AP British Literature
March 25, 2001
The works of the English Renaissance writer and poet John Donne are enjoyed today by the average reader (Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, 232-233). His works are included in Elizabethan-Jacobean songbooks, considered "a body of literary work more precious to the English than any other, apart from Shakespeare and the translated Bible (Untermeyer, Lives of the Poets, 119)." He inspired a group of writers, becoming one of the most significant metaphysical poets, yet distinct for being not "as pervial as oratory (Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, 133)." The metaphysicals, including Donne, wrote short poems and lyrics about "the love of woman and the love or fear of God (Bush, English Poetry, 51)." Donne also wrote anti-Catholic pamphlets as a young man, and later "took orders" in the Anglican Church at the suggestion of King James I (Untermeyer, 125-126). "Intellectually, Donne had always been a Christian, but his progress toward assurance was hindered by his sense of Roman Catholic outlawry, his shift to the Church of England, his moral lapses, the worldly disaster of his marriage, and his restless mind (Bush, English Poetry, 59)."
Spirituality and religious beliefs are formed out of experience, so it is vital to first know a little about Donne's life and times. Donne's life was "a long struggle between flesh and spirit, between the delight in man's body, which is "his book," and his soul, which is the undecipherable mystery (Untermeyer, 124). "He was born in London in 1573 to a wealthy ironmonger (Untermeyer, 124). The Donne family was devoutly Catholic, but lived in England under Anglican rule, so they considered themselves martyrs (Untermeyer, 124). Donne was home-schooled until the age of 11, when he entered Oxford. At 14, he transferred to the Cambridge Trinity College (Untermeyer, 124). After this, he began to diverge from Catholic ideas. By the time he was 20, Donne had been admitted to the bar and "emerged as a lighthearted adventurer, a gay blade who was also a challenging poet (Untermeyer, 124-125)." Though still claiming to be Catholic, he was openly unorthodox (Untermeyer, 124). In his twenties, Donne traveled and went on two military expeditions against Spain, in 1596 and 1597 (Williams, "Donne, John," The World Book Encyclopedia, 254). When he returned, Donne became the private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (Untermeyer, 125). While in Sir Egerton's service, he fell in love and had an affair with Anne More, Lady Egerton's niece. When Anne eloped with Donne, Egerton fired Donne and had him arrested. It was not until a year later that their marriage was legalized (Untermeyer, 125). They were a poor couple, so Donne wrote "pious epistles" and anti-Catholic pamphlets to provide for his family. Eventually Egerton forgave Donne and gave him some money, but it was not enough to alleviate their problems. Donne slipped into depression, even considering suicide (Untermeyer, 125). At age 42, Donne officially rejected the Catholic Church. At the suggestion of James I, Donne was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church and became James' chaplain (Williams, 254). When he was 48 years of age, Donne was appointed Dean of St. Paul's (Untermeyer, 125-126).
Anne died in 1617, in her 30s, giving birth to a stillborn baby. Donne suddenly became aware of how he had mistreated his wife, taking her away from her loving family and giving her a child that caused her death. Seized with remorse over his behavior as a young man, Donne "withdrew from the pleasures of the world and gave himself frantically to preaching (Untermeyer, 126)." "For the lover of women the everyday world had ceased to exist; now it weighs upon the earth-bound man who cries for salvation (Bush, English Poetry, 60)." He began writing some of the hymns in which "the intensity of his religious experience received utterance... but now the conflicts and tensions spring from his agonized consciousness of sin, his fear of death and divine justice, his desperate faith in the redeeming sacrifice of Christ (Bush, English Poetry, 60)." He became very ill. During his sickness, he wrote "Devotions", a kind of diary, which included the oft-quoted "Meditation 17" (Untermeyer, 126). He eventually felt "something of calm security" and acceptance of death (Bush, English Poetry, 60). At 57, Donne collapsed. He posed for a funeral statue and had a picture painted of himself in his shroud, which he kept by his bed until he died two years later, on March 31, 1631. He was survived by six of his twelve children and his writings, only two poems of which had ever been published (Untermeyer, 127). For three hundred years, Donne would be almost completely ignored (Untermeyer, 127-128).
Donne lived in a relatively quiet time. Though in the midst of religious and political turmoil, the years of John Donne's life were calm compared to those preceding and succeeding them. Donne lived during the years 1572 to 1631, a total of 59 years (Bush, English Poetry, 57). From 1562 to 1563, a civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France raged (Armstrong, The Battle for God, 75). The Thirty Years War took place from 1618 to 1648 (Armstrong, 75). Donne was ordained only three years before it began, and died 17 years before it ended (Williams, 254). While Donne lived, tension was mostly a slow changing of philosophy in England. In 1611, "Donne wrote that 'the new philosophy calls in doubt' and the strictly ordered universe was 'all in pieces, all coherence gone' (Untermeyer, 113)." The new psychology was "characterized by an ambiguous blend of traditional religious dogmas uncertainly amalgamated with new scientific concepts (Untermeyer, 113)." The Puritans were not yet a major threat to the monarchy. James I had no tolerance for heretics and dissenters, despite the fact that the Anglican Church herself was protesting the Catholic Church. It was not until almost twenty years after Donne's death that the Puritans managed to obtain some power in England, eventually beheading King Charles in 1642 (Armstrong, 75).
"Donne is, in an age of growing skepticism and confusion, taking stock of the human situation (Bush, English Poetry, 59)." Donne was an extremely emotional individual: "his moods range from the witty defense of promiscuity to sober argument for the interrelations of soul and body or for love as a self-sufficient good, the supreme good (Bush, English Poetry, 58)." As a younger man, he was "a curious explorer of the relations of body and soul - his own body and soul, since he has little interest in women's feelings except as they affect his (Bush, English Poetry, 57)." He wrote mostly about love and lust, his desire for the opposite sex. Love was the center of the world to Donne. In "The Sun Rising, the bed is the "center of the real world" and in "The Canonization," "ideal lovers are invoked as saints (Bush, English Poetry, 58)." After his wife's death, however, he began to think more seriously about life, and man's relationship to God and the world around him. His biographers have said that in Donne's works, a "source of pessimism is the widespread doctrine of the decay of nature and man as the world approaches its dissolution (Bush, English Poetry, 59)." In this paper, Donne's apparently pessimistic attitudes towards the fallen nature of man and the world will be investigated.
It is important to remember that Donne's works reflect the time of his life he was experiencing. His spirituality changed drastically after his wife's death. To try to combine his obsession with erotic love in his earlier years with his more mature, penitent spirituality after Anne's death would be to portray Donne as a terribly insincere hypocrite. Instead, it must be kept in mind that Donne's remorse in his later poems are over sins he committed years before, or faults that he was actively struggling against.
Some obviously earlier poems include "Lover's Infiniteness", "Love's Deity", "Stay, O Sweet", and "Sweetest Love, I Do Not Go" (Elliot, English Poetry: In Three Volumes, Volume 1, 304-311). Later works include "Batter my Heart," "Riding Westward", "Devotions" (including "Meditation 17"), and "A Litanie" (Donne). These and other works can be used to explore the doctrines Donne accepted and religious beliefs he held and his personal experience and spirituality. The main focus will be on Donne's later beliefs and spirituality, because they reflect more thought and wisdom, gained through trial and maturity.
The doctrines Donne held can be divided into five categories: love, destiny and predestination, theology, the relationship between God, man, and nature, and church. Bush claims that Donne viewed love as the center of life (Bush, English Poetry, 58). In early poems, this does seem to be fairly accurate. In "Stay, O Sweet," Donne condemns a married man who woos someone other than his wife, but allows an unmarried couple to make love (Elliot, 311). He considers himself a "rebel and atheist" in "Love's Deity" by not following his passions (Elliot, 310). In "The Dream", the sleeper wakes to find his lover has disturbed his dream, and so insists that as recompense, he and his lover should "not... dream all [the] dream," but "act the rest (Elliot, 306)."
Not all the love poems are devoid of depth, however. Donne evaluates the nature of lovers in "Lovers' Infiniteness". He asserts that neither can possess the other's heart, but instead the two hearts are united. The theme seems to be the paradox that a couple is one, but each person has the uniqueness and freedom to be themselves. "Though thy heart depart, / It stays at home, and thou with losing sav'st it. / But we love a way more liberal / Than changing hearts, - to join them; so we shall / Be one an one another's All (Elliot, 309)." "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" explores the same phenomena, with the image of the compass. Each partner is an individual, but they are joined to each other in a powerful bond. In addition, no distinction is made between the man and woman; they are called "twin" compasses, which suggests equality (Louthan, The Poetry of John Donne: An Explication, 49). These more insightful poems conform to the Catholic perspective. Donne's beliefs about the nature of marriage are in agreement with Catholic teaching, though in his younger years he does not uphold its views on chastity among unmarried persons (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1614, 1646).
One of the central Puritan ideas was predestination (Armstrong, 76). Based on the fervor of Donne's pleas to God for mercy and grace, and his belief that a Savior who forgave his foes on the cross would not cast him into Hell, it would be impossible to deduce that Donne had any serious Puritan leanings (Davie, The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, 70). Related to predestination is the modern fundamentalist Protestant belief called "once saved, always saved". Donne does not stray towards this idea, either. In "A Hymn to God the Father", he expresses fear that he will miss Heaven because of his personal sins and his part in causing others to sin (Elliot, 304). In concurrence with Catholic teaching, Donne constantly connects his salvation to deeds and attitudes, while always acknowledging that Christ's redeeming grace is what saves him, not a merit system of good and bad deeds (CCC, 1816, 602). Donne succeeds once again in expressing a vital paradox in Catholic teaching (Hilles, From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, 274).
Donne's theology also agrees with Church teaching. He believes in the holy Trinity, as seen in many poems addressed to the different Persons. God is Father, Creator, Jesus is Savior, Divine, and Man, and the Holy Spirit is God's hand outstretched to help the poor sinner. Donne also believes in the Eucharist, but it is debatable whether he believed in transubstantiation. He says that "in drinking Christ's cup, we are drinking a toast to our own well-being, while actually swallowing a healthful draught; the world counts as illness what is the one true health: constant thirst for Christ's cup (Louthan, 37)." This suggests that Donne may have believed in the True Presence, but is not conclusive. This, perhaps, is the first place in which Donne's theology deviates from that of the Catholic Church.
Donne portrays the relationship between God and man as estranged. Man, and nature, is inherently good, but fallen. In "Riding Westward," Donne says "Subject to foreign notions, lose their own,/ And being by others hurried everyday, / Scarce in a year their natural form obey," indicating that the soul's natural inclination is better than we usually behave (Davie, 68). Humanity was created good, and Donne pleads with God that he "Burn off my rusts and my deformity, / Restore thine Image so much, by thy grace, / That thou may'st know me (Davie, 68-69)." Animals and the rest of nature were created for the benefit of mankind, but with mankind all of nature fell (Davie, 69). In "Holy Sonnets", Donne says that animals "have not sinned, nor need be timorous" but that Christ died for "us, his creatures, and his foes." Though without sin, God's other creatures still needed redemption (Davie, 69). Though Donne expresses fear of God's justice, he also maintains hope in the loving sacrifice of Jesus (Davie, 69-70).
Overall, Donne's conflict with the Church seems to have been solely with the corrupt officials who ran the institution of the Church. Though reference to the Eucharist is obscure, there is no indication that he denied the True Presence, and his somewhat overly fearful attitude towards God was in keeping with the attitude in the Church when Donne lived, if it was not actually a part of the official doctrine. The corruption of the Catholic Church and the pressure against Catholics in England were probably the main factors that caused Donne's rejection of Catholicism. Had Donne been Catholic, his political life would have been nonexistent, as it was still relatively soon after the Anglican Church had broken from the Catholic Church. In fact, Donne's maternal grandfather had been the nephew by marriage of Sir Thomas More (Untermeyer, 124).
Samuel Johnson accuses the metaphysical poets of writing "rather as beholders, than partakers of human nature... without interest and without emotion (Untermeyer, 123)." Donne certainly does not fit with this portrayal. He felt everything passionately, and wrote from his own experiences. After the death of Anne, Donne realized how unfaithful to God he had been, and spent the rest of his life writing poems about the relationships between sin, death, God, and his struggles with temptation. He felt unworthy of Christ's love and mercy, but longed for it at the same time. He felt, as St. Paul wrote, that he often wanted to do good, but his will was not strong enough to carry it out, and so wrote poems like "Batter My Heart", in which he pleads with God to force him to be right, even at the cost of his free will (Donne). He fears God's justice, but also considers that fear in himself unwarranted to a large degree, as seen in "Riding Westward" (Davie, 68-69). He held a strong devotion to Christ's sufferings and resurrection. "Death Be Not Proud", "Riding Westward", "A Litanie", and many of his "Holy Sonnets" reflect this theme of Christ's passion. In "Riding Westward," Donne expresses some affection and respect for Mary, mother of Jesus, saying "Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye, / Who was God's partner here, and furnished thus / Half of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us (Davie, 68)." This idea is the basis for Catholic devotion to Mary.
John Donne lived in a time of transition from religious to nationalist ideas. Before his birth, the Catholics and Protestants in France fought. James I wrote the King James Bible during Donne's lifetime. The Puritan faction was slowly becoming prominent in English society, and all those who were not Anglican faced hardship. The division between being British and being Anglican was deliberately being blurred. In addition, new scientific discoveries challenged the philosophies already in doubt (Untermeyer, 113). Donne, different from other poets "in mind and method and in his keener and fuller knowledge of scientific discoveries and speculations (Bush, English Poetry, 59)." Donne was an example for his time, blending intelligence and faith when the two were in such conflict.
In the end, Donne came to agree with the basic principles of Catholic teaching. Perhaps his Catholic upbringing never really left him. His real conflict with the Church seems to have been over the behavior of her members, not her teachings (Bush, English Poetry, 59). Even this disagreement may have been minor. A large factor in Donne's break could have been the abhorrence of the British for the Catholic Church. Donne provided for his family's early life by writing anti-Catholic pamphlets before actually shedding his Catholic identity. Later, his faithfulness to the Anglican Church allowed him to be the chaplain to the King himself. The benefits of being Anglican far outweighed the trials involved in being Catholic.
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Hilles, Frederick W. and Harold Bloom, ed. From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. 1965. 274, 302.
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