Ignatius His Conclave Critical Essays

John Donne

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

In Ignatius His Conclave, the Anglican divine John Donne wrote a satire that is at times fanciful, at times devastating, and on occasion screamingly vindictive against the Jesuits. In the final scene Ignatius Loyola, Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus, seats himself next to Lucifer in Hell. Ignatius His Conclave appeared in both Latin and an English “translation.” A foreword purported to be by the printer but obviously by Donne states that the author was unwilling to have the book published but finally permitted the printer, who cites the examples of Erasmus and Luther, to publish it.

Intending to annihilate the Jesuits with satire, Donne allows his wit and invention to be overpowered by venom. Ignatius’ lengthy oration listing the vices of the Popes becomes tedious. Even tedium, however, cannot darken the flashes of Donne’s imagination which dart throughout the satire. The comments of his “disembodied soul” are almost always delightful. His awareness of Galileo’s discovery of the telescope made public only a year before this satire was written and his use of the Copernican cosmography set Donne in advance of Milton, who preferred to follow Ptolemy. His conquest of space and awareness of “other worlds” on stars make him sound contemporary. The upside down standards in Hell in which vice becomes virtue foreshadow Fielding.

Donne says that his “little wandring sportful Soule” went traveling through the universe while he lay in an “extasie.” He prefers to be silent concerning the Heavens rather “than to do Galileo wrong by speaking of it, who of late hath summoned the other worlds, the Stars to come neerer to him and give him an account of themselves.” He “saw all the rooms of Hell open to my sight.” In the most remote room, he finds Pope Boniface III and Mahomet contending about the highest room in the secret place of Hell reserved for the greatest innovators. Boniface glories in having expelled an old religion and Mahomet in bringing in a new. Donne thinks that Mahomet has no chance of winning because he attributed something to the Old Testament and his followers live in “barren unanimity.” Boniface has a better chance because he had not only ignored but destroyed the policy of the State of Israel established in the Old Testament and his successors in the several orders “have ever been fruitful in bringing forth new sinnes, new pardons, and idolatries and King-killings.”

As Donne’s soul stands listening, pretenders to the eminence of innovator ask admission. The first is Copernicus, whom Donne is surprised to see until he remembers that the Papists have extended heresy to include almost everything. Copernicus says that, pitying Lucifer thrust into the center of the earth, he raised him and his prison the earth up into the heavens so that God no longer enjoys his revenge on him. He has “turned the whole frame of the world” and is “thereby, almost a new Creator.”

Lucifer is in a quandary. He thinks that to deny Copernicus admission would be unjust but to admit one of his ambitions and undertakings is dangerous. Ignatius Loyola, who had subtly worked his way up to the Devil’s chair, perceives this perplexity. Although, says Donne, Ignatius in life was ignorant and had never heard of either Ptolemy or Copernicus and might have thought that Almagest, Zenith, and Nadir were saints’ names and “fit to bee put in the Litanie, and Ora pro nobis joyned to them,” he had learned a great deal in Hell from the Jesuits arriving there daily. Ignatius asks Copernicus if he has invented anything which benefits Lucifer. Ignatius thinks not. He also says that Copernicus’ findings may be true. Ignatius thinks that Clavius, who designed the Gregorian calendar and denied Copernicus and “the truth which at that time, was creeping into every mans minde,” better deserves admission. The new Calendar has “egregiously troubled” both heaven and earth. The saints no longer know when their days are. St. Stephen and John the Baptist have to be awakened ten days sooner so that they can come down to the places where their relics are preserved and work miracles. “Let, therefore, this little Mathematitian (dread Emperour) withdraw himselfe to his owne company.” If the Pope should decree that the earth does not move and that an anathema shall be...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)