How does John Donne's poetry connect to the "Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion" of the Church of England?
John Donne's poetry and sermons, especially after he became a priest in 1615, are deeply religious. Understanding the contents and evolution of his religious beliefs helps us understand his poetry better.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were ones of great religious turmoil in Europe and Britain, when thousands of people died every year for their religious faiths. The theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism were matters of life and death, both considered from a theological perspective (of eternal salvation) and a worldly one (you could be killed for your religion). England had a long a bloody history of religious conflict, beginning with King Henry VIII's creation of the Protestant Church of England by the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which actually outlawed Roman Catholicism. The beliefs of the Henrician church were in part encapsulated in the 42 Articles of 1553. Those people who remained Roman Catholics, know as "recusant Catholics," were persecuted. When Henry's daughter Mary I, known as "Bloody Mary" to Protestants, acceded to the throne, she restored Roman Catholicism, and burned 283 leading Protestants at the stake. Her successor, Elizabeth I, restored the Protestant Church of England as the state religion in 1559, and though Roman Catholics suffered many civil disabilities, Elizabeth was, by the standards of her period, more pragmatic than fanatic concerning religion. The Thirty-Nine Articles, based on the earlier Henrician 42 articles, represent a doctrine that is often described as a "via media" (Latin for "middle path") between extreme Protestantism and Catholicism; they can be described as moderately Calvinist in theology but moderately Catholic in liturgy (Anglican church services are basically English translations of the Latin Roman Catholic ones in use at the period).
What makes all of this important for Donne is that he came from a recusant Catholic family. One of his uncles had been sentenced to death for being a Jesuit (an order of Catholic monks) and his brother died in the prison to which he was sentenced for helping a Roman Catholic. While Donne was in his twenties and thirties, he was a socialite and courtier, and wrote witty, often sexually themed poems, albeit with some religious themes. At some time within this period he joined the Church of England (also called the "Anglican" Church), but it wasn't until the 1600s, when he married and settled down, that his work began to take a more devout turn.
One of the major paths to career advancement that was open to educated men of his period was the priesthood, but despite the urgings of...
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