublimation is necessary in the manufacture of perfume; for as
Shakespeare put it, it distills summer’s flowers, retaining their sweetness
as “liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.”55 Yet as we have seen in
Topsell’s account of musk and Donne’s “Elegy IV,” distillation and
sublimation of animal perfumes opened into a different sensory arena,
which moved beyond the beauty of Shakespeare’s seasonal elegiac
into a Freudian dialectic between sexuality and the aesthetic. The
“liquid prisoner” is no longer transmuted floral essence but an overt
animal sexuality, no longer contained but rather loosed in its restless
wandering as an unbound agent of desire. Donne’s perfume testifies to
the infiltrative capacity of the passions tethered to the senses, which
circulate subliminally, moving with a will of their own to disrupt and
re-create human experience. Bound within the constraining frame of
the poem as an aesthetic vessel, perfume for Shakespeare and Donne
both mobilizes and resists the hindrances of language. Perfume and
bodily scents engage and breach olfactory envelopes to transmit affect,
continually activating the subversive motions of the gestural body.
Elizabeth D. Harvey is professor of English at the University of Toronto. She
is the author of Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance
Texts (London: Routledge, 1992); editor of Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early
Modern Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003);
and coeditor, with Theresa Krier, of Luce Irigaray and Premodern Culture:
Thresholds of History (London: Routledge, 2004). She is currently completing
a book (with Timothy Harrison) on John Donne, physics, and consciousness.

1. John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1987), 29.
2. Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis, introduction to Passions and Subjectivity in Early
Modern Culture (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 1–9.
3. Joseph LeDoux describes the neurological relationship between activation of fear in
the amygdala and the conscious awareness of that fear as a feeling, in “The Slippery Slope of
Fear,” Trends in Cognitive Science 17, no. 4 (2013):155–56.
4. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “environment (n.),” accessed June 10, 2018, http://www

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 47

5. Philemon Holland, trans., The Philosophie, commonlie called The Morals written
by the learned Philosopher Plutarch (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1603), 1009. I have silently
modernized i, j, u, v, and long s and expanded contractions here and in the other early
modern treatises I cite. Although modern zoology distinguishes between cephalopods
(members of the phylum Mollusca) and polyps (belonging to the phylum Cnidaria), the
properties Plutarch attributes to the polyp fish (i.e., camouflage and changing color and skin
texture) are defenses used by the cephalopod. The OED glosses “polyp” as cephalopod in the
early modern period (2a).
6. Holland, Philosophie, 1011–12.
7. Holland, Philosophie, 1009.
8. This is the project Daniel Heller-Rosen engages in his important study of the “common
sense,” in The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
Antonio Damasio provides a neurological account of the divergence of sensation and affect
in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (San
Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1999).
9. Aristotle, “On the Soul,” trans. W.S. Hett, Loeb, in Aristotle (1936; repr., Cambridge,
MA.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 8:419b–424a. See also Heller-Roazen, Inner Touch,
10. My sense of these terms has been clarified by Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory: Emotions
after the “Death of the Subject” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4–5.
11. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 31–44. See also
Brian Massumi’s discussion in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2002): 32–54.
12. Terada, Feeling in Theory, 4–5.
13. Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde (London: Valentine Simmes, 1601), 20.
14. Wright, Passions of the Minde, 14–17.
15. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2010), 21. See Gilles Deleuze’s lecture “On Spinoza,” at http://deleuzelectures Russ Leo offers important insight into the physics of
affectus in Spinoza’s Ethica in his “Affective Physics,” in Passions and Subjectivity in Early
Modern Culture, ed. Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013): 33–
49. I am grateful to Timothy Harrison and Julie Joosten for illuminating conversations on
consciousness, reading, and affect and for their insightful comments on this essay.
16. Helkiah Crooke, Microcosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man (London:
William Jaggard, 1615), 656.
17. Crooke, Microcosmographia, 656; emphasis mine.
18. See Timothy Hampton’s essay, which provides an excellent account of the concept
of alteration in Galenic and humoral physiology, “Strange Alteration: Physiology and
Psychology from Galen to Rabelais,” in Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the
Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 272–93.
19. Brian Rotman, Becoming beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Hu-
man Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 3.

48 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3

20. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, the Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen
Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus, 2nd. ed. (New
York: W. W. Norton, 2008): 1.2.160; Rotman, Becoming beside Ourselves, 16.
21. Wright, Passions of the Minde, 209–10.
22. John Bulwer, Chirologia (London: Tho. Harper, 1644).
23. Bulwer, “To the Candid and Ingenious Reader,” Chirologia, np.
24. Bulwer, Chirologia, 5.
25. Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri, Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An Intro-
duction to Sign Language Linguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 55.
26. Bulwer, Chirologia, 4; emphasis original.
27. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
28. Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 30; emphasis original.
29. This is, of course, precisely the image Donne uses to describe the soul’s new heav-
enly auditory capabilities in The Second Anniversarie: “Up, up, my drowsie soule, where thy
new eare / Shall in the Angels songs no discord heare”; in Epithalamions, Anniversaries, and
Epicedes, ed. W. Milgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), ll. 339–40. Theodor Reik, Listening
with the Third Ear (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1948).
30. Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 30.
31. Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 34.
32. David Wills, Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 12.
33. Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Margaret Sankey
and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2008).
34. Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id,” in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychola-
nalysis, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards, Penguin Freud Library (1984; repr., Lon-
don: Penguin Books, 1991), 2:364; Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego, trans. Chris Turner (New Ha-
ven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989; originally published as Le Moi-peau by Dunod in 1985).
35. Anzieu, The Skin Ego, 40.
36. Anzieu, The Skin Ego, 178–87.
37. Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scents and Sense in Early Modern
England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 186.
38. In The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts (Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), Cynthia Marshall provides a cognate challenge
to the historicist model of the self-contained emergent early modern self. Exploring an
aesthetic of “self-negation” that “constituted a counterforce force to the nascent ethos
of individualism” (2), she examines the experience of audiences and readers of texts
preoccupied with extreme violence—Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear furnishes a potent
example—that courts in its overwhelming affects a dissolution of self. Marshall asserts that
shadowing the so-called emergence of the self-contained individual is a darker possibility
that the boundaries of this self may not be as firmly self-contained or impermeable as they
claim to be.
39. All references to the poem are to The Complete Poems of John Donne, ed. C. A. Patrides
(London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1985).

Harvey: Early Modern Sensory Boundaries 49

40. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, ed. Gary A. Stringer, vol. 2, The
Elegies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 568.
41. Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London: Richard Jones, 1583), 40.
42. Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 49.
43. Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 49.
44. Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 49.
45. Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 48–49.
46. John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 39–40.
47. Edward Topsell, Historie of Serpents (London: Willaim Jaggard, 1608), 125.
48. Crooke, Microcosmographia, 6. Bartolommeo Del Bene, Civitas veri sive morvm
(Parisiis: Apud Ambrosium et Hieronymum Drouart, 1609),
/civitasverisivem01delb. For a discussion of Del Bene, see Frances A. Yates, The French
Academies of the Sixteenth Century, Studies of the Warburg Institute 15 (London: Jarrold and
Sons, 1947), 111.
49. Aristotle, On the Soul, trans. W. S. Hett, in Aristotle, vol. 8, On the Soul; Parva
Naturalia; On Breath, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1936), 421b–422a.
50. Patricia Cahill provides a fascinating analysis of the metaphoric, material, sexual, and
prosthetic aspects of gloves in “The Play of Skin in The Changeling,” Postmedieval 3, no. 4
(2012): 391–406. Her essay exemplifies the synesthetic crossing of smell and touch in early
modern gloves.
51. Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607),
52. Topsell, Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, 551.
53. Freud speculated in Civilization and Its Discontents that human bipedalism has
consequences for the olfactory sense. Because standing upright displaced sexual stimulation
from nose to eyes, it may well have changed the effect that smells of menstruation and
excreta had on other human beings. Freud’s hypothesis not only distinguishes human from
animal but also lays the groundwork for a theory of shame and perversion. See Sigmund
Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological
Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey, vol. 21, 1927–1931 (London: Hogarth Press, 1959),
57–146, 98n1.
54. Richard Halpern, Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde,
Freud, and Lacan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 15.
55. Sonnet 5, in The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd. ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen,
Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 1756.

50 Resilience Vol. 5, No. 3