McDaniel Lectures on British Poetry


Dr. Donne the Divine

Devotional Poems Pinnacle of Renaissance Wit

Devotional verse poses a special problem for those readers who hold both spiritual and literary values. More often than not those who compose religious verse are moved more by a desire to express a doctrinal truth than to contrive intellectually and aesthetically satisfying verse. Fortunately for those readers in the Christian tradition, the English Renaissance provides an abundance of poets of the first order who chose to express tenets of the Faith in well-crafted verse. Among these was a coterie of poets who have been styled the Metaphysical Poets, the foremost being John Donne.

The previous number of this series investigated Donne's career as a contriver of amorous poetry, before his ordination in 1615 as an Anglican priest. It has been a continuing fascination for readers that even though the vested John Donne left off writing poems in defense of the pleasures of the world and the flesh and took on the Devil as his adversaries, his poetic modus operandi remained much the same challenging the readers' minds with unusual juxtapositions and intricate word-play.

Donne's religious background was mixed. He was a collateral descendent of Sir Thomas More, the victim of Henry VIII's intolerance. His family remained fiercely allied with Rome (two maternal uncles were Jesuits), and one brother died in prison for having concealed a Roman priest from the Protestant authorities. Despite the religious ban on Roman Catholics, Donne attended both Oxford and Cambridge because he enrolled at such a young age. But he did not finish a university degree. When the legal career which he seems to have envisioned for himself (he studied at the Inns of Court) did not materialize, he sought preferment in the Church. (No serious doubts have ever been raised concerning the sincerity of either his conversion to Anglicanism or his priestly vocation.) His keen mind led to powerful sermons, both in the pulpit and in print, and one piece of his religious prose, the 17th of the Meditations on Emergent Occasions, is one of the most often quoted works in our literature: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...; any man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Most readers first encounter Donne's devotional verse by reading in the Holy Sonnets, published posthumously. Donne used the sonnet structure which has come to be associated with Shakespeare's name: three quatrains and a concluding rhymed couplet. They are not a sonnet-sequence, having neither narrative nor unifying theme, other than the Gospel. (It is interesting that Donne considered the notion of writing devotionally in the sonnet genre so unusual as to demand accounting for in the title.)

We can detect in Sonnet 7 some of the characteristics of Metaphysical verse delineated in the previous Donne lecture. It begins with the paradox of a "round earth's imagined corners," a recognition on the poet-priest's part that some of the metaphors of Scripture (such as the earth having four corners) must be taken figuratively. He calls on the angels of judgment to rouse from the grave all those who have fallen prey to the ills of humanity: "All whom the flood did, and fire shall overthrow." But the sonnet is not a perfected utterance; like his amorous poems, it is thought-in-process. He changes his mind, and asks the Almighty to postpone the Second Coming, so that he as a sinner can have time to "mourn a space" for his sinfulness. "Teach me to repent," he asks, saying that only by that reaction to God's grace can he be confident of his salvation.

Sonnet 13 demonstrates the unorthodoxy of analogy that distinguishes Donne's verse and thaat of the others such as Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, and Traherne who are linked with him in the Metaphysical school. The poem allegorizes the conversion experience of the soul from the Devil to God. With an arrogance not unlike that in "The Sun Rising," the poet accuses the Almighty of not making a strong enough effort to save him, to overthrow me," so that "I may rise, and stand." "Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend." He then continues the martial metaphor, saying that he could be seen as a town under siege. He "labours to admit you," (with that phrase Donne introduces the sexual imagery), but to no avail. God's presence in the human mind, Reason, should help him, but Reason has been captured and is useless. The result is that the narrator's soul is pledged to the Devil, "your enemy." He calls on the Trinity to effect a divorce, putting asunder the bonds that the Devil has put him in. "Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again." The metaphorical reference is again sexual, with implications of a forced entry. The sonnet concludes with a statement of the essential Christian paradox of perfect freedom being found only in perfect submission, but the paradox is couched in language that suggests rape. He says to God, "Take me to You, imprison me," for only in that imprisonment can perfect freedom be found. Likewise, purity will elude him until God has taken him, as it were, against his sinful will: "for I,/ Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

Rehearsal for the Afterlife

The poet's drawing his imagery from the world of war is not unorthodox, since the Bible and Christian tradition abound with comparisons to the Christian as a warrior and life as a battle against sin. It is the frank statement of the metaphor of the action of grace on the unredeemed soul as akin to rape that disconcerted readers like Dr. Johnson. Interestingly enough, the reverse occurs in one of his amorous poems, "The Canonization." He likens the phenomenon of sexual climax followed by renewal of ardor to the mystery of the Resurrection of the Body (a metaphor that works for the poet because in Renaissance parlance, "die" was a commonplace for orgasm). "We die and rise the same, and prove/ Mysterious by this love." No poem of John Donne's is more widely read or more directly associated with Donne than the tenth of the Holy Sonnets,"Death, be not proud." (Donne's reputation as a moribund preacher was well-known. had a portrait of himself made while posed in a winding-sheet so that he could contemplate a personalized memento mori.) Donne draws upon a popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art, Le roi mort or King Death. With an impudence that is characteristically Donne's, he deflates Death in the opening salvo. He discounts the power of death as a mere fiction: "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so./ For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me."

The rhetorical theme of the poem goes back and forth between the two perceptions of death inherent in the Judeo-Christian belief-system. The first is the perception of death as a natural and desirable end to life and its vicissitudes, and adding to that the Christian idea that death is the avenue to eternal salvation. In the second quatrain, Donne says that if fatigue-induced sleep, one of life's greatest boons, is the very picture of death, then how much more pleasure will come from death itself? Even the virtuous must go with Death, to the "Rest of our bones, and soul's delivery."

The second perception about death comes in the third quatrain—the image of death as vile accompaniment to evil forces in life: "Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell." The poet even notes that narcotics or witchcraft ("poppies or charms") can outdo death in making people sleep, since drug-induced or hex-generated trances are not as permanent as death. The superiority of these human-based modes of death takes away the last shred of dignity for death: "Why swell'st thou then?" His confident reliance is on the victory of Christ over Death through the Resurrection: "One Short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And death shalt be no more. Death, thou shalt die." The verbal gymnastics that Donne performs in this sonnet cannot disguise the fact that as a Christian he must entertain these two ideas of death: death as rescuer, death as punisher of even the most noble. In the end, all that he can do in order to deal with the enormity of death is to turn the sting of death against death itself.

The Anglican Reformation brought about a need for hymns in English to replace the Latin canticles. Donne wrote many religious poems and hymns, although none have taken a place in the standard repertory of English hymnody. (Only one, "A Hymn to God the Father," can be found in the 1982 Hymnal from which Episcopalians m America sing.)

Dr. Donne's religious hymns show a breadth of knowledge which we associate with the cliché Renaissance man, which indeed he was. Canon law, Scripture, and Church history were areas that he had complete intellectual mastery over, but his academic province stretched far beyond that. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that he did have university experience, his verse is relatively free of Greco-Roman allusion, the mainstay of Renaissance verse for the poetic mainstream of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton. This anti-Olympianism, as it were, is a characteristic not only of Donne's verse but the Metaphysicals in general. Both his secular and religious verses show him to have more than a layman's knowledge of the sciences, a branch of human intellectual endeavor that has seldom been congenial with theological studies. Of the sciences, he was most fascinated with the physical ones mathematics, geometry, chemistry, astronomy, and geography. His fascination with the shape of the physical planet, not just as the home of souls, and the nature of the physical heavens as other than the abode of the Divine place him as very decidedly in the Renaissance Zeitgeist which prized exploration.

But Donne's religious poems and hymns show not just a quick, fertile intellect at work. They reveal a personal intimacy and confessional disposition that one would not expect from a clergyman of Donne's public stature—after all, King James named him Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, the largest church in the kingdom, in 1621, and he was in line for a bishopric when he died. (His name is on the list of deans in Wren's St. Paul's, but at his own request his grave in the churchyard was not marked.)

Donne's 17th century biographer Isaak Walton gives the circumstances in which various Donne poems were composed. More modern biographers have often proved Walton wrong, but the feeling still persists that Donne wrote in reaction to various occasions. "Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness" was written after his recovery from the same especially severe illness of 1623 that produced the Devotions on Emergent Occasions.

The first stanza sees himself, the sick man, as in a rehearsal room, waiting to go on the celestial stage to sing with the Eternal Choir. Hence, he must look over his part and tune his instrument, i.e., prepare spiritually for death. In the next stanza, he introduces the controlling metaphor for the poem—the human body as a map. In this ingenious figure, his physicians ("by their love," he adds tongue-in-cheek) have become map-readers, studying him to discover the cause of impending death, just as cosmographers of the Age of Discovery studied the charts to find a passage through the American Continent to the Indies. (He puns on the word straits, meaning a water-passage as well as an unfavorable situation. Donne finds comfort that whatever "southwest discovery" might be (and he cites the names of all the famous straits), all such straits take him into the Western Sea (the sea of eternal peacefulness), just as all modes of death lead to the next life. "What shall my west hurt me?/ As west and east In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,/ So death doth touch the Resurrection." The poem concludes with a reference to an old Catholic tradition that the Cross was made from wood that grew from the Edenic Tree of the Knowledge of Good and evil. The dying man becomes a meeting-place for both the First and Last Adam: his fevered grow shows the curse of Adam, while his soul is embraced by Christ. In his sickbed suffering, Donne sees his imitatio Christi and he calls for the crown other than the crown of suffering, i.e., the crown of eternal life.

"A Hymn to God the Father" is a death-bed confessional, written, Walton claims, right before Donne's passing. The poetic voice lists all the sins that he has—original sin, sins of commission, omission, and collusion. Readers will hear echoes of the penitent voice of Jack Donne the Elizabethan rake in the stanza. "Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won/ Others to sin, and made my sin their door?/ Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/ A year or two, but wallowed in a score?" In each instance, he concludes his catalogue of sins with "When thou hast done, thou hast not done," punning on the word done meaning completed and as a homonym for his name. In the last stanza, this consummate Renaissance man, poet and prelate, who had reason to be proud, confronts in himself the sin of pride. He fears that his ultimate sin will be to doubt the efficacy of Grace of God through Christ to save such a titanic sinner as himself, and that he will "perish on the shore." He asks for a reaffirmation of the Covenant (punning on "sun"/"Son") by which he is saved through the light of Christ. Only then, in what a later 17th century preacher would call Grace Abounding, can he die secure: "And having done that, thou hast done./ I fear no more."