Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Jewel John Donne

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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Clarissa Lee Ai Ling
Final Examination Paper for The Renaissance, at
the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.



Donne's Sermons: His (Un)Reason from the Renaissance Episteme

Reason allows the development of abstract knowledge and technology. Hence it creates social institutions based on general rules and laws to enhance the passing of knowledge to the next generation and so forth. Reason provides the diffentia that condenses a great amount of knowledge relating to a particular concept. 1 It is an essential human attribute. The act of reasoning is concerned with "the truth of propositions; its goal may be to discover whether a given proposition is true, or to justify one's belief that it is true, or to explain why it is true, or to persuade someone else off its truth. In all of these cases, reasoning makes use of logical relationships among propositions, and we analyze and evaluate reasoning by identifying those relationships" (Kelley, 85).

        Various philosophical systems and schools of thought governed the instrumentation and methodologies of principles during the Renaissance. On one end, practically all of Platonism, which revolves around the dualistic philosophy of the material and the spiritual that governs the period, was agreed upon as that of the road to truth through ratiocination; less through the free use of reason than through reason restricted to the discovery or rediscovery of "a universe whose form and purpose were already known and whose laws were the legacies of a wiser past or the fiats of an unimpeachable God" (Craig, 2). It is considered that the consultation of authority and qualified employment of logic, not the examination of phenomena, were the means by which truth is known. This was after all an age that busied itself incessantly with matters of thought, or through the greater use of reason, discovers the body of truth. 2 At that time, one is predisposed to believe that mutually contradictory facts and principles may be both valid and true, with faith and reason being put into separate compartments of the mind.

        Aristotelian epistemology might be the most important single constituent of the Elizabethan age, but Aristotelianism seldom ever appears alone or in its pure form. It is often "mingled with Neo-Platonism, modified by Christian dogma, or blended with Stoicism" (Craig, 5). Natural magic, considered an offshoot of Neo-Platonism, was said to be the "most intelligible and superficially the most practical instrument for reading the riddle of the universe" due to a Neo-platonic model of cosmology existing during the Renaissance (Craig, 5). Yet the idea is often absconded by scholars due to its alter ego, black magic.

        A conflict that characterises Renaissance philosophy would be that of the system of correspondence between the spiritual real; perfect in form, function and operation, with that of the material world imperfect in all these respects, "the correspondence being so shrouded in obscurity which the soul of man, enmeshed in clay, encounters in the exercise of its natural function of intuition that ideals and prototypes remained unknown" (Craig, 8). The assumption was that, since perfection was the intrinsic nature of the spiritual world, truth was knowledge of that world of spirit and not of this world of matter. Analogical reasoning was used as a method of proving man's ingenuity. The ideal world is perfection embodied, with no limits to the extent of its application to the imperfect material world. Hence if discovered, it provides an adequate and appropriate doctrine. But the Elizabethans were so busy learning and applying to their idea of 'science', that "they insisted upon applying to matters of daily life reams of stuff which appear to us false, or silly, or of no value" (p.10). Craig is caustic in his critique of the works of the era, especially over the copious reproductions of the episteme of the Greek philosophers despite the inanity of some of the ideas. He goes on to say that

Renaissance thinkers knew that the first poets had been the first philosophers, lawgivers and teachers. What they did not know was that they themselves were even as the ancients. They thought of themselves as scientists, but they differed little except in literary form from the old poets. They built a philosophic world out of sense perceptions, generously and meticulously sprinkled with revelation, tradition and superstition. Our scientists are not cosmological poets. (p.14-5)

        Craig describes the principal set forth in Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that it is not necessary to know evil to know goodness. Hooker provides two methods of knowing goodness; firstly to know the causes, which make it such; and secondly to observe the signs and tokens attached to goodness. Yet Hooker admits that a commonly received error is never overthrown until one goes from signs to causes. This passage from signs to causes is not impossible, since the main principles of reason are themselves apparent. However, too much inquiry is deemed perplexing, for he quoted Theophrastus as saying that those who seek reason for all things utterly overthrow reason.

Apparently the most obvious of rational maxims is that the best and highest should head the rest - the soul the body, the spirit of God within our minds the soul. The sentence of reason is clear, universal, and known to all; it may be mandatory, permissive or admonitory. The point is that the dictates of reason are uninvestigable without relevation [...] As for the rest, reason leads men to make human laws for the government of politic societies and to establish also a Law of Nations. God has by Scripture made known such laws as serve for the direction of human conduct, which laws repeat, emphasize, and interpret the unrevealed natural law. There is no conflict, no inadequacy, and in nature no tyranny. All is perfect save in the unregenerate wills of the sons of Adam. (27-8)

        Elizabethans were known to choose fields of learning which suit their natures and ends, with the things chosen neither inert nor merely corroborative. Craig argues that Elizabethan life is "the soil out of which grew both the impulse to express and the choice of forms for expression; but, once, chosen, forms, facts, and congenial ideas wrought effects of their own of increasing importance" (p.183).

        The ideals of the age are reflected again and again in its literature, especially in the works ofDonne, a man who spent a lifetime grappling with the issues of reason,God, faith and salvation.

        John Carey describes Donne's arguments as being "frivolous, tenuous, or self-contradictory" but is seldom genuinely argumentative. 3 Donne is accused of treating arguments not as an instrument for discovering the truth but as a form of poetic accessory. In order to understand how Donne developed his reasoning powers and the sources that are of great influence to him, it is important to return to his Catholic upbringing and the controversialists and theologians who paved the way for the progress of his mind.

       During Donne's time, the intellectual manifesto of Catholic Europe was the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, which consists of a systematic examination of God and God's relationship with mankind. Aquinas takes as axiom that the human mind is capable of knowing reality, something which Donne would profess in his sermons much later. Even though Aquinas acknowledged the existence of Christian mysteries, like the Atonement and Incarnation, he persisted with the assumption that the working of God's mind and of the creation as being humanely comprehensible. The prime author and mover of the universe was, to Aquinas, Intelligence. For Aquinas, faith is buffed up by reason. Aquinas derived this rationalism from Aristotle, who had similarly assumed that the qualities perceived in the objects are truly present in those objects, and hence a dependable picture of the universe is built up.

        Peter Ramus, the enfant terrible of academics, promoted a system of logic that enabled man to reach absolute truth by dint of tabular diagrams (Carey, 218). Ramus is said to have borrowed from the Posterior Analytics (I) of Aristotle, a dictum that he called the Rule of Reason, with the approval of Bacon.He believed that all things could be disputed in logic according to their natures; with general things treated generally and special things treated specially. After all, the Elizabethan age was prone to the use of analogies in its reasoning (as Donne uses them in his works, whether poems or prose) without a common denominator and to the treatment of abstractions drawn from different levels with equal scope and application. A wide application of the Rule of Reason was found in many fields; but as Bacon clearly perceived, it could not gain headway into the physical sciences until more was known of the properties of such things. Other than a few principles, ranging from the conservation of matter and Archimedes's discoveries, modern physics was not yet born (Craig, 78-9).

        Donne definitely did admireAquinas and coupled him with Augustine as instruments of God. He would later quote Augustine in his sermons, as inSermon 24:

Here saies S. Augustine, when the soule considers the things of this world, Non veritate certior, sed consuetudine securior;She rests upon such things as she is not sure are true, but such as she sees, are ordinarily received and accepted for truths: so that the end of her knowledge is not Truth, but opinion, and the way, not Inquisition, but ease: But saies he, when she proceeds in this life, to search into heavenly things, Verberatur luce veritatis, The beames of that light are too strong for her, and they sink her, and cast her downe, Et ad familiaritatem tenebrarum suarum, non electione sed fatigatione convertitur; and so she returnes to her own darknesse, because she is most familiar, and best acquainted with it; Non electione, not because she is weary of the trouble of seeking out the truth, and so swallows any Religion to escape the paine of debating, and disputing; and in this laziness she sleeps out her lease, her terme of life, in this death, in this grave, in this body. 4

In his Essays of Divinity, Donne derived a method theological reasoning reminisces of the Aristotelian precepts of Aquinas, as the passage below shows:

Men which seek God by reason, and naturall strength, (though we do not deny common notions and generall impressions of a sovereign power)are like Mariners which voyaged before the invention of the Compass, which were but Costers, and unwillingly left the sight of the land. Such are they which would arrive at God by this world, and contemplate him only in his Creatures, and seeming Demonstration. Certainly, every Creature shewes God, as a glass, but glimmeringly and transitorily, by the frailty both of the receiver, and beholder: Our selves have his Image, as Medals, permanently, and preciously delivered. 5

        One could see the view of Aquinas permeating from within the passage above. However, another mode of thought existed in Renaissance England, stemming from the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. Pyrrho's pupil, Sextus Empiricus recorded his philosophy, which entails a complete suspension of judgement in all issues. According to Pyrrho, senses do not have absolute validity, since animals perceive things differently from humans. The basis of our knowledge is deemed uncertain, therefore we do not know anything. For every motion advanced, there is a contradictory idea. The translation of Sextus Empiricus work into Latin by Henry Estienne provided soil for the growth of scepticism, which was to be embraced by Donne in his later writings. Nicholas of Cusa further propounded this idea of absolute truth being beyond the grasp of humankind in his work, De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance). This idea was further used as a base by Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, whose Incerlitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium was published in Antwerp in 1531 and translated to English by James Sanford in 1568. His major thesis was that "truth can be apprehended by 'no humane discourse of Reason', and that knowledge of any kind is not only inevitably fallacious but harmful, inducing pride and contempt of God" (Carey, 219). Every branch of knowledge is attacked, from agriculture to rhetoric, with particular criticism against Scholastic theologians like Aquinas who tried to reduce divine matters to the level of logic and human understanding. Yet Carey argues that Agrippa is less of an authentic sceptic than an envious person,motivated by hatred of established professions and institutions (Carey, 219).

        Hence, Carey considers Agrippa and Cusa mere straws in the wind and maintains that the sceptical movement was carried forward by greater minds such as Montaigne, who said "reason is worthless as it functions only on sense data, with no chance of checking this against reality" (p.220). However, one cannot gloss over the scepticism that seemed to have taken hold of Donne in one way or another. His letter to his friend Sir Henry Goodyer circa 1609 clearly demonstrated this:

I never fettered nor imprisoned the word Religion; not straightning it Frierly, ad Religiones factitias, (as the Romans call well their orders of Religion) nor immuring it in Rome, or a Wittemberg,or a Geneva; they are all virtuall beams of one Sun, and wheresoever they finde clay hearts, they harden them, and moulder them unto dust' and they entender and mollifie waxen. They are not so contrary as the North and South Poles; and that they are connaturall pieces of one circle. Religion is Christianity, which being too spirituall to be seen by us, doth therefore taken an apparent body of good life and works, so salvation requires an honest Christian. (Donne, 139)

        From the above passage, we can see that Donne no longer saw religion as something understandable by reason, since he considered it as being "too spirituall to be seen". In this letter, he was discussing friends who are "religious in other clothes" and how they needed to strengthen their own beliefs before fraternizing with those of opinions unlike their own. Donne's scepticism lasted his lifetime, but it is hard to gauge when exactly it began. Carey argues that Donne's paradoxes "expose the slipperiness of reason and logic, and take a jaunty view of subjects like inconstancy and suicide, which in reality, deeply concerns him" (Carey, 222). Donne's paradoxes seek to cause divergence between reason and reality through farce. One example is given in Juvenilia, in 'Problem IV' Why Is There More Variety of Green than of Other Colours? :

It is because it is figure of Youth, wherein Nature would provide as many Greene, as Youth hath Affections; and so present a Sea-greene for profuse wafters in voyages;   a Grasse-greene for sudden new men enobled from Grasiers;   and a Goose-greene for such Polititians as pretend to preserve the Capitoll. Or else Prophetically foreseeing an Age wherein they shall all hunt.  And for such as misse-demeane themselves a willow-greene; For Magistrates must as well have Fascesborne before them to chastize the small offences, as Securesto cut off the great. 6

        The passage starts innocuously enough with a farcical comparison about the different colours and forms of green and how they corresponded to the different stages of men's lives, but it ends as a comical political/legal critique. Donne utilised this manner of reasoning, with humourous or vivid images, in his sermons. He also gave the two conflicts between the Schoolmen (Augustine and Aquinas) against the Sceptics (Montaigne and Agrippa) in using the imagery of the light, how light (enlightenment) appears differently to these two chiastic schools of thought, as shown in Sermon 57 (ii):

The light of glory is such a light, as that our School-men dare not say confidently, That every beam of it, is not all of it. When some of them say, That some soules see some things in God, and others, others, because all have not the same measure of light of glory, the rest cry down that opinion, and say, that as the Essence of God is indivisible, and he that sees any of it, sees all of it, so is the light of glory communicated intirely to every blessed soul. God light of glory communicated intirely to every blessed soul. (Donne, 336)

        Another philosophy that influenced late Renaissance thought was Nominalism. Carey argues that its distrust of reason was calculated to fit into the mode of new thinkers like Montaigne, who had come to the conclusion that will rather than reason accounted for the workings of both Man and God. Montaigne's proposition that individual things alone enjoy true being, was likely to appeal to an age that had seen the breakup of Catholic Europe, and that was increasingly individualistic in its orientation. Nominalism places God beyond man's reach, leaving the realm of nature as the only legitimate object of investigation, and it is in the realm of nature where most of the progressive sixteenth-century thought is produced. The anti-rational animus of Nominalism came in a dramatic form of Calvinism (Carey, 224).

        Donne often defended the Anglical viewpoint against that of the Papists and the Puritans, perhaps out of justification of his apostasy. 7 He did this especially during Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and the Holy Trinity, dealing with both cardinal and controversial points. Itrat Husain points to the fact that Donne mainly took a stand on the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds and that Donne's exposition of the fundamental Christian doctrines is that of the orthodox Anglican divines such as Hooker, Andrewes and Laud, though he is said to have had little sympathy with the rigid ecclesiasticism of Laud. 8 Husain includes a quote of Donne on the Articles and Creeds of the Anglican Church:

Amongst those Articles, in which our Church hath explained and declared her faith, this is the eight Article, that the three Creeds (that of the Councell of Nice, that of Athanasius, and that which is commonly known by the name of the Apostles creed) ought thoroughly to be received, and embrac'd. The meaning of the Church is not, that onely that should be believ'd in which those three creeds agree; (for, The Nicen Creed mentions no Article that of the holy Ghost, not the Catholique Church, not the Communion of Saints, not the Resurrection of the flesh; Athanasiushis creed does mention the Resurrection of the flesh, but not the Catholique Church, nor the communion of Saints) but that all should believ'd which is in any of them, all which is summ'd up in the Apostles Creed. Now, the reason expressed in the Article of our Church, why all this is to be believed, is: Because all this may be prov'd by most certaine warrants of holy Scriptures. (Donne in Husain, 24)

Donne is equally caustic in his pronouncement of the Catholic church as having

by the Additions and Traditions of men, the Italian Babylon Rome[which was how he relate to the modern day Rome] abounded, superabounded, overflowed, surrounded all.(311)

        Donne cautioned that these are "much more dangerous than the other" for all the mingling of "human additions, and traditions, upon equall necessity, and equall obligation as the word of God it selfe, is a kneading, an incorporating of grasse and earth together." Donne goes on to give the analogy of a weak sheep, grazing the grass, who could not avoid eating "the meat of the serpent". He links the sheep and serpent to the curse that fell upon Adam and Eve, "Dust shalt thou eat all the days of their life" (this phrase refers to the serpent in Genesis 3:14, not exactly to Adam or Eve), through their wilful disobedience, just as that of the disobedience of men through their meddling with the purity of the Gospels. Donne continued his reasoning by providing the cause and effect of adding to the Lord's Word:

Now in treading down this grass, this way, this suppressing it by traditions, be pleased to consider these two applications;some traditions doe destroy the word of God, extirpate it, annihilate it, as when a Hog doth root up the grass; In which case, not onely that turfe withers, and is presently useless, and unprofitable to the sheep, but if you dif never so low after, down to the Centre of the earth, it is impossible ever to finde any more grass under it; so some traditions do utterly oppose the word of God, without having under them, any mysterious signification,or any occasion or provocation of our devotion, which is the ordinary pretext of traditions, and, and Ceremoniall additions in their Church. And of this sort was that amongst the Jews, of which our blessed Saviour reproaches them, that whereas by the law, children were to relieve decayed parents, they had brought in a tradition, of Commutation,of Compensation, that if those children gave a gift to the Priest, or compounded with the Priest, they were discharged of the former obligation. And of this sort are many traditions in the Roman Church; where, not onely the doctrines of men but the doctrine of Devills,(as the Apostle calls the forbidding of Marriage, and of meats) did not onely tread down, but root up the true grass. (Donne, 311)

It is clear whom Donne is directing his attack towards, specifically with the mention of the Roman Catholic church at the end of the winding reasoning.

        Calvinism also affected Donne. Calvinism appeals strongly to the feelings of guilt and fear that are inherent in human conditions. It also draws on the widespread sense of moral inadequacy that inspires all kinds of reform. Carey states that Calvinism, in common with theories of race and national superiority, it held for the select, the prospect of immense and undeserved rights that were to be denied to a majority of mankind; that the saved would be few. Carey also compares Calvinism to Marxism by correlating it with revolutionary enthusiasm, aswell as the fatalism and scope offered for self-righteousness and hate(Carey, 225). Donne might have been influenced by the Calvinistic movement of that time, in spite of his admiration for Aquinas. These two movements are antipodal, with Scholasticism (Aquinas) advocating a rationalist God, a God subjected to reason and hence not omniscientt. On the other hand, there is the Calvinistic version which reduces men to irrelevance, yetpreserves the concept of the untouchable, unthinkable and unlimitable God, hence, the omnipotent and omniscient Being.

        Donne constantly teetered between these two concepts of Gods as they came into conflict with the needs and desires within him. On the one hand, Donne was an egoist who subscribed to intricate, involved rationality, which inclined him towards the scholastic view of things. On the other hand, Donne's need to imagine absolutes and infinites which surmounted his own fragmented being, "forcefully inclined him to the unknowable God of Calvinism" (Carey, 226). Donne also asserted in his writing the symbiotic existence between God and man:

For to suffer for God, man to suffer for God, I to suffer for my maker, for my Redeemer, is such a thing, as no such things, excepting only Gods sufferings for man can fall into the consideration of man. God suffering for man was the Nadir, the lowest point of Gods humiliation, mans suffering for God is the Zenith, the highest points of mans exaltation: That as man needed God, and God would suffer for man, so God should need man, and man should suffer for God; that after Gods general Commission, fac hoc A vives, do this and thou shalt live, I should receive and execute a new Commission,Paterehoc A vives abundantius, suffer this and you shall have lift, and life more abundantly, as our Savior speaks in the Gospel [...] (Donne, 329)

        Donne also cautioned against imputing to God a state worse than that of humans, quoting St. Augustine in saying "Never propose to thy self such a God, as thou wert not bound to imitate: Thou mistakest God, if thou make him to be any such thing, as thou in thy proportion shouldst not do" (Carey, 226). Here, to God's goodness is imputed man's goodness. Yet Donne goes on to say that

What eye can fixe it self upon East and West at once? And he must see more than East and West, that sees God, for God spreads infinitely beyond both: God alone is all; not onely all that is, but all that is not, all that might be, if he would have it be. God is too large, too immense, and then man is too narrow, too little to be considered; for, who can fixe his eye upon an Atome? and he must see a lesse thing than an Atome, that sees man, for man is nothing. First, for the incomprehensibleness of God, the understanding of man, hath a limited, a determined latitude; it is an intelligence able to move that Spheare which it is fixed to, but could not move to greater. (Donne, 360-1)

Here God is esteemed to be beyond the comprehension and understanding of man, in marked contrast to his earlier affiliation of a God reachable through logic.

        This insidious struggle persisted throughout Donne's career. Donne would decide simultaneously that God is incomprehensible and yet that it is wrong to consider God incomprehensible. But sometimes Donne tries to integrate the two into one. The passage below illustrates how God could be Omnipotent, a Great Being that surpasses man's judgment, yet not fearsome:

Seeing is hearing, in Gods first language, the language of works. But then God translates himself, in particular works; nationally, he speaks in particular judgements, or deliverances to one nation; and, domestically, he speaks that language to a particular family; and so personally too, he speaks to every particular soul. God will speak unto me, in that voice, and in that way, which I am most delighted with, and hearken most to. (Donne,p.306)

Yet going further down the passage, the God that causes men to sin is notfar from the mind:

God will make my sinne speake to me, and tell me his minde; even my sinne shall bee a Sermon, and a Catechisme to me; God shall suffer me to fall into some such sinne, as that by circumstances in the sinne, or consequences from the sinne, I shall be drawn to hearken unto him; and whether I heareHosannaes, acclamations, and commendations, or Crucifiges, exclamations and condemnations from the world, I shall stil finde the voice and tongue of God, though in the mouth of the Devill, and his instruments. (Donne, 307)

        Man's sin declares God's grace and glory, said Donne. For Donne, "ours that are under the blessed Election, and good purpose of God upon us; if we do not fall from him, it is not of our selves; for left to our selves, we would" (Donne, 345). Donne also stated "God did elect him before he did actually create me" (Carey,p.227). Yet, he also said that "God hath not accomplished his worke upon us, in one Act, though an Election; he works in our Vocation, and he works in our Justification, and in our Sanctification he works still" (Donne,p.345). God is said to separate the "elect" from the "reprobate" beforeman is born into this world. How does it answer the injustice of it all? Carey writes:

The answer given by religious moderates in Donne's day was that God did not out of hatred for their sins which, being omniscient, he knew they would commit. This answer roused Calvin to such contemptuous fury, for he rightly saw it as a feeble compromise. It made God's will dependent on man's future actions, and it did not, in any case, succeed in rescuing God from a charge of injustice. For it left him in the position of one who knowingly creates defective creatures and then punishes them for being defective. Why should God create sinners at all if he foresees that they must be damned? Despite these snags, Donne clung to the moderate view, since the God it proposed did at least retain some rudiments of rationality, as Calvin's did not. God predestined the reprobate to damnation beforethey were created, Donne affirms, out of hatred 'for their sins, whichhe foresaw'. However, on this point, as on others, he evidently felt ambivalent, for he expressly remarks, in one of the later sermons, that it is an error to suppose that predestination is attributable to God's foreknowledge of man's works, and this presumably means that the Calvinist alternative of a totally arbitrary God now seems to him more likely. (p.227-228)

Hence Donne's reasoning went to the extreme of pure faith. Donne tried to assure himself that faith, and not reasoning, is the one that should accompany divine matters, for he said thus in one of his sermons preached in 1626:

The Wise-man in Ecclesiasticus institutes his meditation thus: Thereis one that hath great need of help, full of poverty, yet the eye of the Lord looked upon him for good, and set him up from his low estate, so that many that saw it, marveled at it. Many marveled, but none reproached the Lord, chid the Lord, calumniated the Lord, for doing so. And if the Lord will look upon a sinner, and raise that bedrid man; if he will look with the eye, that pierces deeper than the eye of heaven, the Sun, (and yet with a look of that eye, the womb of the earth conceives) if he will look with that eye, that conveys more warmth than the eye of the Ostrich,(and yet with a look of that eye, that Bird is said to hatch her young ones, without sitting) that eye that melted Peter into water, and made him flow towards Christ; and rarified Matthew into air, and made him flee towards Christ; if that eye vouchsafe to look upon a Publican, and redeem a Goshen out of an Egypt, hatch a soul out of a carnal man, produce a saint out of a sinner, shall we marvel at that matter? marvel so, as to doubt God's power? (Donne, 273)

        From Donne's sermons, it is apparent that in some sense Donne was reliant upon tradition. Yet his sermons differ in view from those of Gregory or Andrewes, his contemporaries. Gregory emphasizes the rhythm of all things, the natural process of death and resurrection, the facility with which God brings a tree out of a seed and resurrects a man from dust. Donne emphasized the inadequacy of such analogies. To him, an acceptable resurrection would be identical with spring. 9

        Donne's figures are often precise for he used his images to pin down abstractions more rigorously than would have been possible, with their sharp outlines leaving insufficient room for pure abstractions. Despite being shackled, they fight back; hence a visible conflict exists:

A man might get into that feast, without his wedding garments; so a man may get into the Church, to bee a visible part of a Christian Congregation, without this acceptation of reconciliation, that is the particular apprehension, and application of Christ; but hee is still subject to a remove, and to that question of confusion, Luomodo intrasti, How came thou in? That man in the Gospell could have answer to that question, directly, I came in by invitation, and conduct of thy servants, I was called in, I was led in; so they that came hither without this wedding garment, they may answer to Christs Luomodo intrasti, How camest thou in? I came in by faithfull parents, to whom, and their seed thou hast sealed a Covenant; I was admitted by thy Servants and Ministers in Baptisme, and have been led along by them, by coming to hear them preach thy word, and doing the other externall offices of a Christian. (Donne, 309)

The wedding feast supposedly gave concreteness to the worshipping of the church's congregation. Donne did not invent this analogy, but got it from Gospels.

        Conflict exists between emotions attached to, or evoked by naturalistic images, besides the intellectual interest in abstraction.

A Tree is an embleme of thy selfe; nay a Tree is the originall, thou art but the copy, thou art not so good as it: for, There is hopeof a tree (as you reade there) if the roote wax old, if the stock be dead, if it be cut down, yet by the scent of the waters, it will bud, but man is sick, and dyeth, and where is he? he shall not awake again(Donne, 203)

The precision of Donne's metaphors ordinarily allow each faculty (the senses) to be gratified to a certain extent, as emotions would find sensory pleasure in the concrete images, while the intellect derives its satisfaction from the same precise analogical validity. On some occasions, there is a real union between the two, but more often the two are merely aware of their co-existence, with a certain surrender of rights in the part of each (Webber, 76). But, as has been said earlier, a constant mark of Donne is his search for unity in a world that seemingly manifests disunion and disproportion everywhere. Yet for Donne, such contrasts are the very essence of life and poetry, and the opposite pulls of his figures are be a matter of aesthetic delight as much as a comment on fallen humanity (Webber, 84). Critics have long characterized Donne's metaphors as variously original and traditional, abstract and concrete, intellectual and sensuous, bizarre, ingenuous and homely. Webber noted that polemics is a minor node in Donne, "supplying a certain amount of exterior toughness to a style principally devoted to the analysis of the inner and spiritual life of man" (93). However, itis scattered throughout his sermons, sometimes subtle, other times obvious.

        Webber argues that the progress of the soul is given considerable space in the sermons, and it is well illustrated in Donne's final sermon, Death's Duell, in the openingparagraph:

Buildings stand by the benefit of their foundations that susteine and support them, and of their butteresses that comprehend and embrace them, and of their contignations that knit and unite them: The foundations suffer them not to sinke, the butteresses suffer them not to swerve, and the contignation and knitting sufferes them not to cleave. The body of our building is in the former part of this verse: It is this, hee that is our God is the God of salvation [...]. (Donne, 374)

The building mentioned above is an analogy to the congregation of the church. Donne suffered them to remain constant until death, and his own death was nearing. Donne was very much concerned with self-analysis, and in this respect he differs from the other Anglican preachers. Donne's method of analysis differs in range; from professional attacks upon soul's sinfulness, where imagery is often used to create a realistic scene that provides a probing tool, through vivid description of the soul's entrance into the life of Christ,

that because God hath imparted a being, an essence, from himselfe, who is the roote, and the fountaine of all essence, and all being, therefore every creature hath a filiation from God [...] every man hath filiation em imagines, as well Pagan as Christians, hath the image of God imprinted in his soule, and so hath a filiation from God, and is the Sonne of God, as he is made in his likeness; and whereas every Christian hath filiotionem Pacti, by being taken into the covenant made by God, with the Elect, and with their seed, he hath filiation from God, and is the Sonne of God, as he is incorporated into his Sonne Christ Jesus, by the Seals of the Christian Church. (Donne 342)

to the somewhat formal emblematic deathbed tableaux where the moment of transition from earth to heaven is represented by a cessation of motion and a kind of suspension in time (Webber, 107).

        Donne used art as well togive a kind of visual effect to his imagery, and in a sermon he delivered in 1628 at Whitehall, he presented a diptych of two parallel deaths, that of a sinner and of a Christian, "Here I shall only present to you two Pictures, two pictures in little: two pictures of dying men; and every man is like one of these, and may know himself by it; he that dies in the Bath of a peaceable, and he that dies upon the wrack of a distracted conscience" (Donne,p.331). The picture of the Christian death is presented as:

Bee pleased to remember that those Pictures which are deliver'd in a minute from a print upon a paper, had many dayes, weeks, Moneths time for the graving of those Pictures in the Copper; So this Picture of that dying Man, that dies in Christ, that dies the death of the Righteous, that embraces Death as a Sleepe, was graving all his life; All his publique actions were the lights, and all his private shadowes of this Picture. And when this Picture comes to the Presse, this Man to the streights andagonies of Death, thus he lies, thus he looks, this he is (Donne, 332-3)

According to Webber, the picture painted above is less visual than psychological; it being a description of a man whose memory, will, and understanding areunited and fixed upon Christ. Art was used to frame the description, to make it more tangible and to suggest the completion of the picture that represents the spirit of the man (Webber, 112). Donne as preacher and artist saw everything as emblems; art was as real to him as the world around him (p.114). He was also a conservative who wanted to preserve old truths to encourage steadiness and single mindedness (p.120).

        Though Donne's estimation of reason within the confines of religion was in violent conflict, one would think that he would finally decide to confine the use of reason within secular ontology. Yet such skepticism exists even when brought into the realm of secular knowledge, as in Donne's sermon preached at a funeral of Sir William Cokayne in 1626:

And how imperfect is all our knowledge? What one thing doe we know perfectly? Whether wee consider Arts, or Sciences, the servant knows but according to the proportion of his Masters knowledge in that Art, and the Scholar knows but according to the proportion of his Masters knowledge in that Science; Young men mend not their sight by using old mens Spectacles; and yet we looke upon Nature, but with Aristotles Spectacles, and upon the body of man, but with Galens, and upon the frame of the world, but with Ptolomies Spectacles. Almost all knowledge is rather like a child that is embalmed to make Mummy, than that is nursed to makea Man; rather conserved in the stature of the first age, than growne to be greater; And if there be any addition to knowledge, it is rather a new knowledge, than a greater knowledge; rather a singularity in a desire of proposing something that was not knowne at all before, than an emproving, an advancing, a multiplying of the former inceptions; and by that meanes, no knowledge comes to be perfect. (Donne 278-9)

        Donne's view of science is that of an obscurantist, ascribed partly to his skepticism and partly to his Catholic upbringing. According to Carey, Donne did not deny the existence of progress. In one of his sermons, Donne noted the maritime compass as a discovery separating the modern world from the ancient, and like most contemporary commentators, he cited gunpowders and printing presses as comparably important breakthroughs (Carey, 231). Yet it seems to Donne to be something that has already taken place. It is synonymous with history. "Whereas Bacon loves to let his mind drift forward through centuries, and to imagine, in a work like the New Atlantis, what the gradually achieved triumphs of science might be, the power and tenacity of Donne's ego shrank from conceiving of a future in which he would have no part" (Carey, 230). To Donne, intellectual enquiry is wholly occupied with the past. In his Ignatius his Conclave, he scorned the "Chymaericall Copernicus, or this cadaverous vulture of Paracelsus" (Donne, 61). The idea that the future would be so drastically different from what he had known is unthinkable. Though he might have read a number of words, an inquisitive mind like his would have been interested to know the latest development in every field of enquiry, yet his passion was essentially that of the collector of information. According to Carey, Donne did not regard any of the divergent thinking he read about as being part of a slow advance towards certainty (233). Rather, it just proved what he had said in the sermons.

        To be able to see how Donne's mind underwent a transformation from his earlier works to his sermons, it is important to do a comparison between one of his earlier writings, Biathanatos and his sermons. Biathanatos is actually the corrupted version of Biaiothanatos, or 'dying by violent death'. 10 Biathanatos was an exercise by Donne on the subject of suicide. According to Evelyn Simpson, this particular "problem 'whether Selfe-Homicide is so naturally sinne that it may never be otherwise' had an attraction for him which he explaines in his preface." Due to suicidal tendencies in his earlier days, Donne decided to examine the reasons by which suicide was condemned as a necessary mortal sin. Hence Donne set himself to examining and refuting the arguments drawn on both canon and civil law, and from the Scriptures, where condemnation for suicide is mainly found, and to him it was of much curious learning. Yet the book has little in grace of style, save in a purple passage here and there (Simpson, 160):

The book hardly needed elaborate refutation. Donne was right in thinking that it was not likely to do harm to weak consciences, as its method of treatment was such as to prevent it from becoming a popular book, while the learned, who alone would study it, were already familiar with its many arguments and examples. He was prudent, however, in deciding to refrain from publication, as the sharp-eyed ecclesiastical censors of the day would most certainly have regarded the book as heretical and dangerous. (Simpson, 166)

        Though Donne would modify someof his theories later, one could still see the remains of it in Death's Duell, where he referred to the story of Samson and his violent death, though bringing it a notch higher by relating the issues of death to God. Yet is it in Donne's sermons that his power as a prose-writer is displayed, for it is then that he achieved full maturity in thought and reasoning power, being less prone to casuistry yet still very much appealing to the emotions of his audiences. The sermons drew on Donne's immense learning; from his knowledge of the Scriptures (though his reasoning is a little defective at some points), the Fathers (from his Catholic days), the Schoolmen (Scholastics), as well as the controversialists of his day. All these, added to his interest in law, medicine and science would have been hard for his lay congregation to bear if not for his powers of wit and imagination (Simpson, 255).

        The crisis of reason in Donne, to quote Carey, is a prolonged affair with debates about the efficacy of reason against faith persisting throughout the seventeenth century, culminating in Milton's Paradise Lost. Yet for Donne, who was writing during the crisis, understanding was considered a mere impossibility and any thoughts of it futile. Hence, the playground of imagination came into being. One could say that in Donne's sermons, he dealt with change, assimilation of such changes and physical transformation.

  1. Kelley, David. The Art of Reasoning. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998. 40-1.   back
  2. Craig, Hardin. The Enchanted Glass. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952. 3.   back
  3. Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Faber & Faber: London, 1981. 217.   back
  4. Donne, John. "Sermons". Selected Prose. Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy, eds. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1967. 223.   back
  5. Donne, John. "Essays in Divinity: Of God." Selected Prose. Gardner and Healy, eds. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1967. 70.   back
  6. Donne, John. Juvenilia. English Prose 1600-1660. Victor Harris and Itrat Husain, eds. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965. 254.   back
  7. cf. Carey, John. "Apostasy" and "The Art of Apostasy." John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. Faber & Faber: London, 1981. 1-45.   back
  8. Husain, Itrat. The Dogmatic and Mystical Theology of John Donne. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: London, 1938. 24.   back
  9. Webber, Joan. Contrary Music: The Prose Style of John Donne. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1963. 73.   back
  10. Simpson, Evelyn M. A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1948. 159.   back

  • Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art.
    Faber&Faber: London, 1981.

  • Craig, Hardin. The Enchanted Glass.
    Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952.

  • Donne, John. Juvenilia. English Prose 1600-1660.
    Victor Harris and Itrat Husain, Eds.
    New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965.

  • Donne, John. Selected Prose: Selected by Evelyn Simpson.
    Ed. Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy.
    Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1967.

  • Husain, Itrat. The Dogmatic And Mystical Theology of John Donne.
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: London, 1938.

  • Kelley, David. The Art of Reasoning. 3rd ed.
    New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

  • Simpson, Evelyn M. A study of the prose works of John Donne.
    Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1948.

  • Webber, Joan. Contrary Music: The Prose Style of John Donne.
    University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1963.

Text copyright ©2002 Clarissa Lee Ai Ling. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on January 16, 2003. Last updated April 18, 2012.


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