David Aers and Gunther Kress (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Aers, David, and Gunther Kress. “‘Darke Texts Need Notes': Versions of Self in Donne's Verse Epistles.” In Critical Essays on John Donne, edited by Arthur F. Marotti, pp. 102-22. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Aers and Kress examine Donne's representation of self in several verse epistles from Letters to Severall Personages. The epistles studied are “You Refine Me,” addressed to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, who was his patroness after Donne secretly married and lost his professional position; “To the Countess of Salisbury”; and two poems not addressed to patrons.]

Donne's verse epistles have not received much notice from the awesome critical industry centred on his work. Any explanation of this surprising fact would include reference to factors such as an assumed lack of poetic richness in these poems, the assumption that patronage poetry is too conventional to merit serious critical attention, and perhaps even some embarrassment at a deification of living patronesses.1 But we believe that the most significant factor is an unrecognized one: namely the lack of a descriptive and theoretical framework within which the real interest of these poems can be perceived and analysed. In this essay we attempt to establish such a framework and carry out an analysis which will locate, describe, and account for versions of the self emerging within these verse letters. In the course of this critical inquiry we will build on John Danby's hints about the explicitly social basis of so much seemingly purely metaphysical speculation.2 We hope to develop an approach which through its very attention to the minute movements of a particular text reveals how these only become intelligible when inserted in a wider context which includes the writer's precise social situation. We hope that the critical method being evolved here will ultimately be explored in connection with the whole corpus of Donne's work.


In 1608 Donne wrote a poem beginning, “You have refin'd mee,” a verse epistle to his new patroness Lucy, Countess of Bedford, in what seems to have been the most personally testing period of his life.3 Although Donne himself includes the comment that “darke texts need notes,” his editors and critics do not seem to have found this a particularly interesting poem. However, we think it both demands and rewards scrutiny. These are the first two stanzas:

You have refin'd mee, and to worthyest things
          (Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune,) now I see
Rarenesse, or use, not nature value brings;
And such, as they are circumstanc'd, they bee.
          Two ills can ne're perplexe us, sinne to'excuse;
          But of two good things, we may leave and chuse.
Therefore at Court, which is not vertues clime,
          (Where a transcendent height, (as, lownesse mee)
Makes her not be, or not show) all my rime
Your vertues challenge, which there rarest bee;
          For, as darke texts need notes: there some must bee
          To usher vertue, and say, This is shee.(4)

In the editorial glosses on these stanzas they come across as being fairly unproblematic. Grierson finds Donne's introduction of himself in “as, lownesse mee” (stanza two), “quite irrelevant” (and is more unsettled than Milgate), yet he assumes that he has solved any minor enigmas, and the lines seem not to need extended commentary.5 However, on closer inspection there are important and unresolved tensions in these lines. The countess is alchemist, a near creator (as lines 21-22 of the poem make explicit) through whose agency the poet can now perceive things as they really are. This sets up a dichotomy between things as...

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he perceives them now and things as he perceived them before.Now he sees that value is the product of contingent social relationships. Already there may be hints, clarified later in the poem, that value, being generated by rareness or use, is an aspect of market transactions. Even seemingly transcendent, platonic forms, Vertue, Art, Beauty, “worthyest things” indeed, get their worth in this way and so have to be placed in the same category as the thoroughly contingent sub-lunar abstraction, Fortune. But before his “refinement” he had assumed, in good idealist (platonic or stoic) fashion that value transcended the contingent placings of social practice; he had assumed that value was a reflection of the object or person's intrinsic nature, that, in his own words, “nature value brings.”

Such relativistic talk, appropriate to a market, may not surprise readers today. But when we recall that the poem is addressed to Lucy, and that Donne is overtly talking about her, the worthiest thing whom he is both worshipping and elegantly asking for patronage, it is, at the very least, a strange and rather risky compliment. After all, the poem implies that she is not inherently valuable, that her worthiness is a product of contingent social circumstances, and that her refining has given him perceptions of this kind. (The second stanza is connected to the first by the logical connector “Therefore,” thus removing any lingering doubts that the first stanza is also about Lucy.) The countess's value as one of the “worthyest things” paradoxically depends on her being “circumstanc'd” in a social situation where her attributes (virtues, it so happens) are most valuable precisely because they are rare, the court rather conspicuously not being the “clime” of virtue.

This does have a rationale and can be resolved once we see the structure of Donne's basic model here. He is actually working with a model which assumes the existence of two worlds or “climes.” One is a platonic clime in which Lucy exists with platonic forms, and which her usher-exegete has knowledge of. (This world of essences transcends all contingency and relativity, and so supersedes all notions of value deployed by social man.) A second clime is the present historical world, the world of the court, Mitcham, and Donne's frustrated daily existence, one where value is a function of contingent market relations, supply and demand, mere “circumstance.” It is in this second world that the countess is “worthyest,” most valuable, and it is here that Donne so desperately wishes to find employment as the official usher of the valued one. His role is to introduce the myopic courtiers to the rare (and useful?) worthy one. In this he himself gains value as the indispensable spectacles through which courtiers can perceive the rare and hidden riches of that dark text, Lucy. The “alienated intellectual” overcomes his alienation, finds community, wins employment and use as an essential mediator between the two climes.6 However, Donne fails to show us why the lower clime should value virtue, why this particular rare commodity should be desired by courtiers at all. The unexamined gap in his argument here is simply leapt over as he assumes, optimistically, that the second clime must find use and market value for representatives of the higher world.

Donne does not resolve the paradox in the way we have been doing, but wisely leaves it in its highly compressed form, with only hints that the very absence of virtue at the court makes the countess “worthyest” and endows both her and her usher-exegete with value. It is understandable enough that Donne should not have wanted to express the views we have described in this plain form, and so we already have sound reasons for a wish to darken the text. Of course, the double-edged nature of the paradoxical compliment to the countess could have been simply handled by leaving it out, thus obviating the danger of relativising the countess's virtue. Nevertheless, this would not have permitted Donne to introduce the important self-reference so well worked into a complex image of the relations between poet, patroness, society and ethical idealism. Here we have a non-trivial explanation for his desire to keep the text dark, one which offers an account of verbal processes and relevant social and psychological motivations.

We mentioned the significant degree of self-reference in the poem and this facet invites some further consideration, especially in the light of Donne's “egocentricity,” widely commented on by critics.7 The statement of this egocentricity is inevitably more complex here than in many of the Songs and Sonnets, where the poet-lover focuses on himself and his relations with a lover. This poem, however, is focused on the patroness, and since he delicately seeks patronage the relationship is one which needs most careful handling; not the time, one would think, for an overt display of egocentricity. In this connection it is interesting to note how the poem begins with a reference to himself. It does certainly bestow credit on the countess—she, as alchemist, has succeeded in refining him. Yet the image also turns Donne into the central object of attention, just as the alchemist's attention focuses on the materials he desires to transform. And as the success of the alchemist is defined by his success in refining the material, so the countess's success is defined in terms of her effectiveness in working on the present material, the poet. Thus at the very opening of the poem the overt focus on the patroness has been inverted and become part of a rather complicated self-referring process. Lines two and eight (the self-mentioning, which Grierson found “irrelevant”) again refer to him; so do lines nine, eleven and twelve. Without doubt there is a large enough amount of self-reference in the opening stanzas at least to attract one's curiosity.

In addition there are some peculiarities of reference, predominantly in the pronouns. Line one contains the two pronouns, you and mee: in the same line there is the “pronoun” worthyest things. Its reference is ambiguous: Donne has just been refined, so that one possible reference is mee. If he is included in the category of worthyest things, then he belongs to the same class as Lucy (you), another possible referent of this phrase. Worthyest things is plural in number, and so it can indeed refer to both Lucy and the poet. Presumably Donne intended the reference to be multiply ambiguous; at any rate it is not immediately clear, and in searching for an appropriate and permitted referent, the reference to the poet will arise, have to be assessed, and decided on. The fact that in the next line Donne glosses worthyest things as “Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune” shows that he acknowledged the need to provide a gloss. As we pointed out above, this list collapses platonic categories into the social and contingent clime of “Fortune,” relativizing and undercutting the platonic model. By the time we reach the end of the second line worthyest things has accumulated a wide range of possible references: “you,” “mee,” “you” and “mee,” “Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune.” All of these lead into “Fortune,” and are placed in the same category as Fortune, so that the relativizing tendency has become thoroughly pervasive.

The fourth line of the poem continues to draw on the multiple ambiguity under discussion: “And such, as they are circumstanc'd, they bee.” Here they may refer to all the referents mentioned. Another pronoun, such, is introduced. It in turn may refer to all three and to they; or it may pick out just one of these. If the latter, then we get at least the following readings: (1) Lucy (such r worthiest things r You), the countess, such as she is circumstanced so she is—as she is placed in the contingent social market of fortune, so she is valued, worthiest. (2) Donne (such r worthiest thing r me r refined), the poet, such as he is circumstanced so he is—as he is placed in Lucy's platonic world, as a new creature, so he is valued, worthiest. As he is placed in the contingent social market, so he is valued, as nothing. His appeal to Lucy is therefore that she should “translate” his worth in her platonic world, into a recognised use and hence value in the market, in the appropriate place: as an indispensable usher. The countess is well able to do this. So the reading as it stands is: I, as I am circumstanced so I am, as I am now placed in the social market of fortune so I am currently valued—as nothing.8 At this point the paradox, deploying the model of two climes, functions to give line four another, Donne's real, though covert, reading: I am (not as I am, but) as I am circumstanced. The paradox enables Donne to present simultaneously two versions of the self here: one, the platonic one covertly (I am as I am regardless of social valuation and placing); the other, the one constructed according to market values overtly (I am as I am circumstanced). He puts one against the other in a most complex and rather disturbing form, and asks Lucy to realize his worth in one “clime,” the platonic, as “value through use” in the other “clime,” that of contingent social situation and of fortune.

On the surface the statement is of course less complicated: the countess has refined him and now he sees that either rareness or use (being used by or of use to someone) brings value. It is precisely the patronage relationship which makes the poet useful to someone who can use him, and therefore valuable. Until he is used his identity is bestowed by his circumstances and, through no fault of his, or of nature, he is circumstanced such that he has no value.

Stanza two now becomes clearer. It refers to the countess but it also refers to Donne. At court he does not appear (either he is physically absent through having no position, or if there is not noticed) because he currently has no value. He places himself in a revealing structural relationship with the countess: her value does not appear at court owing to transcendent height, while his does not appear owing to an opposite lownesse. So the structural opposition links him firmly with her, in a link which comes close to an equation. This provides a perfect explanation for the difficulty Grierson recorded, and indeed it would be most odd if such a phrase appeared in one of Donne's patronage poems without precise significance and motivation. The concluding couplet gives us a final confirmation: this is about her and about him. She is the “darke text” (as is the poem, as is his motivation) and “darke texts need notes.”

We should ask what or whose need this is. As we noticed earlier, it is most obviously the potential audience of the text, the benighted courtiers. It is also the countess's need, she who is the “darke text” needs to be explicated if she is to be truly valued in the lower “clime.” She needs an exegete, like Donne. Lastly, it is Donne's need: exegetes need “darke texts,” and above all Donne needs to be an exegete, he needs to be of specific use to the countess and the community. Just as the “need” has to be explained, so too with the “must” in the same line. “Some must bee” refers to the exegete, implicitly Donne himself, so that this must bee seemingly has the force of an existential imperative, and it echoes the not be of line nine. That “not be” takes in both Lucy and Donne; how does the non-existent poet of line nine come into existence as the necessary exegete-usher of line eleven? By being employed: and this employment not only brings him into existence, creates him indeed (as lines 21-2 make explicit9), but also brings the countess's virtue into the social world, thus indirectly giving her existence and, as we saw earlier, value. This is an astonishingly delicate combination of begging and self-assertion, and the relations hinted at are very complex.10 Donne is the created creature, she the creator; he low, she high; he patronized, she patron; he exegete, she dark text; he usher, she virtue, he excluded, she included. Yet she too is excluded until he realises her social potential and value for her. Structurally Lucy and Donne are opposed and yet equated, transforms of each other creating each other from shared invisibility into apparent existence and social value.


We have by now accounted for the text's darkness. It lies in the double-layered model Donne uses to understand his complex relationship with his patroness and their mutual relations to the social world and value. But we need to go further. On this level the explanation has entailed an account of the supplicant's perception of himself, and we now wish to explore this perception in more depth. We have made clear the way the first two stanzas offer distinct and contrasting versions of the self. To recapitulate, one version of self thus refers an autonomous self to inherent values which would doubtless be recognized in a platonic utopia or by stoic and platonic individuals who have detached themselves from existing societies and are strong enough to pursue a Crusoelike existence (without dog or man Friday of course). The other version of self sees it as socially constructed and dependent, either through equal relationships (as those between friends) or the social relations of the market based on rareness, use and contingency. It is not difficult to believe that Donne could see these two versions of the self as competing and contradictory. But then, it is also plausible to see them as complementary, so that only those who do have inherent worth, participating in the platonic forms, ought to be usable, find employment and value. Such, however, is obviously not the case in the world which Donne strove so hard to convince about his marketable potential and use. For Donne these competing versions of self-identity became highly problematic and a constant, often agonized, preoccupation, in the period before his ordination.

The two stanzas with which we opened our discussion are thus legitimately seen as explorations of the self. The question of the poet's consciousness of this exploration is one which we have not treated here. Nor do we exclude a range of other possible readings of these stanzas, or for the rest of the patronage poems. But we are suggesting that this reading goes to the heart of these poems and points to their place in Donne's central preoccupations and problems. We believe these neglected poems have much to teach us about these preoccupations and the poetic and intellectual strategies with which Donne confronted them.11

The double version of self we have been exploring certainly connects most of the verse epistles, for they are attempts to work out self-identity, polarizing or clustering around one or other of these two basic stances. Above all, it invites us to link abstract metaphysical problems with the concrete reality and pressures of the poet's existence.

One important feature we have touched on in our depiction of the versions of the self in “You have refin'd mee” can now be brought into prominence. We noted that in presenting contrary versions of self-identity and evaluation Donne envisaged his own level of being in a necessarily equivocal way. He does exist in some mode, but he needs refining, and even creation, by a patroness-alchemist; he does not exist or is not visible (lines 7-12) at court, yet he, or some, “must bee To usher vertue.” Later in the poem he defines himself as one of Lucy's “new creatures,” part of a “new world” created by her (lines 21-22). In other poems to patronesses this tendency becomes an overt assertion by Donne: that he is nothing. In “T'Have written then” he says (again to the Countess of Bedford), “nothings, as I am, may / Pay all they have, and yet have all to pay” (lines 7-8). Of course, line seven is paradoxical: the am asserts existence, I am; and syntactically the verb to be functions to relate entities to other entities or to qualities. That second function is prominent here: the classification of an individual, though he exists, as a nothing. Classifications are culturally and socially given, conventional and subject to historical change. Nevertheless they tend to assume the force of eternal, changeless forms. This is particularly so as the syntactic form X is Y is used to make classifications established by changing cultures and conventions (e.g. “I am a ratepayer”) as well as those relating to the impersonal, natural order (e.g. “The sun is a star”). In this way language blurs the distinction between the two kinds of statements and their reality-status. But over and above that any member of a society is socialized into sets of value systems which become “reality.” In other words, if we look at Donne's “actual” situation, even at this, his worst time, we cannot by any stretch of the imagination see him as nothing: a reasonably comfortable house in Mitcham, one or two servants, frequent trips to London, to influential friends who remain loyal and help in a host of ways, access to books, writing poetry which has an appreciative audience, no hunger. … To the landless labourer in Mitcham Donne would have seemed the opposite of “nothing.” But this only confirms the strength of the conventionally given quality of perception, which meant in Donne's case that not being of the court group was not being at all. For Donne therefore these lines do not have the force of paradox: being is defined in terms of membership of the group to which he aspires: creation is therefore a social act, the act of admitting, drawing in the individual to the group.

Nevertheless, no sooner has Donne offered a negative version of self reflecting his present social situation than he proposes a contrary version of the self as having a transcendental and valuable identity: “Yet since rich mines in barren grounds are showne, / May not I yeeld (not gold) but coale or stone?” (lines 11-12). Donne is certainly at the moment barren ground, in so far as he is anything at all. Yet in the same breath he assumes that he is also a rich mine. This draws, precisely in the ways we have shown before, on the versions of the self as having intrinsic value, whatever the social market value. But the image is mostly subtly chosen for it also informs the patron of the self's potential market value, however hidden that may be. The intrinsically valuable platonic, private and independent self turns out to be as much the property of the patron as the public social self. In specifying the kind of rich mine (line 12) it may be that Donne loses confidence, moving from coal to stone. But whatever the exact market value, this hidden self is certainly cashable. Indeed, he suggests the most valuable kind of mine: a gold mine (negation being the permissible way of articulating the nearly forbidden). Still, however high the self-estimation, however much he feels he has a self beyond the nothing which he is socially, the clash between secret hidden core and apparent social identity forces him to invoke an external agent to strip away this surface (where before it was to burn away impurities), to dig up the riches, so that he may “yeeld” the riches to someone else. Syntactically yield always occurs in forms such as “yielded something for / to someone,” where the someone is never I. Thus the image and the syntax are tied absolutely into use, commerce and markets. The social creator is here revealed as a potential and willing social user and exploiter, while creation turns out to be the discovery of market value in the human being. Conversely, the sense of nothingness, negation, has a social origin—namely, the absence of such exploitive use. Again, the metaphysics of annihilation, of being and of nothingness, the fundamental questions of identity raised in these poems find very tangible social explanation.

“Creation” becomes a specific term here, meaning admission to the desired social group. Some present members of such groups had membership from the beginning and did not need creation. But the process is a general one and may apply to any individual at any social level in relation to any coveted group. The only exception to this is the king, hardly surprising in the time of James I, Donne's ultimate patron, who proclaimed that kings “are not onely Gods Lieutenants vpon earth, and sit vpon Gods throne, but even by God himselfe they are called Gods.”12 In the poem “To Sir H. W. at his going Ambassador to Venice,” the king fulfils the role of creator for Wotton: “And (how he may) makes you almost the same, / A Taper of his Torch, a copie writ / From his originall …” (lines 4-6). This view of the individual and society encourages one to ask whether it was a common mode of perception at that time or especially found in any specific group; or whether, for example, Donne's origins from an institutionally excluded group—the community of Roman Catholics—disposed him to view self in this way. Much more work on the lines we are suggesting will be necessary before satisfactory answers can be given.

The source of the creator's credentials could become problematic for anyone who is not totally content to accept the social order and the processes maintaining it. This is, in fact a constant concern in the epistles, and is the obverse of his anxiety about his own lack of being, his own lack of credentials. In the light of this consideration, lines such as these from the opening of “You have refin'd mee” take on a peculiarly bitter and ironic tone: “now I see / Rareness, or use, not nature value brings; / And such, as they are circumstanc'd, they bee.” It is the removal of his blindness which makes him see this unpalatable truth; the countess is indeed creator, though not because of her inherent virtues or nature but because this is how she happens to be circumstanced. The removal of his own blindness makes him see the more massive blindness of the social system to which he seeks admission. Donne's reiteration of the theme that the countess's virtue might go unrecognised (and so her value diminish) except for his good offices takes on a somewhat darker note in this context; here Donne covertly assumes for himself the role of creator. The situation is complex enough for Donne to see himself as nothing, as inherently valuable, and possibly as creator, all simultaneously. All these involved shifts are firmly related to a highly specific set of social relationships. Discussions which perpetually divorce the literary language, the psychological, and the social, will inevitably introduce grave distortions and prove limiting in disabling ways.

We have space to glance at only one more patroness poem, “To the Countesse of Salisbury” in 1614. The first half of this poem (“Faire, great, and good”) uses material from “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day” and the two Anniversaries for Elizabeth Drury. Donne argues that “all is withered, shrunke, and dri'd / All Vertues ebb'd out to a dead low tyde,” with all striving for universal annihilation, “to draw to lesse, / even that nothing, which at first we were” (lines 1-21). In this state she, the patroness, like the Countess of Bedford or Elizabeth Drury is the female creative deity: “you come to repaire / Gods booke of creatures” (lines 7-8).13 And as we saw in “You have refin'd mee,” however much Donne may negate his being in response to the social situation he simultaneously puts an intrinsically valuable self as her seer and exegete (lines 31-6, 65-74). Yet, once more, this stage is superseded as he acknowledges that it is the countess herself who (like God here too) illuminates the dark text he is able to study. The poem concludes with a similar movement worked out in terms of a socially given blindness (lines 75-84). This is contrasted with an intuitive angel-like vision which transcends the lack of “social eyes” through inner illumination. Characteristically, Donne does not leave the matter here. Just as the angelic intuition is actually dependent on a higher power, so Donne's illumination depends on a higher power within the profane, social world—the Countess of Salisbury (lines 71-4, 79-82).14 Again metaphysical language and imagery actually mediates and transforms specific social relationships. To understand and describe this process is not reductive of Donne's art or his metaphysical stratagems: quite the reverse, we follow the full implications and subtlety of the art and metaphysics Donne is using to manage, under grave difficulties, the social situation which was absolutely central to his psychic, intellectual and poetic development.15


One way of grasping Donne's situation is in the terms proposed by Mark Curtis and Michael Walzer in their studies of intellectuals and their employment in Donne's England. Both historians point out that during the early Stuart period there was a group of intellectually trained people unable to find a “place,” either in the church (on which both concentrate) or in the state. Walzer and Curtis see them as “alienated” from the society's leading groups, to which they felt they had a right to belong. The origins of the exclusion were complex, due in part to an overproduction of graduates, in part to continued pluralism and non-residency which decreased the number of livings for those leaving university, and in part to disadvantageous changes in the patterns of patronage. Though this subject needs detailed study, it seems clear that this group was large in terms of the total number of intellectuals in the community. Curtis sees them as “an insoluble group of alienated intellectuals who individually and collectively became troublemakers in a period of growing discontent with the Stuart regime.”16 Puritan lectureships offered one important oppositional institution for at least some members of this group, but Curtis presents them as essentially isolated in their alienation, though they did “exhibit an esprit de corps that both originated in their peculiar specialized function and marked their self-conscious alienation from the rest of the clergy.”17 Here Walzer's study differs seriously from Curtis's. He agrees that this group bred “troublemakers” who were absolutely central in the development of radical politics in Stuart England, but he sees these “advanced intellectuals,” these “free men,” as specifically Puritan intellectuals, men “capable of organizing themselves voluntarily on the basis of ideological commitment,” men committed to “enthusiastic and purposive activity” in new associations outside the traditional patterns, ties and institutions of Elizabethan England.18 In his The Revolution of the Saints he offers an acute and nuanced account of the wider group of “alienated intellectuals,” providing essential ideological and psychological discriminations which allow deeper insight into the varied processes and causes of this alienation and radicalization. Walzer's richer model allows us to understand the position of Roman Catholic clerics and intellectuals—a very necessary factor when one is concerned with Donne, a member of a Romanist family which included martyrs. Catholics were estranged from the established institutions, just as the saints were, and Walzer notes “significant parallels” between the two groups of alienated clerics: “the priests had taken the lead in the Catholic struggle and their new power—somewhat like that of the Puritan clergy—was related to the collapse of the traditional lay leadership. Among the Catholic clerics the Jesuits especially resembled the Puritan ministers both in their impatience with episcopal control and their willingness to experiment politically.” But, and in Walzer's view this is vital, the Catholic experience was not formed by a radical ideology, for they were “closely bound to the traditional social order and were most often willing to work within the limits of the feudal connection of lord and chaplain. The ultimate effect of their labour was to create a pariah culture, an enclave of secure traditionalism.” This formed a strong contrast to Calvinist intellectuals who depersonalized and objectified social and ideological conflicts and tended towards organization “outside the traditional structure of authority, placing less emphasis upon great personalities.”19

If we look at Donne in this light, certain of the complex, contradictory features which we have been highlighting become more intelligible. As Walzer's work illustrates so well, the processes which lead to the formation of such specific groupings inevitably mark the individuals involved psychologically and ideologically.20 Donne, in this period, provides a classic example of an excluded intellectual. Structurally, he started from an excluded position as a Roman Catholic, a member of a group exiled from the political nation. This initial exclusion was not based on the kind of self-consciously acquired and held ideological commitment which Walzer described in Calvinist intellectuals. Quite the contrary, he was born into this situation, so that his struggle from the very beginning was to overcome an exclusion forced on him by an inherited ideological position for which he seems to have shown very little conviction.21 His aim was incorporation, not opposition to established church, court and state. In gaining employment with Egerton he seemed to have succeeded in this and could look forward to a secure career within traditional institutions. However, his secret marriage to a social superior led to a new exile. Again the exile was not based on ideological commitment, so that even that sustaining force was not available to him.

Thrown back into the position of the alienated intellectual, Donne's feelings and ideas were complex, as we have seen in our discussion of the patroness poems. There he explored the new position in which he found himself; indeed, he constructed a complicated metaphysics in which a platonic model of eternal value was set off against a market model of use. Donne's critical attitude to the world which excluded him, and his self-estimation were bound up with the former model; yet he clearly wanted a place in the market and so had to assert his use as a secular servant, as usher/ideologue. Hence in his version of self the subtle sycophant22 was always accompanied by the critical “troublemaker” who deployed the platonic model subversively against the values of the leading social groups into which he longed to be incorporated. Whereas the Puritan alienated intellectuals developed an ideology exalting their alienation, which they saw as a kind of freedom, and which enabled them to organize against the powerful established groups excluding them, Donne had no such sustaining ideological support, and hence could not see his exclusion as “freedom.” All his efforts were directed towards inclusion in the traditional established group. While his use of the platonic model helped him to cope with the despair of his exile, and thus worked analogously to the Puritan intellectual's view of “freedom,” it was never intended as a programme for social change: Donne wanted inclusion in the securely established traditional order, and in this he was therefore not all that far from the political tendencies of the Roman priests.

We now have a dual model of alienation: on the one hand the radical “free man,” with an ideologically buttressed programme for social change, on the other hand the sycophantic seeker for admission to a securely established traditional order. We have shown some of the forces which lead to either position. We now need to ask whether those who belong to either group show any traces of the other position. In terms of our methodology and hypothesis we need to look at the poetry of those who had gained admission to see if there are signs of alienation. Of course some of Donne's earlier poems will do here, and in fact some of his “stoic” poems which we discuss below, are an excellent case in point, as some of these were written while he was with Egerton. We intend to show that they offer a social critique, but an unconvincing one, with the ring of a rote performance to them, as though it was the fashionable “thing to say” among a group of people. If this is so, then we have an example of people who are included, but who nevertheless deplore what Curtis described as “galloping venality and creeping monopoly [which] had combined to poison the sources of patronage. They were not only distasteful but frequently revolting to some well-intentioned, prospective servants of the State. Complaints about the Court and the indignities of waiting on patrons and winning influence … took on in these years overtones of disillusionment and even disgust that formerly had been less obvious.”23 Curtis places this in the reign of James I, and clearly this is too late; furthermore we should note that not just prospective but some actual servants of the state found these things unsavoury. So one question that arises from Curtis's remarks and which relates very closely to our analysis of Donne's position is whether the attainment of a place did in fact overcome and do away with the indignities of the situation at court or in patronage.

Donne's early stoic poems suggest that it did not. Other evidence is provided by such apparently untroubled work as Jonson's To Penshurst. We do not have the space here for a detailed analysis, but a brief look at the negations in the poem will quickly reveal disturbances beneath the seemingly untroubled classical surface. The negations permit Jonson to call up—in denied form—the positive forms of assertions which it would be difficult, prohibited or even dangerous for him to make. He uses two types of negation, overt negation—forms with not, no, un-; and covert negations—forms which have a semantically negative content: “these grudg'd at”; and forms which work by “replacing” a form which should or might have been more appropriate. The negations cluster around four topics: the history of the house, the present state of the house, the position of the patronized poet, and the place and function of this house in relation to others like it. We will give some illustrative quotations, and indicate in outline how the negations work. First then the history of the house. Line 1: “Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show”—where a past action is presented as a present state, and the present state is contrasted with that of all other houses; line 6: “these grudg'd at [thou] art reverenc'd the while”—the denial of the application of the general rule in this case; lines 45-47: “thy walls … are rear'd with no mans ruine, no mans grone, / There's none, that dwell about them, wish them downe,”—here again we find the overt negation of a state that applies to all other houses and, more tellingly, a straightforward rewriting of the history of the house, which, as Raymond Williams points out, was built on the ruins of an enclosed village.24 Here we have a revealing insight into the use of negation: a troubling reality which the poet wishes, somehow, to control and to transcend, and which surfaces in the form of the negation of that reality. The negations surrounding the present state of the house concern, as Williams again has pointed out, the complete transformation of social and human processes into natural ones. This process is perhaps best described as negation by transformation; human agents, human labour, social relations, are negated and presented instead as thoroughly and unquestionably natural ones. The major examples of this are in those passages where nature of itself, unasked, provides its riches for the house; natural entities act as agents providing for the depersonalized house. Two examples will show the process—lines 19-20: “Thy copp's … never failes to serve thee season'd deere,”; line 24: “The middle ground thy mares, and horses breed.” In fact this process extends to the production of exotic fruits: fig, grape, peach, apricot, without any human effort.

The position of the patronized poet is presented predominantly in terms of negatives: again this serves to call up what may be regarded as the normal situation, and in which a nervousness regarding his own situation also shows itself—

Where the same beere, and bread, and self-same wine,
That is his Lordships, shall be also mine.
And I not faine to sit (as some, this day,
At great mens tables) and yet dine away.
Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,
A waiter, doth my gluttony envy:
But gives me what I call, and lets me eate. …

(lines 63-69)

This passage calls up starkly and vividly the humiliation of situations which Jonson must have known and, judging by the immediacy of the language, felt himself. Last but not least there is the negation, implicit in this text, of all those poems that could and should have been written about the reality of the country house period. The prohibition on that however was so strong as to amount to total self-censorship by any poet who wanted patronage.

We are forced to ask about this intellectual, who in Curtis's terms is not alienated, is he undisturbed, untroubled? What is his motive for his production of a patronage poem, a poem which involves such a massive re-ordering and reclassification of the social world, and of known history? Is not this very act of producing a poem as a commodity to be exchanged for the “lord's owne meate …” the very sign of alienation? Not now of course alienation in the sense of Curtis and Walzer, but in one classic sense, where the producer sells his labour-power as a commodity to a master who unilaterally determines in what commodity this labour-power shall be manifested.25 Of course, this is the situation, within the Marxist model, of all labour until the coming of the socialist millennium; however, it is the starkly apparent application and working of this model in the sphere of poetry which we find revealing here; and it may be both useful and necessary to add this notion of alienation to the dual model outlined above.

Donne, at least partly, sees the patronage situation in this way. In his quest for incorporation he reluctantly accepts the necessity of turning himself, his abilities, and certain of his poems which are absolutely overt tokens of exchange—witness the usher and mine images—into commodities. Alienated and critical intellectual that he was, he had no wish to be excluded from the traditional ruling circles, and no ideology to encourage an oppositional stance which would entail action with new associations, and he certainly had no wish to be a “troublemaker.” Our approach to Donne from this perspective suggests to us that the whole issue of “the alienated intellectual” in this period not only casts light on his own situation but also needs considerably more research done on it. This research would include and develop the lines of inquiry and methods of analysis which we are applying to Donne's verse epistles in this article. Ideally it would be a collective enterprise bringing together historians, linguists, and literary critics. One important general question which would be focal in such an inquiry would be at what times certain intellectuals became alienated and sufficiently organized to form radical, highly critical groups, acting for change against the reigning hegemony.26


We conclude this study by looking at three verse epistles which were not written to patronesses. The first two we consider, “Sir, more then kisses” (To Sir Henry Wotton) and “Like one who in her third widdowhood” (To Mr Rowland Woodward) were probably written around 1597-1598, a decade before the poems which we have just considered and, significantly, before Donne was dismissed by Egerton and ejected into a social wilderness inhabited by these various “alienated” intellectuals.

It is striking that in these two poems Donne assumes a simple version of the self, one having a virtually autonomous existence, identity without social relationships, and certainly without “creators.” The disturbing issues about alternative versions of the self and its value, central in the later patronage poems are, at least on the surface, conspicuous by their absence. Donne assumes that the individual can retreat into a safe, inherently and unproblematically valuable core. The world around may be obnoxious but the individual has his own mental and moral edifice into which he may retreat, like the snail (To Sir Henry Wotton, lines 49-52).

Given this stance, it is not surprising that Lawrence Stapleton, one of the few critics to attend to the verse epistles with seriousness, should claim, that in those letters, written before 1600, Donne reveals “the assumptions by men of his circle, of a stoical attitude of detachment … man must dwell in himself, to house his spirit, as the snail his body.”27 Nevertheless, the same critic registers something odd about these apparently stoic poems: “The reader feels indeed that in such verses as this Donne is but conning over, genuinely enough, the social lessons of self-mastery … Donne had not, of course retired to any of the uncongenial country residences that he later owed to the help of relatives or friends and resorted to through necessity. He was fashioning an attitude of detachment which might save him from corruption in the world of affairs.”28 Stapleton leaves the issue there; in the context of this study we wish to look more closely at the “stoical attitude” and the stoic self which Donne seems to be cultivating here.

Having roundly abused the whole social world, countries, courts and towns, Donne offers Henry Wotton the following advice:

Be thou thine owne home, and in thy selfe dwell;
Inne any where, continuance maketh hell.
And seeing the snaile, which every where doth rome,
Carrying his own house still, still is at home.
Follow (for he is easie pac'd) this snaile,
Bee thine owne Palace, or the world's thy gaile.
And in the worlds sea, do not like corke sleepe
Upon the waters face; nor in the deepe
Sinke like a lead without a line: but as
Fishes glide, leaving no print where they passe,
Nor making sound; so closely thy course goe,
Let men dispute, whether thou breathe, or no.

(lines 47-58)

Stapleton's feeling that Donne is here “but conning over … social lessons of self-mastery” seems to be a response to the flaccid, simple-minded version of the self informing this passage. There is no recognition that the self may well have internalised unpleasant aspects of the social world which Donne attacks (but inhabits—and ambitiously so), no acknowledgement of the individual's complicity in the state of the society to which he owes his continuing work and existence, no sign that there is any tension between participation and retreat.29 In Christian terms, one might add, such “stoical” stances are surprisingly blind to the effects of the fall—the corruption of the will and blindness of the intellect. There are one or two hints of these vital problems: “Let no man say there, Virtues flintie wall / shall locke vice in mee, I'll do none but know all,” (lines 35-6); and at line forty-eight: “Inne any where, continuance maketh hell.” This suggests that retreat into the self will have to come to terms precisely with evil inside. But this hint is not developed and these earlier poems are innocent of the real difficulties involved in questions of identity discussed above.

Nevertheless, while the surface suggests no complexities, when we look at the poems more closely they reveal movements which make us doubt that the stoic stance was ever at all congenial to Donne, let alone seriously held as a conviction to live by.

The version of self in the poem to Sir Henry Wotton advocates retreat leading to stasis and peace. The external world's instability does provide a threat, and we noted the hinted threat from internal vice. But no change of self is envisaged or demanded: the snail remains a snail within the house, the fish glides along leaving no print and remains exactly the fish it has always been. In the poem to Mr. Rowland Woodward the beginnings of an analysis of self are evident. It has been spatialized so that “wee” may turn into “our selves”:

So wee, if wee into our selves will turne,
Blowing our sparkes of vertue, may outburne
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.

(lines 22-24)

That is, the self has become an inner and outer self, with the inner seen as the heart around which there is the straw of the outer self. The latter can be burned off. Here then is an advocacy of change.

However, if we consider the interactional structures of the poem to Sir Henry Wotton we find the stasis we described rather undercut. The whole poem is organised as a dialogue. Overtly it begins with an address to a friend, in a formal tone; it ends in a gently earnest plea for the friend's love. The overall frame of the poem is thus address and plea, an interaction, and the overt content of the poem needs to be read within this context: retreat, in tension with the interaction of the friend. Contained within this overall frame are the linguistic forms of interaction: commands, questions, statements, mirroring the alternating forms of conversation. Furthermore, they are conducted in the form of intimate address: thou, thine, thy.

In other words, in its formal structure the poem is the very antithesis of retreat: it is constructed around the core forms of the language of social interaction, and whatever version of self is depicted in the apparent stoic pose, there is a deeper version where the self is defined in interaction with others. The others are friends, intimate, and the poet seeks their love, which seems essential to him. With this in mind we can see how the disturbance at lines thirty-five, thirty-six and forty-eight reflects the way the retreat is a very limited one, with the continuing, and sought after support of friends. So the two versions of self in the poem to Wotton are straightforwardly contradictory.

Yet we are struck by the amazing confidence with which, despite this, Donne's poem exhorts his friend to behave and act in ways which seemingly follow from an uncomplicated stoic stance toward the world. This combination of confusion and confident advice, urges us to examine the underlying view of social processes that allows such contradictions and even makes them seem unproblematic. To do so we shall look at the syntactic forms, first pointing out the agents operating in the poem. A selection serves to indicate the kind of agents they are. Initially, some non-human ones: They (Rockes, Remoraes) break or stop ships (lines 7-9); Virtue's flintie wall shall lock vice in me (lines 35-36). Then some human ones: men play princes (lines 23-24); men retrieve and greet themselves (lines 43-5). Third some passives, with the agent deleted: two temperate regions girded in (line 13); you, parch'd in court, in the country frozen (line 15); shall cities be chosen (line 16); falsehood is denizon'd (line 34). In the first group, non-human agents act concretely on other entities, and the actions are physical ones, making, breaking, curing, locking. In the second list, human agents act, but significantly the actions are not direct, concrete, nor do they act on other entities. Instead they are reflexive (e.g., “retrieve and greet themselves”) or non-physical actions, “see,” “know,” (“play-actions” literally, such as “playing princes”). In the last group, the passives, we have no way of recovering who the agents were—who “froze,” “parch'd,” “built,” “denizon'd.”

Without further analysis we think it sound to claim that men are perceived and presented as peculiarly inactive, passive, reflexive; the real agents are nonhuman, concrete or abstract. The imperatives from line forty-seven onwards (“Be thou thine owne home and in thy selfe dwell … Follow … this snaile … Bee thine owne Palace …”) are no exception, for while they do advocate actions by human agents they are figurative actions which are difficult to understand precisely or to perform: they exhort the addressee to be in a certain kind of state, rather than indicating the processes which would lead someone to be in that state. The poem discloses a failure to grasp specific and relevant agents, an inability to specify the processes and agents by which or by whom the new state is to be implemented. In short, there is a marked lack of understanding of processes, agents, and causations in the world. Yet Donne has superimposed a seemingly confident stoic stance on this uncertainty. His shaky perception of agency and process explains the presence of the non-stoic formal frame and the plea for friendship, a call for support. The underlying content of this poem might then be described as being about interaction, but one which proceeds without clear grasp of the “ground rules” of processes in the social world.

The second of the pre-1600 poems we are considering is to Mr. Rowland Woodward, “Like one who'in her third widdowhood.” This has many elements in common with the poem to Sir Henry Wotton just discussed and is open to very similar comment. As Donne advises, “Seeke wee then our selves in our selves” (line 19), we see that the active self is still envisaged as unproblematic in its autonomy, and the complicated perceptions of the patroness poems are again absent. Lines thirty-one onwards may appear to contradict our judgement: “Wee are but farmers of our selves, yet may, / If we can stocke our selves, and thrive, uplay / Much, much deare treasure for the great rent day.” Here farming, thriving, stocking and uplaying treasure may seem to be the very stuff of known social practice and relationships. We believe not, for the field and its cultivation is figured as purely individualistic and autonomous while the market in which the produce can be cashed for payment of rents is a heavenly one, located outside society and beyond history, at the Last Judgement. Despite the apparent Christian dimension here, and despite the explicit mention of original sin and the doctrine of imputed merit (lines 13-18), the self is again envisaged in such a way that the problems about corruption of the will and intellect, or the need for grace in farming the self, let alone questions about the complex interactions between individual and society, cannot arise. Nevertheless, as in the poem to Sir Henry Wotton, the poem has an interactional structure, e.g., “You know, Physitians, when they would infuse” [line 25, our italics] and ends not only with assurance of Donne's love for Woodward, but a strong statement of his need for Woodward's love in return: “But to know, that I love thee'and would be lov'd” (line 36). The intense need for love is expressed in a command to Woodward to love him, a most un-stoic conclusion.30

Clearly, there are continuities between the poem to Wotton and this one; the version of the self is a little more elaborate here and the “stoicism” a little more openly uncertain. If we look at agency, as we did in the other poem, interestingly enough we find a large number of the human agents involved in real, physical processes (though “metaphorically” used to indicate psychological processes): gathering the sun's beams, blowing sparks, outburning straw (lines 20-24). There are far fewer passives, and the deleted agent is in all cases Donne himself (or one of his attributes): tyed to retiredness (line 2); seeds were sown (line 6); betroth'd (line 8). The imperatives are commands to perform actions: manure thyself; with vain outward things be no more moved; to thyself be approved (lines 34-5). Compared with the poem to Wotton there is an increase of agentiveness, awareness of agency, and the realization of what are possible processes which men may carry out to reach a desired state. This increase in the poet's awareness of what social interaction and change could be about is accompanied by signs of a decrease in emphasis on the linguistic forms of interaction, as though a progress in understanding the causes of action leads to a progress from talk to action.

Of course, the stoic stance is classically one which the alienated intellectual may assume. We are interested to note—beyond the versions of self revealed—the uncertainty with which Donne holds this stance, an uncertainty which, as our analysis reveals is based on his wish for incorporation (the plea for friendship, the interactional forms) and an insufficient understanding of social processes. The latter may be a direct consequence of the fact that he was not, as we have pointed out, committed to an ideologically based critique of his society.

In conclusion we turn briefly to a poem written in the period of the patroness poems discussed above. In 1610 Donne addressed “Man is a lumpe” to Sir Edward Herbert, the son of one of his patronesses. The shifts in Donne's approach to the self which had taken place over the preceding ten years in his drastically changed circumstances of renewed “exile” are clear. They link up with the attitudes to self we discussed in relation to his patronage poems. This poem, written to a friend, fellow poet, and fellow philosopher, shows much of the obsession with negativity and annihilation (social and metaphysical) so marked in the patroness poems. The possibility of a virtuous and unequivocally valuable inner core, held out to Wotton and Woodward earlier, is now much further removed as he offers a traditional, compound platonic-Christian image of man composed of destructive and warring beasts which can only be controlled by equally destructive energies directed against the self, and a vision of a Christian God viciously indifferent to the fate of his creatures. Despite some surface suggestions that man may act autonomously to transcend internal wars and external social relations, in fact we get a version of the self and of society which is extremely close to that we described in the contemporary poems. Man in general only acts reflexively—given that “the beasts” and “nature” are his own beasts and his own nature. And though his “businesse is, to rectifie / Nature, to what she was” (lines 33-4), we note that immediately Donne shows that this is not what man does, for “wee'are led awry.” In all this Donne seemingly presents the friend as a means of overcoming the viciousness of man's existence. However, the last few lines of the poem undercut any such reading decisively:

                                                                                You have dwelt upon
All worthy bookes, and now are such an one.
Actions are authors, and of those in you
Your friends finde every day a mart of new.

(lines 47-50)

The friend produces, every day, actions, which are authors, which are books. And every day there is a market of these actions/authors/books. The principle of commodification is applied to the actions of the friend/patron; his friends, the real authors, may buy and may plagiarize. If the friends are poets in need of patronage they buy the already written texts; so the book or poem which Donne writes to the friend is not in fact written by Donne the poet, but by the friend/patron. Here the friend acts analogously to the patroness/creator, for while she creates the poet and with him his future actions and values, the friend in appropriating the very labour of the poet creates him as poet. The reality, as Donne presents it, is that the friend negates the actions of the poet and thereby the poet. The implications of this stance are if anything an even more savage comment by Donne on his society, where even those whom he calls his friends and lovers reduce him to powerlessness and inferiority. Here the friend is like the creator of the patroness poems; despite the negative view which Donne presents of this friendship, he needs it, either to be created, or written into the social world which he views so critically.


  1. J. Danby, Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets (originally published as Poets on Fortune's Hill, 1962), ch. 1.

  2. “Donne's assumption is the relationship of poet to patron as of nothing to everything, and out of this he spins his conceits direct. He makes metaphysics out of the poet and patron relations, and a poet-patron relation out of metaphysics,” Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets, p. 39.

  3. See R. C. Bald on this period in John Donne: A Life (1970), ch. 8; see too Donne himself in letters reprinted by E. Gosse, Life and Letters of Donne (reprint 1959), especially vol. I, pp. 114-15, 166, 181, 185-187, 191.

  4. All quotations are from Donne's Poetical Works, ed. H. J. C. Grierson (1912, reprint 1966), vol.I; referred to hereafter as Grierson. We have also used W. Milgate's edition of The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters (1967).

  5. Grierson, vol.II, pp. 156-7; cf. Milgate, pp. 256-7.

  6. See M. H. Curtis, “The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England,” Past and Present, 23 (1962), reprinted in Crisis in Europe, ed. T. Aston (1965). On Donne's desperate wish for “incorporation” see the letter to Goodyer in Gosse, vol.I, pp. 191-2.

  7. One of the best studies of this issue is by R. Ellrodt, L'inspiration personnelle et l'esprit du temps chez les poètes metaphysiques anglais, 3 vols. (Paris, 1960), vol.I, especially chs. 3-4.

  8. As Danby suggested, Donne is obsessed with his nothingness (note 2, above). For examples of the explicit social causes for his sense of being nothing, and its remedies, see especially prose letters in Gosse, vol.I, pp. 181, 167, 191-2, and on loss of employment as death, for example, p.291; also vol.II, pp. 28, 42; and the verse epistles to the Countess of Bedford and the Countess of Salisbury.

  9. See previous note.

  10. In contrasting Donne with Jonson, very much at Donne's expense, Danby, like other commentators, misses these rich complexities in Donne's stance.

  11. Nor is the manner in which the concept of self is being explored in these poems confined to Donne. That questions about value in just the way we are discussing were current in the milieu from which Donne received his training, is suggested by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida which includes, among its central preoccupations, a study of conflicting versions of value and their relation to social fabric and metaphysical frameworks.

  12. James I, 1609 speech to Parliament, in The Political Works of James I, ed. C. H. McIlwain, (reprint 1966), p. 307.

  13. There remain important connections to be examined with the political Petrarchanism cultivated under Queen Elizabeth and discussed in L. Forster, The Icy Fire (1969). The theological vocabulary in patron poems has also been studied by B. K. Lewalski in Donne's Anniversaries (1973); relevant here are chapters 1 and 2: her approach (well illustrated in comments on p.46) tends to isolate the metaphysical and the social in a way, we think, which distorts both areas.

  14. It is worth noting how Donne is contemptuous of the market contingencies which donate those very same social eyes he actually covets so strongly!

  15. Indeed, we believe the kind of analysis here advocated can be fruitfully applied to many of Donne's poems, secular and religious, and in due course we hope to do just this.

  16. M. H. Curtis, op.cit., pp.299, 312, where he also refers to G. E. Aylmer's study, The King's Servants (1961), chs. 3-4. For Walzer see The Revolution of the Saints, (1965), chs. 1-4.

  17. Curtis, op.cit., pp. 308-311.

  18. Walzer, op.cit.

  19. Walzer, op.cit., pp. 130-132; see chs. 4-6 passim.

  20. Probably it is worth drawing attention to the relevance of the work of the Frankfurt School to this area of study. See especially: M. Horkheimer, Critical Theory, (1972); T. Adorno, Minima Moralia, (1972), and “Society,” Salmagundi, 10-11, (1969-70), pp. 144-153; H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1972).

  21. On Donne's early life see especially R. C. Bald, John Donne, chs. 1-4.

  22. Not always so subtle: see the letters to Rochester which Gosse sadly called “somewhat ignominious,” published in the Life and Letters of John Donne, ed. Gosse (1959), vol.II, pp. 22-23, 28; on this episode see Bald (extremely sympathetic to Donne), John Donne, pp. 272-274, 313-14.

  23. Curtis, op.cit., p. 312.

  24. R. Williams, Country and City (1973), pp. 27-34.

  25. See especially, I. Meszaros, Marx's Theory of Alienation (1972), ch. 4; B. Ollman, Alienation (1971), part three. Also relevant here is C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke (1964).

  26. Walzer has some suggestive speculations on this topic in his conclusion to The Revolution of the Saints.

  27. L. Stapleton, “The Theme of Virtue in Donne's Epistles,” SP, 55 (1958), pp. 187-200, reprinted in Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne's Poetry, ed. J. R. Roberts (1975), pp.451-2. On the date of “Sir, more then kisses,” see Milgate, op.cit., pp. 227-8, and Grierson, op.cit., vol.II, pp. 140-1.

  28. Stapleton, article cit., p.452.

  29. There is no space here to contrast the profound explorations of such issues in Marvell's Upon Appleton House.

  30. The conclusion of a classic contemporary stoic poem, Ben Jonson's fine To the World (“False world, good night”) provides the essential contrast here.


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John Donne 1572-1631

English poet, epigrammist, and sermonist.

The following entry presents criticism on Donne from 1978 to 2001.

One of the most original and controversial poets in the history of English literature, Donne is best known for his metaphysical poetry on topics as diverse as the joys of lovemaking and humanity's subservience to God. Donne's poetry broke with the poetic conventions of the Elizabethan era, which favored smooth, measured lines and use of classical allusions. Instead, insisting that a poem's form cannot be separated from its content or argument, Donne wrote energetic, rigorous but uneven lines characterized by complex, witty conceits—contrasts and paradoxes—startling extended metaphors, and striking imagery juxtaposing the earthly and the divine. Eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson noted that in Donne's work, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions.” While not fully accepted in his day, Donne's poetry inspired the metaphysical school of English verse, whose members include Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn, and George Herbert, among others. Donne was rediscovered in the twentieth century by modernists such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, who wrote that Donne's poems, with their fusion of passion and intellect, demonstrate a “dissociation of sensibility.” Today Donne is viewed as an extraordinary poet, an equally accomplished writer of prose, and an influence on many poets, notably the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Donne was born in 1572 to a prosperous London family. His mother came from one of England's most distinguished Catholic families. Donne was the grandson of the dramatist John Heywood, the nephew of Jasper Heywood, who led the Jesuit mission to England in the 1580s, and a great-great-nephew of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. After receiving his early education from the Jesuits, in 1584 Donne began study at Oxford. Oxford would award Donne his degree only if he renounced his Catholic faith, as was standard practice at the university at that time. Defiant, Donne left Oxford and pursued legal studies at the Inns of Court in London, where he was known both for his dandyism and his serious study of legal and religious issues. During this period Donne wrote many epigrams, satires, verse letters, and elegies which were shared among friends in his literary circle but remained unpublished during his lifetime. After completing his law degree in 1596, Donne accompanied the Earl of Essex on two naval expeditions against Spain, writing of his experiences in the poems “The Storm,” “The Calm,” and “The Burnt Ship.” Returning to England in 1597 Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. Four years later Donne secretly wed Ann More, Egerton's sixteen-year-old niece. Enraged, More's father had Donne imprisoned until 1602. Donne left prison without a professional position, social standing, or much hope of a career. From 1602 to 1615 Donne was able to support Ann and their growing family—which eventually included ten children—only through the generosity of friends and patrons. His letters from this period chronicle his struggles with depression and illness. Strong religious feelings, mixed with intellectual discontent, deep cynicism, and despair are evident in the Holy Sonnets, which Donne wrote but did not publish at this time. It was also during these years that he wrote his finest love poetry. Donne had been offered a position in the Anglican Church as early as 1607 but did not accept ordination until 1615, when it became clear that King James I would advance him through the Church. He became the King's chaplain; and the next year he was made divinity reader at Lincoln's Inn. Ann died in childbirth in 1617. In 1621, a mere six years following his entry into the priesthood, Donne became Dean of St. Paul's, and his sermons became widely heard and admired. He stated that he was happy in the rejection of “the mistress of my youth, Poetry” for “the wife of mine age, Divinity.” Nevertheless, when he was struck with a fever in 1623 and thought he was dying, he wrote “Hymn to God the Father” and “Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Donne died in 1631.

Major Works

Donne produced an exceedingly diverse body of work. As the writer of erotic, even bawdy, verses such as “The Flea” and “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” in which he celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, and as an author of difficult poetic meditations on his faith, suffering and subservience to God, such as “Batter My Heart” and “Hymn to God the Father,” Donne's poems share stylistic qualities and a complicated, questioning worldview. Both Donne's secular and religious poetry rely on naturalistic, often unexpected arguments pushed to extremes, and both rely on surprising juxtapositions of the ordinary (or in some instances, the profane) with the divine. Included among Donne's secular poems are the Elegies,Songs and Sonnets, and Satyres, which subverted the conventions of Elizabethan poetry and laid the foundation for the neoclassical tradition in English verse, influencing writers such as Ben Jonson. Donne—who published only seven poems during his lifetime—was best known to his contemporaries for his Elegies, modeled after Ovid's Amores. They impressed Donne's literary circle with their elaborate, witty conceits and sensual, even erotic, content. In “Elegie XVIII: Loves Progress,” Donne mocks Platonic love, which forever defers “the right true end of love.” In “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” the narrator openly admires his mistress as she disrobes and compares her to “America! My new-found-land!” In Satyre III, Donne extols the pursuit of truth over acquiescence to political authority; the result, according to critics, is one of the outstanding poems of its age.

Today Donne's best known works are Songs and Sonnets, written mostly during his student days. Poems such as “The Flea” and “Womans Constancy” reveal the playful, exaggerated voice of the elegies, but Songs and Sonnets are generally more complex in their treatment of love and relationships. Poems such as “Lovers Infinitenesse,” “The Sunne Rising,” and “The Extasie” abound in unexpected metaphors, original imagery, and startling paradoxes in their celebration of mutual love. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” the narrator compares himself and his mistress to “twin compasses” connected in the center even when the points seem far apart. In “The Canonization,” Donne boldly conflates the divine and the secular, granting love the power of canonization. The Holy Sonnets, including “Death Be Not Proud” and “Batter My Heart,” explore Donne's understanding and acceptance of the will of God in the Jesuit tradition of liturgical prayer and private mediation. The Litanie, along with the seven sonnets that comprise La Corona, examine morality, mortality and questions of faith. “The Crosse” and “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” illustrate Donne's concern with humanity's relationship with God. In The Anniversaries (1611 and 1612), which he wrote in memory of Elizabeth Drury, Donne explores the relationship of the individual to the world and the progress of the soul after death.

Critical Reception

The history of Donne's reputation is one of the most remarkable of any major writer in English; no other poet currently so admired has fallen from favor for so long and been so condemned as inept and crude. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Donne's unpublished poetry was highly prized within his small literary circle. The first collection of Donne's poetry, titled simply Poems, was published two years after his death and prefaced with elegies by Izaak Walton, Thomas Carew, and other contemporaries who admired his work. Donne's “strong lines” and metaphysical conceits continued to influence poets such as Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughn, and George Herbert—known now as the Metaphysical Poets—some thirty years after his death. However, not all contemporaries were enamored of Donne. Ben Jonson appreciated Donne's early poetry and declared him “the first poet in the World in some things” but also expressed frustration, stating, “Don[n]e for not keeping accent deserved hanging.” Toward the end of the seventeenth century John Dryden characterized Donne as more a wit than a poet. Indeed, Donne was often accused of overdoing his wit. In the eighteenth century the essayist Samuel Johnson wrote a scathing critique of Donne's poetry in which he used the term “metaphysical” to describe poets who flaunted their cleverness to construct outlandish paradoxes. Johnson disapprovingly called Donne's witty conceits discordia concors or “harmonious discord.” In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were struck by how Donne's poetry exhibited an agile mind at play. In “On Donne's Poetry” (1818), Coleridge wrote: “With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots, / Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots; / Rhyme's sturdy cripple, fancy's maze and clue. / Wit's forge and fire-blast, meaning's press and screw.” The poet Robert Browning also admired Donne, but not until the 1890s was Donne's poetry celebrated by avant-garde writers such as the Symbolistes. Donne became something of a cult figure in the 1920s and 1930s when modernist poets Eliot and Yeats, among others, discovered in his poetry the fusion of intellect and passion that they aspired to in their own work. Eliot argued that Donne and the Metaphysical poets had written complex, emotionally charged celebrations of the joys, sorrows, and dilemmas of their own age. While modern criticism of Donne's poetry has not been universally favorable, since the first half of the twentieth century Donne has maintained a place of high regard in the canon of English literature. Donne is acknowledged as an accomplished and versatile poet who has profoundly influenced modern poetry. In “Whispers of Immortality” (1920), Eliot wrote that Donne “found no substitute for sense, / To seize and clutch and penetrate; / Expert beyond experience, // He knew the anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton; / No contact possible to flesh / Allayed the fever of the bone.”

Arthur F. Marotti (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Marotti, Arthur F. “Donne as Social Exile and Jacobean Courtier: The Devotional Verse and Prose of the Secular Man.”1 In Critical Essays on John Donne, edited by Arthur F. Marotti, pp. 77-101. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Marotti examines the conflicts revealed in Donne's poetry and letters as he seeks employment and advancement in the court. Marotti finds that pieces such as “A Litanie” and “Hymn to God the Father,” which he sent to potential patrons to obtain positions, are “politically encoded” religious poems that “transpose public forms into private devotions.”]

Donne's religious poems, particularly those pieces he composed in the decade preceding his ordination, were fundamentally coterie texts. He gave sacred verse to such friends as Sir Henry Goodyer, George Garrard,2 and Magdalen Herbert. The appearance of religious poems in Rowland Woodward's manuscript collection suggests that such work went through processes of transmission similar to those of the Elegies and Satires. Donne even expected this poetry to help him win patronage: he sent six Holy Sonnets to the new (and notoriously extravagant) Earl of Dorset along with a brazenly flattering introductory sonnet.3 The poems express Donne's private psychological, religious, and moral struggles, but they were also, to a great extent, witty performances designed for an appreciative readership. Donne wrote in “A Litanie,” “When wee are mov'd to seeme religious / Only to vent wit, Lord deliver us” (188-89), suggesting his awareness of some of the less edifying motives that led him to compose religious verse. The divine poems of the preordination period certainly represent a mixture of secular and religious intentions; after all, when he composed them he was vigorously pursuing worldly advancement by all available means.

The context of the religious verse was not only that of Donne's personal desires and private relationships with friends, patrons, and patronesses; it was also the more general one of Jacobean culture. Under the new monarch religious literature took on greater importance than it had in the Elizabethan era for a number of reasons including the King's own interests as well as the increasingly heated national and international polemical atmosphere. In both Tudor and early Stuart times religious poetry served as a way for courtier careerists to express slight or serious political disappointment: Wyatt's penitential psalms and many subsequent religious lyrics expressing a contempt for worldly involvement and success were composed as responses to setbacks to or failures of secular ambitions.4 The Psalm translations done by Sir Philip Sidney with his sister, poems admired by Donne for their artistry,5 were probably read along with Sidney's other work in the context of the myth of his glorious political failure. Such cultural encoding of sacred poetry carried over into the Jacobean era, as the example of Donne himself testifies. But from the start of James's reign, religious verse also assumed a higher place in the hierarchy of genres within the literary system as other genres, such as the love poetry that flourished in Elizabethan times, declined sharply in importance. For a politically sensitive courtier like Fulke Greville, who wrote poetry during both reigns, the change was dramatic: his Elizabethan love lyrics suddenly gave way at the start of the Jacobean period to religious poems reflecting both his political poor fortune during the first half of James's reign and the new changes in the literary system.6 Donne, too, responded to the changed sociocultural conditions in turning to the composition of religious verse, just as he did in writing controversial prose.7 The very act of composing sacred verse in the reign of a monarch who had himself written religious poetry and especially favored pious and polemical writing was a political gesture.8 By authorizing the composition of religious works, King James created a situation in which religious poetry could, paradoxically, both continue to signal the frustration of ambition (with a consequent sense of alienation from the world of power and wealth) and express active suitorship in an officially sanctioned literary vocabulary. It didn't take a conversion experience to move a politically active Jacobean courtier-poet to compose religious literature. Even in private circulation, such work was responsive to the changed sociocultural environment.

In La Corona (and in his other religious verse) Donne accepted the poet's role. He refers to his Muse (LC 1.6 and 7.13) in a serious way, whereas, for the most part, he earlier used the term quite negatively or ironically. To a significant degree, this acceptance of poetic authority was possible because King James himself had written sacred poetry and, therefore, sanctioned such activity as proper for the politically active man. While, in an Elizabethan situation, religious verse was the recourse of courtly losers and an indirect form of social protest by recusant Catholics (like Constable and Southwell),9 in Jacobean England, despite retaining its effectiveness as the expression of sociopolitical frustration, it was more assuredly establishment literature. … In penning religious verse, Donne officially (if not actually) followed the example of the king himself. He felt no need, therefore, in La Corona, to apologize for playing the poet.

Donne's personal feelings connected with his search for employment and advancement in the early Jacobean period intruded into his religious verse. Court politics and personal ambition account for some of the language and metaphors Donne utilized for both the conscious and the unconscious connections he made between the religious and the political. In the sonnet to Magdalen Herbert sent along with the La Corona sequence, for example, Donne chose the politically encoded term “advance” (3) to apply to Mary Magdalen's salvation. Although in La Corona and the other religious poems he portrayed private spiritual struggle as separate from the secular environment in which men pursued worldly success10 (just as he earlier set the private sphere of mutual lovers apart from the larger public world), the two orders overlapped for him. The grief and despair with which Donne's early religious poems are preoccupied (particularly the Holy Sonnets) seem to have been rooted, as the letters to Goodyer indicate, in both personal piety and secular needs.11 And so, when Donne confessed that “vehement griefe has beene / Th'effect and cause, the punishment and sinne” (1635 HS[Holy Sonnets] 3.13-14),12 he expressed himself in an idiom he used elsewhere to discuss his economic and political misfortunes. In mentioning that “Kings pardon … punishment” (HS 7.10), Donne may have been expressing his wish that James would forgive him his past indiscretions and accept him into royal service. Conversely, courtiership, like amatory courtship, provided Donne with a scheme for his relationship with God: “I durst not view heaven yesterday; and to day / In prayers, and flattering speeches I court God. / To morrow'I quake with true feare of his rod” (W-HS 3.9-11). While Donne seems to have made divine favor the object of his suits and to have thought of the raising of his Muse by the Holy Spirit (LC 7) as a much greater benefit than courtly advancement, his political consciousness betrayed itself. Through contrasts as well as analogies between the monarchical and the divine, the courtly and the heavenly, Donne reinforced the connection between the political and the religious in his sacred poetry. Even when he depicted “tyrannies” (HS 4.6) and “kings” (HS 6.9) as evil and destructive, he signaled, by the use of such terms, his insistent awareness of the political order.

Written probably in late 160813 at a time Donne was sick in body, mind, and fortune, “A Litanie” is a good example of this politically encoded religious verse. Lewalski claims that this poem, and the later “A Hymn to God the Father,” “transpose public forms into private devotions,” exemplifying the Protestant practice of applying religious truths to the self.14 While this is certainly true, it is also the case that Donne used the poem to comment, for a knowledgeable audience, on his sociopolitical condition as well as on his private spiritual state. It functioned, in many respects, as social verse. Donne, we know, sent a copy of the poem to his friend Goodyer, with the explanation that, though it was an exercise in a form originally designed for “publike service in … Churches,” it was aimed primarily at a restricted readership, “for lesser Chapels, which are my friends” (Letters, p. 33). He offered the work “for a testimony of that duty which I owe to your love, and to my self, who am bound to cherish it by my best offices” (Letters, pp. 33-34): it was, therefore, like the prose letters, part of an ongoing self-revelatory private communication with a receptive audience. Donne relied on his coterie reader's ability to understand “A Litanie” in the context of its author's personal situation. The “ruinous” (4) state and susceptibility to “dejection” (5) Donne mentions, then, were not simply the adverse conditions of the representative Christian's tormented soul; they were the particular contemporary circumstances about which Donne constantly complained at this low point in both his private and public life.

Donne admitted in this poem, as he did four years later in the Essays in Divinity, that he had “wasted” himself “with youths fires, of pride and lust” (22); he saw in his restless thirst for knowledge and in his indulgence in versifying culpable “excesse / In seeking secrets, or Poetiquenesse” (71-72). He prayed to be delivered

          From being anxious, or secure,
Dead clods of sadnesse, or light squibs of mirth,
          From thinking, that great courts immure
All, or no happinesse. …


He thus characterized his own behavior and interests as those of a witty, depressed, ambitious but frustrated careerist seeking preferment at the Jacobean court. He even admitted that his “Pietie” might have been “intermitting” and “aguish” (209), more the product of sickness and poor fortune than of a steady religious commitment. So, too, he retrospectively considered his own attraction to “learning” (235), “beauty” (237), and “wit” (239) as sinful, dangerous, and debilitating.

In referring, in stanza 26, to his being criticized and slandered by others, he alluded to the burden of the bad reputation he bore, which apparently still kept him from being entrusted with a position of responsibility in the government. Ostensibly addressing God, Donne seems to have had King James in mind as well:

          That living law, the Magistrate,
Which to give us, and make us physicke, doth
          Our vices often aggravate,
That Preachers taxing sinne, before her growth,
                              That Satan, and invenom'd men
                              Which well, if we starve, dine,
When they doe most accuse us, may see then
Us, to amendment, heare them; thee decline;
That we may open our eares, Lord lock thine.


Donne autobiographically claimed that political authority and envious competitors magnified the seriousness of his sins and errors, stating that public disapproval beneficially led to “amendment.” This is his contention in those letters he wrote to people in power in which he distinguished his mature self from his indiscreet younger (but not much younger) one.15 In praying that “Lord lock” his ears to the voices of his critics and slanderers, however, Donne probably hoped that the human monarch, James, would admit him into service despite his past mistakes.

Throughout “A Litanie” Donne conflates spiritual and secular monarchical authority, God and King—something he does also in his controversial prose. This strategy reinforced the Jacobean ideology of divinely sanctioned kingship. In the poem the language of courtly relationships describes spiritual affiliations: men are “in Wardship to [God's] Angels” (47), and heaven has “faire Palaces” (48). Donne's defense of wealth in stanza 18 looks suspiciously like an apology for the extravagance of James's court:

                    … through thy poore birth, where first thou
                    Glorifiedst Povertie,
And yet soone after riches didst allow,
By'accepting Kings gifts in th'Epiphanie,
Deliver, and make us, to both waies free.


Donne conspicuously omitted the biblical commonplace of the rich man and the eye of a needle, as he took pains to suggest that the wealthy have as easy moral access to heaven as the poor. Stanza 25 asserts that some “bold wits jest at Kings excesse” (223), but Donne suggested, in defending James, that mocking the monarch was only one step away from mocking God, “majestie divine” (224). It suited his purpose, as the last term indicates, to mix royalty and divinity, as Jonson did in his masques. For, whatever his spiritual needs, as an importunate courtly suitor Donne wanted James's favor to make him prosper.

“A Litanie” is a text parallel to many of the contemporary letters to Sir Henry Goodyer. The religious and the political, the private and the public are merged in both kinds of writing. Both literary genres assume the existence of sympathetic and knowledgeable readers able to understand the nuances of Donne's writing. In asking for the acceptance of his prayer-poem by God, Donne in effect once again called for the competent receptivity of his coterie audience (even as he fantasized a similar benevolence on the part of the King). Such well-wishing was for Donne a precondition for the very act of communication: “Heare us, for till thou heare us, Lord / We know not what to say” (203-4). The relationship portrayed between the speaker and God in the poem thus reflects the desired poet-reader transaction.

In the 1590s, when the fashion was at its height, Donne avoided composing an amorous sonnet sequence, probably largely because such an activity bespoke professional authorship and/or the search for artistic patronage.16 He did use the sonnet form for epistolary exchange, but he cast his love lyrics in other shapes that were, at once, more formally complex and more affectedly casual. In Jacobean England, nevertheless, Donne felt free to turn to the sonnet for sacred verse—partly because the King wrote some holy sonnets himself, and partly because the religious sonnet was not stigmatized, as was the love sonnet, by being associated with importunate suitorship.

Like Donne's other coterie writings, the Holy Sonnets are witty performances that exploited a knowledgeable audience's awareness of their author's personal situation and history. Just as Donne expressed religious ideas in his letters to Goodyer specifically in relation to his immediate social circumstances, in his Holy Sonnets and other religious verse he presented the themes of despair and hope, spiritual pride and humility, sin and redemption in ways that signaled specific personal, social, and political coordinates for these typical preoccupations of a devout Christian. He self-consciously referred to his past life (and verse)—for example, in mentioning his erotic “idolatrie,” his “mistresses” (HS 9.9-10), and his “humorous” “prophane love” (W-HS 3.5-6). He also allowed his current secular concerns with ambition and preferment to intrude upon—or rather to be translated into the language of—his sacred verse. It took a conversion to Roman Catholicism to make Henry Constable into a religious sonneteer, but no such dramatic change in Donne accounts for his divine poems. He might have been deeply bothered about his apostasy, as John Carey has argued,17 and he might have expressed abiding interests in religion and in the welfare of his soul, but, at least when he wrote his early Jacobean religious poems, Donne was no saint and his energies and desires were directed toward worldly success. As late as 1614, Lady Bedford, who obviously thought she knew the kind of man he was, was astonished that someone with Donne's unedifying personal history had decided to enter the ministry.18

By Donne's own standards, the religious sonnets and other preordination sacred verse were contaminated by self-interest. In a letter to Goodyer in which he discussed prayer, he named thanksgiving and praise, rather than petition, as the properly selfless purpose of true devotion: “I had rather [devotion] were bestowed upon thanksgiving then petition, upon praise then prayer; not that God is indeared by that, or wearied by this; all is one in the receiver, but not in the sender: and thanks doth both offices; for, nothing doth so innocently provoke new graces, as gratitude. I would also rather make short prayers then extend them, though God can neither be surprised, nor beseiged: for, long prayers have more of the man, as ambition of eloquence, and a complacencie in the work, and more of the Devil by often distractions …” (Letters, pp. 111-12). Insofar as they request or demand divine help or become self-aggrandizing performances, the religious poems veer away from this devotional ideal.

Whatever the circumstances of their original composition (perhaps as an exercise in private devotion), the coterie transmission of the La Corona19 sonnets to Magdalen Herbert exemplifies the social uses of religious verse. There survives a prose letter accompanying the poems from Donne to Mrs. Herbert, whose acquaintance he had made and whose patronage he was securing in the years 1607-9:


Your Favours to me are every where; I use them, and have them. I enjoy them at London, and leave them there; and yet, find them at Micham: Such Riddles as these become things unexpressible; and, such is your goodness. I was almost sorry to find your Servant here this day, because I was loth to have any witness of my not coming home last Night, and indeed of my coming this Morning: But, my not coming was excusable, because earnest business detain'd me; and my coming this day, is by the example of your St. Mary Magdalen, who rose early upon Sunday, to seek that which she lov'd most, and so did I. And, from her and my self, I return such thanks as are due to one to whom we owe all the good opinion, that they whom we need most, have of us—by this Messenger, and on this good day, I commit the inclosed Holy Hymnes and Sonnets (which for the matter, not the workmanship, have yet escap'd the fire) to your judgment, and to your protection too, if you think them worthy of it; and I have appointed this inclosed Sonnet to usher them to your happy hand.

Your unworthiest Servant, unless your accepting him have mended him.


(Selected Prose, pp. 124-25)

He used the formally deferential language of client-patroness relations in this piece, addressing himself to a woman he knew took devotional practices quite seriously and who might, thus, welcome a set of religious poems.20 Taking the verse into her “protection” involved strengthening her social bond with the poet. In the case of a patroness and friend like Mrs. Herbert, religious language could serve as a medium of social intimacy. In the dedicatory poem prefixed to the La Corona sequence Donne relates “Mrs. Magdalen Herbert” to “St. Mary Magdalen” as a way of complimenting the addressee for her piety even as he chose her as a proper recipient for what he had written, work he supposedly refrained from burning only because of its edifying “content.” After playing with the Magdalen Herbert-Mary Magdalen association, Donne asked this coterie reader to “Harbour” the “Hymns” he sent her.

The language of La Corona is that of the religious transvaluation of the secular. The personal depression Donne experienced at the time—largely because of his lack of an “occupation”—appears in the poems as a “low devout melancholie” (LC 1.2). The secular rewards symbolized by the various crowns such as the laurel wreath (of poets and military victors) are subordinated to the “crowne of Glory” (LC 1.8) won by a Christ who wore a “thorny crowne” (LC 1.7). In the religious context of Scriptural meditation on Christ's life, Herod, a model of bad kingship, is “jealous” (LC 3.8) of the virtuous Christ, a reversal of a frustrated political inferior's resentment of the great. So too, in the poems, evil “ambitious” (LC 5.3) men express “envie” (LC 5.2) of a suffering Christ with whom the poems' speaker identifies, another inversion of Donne's own social and political situation. The “sparks of wit” (LC 4.3) Donne praises in the fourth sonnet of the sequence are the wisdom of Christ, not the skeptical, riddling, or paradoxical utterances of a man whose poetry proclaimed an ambivalence toward established authority. In La Corona, salvation and glorification replace advancement and preferment as the objects of desire. Generally, then, the conversion of secular into religious values represents an attempt to reaffirm self-worth and regain a measure of control in the most unfavorable of social circumstances.

In the Holy Sonnets Donne relocates in a religious framework the conflict between autonomy and dependence he expresses in his encomiastic verse. These emotionally charged and intellectually tortuous poems enact personally and socially the contradictory attitudes of assertion and submission that were basic to Donne's temperament, but that were heightened by the desperateness of his ambition in the early Jacobean period.21 The social and political dimensions of this conflict are highlighted by a number of related features of the sonnets: the portrayal of male authority, the rhetorical elaboration of the struggle of spiritual pride and humility, the subversive indecorum of particular works, and the general transformation of a (religiously expressed) passive aggression into an aesthetically sadomasochistic relationship with his readers.

One way the religious verse noticeably differs from the earlier secular poetry is in its changed attitude toward male authority. Whereas fathers and other authority figures are portrayed negatively, often derisively, in Donne's erotic and satiric verse (the major exception being Satire 3), in the divine poems the basic attitude is changed. In the fourth “penitential” sonnet, Donne imagines the father who died in his early childhood benevolently looking down from heaven on his spiritual triumphs:

If faithfull soules be alike glorifi'd
          As Angels, then my fathers soule doth see,
And adds this even to full felicitie,
That valiantly I hels wide mouth o'rstride. …

(1635-HS 4.1-4)

Such a figure functions psychologically as what Roy Schafer has called the “loving and beloved superego,”22 sanctioning behavior that satisfies the individual's ideals. More typically in the Holy Sonnets, Donne depicts a paternal deity with whom he wishes to come to terms and whose love he wishes to enjoy. He expresses some angry, resentful, and rebellious feelings, but he capitulates before a God who seems, in some ways, to have been for him a lost father found.23

The sudden serious interest in fathers and the depiction of paternal deity reveal Donne's preoccupation with powerful authority and his relationship to it. John Carey has observed that Donne's primary emphasis in his later Sermons is upon God's power, rather than His love: “It is Power that does all” (Sermons, 8:128).24 So, too, in the Holy Sonnets, the Donne who felt neglected and abused by secular authorities, including the king, portrayed a paradoxically hurtful and helpful God whose power he both resisted and felt drawn to. Not only is the angry, judgmental Old Testament God whose “sterne wrath … threatens” (HS 5.8) present in his poems, a deity whose violent punishment the speaker masochistically calls upon in “Batter my heart,” but also Christ himself, usually portrayed as loving and merciful, is seen (in HS 9) as gruesomely frightening, his redemptive act primarily one of power: “Christs blood” has “might” (HS 2.13). The Beatific Vision does not evoke a sense of radiant love and comfort, but rather an image of “that face, / Whose feare already shakes my every joynt” (HS 3.7-8). In the Incarnation, a powerful God became “weake enough to suffer woe” (HS 7.14), but “weaknesse” (HS 8.7) is associated with God's creatures generally. The language of courtly suitorship is drawn into the Holy Sonnets to define the Christian's relationship to a strong kingly God, which suggests that behind Donne's theological preoccupation with strength and weakness lay his experiences in the secular world. Holy Sonnet 11, for example, imagines “God the Spirit, by Angels waited on / In heaven” (2-3) in the way King James was attended at Court. This poem presents the fantasy of being made “by adoption / Coheire to'his glory” (7-8) and Holy Sonnet 12 deals with getting part of a “double interest” in his “kingdome” (1-2) in language that suggests the economic benefits of royal patronage. When Donne in a later sermon reflected on the idea of enjoying the “friendship” of a “King” (Sermons 1:210-14), he elaborately developed just such analogies. In the light of this material, the statement “Thou lov'st mankind well, yet wilt not chuse me” (HS 1.13) sounds like a translation of a neglected client's complaint from a political into a religious context.

The conflict between assertion and submission is enacted in the Holy Sonnets in the thematic and rhetorical interplay of spiritual pride and humility. This familiar devotional material (portrayed, as Herbert later handled it, as the individual Christian's resistance, then capitulation, to God's grace and love) is developed throughout the series of poems—at least through the first twelve that have been considered as a structured sequence.25Holy Sonnet 1, for example, seems more concerned with blaming God than with loving Him, with complaining about ill treatment rather than with humble petitioning for grace. When the speaker cries out “Why doth the devil then usurpe in mee? / Why doth he steale, nay ravish that's thy right?” (9-10), he does so petulantly, accusingly, as though it were God's fault that he is plunged in sin. He seems to deliver God a moral ultimatum: “Except thou rise and for thine owne worke fight, / Oh I shall soone despaire” (11-12). The speaker arrogantly puts all the responsibility on God, having, in the first part of the poem, set out in lawyerlike terms the contractual relationship of creature and Creator, sinner and Redeemer. The problem of spiritual attitude in this poem is one that must be solved in the succeeding sonnets. A number of the other lyrics do dramatize the speaker's coming to terms with it by adopting the piously affectionate humility that is a precondition to receiving divine grace. Holy Sonnet 4, for example, self-consciously pulls back in the sestet from the tone and tenor of the octave, in which the speaker, in effect, has usurped God's role as the initiator of the Apocalypse:

At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow
          Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
'Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood.

This poem's sharply contrasting attitudes of prideful assertion and humble submission are made into a structural balance. Analogously, Holy Sonnet 5 is divided into an accusatory, disputatious octave and a self-consciously meek sestet. But the scheme of spiritual pride overthrown and replaced by proper religious humility does not adequately account for what Donne is doing with the interplay of assertion and submission in these poems. There is something intractably boastful and self-advertising about the works that remains despite the gestures of self-effacement. Repeatedly, especially in poems like “Oh my blacke Soule” (HS 2), “This is my play's last scene” (HS 3), and “Spit in my face yee Jewes” (HS 7), Donne pridefully overdramatizes the self. As Lewalski and others have noticed, Donne legitimately employed the Protestant devotional technique of “application to the self” in both his poems and sermons,26 but this does not explain the impression of boastfulness some sonnets create. Whereas a religious poet like George Herbert repeatedly expressed embarrassment over just such a tendency in himself, Donne seems to have reveled in it.

Meditative practice might have sanctioned vivid imagery and emotional heightening in devotional acts of the imagination, but the octave of a poem like Holy Sonnet 2 has an aura of self-consciously witty melodrama about it:

Oh my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned
          By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion;
Thou'art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turne to whence hee's fled,
Or like a thiefe, which till deaths doome be read,
Wisheth himselfe delivered from prison;
But damn'd and hal'd to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned. …


Similarly, the chain of epithets in the first quatrain of Holy Sonnet 3 is less functional than wittily overdramatic:

This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint
          My pilgrimages last mile, and my race
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes last point. …


The poetic act of intensification is as much one of self-reflexive performing as of emotional scene-setting.

Holy Sonnet 6 may rest on sound theological grounds and on the conventional devotional sharing in Christ's victory over death through the redemption, but Donne seems to have formulated religious truth in this poem in a particularly self-aggrandizing manner; joyful confidence in the power of the redemption and arrogant boasting are hard to disentangle. Likewise, in Holy Sonnet 7, Donne creates the impression—at least in the octave—that the speaker is engaging as much in an act of shockingly witty self-assertion as in a gesture of repentance:

Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side,
          Buffet, and scoffe, scourge, and crucifie mee,
For I have sinn'd, and sinn'd, and onely hee,
Who could do no iniquitie, hath dyed:
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sinnes, which passe the Jewes impiety:
They kill'd once an inglorious man, but I
Crucifie him daily, being now glorified.


The last phrase of this passage contains a (perhaps unconscious) grammatical ambiguity. Is the subject of “glorified” Christ or the self-assertive speaker? Lewalski's remark that “the speaker seeks to arrogate to himself all the elements of Christ's passion”27 points to the problem of tone in this poem. The self in performance and the self in humble devotion seem here, and throughout the Holy Sonnets, to be intractably, if creatively, at odds. In the religious lyrics Donne's fascination with the experiencing self produces a form of that self-conscious poetic performing in which he habitually engaged before his coterie readers.

Donne's presentation of the self's conflicts between assertion and submission included the acts of witty indecorum to which he called attention in the Holy Sonnets. In the performative context of the poems, Donne used shocking indecorum as a metacommunicative device to signal the emotional ambivalences at the heart of his religious verse, thus extending into a new genre a technique he had employed in his prose paradoxes, his amorous verse, and his complimentary poetry. Just as in his encomiastic epistles and lyrics Donne used calculated violations of decorum to express conflicts related to the situation of patronage, so too, in the divine poems, he seems to have restated the problem, but in a new thematic context. William Kerrigan has discussed some of those shocking elements of the religious verse that cannot be explained by references to the intellectual-historical or literary-historical precedents—such features as the sexualization of the speaker's relationship to God. Kerrigan is right to notice that such indecorum is a means of simultaneously assaulting the self and the reader in an attempt to express spiritual and psychological conflicts in a forceful manner.28 But there are further (social) implications to the technique having to do both with Donne's relationship with his coterie audience and with his attitudes toward the political establishment.

Because the models of sonnet sequences were basically amorous ones and because Donne's own lyrics had been love poems, he turned to the language of love and to familiar erotic conventions to express religious desire in his Holy Sonnets, enlivening and testing the rhetoric of prayer and meditation as he alluded to his own past amorous experiences. In one of his sermons, Donne later spoke of Solomon in an autobiographical way: “Salomon, whose disposition was amorous, and excessive in the love of women, when he turn'd to God, he departed not utterly from his old phrase and language, but having put a new, and a spiritual tincture, and form and habit into all his thoughts, and words, he conveyes all his loving approaches and applications to God, and all Gods gracious answers to his amorous soul, into songs, and Epithalamions, and meditations upon contracts, and marriages between God and his Church, and between God and his soul …” (Sermons 1:237).

Donne's eroticized spirituality manifests itself in Holy Sonnet 9 (“What if this present were the worlds last night?”) where he explicitly connects his amorous wooing with his religious suitorship in addressing the figure of the crucified Christ:

… as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd,
This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.


Such analogizing between the erotic and the spiritual—present in another form in the secular verse—has been explained in terms of the conversion experience Donne was supposed to have undergone (an Augustinian transformation of the unholy amorist into the holy Christian). There are, of course, biblical and other precedents for erotic spirituality, such as the one Donne cites in the sermon passage. And it is certainly possible to associate Donne's practice with that of other Mannerist and Baroque artists. This last context has been used to account for the strategy of shock and excess adopted by Donne in the erotic metaphors and other techniques of the Holy Sonnets.29 And yet such erotic material is basically indecorous and Donne presumably knew what he was doing with it. In the lines just quoted, for example, Donne does not simply connect the general terms of Petrarchan amorousness with his spiritual solicitation of Christ. Since the “pitty” sought from “mistresses” in his secular lyrics (if not in his life) was specifically sexual yielding, the opposite of “rigour,” the analogy between the erotic and the religious seems to have been shocking by design.

A similar indecorum is to be found in the erotic spirituality of Holy Sonnet 10 (“Batter my heart”)—a poem whose cry for “Divorce” (11) may, incidentally, express Donne's deep misgivings about his marriage. Kerrigan discusses this poem in terms of the tradition of “accommodation” and of Donne's imaginative testing of the limits of theological anthropomorphism.30 But the holy rape the speaker of this sonnet invites—“I / Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free, / Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee” (12-14)—seems to reveal more than the intensity of spiritual yearning. Through its rhetorical aggressiveness, it also calls attention to the sadistic undercurrent in the poet-reader relationship expressed through the masochistic formulations of the verse. The indecorous sexualization of the individual's relationship to God is only one way in which the rhetorical sadomasochism of the Holy Sonnets operates, the extreme communicative circumstances in which Donne again enacts his conflict of assertion and submission in the poems.

Of all the Holy Sonnets, “Batter my heart” best illustrates some of the aspects of the change in sociopolitical codes from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean periods. The sexualization of the speaker's relationship to God at the end of the sonnet is shocking partly because it has the shape of a passive homosexual fantasy. Assuming a homologous relationship among the religious, political, and sexual orders, Donne makes the connection, in Pseudo-Martyr, between sodomy and preferment; here he homoerotically sexualizes salvation. The cultural logic underlying both associations was not simply that of devotional topoi or of polemical scurrility; it was, in Jacobean England, in the reformulation of the heterosexual metaphor of Petrarchan amorousness into a (more or less sublimated) homosexual one suited both to male-male patronclient transactions generally (as in Shakespeare's Sonnets) and to Jacobean courtier-King relationships specifically. Being loved in the spiritual homoerotic context of “Batter my heart” corresponded to being favored in the political order. In the early Jacobean period, then, Donne's metaphoric capitulation to a divine lover took a peculiarly Jacobean form.

The rhetoric of the religious poems, particularly these Holy Sonnets, operates in interesting ways. Donne utilizes the “symbolic I”31 of Protestant meditation and preaching as a way of forging a bond with an audience by means of which personal religious experience and insight, communal piety and general truths, can be joined. In contrast to most of his earlier verse, in which the reader was often overtly treated as an antagonist, the divine poems emphasize the collective “we” and the representativeness of the speaker to affirm an emotional-intellectual bond between speaker and listener, poet and reader.32 There are, however, also opposite gestures of aggression toward the listener and the reader by means of which the poet, as in the complimentary verse, asserted his intellectual and literary authority in the very midst of his expressions of personal vulnerability and need. The strong language, the violent and shocking metaphors, the poems' sudden changes of thought and turns of development characteristically proclaim Donne's individuality and aesthetic superiority in ways that seem to undercut the stance of humble piety and communal spokesmanship.

In style and manner, then, Donne expressed his basic conflict between assertion and submission, alternately sharing deep spiritual experience with his readers and assaulting them aesthetically by various means. One final remark needs to be made about the rhetoric of the Holy Sonnets and of the religious poetry in general. Since this verse only really acknowledges one hierarchical relationship—that between man and God—and posits a communal equality of all Christians, it offered Donne the opportunity to treat any reader—friends like Sir Henry Goodyer and George Garrard, as well as Mrs. Herbert and the Earl of Dorset—with the kind of familiarity impossible in complimentary poetry, where the social distinctions were emphasized. Just as, in his controversial prose Donne assumed the kind of authority that allowed him (as he put it in one of his Problems) to satisfy “an Ambition … to speake playnly and fellowly of Lords and Kings” (p. 28), so too in the sacred poems he exercised the kind of religious authority he enjoyed in his later preaching, acting as a master of a discourse within which individuals from all social strata were theologically leveled. The only deference he needed to express was toward God. Hence, in such verse he could imaginatively escape the social conditions that generated conflicts between assertion and submission in the first place.

As Gardner, Martz, Lewalski, and others have noted, the Holy Sonnets are private meditations utilizing a variety of conventional devotional techniques.33 The sonnets no doubt satisfied some of Donne's personal emotional and intellectual needs at the time he composed them, offering within a religious sphere ways of dealing with anxieties and struggles that were less manageable in his actual social life. But, in both their thematic design and in their coterie “publication,” these poems were attuned to the religious and political realities of Jacobean England. Whatever personal spiritual conflicts Donne experienced in the eight or so years preceding his ordination, he expressed them in relation to his career ambitions in the Jacobean environment. Although I am suspicious of any scheme that has Donne moving gradually toward a serious religious commitment (since, for example, as late as 1614 he was still vigorously pursuing secular preferment), his experience as a religious apologist,34 his continued failure to find political advancement in the court of a king ready only to grant him ecclesiastical preferment, and his private study and agonized meditation all certainly led him to the inevitable acceptance of a religious vocation.

Donne obviously thought deeply about the decision to take orders, even though he resisted making it for a considerable time. Falling sometime between the time of composition of the early religious verse and the Anniversaries and that of the poetically valedictory “Obsequies to the Lord Harrington” and his ordination, that strange prose work later published as his Essays in Divinity records some of Donne's vexed thinking about the possibility of an ecclesiastical career. Usually viewed as a devotional exercise written with no particular audience in mind,35 this work can, like the earlier Holy Sonnets and the subsequent (?) “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” fruitfully be read not only as private religious acts of meditation and prayer but also as coterie literature laden with both specific and general sociopolitical significance. Like his other coterie prose writing, the Essays in Divinity can help us to read Donne's contemporary poetical texts with a better sense of their contextual implications.

The Essays in Divinity is a mixed-genre work: a piece of mock-or comical-scholarship, parodying the methods of scriptural exegesis and mystical writing, a religiopolitical commentary in which Donne took advantage of his position as an amateur theologian and political outsider to comment on both the secular and religious spheres of activity, an exercise in private meditation and devotion experimenting with the rhetorics of prayer and preaching. Donne engages in both straightforward and paradoxical arguments, simultaneously valorizing the rational faculties as the means to truth and driving them into nonsensical helplessness. He treats learning, particularly theological tradition, as both magisterially authoritative and intellectually absurd. By mixing trivial and serious matters, important with insignificant authors, he disorients the reader, creating a vexing perplexity from which state, he suggests, only the intuitions of faith can rescue both the writer and the reader from a condition of intellectual and emotional impasse. In its rhetorical strategies, erratic thematics, and intellectual mischievousness, this work extends the manner and some of the matter of coterie prose pieces like Biathanatos and the Paradoxes and Problems—if not also of the polemical Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave. But, especially in its prayer sections, Donne engaged in a kind of writing that characterizes his mature religious poetry and prose, a form of devotional rhetoric that attempts to transcend intellectual perplexity by means of both plain and metaphoric perception grounded in faith and the material of Revelation.

In their intellectual convolution, Donne's Essays in Divinity signals a crisis of motive, belief, and commitment. It devastates its own intellectual materials and, in the process, also assaults the forms of order and value that are sanctioned in the public world. Donne's comments about secular authority, worldly success, and the pretensions of earthly monarchs (like Milton's in Paradise Lost) bespeak a bitter personal disillusionment, if not a pained cynicism—here the kind of rhetorical violence found in Biathanatos is aimed more frequently outward at nameless, faceless objects than it is at the masochistic self. Essays in Divinity is a text whose powerfully satiric force has not been properly acknowledged—partly because in it, as in the Anniversaries, satire and earnest idealization are combined in a way that directs attention toward positive intellectual, moral, and spiritual values. But here, as assuredly as in the other prose and poetical works of the previous decade of his life as a frustrated careerist, Donne reveals his preoccupation with the sociopolitical world even as he abstracts himself from it devotionally.

Within the work, the contexts of Donne's allusions to secular political power are those of his desire for forgiveness and renewal and of his ambivalence about his future secular or ecclesiastical career choices. Treating his personal suffering (implicitly attributed to his poor fortunes in the public world) as the instrument of God's healing power,36 Donne contemplates the possibility of a “Vocation … to serve God” (p. 71), works toward the contemptus mundi gesture of the final prayer section, yet, because of yet-unrenounced political ambitions, clearly expresses envy toward the politically successful and criticism of the political establishment. In a section dealing with God's justice, he asks a rhetorical question, for example, in which his resentment of those who have benefited from royal patronage shows through:

will any favorite, whom his Prince only for his appliableness to him, or some half-vertue, or his own glory, burdens with Honours and Fortunes every day, and destines to future Offices and Dignities, dispute or expostulate with his Prince, why he rather chose not another, how he will restore his Coffers; how he will quench his peoples murmurings, by whom this liberality is fed, or his Nobility, with whom he equalls new men; and will not rather repose himself gratefully in the wisdom, greatness and bounty of his Master?

(p. 87)

At the end of the first decade of Jacobean rule, such a comment satirically alludes to some of the most powerful charges leveled at James by Parliamentarians, dissatisfied nobles, and the general populace.

In a section discussing miracles, Donne calls James's exercise of royal power into question through a particularly subversive use of the God/King analogy: “Nature is the Common law by which God governs us, and Miracle is his Prerogative. For Miracles are but so many Non-obstantes upon Nature. And Miracle is not like prerogative in any thing more then in this, that no body can tell what it is” (p. 81). In the context of the Commons-Crown argument over the relative strengths of common law and royal prerogative, Donne expressed, at the least, a skeptical attitude toward the Jacobean expansion of the legal scope of kingly power. In this particular discussion, he finally obliterates the Nature-Miracle contrast by explaining that “Miracles … produced to day were determined and inserted into the body of the whole History of Nature … at the beginning, and are as infallible and certain, as the most Ordinary and customary things” (p. 81). This solution to the problem does not really do away with the suggestion he makes that royal prerogative constitutionally conflicts with a normative common law his contemporaries were trying to systematize, just as “Miracle is against the whole Order of Nature” (p. 81). Several pages later, he makes a comment that confirms this impression: “… multiplicity of laws … is not so burdenous as it is thought, except it be in a captious, and entangling, and needy State; or under a Prince too indulgent to his own Prerogative” (p. 94).

Donne earlier refers to earthly monarchs in the context of a discourse on “Nothing” (p. 27): “And, oh ye chief of men, ye Princes of the Earth … know ye by how few descents ye are derived from Nothing? you are the Children of the Lust and Excrements of your parents, they and theirs the Children of Adam, the child of durt, the child of Nothing” (p. 30). Or, again referring to kings, Donne asks: “But alas, what are these our fellow-ants, our fellowdirt, our fellow-nothings, compared to that God whom they make but their pattern?” (pp. 35-36). In the same place in the work, Donne's preoccupation with his poor sociopolitical status takes the form of a set of reflections just preceding the first prayer section, in which he seems to be in competition with royalty rather than in a stance of clientage:

A prince is Pilot of a great ship, a Kingdome; we of a pinnace, a family, or a less skiff, our selves: and howsoever we be tossed, we cannot perish; for our haven (if we will) is even in the midst of the Sea; and where we dy, our home meets us. If he be a lion and live by prey, and wast amongst Cedars and pines, and I a mole, and scratch out my bed in the ground, happy in this, that I cannot see him: If he be a butterfly, the son of a Silkworm, and I a Scarab, the seed of durt; If he go to the execution in a Chariot, and I in a Cart or by foot, where is the glorious advantage? If I can have (or if I can want) those things which the Son of Sirach calls principall, water, fire, and iron, salt and meal, wheat and hony, milk, and the blood of grapes, oyle, and clothing; If I can prandere Olus, and so need not Kings; Or can use Kings, and so need not prandere Olus: in one word, if I do not frui (which is, set my delight, and affections only due to God) but Uti the Creatures of this world, this world is mine; and to me belong those words, Subdue the Earth and rule over all Creatures; and as God is proprietary, I am usufructuarius of this Heaven and Earth which God created at the beginning. And here, because Nemo silens placuit, multi brevitate, shall be the end.

(p. 36)

It is in the context of the kind of envy and dissatisfaction expressed in this passage that Donne in the Essays takes a contemptus mundi stance and portrays his conversion from secular to religious values.

Applying to his own life the meaning of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, Donne interprets his personal suffering as God's schooling him through affliction to make a break with worldly values to which he was still, nonetheless, attached:

Thou hast delivered me, O God, from the Egypt of confidence and presumption, by interrupting my fortunes, and intercepting my hopes; And from the Egypt of despair by contemplation of thine abundant treasures, and my portion therein; from the Egypt of lust, by confining my affections; and from the monstrous and unnaturall Egypt of painfull and wearisome idleness, by the necessities of domestick and familiar cares and duties. Yet as an Eagle, though she enjoy her wing and beak, is wholly prisoner, if she be held by but one talon; so are we, though we could be delivered of all habit of sin, in bondage still, if Vanity hold us but by a silken thred.

(p. 75)

That “silken thred” continued to keep the ambitious Donne connected to the world of secular preferment, even as he felt pushed toward the acceptance of the king's call to Church service. The final gesture of rejecting worldly values toward which Essays in Divinity moves looks more like an act Donne would like to have made rather than one he actually felt ready to make with a full sense of new commitment:

We renounce, O Lord, all our confidence in this world; for this world passeth away, and the lusts thereof: Wee renounce all our confidence in our own merits, for we have done nothing in respect of that which we might have done; neither could we ever have done any such thing, but that still we must have remained unprofitable servants to thee; we renounce all confidence, even in our own confessions, and accusations of our self … yea we renounce all confidence even in our repentances. … We have no confidence in this world, but in him who hath taken possession of the next world for us.

(pp. 98-99)

This devotional prose work records a stage in Donne's career in which he felt ambivalent both about his further search for courtly advancement and about the possibility of taking orders.

Donne no doubt used the occasion of writing the Essays to put his conflicted thoughts down on paper for his own benefit, but there are some signs that he intended the work to be read by a receptive, if quite limited, coterie audience also. Although he characterized the Essays as “solitary Meditations” (p. 41), or, as he put it elsewhere, “Sermons, that … have no Auditory” (p. 41), he suggests that he is writing “a Meta-theology, and super-divinity … but to my equals” (p. 59)—that is, composing a form of lay theology that metacommunicatively examines some of the premises and methods of the forms of theological and devotional discourse the work both enacts and parodies. In asking rhetorically, at one point, “… do not many among us study even the Scriptures only for ornament?” (p. 40), he seems to be addressing fellow men of fashion. The rationale he offers for God's allowing contradictions in Scripture is similar to the one implied by some of his own paradoxical coterie prose: “To make men sharpe and industrious in the inquisition of truth, he withdrawes it from present apprehension, and obviousness. For naturally great wits affect the reading of obscure books” (p. 56). Just as the Paradoxes and Problems were used by Donne as “alarums to truth” for a witty readership willing to work through intellectual perplexity, so too it is likely that Donne directed his Essays in Divinity to a similarly receptive coterie familiar with his “intemperance of scribbling” (Letters, p. 228).

In one of the final prayers, Donne suggests that he was composing the Essays in rural exile—possibly in the country house of one of his friends, if not in France during his Continental sojourn with Sir Robert Drury: “And thou hast put me in my way towards thy land of promise, thy Heavenly Canaan, by removing me from the Egypt of frequented and populous, glorious places, to a more solitary and desart retiredness, where I may more safely feed upon both thy Mannaes, thy self in thy Sacrament, and that other, which is true Angells food, contemplation of thee” (p. 96).37 At times, Donne implies the existence of an audience other than himself—in a phrase such as “let me observe to you” (p. 88), for example. He sometimes, especially in the formal prayer sections, utilizes the communal “we” for whom the writer speaks like a typical Protestant preacher: “Behold us, O God, here gathered together in thy fear, according to thine ordinance, and in confidence of thy promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy name, thou wilt be in the midst of them, and grant them their petitions” (pp. 97-98). The work was clearly not intended for print, but Donne might have shown it to friends. It probably belonged to socioliterary circumstances similar to those of the religious lyric with which it seems to have intellectual and emotional affinities, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.”

Two related sets of terms are contrasted with one another in the Good Friday poem: 1) “Pleasure” and “businesse” (7) vs. the retreat from the secular world into the sphere of religious piety; 2) prideful rationality vs. humble intuitive faith. With regard to the first of these, the coterie context can help to focus the issues involved. If, as seems likely, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” was composed en route from Sir Henry Goodyer's Polesworth estate to Sir Edward Herbert's Montgomerey Castle,38 its circumstances of composition and of initial reception were properly incorporated thematically in the poem in specific ways. Given some of the values and interests Donne shared with both friends—in particular the courtly ambitions and fondness for witty intellectuality—the poem was particularly adjusted to the receptivities of a primary audience and its immediate circumstances, moving from a visit to one friend to enjoy the hospitality of another. One of the argumentative tasks Donne undertakes in this religious lyric is the reconciliation of worldly involvement with devotional obligations or of secular with religious goals. Initially the two orders are opposed: riding westward, in the specific metaphor of moral movement Donne employs, indicates a turning away from God toward the world that conflicts with the obligation to move eastward toward the theological Orient symbolized by the crucified Christ.39 The speaker's strategy of splitting himself into a body riding westward on horseback and a soul bending devotionally toward the East is wittily presented as a rationalization that does not solve the problem posed by the conflict of allegiances. By the end of the poem, however, moving westward is redefined as a necessary condition of worldly existence that is a penitential preparation for facing that God whose bright image, according to traditional doctrine, can only be confronted in Heaven.

The solution Donne poses is based on an equation that is implicit also in the Essays in Divinity: worldly suffering = spiritual penance. Just as, in the Essays in Divinity, Donne interpreted his “idlenesse,” his sociopolitical disappointments, and his consequent “despair” (p. 75) as the afflictions through which he could be redeemed, so, in the poem, he portrayed the fixation of his heart on worldly success (paradoxically) as the means by which he could turn toward God. What this redefinition of suffering permits, then, is the reconciliation of the two commitments opposed in the Good Friday poem. Moving westward becomes a penitential experience through which the man of the world makes himself available (here consciously, in Donne's life unconsciously or ironically) to God's loving, yet violent, ministrations. By having the speaker invite punishment, Donne imaginatively assumes control not only of what God will do to him to make him worthy of salvation, but also of what is happening and what has happened to cause him pain all along, all those griefs he has endured, especially in the decade prior to the poem's composition:

I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know me, and I'll turne my face.


The call for punishment is also, however, Donne's way of asking that some agency outside himself decide between a secular and a religious commitment for him. God's striking St. Paul off his horse to recruit him to His service seems a close analogue to Donne's request for divine action to change him (from an ambitious courtier to a devout Churchman).

The second contrast in the Good Friday poem—between rational and intuitive acts, or reason and faith—is related to the first: Reason is to worldly commitment as Faith is to spiritual commitment. As Donald Friedman has argued in his fine essay on this lyric: “The poem … illuminates a current of Donne's thought that became central to his sermon practice; it criticizes the rationalism that regards itself as self-sufficient, and demonstrates the rejection of that kind of devotion that believes it can comprehend the mysteries of faith by being ‘reasonable.’ Like many of the sermons the poem enacts a discovery of the inadequacy of such paltering mechanics of the mind; but it does this by transcending the concept-making skills of the intellect, not by discarding them.”40 Friedman's analysis of the rhetorical development of the poem, especially his account of the function of its opening ten lines, is convincing: one can see how the speaker of the poem moves through intellectually strained conceits (1-10) and the recitation of smugly pat paradoxical formulae (11-14) to a more emotionally and imaginatively charged response to the crucifixion and his own sinfulness (15-34) and to an affectionately pious (if masochistic) colloquy.

Friedman notes that “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’ proceeds towards its spiritual discovery by way of mockery and self-parody,”41 but such features characteristically mark it as a coterie work that is a religious lyric as well as a metapoetic commentary on its poetic materials and on the implied relationship of poet and audience. The private agonizing over personal commitments figured in the poem is enacted for readers able to relate the lyric's self-reflexivity to the private and sociopolitical contexts in which it is set. Although I agree with the basic analysis of the poem's rhetorical development that Friedman offers, I think there is something wrong with his explanation of Donne's intentions. To say that this lyric was meant to serve as “a vehicle of conversion for Donne's audience”42 is to ignore the poet's presentation of the crisis of commitment and the need for (violent) change as his own. In order to support his claim, Friedman has to argue that the poem “foreshadows both the purpose and the designs of many sermons Donne was to preach in later years.”43 The preacher-congregation situation, however, does not really fit a lyric in which, as in the Anniversaries and the Essays in Divinity, personal struggles and disappointments, doubts about the future, and a crisis of purpose are expressed through vexed intellectuality, emotional masochism, and idealistic yearning. In “Goodfriday, 1613” Donne was less confidently in control—intellectually, emotionally, rhetorically—than he was in his later sermons, and the instability or uncertainty of this lyric, like that of the Holy Sonnets, accounts for much of its power. All the biographical evidence suggests that at the time Donne composed this poem, he was still unable to accept the ecclesiastical service toward which the King had beckoned him. He was still unwilling to relinquish his aggressive pursuit of secular preferment: in the context of his actual behavior, the religious thematics of “Goodfriday, 1613” and of the other preordination religious and philosophical poetry were rendered deeply problematic, and would have been perceived as such by a knowing coterie readership.


  1. From John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 246-68, 326-46. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Minor revisions have been added by the author.

  2. Garrard, who shared lodgings with Donne at the time he composed many of the religious poems, probably had some of this verse in mind when he referred to the “very transcendent” poems of Donne he had read in manuscript and copied out for his own use (quoted in John Donne: The Critical Heritage, ed. A. J. Smith [London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975], p. 109). In this essay I use the following editions of Donne's poems and prose: The Divine Poems of John Donne, ed. Helen Gardner, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978); The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965); Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651), a facsimile reproduction with an introduction by M. Thomas Hester (Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977); Paradoxes and Problems, ed. Helen Peters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; Pseudo-Martyr, a facsimile reproduction with introduction by Francis Jacques Sypher (Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1974); Essays in Divinity, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952); The Sermons of John Donne, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-62); Selected Prose, chosen by Evelyn Simpson, ed. by Helen Gardner and Timothy Healy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

  3. See Gardner, Divine Poems, pp. xlviii-ix. The Earl, who succeeded to the title in February 1609, was hastily married to Lady Anne Clifford (with whom Donne was acquainted through Lady Bedford) two days before his father's death to avoid becoming a ward to the Duke of Lennox. He was one of the most extravagant spenders among the aristocracy, someone to whom authors could look for patronage (Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965], pp. 213, 582-83).

  4. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 115-56, for a discussion of Wyatt's penitential psalms in relation to their political context. The Elizabethan and Jacobean courtier Sir John Harington, who composed in his last years a treatise based on Petrarch's Life of Solitude, The Prayse of Private Life, wrote of the futility of his own courtly striving: “I have spent my time, my fortune, and almoste my honestie, to buy false hope, false friends, and shallow praise;—and be it remembered, that he who castethe up this reckoning of a cowrtlie minion, will set his summe like a foole at the ende, for not being a knave at the beginninge. Oh, that i could boaste with chaunter Davide, In te speravi Domine” (Nugae Antiquae, 3 vols. [1779; reprint, Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1968]: 2:212).

  5. Since these poems were not printed until the nineteenth century, Donne knew them in manuscript and composed his late poem about them, “Upon the translation of the Psalmes by Sir Philip Sidney, and the Countesse of Pembroke his Sister.”

  6. Like Donne, Greville was out of office from about 1604 to 1614. The poems in the last part of Caelica (82, 84-109), an anthology of philosophical and religious verse, were probably composed in this period. Some of them express his political frustration and resentment over the success of others. Caelica 91, for example, demystifies the honors and titles dispensed by royalty, referring to “Nobilitie” as “Powers golden fetter” (7) and expressing a hatred of “subiection” (8). Caelica 95 is preoccupied with the forces responsible for “scornfull wrong or … suppressing merit” (9).

  7. In the Preface to Pseudo-Martyr, Donne explained to the King the composition of the work in the following way: “The influence of those your Maiesties Bookes, as the Sunne, which penetrates all corners, hath wrought vppon me, and drawen vp, and exhaled from my poore Meditations, these discourses: Which with all reuerence and deuotion, I present to your Maiestie” (p. A3r). In his sixth Problem, with the Jacobean context in mind, Donne clearly attributed secular motives to an intellectual interest in theology, suggesting that “perchance when wee study it by mingling humane respects, it is not divinity” (p. 28). Sir John Harington talked theology with the King. The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harrington, ed. Norman E. McClure [Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1930], p. 110)

  8. King James, of course, was well known as a religious poet himself. He translated DuBartas's Uranie into English, invited the author to visit him in Scotland in 1587, translated Psalms (that were published posthumously), and wrote other religious verse: see the discussion in Lily B. Campbell, Divine Poetry and Drama in Sixteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press and Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1959), pp. 74-83. Campbell says of the religious sonnet sequence of Henry Lok, who came to the Scottish Court as Elizabeth's secret agent, that it was “literary work which would win favour with the Scottish King, who was probably in a similar exercise himself” (p. 131). She notes also that “Sir John Harington … during the reign of King James undertook to translate the Psalms and sent them to the King for criticism” (p. 54). It is not surprising that Ben Jonson began the collection of largely secular poems in Under-wood with three religious lyrics.

  9. In the context of the “cult of Elizabeth,” which had appropriated to itself both the language of Petrarchan amorousness and some of the features of Catholic Mariolatry, Southwell's elevation of religious over secular poetry (a traditional gesture on the part of a sacred poet) and Constable's choice of the Virgin Mary rather than the sonnet mistress or the Queen as the object of praise are both indirect forms of political protest.

  10. See, for example, La Corona 5.

  11. See, for example, Letters, pp. 48-54, 137-39.

  12. I refer by number to the twelve sonnets printed as a set by Gardner, but use “1635-HS” to designate the four additional sonnets printed in the 1635 edition and “W-HS” to refer to the three poems found in the Westmoreland MS.

  13. Gardner (Divine Poems, p. 81) suggests the autumn of 1608 as a date of composition.

  14. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 260.

  15. See, for example, the 1608 letter to Lord Hay (quoted in R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life [New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970], pp. 161-62).

  16. See my discussion of these topics in “‘Love is not love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” ELH 49 (1982): 407-18.

  17. John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 15-59.

  18. In a letter to Goodyer, Donne described her reaction to his announcement that he intended to take orders: “… she had more suspicion of my calling, a better memory of my past life, then I had thought her nobility could have admitted” (Letters, p. 218).

  19. Gardner (Divine Poems, p. 152) suggests 1608 as the year of composition, while Novarr estimates “late in 1608 or early in 1609” (Disinterred Muse, p. 93).

  20. For Donne's relationship with Mrs. Herbert, see Gardner, Elegies and Songs and Sonnets, pp. 251-55; Bald, Life, pp. 180-84; H. W. Garrod, “Donne and Mrs. Herbert,” Review of English Studies 21 (1945): 161-73; and the four letters printed in Gosse, 1:164-67. In describing Mrs. Herbert's household at Charing Cross, where she generously entertained many friends, Amy Charles uses Donne's funeral sermon for her to emphasize the piety that was mixed with her hospitality: “Not only did Mrs. Herbert see to it that prayers were conducted morning and evening in her home, but Donne tells us, she herself went to church for daily offices: ‘From this I testifie her holy cheerfulnesse, and a Religious alacrity, (one of the best evidences of a good conscience) that as shee came to this place, God's house of Prayer, duly not onely every Sabbath … but even in those weeke-dayes’” (A Life of George Herbert [Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977], p. 42). The verse letter Donne sent Mrs. Herbert in 1608 (before her second marriage, to the much younger Sir John Danvers), bespeaks an easy social familiarity. In it, Donne uses encomiastic topoi in a comically teasing manner. He humorously alludes to his own clientage (in which he vied with, as well as enjoyed the company of, other “noble'ambitious wits” [35] who gathered socially about Mrs. Herbert in her “Cabinet” [34]). He contrasts this healthy vying for her favor with the vicious competition of the larger world. In this smaller context, she is like a “Prince” (11) but lacks princely “faults” (11); she “dares preferre” “Truth” (12), rather than evil men—the kinds of “wicked” (8) political scramblers for “great place” (6) whose success Donne resented. The speaker's feigned envy of her fiancé, whose writings are portrayed as competing with his and others' for her affectionate attention, finally turns into a compliment as the poem's speaker declares “so much I doe love her choyce, that I / Would faine love him that shall be lov'd of her” (51-52). The poems Donne sent to her to read might have included such occasional pieces as “The Crosse” and “Upon the Annunciation and Passion falling upon one day. 1608.” The former poem, identified by Gardner as a work that seems “more like a Verse-Letter than a Divine Poem” (Divine Poems, p. 92), defends the cross as a religious artifact against the kind of radical Protestant criticism to which King James responded in the 1603 Hampton Court Conference (Gardner, Divine Poems, p. 92), but, despite the public issue involved, Donne probably used the work to express his own belief in the legitimacy of using the cross for devotional purposes, communicating this attitude to someone who, like Mrs. Herbert, would have agreed with him.

  21. Gardner dates the first six Holy Sonnets between February and August of 1609 (Divine Poems, p. xlix) and the second six, along with the four penitential sonnets between 1609 and the writing of The Second Anniversarie (Divine Poems, p. 1). Of the Westmoreland sonnets, the first two (“Since she whome I lov'd” and “Show me deare Christ”) seem clearly to have been written after Donne's ordination, and the third (“Oh, to vex me, contraryes meete in one”) probably belongs to the same period.

  22. Roy Schafer, “The Loving and Beloved Superego in Freud's Structural Theory,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 15 (1960): 163-88.

  23. Donne lost his father at the age of four and he grew up with Dr. John Syminges as a stepfather (see Bald, Life, pp. 36-38).

  24. Carey, Donne: Life, Mind, and Art, pp. 122-25.

  25. I agree with the analysis of these twelve poems as the enactment of a process of discovery in Carol Marks Sicherman, “Donne's Discoveries,” Studies in English Literature 11 (1971): 84-87.

  26. See the discussion of the Holy Sonnets in Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, pp. 264-75.

  27. Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, p. 270.

  28. William Kerrigan, “The Fearful Accommodations of John Donne,” English Literary Renaissance 4 (1974): 337-63.

  29. See, for example, Murray Roston, The Soul of Wit: A Study of John Donne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 163-84.

  30. Kerrigan, “Fearful Accommodations,” pp. 351-56.

  31. Lewalski (Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973], p. 105) uses this term.

  32. Earl Miner is right, but only in a limited sense, when he says of the religious poems: “… there is almost none of that antagonism of the secular poems against his audience” (The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969], p. 173).

  33. By now the emphasis on the importance of Ignatian meditation for Donne's religious poetry found in Martz's Poetry of Meditation (for the Holy Sonnets, see pp. 43-56), has been corrected by a counteremphasis on Augustinian Protestantism: see especially William Halewood, The Poetry of Grace: Reformation Themes and Structures in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1970) and Lewalski's Protestant Poetics.

  34. I include Donne's service to Dean Morton in the years preceding the composition of his own polemical works.

  35. In the introduction to her edition, Evelyn Simpson calls the Essays “essentially private meditations” (p.x), while Joan Webber says they are “closet sermons” (Contrary Music: The Prose Style of John Donne [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1963], p. 16). Bald cites an undated letter to Goodyer in which Donne refers to his preparation for Communion by solitary “arraignment of my self” in which practice he “digested some meditations of mine, and apparelled them (as I use) in the form of a Sermon” confessing “I have not yet utterly delivered my self from this intemperance of scribbling” (Letters, p. 228, quoted in Bald, Life, p. 299).

  36. Donne writes of the biblical Israelites that all their sufferings “were … as Physick, and had only a medicinall bitternesse in them” (p. 90).

  37. Bald (Life, pp. 298-99) believes the reference to “desart retiredness” points to Donne's Mitcham years, but it is as likely that the Essays were written on a visit to a place like Sir Edward Herbert's Montgomery Castle or while Donne was in France.

  38. Peter Beal ([comp.] Index of English Literary Manuscripts [London and New York: Mansell, 1980-], 1:247) points out a manuscript copy of the poem in Goodyer's hand. British Library MS Add. 25707 entitles the piece “Mr J. Dunne goeinge from Sr H G: on good fryday sent him back this Meditacion on the waye” while British Library MS Harl. 4955 has “Riding to Sr Edward Herbert in wales” (See Gardner, Divine Poems, p. 98). See Bald, Life, pp. 269-71. Some four days after Donne arrived at Montgomery Castle he wrote the following socially complimentary letter to an ill Sir Robert Harley:

    I could almost be content to be desperate of seeinge you while I am in thys contry if I might hope well of your health. The conversation of thys noble gentleman, who refuses me not in hys house, recompences the want of any company; but my sensiblenes of any frind's sicknes ys encreased by the healthfullnes of thys place; for I thinke if Bellarmine knew what immortality dwells here, he would looke that hys Enoch and Elias should come out of thys castle to fight against hys Antichrist. But, Sir, as I was willinge to make thys paper a little bigger than a physician's receit lest that representation should take your stomach from yt, so I wyll avoyd to make it very longe or busy, least your patient would have done. It shall, therefore, onlely say that which if I were goinge to my grace should be the honorablest peice of my epitaph, that I am your humble and affectionate servant.

    HMC Portland, 3:6

  39. On the symbolism of movement in the poem, see A. B. Chambers, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward: The Poem and the Tradition,” ELH 28 (1961): 31-53.

  40. Donald Friedman, “Memory and the Art of Salvation in Donne's Good Friday Poem,” English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973): 421. Cf. Sicherman, “Donne's Discoveries,” pp. 68-74.

  41. Friedman, “Memory and Salvation,” p. 430.

  42. Friedman, “Memory and Salvation,” p. 424.

  43. Friedman, “Memory and Salvation,” p. 441.

Principal Works

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*The First Anniversarie. An Anatomie of the World. Wherein By Occasion Of the untimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailtie and decay of this whole World is represented 1611

*The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progress of the Soule. Wherein, By Occasion Of the Religious death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the incommodities of the Soule in this life, and her exaltation in the next, are Contemplated 1612

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several steps in my sickness 1632

Poems 1633

Works. 6 vols. (poetry, essays, sermons, devotions, epistles, and prose) 1839

Pseudo-Martyr (essay) 1610

Ignatius His Conclave: or, His Inthronisation in a Late Election in Hell: wherein many things are mingled by way of satyr; concerning the disposition of Jesuits, the creation of a new hell, the establishing of a church in the moone (essay) 1611

Deaths Duell (sermon) 1632

Juvenalia; or, Certaine paradoxes, and problems (prose) 1633

LXXX Sermons (sermons) 1640

BIATANATOΣ. A declaration of that paradoxe, or thesis, that self-homicide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise. Wherein the nature, and the extent of all those lawes, which seem to be violated by this act, are diligently surveyed (essay) 1646

Essayes in Divinity (essays) 1652

Selected Passages from the Sermons (sermons) 1919

The Showing forth of Christ: Sermons of John Donne (sermons) 1964

*These works are collectively referred to as The Anniversaries.

†In later centuries, this first edition of Donne's poetry was succeeded by other, more authoritative editions, notably those issued in 1895 and 1912. H. J. C. Grierson's 1912 edition is considered definitive and contains Songs and Sonnets,Epigrams,Elegies,Heroicall Epistle,Epithalamions,Satyres,Letters to Severall Personages,An Anatomie of the World,Of the Progress of the Soule,Epicedes and Obsequies upon the Deaths of Sundry Personages,Epitaphs,Infinitati Sacrum,Divine Poems, and Holy Sonnets, Donne's Latin poems and translations, as well as poems of questionable authorship attributed to Donne in early editions.

‡This work was published with a 1652 printing of Juvenalia; or, Certaine paradoxes, and problems.

John L. Klause (essay date winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Klause, John L. “Donne and the Wonderful.” English Literary Renaissance 17, no. 1 (winter 1987): 41-66.

[In the following essay, Klause examines how Donne uses the concept of miracles and alchemy—the science of changing matter into gold—in his elaborate, sometimes satirical metaphysical conceits in poets such as “Loves Alchymie,” “The Canonization,” “The Extasie” and “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day,” as well as in religious essays.]

In Ignatius His Conclave Donne mocks Paracelsus, portraying “Bombast of Hohenheim” as a foolish innovator whose empty, in some ways pernicious, works and pomps fail to win him distinction even in the precincts of hell.1 Since Donne's writings often rely upon the alchemical “mystery” to which Paracelsus contributed, the satirist's contempt, playful as it is, may seem like ingratitude. We cannot take seriously his reference to Paracelsus as “an excellent Chirurgian” (Biath., p. 216). Even so, Donne's implicit acknowledgment that alchemy might have important imaginative uses is perhaps tribute and atonement enough. He goes shamelessly to the “pregnant pot” for conceits that will prove love to be “imposture” (“Loves Alchymie”) or authentic sanctity (“The Canonization”); for a language that can speak rapture or despair (“The Exstasie,” “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day”); for a sermon-rhetoric that might render God more comprehensible or make sin more likely to be feared. The concoctions, refinements, and sublimations, the balms, elixirs, electrums, tinctures, limbecks and stones, the quintessences, phoenixes, eagles, and doves all seem an essential part of Donne's vocabulary. He is fortunate to be able to play the Paracelsan expert.

Donne could hardly avoid this role once he discovered it; for there is a deep if narrow affinity between his impatient “Hydroptique” soul and that of the character whose lust for alchemy has come to seem archetypal, Sir Epicure Mammon. Mammon's desire was to “firke nature up, in her own center” (The Alchemist, 2.1.28).2—to “drive” or “press” her, also (the word “firk” can bear both meanings, and with sexual overtones) to “cheat” her. Through his alchemist-pander, Subtle, he would “sublimate” his delights by pitching them ever higher in a series of distillations, hoping for the delirious enjoyment that would result from seizing pleasures out of season and concentrating them in a moment.

Great Salomon's Ophir! He was sayling to't
Three yeeres, but we have reach'd it in ten months.
                                                                                                                        The secret …
Cures all diseases, comming of all causes,
A month's griefe, in a day; a yeeres, in twelve.

(2.1.4-5, 63-66)

Donne was hardly so crass a sybarite as Sir Epicure, but his imagination was in its own way greedily alchemical. In his poetry and in the poetical flights of his prose he often appears to be “firking nature up,” heightening moments by foreshortening them, hastily, importunely tricking “Quotidian things” (“Prince Henry,” 7) into yielding a magic or ecstatic experience. This practice accounts in large part for the distress that many readers have felt about what might be called the factitiousness of Donne's art. Modern criticism has sought to explain and sometimes to defend Donne's apparently cavalier manipulation of ideas in his quest for a truth of feeling (both the truth that is uniquely accessible to feeling: for which le coeur a ses raisons … ; and the truth which is feeling itself: what is more real or authentic than “mere” knowledge), as though he might be allowed to cheat his way like an alchemist to a quintessence of surpassing value.

Drummond, Dryden, and Doctor Johnson had seen “metaphysical” poetry as inimical to sentiment. But T. S. Eliot, moving beyond Grierson's observation that Donne's lyrics were a “blend” of “feeling and ratiocination,” posited that in the poetry “thought” was in fact ancillary to “feeling.” J. E. V. Crofts found Donne's thought to be no more than a “convolvulus growth of intellectual whim-whams,” which created a “kind of suspense …, endangering and making more arduous his heart's right of way,” but which yielded finally in all its irrelevance to “passion: the passion of love, or the passion of faith.” The “poetry of meditation” which Louis Martz and (from a different perspective) Barbara Lewalski have discerned in Donne's writing involved a “fusion of passion and thought,” but aimed at “cultivat[ing] … emotional tumult,” meditation having its proximate end in “the affections,” its ultimate end in the “love” that is felt, willed, and acted upon. In more recent commentary, Murray Roston has compared Donne with religious moralists of the Counter-Reformation and mannerist artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who toyed with facts and logic in order to prove the validity of a non-propositional truth, a spiritual experience beyond the competence of thought. Less devoutly, more reductively, but within the tradition, John Carey has contended that for Donne, “argument … is at the service of the will. Logic is a convenient and adaptable screen for appetite.”3

These suggestions that Donne's imagination is a limbeck,4 which attempts by devious means to transmute the dross of reason into the gold of passion, alert us to important features of his work and character. We may still wish to know, however, since the answers are not as obvious as they seem, what the “feelings” are that he hopes to experience and why he strains so insistently after them. Are they as various and contradictory as the moods that his poems embody? Or can they be related to a dominant passion that colors and directs them all? Are they as ordinary as the lust, love, hate, fear, disgust, despair, and dread that we hear so clearly in Donne's voice?5 Or should we, mindful of his disdain for the conventional, search for an exotic passion at the source of his energies? And is there more to be said about the factitiousness that affords these energies release? Help with these questions may come less from a consideration of alchemical processes, which were useful to Donne primarily as metaphors, than from a study of their more legitimate congeners, miracles, whose magic, unlike that of the “Almighty Chymicks” (“The Bracelet,” 44), catered to a deep and holy hunger. The alchemist boasted of a power that would produce wealth, which could buy pleasure. He wrought marvels, so he professed, by tricking and cajoling nature, and the wonder he inspired in those who observed his “achievement” merely attended the act. God, the worker of miracles, the author of nature, had loftier ends. The evocation of wonder was central to his purpose, and the experience of the miraculous might satisfy a soul's appetite as would nothing else.

Donne writes often about miracles, not always with solemnity or reverence. If he uses them to flatter a patroness—the Countess of Huntington (“a new starre … / Is miracle”) or the Countess of Bedford (“my verse built of your just praise … / And made of miracle”)—he may as readily work them into a witty insult to an anonymous lady:

I would that age were by this paper taught
What miracles wee harmlesse lovers wrought.
                    First, we lov'd well and faithfully,
                    Yet knew not what wee lov'd, nor why,
                    Difference of sex no more wee knew,
                    Then our Guardian Angells doe;
                                        Comming and going, wee
Perchance might kisse, but not between those meales;
                              Our hands ne'r toucht the seales,
Which nature, injur'd by late law, sets free:
These miracles wee did; but now alas,
All measure, and all language, I should passe,
Should I tell what a miracle shee was.

(“The Relique,” 21-33)

The poet grieves, not because the woman has died (in the usual sense), but because she is no longer a marvel of fidelity and chastity. In panegyric or obloquy miracles tend to become, like alchemical processes, mere tropes.

As an apologist for Protestant Christianity, Donne must never deny the essentially miraculous character of his religion; and he often refers to the wonders wrought by God in the Old Testament, even more frequently to the miracles of Christ and the Apostles in the New. But like Protestant theologians before him, who wished to make their faith less mystical and at the same time to answer the taunts of Roman adversaries that the paucity of miracles in the Reformed Church proved it to be without divine sanction,6 Donne would restrict the age of miracles to the era of primitive Christianity.


When Donne is concerned with miracles in their own right he adopts several, sometimes inconsistent, points of view. Donne the enlightened rationalist refuses to be impressed by the “Mirabilarii & Mythologistes” who in the name of piety flood the world with spectacular manifestations of divine or saintly power (Ps.-M., p. 110). Nor does he believe in the efficacy of “reliques” and “charms” and “incantations” (Serms., X. 126).7 He does not credit the assertion of hagiographers that “St. Francis was seen to goe out of the wound in Christ's side with a banner, and a great Armie,” or that the ground at Cologne, “where some of S. Ursulaes eleven thousand Virgines are buried … will cast up … any that is enterred there, except shee were of that company” (Ps.-M., 110, 139; see also 126-27). He will not give the Virgin Mary leave to “keep a shop of Miracles greater than her Sons” (Essayes, p. 85), much less protect from irony her latter-day emulators: “of [the Roman Church's] last made Goddesse, Francisca Romana, they say: that the bed where shee lay with her husband, was perpetuall Martyrdome to her, and a shop of miracles” (Ignatius, p. 67).

[Christ] came to call [sinners] by the power of Miracles when he lived upon earth, and then he staies to call by the power of his word, now he is ascended into heaven; for as a furnace needs not the same measure and proportion of fire to keep it boiling, as it did to heat it; but yet it doth need the same fire …, so the Church of God needs not miracles now it is established; but still there is the same fire, the working of the same spirit to save sinners.

(Serms., I.314)8

That is not to say that “God doth no Miracle now,” for “that were to shorten his power, or to understand his counsels” (Essayes, p. 84; see also Serms., VIII.366). Besides, one would surrender too much to the enemy to deny that the Reformation was “advanced and prospered” by God “miraculously,” or that God's “deliverances” of Church and State (from the Armada, the Gunpowder Treason, the Plague) were miraculous interventions.9

Yet Donne would not have wonders “easie and cheap,” as he finds them to be in the Roman Church: “their quotidian miracles … destroy and contradict even the nature of the miracle, to make miracles ordinary, and fixed, constant and certain.” One demeans the divine power by applying it “to make a miraculous drawing of a tooth, a miraculous cutting of a corn,” curing of a colic, ague, or stone.10

Spokesman for a church most sensitive about the legitimacy and necessity of its mediation between the Creator and his creatures, Donne takes care to exalt the importance of “ordinary means” to union with God (moral effort, prayer, the sacraments, sermons) over less reliable, more spectacular ones. Do not “thinke to have miracles in ordinary, and neglect ordinary remedies,” he tells his flock (Serms., I.264). “Put not God to save thee by a miracle, without means” (Serms., X.63). “Miracle or no miracle is not our issue; witnesses for Christ, require not wonder, but beliefe; we pretend not miracles, but propose Gods ordinary meanes” (Serms., IV.151-52).

Donne has other reasons to qualify his enthusiasm for miracles. Since they emphasize the divine Power rather than Mercy or Justice, they are meant “to terrifie [God's] enemies, rather then comfort his children” (Essayes, p. 84). They may tempt to vainglory one who works them (Biath., p. 168; Essayes, p. 5). They may be performed or counterfeited by the wicked and too easily believed by the credulous (Ps.-M., p. 197; Serms., IX.253; Essayes, p. 83). Miracles do not infallibly work moral transformations, which are more important than any marvellous effects in nature (Serms., VII.381, VIII.294, 303-34). They may threaten the orthodoxy of a Christian's belief, deflecting him from what has been “commanded in Scripture” (Serms., IX.204). And they “lessen the merit of faith”—blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (Essayes, p. 84). Although God may “glorifie himself sometimes, in doing a miracle,” thus inspiring faith and awe in torpid souls, “there is in every miracle, a silent chiding of the world, and a tacite reprehension of them, who require, or who need miracles” (Serms., VII.374).

These attitudes seem as heartfelt as they are official, as plausible in the preacher and apologist as a less pious skepticism was in the rambunctious worldling. And yet in thinking of the character that Donne reveals to us in his works we may judge that there are few who “need miracles” more than he does, few who seek them more strenuously.

Even when he attempts to be theologically correct he betrays his need to save something of the miraculous from a corrosive rationalism. He ridicules and proscribes the “piae fraudes” of the Romans: “No hardness of heart is enough to justifie a toleration of [their] devout deceits and holy lyes” (Ps.-M., p. 88; Essayes, p. 85; also Ignatius, pp. 10-11; Serms., VI.300, VII.126). But he himself sometimes appropriates the formula “pie credi potest” (Serms., VIII.100; also VII.132, VIII.272), finding a miraculous tale profitable if, like the story of the monastery bells in his Devotions, it fosters in a believer salutary religious feelings (Devs., p. 82).11 Donne must not only admit, as he once does explicitly, that “idolatry is better than Atheisme, and superstition better then profanenesse” (Serms., IX.145; also Ignatius, p. 33); he feels compelled to find in his religion an essential place for the mira, the wonder, that his reason has come close to dissipating.

It is a paradox that Donne undertakes this work of rescue through a process of rationalization. If miracles as commonly known have become an embarrassment to the enlightened mind, he will redefine them into respectability—or at least follow certain doctrinal emphases that Reformation thought had brought into prominence for the sake of minds like his own. Luther had taught that the greatest and most important miracles were those worked by God in the soul.12 Donne, exquisitely introspective himself, gladly looks for wonders within, where he may find the only true miracle of “Transubstantiation,” that which is worked by the Holy Ghost (Serms., VII.321; also I.249; II.159; V.50). For a man beset with a “sinne of feare” that he may “perish on the shore” and miss salvation (“A hymne to God the Father,” 13-14) the miracle of grace is the one most worthy of attention (Serms., V.146).

But there are others to be savored if one would attend to them.

There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seeme a Miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once; Nay, the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles, then the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once; The standing still of the Sun, for Ioshuahs use, was not, in it selfe, so wonderfull a thing, as that so vast and immense a body as the Sun, should run so many miles, in a minute; The motion of the Sun were a greater wonder then the standing still, if all were to begin againe, And onely the daily doing takes off the admiration.

(Serms., VII.373-74)

Here again, in this passage from a sermon, the preacher follows Luther, or perhaps more directly St. Augustine.13 Whatever the source of its inspiration, this “natural supernaturalism” is an important feature of Donne's thought and suggests a starting point for determining why the miraculous was indispensable to him and what he might do to satisfy his “need” for it.

In his Essayes in Divinity, he appealed to Aquinas and to some extent to Augustine to show how miracles might be “against the whole Order of Nature,” and yet worked without contradiction by the Author of Nature—the explanation being that “the Miracles which are produced to day, were determined and inserted into the body of the whole History of Nature (though they seem to us to be but interlineary and Marginall), at the beginning.” Therefore, “if we understood all created Nature, nothing would be Mirum to us; so if we knew Gods purpose, nothing would be Miraculum,” and nothing would be seen as “done against the Order of Nature,” which is simply God's “Decree” (pp. 81-82). Our sense of the miraculous, then, is the result of ignorance; as Aquinas says, “admiration … arises when an effect is manifest, and its cause is hidden. … Those things which God does outside those causes which we know, are called miracles” (Summa Theologica, I, q. 105, art. 7). Donne was, however, able to approach the matter from a different perspective, insofar as he believed that (as he asserts in the sermon) true wonder might somehow be the result of knowledge, of a penetration through a film of the “quotidian” which adheres to reality.

Works, therefore, like a parting of the sea, a cure of a cripple, a conversion by the Holy Ghost, may be called miracles and command attention; but Donne seems more interested in the miraculous as a condition—as an objective quality in things (that which evokes wonder), and even more as the soul's rapt experience of the wonder-ful. “O Lord,” he prays at the conclusion of the Essayes, “I most humbly acknowledg and confess, that I feel in me so many strong effects of thy Power, as only for the Ordinariness and frequency thereof, they are not Miracles” (p. 96). When the “effects” become in large measure the feelings themselves, the “frequency” of which need not prejudice their special character, a way has been found for miracle to go, like Milton's Paradise, “within.”

Furthermore, these feelings are no more than knowledge (felt perception) of the most basic and universal truth, and as such may be aspired to (though never fully achieved) by all—by Donne himself, who does not have to wait for special signs from heaven to experience wonder. We have seen that he can protest vehemently against making miracles ordinary; yet, in a way, he wishes to make miraculous nothing less than the whole “ordinary” world. He pities those who “require” wonders because wonder is everywhere available.

This is not in Donne an abrupt change of thought, but an acceptance upon reflection of most congenial doctrine, his divinity in this case following the logic and illogic of his imaginative, affective, and spiritual life. Nor should the history of this life be divided here into periods of impiety and devotion. Several times in his sermons he calls attention to continuities which a wayfaring religious soul might expect to find in its biography—to find as surely as Donne has discovered them in his own. “A covetous person, who is now truly converted to God, he will exercise a spiritual covetousness still. … So will a voluptuous man, who is turned to God, find plenty and deliciousnes enough in him … ; and so an angry and passionate man, will find zeal enough in the house of God to eat him up” (Serms., I.236-37). “God will speak unto me, in that voice, and in that way, which I am most delighted with, and hearken most to” (Serms., X.110; also IV.363, VII.390, VIII.82, 190). Early and late, profane and heavenly-minded, Donne covets, craves, and burns with a zeal for miracles. This is to say, for feelings of wonder which miracles evoke and which, if they are the effects of grace, are miracles themselves.

Desire or appetite is not, strictly speaking, emotion; but emotion can be considered the object of desire. As Socrates proposed in Plato's Philebus (34D-35B), a thirsty man desires not so much a beverage as a feeling that is different from the one he has. He desires to be filled and to feel full. Donne's “thirsts,” then, may be described not only in relation to the external objects that would quench them but to the internal states that these objects, if possessed, would change.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion of the critics cited earlier that Donne is a man who thinks in order to feel. Not only does he illustrate, in ways that many have charted, how genuine and spurious learning and argument may serve “the passion of love, or the passion of faith”; he conceives of mind itself as an appetite, potentially, though not inevitably, “Hydroptique” and “subject to the concupiscence of inaccessible knowledges and transcendencies” (Letters [1651], no. 18; Essayes, p. 13; also “To Mr. B. B.,” 1; Essayes, p. 9). To be wise (sapiens), to understand, is to taste (sapere); to know is to have a satisfied hunger (Serms., VII.338-39, VIII.254). Indeed, Donne tends to describe whatever is momentous in physical or spiritual life in appetitive terms. Earthly love and ambition are, of course, “desire.” But so, Donne insists, in spite of his awareness of the distinction between eros and agape (Serms., VII.445), are their heavenly counterparts. He hardly departs from the mystics in advancing this theme;14 yet his relentless iteration of their teaching suggests that for him it is more than academic orthodoxy.

Metaphors of “inhiation” embody secular lusts: “the thirst / Of honour, or faire death” (“The Calme,” 41-42); the sucking “on countrey pleasures” or mutual sucking of “soules” (“The Good-morrow,” 3; “The Expiration,” 2); the feeding of love unto “corpulence” (“Loves Diet,” 2). The figures remain the same when the passions are transmogrified: “a holy thirsty dropsy melts mee yett” (“Holy Sonnet XVII,” 8); “[Christ is] Deus lactens, God, at whose breasts all creatures suck” (Serms., VI.184); “that God should … poure down his dew, and sweeten that dew with his honey, and crust that honied dew into Manna, and multiply that Manna into Gomers, and fill those Gomers every day, and give every particular man his Gomer. …” (Serms., VII.134); “the kingdom of heaven is a feast. …” (Serms., III.47). Wherever the soul turns it is voracious: for the food of “meditations,” for “the bread,” the “nourishment” of tribulations, or even of martyrdom (Serms., II.49, 54; III.166; Biath., p. 65). When it is “sterved” for a sermon, it may feed on the word (Serms., IV.261). If it should “hunger, and thirst, and pant after … Iustice, or Righteousnesse,” it must be patient, content with the daily bread of grace, which God provides in abundance (Serms., VIII.83, 368). The faithful soul swallows its beliefs “without mastication, or digestion” (Essayes, p. 54); the sinful soul drinks iniquity (Serms., II.114; Ps.-M., p. 91). There are also cosmic appetites of which individual souls are objects. “The Lord … had a Sitio in heaven, as well as upon the Crosse; He thirsted our salvation there” (Serms., III.302)—in opposition to the power of “gluttonous death,” omnivorous disease, and despair, that would have “suck'd out all the marrow” from our bones (“Holy Sonnet VI,” 5; Serms., II.84, VII.242).

Donne's obsession with the idea of God's Justice and with the question of his own salvation has tended to make his religion appear more juridical than affective. God the Judge, however, often yields precedence in Donne's mind to the God who “is a full, and … filling good” (The Second Anniversarie, 445). And although Divine Bounty may pour into his creature innumerable “spiritual blessings,” to “fill all penuries” with “faith,” “mercy,” and “grace,” the preeminent gift is God's communication of himself in his “infinite fulness” to a soul then possessed of “essentiall joy.”15 There is a hole in the human heart in the shape of God, and Donne would have that emptiness filled. He cannot understand how a putative mystic like Philip Neri, whose body had been wasted by his raptures, might complain of a superflux:

The founder of the last Order [in the Roman Church], Philip Nerius …, not onely utterly emptied his heart of the world, but had fill'd it too full of God; for, so (say they) he was fain to cry sometimes Recede a me Domine, O Lord go farther from me, and let me have a less portion of thee. But who would be loath to sink, by being overfraited with God … ? Privation of the presence of God, is Hell; a diminution of it, a step toward it. Fruition of his presence is Heaven; and shall any Man be afraid of having too much Heaven, too much God?

(Serms., I.186)

Donne was not afraid. “Satura nos mane,” he prays, “Satisfie us early … ; let us bee full, and let us feele it, and rest in that fulnesse” (Serms., V.273-74).


Since such a prayer, however, is ultimately eschatological—there can be no fulfillment in this life—what shall the heart feed upon now? Its loves, one might answer. The loves that Donne imagines or knows throughout his life are intense and various, cause for rhapsody, amusement, and bitterness. They are indispensable to him; yet they never seem to be his heart's essential good. He realizes that “no man is an island”; but, as a man hardly insular himself, a devoted friend and lover, he does not greatly fear loneliness—the word occurs only once in his poetry, and then when “defects of loneliness” seem to be “controule[d].”16 (The thought of his eternal separation from God is another matter.) He does not profess to ache for tenderness, which he rarely displays or appeals for in his songs of “love.” He reveals no compulsion to surrender to another as she is, uniquely herself, neither goddess nor saint; and he never, totally enamored, describes a beloved in any detail. When love is uncompounded with alloys of awe, mystical exaltation, rage, or desperation, it often seems more for him an emetic than a “filling good”: he goes to war to “disuse” himself “from the queasie paine / Of being belov'd, and loving” (“The Calme,” 40-41; and see “Loves Progress,” 1-3).

What Donne fears more than lovelessness, perhaps more than anything else, is “stupidity,” “stupefaction.” He repeats the words (or their cognates) obsessively in his prose, where he can be explicit, and he implies the concept everywhere.

He suggests an elementary definition of stupidity in deriding a certain kind of secular sage: “Learn patience, not from the stupidity of Philosophers, who are but their own statues, men of stone, without sense, without affections” (Serms., II.53). Stupidity is much more, however, than a single defect of temperament. It informs and colors other shortcomings—a “stupid” humility or patience or obedience; a “stupefaction of the conscience,” a “stupid neglecting” of duties.17

If there may exist a “holy stupefaction” or “religious stupidity” (Serms., IX.341, VII.285), Donne barely acknowledges it. He is preoccupied rather with the sin of stupidity, which is either a fearful insensitivity to one's own sinful condition, or one of sin's most horrible punishments.

Ignorance …, a kinde of slumbering, or stupidity …, or
Lethargy …, is not only the drousinesse, the sillinesse,
but the wickednesse of the soule.
As long as there is in you a sense of your sinnes,
as long as we can touch the offended and wounded
part …, you are not desperate. … But when you feele
nothing …, your soule is in an Hectique fever … ;
nay, your soule it selfe is become a carcasse.
Oh, slownes is our punishment and sinne.(18)

Whenever, whatever he writes, metaphors, synonyms, and near-synonyms for stupidity pour from Donne with an appalling ease: damps, vapors, and mists, drugs, carcasses, rusts, clods, mosses, and stones; insipidness, paleness, and phlegm—“white alone is a paleness, and God loves not a pale soule”; “ab inimico flegmatico libera me Domine” (from a phlegmatic enemy deliver me, Lord) (Serms., VI.57, II.77-78); laziness, languishment, lethargy, drowsiness, slumber, sullenness, sleep; indifference, idleness, indolence, negligence, sheepishness, slackness, and sloth; dulness, coldness, deafness, blindness, faintness, numbness, nullity, benighting, and death. Stupidity becomes in Donne's imagination almost a cosmic principle, a “Dulness” far more solemn, and real, than Pope's. It is that “quintessence even from nothingnesse, / From dull privations, and leane emptinesse” that Donne finds himself to be “upon S. Lucies Day.”

His antidote to stupefaction is not the passion of love, but the experience of miracles. “No quintessence” itself (“Loves Growth,” 8), love cannot be applied to a malady that is. And Donne longs for a purity of feeling to redeem his soul: for an emotion that is enthralling, but free from the curse of a certain kind of “familiarity.”

He seems to have been embarrassed by intimacy that made majesty appear common. His apology to a correspondent for descending to the “homely” facts of his domestic life can be understood as a protocol (Letters [1651], no. 101). But it is not merely a sense of etiquette that provokes him to complain of “a familiarity with greatnesse,” of ambitions to “speake playnly and fellowly of Lords and Kings.” A “dayly Acquaytance and conversation with it” may “breede a contempt of all greatnesse” (Paradoxes, pp. 23, 28). Donne can be repelled by the ordinary and by the feelings it stirs in him. He cannot allow his mistress to be a body, a face, warm flesh, a lively mind, an attractive character, an intimate partner—a person. Her body is either “my America, my new found lande,” or “Mummy”; her mind, either more than angelic, or non-existence (“To his Mistris, Going to Bed,” 27; “Loves Alchymie,” 23-24; “The Dreame,” 13-20). Donne's love poems generally turn upon crises: seductions, valedictions, betrayals, doubts, meditations that occasion cynicism or despair, ecstasies of love or hatred. They are filled with witchcraft, curses, apparitions, and deaths. There is no sense in the poems that love or the beloved can be a “daily beauty,” which may be rested in and enjoyed familiarly—for that way “queasiness” lies.

Nor would Donne be familiar with the divine. He proscribes “too much familiarity in our accesses, and conversation with God,” and would not “make Jesus his companion [or] his servant” (Serms., X.145; also VII.324, VI.125-26). Abhorring the almost physical intimacies of Roman Catholic devotion, he would keep religious experience removed from the familiarities of “touch”: “Our Saviour Christ corrected Mary Magdalens zeale, where she flew to him, in a personall devotion; and he said, Touch me not: for I am not yet ascended to my Father. Fix your meditations upon Christ Jesus so, as he is now at the right hand of his Father in heaven” (Serms., IX.77; also VII.267). In his own meditations Donne rarely departs from this counsel, and his frequent considerations of the crucified Christ—exceptions to the norm—do little to encourage the devotee to assume a cordial intimacy. When Donne goes so far as to ask to be “enthrall[ed]” and “ravish[ed]” by God (“Holy Sonnet XIV,” 13-14), the metaphors seem so abstract, so sanitized by wit and paradox, so clearly metaphorical, that we could never find in them the ambiguities apparent in the mystics' spiritual “union” or “marriage.” The difference between Donne's experience and that of the mystics is obvious when we compare, for example, the audacious familiarity of John of the Cross—

                    Upon my flowery breast
                    Wholly for Him and save Himself for none,
                    There did I give sweet rest
                    To my beloved one:
The fanning of the cedars breathed thereon—(19)

with one of Donne's boldest approaches to a union with Christ: “I put my hands into [Christ's] hands, and hang upon his nailes. … I put my mouth upon his mouth, and it is I that say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”20 Donne does not in his meditation embrace Christ and put “mouth to mouth.” Rather, Christ's hands become his hands, Christ's mouth becomes his mouth, through which a sinful man speaks to the Father. The palpable other disappears at a certain point of closeness.


As we have seen, Donne attempts to place the more important miracles within the soul; at the same time, he wishes to protect the miraculous from the contamination of a personal, “familiar” mysticism. The miraculous then may become that quintessence of feeling—purified from the debased intimacies of both profane and sacred “love”—with which he woud have his soul be full.21

But miracles, certainly those worked by God, are gifts. If one has no right to them, how is one to depend upon them as essential food? In answering this question we may see how crucial it was for Donne to believe that the miraculous could be known by an eager soul through a process of defamiliarization, in which wonder could be found in that “which is done every day.” He allows himself to be passive before God's special eruptions into history, and he preaches incessantly about the special working of the Holy Ghost in the fundamentally passive soul; but long before his days as a preacher Donne actively sought the “admiration” that was essential to a sense of the miraculous; and he continued to do so as a spiritual alchemist, through methods sanctioned both by his heart and by his religious tradition.

It is possible to view much of his literary achievement as a result of an imaginative quest for the “clean,” controlled, indeed diluted, but intense and somehow mystical experience of wonder. He seems to have distrusted profoundly such plenary mysticism as the Catholic saints claimed for themselves (one may ask how he would have regarded it had he felt that it were truly available to him).22 And the word “mystical” cannot, of course, be applied univocally to all the experiences in which he sought miracles; for wonder was quite often for him an aesthetic rather than a religious affection,23 and the excitement or fascination that colored his feeling could be trivial, morally indifferent, or positively profane. We have noted, however, that Donne saw no absolute, necessary dichotomy between secular and holy energies. A passion for the marvellous was a basic fact of his psychic life, an impulse which had to be redirected, not repressed, when he turned toward religious ends.

And it is important to realize that for Donne wonder was an end. He sometimes speaks as if it were not—when, for example, he preaches that “the first step to faith, is to wonder. … If I know a thing, or beleeve a thing, I do no longer wonder: but when I finde that I have reason to stop upon the consideration of a thing, so, as that I see enough to induce admiration, to make me wonder, I come by that step … to a knowledge … or to a faith” (Serms., VI.265).24 But he knows more than the kind of wonder that is at issue here. Albertus Magnus described the mira that leads to “inquiry” and hence to philosophy as a mere physiological sensation, like the “constriction and suspension of the heart caused by amazement at the sensible appearance of something so portentous, great, and unusual that the heart suffers a systole.”25 This is mira begotten by ignorance, and clearly a means to a higher condition: “wonder is the movement of the man who does not know on his way to finding out.”26 Less respectable than such propaedeutic admiration, and therefore even less to be rested in as an end, is the feeling inspired by “prodigy,” which Donne carefully distinguishes from “miracle” (“Obsequies to the Lord Harrington,” 157; and see “To the Countess of Huntington” [“Madame, Man to God's image …”], 5-8). In contrast, Donne considers the wonder begotten by knowledge to be something ultimate: not a single emotion that serves as a means to virtue but the condition of a virtuous soul whose life is felt at its highest pitch, whose mind, will, and affections are in their final, proper attitude toward truth. “All love is wonder,” says Donne,27 and many other virtues may merge into wonder in a rapt soul—as they do, indeed, in the saints who enjoy the Beatific Vision, the final goal of human striving. Since this Vision is “Rapture” experienced when the soul sees the divine “Essence,” its cause is different from those marvels that produce the wonderful joys of the earth.28 Yet Donne believes in continuities between one state and the next: “The Joy … which the pure in heart have here, is not a joy severed from the Joy of Heaven, but a Joy that begins in us here, and continues, and accompanies us thither, and there flowes on, and dilates it selfe” (Serms., VII.340). Since it is a response of the whole person to truth, wonder, like joy, endures in heaven “not a breach” from its temporal state but an “expansion.” And like other gifts that constitute ultimate happiness it may be sought for itself, not merely propter aliquid aliud, for the sake of something else.29

When one pursues wonder instead of awaiting its discovery, one is often in the position of trying to produce what is to be “found.” This personal exertion, this contribution to the experience, may raise questions about nature and trustworthiness of feelings that are not always recognizable as manifestations of religious piety. But Donne proceeds urgently through and beyond any qualms he may have had about the legitimacy of his efforts. He attempts to “life the veil” of custom and make “familiar objects be as if they were not familiar”—not, of course, in the same way that the Romantics would promise to do, through a surrender to primal impulses or to Visions or to Nature. He searches for feeling in the labyrinth of his own mind, and with the assumption that he has license to be factitious. Something may be done to “worke” the soul up to its “first pitch” again (The Second Anniversarie, 435).

Men force the Sunne with much more force to passe,
By gathering his beames with a christall glasse;
So wee, if wee into our selves will turne,
… may outburne
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.

(“To Mr. Rowland Woodward,” 20-24)

Barred from an appreciation of the truly miraculous by a misperception, one may attain the authentic feeling that truth should evoke by a mis-mis-perception, for it is more important to live feelingly than to see correctly, and we may know the truth by seeing incorrectly. Donne points out that God himself is not straightforward and open in all his dealings, the Author of Truth looking sometimes “as though he would kill,” and meaning “nothing but good” (Serms., X.205), allowing obscurities and inconsistencies in Scripture for his own moral ends (Essayes, pp. 56-57)—this God who works as often through a “Pillar of Cloud” as through a “Pillar of Fire.”30 God is served and devotion exalted in the check or defeat of the intellect as well as in its triumphs. Readers have observed that Donne often deliberately tangles his mind into “perplexities” and fills his work with sophistries that prove only the weakness of the mind that would assent to them.31 He does so in part because he will not give up, despite his awareness that it is provisional and not to be rested in, the “admiration” that comes from ignorance or uncertainty, the awe that wells up in darkness: those churches are “best for Prayer, that have least light” (“A Hymne to Christ,” 29). He also likes to astonish his rational powers by applying them to the “infinite”—not just to the infinite God, but to infinite places, generations, abysses, danger, miseries, disproportions, and (as might be predicted) to infinite love and fulness. At times, he can barely contain his urge to multiply the unmultipliable, lest astonishment be diminished: “God had been an infinite, superinfinite, an unimaginable space, millions of millions of unimaginable spaces in heaven before the Creation.” “Many, and many, and very many, infinite, and infinitely infinite are the terrours of that day” (Serms., VI.363, VIII.69). Donne is fascinated by extreme possibilities—as most of his poems testify—and impossibilities: “we are swallowed up, irreparably, irrevocably, irrecoverably, irremediably” (Serms., VII.57). His thoughts of “nothingness,” often troubled, are also thrilling: he sees exciting profundities in negation—in the thought that for lovers “nothing else is” (“The Sunne Rising,” 22); or in the irony that “perfectest” things “can by no way be exprest / But Negatives” (“Negative Love,” 10-12); or in the mystery that God created the world ex nihilo: “A Leviathan, a Whale, from a grain of Spawn; an Oke from a buried Akehorn, is a great; but a great world from nothing, is a strange improvement. We wonder to see a man rise from nothing to a great Estate; but that Nothing is but nothing in comparison; but absolutely nothing, meerly nothing, is more incomprehensible then any thing, then all things together” (Serms., IV.101). This is all cheating, in a way; for the wonder that Donne produces by tantalizing his mind and making it giddy may not respond to any qualities in Dingen an sich. But he believes that the feeling itself, even when his mind's own motions, and not “things,” are primarily responsible for initiating it, is the proper response to the truth that lies beyond appearances or logic. And he hopes that the different kinds of wonder achieved through various psychological ploys may prepare for or be assimilated into the feeling that is a divine gift. A “true Rapture” is one in which “we doe nothing our selves” (Serms., IV.82); it does not follow that what we fabricate has no relation to truth.

Infinity, negation, or other extremes may create in the intellect a welcome discomfiture; for Donne, however, bafflement is not an end in itself. He does not despise the mind. Knowledge may bring its own kind of exhilaration, helping to feed and stimulate an hydroptic thirst. Donne constantly reveals a susceptibility to the excitement that may be stirred by the driest of sciences or by the most barren of controversies. Despite his reputation for abstractness he knows how to extract wonder from particular facts through close observation. These facts are most often psychological, the meanderings of the idiosyncratic mind portrayed in his verse and devotions, for he is intensely moved by the spectacle of his self-dramatization. But he can also fascinate himself with physical detail: the exquisitely “tender labyrinth of a soft maids eare” (“Satyre II,” 58) or

                              a small blew shell, the which a poore
Warme bird orespread, and sat still evermore,
          Till her enclos'd child kickt, and peck'd it selfe a dore.
Outcrept a sparrow, this soules moving Inne,
On whose raw armes stiffe feathers now begin,
As childrens teeth through gummes, to breake with paine,
His flesh is jelly yet, and his bones threds,
All a new downy mantle overspreads;
A mouth he opes, which would as much containe
As his late house, and the first houre speaks plaine,
And he chirps alowd for meat.

(Metampsychosis, 178-88)32

Donne is most avid, however, for meaning; and he focuses on several categories of meaning which are especially inimical to the stale, flat, and unprofitable “ordinary;” these are paradox, essence, uniqueness, precariousness, disintegration, power, and guilt.


Donne's compulsive attraction to paradoxes is obvious. Whether his mind discovers them in the nature of things, or manufactures them, they feed his heart by creating their own kind of wonder.33 Dulness he counters by the sharpness (acutezza) of wit (argutezza); he makes paradoxes—the suspect ones to be found in the Juvenilia and throughout the Songs and Sonets, or those more solemn and respectable paradoxes of the Christian religion—serve as “alarums to truth” (Letters, Burley MS, no. 11) when his soul is dozing in an unfeeling acquiescence to custom.

One reason for the hold of alchemy over Donne's imagination is its promise of a quintessence. There is something magical for him in the notion that one may appropriate the heart of a being by an intellectual command or an emotional experience of its essential “center” or “kernel.”34 Accident is ordinary; substance, essence, is mystical. It is no mere pedantic theological fact that God himself is “essence.” Donne is actually moved when he remembers (as he often does) that God's “radicall, his fundamentall, his primarie, his essentiall name [is] the name of being, Iehovah” (Serms., V.320; also VI.194, VII.446, VIII.75, 144, 177). “God is in the Center” (Serms., IX.406); and it is only at the center, with essence, that an “insatiate soule” can “serve [its] thirst”:

Then, Soule, to thy first pitch worke up againe;
Know that all lines which circles doe containe,
For once that they the center touch, do touch
Twice the circumference; and be thou such.
Double on Heaven, thy thoughts on Earth emploid;
All will not serve; Onely who have enjoyd
The sight of God, in fulnesse, can thinke it;
For it is both the object, and the wit.
This is essentiall joye, where neither hee
Can suffer Diminution, nor wee;
'Tis such a full, and such a filling good.

(The Second Anniversarie, 45-46, 435-45)

If, as T. S. Eliot said of Donne, he “knew the anguish of the marrow” (“Whispers of Immortality”), he desired, as well, to know the marrow's ecstasy. He allows the soul to have “bones,” so that it may possess a “marrow” of its own (Serms., II.84, 86; VIII.195; IX.292). One of his favorite divine promises is that God will fill his chosen with the essential distillations of “Marrow and Fatnesse” (Serms., III.81, 353; IV.363; VII.53, 304; X.167). The mundane lover also hungers for the essential, mimicking the devout soul by seeking satisfaction in a “centrique happinesse” (“Loves Alchymie,” 2) and turning that hunger into cynical lust: “When hee hath the kernell eate, / Who doth not fling away the shell?” (“Communitie,” 23-24). Because one gets to roots or centers by dissection (The First Anniversarie, 66) or by digging (Letters [1651], no. 27; “Loves Alchymie,” 1), anatomies are as prominent in Donne's mind as alchemical processes.

Essence is by definition singular, unique. Donne believed that the human mind loses its sense of the miraculous when miracles become common, are done “every day.” In a way, then, a grasp of the essential can recover a sense of the admirable. So too can an imaginative awareness of what is unique to a privileged initiation. Donne's lovers provide a “patterne” to succeeding generations (“The Canonization,” 45; “The Exstasie,” 21-28); but in their own time they stand alone in sainthood, separated from the “layetie” (“A Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” 8), at all costs different: in heaven “wee shall be throughly blest,” one lover admits, “But wee no more, then all the rest. / Here upon earth, we'are Kings, and none but wee / Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects bee” (“The Anniversarie,” 21-24). The singularity here resides more in a strained imagination than in the “saints” themselves; yet the fabrication is necessary. Even when Donne religiously longs for a heaven that will level many distinctions, he must try to achieve a sense of his soul's uniqueness. The “numberlesse infinities / Of soules” awaiting judgment, “let them sleepe, Lord” and attend to “mee,” my repentance (“Holy Sonnet VII,” 3, 9). In meditation Donne works to define the individual soul against what seems like the undifferentiated mass composed of every other: “how early did God seek thee, when he sought thee in Adam's confused loynes, and out of that leavened and sowre loaf in which we were all kneaded up, out of that massa damnata, that refuse and condemned lump of dough, he sought and sever'd out that grain which thou shouldst be” (Serms., I.249).

Nothing underscores the value of what is unique more than a threat to its existence; and Donne keeps his mind attuned to things on edge (the universe itself is “almost created lame,” its bodies “Scarce” obeying their natural forms [The First Anniversarie, 192, 268-76; “Good Friday, 1613,” 6]). He even courts a knowledge of their precariousness. His poetry, as Robert Ellrodt has pointed out,35 continually dramatizes the moment of crisis, which undermines confidence in any secure state—even when a lover believes in and boasts of “everlasting day” (“The Anniversarie,” 10). Love may be “a growing, or full constant light”; but constancy must forever live in a fear for itself, since love's “first minute, after noone, is night” (“A Lecture upon the Shadow,” 25-26). Many of the most important events occur “this minute,” “for a minute,” “in a minute,” “in an instant,” “at once,” “in ictu oculi,” “like a flash”—little time being left for one to become comfortable with the quotidian. Donne views life as a progress through single moments—in each of which he requires from God a special act of “Conservation” to keep him from annihilation (Essayes, p. 76)—and toward a single moment, his condition at which instant will determine his fate for eternity.

This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes last point.

(“Holy Sonnet VI,” 1-4)

He can do little to redeem his vulnerability, to make it useful, except by studying it into a source of feeling: thinking of himself as almost a nothing—a “quasi” nothing, “neere a degree towards Vacuitie” (Devs., p. 110; Serms., IX.136; Devs., p. 25)—and considering how small a fillip would do him to death:

What will not kill a man, if a vapor will? how great an Elephant, how small a Mouse destroyes? To dye by a bullet is the Souldiers dayly bread; but few men dye by a haile-shot. A man is more worth, then to be sold for single money; a life to valued above a trifle. … We have heard of death, upon small occasions, and by scornefull instruments; a pinne, a combe, a haire pulled, hath gangred, & kill'd; But when I have said, a vapour, if I were asked again, what is a vapour, I could not tell, it is so insensible a thing; so neere nothing is that reduces us to nothing.

(Devs., pp. 62-63)

Thoughts of disintegration, then, not only warn Donne to lead a moral life, they help him to feel his life, and to feel it as something exceptional. Sighs of love are intensified when they become the breath of the dying (“The Expiration”). An imagined struggle with death can be bracing: “I would not that death should take me asleep. I would not have him meerly seise me, and onely declare me to be dead, but win me, and overcome me. When I must shipwrack, I would do it in a Sea, where mine impotencie might have some excuse; not in a sullen weedy lake, where I could not have so much as exercise for my swimming” (Letters [1651], no. 18). Death taunts Donne into the half-serious intellectual exertions of Bianthantos, or into an imagined physical recovery: “Death came so fast towards me, that the over-joy of that recovered mee” (Letters [1651], no. 117). And Donne taunts back: turning decay into eloquence in his Devotions and Sermons, sneering at the death of death, dressing himself in his shroud and lying in his coffin near his “playes last scene.” Death sanctifies his “metaphysical shudder” when it creates religious devotion out of thoughts that he is “ground even to an attenuation, and must proceed to evacuation, all waies to exinanition and annihilation” (Devs., p. 106). Nothing is “ordinary” in the valley of the shadow of death, where there is always possible a remarkable contiguity: “A bracelet of bright haire about the bone” (“The Relique,” 6).

Of course, Donne fears disintegration, but then he cherishes his fears. Just as he proscribes the fear that attenuates lust or love (“The Dreame,” 24-26; “The Good Morrow,” 8-9) yet admits (officially, at least) that “reverentiall feare” ennobles love (“Womans Constancy,” 6), he resists the “sinne of feare” that issues in doubt or despair (“A Hymne to God the Father,” 13) but exults in “a religious fear,” a “holy amazement” and the “terror” inspired by the Holy Ghost (Serms., III.72, VII.316, VIII.68).36 In his attempts to reinterpret miracles, he does not abandon their meaning as signs, which has always been prominent in theological discussion of the miraculous.37 If authentication of truth must come to him through feeling rather than through visible spectacles in nature or from a voice in the whirlwind, he accepts with relief and gratitude the trembling that ought to accompany an experience of the numinous. Donne's God is, as John Carey says, a “powerhouse,” but not, as in Carey's suggestion, because he finds “in God and in his own position as God's spokesman, a final and fully adequate expression of his power lust.”38 Donne needs to suffer the effects of the power more than to wield it, to be broken and burned, to “receive Corrections” as signs that he is “worth” God's “anger” (“Holy Sonnet XIV,” “Good Friday,” 37-39). Fear of anger and awe in the face of power are alternatives to stupefaction, proving that his soul has not become a carcass; proving too, perhaps, as much as any theological argument or visible effect, that he depends on Another for his life. And guilt itself, his soul's disease, because it requires the most potent and therefore most terrifying therapy, can be regarded as a felix culpa (Serms., VI.238-39).

Since Donne never seems to feel “miracles” without effort, he may never be certain that wonder is given to him by truth, and therefore that he has ever really known the miraculous. His greatest exertion must then be to maintain a faith that he is not merely “firking” himself up when performing his spiritual alchemies—such faith as any person must have who methodically practices devotion while desiring only to be moved by a Spirit not his own. It is the prerogative of God to make human and divine motions in the soul congruent or continuous, and what can a soul do but leave the matter of authentication to him?

If one's own efforts may be the sign or the occasion but never the cause of a divine gift, they need not be categorically honest (that is, anything more than humanly imperfect) to be valuable. Donne knows that dissimulation and sophistry may bespeak love. Although repelled by cosmetics, he can urge (without being utterly ironical): “love her who shewe her great love to thee by taking this paines to seem lovely to thee” (Paradoxes, p. 4). His “wit of love” must often fall back upon this principle for its validity. In “Goodfriday, 1613,” for example, when the poet tells his Saviour, “I turn my back to thee, but to receive / Corrections” (37-38), he is clearly not telling the simple truth, for he has already suggested that “Pleasure or business” has “carried” him westward (7-9), the direction in which he continues to ride. Not strong enough to bend his soul toward the east, he can nevertheless offer as proof of his will-to-love the labor of his wit, which though the effort of pretense turns an embarrassing truancy into a pious act. Donne does not, however, wish his strainings after miracles to be only signs of love or tokens of worship, as his strainings after witty arguments and conceits might be: wonder is for him an end in itself; and he keeps to the end of his life a faith or a hope that it is for his heart a true and “essentiall” good.

In the sermon, “deaths Duell,” which he preached when death was coming “fast towards” him, and in which his powers seem concentrated as they rarely had been in his oratory, Donne recapitulates many of the themes that bear upon his attitude toward the wonderful. He fears a “dangerous damp and stupefaction, and insensibility” (Serms., X.240). He contemplates “miraculously strange … super-miraculous” works of God (243). He thinks of death as hunger, love as thirst, and joy as a filling good (243-44, 231). He seeks to feel and to convey astonishment. In paradoxes: “We celebrate our own funeralls with cryes, even at our birth”; “the Lord of life could dye” (233-243). In vivid images of “corruption and putrifaction, of vermiculation and incineration, of dissolution and dispersion,” of appetites dead and rampant: “my mouth shall be filled with dust, and the worme shall feed, and feed sweetely upon me” (238) in thoughts of “nullification” and the “irrecoverable” (239). In alertness to such crucial “moments” as the “instant” of the body's “dissolution” and “redintegration,” or the “minutes” of God's mercies, or the “houre” of Christ's passion (238, 240, 245). And in submission to “the God of power” (231). Donne complains that some “miserable men” have “made themselves too familiar” with Christ (245). Yet at this late hour, contemplating his crucified Lord, he goes farther than ever toward a mystical familiarity that has always embarrassed and angered him. He leaves his congregation and himself “in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares, there suck at his woundes” (248). The body of Christ no longer disappears at Donne's close approach; for him the age of earthly miracles has passed, the season of a clean, sober, effortful, spiritual wonder is at an end, and it is time for touching.

In preaching his own funeral sermon Donne tried to turn the private “exercise” of dying into a public lesson. His passion for the original and for the unique coexisted in him with the need to speak as a representative man; and it would not be wrong to search in his experience for something paradigmatic—as those have recognized who have studied his art and piety in relation to the ideologies of Mannerism and the Baroque. His need for miracles must surely have a prominent place among those features of his temperament that distinguish him as a man of his age: as one who flees from “medievalism” toward “enlightenment,” compulsively rationalistic, who is yet frustrated by the impotencies of reason, even scornful of them, and who longs for the ecstasy that some rational programmes would drily mock out of existence.39

But Donne would never have liked being considered a mere paradigm. He was most acutely aware of the personal drama of accomodation between his own necessities and the official ideals that he attempted to embrace. This drama, we must (and can only) suspect, was tense with the suppressions necessary for compromise.

He desired and courted wonder, but he feared wildness as much as he dreaded stupefaction. When he professes to “hate extreames” (“The Autumnall,” 45), to believe that “means bless” (“Satyre II,” 107), to value “Meane waies” and to seek an “evennesse [of] pietie” (“A Litanie,” 116-17, 208-09), we can see the plausibility of his becoming an Anglican priest, and can understand why he would try to tame the miraculous somehow and make it respectable. The mysticism for which he allows himself to yearn is neither radical nor heroic. He was perhaps too cautious, too skeptical, too egocentric to surrender to rapture. He would be “ravished,” but without being duped or annihilated. We must also admit, however, that he is hardly a blithe, convincing champion of the golden mean. If mediocritas is virtus, Donne seems to have spent much of his life yielding unvirtuously to temptation. He was ordained only reluctantly in the church which became his refuge from and atonement for extremes, and even as a churchman who was himself given and who preached only the “ordinary meanes” to blessedness he tried to turn those means into miracles. He did not wish to remain earthbound until he could “be caught up … to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4.17; see Serms., IV.63-88); but his via media was, until the meeting and touching at the end of it, hardly a straight, untroubled thoroughfare.


  1. See pp. 19-25. The editions of Donne's works cited in this essay are listed, with abbreviations as follows:

    Biath.: John Donne, Biathanatos. Reproduced from the First Edition [1647], with a Bibliographical Note by J. W. Hebel. New York, 1930; Devs: John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Ed. Anthony Raspa. Montreal, 1975; John Donne, The Divine Poems. Ed. Helen Gardner, 2nd ed. Oxford, 1978. (I follow Grierson's numbering of the Holy Sonnets.); John Donne, The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Oxford, 1965; John Donne, The Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes. Ed. W. Milgate. Oxford, 1978; Essayes: John Donne, Essays in Divinity. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson. Oxford, 1952; Gosse: Edmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne. 2 vols. London, 1899; Ignatius: John Donne, Ignatius His Conclave. Ed. T. S. Healy, S. J. Oxford, 1969; Letters: John Donne, Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651). A Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction by M. Thomas Hester. Delmar, N.Y., 1977. Other letters are quoted from Gosse (above) and from Evelyn M. Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne. 2nd ed. Oxford, 1948; Paradoxes: John Donne, Paradoxes and Problems. Ed. Helen Peters. Oxford, 1980; Ps.-M.: John Donne, Pseudo-Martyr (1610). A Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction by Francis Jacques Sypher. Delmar, N.Y., 1974; Serms: The Sermons of John Donne. Ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson. 10 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1953-1962.

  2. Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, in vol. V of Ben Jonson (Oxford, 1925-1952).

  3. H. J. C. Grierson, Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1921), p. xvi; T. S. Eliot, “Rhyme and Reason: the Poetry of John Donne,” The Listener 3 (19 March 1930), 502-03; J. E. V. Crofts, “John Donne: a Reconsideration,” in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association (Oxford, 1937), reprinted in Helen Gardner, ed., John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), p. 89; Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Conn., 1962), pp. 14-15, 25, 83, 147; Barbara Lewalski, Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise (Princeton, N.J., 1973), p. 86; Murray Roston, The Soul of Wit (Oxford, 1974); John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (New York, 1981), p. 231.

  4. Donne himself compares “Wit” to alchemy (“To E. of D.,” 13-14).

  5. Why not “Donne's” voice, or voices? This reading of Donne's work assumes (because there is no space to argue the point) that in spite of the multiple and often contradictory poses of the poet, essayist, and preacher, something of the “man” can be discerned behind all the masks, and that the “masterful and duplicitous ventriloquism” noted by Judith Scherer Herz is not somehow mysteriously disembodied. She attributes to Donne an “Escher-like virtuosity” that is its “own excuse for being,” and she finds fault on principle with attempts like John Carey's to study “Donne's putatively retrievable mind.” (See “An Excellent Exercise of Wit … : Donne and the Poetics of Concealment,” in C. J. Summers and T. L. Pebworth, eds., The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne [Columbia, Mo., 1986], pp. 3-14.)

  6. See, for example, Thomas More's attack on Tyndale in The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. VIII, part i, ed. Louis A. Schuster, et al. (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1973), pp. 251ff. For the Roman Catholic attack in Donne's own day, see Robert Bellarmine, De Notis Verae Ecclesiae, IV.xiv, in Opera Omnia, ed. Justinus Fèvre (Paris, 1870-1874), vol. II.

  7. Donne's uncles, the Jesuits Ellis and Jasper Heywood, seem to have possessed a relic of their kinsman, Sir Thomas More. “Either of them being desirous to haue [the tooth] to himselfe, it suddenly, to the admiration of both, parted in two” (Cresacre More's Life of More, quoted in R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life [Oxford, 1970], p. 25).

  8. See also Essayes, pp. 84-85; Serms., X.172-73. Cf. Luther Sämmtliche Werke (Erlangen, 1826-57), XVI.191; L.86-87.

  9. Ps.-M., Preface, Sig. D4v; Serms., VI.251-52; VIII.155, 305; I.219.

  10. Serms., III.370; IV.278, 311; also VII.294 and Essayes, pp. 84-85.

  11. We can never be sure, of course, when in the enigmatic Biathanatos Donne is to be taken in utter seriousness.

  12. Werke (Erlangen Ausgabe), XVI.190; LVIII.95; LIX.3.

  13. Cf. Augustine, City of God, X.xii; Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883-), XVI.301; XXII.121.

  14. See Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (1911; rpt. London, 1977), passim.

  15. Serms., III.73; VI.172; Essayes, p. 16; Devs., p. 123; Serms., IX.106; IV.287ff.; The Second Anniversarie, 443.

  16. “The Exstasie,” 44. The adjective alone appears frequently in the verse, but usually with the meaning “only.”

  17. Essayes, p. 5; Ignatius, p. 25; Ps.-M., p. 174; Serms., VI.329; III.196.

  18. Serms., VIII.257; III.364-65; “To Mr. R. W.” [“If, as mine is”], 22. See also Devs., p. 8; Serms., V.386.

  19. “Obscure Night,” 26-30; trans. Arthur Symons; quoted in Underhill, Mysticism, p. 420.

  20. Serms., II.300. Cf. “Holy Sonnet XI.” See also Serms., III.313ff., on the text: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.” “Kiss the Son” turns out to mean, “hang at his lips,” or “listen to his word.”

  21. The “intellectual” piety of Donne is sometimes contrasted with the more purely “sensible devotion” of Crashaw. This distinction, while understandable, does full justice neither to the affective element in Donne's devotion nor to the intellectual element in Crashaw's. The contrast might be sharpened by a consideration of the attitude of each man towards “familiarity”—which is related to what Anthony Low, with deference to Christopher Ricks, calls in Crashaw's work the element of “embarrassment” (Love's Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry [New York, 1978], p. 157).

  22. See Michael F. Moloney, John Donne: His Flight from Medievalism (Urbana, Ill., 1944), pp. 165-95; Helen Gardner, “John Donne: A Note on Elegy V, ‘His Picture,’” Modern Language Review 39 (1944), 333-37.

  23. On the aesthetic affection of wonder, see James V. Mirollo, The Poet of the Marvelous: Giambattista Marino (New York and London, 1963).

  24. It is the view of Dennis Quinn (“Donne and the Wane of Wonder,” ELH 36 [1969], 626-47) that Donne always looks upon wonder as a means (p. 629).

  25. Quoted in J. V. Cunningham, Woe or Wonder. The Emotional Effect of Shakespearean Tragedy (Denver, Col., 1951), p. 79. The passage is from Albert's Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, II.vi.

  26. Cunningham, p. 80.

  27. “The Anagram,” 25. The definition does not seem to be vitiated by its use in this ironical elegy. See also “A Funerall Elegie” for Elizabeth Drury, 29, where “Wonder and love” may well be a hendiadys; and “A Valediction: of the Booke,” 28-29.

  28. Serms., VIII.313, 231-32. See Evelyn Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1948), p. 96.

  29. See Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III.xxxiv, xxxvii.

  30. Essayes, p. 39; Letters, (Sir Tobie Matthew Coll.), Gosse, II, 207; Serms., IV.83; V.293; VI.189; VII.275, VIII.121; IX.233-34, 362-63.

  31. See especially Roston, The Soul of Wit.

  32. See Carey, John Donne, p. 149.

  33. On the traditional association of paradox with wonder, see Quinn, “Donne and the Wane of Wonder,” p. 633.

  34. On Donne's preoccupation with the image of the circle, see Michael L. Hall, “Circles and Circumvention in Donne's Sermons,” JEGP 82 (1983), 201-14. Hall cites earlier studies of the same subject.

  35. See L'Inspiration personelle et l'esprit du temps chez les poètes métaphysiques anglais (Paris, 1960), I.i.82-94.

  36. On the relationship of fear to love, as set forth in the meditative tradition, see Martz, The Poetry of Meditation, pp. 146-47. See also Robert J. Blanch, “Fear and Despair in Donne's Holy Sonnets,American Benedictine Review 25 (1974), 476-84.

  37. See, for example, James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York, 1908), s.v. “Miracles”; The New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), s.v. “Miracles (Theology of).” In the New Testament, “signs” (semeia) is one of the words for miracles, which are seen as giving testimony to the divine mission of those who work for them.

  38. Carey, John Donne, p. 122.

  39. Moloney, opposing the medieval to the Renaissance man, concluded that in Donne “the rationalistic spirit close[d] to the theologian the avenues of mystical experience to which the poet's intuition was an open sesame” (Flight from Medievalism, p. 195). The rationalist in Donne was not, I think, so clearly victorious; and since Moloney wrote (in the 1940s), we have become much more aware that the Baroque world-view was in crucial respects quite different from that of the Renaissance.

Further Reading

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Correll, Barbara. “Chiasmus and Commodification: Crossing Tropes and Conditions in Donne's Elegy 11, ‘The Bracelet.’” Exemplaria 11, no. 1 (1999): 141-65.

Examines metaphors of economics and commodification in Donne's poems “The Bracelet,” “Of Weeping,” “The Canonization,” “Elegie X: The Dream,” and several other poems to illustrate Donne's “erotic economy.”

Harland, Paul W. “Donne and Virginia: The Ideology of Conquest.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 127-52.

Examines the ideology of conquest in Donne's Sermons.

Lazo, Rodrigo. “In Search of El Dorado: Desire and History in Donne's Language of Colonization.” Exemplaria 8, no. 1 (1996): 269-86.

Lacanian reading of Donne that focuses on desire and tropes of colonization.

Roebuck, Graham. “Into the Shadows … : Donne's ‘Farewell to Love.’” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 215-27.

Detailed reading of Donne's “Farewell to Love.”

Rude, Donald W. “John Donne in The Female Tatler: A Forgotten Eighteenth-Century Appreciation.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 153-66.

Cites examples of eighteenth-century female reaction to “The Extasie” and “The Anniversarie” in the popular press.

Sanchez, Reuben. “Menippean Satire and Competing Prose Styles in Ignatius His Conclave.John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne. 18 (1999): 83-99.

Study of satire in Ignatius His Conclave.

Shawcross, John T. “Additional Donne and Herbert Allusions.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 167-76.

Comparison between Donne and George Herbert in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature.

Singer, Daniella E. “Despair and Subjectivity in the Erotic Verse of Sidney and of Donne.” Neophilologus 80, no. 3 (July 1996): 493-500.

Compares Phillip Sidney's “Astrophil and Stella” with Donne's Elegies.

Todd, Richard. “‘Farewell to Love’: ‘Things’ as Artifacts, ‘thing[s]’ as Shifting Signifiers.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 229–41.

Examines some textual difficulties in and suggests multiple readings of Donne's “Farewell to Love.”

Additional coverage of Donne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Before 1660; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 121, 151; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, and Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 10, 24; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 2, 11; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature; World Literature Criticism; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; and World Poets.

Tom Cain (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Cain, Tom. “Donne and the Prince D'Amour.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 14 (1995): 83-111.

[In the following essay, Cain examines Donne's Satyres in historical context to shed light on Donne's political and religious coming of age.]

Despite his involvement with such figures as Essex and Egerton, and his membership of two parliaments, Donne remains politically enigmatic. For those many readers who still see his poetry as characterized by the very fact that it transcends its time and its roots in history this has never been a problem. Until recently, however, almost all those who have refused to cut Donne off from his times and his first audience have seen him as a conservative monarchist. Whether presented as ideologically committed, as a timeserver, or as the helpless voice of the dominant discourse of power, he sounds much the same in his absolutist attitudes when ready by an old-fashioned humanist like Gosse or a New Historicist like Goldberg. This tradition goes back to Walton, whose account of the young Jack is partly the product of the Doctor's self-editing memory, partly of Walton's own hagiographic program. It is reinforced by the recent tendency to emphasize his apostasy, and by readings of the love poetry which trace the discourse of power in the privacy of the lyric, the lover an absolutist mimic of the prince he affects to reject. This near-consensus does not square, however, with the anti-monarchical, subversive elements in Donne's satires, to which as he wrote “there belongs some fear,”1 nor with the detached, skeptical observations on the court and politics in his letters, Problems, and, at times, in his sermons.2 Nor, as will be seen, does it square with the views of many of his closest friends. Over the last few years, a number of critics have sought to qualify this agreement over Donne's supposed absolutism. In particular, Annabel Patterson has drawn attention to the relevance to Donne of the political activities of his circle in the early 1600's, and David Norbrook, revising his earlier reading of Donne as a high-church monarchist, has argued cogently that “an analysis which paid closer attention to the contexts of his writings would … qualify the view of his unequivocal absolutism.”3 The most important single aspect of the “contexts” of a coterie poet like Donne is his coterie. If Donne, more than most poets, challenged his audience with new ideas and strategies, it is also true that his élite audience were active, in a sense creative recipients of his poetry, the holders of shared values and expectations which conditioned its form and function. This paper tries to add something to our understanding of his political values by examining his relationship with one of the leading figures in the Donne coterie, the lawyer, MP, and wit Richard Martyn.

The royal court, in which power, absolute or not, was still located, was viewed by Donne and by many of his earliest readers from the perspective of the Inns of Court.4 The Inns, and especially Martyn's Middle Temple, were increasingly linked to another court, the High Court of Parliament, in particular the House of Commons, in the growth of whose power lawyers played a disproportionately important role. Commons committees regularly met in the Inns, and the lawyers' commitment to the Common Law, and knowledge (or selective memory) of precedent were major factors in the development of opposition to the Crown.5 Several of Donne's circle who were members of an Inn played a prominent part in the growth of parliamentary opposition to absolutist policies: notable among them were Martyn himself, Sir Edwyn Sandys, Christopher Brooke, John Hoskyns, Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, William Hakewill, Sir Robert Phellips and John Selden. Indeed, though revisionists might dispute it, it is reasonable to argue that these men, most of them friends from Oxford days, formed the nucleus of early opposition to any extension or (as they saw it) abuse of the royal prerogative. Donne's career made him (like Wotton) cautious about political statement. He was hampered successively by his Catholicism, by his employment with Egerton, by his search for another patron, and finally by his receipt of royal and courtly patronage.6 He was also attached to discretion, “the mother of all vertues,” in most forms of discourse in a way that Martyn was certainly not:7 but while Donne's private views cannot simply be equated with those of his friends, it is most unlikely that he was markedly out of step, before or after his ordination, with men who were and remained close to him, and who were so much involved in the genesis of his work. Their explicit, sometimes courageous anti-absolutist attitudes must color our reading of Donne, in particular the Donne of the Satyres, who employs the apparently gratuitous simile to illuminate the corrupt lawyer who can “lye in evry thing, / Like a Kings favourite, yea like a King” (“Satyre II,” ll.69-70), or the Donne who can write that

                                                                                                    men do not stand
In so'ill case here that God hath with his hand
Sign'd Kings blanck-charters to kill whom they hate,
Nor are they Vicars, but hangmen to Fate.

(“Satyre III,” ll. 81-92)

This could serve, were we not predisposed to see Donne as an absolutist, as a summary of what men like Martyn, Sandys, Brooke, Hoskyns, and Hakewill stood for in the years leading up to the Civil War. Even more so could the unequivocal statement from “Satyre IV,” made in the context of the court, that he is “none's slave”:

                                                                                                    Low feare
Becomes the guiltie, not th' accuser; Then,
Shall I, none's slave, of high borne, or rais'd men
Feare frownes?

(ll. 160-3)

Richard Martyn demands attention as more than an adjunct to Donne. His influence as an intellectual, cultural, and political figure has never been recognized. It certainly reached Ben Jonson, who dedicated Poetaster to him, and probably caricatured him affectionately as Pol Martin, the handsome and sharp-witted “huisher” to Lady Tub in A Tale of A Tub, and as Martino in The Case is Altered. In the latter play, Martino plays a bout at cudgels with Onion and “breaks his head” (Act II, Scene vii). Martyn was “bastinadoed” in just this way in 1598 by Sir John Davies, who alternated between excessive adulation of him as “that singing Swallow … To whom I owe my service and my love,” and this violent assault.8 Christopher Brooke, John Hoskyns, Hugh Holland, and John Davies of Hereford were other poets who were close to him. His influence probably touched Shakespeare, Marston, and Chapman, and extended beyond literature to Lionel Cranfield, to the Virginia and Levant Companies, and to the House of Commons. His contemporaries underline the impact he made on them personally, emphasizing his eloquence, his physical grace, and, most of all, his wit. Aubrey summarizes, “He was a very handsome man, a graceful speaker, facetious and well-beloved,” and Wood adds there was “none more admired by Selden, Serjeant Hoskyns, Ben Jonson & c than he,” and that he left “various poems,” to which Fuller adds the tantalizing information that his poetry was “suppressed.”9 Whether this suppression was political or merely accidental, it was efficient enough to leave only one undistinguished sonnet addressed to Thomas Coryate surviving as the undisputed corpus of the “Swallow whose swift Muse,” according to Davies,

                                                                                                    doth range
Through rare Idæas, and inventions strange
And ever doth enjoy her joyfull spring,
And sweeter then the Nightingale doth sing.

(“Orchestra,” stanza 130)

Though there is no unequivocal proof, the presumption must be that Donne and Martyn knew each other at least from the early 1590's. They may well have met still earlier, when Martyn entered Broadgates Hall, Oxford, in Michaelmas 1585, aged 15. Donne had matriculated at Hart Hall in the previous year, aged 12. Other mutual friends were at Oxford during the later 1580's, Henry Wotton, John Hoskyns, Hugh Holland, Benjamin Rudyerd, and the two John Davies amongst them.10 Martyn, who came from a wealthy Exeter merchant family, only stayed about a year at Oxford, (though Prince says he was a “noted disputant” there).11 He went to New Inn, an inn of Chancery linked to the Middle Temple, in 1586, and was admitted to the Middle Temple itself in November 1587, three months before Robert Cotton, another friend he shared with Donne.12 Dennis Flynn has recently thrown doubt on the length of Donne's stay at Oxford, and shown that he may have gone abroad in 1585 to avoid the Oath of Supremacy. What is certain is that he did not go on to Thavies Inn until 1591 and thence to Lincoln's Inn in 1592, five years later than Martyn.13 He may already have been in touch with members of the Middle Temple before that date, however, through Martyn or Cotton, or perhaps through Henry Goodyer, who had moved from Cambridge to the Middle Temple in 1589 (not to Gray's Inn, as Bald states).14 When Donne arrived at Lincoln's Inn he quickly became, like Martyn, involved with the Christmas festivities of his Inn; since Lincoln's Inn and the Middle Temple traditionally had a close relationship, especially with regard to revels, the two young law students are likely to have come into contact. Donne was elected Master of Revels in February 1593, perhaps with a view to the following Christmas, since plague had already prevented communal celebration of Christmas in 1592-3. There was, as it turned out, not to be any in 1593-4 either, and Donne declined the appointment when chosen Steward of Christmas in 1594-5. This refusal need not be taken as anticipating the rather sombre attitude to Christmas which his Christmas sermons were to counsel from 1621 on, but it is certainly true that Martyn's career as a Lord of Misrule was altogether longer and more successful than Donne's.15 Records of the Middle Temple Christmas revels were not kept, unless some disturbance demanded disciplinary action. The Middle Temple set up an unnamed “Chrismas Lord” in 1588-9, the year following Martyn's arrival, a fact known only because, ultra vires, he tried to sack the Steward for “ill provision of victual and other abuses.” The following year “Divers gentlemen [were] put out of commons for misorder on Candlemas night,” when they apparently set up a “Lord of Misrule.” Again, nobody is named, but the next year, 1590-91, despite an explicit warning, Martyn, William Fleetwood, and John Davies are amongst eight named who “broke the ordinance by making outcries, forcibly breaking open chambers in the night and levying money as the Lord of Misrule's rent.” The next year the same group were at it again. This time they “broke open chamber doors and abused many gentlemen of the House, as appears by the examination of townsmen who were with them, and some of this Fellowship knew them notwithstanding their disguised attire.” Instead of being fined, Martyn and Fleetwood were expelled for “their misdemeanours and abuses to the Masters and Benchers,” while Davies was suspended. Martyn was readmitted the following June.16 He clearly continued as a Lord of Misrule, however, and a few years later Donne's first surviving reference to him is significantly by his title as the ruler of a festive court that is ironically compared with Elizabeth's. He wishes, he tells Wotton (another Middle Templar), that he had: “some news to ease this itch of writing which travayles me for in our owne or in the d'amours Court I know nothing worth your reporting. …”17 The “D'Amour's Court” was that ruled over by the Prince Martino, whose Christmas revels of 1597-8 were described in detail by Benjamin Rudyerd. Rudyerd closes his account with a description of Signior Martino, in which the facetious tone he has hitherto adopted modulates into one altogether more serious and affectionate:

The Prince was of face thin and leane, of a cheerful and gracious countenance, black hair, tall bodyed, and well proportioned; of a sweete and fair conversation to every man that kept his distance. Fortune never taught him to temper his owne wit or manhood. His company, commonly weaker than himself, put him into a just opinion of himselfe of his own strength. Of a noble and high spirit, as farre from base and infamous strains as ever he was from want; soe wise that he knew how to make use of his owne subjects, and that to theyr own contentment; soe eloquent in ordinary speech, by extraordinary practise, and los of to much tyme, that his judgment, which was good, studdy could not mend it. He was very fortunate, and discreet in the love of women; a great lover and complainer of company, having more judgment to mislike than power to forbear.18

Martyn was associated with this Princely role for many years, so much so that Hugh Holland's eulogy published in 1620, two years after his death, opened with his title: “Princeps Amorum, Principum nec non Amor.”19 He carried the role over to his social relationships, and more importantly, into the House of Commons, which he and Donne entered together in 1601. There Martyn's defense of political liberty was conducted with something of the licensed liberty of the Lord of Misrule. Such a person would have been the ideal reader in 1601 of Donne's “Metempsychosis,” written that summer, a poem whose facetious, often subversive satire has puzzled critics, but which, like the Satyres, the Paradoxes, and the satirical booklist, Catalogus Librorum Aulicorum, would have been highly congenial to Martyn.

Martyn was probably responsible for organizing Middle Temple festivities during several succeeding Christmases, including that of 1601-2, at which, as Manningham recorded, “wee had a play called Twelve night or what you will,” a play which famously opens with a Prince d'Amour called not Martino but Orsino.20 Donne, who wrote to Sir George More telling him of his marriage on the very day of this performance, may well have been too ill or preoccupied to attend: if he did, he too might have initially identified with Orsino, but would soon have found he had more in common with Malvolio, likewise imprisoned for aspiring to marry above himself. Whether or not he attended these particular revels, it is certainly a mistake to assume that Donne's employment with Egerton from 1598 meant the severing of his contacts with the Inns: Egerton retained close connections with Lincoln's Inn, of which his surviving son John was still a member, and Donne's own attachment is suggested by his continued close relations with Christopher Brooke, and by his subsequent appointment as Divinity Reader. He thus probably witnessed or participated in such events as the 1613 masque staged by the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth, the more so since he had written an epithalamium for the event. Martyn, and his and Donne's friend and patron Sir Edward Phellips, were “the chief doers and undertakers” of the masque, while Christopher Brooke was a main organizer for Lincoln's Inn, as was another friend of Donne, Sir Henry Hobart. The King enjoyed the performance, and “strokes the Master of the Rolls [Phellips] and Dick Martin.”21 This is just one of those “occasions of delight and content” as he called them, which Martyn continued to organise up to his death. At Christmas 1615-1616, for example, he entertained four ambassadors at the Middle Temple, and a few months later was one of those charged “to take care concerning the barriers at the creation of the Prince [of Wales].22 In the same year he wrote to Buckingham, defending himself (not altogether convincingly) against accusations of political hostility towards the King. Not only have his political activities been misinterpreted, but his role as an entertainer must be considered:

not only our fellowships (where still I have been, & now am emploied) but others also will testifie for mee with both there hands. wch may well argue wth many other of like kinds, that I had no … untractable humour to his Majesty's desires.23

Here, the applause of the auditors is a testimonial not only to Martyn's political loyalty, but to his suitability to be appointed to an unspecified post, probably Recorder of London. That dancing should qualify one as a senior judge might not have surprised those who had read Davies' “Orchestra” (or who remembered Hatton's rise to power). It may also seem less surprising to us now, in the wake of work on the masque by Stephen Orgel and others, than it would have done to Bald, for whom Martyn was merely a “frivolous character” (p. 190). There is, however, another more elusive aspect to the link between Martyn's political career and his masqueing one, and that is the way in which he seems to extend the role of Lord of Misrule into the House of Commons as well as into his social relationships. This is not to say that he was not a serious and effective politician. Wit and daring could minister to an efficient directness, as Cecil acknowledged when, meeting Martyn as leader of a deputation from the Commons to confer with the Lords in 1610, he said “I am glad to encounter with you, Mr. Martin, for I assure myself I shall have short and apt answers.”24 Earlier, as will be seen, Cecil had taken a less polite view of Martyn's directness. Martyn's wit was certainly not always under full control. In 1614, it was to lead him into serious trouble with the Commons, whilst outside it sometimes led to physical violence: thus, Donne's letter to Wotton was presumably written just before, or well after, the extraordinary news that surely was worth reporting from Martyn's Court, that he had been savagely attacked by his former acolyte, John Davies, in the hall of the Middle Temple, an event which almost destroyed Davies' career, and which led to the intervention of Cecil and the Lord Chief Justice to bring about a reconciliation. The most plausible explanation for Davies' attack is that he had been goaded beyond breaking point by Martyn's satire at his expense during the revels that had just finished. Much later, in 1616, Thomas Coryate was to ask to be commended to Martyn “though at a mans house in woodstreet, he used mee one night verie perversly.” The man may have been Cranfield, who lived in Wood Street, and the perverse usage was probably not sexual (if it was, even Coryate would surely not mention it in quite this public way), but of a kind that recalls Martyn's behavior at the Middle Temple Christmas celebrations in the early 1590's. Whatever the injury, it suggests that Martyn's role as Lord of Misrule carried over to contexts in which we would not expect to find it.25

Donne was returned to the last of Elizabeth's parliaments in October 1601 as MP for Brackley (a seat in the gift of his employer, Lord Keeper Egerton), and Martyn as MP for Barnstaple (nominated by his fellow-Devonian, Robert Chichester). Edward Phellips, Edwyn Sandys, Francis Bacon, William Hakewill, Sir Maurice Berkeley, John Davies, John Bond, and Tobie Matthew, all mutual friends or associates of Donne and Martyn, were members of the same parliament. Donne and Martyn are next linked in 1607, along with other members of this group, when Tobie Matthew writes that his particular visitors in prison were “Sir Maurice Barkley, Sir Edwyn Sands, Sir Henry Goodyer, Mr. Richard Martin, and Mr. John Donne.” Matthew places Donne and Martyn firmly together as friends with similar views:

Both Dunne and Martin were very full of kindness to me at that time, though it continued not to be hearty afterward. By their discourses with me, when I was in prison [for his politically embarrassing conversion to Catholicism], I found that they were mere libertines in themselves; and that the thing for which they could not long endure me was because they thought me too saucy, for presuming to show them the right way, in which they liked not then to go, and wherein they would disdain to follow any other.26

“Libertines” probably means free-thinkers in religion rather than sexual adventurers. Matthew presents them as joint leaders of their coterie, resenting his presumption, and taking up much the same position over religious affiliation that Donne had expressed a decade earlier in “Satyre III”: doubting wisely would have looked to Matthew like libertinism. A year or so later a letter of Donne's to Goodyer (March 1608) mentions Martyn:

I came this evening from M. Jones his house in Essex, where M. Martin hath been, and left a relation of Captain Whitcocks [Whitelock's] death, … without doubt want broke him; for when M. Hollands company by reason of the plague broke, the Captaine sought to be at Mris. Jones house, who in her husbands absence declining it, he went in the night, his boy carrying his cloakbag, on foot to the Lord of Sussex.27

“Mr. Jones” was not Inigo, but probably Ned Jones, the alleged co-author of the satirical poem The Parliament Fart, said (in British Library, Add. MS. 23339) to be by “Ned Jones, Dick Martyn, Hoskins, & Brooke / the fower compilers of this booke. / Fower of like witte, fower of like arte. / And all fower not worth a farte.” “Mr. Holland” was almost certainly Hugh, while “Captain Whitcock” points to further links between Martyn and Donne: he was elder brother of James Whitelock, another Middle Templar, a friend of Martyn (who stood as godfather to his daughter) with similar political views. Captain Whitelock, suspect of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, was a follower of the Earl of Northumberland, yet another Middle Templar whom Donne knew well enough to ask him to act as intermediary between himself and Sir George More: it was Northumberland, himself viewed, like his father and uncle, as a distinctly subversive figure,28 who undertook in February 1602 to deliver to Sir George the letter in which Donne informed him that he had married his daughter secretly “about three weeks before Christmas.” Sir George in his turn was to be one of the MPs who came to Martyn's defence when he was censured in the Parliament of 1614.

In 1612 Donne addressed his sole surviving holograph poem from Amiens to Martyn's reputed mistress, Lettice Carey, and her sister, Essex Rich.29 This may or may not be significant. Much more so is the presence of both men two or three years earlier at the “Convivium Philosophicum” at the Mitre Tavern. Other members present that day were Christopher Brooke, Lionel Cranfield, Arthur Ingram, Sir Robert Phellips, Sir Henry Neville, John Hoskyns, Richard Connock, Sir Henry Goodyer, John West,30 Inigo Jones, and, apparently a half-serious guest of honour, Thomas Coryate.31 They are very much the same group as that which Coryate describes in a letter, written from India in 1615, as “the right Worshipfull Fraternitie of Sirenaical gentlemen, that meet the first Fridaie of every moneth, at the signe of the Meremaide in Bread streete.”32 In this letter Coryate asks to be remembered to, among others, “M. John Donne, the author of two most elegant Latine Bookes, Pseudo martyr, and Ignatii Conclaue” (a salutary reminder of the basis of Donne's wider reputation at this time) and “M. Richard Martin, Counsellor, at his chamber in the middle Temple, but in the Terme time, scarce else.” Other friends named by Coryate in this way include Brooke, Hoskyns, George Garrard, William Hakewill, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, Hugh Holland, John Bond, and William Stansby, Jonson's and Coryate's printer. Other letters add the names of the Master of the Rolls, Sir Edward Phellips, whose “Honourable Table” these “worthy gentlemen” frequent, and his secretary Lawrence Whitaker, while Coryate's earlier published Crudities (1611) acknowledges Lionel Cranfield as “the original and principal animator of me,” and contains, notoriously, a huge number of introductory tributes, those by Martyn (his only known published poem) and Donne significantly placed together. In the body of the text there is also a half-serious epistle from Martyn to Wotton, then Ambassador to Venice, introducing Coryate.

The significance of Martyn and Donne's membership of the Mitre and Mermaid clubs, which had probably existed in some form for several years,33 is that most members were active MPs with anti-absolutist views similar to Martyn's. Christopher Brooke, one of both Donne's and Martyn's closest friends, was almost as outspoken as Martyn in opposition to absolutist tendencies in the Parliament then in progress.34 When he died Brooke had, amongst a substantial collection of paintings, portraits of the Earl of Southampton and Richard Martyn.35 Hoskyns, another very close friend of Martyn, witness of his will and author of the epitaph on his tomb in the Temple Church, was in 1610 one of the leaders, with Martyn, of the attack on Cowell's Interpreter, which argued for the absolute power of the king. Hoskyns became more famous for his speech against Scottish favorites in 1614, an attack which resulted in a year's close imprisonment in the Tower. William Hakewill, like Martyn an Exeter man, was also to be arrested, after the parliament of 1621; he played a large part in drafting the Petition of Right of 1628, and made a famous and influential speech, published in 1641, but made originally in the Commons in 1610, on The Liberty of the Subject. Sir Robert Phellips, son of Sir Edward, was arrested along with Hakewill in 1621. Phellips had been one of the leading speakers against Stuart prerogative government both in that parliament and in 1614, and by 1625 had become the leading spokesman for the Commons. (Also arrested in 1621 was John Pym, probably never a member of the Mermaid Club, but related to Martyn by marriage; he followed Martyn to Broadgates Hall in 1599 and the Middle Temple in 1602).36 Lawrence Whitaker, from 1615 a follower of the Earl of Somerset (whose patronage Donne was also courting during these years), and then Clerk of the Privy Council during the 1620's, necessarily took a more cautious view during those years, but moved towards Parliament in later years until, in 1648, he served on the committee which ordered the trial of Charles I. John Bond, editor of the satirists Horace and Persius, was another outspoken MP in this group, while Sir Henry Neville was probably the Henry Neville of Berkshire who was implicated in Essex's rebellion (it is probable that most of this circle sympathized with Essex),37 and who was active in the parliaments of 1604 and 1614. Connock and Goodyer seem, like Donne, to have had much quieter careers as MPs, though Connock was to speak out in defense of Martyn in the 1614 parliament. His attachment as Auditor to Prince Henry is a reminder that most of this group had official or unofficial links with the latter's household.38

The political careers of a significant number of the Mitre/Mermaid group, then, give a suggestive context not just to Donne's Satyres and early prose, but to his later work also. It is clear that a surprising number of his coterie were strong opponents of absolutism not just in the 1590's, when biographers have conventionally allowed Donne to be critical of the establishment, but up to and beyond his ordination in 1615. This is especially true of Martyn: while Donne is never recorded as having spoken in parliament, Martyn took to the Commons in 1601 like “a duck to water.”39 He had already spoken several times before he launched a powerful attack on monopolies, hyperbolically blasting the target that Donne is aiming at in “Satyre IV,” written 3 or 4 years earlier,40 where the satirist's interlocutor

knowes who'hath sold his land, and now doth beg
A licence, old iron, bootes, shooes, and egge-
shels to transport; Shortly boyes shall not play
At span-counter, or blow-point, but they pay
Toll to some Courtier.

(ll. 103-7)

Martyn may have recalled Donne's list when he stood up to speak

for a town that grieves and pines, and for a country that groans under the burden of monstrous and unconscionable substitutes, to the monopolitans of starch, tin, fish, cloth, oil, vinegar, salt, and I know not what. Nay, what not? The principal commodities both of my town and country are engrossed into the hands of these blood-suckers of the commonwealth.41

He saw monopolies as a serious threat to liberty “by … supreme authority.” Even Cecil conceded that in some forms “it taketh from the subject his birth right:” again, one is reminded of Donne's assertion that he is “none's slave.” These themes of the rejection of “servility,” the safeguarding of traditional liberties, and the curbing of prerogative powers, were to run through Martyn's career in Parliament. When, a week later, he single-handedly forced a cowed or apathetic House into a successful division in opposition to Cecil and Raleigh, Cecil, furious at his humiliation, and presumably mindful of Martyn's reputation as a Lord of Misrule, accused him of creating “disorder”: “The reputation of this House hath ever been religiously maintained by Order and Government, but now error hath so crept in amongst us that we know not what is Order and what is disorder … [Mr. Martyn] first brake Order.”42 It may have been such considerations that made Donne ascribe a book on The Privileges of Parliament in his mock library catalogue to Tarlton, the most famous Lord of Misrule.

Martyn's next significant political statement was made without the parliamentary privilege Cecil accused him of hiding behind.43 Chosen by the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex to welcome the new King, Martyn's speech threatened to violate the expected codes of flattery and complacency. Flattery was in fact a target: James is warned that in England “flattery will essay to undermine, or force your Majesties strongest constancie and integrity.”44 The kingdom's ills are described in terms reminiscent of Donne's Satyres, with the same cast of corrupt lawyers, flattering courtiers, and simoniac clergy:

Oppression shall not be here the badge of authoritie, nor insolence the mark of greatnesse. The people shall every one sit under his own Olive tree, and anoynt himself with the fat thereof, his face not grinded with extorted sutes, nor his marrow suckt with most odious and unjust Monopolies. Unconscionable Lawyers, and greedie officers, shall no longer spinne out the poore man's cause in length to his undoing, and the delay of justice. No more shall bribes blinde the eyes of the wise, nor gold be reputed the common measure of men's worthinesse: Adulterate gold, which can guild a rotten post, make Balam a Byshoppe, and Isachar as worthy of a judiciall chair as Solomon, where he may wickedly sell that justice which he corruptly bought … no more shall Church livings be pared to the quicke, forcing ambicious Church-men … to enter in at the window by simonie and corruption, which they must afterwards repaire with usurie, and make upp with pluralities.45

The catalogue of corruption and oppression goes on, through restriction of trade, the neglected nobility, the condemned clergy, the wearied commons, as Martyn, speaking as one who has “a heart free from fear or hope” shows James “the agues which keep low this great body” of England. This was an ominous welcome. What the assembled aldermen and lawyers thought of Martyn's analysis of Elizabeth's legacy is not recorded, but Hugh Holland confirms that it was regarded as unusually forthright: writing later in 1603 to Cotton, he says that Martyn “with like liberty as eloquence was not afraid to tell the king the truth.” Annabel Patterson describes the speech as “remarkably challenging,” but nobody else since the seventeenth century has recognized how daring it was. It was reprinted without alteration in 1643.46

In the next parliament, that of 1604-11, Martyn sat as MP for Christchurch in Hampshire. A letter to Donne, no longer in parliament, and exiled for much of this period to the damp house in Mitcham, says that he is one of the “best speakers” of the parliament, along with Bacon, Yelverton, and Sir Edwyn Sandys (Bald, p. 144). Records confirm that he emerges here, with Sandys, as a leader of the anti-absolutist group in the Commons, speaking forcibly in the Goodwin-Fortescue case which threatened to undermine the initially conciliatory, optimistic mood of King and Parliament in the new reign.47 He consistently opposed any absolutist claims to levy impositions, and took a leading part in the debates over Cowell's Interpreter, chairing the sub-committee which condemned that book. For Martyn the King was “the most absolute King in Parliament, but of himself, his power is limited by law.” He was one of a group of six leading members selected “to maintain Argument” at a conference with the Lords on Union with Scotland. Later in the same session he chaired the debates over Cecil's proposed Great Contract. He seems to have worked closely with Sandys, the leading figure in the organization of opposition during this period. Thus, on 9 July 1610 Martyn reports from the Great Committee, usually Sandys' role, and wins for the Committee a free hand to “treat of any proposition touching composition or Bargain with the King.” The Lord of Misrule seems to be developing into a serious and effective, if not sober political leader: but on 14 November, frustrated by the breakdown of negotiations over the Great Contract, the Lord of Misrule returned as Martyn made one of the most extraordinary—and prescient—speeches of this parliament. The royal prerogative, politicized clergy, and the threat to liberty were again his main targets. He feared that “now the contract is like to break. … The King's wants may drive him to extremities.” Privy Councillors were not a threat, since “it cannot be imagined they will ever advise that which will make their posterity servile.” But a political clergy were:

Another sort there are more to be feared, which preach in pulpits and write in corners the prerogative of a king, and dare put into the King (who hath as much natural goodness in him as a man can have) that which hath made him do things here which he never did in Scotland, nor his predecessors in England. What would these men do if they had a king would hearken to them? When the highway to get into a double benefice or a higher dignity is to tread upon the neck of the common law. Have we not sermons made every day to rail upon the fundamental laws of the kingdom? Who will not be afraid when he shall hear a man in high place say, if the King take anything without parliament 'tis his right, if in parliament 'tis his grace? … Did I not hear a hedge-priest say in a sermon that the trial by common law was by 10 fools and 2 knaves?

He introduces a bill to punish them and “to preserve our liberties and to keep them from the means to rise by our danger”:

I had at first made it somewhat sharp; but 'twas short: I would but have hanged them, and so I think we might have been well rid of them; but I was advised by some of my friends to spare that. I then thought of a course that it would be fit to make such slaves (who by such base means as the selling the liberty of the people and the laws would seek to prefer themselves) villeins so that they and their posterity might feel that bondage which they would lay upon others; but this I was dissuaded from too. I have now taken another course, which makes the bill somewhat longer than I meant it, but not much. The first offense to be loss of all their dignities, and make them uncapable of others, and the second a praemunire. If this may pass, it may, I hope, somewhat secure us; if it do not, yet we shall do well to leave a monument behind us that may show to posterity that we do unwillingly endure servitude.”48

This speech has been wrongly called flippant: while not seriously aimed at becoming law itself, the bill was a political gesture, seeking to preserve freedoms that Martyn regarded as a fundamental part of Common Law. It is closely allied to satire in its ironic venom: wit and eloquence are deployed with the deeply serious aim of either securing liberty, or, in that final phrase, leaving a marker to show that it was not given up easily. Political liberty and the liberty of speech exercised by the Lord of Misrule here coincide. Wotton was to write later: “I have noticed in our House, that … irreverent discourse was called honest liberty.” He was thinking of Hoskyns, whose own version of the role of wit in politics is probably closer to Martyn's: “no man ever suffered for mere witt: but yf he lived not to requitt it hymselfe, yet the witt of all posterity took penaunce on his name that oppressed hym … and for my part I had rather dy with witt then live without it.”49 Before we dismiss either of these men as flippant political lightweights, or (in Finkelpearl's phrase) as “disciplinary problems,” we should recollect the issues they embraced, the values they defended, and the dangers they faced.

Perhaps disillusioned, perhaps because of those dangers, Martyn did not stand for the Addled Parliament of 1614. Donne was a member, but again is not recorded as speaking. He cannot have watched dispassionately, however, as his friends Hoskyns and Sir Walter Chute, and Sir Charles Cornwallis, father of another close friend, talked themselves into the Tower. Martyn, who had clearly been disappointed by the failure of his hopes of the last parliament, may well have felt like Sir John Holles, who took his seat unwillingly in 1614, coming “as a bear to a stake … conjecturing this would begin where the other parliament left. Neither was I deceived.”50 Chamberlain supports the view that disillusionment of a similar kind made Martyn fear that if he did continue as a leader of opposition in the 1614 Parliament he would be carried away by anger or frustration. Chamberlain reports that his reason for not standing was “fear of being transported and doing himself harme.” He was “Loth to venter his rising fortune upon his slipperie tongue.” Subsequent events make this ring much more true than Bacon's advice to the King that he need not fear Martyn in a new parliament since he has “money in his purse.”51 If wrong about motivation, however, Bacon's memorandum is significant in its confirmation that there was perceived to be an “opposite party,” with at least three close associates of Donne—Martyn, Sandys and Brooke—among its leaders:

The opposite party heretofore is now dissolved and broken. Yelverton is won: Sans [Sandys] is fallen off; Crew and Hide stand to be serjeants; Nevell hath his hopes; Martin hath money in his purse; Brock [Brooke] is dead [in fact he died in 1628]. Besides they find the vanity of that popular course, the King having kept a princely temper towards them, not to persecute or disgrace them, nor yet to use or advance them.

Bacon may have been right about money, however, not in the sense that Martyn had been bought by the Court party (as some MPs from the previous parliament had been), but that he was developing business and legal interests outside of a House of Commons which he no longer saw as a likely agent of reform. In particular, he, along with Sandys, Brooke, Berkeley and Hakewill, was deeply involved in the Virginia Company, seeing the new colony as a place where the secular and religious liberties that were under threat in the Commons could be preserved. At least twenty of Donne's friends were investors in the Company, and Donne, who had earlier sought the secretaryship of the Company (Bald, p. 162) which had subsequently gone to Martyn, became an honorary member of the Council in 1622, and later that year preached a special sermon to the Company. A facetious letter from Donne to Goodyer (?1610-12) characterizes Martyn amongst his friends by his involvement with the colony. Hugh Holland later called him the “herald and benefactor of Virginia.”52

It was in his role as counsel for the Company that Martyn still ended up addressing the House in May 1614 by special favor. There is no record of Donne's response as Martyn was indeed “transported” by “his slipperie tongue.” He strayed spectacularly from his brief in a speech which was now protected neither by the license of misrule nor by membership of the House. Having spoken for some time on Virginia, he told members “that we were the representative body of the commonwealth; that this was the great school to teach all men the wisdom of the land; and made it appear that we were not all king nor all people.” He then “fell to advising of us how to proceed in making of laws, that our law-making consisted of three points: how to consult, conclude, and demonstrate, and also showed what had been agitated among us and what our success should be in conclusion.” He then attacked “some particular men, [supporters of the prerogative such as Sir Thomas Lake] iterating their own speeches which formerly they had made.” In particular, Secretary Lake's earlier speech on impositions was “alluded unto very grossly and not to be endured.” Martyn's speech can only have reinforced Donne's views on discretion: coming from a non-member, admitted as a special favor to plead a specific case, it caused outrage. It was called “the most unfitting [speech] that ever was spoken in this House.” A formidable group of friends set out, with real or feigned bewilderment, to mount a defense: among them were Robert Phellips, Hoskyns, Brooke, Connock, Sandys, and a less predictable ally, Donne's father in law, Sir George More. Both sides stressed Martyn's contribution in previous parliaments, and in the end the House “respecting his Person, good Affections and former Service” and swayed by his eloquent apology (made the next day) merely warned him not to repeat the offense.53

This satisfyingly typical episode marked the end of Martyn's career in the Commons, and the end of his documented contact with Donne. The next year, Donne was ordained, and Martyn became Lent Reader in the Middle Temple. Annabel Patterson raises the interesting question as to whether, in the light of what he had witnessed in the 1614 Parliament, Donne's decision to give way to James' pressure to take orders “may have been less out of naked ambition than out of despair for any secular change.”54 Certainly despair and frustration may well explain both Hoskyns' and Martyn's apparent recklessness in the House: Christopher Brooke had said a month earlier (18 April) that there was a danger the Commons would “leave our posterity in worse case than our ancestors have left us,” a sentiment which tellingly echoes Martyn's concern with the threat to the liberties handed on to posterity in his speech of 1610. There was a consciousness of major battles being lost, and posterity betrayed. Another lawyer gave a revealing glimpse of Martyn's state of mind on the morning he was to address the House. In the debate that followed his speech

Sir Robert Hitcham said that this morning Mr. Martin came to his lodging and told him that he was in the greatest perplexity that ever he was [in] in his life about a speech that he was to go to make to the House; and desired him to send for some wine for him he found such a deadness over all his parts; and therefore in this perplexity he might be carried to say he knew not what.55

This is exactly in line with Chamberlain's “fear of being transported,” but it also confirms that the digression was in a sense premeditated, something he was driven to do by a deep-seated frustration with political developments: a man as experienced as Martyn could not have felt such perplexity over his Virginia brief alone.

At the same time, the king's policy as outlined by Bacon, of neither persecuting nor advancing the “opposite party,” meant that they each had to arrive at some accommodation with the sources of advancement in the court, the same Scottish favorites, in particular Somerset, whom Hoskyns had threatened in his “Sicilian Vespers” speech (the allusion was to a Sicilian uprising in which the occupying French were butchered in 1282). Further light is shed on Martyn's and Donne's attitudes at this time by a letter from Martyn to their mutual friend Lionel Cranfield, written in December 1614, six months after Parliament was prorogued amidst allegations that men like Hoskyns and Martyn were seeking the death of James and his favorites.56 Martyn is typically frank, and cynical, about the need to pay court to such favorites. He asks Cranfield to:

send to Mr. Hooker the Goldsmith in Cheapside, where amongst other plate of mine yu shall find a little fine trencher salt, wch when it was sent thither was fairly ennameld, & a fitt present for any man, this if it bee in good plight, I would entreat yu on that day when yu send yr owne plate to present to my L. of Sommersett in my name (wth thenclosed directed to him) & to give it what grace yu can afford yr frind. I will not neglect that precept to make frinds wth th'unrighteous Mammon (wherby ar meant the great Ones of ye world) & my fortune, wch I must fortify by prudence (knowing what a beare I have to muzzle) hath no assurance in any vertue that I can bragg of, all wch, if it were more, weigh little in this coster monger time being all owt of fashion.57

Martyn's belatedly-chosen prudence is akin to Donne's discretion, both necessary virtues in a costermonger time, when all places, high and low, were bought through the favor of the powerful. It is perhaps no coincidence that Donne's efforts to acquire a post through Somerset's favor are at their most strenuous in 1614: there is a cynical ambiguity in his flattering remark that “it hath pleased your Lordship to make an other Title to me, by buying me,”58 while it is probable that his epithalamion for the marriage of Somerset and Frances Howard, which took place on 26 December, 1613, was not actually written until during or even after the Parliament of 1614.59 The events and aftermath of that Parliament made it more clear than ever that the unrighteous Mammon had to be befriended, and Hoskyns, Phellips and Sandys, like Martyn, Donne, and, no doubt, Brooke, all paid court to Somerset and then to Buckingham. Martyn's letter of 1616 to Buckingham, in which he tries to repair some of the damage done to his chances by his behavior in the Commons, has already been quoted; Donne's letters to Goodyer late in 1614 show that he, too, was watching the rise of Somerset's new rival with care,60 but “when he first began to pay court to him is not known” (Bald, p. 314). Whether he had to bribe Buckingham for his Deanship in 1621 is also unknown, but his letters to Buckingham that year make it quite clear that he saw Buckingham as the main agent in his promotion (Bald, pp. 371-80). Such use of royal favorites to further one's career, however, does not confirm Donne's absolutist allegiances any more than it confirms those of Martyn, Hoskyns, or Sandys.

Just before his death, Martyn succeeded in his search for preferment: he was appointed Recorder of London through the mediation and financing of his own private Mammon, Cranfield, but he died before his new court, as distinct from the D'Amours Court, could sit. So transparent was the system of bribery that Cranfield, angry at the loss of any return on the £1,500 he had laid out, demanded his money back.61 Goodyer suggested that Donne should write an elegy for Martyn; Donne replied in March 1619:

For your commandment in memory of Mr. Martin, I should not have sat so many processes, if I could incline my thoughts that way. It is not laziness, it is not gravity, nor coldness towards his memory or your service; for I have thought of it oftener and longer than I was wont to do in such things, and nothing is done.62

Five years before, Donne had written that the “Obsequies to the Lord Harrington” was the place where his Muse had “spoke her last” (ll. 256-8). If this was not literally true, it is the case that less and less verse came from his pen in the years after 1614, and the failure to write for Martyn may well be just as he describes it. In the end, it was left to Hoskyns and Holland to write: Hoskyns' epitaph can still be seen on Martyn's tomb in the Temple Church. Holland's Latin eulogy has already been mentioned; a later poem in English is in its way a more moving tribute. Writing in 1625, on the death of James I, Holland recalls the deaths of those closest to him:

                                                            now breathes not any.
Nor Ursula my dear, nor Phil my daughter:
Amongst us death hath made so dire a slaughter.
Them and my Martyn have I wretch survived.(63)


  1. Donne to Wotton, ca. 1600; Burley MS. ff.308v-309, transcription in Evelyn M. Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd. ed., revised, 1948), p. 316. For a discussion of these letters in the Burley MS., see Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, “Donne's Correspondence with Wotton,” JDJ 10 (1991): 1-36.

  2. For reassessment of the political dimensions of the sermons, see JDJ 11 (1992), especially Jeanne Shami, “Introduction: Reading Donne's Sermons,” 1-20; Paul W. Harland, “Donne's Political Intervention in the Parliament of 1629,” 21-37; Gale H. Carrithers, Jr. and James D. Hardy, Jr., “Love, Power, Dust Royall, Gavelkinde: Donne's Politics,” 39-58; and Meg Lota Brown, “‘Though it be not according to the law’: Donne's Politics and the Sermon on Esther,” 71-84.

  3. David Norbrook, “The Monarchy of Wit and the Republic of Letters: Donne's Politics,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth Harvey and Katherine Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 3-36; Annabel Patterson, “All Donne,” ibid., pp. 37-67. See also Annabel Patterson, “John Donne, Kingsman?” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, ed. Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 251-72; Dennis Flynn, “Donne the Survivor,” in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), pp. 15-24; and (though he presents Donne as more clearly in line with “official court policy”) Ted-Larry Pebworth, “‘Let Me Here Use That Freedome’: Subversive Representation in John Donne's ‘Obsequies to the Lord Harrington,’” JEGP 91 (1992): 17-42.

  4. See Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 25-95, for a survey of the Inns' ambiance, and the poetry written there by Donne.

  5. For a recent survey, see Charles M. Gray, “Liberty and the Law,” in Parliament and Liberty From the Reign of Elizabeth to the English Civil War, ed. J.H. Hexter (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 155-200.

  6. For an illuminating discussion of the ways in which the conflicting pressures of patronage bear on a single poem, see Pebworth, “‘Let Me Here Use That Freedome.’”

  7. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. G. R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-61), 5: 199; cf. John Donne: The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters, ed. W. Milgate (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. xxxv-xxxix; and Jeanne M. Shami, “Donne on Discretion,” ELH 47 (1980): 48-56.

  8. “Orchestra Or a Poeme of Dauncing,” stanza 131, in Robert Krueger (ed.), Poems of Sir John Davies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 125; the poem was dedicated to Martyn as “mine-owne-selves better halfe, my dearest friend.” For the assault, see Middle Temple Records, ed. Charles Henry Hopwood, K.C., 4 vols. (London: Butterworth & Co., 1904), 1: 379-80, 381.

  9. John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), 2: 48; Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxoniensis, An Exact History, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (London: F.C. & J. Rivington, 1813-20), 2: 250-1; and The History of the Worthies of England, endeavoured by Thomas Fuller, DD, ed. John Nichols, 2 vols. (London: F.C. & J. Rivington et al., 1811), 1: 306.

  10. R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp.42-3 (hereafter cited in the text as ‘Bald’); see also J. Foster, ed., Alumni Oxoniensis 1500-1714, 4 vols. (Oxford: Parker & Co., 1891-2). Hoskyns and Holland remained especially close to Martyn throughout his life. Edwyn Sandys, a slightly older contemporary, may also have met Martyn at Oxford: he became a fellow of Corpus Christi in 1580.

  11. John Prince, Danmonii Orientales Illustres: or The Worthies of Devon (London, 1810), p.576.

  12. Middle Temple Records, 1: 293. For Martin's friendship with Cotton, see Holland, Pancharis (London, 1603), sig.D6v.

  13. See Flynn, John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 131-4, for the argument that Donne left Oxford after only one term.

  14. Bald, pp. 163-4; and Middle Temple Records, 1: 305.

  15. For Donne's later attitude to Christmas as “a type of the Day of Judgment,” rather than an occasion for celebration, see Dayton Haskin, “John Donne and the Cultural Contradictions of Christmas,” JDJ 11 (1992): 133-57.

  16. Middle Temple Records, 1: 303-4, 311, 318, 326-7, 328, 329.

  17. Burley MS. ff.298, transcription in Simpson, Prose Works of John Donne, pp.312-3.

  18. Le Prince d'Amour, Or the Prince of Love (London, 1660), pp. 89-90.

  19. “Prince of Loves, and also the Love of Princes”; from Holland's poem attached to the engraved portrait in John Nichols, Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First, 4 vols. (London: J.B. Nichols, 1828), 1: facing p. 128. Dated 1620, the portrait is dedicated to Cranfield, from “Chr Brocus Io Hoskinni et Hugo (heu iterum) Holland.” Holland's first line is also quoted by Leslie Hotson, who claims for Martyn the authorship of the commendatory poem signed in Sejanus, and the “curious address to the Reader which appeared in some copies of the 1609 quarto of Troilus and Cressida.” See Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated and Other Essays (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1949), pp. 50-2. Holland dedicated Pancharis to Martyn in 1603, accompanied him on a trip to Devon in 1614-15, and mourned his death in 1618. He too was close to Cranfield, as well as to Shakespeare and Jonson.

  20. The Diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple, ed. Robert P. Sorlien (Hanover, N.H: University Press of New England, 1976), p. 48; for the suggestion that Orsino is intended to remind the audience of the Prince D'Amour, see Henk Gras, “Twelfth Night, Every Man Out of His Humour, and the Middle Temple Revels of 1597-8,” MLR, 84 (1989): 545-64.

  21. Chamberlain to Carleton, quoted in E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 3: 261-2.

  22. For the ambassadors (French, Venetian, Savoyard and the States' Ambassador), see Nichols, Progresses, 3: 131-2, quoting Sir John Finett, Finetti Philoxenis, (London, 1656), p.31; for the Prince of Wales, see Middle Temple Records, 2: 610, and Nichols, Progresses, 3: 213-4.

  23. Martyn to Buckingham, 28 August 1616; British Library, Harleian MS. 1581, f.226.

  24. Proceedings in Parliament 1610, ed. Elizabeth Read Foster, 2 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966) 1: 117. It was probably this remark which led Wallace Notestein to mistakenly characterise Martyn as “a careful man who usually acted with discretion;” see The House of Commons, 1604-1610 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 566.

  25. Letter to Lawrence Whitaker, in Thomas Coriate Traueller for the English Wits: Greeting. From the Court of the Great MOGUL (London, 1616), p.30. A rumour in circulation just before Martyn's death claimed that misrule had extended as far as killing a fellow Middle Templar: “Mr. Richard Martin being made Recorder of London and haveing bine suspected heretofore of the murder of one Mr. Ferrers (the fame went) that one of Mr. Ferrer's sisters … should saye—God forbid that ever hee should sit upon blood before he hath paid the price of bloud himselfe; but it seems the Recorder going to the recett [of the] Venetian Ambassador dranke somewhat deepe with him in theyr strange kinde of drinke, and there of surfetting presently after dyed, never keeping any sessions, which are every three weeke.” Historical Manuscripts Commission, Tenth Report, Appendix, Part VI (London: HMSO, 1887), p. 84. I have found no further evidence of this event. For this group's propensity to be “troublemakers, more or less serious disciplinary problems,” see Philip J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969).

  26. A True Historical Relation of the Conversion of Sir Tobie Matthew, ed. A. H. Mathew (London: Burns & Oates, 1904), p. 86; cf. Bald, p. 188.

  27. Letters to Several Persons of Honour (London, 1651), p. 140. For Whitelock's death, cf. Carleton to Chamberlain, 20 Sept 1608 in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, James 11603-10, ed. M. A. E. Green (London: Longman, Benn, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1857), p. 457; and Sir James Whitelock, Liber Famelicus, ed. John Bruce, (London: Camden Society, 1858), pp. 7-11. Matthew had been committed to Jones' house for two months when let out of the Fleet; Conversion, p. 121.

  28. For the Percys and Donne, see Flynn, John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility, pp.83-97.

  29. Chamberlain tells Carleton that Lady Carey's daughter is “Dick Martin's, or rather a greater mans.” See The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Maclure 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), 2: 247. Martyn denies the relationship in a letter to Cranfield of March, 1617: “yet must I crave a respitt for a time to stay heere, & yt in favour of the dead, not for love of the living as you ymagine. Jesu, yt you also must neede be besmerd wth the mire of common error. I had thought I had long er this satisfied you, or you had been satisfied of me, that at least (as you glance) I would not have sought good speed in a desperate affaire. but I see well that as ye finest constitutions, & strongest bodies, ar likewise maintained with common humours, so ar the most refined witts, & strongest apprehensions much nourisht wth vulgar coinceits & rumours. as much hath that pourpose fallen wthin th' intention of her or mee (though in both alike) as in you to hope for good speed (in that nature) wth the Countess of Dorsett the bedlam.” (Kent Archive Office, Cranfield Papers U269/1 CB 148).

  30. Perhaps the “John West of Tiverton, Devon, Gent.” found in Middle Temple Records, 1: 619.

  31. For the poem, attributed to Hoskyns, see Louise Brown Osborn, The Life, Letters and Writings of John Hoskyns, 1566-1638, Yale Studies in English, 87 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937) pp. 196-9; the poem exists in several versions, and in an English translation by John Reynolds (printed in Osborn, Hoskyns, pp. 288-91).

  32. Traveller for the English Wits, pp. 37-47, dated 8 November 1615. Coryate had been abroad since 1612, so is probably referring to a club which existed in or before that year.

  33. If Helen Gardner is correct in identifying the L. C. of the “Elegy on the L. C.” as Lionel Cranfield, then it is possible that from as early as 1595 much the same group, centering on Donne, Martyn, Cranfield and Hoskyns, had been meeting in some form or other. The Mermaid group has recently been examined by Annabel Patterson (“All Donne,” esp. pp. 37-44). Though the research for this paper was largely completed before I read her article, it will be seen that I am indebted to it, and that our conclusions are broadly similar. See also I.A. Shapiro, “The Mermaid Club,” MLR 45 (1950): 6-17.

  34. See, e.g., his speeches of 23 March and 2 Nov. 1610 in Proceedings in Parliament 1610, ed. Foster, 2: 64 and 394.

  35. Will quoted in Bald, p. 501. These two portraits were left to his cousin, Sir John Brooke. Both Brookes were, like Martyn, active council members of the Virginia Company.

  36. Martyn's aunt, Elizabeth Rous, third wife of his uncle Nicholas, was Pym's step-sister.

  37. For Donne's generally sympathetic, if increasingly critical, attitude, see the Epigram “E of Nottingham,” attributed to Donne by Gary A. Stringer, “Donne's Epigram on the Earl of Nottingham,” JDJ 10 (1991): 71-4; and Donne's letter to Wotton of ca. 1600: “he [Essex] understood not his age: for it is a naturall weaknes of innocency. That such men want lockes for themselues & keyse for others.” (Burley MS. f. 296v, transcription in Simpson, Prose Works of John Donne, p.310). As Annabel Patterson points out (“All Donne,” p. 62) there are two Sir Henry Nevilles, cousins: the other Henry Neville of Birling, Kent, succeeded as Lord Bergavenny in 1621. He contributed a poem to Coryate's Crudities, but the Henry Neville of Berkshire, whose political position was closer to the others mentioned, is marginally more likely to have been a member of the Mermaid club.

  38. Lionel Cranfield and Arthur Ingram were also MPs, but their interests were mercantile and in Cranfield's case administrative. Both made loans to the King which were secured by impositions; and both speculated in customs “farming,” but Cranfield had the confidence of the Commons in these years as an efficient and, by contemporary standards, unusually honest reformer of the royal finances. Martyn and he were close friends: four letters from Martyn to Cranfield survive, as do letters from Hoskyns and Brooke and one from Donne written in 1628, well after Cranfield's impeachment (Kent Archive Office, Cranfield Papers U269/1 CB 148 and CP 69).

  39. P. W. Hasler, The House of Commons 1558-1603, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1981), 3: 22-3.

  40. The reference to the “loss of Amiens” (to the Spanish, March 1597) in l. 114 dates the poem to later that year; monopolies were a serious issue in the Commons in 1597: see Sir Simonds D'Ewes, A Compleat Journal of the Votes, Speeches and Debates, both of the House of Lords and House of Commons throughout the whole reign of Queen Elizabeth, of glorious memory, 2nd ed. (London, 1693), pp. 554-5, 558, 570, and 573. The year 1597 marked the beginning of the real expansion of monopolies: more than thirty were granted between 1597 and 1601.

  41. D'Ewes, Journal, p. 646.

  42. D'Ewes, Journal, p.675. Cecil went on: “But I see that men which have desired to be popular without the House for speaking against Monopolies do also desire to be private within.” Raleigh was also attacked by Martyn in this episode, as previously over his monopolies.

  43. Later, Wotton was to argue that such men as Hoskyns were unwise to speak out in the Commons as if they were in the Venetian Senate “where the Treaters are perpetual Princes, then where those that speak so irreverently, are so soon to return (which they should remember) to the natural capacity of Subjects.” Letter to Sir Edmund Bacon, Reliquiae Wottonianae (London, 1672), p. 432. In 1610, Hoskyns reminded the House of “a Statute in H.VII that no man should be impeached for speaking in Parliament freely. Proclamation:—[the Journal adds enigmatically] The Freehold, the Conscience, the Life of Men.” See Journals of the House of Commons, I, 1547-1628 (London, 1803), p. 425.

  44. A Speach Delivered to the Kings Most Excellent Majesty … By Maister Richard Martin of the Middle Temple, sig A4v. See also British Library, Add. MSS. 15903, f.10 and 25707, f.142 (the “Skipwith” MS.), and Stowe MS. 145, f.41; Inner Temple, Petyt MS. 538.36.xiii, f.207; and Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1603-10, p. 7.

  45. A Speach Delivered, sig. B1.

  46. Holland, Pancharis (1603), sig. D5v; Patterson, “All Donne,” p. 38. The King responded well; at least, Martyn thought so: writing to Buckingham thirteen years later, he recalls that “his Majesty gave me a most favourable acceptance, and (behind my back) many great testimonies of my ability and discreet demeanour” (Martyn to Buckingham, 28 August 1616; British Library, Harleian MS. 1581, f.226).

  47. His position does not seem to have been threatened by his arrest for debt: “Informed, that Mr Rich. Martin, a Member of the House, stood outlawed, at the Suit of one … Palmer, dwelling in Wood-street, in an Action of Debt; and that one Nicholas Allen, Palmer's Attorney in the Suit, did threaten to proceed to Trial.

    Direction given that both Palmer, at whose Suit, and Allen, the Attorney, should be brought to the Bar by the Serjeant”; Journals of the House of Commons, 1: 373.

  48. British Library, Add. MS. 48119, ff.203v-204v; transcribed in Foster, Proceedings in Parliament 1610, 2: 327-9.

  49. Reliquiae Wottonianae, p. 432; and Hoskyns, letter to his wife from the Tower, 2 March 1614, in Osborne, John Hoskyns, p. 71.

  50. Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of his Grace the Duke of Portland, K. G., Preserved at Welbeck Abbey, 10 vols. (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1891-1931), 9: 27.

  51. Chamberlain, Letters, 1: 531; and James Spedding, The Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, 8 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1868), 4: 365.

  52. Donne to Goodyer, n. d.; Edmund Gosse, Life and Letters of John Donne, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1899), 1:239-41. For Holland's “Anglorum alumnus, praeco Virginiae ac parens” see the engraved portrait in Nichols, Progresses, 1: facing p.128.

  53. Commons Journal, I, 487-9; and Maija Jansson, ed., Proceedings in Parliament, 1614 (House of Commons) (Philadelphia: 1988), pp. 275-9.

  54. “All Donne,” p. 60.

  55. Jansson, ed., Proceedings in Parliament, 1614, p. 268.

  56. Winwood conveys this prophetic news to Carleton, 16 June 1614: “The break-neck was some seditious speeches, which made the King impatient, and it was whispered to him that they would have his life and that of his favourites before they had done, on which he dissolved them”; Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1611-18, p. 237.

  57. Martyn to Cranfield, 19 December?1614; Kent Archive Office, Cranfield Papers, U269/1, CB 148.

  58. Donne to Robert Ker, Earl of Somerset,?1614; Gosse, 2: 23.

  59. See Robert S. Jackson, John Donne's Christian Vocation (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 130-41; Patterson, “All Donne,” pp. 52, 59; and letters in Gosse, 2: 24-5, 27.

  60. Gosse, 2: 65, 66, and 69.

  61. Chamberlain to Carleton, 14 November 1618; SP 14/103/93: “the greatest difficultie was how to content Sr Lionell Cranfield for £1500 he laide downe for Dick Martin, who enioyeng the place so small a time it seemed reasonable he should be remboursed by his successor, but this man [Heath] disclaimes all such contracts, wherefore he must find some other way to be restored.”

  62. Donne to Sir Henry Goodyer, 9 March 1619; Gosse, 2: 122.

  63. A Cypres Garland (London, 1625), sigB2r.

William H. Halewood (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Halewood, William H. “The Predicament of the Westward Rider.” Studies in Philology 93, no. 2 (spring 1996): 218-28.

[In the following essay, Halewood provides a detailed reading of Donne's poem, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” and suggests that the poem does not achieve closure, but remains concerned with the conflict between Protestant and Catholic ways of understanding humanity's relationship to God and salvation.]

A body of commentary has begun to accumulate around “Good-friday, 1613. Riding Westward” that promises to enhance its already almost central position among Donne's religious poems—to make it fairly certain, for example, to be the poem taken up first in classroom lectures aimed at outlining Donne's religious position and making the set-piece sonnets (“Batter my heart,” “Spit in my face,” “O my blacke Soule!”) less simply surprising. Agreement about the importance of the poem is to some extent paralleled by agreement about what it means, though there is perhaps now enough variety among interpretations for commentary upon commentary to be useful. This essay is a partial attempt of that kind, focused upon some main questions of interpretation which are still, oddly, open; namely, whether the rider's error is a particular and identifiable sin (if so, what sin?); whether it is sin at all, or merely failure in meditation; whether the rider goes his way under compulsion or by choice; whether his rebellion ceases or continues; and whether the poem arrives at closure.

The viewpoint from which these questions will be examined should cause no difficulty for a reader prepared to accept that Donne was as thoroughgoing a Reformation Protestant as Spenser and, therefore, as likely to conceive a poem about a Redcrosse-type character designed for salvation by grace and illustrating the tendency of the human creature to go wrong by self-propulsion. I read the poem as a radically Protestant meditation on sin and salvation—thus about sin and salvation, not about meditation (its subject according to Barbara Lewalski). The sin that I take it to be about is the general corruption that all branches of the Reformation insisted was inseparable from human nature. It is that general errancy or wholesale evil that Luther found impossible to particularize in confession or adjust to any system of penances. At root, it is self-devotion, hence desertion of God—a misdirection of the will, as Augustine argued in a passage that found many Reformation echoes: “I enquired what iniquity was, and found it to be … the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God … toward lower things.”1 It belonged to the official belief of English people set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles—that “corruption of the nature of euery man … whereby man … is of his owne nature inclined to euyll.” (Spenser repeats accurately: “If any strength we have, it is to ill / But all the good is God's, both power and eke will” FQ, I, 10, 8-9). Typically, Protestantism concerned itself with sin in the singular, as something associated with self and defined as opposition to God; sins in the plural were a Catholic matter. There are substantial reasons then in the theological background of the poem for resistance to those readings (e.g., Chambers, Sullivan, Friedman) that attempt to explain westward-going as a particular sin. On the question of choice versus compulsion, it seems to me that the simple answer is that the rider is self-compelled—not a troublesome paradox for the primitive Protestant, who fully provided for it in a self-condemning theology.

All readers, presumably, agree with Helen Gardner that “the poem hinges upon the sudden apostrophe” contained in the last eight lines, when the self-preoccupied, self-analyzing speaker turns with startling effect to Christ on the cross, who seems suddenly to materialize as a presence on the scene.2

O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.

(ll. 35-42)

What kind of hinge we find in the apostrophe (and by “hinge” I take it Gardner means both “reversal” and “final basis of meaning” in the poem) depends to a large extent on how we understand “but” in the second of these lines. Its generally understood meaning has been “in order to,” or “for the purpose of”: thus, “I turn my back, or have turned my back, with the intention of bringing on those possibly severe though ultimately merciful measures by which God will set me right.” Critics careless of theology have thus introduced into the poem the rather bizarre idea of cultivating sin for spiritual gain. In the first of his articles on “Riding Westward,” A. B. Chambers, accepting this explanatory and self-justifying “but,” also accepts its introduction of “a new argument for tergiversation.” The new argument is one that proposes choosing westward-going as an alternative way of going east: “Donne will argue that he moves westward … because of [italics added] a penitential desire to be scourged.”3 If this, in fact, is what is happening, we are being given—in addition to a theological extravagance—a brand-new motive for the speaker (or a brand-new speaker, now long-headed and deliberate) who has been represented up to this point as an entirely different sort of character—compulsion's slave, whirled and hurried by foreign motions, a leaf in a storm. Ernest Gilman is a more recent critic who finds essentially the same odd-shaped poem that Chambers does, but responds more strongly to the contradictions. For Gilman, violently emphatic redirection in the apostrophe means violently emphatic disorder in the poem. The tone of the final passage “is as much bold as submissive: even as he begs to be punished Donne lays down for his saviour the conditions on which he will—we are almost made to feel—agree to turn his face.” Incomplete submission means incomplete closure—and wrecking of “the emblematic integrity of the text. Shrinking and cracking, the circle refuses to close.” The end of the poem is “no less jarring than the middle.” “But,” again, is the keystone of Gilman's arch, a disjoining conjunction that puts Donne into relation with Reformation iconoclasm and radiates turbulence and disconnection through the poem: “The line [line 37, with its “but”], and the poem, suggest how strongly the voltage of Donne's piety flows across the gap between “I” and “thee.”4

But the gap is created by an impossible meaning for “but” that one suspects has more life in critical essays than in private readings of the poem. Every reader of seventeenth-century (or simply nonmodern) English has easier “buts” available—nonjustifying, nonexplanatory, having nothing to do with intention—that can take their place in the line without producing disruption or gap. The obvious “but,” surely, is the one that expresses limitation, that means “only,” “merely,” “nothing more than,” “with no worse result than.” Thus: “I have turned my back to God, and (wonderfully) all that has happened to me has been kindly admonition and the amazing encouragement of Christ's sudden presence.” There is no boldness in the word, then, and it does not belong to the language of condition-making, or insubordination, but to the language of thanksgiving. It is the same “but” understood without difficulty in “Batter my heart … for you as yet but knocke, breathe, shine, etc.” It is the fourth in Johnson's Dictionary list of eighteen definitions, where it is illustrated by quotations from Shakespeare, Jonson, Hooker, Dryden, Pope and others (not, as it happens, Donne).

The poem can be de-gapped then and the speaker's coherence and the intelligibility of his experience restored by adopting an entirely commonplace meaning for “but.” Submission, also, is restored as we recognize a character wondering and thankful in the presence of his seventeenth-century Protestant God and counting his blessings—his sinful desertion has produced not the deserved penalty but only (nothing but) corrections designed by mercy. Correction of course implies mercy—a very minor paradox for mercy-obsessed early Protestantism and familiar throughout the Bible. It is pointed out to Job, for example, that what we may experience as God's hostilities are really demonstrations of his care: “happy is the man whom God correcteth,” Job 5:17. Donne the preacher goes instructively to St. Bernard and would “with S. Bernard desire, Irascaris mihi domini, O Lord be angry with me, for if thou chidest me not, thou considerest me not, if I taste no bitterness, I have no physick; If thou correctest me not, I am not thy son.”5 The speaker in “Goodfriday” is in the same condition of mind as the speaker in “Holy Sonnet 11,” wondering thankfully at God's “strange love” that overwhelms reasonable expectation by returning good for evil. The implications for closure seem sufficiently clear: surely, closure is as complete as the nature of poems will allow when Christ presents himself to be spoken to. In fact, Donne seems to state a claim for the closing power of Christ's appearances in a sermon account of the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, which also stills the fears of Peter: “any testimony of his presence rectifies all.”6

Theological obstacles to the idea of strategic errancy, sinning in order to bring on correction and mercy, are not removed by the serendipities of grace, certainly not as Donne would have understood them. It is, of course, a commonplace of Protestant theology that sin is what calls forth God's redeeming grace. “God wants us because we are sinners,” said Luther.7 It is, equally, a theme of Donne's: “in him who is a Saviour, a Redeemer, we are not considered but as sinners. So that God's purpose works no otherwise upon us, but as we are sinners.”8 But it is not theology of any kind to imagine that we can choose sin as a way of arousing God's attention and provoking his grace.9 From a specifically Protestant standpoint, this is absurd in what it supposes about the freedom of the will. Whether as Everyman or as John Donne, the speaker of “Goodfriday, 1613” is “subject to forraigne motions”; he is not under his own control—despite his sinful obedience to self—and he is incapacitated for finding and persevering in a way to God, either direct or indirect. He is a usurpt town. But it is also absurd in terms of Christian teaching in all times and places to suggest that choosing sin can ever be a good thing. Chambers so perplexes the theology of the poem that he finds “the journey westward both right and inevitable.”10 Gilman considers that “the soul must be instructed … that through the paradox of grace turning one's back on Christ can turn into a way of approaching him.”11 In these matters, we are in a world presided over by St. Paul, and we should be wary of taking up his propositions by halves: the promise of grace is not to be taken without the warning against sin. Specifically, we should not presume on the connection between grace and sin to make ourselves comfortable with sin, or cultivate it. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” says the Epistle to the Romans, but the question whether we should therefore sin (“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Rom. 6:1) gets from Paul his resounding “God forbid”—perhaps the most emphatic negative in the Bible, and the chapter concludes with the warning that “the wages of sin is death.” If we miss the force of “God forbid,” Matthew Poole provides paraphrase and interpretation: “Away with all such doctrines, as, under pretence of advancing grace, do promote sin, or obstruct a godly life. This phrase is frequent with the apostle when he is speaking of any absurdity.”12

A number of those who have written about the poem flirt with this absurdity, trusting to the paradoxicality of grace to turn sin into an alternative good. Grace can, of course, convert the sinful, and it can shift the penalties for sin by imputation (“Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evil,” “Holy Sonnet 6”). And such is the amazing operation of the Christian redemptive scheme that the sinner can be saved, and the consequences of westward-going be made the same as those of going east, but sin remains sin: it is enmity to God, and its fate (Paul again) is “blotting out.” David M. Sullivan continues in a well established mistake when he writes that in line 36 “the speaker recognizes that his westward journey is good.”13

Chambers' second essay forgoes too-easy reversal by means of grace, but also denies any real conclusion to the experience of the speaker, whose case he finds still desperate at the end of the poem: “He has strayed too far for too long” and now can only contemplate the terrible, punishing God of Psalm 66.14 Truncation of the poem is the accepted consequence of this reading: Chambers considers that neither the poem nor the speaker's experience is “finished”—that the latter must remain incomplete “since spiritual purifying is a process coterminous with the finitudes of time” and requires the “eschatological reappearance of him who “is like a refiner's fire.”15 But the poem could, of course, dramatize conversion, the sinful soul's straying and reclamation by God—as it has been thought by many readers to do—without going anywhere near the finitudes of time.16 And while a feeling for completeness must to some extent be a subjective matter, it seems likely that Donne's intended reader, a seventeenth-century one, would feel that the experience had reached its proper end when the speaker sees Christ on the Cross and makes his declaration of submission. The “testimony of God's presence rectifies all,” or surely is meant to, for both speaker and reader.

Barbara Lewalski's discussion of the poem in Protestant Poetics is surprisingly brief. She finds the rectification, or closure, missing for Chambers, but settles for a smaller poem. For all readers, perhaps, the poem is some kind of meditation. For Lewalski, it is about meditation.17 Its subject is “the speaker's failure to conduct a traditional, deliberate, Good Friday meditation.”18 His problem, then, is not the momentous matter of conversion—his failed spiritual life, compulsion to sin and hazard of perdition—but the comparatively minor matter of getting back on the right meditative track, specifically, meditation for Good Friday. The difficulty is solved with God's assistance, as grace operates to lead him to “the appropriate meditative response.” Large matters (grace) here seem oddly subservient to small; salvation has ceased to be the issue, and the critic's determined focus on meditation has operated to obscure more interesting and important matters—in this case the furtive, urgent drama of the soul's struggle against itself, at once toward and away from God, and its astonishing deliverance.

In an essay that is generally regarded as the high-water mark in the criticism of the poem, Donald Friedman describes its action as a “spiritual conversion.”19 But “conversion” in Friedman's use, and for that matter “sin,” are terms that are very nearly empty of their seventeenth-century content, and riding westward is not much more than an intellectual foible. There is need to insist to those following in Friedman's wake that “sin” would not be explicated as “mistake” by Donne's contemporaries.20 Nor as “spiritual weaknesses.” In fact, though Donne rather frequently writes “sinnes” in the plural, he has in mind the essentially singular Protestant sense—the all-over blackness of “O my blacke soule,”—an all-inclusive condition rather than those particular faults or acts of wrongdoing for which the deluded Papists believed that effective penance could be done. It is infection of the will and rebellion against God. Such a conception of sin, as evil requiring the greatest overthrowing power of grace, is present and defining even when the subject is the apparently small strayings that are inevitable in the journey of the wayfaring Christian. The Protestant saw a transcendent unity in sin's variety, and the largest implications—for both God and man—of man's westward-going are matter for almost ceaseless reflection by Donne the preacher: “that God should love man … in fine, at his end, and returne to him then, though he had suffered him to go astray before, it is a great testimonie of unspeakable love; but his love is not only in fine, at the end, but in finem, to the end, all the way to the end. He leaves them not uncalled at first, he leaves them not unaccompanied in the way, he leaves them not unrecompensed at the last, that God who is Almighty, Alpha and Omega, first and last, that God is also love itselfe, and therefore his love is Alpha and Omega, first and last too.”21

Friedman's suggestion that “the poem moves from a state of error to a state of illumination and contrition” will seem unexceptionable to anyone who thinks that it moves to a conclusion at all.22 But the “error” that the speaker eventually leaves behind, according to Friedman, is merely a kind of rationality that leads to clever and evasive conceitism and “facile apologetics.”23 Thus the opening conceit—“intended to serve … as an example of learned, but essentially misdirected intellect or wit.”24 Coming right for the speaker, in Friedman's reading, is a matter of quitting complicated reason for simple, “subverbal” memory, which “insists … on the remembered image of God in each man, and man's responsibility for obscuring or defacing that image.”25 What the poem is “concerned with” is the conflict between “the two kinds of understanding.”26 Reason, as the wrong kind, is responsible for the conceit of the spheres with which, says Friedman, the speaker distances himself from the problem of his spiritual duty and attempts a trick of self-exculpation with the specious suggestion that the human soul is excusably distractable “because” (Friedman's word and emphasis) “it is a simulacrum of the heavenly spheres.”27 This is a misreading and a misplaced because. It seems clear enough that the speaker's soul has digressed from its proper route because of the world's distractions—pleasure or business—not at all because of the soul's resemblance to the also distractable spheres, interesting though that resemblance of course is and useful in helping to generalize the individual soul's predicament to mankind's—“our Soules.”

Reason misbehaves, according to Friedman, in “flippancy,” complacent mental agility,” “conceptual intricacy,” and it works against the emotional empathy that the speaker should be feeling. It is associated with a point of view from which the Crucifixion is seen as mere spectacle: “That spectacle of too much weight for mee” Friedman considers to be language expressive of mental evasion,28 though the negative use of “spectacle” is perhaps as much a modernism as the negative use of “sight”—as in “he looked a sight”—and for Donne may have been a merely neutral way of describing objects or persons in a field of vision—as in Aristotle's Poetics. In the central part of the poem, reason speaks, says Friedman, making its regrettable inventions in lines that balance “airy metaphors” of antipodes, zenith, endless height against the “simple stark agony of the Passion” and simply felt witness to it.29 Friedman is certainly right to point to a systematic contrast of language, imagery, and kind of attention in these lines, but perhaps equally certainly wrong in trying to explain it as a display of the defects of reason. The key to the passage is a distinction between “Jesus” and “Christ.” Donne was accustomed to reflecting upon the dual nature of the man-god and to considering diverse responses to “Jesus” and to “Christ.” The poem includes just such reflections in the anguish of the speaker, made miserable by his sense of the need to make both kinds of response and feeling the obstacle in his own human insufficiency to making either. Friedman quotes the following passage from a Trinity Sunday sermon, but omits to make what would seem to be the obvious application to these lines in the poem.

I love my Saviour as he is the Lord, He that studies my salvation; and as Christ, made a person able to work my salvation, but when I see him in the third notion, Iesus, accomplishing my salvation, by an actual death, I see those hands stretched out, that stretched out the heavens, and those feet racked. … When I conceit, when I contemplate my Saviour thus, I love the Lord, and there is a reverent adoration in that love, I love Christ, and there is a mysterious admiration in that love, but I love Iesus, and there is a tender compassion in that love, and I am content to suffer with him, and to suffer for him.30

Donne of course participated in the quarrel that early Protestantism had with reason. But this was not a quarrel with wittiness, or flippancy, or facility in conceit-making—or witty preachers would not have thrived (and the rehabilitating speaker of the poem, as his condition is conceived by Friedman, would not be permitted to return in the last lines to his witty conceit of form and deformity). The Protestant attack on reason begins with Luther, who in fact returns to a theme of Augustine: man fell through the use of his reason, “his best part,” which Luther denounces colorfully in his last Wittenberg sermon as “the Devil's whore,” “mangy, leprous whore,” etc.31 It is the enemy of God primarily because of its uncertain relationship with faith and its inherent doubtfulness with respect to grace. That God will return good for ill, that “God wants us because we are sinners,” is an unreasonable proposition, and as such a reproach to reason. Donne knows the discussion at this level and makes his contributions: “The scriptures will be out of thy reach, and out of thy use, if thou cast and scatter them upon Reason, upon Philosophy, upon Morality.”32

Mere “bloodless ratiocination,” or intellectual abstraction under any of the names Friedman finds for it (“heights of intellectual sophistication,” “the specious appeal of the rationalizing intelligence,” “artful self-deception,” the detached experience of “spectacle,” etc.) is not the object of the poem's complaint, nor is it renewing the weightier Protestant theological attack on reason. If the first thirty-four lines of the poem strike the reader as pallid in comparison with the last eight, this would seem to be because narrative is inherently less rivetting than drama, and the strategy of the poem is to break into sudden drama after suspenseful delays. Far from “bloodless ratiocination,” however, the longer narrative passage is an energetic account of spiritual unrest rendered in a language of question, paradox, false start and unsatisfactory self-correction. Although reason is baffled, it is not the cause of the problem, which is sin and self—that slavery to westward-going that Donne almost certainly thought more a synonym than a metaphor for the human condition. The thrashings of the restless spirit cease in the apostrophe, as the “testimonie of God's presence rectifying all” asserts its rectifying influence with (surely?) full diapason effects of closure.

There is a suggestive parallel in the prayers that complete each of the Devotions on Emergent Occasions, also in the prayers with which Donne ends Essays in Divinity. The latter, too, are apostrophes (as the apostrophe in the poem is a prayer) and releases from more ordinary and restrictive kinds of discourse. Their double process both petitions for and assumes divine presence: “I beseech thee, that since by thy grace, I have thus long meditated upon thee, and spoken of thee, I may now speak to thee.” They also look back upon a history of inclusive and unparticularized self-undoing, upon a speaker dwelling in his own Egypt under the tyranny of his own Pharaoh (an Egypt of self, a Pharaoh of self); and they move without transition or sense of difference from the idea of the presence of God to the idea of rectification and deliverance.

O God, descend thou and stoop down to see my infirmities and the Egypt in which I live. … Thou hast multiplied thy children in me by begetting and cherishing in me reverent devotions, and pious affections toward thee, but that my owne corruption, mine owne Pharaoh, hath ever smothered and strangled them. And thou hast put me in my way towards thy land of promise, thy Heavenly Canaan, by removing me from the Egypt of frequented, and populous, glorious places. … O Lord, I most humbly confess, that I feel in me so many strong effects of thy Power, as onlie for the Ordinariness and frequencie thereof, they are not Miracles. For hourly thou rectifiest my lameness, hourly thou restorest my sight, and hourly not onely deliverest me from the Egypt, but raisest me from the death of sin.33

As in the concluding lines of the poem, God enters to be spoken to, an event rhetorically signalled by a rush of vocatives that puts an end to question and debate, and closure for the work as a whole is effected by the “ordinary miracle” of God's rectifying presence. As in Job, there is nothing more to say.


  1. St. Augustine, St. Augustine's Confessions, Everyman's Library (London: Dent, 1907), 137.

  2. John Donne, The Divine Poems, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), xxxiii.

  3. A. B. Chambers, “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’: The Poem and the Tradition,” ELH 28 (1961): 49, 51.

  4. Ernest Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 141-47, 98.

  5. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. C. R. Potter and E. M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953-62), 2:362. All quotations from Donne's sermons are taken from this edition, hereafter cited as Sermons.

  6. Sermons, 2:308.

  7. Luther's Works, 12, Selected Psalms, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955): 324-25.

  8. Sermons 2:308.

  9. Terry Sherwood suggests that the speaker's stratagem of purposeful sinning (inferred, of course, from “but”) is merely playful: “he is not actually proposing to turn away from Christ.” Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 159. “But” aside, this reading would seem to be made difficult by the speaker's desperate mood and situation.

  10. Chambers, “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’: The Poem and the Tradition,” 52. In Chambers' reading, westward-going is the journey to death.

  11. Gilman, 95.

  12. A Commentary on the Holy Bible, 2 vols. (London, 1685); rpt. 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1963), 3:496.

  13. “Riders to the West: Goodfriday, 1613,” John Donne Journal 6 (1987): 1-8. Sullivan takes his own tack in finding the rider's sin to be fear of death.

  14. “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’ Looking Back,” John Donne Journal 6 (1987): 196.

  15. Chambers, “‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward’ Looking Back,” 197.

  16. The word conversion appears in most discussions of the poem, though meanings for it vary. The subject is most fully covered by Sherwood, who stresses the gradual, lifelong character of conversion that Donne typically has in mind in the sermons and that comes to him from such favorite sources as Calvin, Augustine, and Bernard (Fulfilling the Circle, 158-72). This seems a different pattern, however, from the stark oppositions and sudden drama of the poem. St. Paul's sudden and conclusive conversion is, of course, the ultimate prototype, and Donne may have considered it the most useful one poetically.

  17. See, also, Anthony Low, Love's Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 71-74.

  18. Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Lyric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 278.

  19. “Memory and the Art of Salvation in Donne's Good Friday Poem,” ELR 3 (1973): 418-42.

  20. Friedman, 419.

  21. Sermons, 2: 182-83.

  22. Friedman, 442.

  23. Ibid., 422.

  24. Ibid., 426.

  25. Ibid., 439.

  26. Ibid., 422.

  27. Ibid., 423.

  28. Ibid., 431.

  29. Ibid., 433.

  30. Sermons, 9:84.

  31. Luther's Works, vol. 51, Sermons I, trans. and ed. John W. Doberstein (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 374-76.

  32. Sermons, 2:308.

  33. John Donne, Essays in Divinity, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 96.

Andrew Shifflett (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Shifflett, Andrew. “Sexual Calvinism in Donne's ‘Communitie.’” In Renaissance Papers 1998, edited by T. H Howard-Hill and Philip Rollinson, pp. 53-67. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

[In the following essay, Shifflett provides a historically grounded reading of Donne's poem “Communitie” from Songs and Sonnets, suggesting that Donne explicitly rejected the Calvinist definition of community in his poetry and sermons.]

Good wee must love, and must hate ill,
For ill is ill, and good good still,
                    But there are things indifferent,
Which wee may neither hate, nor love,
But one, and then another prove,
                    As wee shall finde our fancy bent.
If then at first wise Nature had
Made women either good or bad,
          Then some wee might hate, and some chuse,
But since shee did them so create,
That we may neither love, nor hate,
                    Onely this rests, All, all may use.
If they were good it would be seene,
Good is as visible as greene,
          And to all eyes it selfe betrayes:
If they were bad, they could not last,
Bad doth it selfe, and others wast,
                    So, they deserve nor blame, nor praise.
But they are ours as fruits are ours,
He that but tasts, he that devours,
          And he that leaves all, doth as well:
Chang'd loves are but chang'd sorts of meat,
And when hee hath the kernell eate,
          Who doth not fling away the shell?(1)


Donne insists that “there are things indifferent,” but most critics have felt something worse than indifference toward this poem on “Communitie.” Theodore Redpath notes in his edition of the Songs and Sonets that “Communitie” is “possibly the most cynical” of all of them. For A. C. Partridge it is “the simplest example of Donne's cynical chop-logic” and a “paean to promiscuity” that “ends with a triple crudity, supposed to be amusing to the male sex.” Not satisfied to convict Donne of mere cynicism and crudity, however, Partridge accuses him also of a “confusion of the sensitive soul with the rational” soul and a “subversion of moral values.” Lindsay Mann complains that the “logic of the poem is manifestly specious and jesting,” that its “shifting categories and meanings violate the elementary logical rule of holding terms to a single sense,” and that its “logical quibbles imply that the poem's abstract arguments fail to account for the reality of moral acts.” Indeed, for Mann “Communitie” is so bad that it must be good; employing “a dramatic ironic speaker … who does not speak with Donne's voice,” it “must be read ironically and satirically, and as such refutes the argument it pretends to advance.” And finally, John Carey, although less judgmental than the others, is also less than kind when he writes that, “behind the adolescent bravado of these lines lurks a desire to possess the external world by consuming it, which corresponds to the infant's first experience of life in separation from its mother.”2 So, either “Communitie” is cynical, illogical, and too immoral to be believed, or it is arrested—and has been for four hundred years—in the oral stage.

I am joking, of course, but I do think that a more topical, historical approach is needed if we are going to make better sense of this poem. Thus, although I am willing to agree with N. J. C. Andreason that “Communitie” is “an ingenious tour de force,” I cannot agree that it is in any important way “a logical exercise which challenges the reader to see if he can discover the trick of the argument.” Tricks or no tricks, the idea that “women, by virtue of being human, are not completely good or bad is”—as Andreason himself points out—“a truism which most Renaissance readers would accept.”3 Indeed, the poem is not a logical problem at all but an ideological problem in which Donne paraphrases the controversial Protestant doctrine of adiaphora or “things indifferent” (objects, actions, beliefs, or ceremonies not in themselves necessary for salvation) in sexual terms while never explicitly mentioning sexual acts, thereby skirting for satirical purposes the obvious objection that adultery cannot be a thing indifferent because it is clearly outlawed by God in Exodus 20:14. My intention in this essay is to give the doctrine of things indifferent its due in relation to Donne's “Communitie,” and in the process to advance a less ironic, more straightforward, and more respectful interpretation than any I have encountered. I shall conclude by arguing that the poem is less ironic than satiric, and that its satire is directed not at its own argument or speaker but at us.


A good place to begin learning about the doctrine, rhetoric, and what might be called the spirit of things indifferent is the chapter on Christian freedom in book 3 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. We are free from the rigor of law, we are free to follow God willingly and joyously, and we are free, says Calvin, to use or not use things indifferent as we see fit:

The third part of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves “indifferent,” we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions. …

But these matters are more important than is commonly believed. For when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of. If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp; finally, doubt will even arise over tow. For he will turn over in his mind whether he can sup without napkins, or go without a handkerchief. If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victuals, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on even courser foods. If he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water. To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as the saying goes.

As a consequence, some, in despair, are of necessity cast into a pit of confusion; others, despising God and abandoning fear of him, must make their own way in destruction, where they have none ready-made. For all those entangled in such doubts, wherever they turn, see offense of conscience everywhere present.4

We notice immediately that Calvin can sound a little like that cynical adolescent, Jack Donne, when he wants to. The Genevan is capable of the argumentum ad absurdum, of thinking absurdly for rhetorical effect. Indeed, it is in these places that Calvin seems most human to us; he is trying to identify with the experiences of others and uses a sermo that is humilis and even a bit funny. Just think, he hints, we might all end up blowing our noses with hemp! This is a rhetoric of humility and humane bewilderment; one is confronted by so many things, so many choices. Its two most characteristic figures are synecdoche and asyndeton: synecdoche, which figures a whole lived experience as discrete, bourgeois parts and things; and a kind of existential asyndeton, which jumbles these parts and things back together again, setting them next to each other in a sublime spiritual “repose” enjoyed by men “sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.” Indeed, there are similar effects in Donne's enumeration of the female “things” of this world as “fruits,” “Chang'd loves,” “chang'd sorts of meat,” “kernell,” and “shell”; in his equation of judgment and “eyes”; and also in his designation of complex moral concepts with the simplest of tokens or labels, as in “good” and “bad.” And, like Calvin, Donne embraces this synecdochic diaspora in a sublimely asyndetonic rhetoric of free indifference. Syntactic connectives are certainly present in “Communitie”—there are plenty of “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts”—but these are lines as “strong” as any Donne wrote. Characteristic patterns involve the elision of verbs, the repetition of key nouns and adjectives (“ill is ill,” “good good,” “Chang'd … chang'd”), and the nominal confusion of objects with the subjects that “use” them (“All, all”). Donne's “Communitie” is filled with a multitude of things indifferent, and his laconic phrasing “rests” on a kind of knowledge that Calvin and many other Reformers thought was “very necessary for us” to possess if we were ever to be at peace with ourselves and God.

It would seem that Calvin's point in raising the issue of things indifferent is to calm us, to convince us “that we should use God's gifts … with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind.”5 Troubled consciences are the problem, and it does not really matter in this context whether the troubles arise from laxity or precision. Indeed, the tendency to ensnare ourselves in the maze of things indifferent is still with us. Even Andreason, who has related “Communitie” to things indifferent more intelligently than anyone else, makes his way down a path of critical confusion where there was none ready-made. “We must love goodness and hate evil, and there are also ‘things indifferent’ which are not absolutely good or evil and the moral worth of which is apparent only when they are ‘proved’ or tested,” Andreason writes, attempting to paraphrase the poem's first stanza. “When the corollary is added that the moral worth of these ‘things indifferent’ may change according to time and place, we have the reasoning upon which much of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity is founded.”6 The trouble with this is that Donne does not say anything at all about testing the “moral worth” of things indifferent in his poem. And although Hooker stresses that “things indifferent … are not always equally expedient,” he is less concerned to test the morality of things indifferent than to defend our own ability to find the “conveniency which one hath above another”:

“All things are lawful unto me,” saith the Apostle, speaking as it seemeth in the person of the Christian gentile for maintenance of Christian liberty in things indifferent; whereunto his answer is, that nevertheless “all things are not expedient”; in things indifferent there is a choice, they are not always equally expedient.

Now in things although not commanded of God yet lawful because they are permitted, the question is, what light shall shew us the conveniency which one hath above another. … When many meats are set before me, all are indifferent, none unlawful, I take one as most convenient. If Scripture require me so to do, then is not the thing indifferent, because I must do what Scripture requireth. They are all indifferent, I might take any, Scripture doth not require of me to make any special choice of one: I do notwithstanding make choice of one, my discretion teaching me so to do. A hard case, that hereupon I should be justly condemned of sin. Nor let any man think that following the judgment of natural discretion in such cases we can have no assurance that we please God. For to the Author and God of our nature, how shall any operation proceeding in natural sort be in that respect unacceptable? The nature which himself hath given to work by he cannot but be delighted with, when we exercise the same any way without commandment of his to the contrary.

My desire is to make this cause so manifest, that if it were possible, no doubt or scruple concerning the same might remain in any man's cogitation.7

Hooker ends on the same soothing note as Calvin. For Hooker the doing or, as Donne says, the “leav[ing]” of things indifferent is left to our “judgment of natural discretion.” For Calvin it is spiritually dangerous to worry that things indifferent actually carry some secret spiritual significance. And both authorities would agree with Donne that we are free—assuming, of course, that we are not violating any local human laws or customs—to “one, and then another prove, / As wee shall finde our fancy bent.” I must stress that this freedom is not exercised in proving or disproving the moral or spiritual worth of a thing, or in proving that things indifferent are not indifferent after all. Jesus said that “there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him” (Mark 7:15), and most theorists of indifference took him at his word. “Prove” in “Communitie” simply means “try out,” and another good word for this is “use,” which Donne employs in stanza 2. The misimpression that things indifferent need to be “tested” to determine their true moral worth leads Andreason to locate the “trick of the argument” in what is thought to be an illicit equivocation of “prove” and “use.” “You cannot say,” Andreason observes, “that we are obliged to consume ‘things indifferent’ just because we are obliged to test them.”8 True enough; but for Donne, Calvin, and the judicious Hooker we are neither obliged to consume things indifferent nor to test them. We are obliged only not to worry too much about them.

Thus, although I shall argue in the following section that there is something in the doctrine of things indifferent that allows us to say, if we wish, that Donne's speaker has failed his Calvinist catechism of indifference, we shall never be justified in throwing out the entire argument of the poem as merely an ironic mimicry of “distorted views” which the Dean of St. Paul's would later condemn with “direct censure.”9 To read “Communitie” through the glass of the sermons, as Mann does, is not only to privilege arbitrarily one kind of textuality over another, but to deny a poet the right of explicit statement and even the human capacity for change. From the pulpit Donne preached the blessings of mutual love in marriage, as we should expect an Anglican priest to do. His many pronouncements in the sermons on indifference and things indifferent are themselves indifferently poised, however; sometimes he castigates those who think that things are indifferent, sometimes he castigates those who are offended by things indifferent. If there is any method in this indifference it rests on the idea that God himself is a moderate on the question: “God neither accepts that man, that is negligent of his actions, and cares not what others think, nor him that is over-easie to be scandalized, and mis-interpret actions, otherwise indifferent.”10 I suspect that the doctrine of things indifferent was interesting to Donne the preacher because it was itself a thing indifferent that could be used rhetorically first one way, then another, to praise, rebuke, persuade, and dissuade his audiences in ways indicated by the scriptural text and his own professional needs.11 But we know that Donne did not speak theology in the sermons only. Standing out against the homiletic backdrop is his striking claim in “The Crosse” that indifference is the best way to “scape,” as he says, “a snake”:

For if th'eye seeke good objects, and will take
No crosse from bad, wee cannot scape a snake.
So with harsh, hard, sowre, stinking, crosse the rest,
Make them indifferent all; call nothing best.(12)

Could too much love focussed on one good woman invite a “snake”? Milton said as much of Eve in Paradise Lost.

The desire to read “Communitie” as if it were spoken by a bad example of carnality in a larger sermon on true love may be the sign of an elected soul, but it also recalls the negative reactions which things indifferent caused in those who were, I think, least like John Donne. The radical puritan William Bradshaw, for example, portrayed the doctrine in dark Machiavellian colors in his Treatise of the Nature and Use of Things Indifferent:

As the grossest evill may by meanes of some counterfeit or shadow cast upon it, be in appearaunce, the greatest good, and the greatest good may be disguised, and in shew transformed into the greatest evill: So with much more facilitie may either of them by the wit of man have cast upon them the formes of things indifferent.

So that there must be speciall heed taken that we admitt not of all things as indifferent indeed that present themselves to us under that name and shape: Florentines can disguise & collor any thing, and it is now a dayes the common exercise of the greatest wittes of the world, to transforme good into Evill, Evill into good, and both into Indifferent so that in these dayes scant any thing is as it appeares, or appeares as it is.13

Bradshaw had a point: things indifferent had become a useful topos in the Machiavellian constellation.14 Donne was among “the greatest wittes of the world,” after all, and there were plenty of wits interested in the possibility that persons, as well as things and actions, could be indifferent. This sense of the moral indifference or indeterminacy of women (and of men) found conventional expression in one English oeconomist's observation, traceable to Juan Luis Vives, “that women are as men are, reasonable creatures, and have flexible wits, both to good and evill.”15 But it could also register more disturbingly in the idea that persons, insofar as they belong to the human community, possess no intrinsic worth or interest whatsoever. For example, Donne's friend Sir William Cornwallis has this to say of “differences” in one of his fascinating Essayes:

I have been thus seeking differences; and to distinguish of places, I am faine to fly to the signe of an Alehouse. … For Men, Titles and Clothes, not their lives and Actions, helpe me. So were they all naked and banished from the Herald's books, they are without any evidence of preheminence, and their soules cannot defend them from Community.

Outside the alehouse there is a “Community” which, when looked at squarely, is populated by persons indifferent. Cornwallis would “prove” or “use” them all indifferently:

Me thinkes a drunken Cobler and a meere hawking Gentleman ranke equally; both end their pursuites with pleasing their senses. This, the eye; the other, the Taste. … Lastly, courting a Mistresse & buying of a Whore are somewhat like; the end of both is Luxury. Perhaps the one speaks more finely, but they both meane plainly.16

Cornwallis's last observation on whores and mistresses brings us back to Donne, who observes in similar adiaphoristic language that women deserve “nor blame, nor praise,” that “All [women], all may use,” and that “Chang'd loves are but chang'd sorts of meat.”


But this must not be the end of the matter, of course. The poem is about women as things indifferent and that is troublesome for us. Donne speaks of sex much like another accidental Calvinist of the time, Sir John Falstaff, speaks of stealing purses: “Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal. 'Tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation” (1 Henry IV 1.2.98-99). If there is no special logical trick in the poem to be solved, and if it is unreasonable to force the poem into expressing conservative arguments that Donne only proclaimed ex cathedra in later life, then the best thing to do is to learn more about the doctrine that it actually paraphrases. If we really “must” read the poem ironically as Donne's tacit critique of his speaker's theological competence, as Mann has said we “must,” then such doctrinal knowledge should help us to identify the poem's ironic potential in a precise way consistent with the poem's own discourse and cultural moment.

To say that “Communitie” paraphrases the doctrine of things indifferent is not to say that it paraphrases all of that doctrine equally well. Missing is a sense of charity adequate to the doctrine expressed, and Donne must have known that this was a significant absence since charity and indifference toward things and practices that divide fellow Christians had long shared the same idealized space within adiaphoristic theory. “To restore the primacy of love in the Christian life was … a major factor in [the] concern to share [the] knowledge of adiaphoristic liberty,” writes Bernard Verkamp; but “no sooner had the sixteenth-century adiaphorists broadcast their adiaphoristic appraisal of certain ceremonies and doctrines than they were being charged with having broken down all the boundaries of love.”17 And so, while Calvin insists out of charity that we should use things indifferent “with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind,” he is also careful to point out that the rule of charity distinguishes two basic ways in which they are misused. First, things indifferent are misused by those who, as he says, “abuse God's good gifts to their own lust”:

And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian freedom. They say that these are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. …

… We have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful use of God's gifts.

Away, then, with uncontrolled desire, away with immoderate prodigality, away with vanity and arrogance—in order that men may with a clean conscience cleanly use God's gifts.18

Modern moralists have been unanimous in accusing Donne's speaker, if not Donne himself, of such abuses. One finds in the last stanza of the poem “a surprisingly brutal metaphor for libertine loving,” while another sees in it “a verbal vision of rapacious sexual gluttony.”19 But I am not sure that Calvin, a man who combined the usual misogyny with unusual “hints of gratitude for genital pleasure,” would be as outraged by Donne's “kernell[s]” and “shell[s]” as we are.20 The sixteenth-century mind could think of metaphors more brutal than that. The dominant mood of “Communitie” is not brutality but indifference, and if there is libertinism involved it is all but indistinguishable from stoicism.21 Indeed, this “paean to promiscuity” does not violate any of Calvin's injunctions against lusting, wallowing, gorging, and panting in one's daily life. Donne “tasts” or “devours” or “leaves all”; he eats a “kernell,” “fling[s] away the shell,” and whether he reaches for another “fruit” only time and “fancy” can tell. He uses his things indifferent indifferently, as Calvin wants them to be used. They are only the technical means—to paraphrase Max Weber on good works, salvation, and damnation—not of purchasing pleasure, but of getting rid of the fear of boredom.22

So much, I think, for Donne's first offense against charity. A no less serious problem for Calvin, however, is that some men “use their freedom” in the use of things indifferent “indiscriminately and unwisely, as though it were not sound and safe if men did not witness it”:

By this heedless use, they very often offend weak brothers. … For they ought to think that from their freedom they obtain nothing new in men's sight but before God, and that it consists as much in abstaining as in using. If they understand that it makes no difference in God's sight whether they eat meat or eggs, wear red or black clothes, this is enough and more. The conscience, to which the benefit of such freedom was due, is now set free. … But in having no regard for their brothers' weakness they slip most disastrously, for we ought so to bear with it that we do not heedlessly allow what would do them the slightest harm.

But it is sometimes also important for our freedom to be declared before men. This I admit. Yet we must with the greatest caution hold to this limitation, not to abandon the care of the weak, whom the Lord has so strongly commended to us.23

If Donne is innocent of wallowing and gorging, he is most certainly guilty of committing this other serious abuse, one first noticed by Paul, the original Christian adiaphorist, when he worried over the doing of those things indifferent “whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Romans 14:21). Donne fails to practice a true “care” for the “weak” in his use of things indifferent.

But here, too, we should be careful not to rush to judgment. First, there is Calvin's striking admission that “it is sometimes … important for our freedom to be declared before men.” Donne declared his freedom as few other poets did. Patience for the “weak” was held up as a virtue, but, as Verkamp observes, “the adiaphorists had always cautioned also that such individuals must not be kept forever on nothing but a diet of ‘milk.’”24 And moreover, while most of us would agree that a diet of clean milk is better than a diet of dirty nuts, we should be careful to understand just who the offended victims of the poet or speaker would have been thought to be, circa 1600. Indeed, we must reckon with the intractable and tendentious gendering that regulates Calvin's Institutes, Donne's “Communitie,” and their implied communities of readers.25 The problem is simply that the rule of charity did not explicitly protect women from “harm.” Although we know that the spirit of charity should never have been limited by the letter of its rules, we also know that the “weak brothers” of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were in practice brothers, not sisters. Calvin's homosocialism is apparent whenever he writes of love, and this was more than a matter of sexist pronouns. Paul's stumbling brother implies a large “brethren” in the Commentary on Romans 14:21.26 In the Institutes we are told that “Our Father” is “a form of address that sets us in the fellowship with the brethren”:

However, we are not so instructed that each one of us should individually call him his Father, but rather that all of us in common should call him our Father. From this fact we are warned how great a feeling of brotherly love ought to be among us. … For if one father is common to us all [Matt. 23:9], and every good thing that can fall to our lot comes from him, there ought not to be anything separate among us that we are not prepared gladly and wholeheartedly to share with one another, as far as occasion requires.27

Calvin's “brethren” shares “every good thing” in “common,” is quite literally male, and represents in ideal form the patriarchal societies in which Calvin and Donne lived. Daughters, sisters, and wives lived and thrived among the “brethren,” of course, but they were thought to live in it best when they served the common needs of fathers, brothers, and husbands by cooking, cleaning, spinning, practicing “the Rites / Mysterious of connubial Love” (Paradise Lost 4.742-43), raising children, caring for the sick, and, given the opportunities of social class, engaging in intellectual activities that furthered the Protestant cause. There is no doubt that “the Reformation, in one form or another, became everybody's Reformation”—even Calvin seems to have thought that women's speaking in church, which Paul rails against in 1 Corinthians 14:34, was a thing indifferent—but offenses against women were offenses against love primarily in the sense that they were offenses against “brotherly love.”28

If there are “weak brothers” in Donne's poetry, husbands are the most likely men to play the role. Behind the Songs and Sonets lies the tradition of Ovid's Amores, a tradition in which “chang'd” women whom “all may use” are shadowed by husbands who themselves have been changed into cuckolds.29 “Your husband will be at the banquet with us,” says the lover in Amores 1.4; “may it be his last meal!” he exclaims, and at times he threatens his beloved with a similar disregard.30 Presumably the husbands of Donne's “fruits” do not treat them and, indeed, are not allowed to treat them as things indifferent. They are married to them—bound to them by a sacrament which Calvin himself thought was nonsense—and so they are not in a spiritual or practical position to “fling away the shell.”31 Unlike Donne, who has a sublimely untroubled conscience, who is exploring his freedom to use or not use his flesh-and-blood things indifferent as he finds his “fancy bent,” and who is so strong in his faith, these poor husbands are weak and need his care if they are not to suffer offense and be cast into confusion, fright, torment, and darkness. But he does not pay them any such regard. He uses his freedom in things indifferent, as Calvin says in the Institutes, “indiscriminately and unwisely” before men; “having no regard for [his] brothers' weakness” he “slip[s] most disastrously,” for he ought not “heedlessly allow what would do them the slightest harm.”


Good satire can be frightening. Often we are compelled to protect ourselves and our author from the satiric bomb even if that means defusing its potential for the correction of vice, the one positive function traditionally if always unrealistically ascribed to it. Sometimes we use irony as a shield, only to realize later that any irony was itself originally founded on norms which we now find too restrictive or repellent to accept. I suspect that many of us would rather live in Donne's sexual community than Calvin's religious one, there “possess[ing] the external world by consuming it” rather than caring for the feelings of our “weak brothers.” Indeed, when my reasons for rejecting Mann's homiletic reading are combined with my critics' reasons for rejecting my “weak brothers” reading, there should be a strong case for rejecting the idea of irony in “Communitie” altogether. In fact the casuistical permutations of the rule of charity were so various, the doctrine of things indifferent so inseparable from the controversies from which it sprung, that Donne's early readers may not have seen any special irony in the poem at all. They may have thought that the satirist expressed himself on the matter of things indifferent as well as most other men did, and then they may have considered whether he had hit his target. The title that one of these early readers chose—“Communitie”—itself suggests a good shot, not a misfire in the psychological chamber. Perhaps we should put aside, for the moment, our modern tendency to read all satire ironically and instead allow the possibility that the satire of this poem is directed not ironically at the speaker, his argument, or his “brutal” language but directly at a fallen world in which the discourse of things indifferent is perfectly applicable to sexual relations between men and women. By this I do not mean that Donne thought that men should treat women as things indifferent, only that he thought that they do treat them as things indifferent. Such was the privilege of the satirist in his “Communitie.”


  1. The Poems of John Donne, ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912), 1:32-33.

  2. Theodore Redpath, ed., The Songs and Sonets of John Donne, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), 139; A. C. Partridge, John Donne: Language and Style (London: André Deutsch, 1978), 72; Lindsay A. Mann, “Radical Consistency: A Reading of Donne's ‘Communitie,’” University of Toronto Quarterly 50 (1981): 284, 286, 298 (an interpretation echoed by Arthur D. Marotti in John Donne, Coterie Poet [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986], who argues that the poem “bluntly exposes the moral insensitivity behind smug libertinism in proving, with false logic, the legitimacy of exploiting women sexually” [73]); John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), 269. See also Michael McCanles, “Paradox in Donne,” Studies in the Renaissance 13 (1966): 266-87, who concludes that “the speaker's cynicism regarding women ends in a withdrawal into himself and an attempt to rationalize the situation in a way wholly controlled by his own mind” (283).

  3. N. J. C. Andreason, John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), 90-91.

  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:838-39.

  5. Ibid., 1:840.

  6. Andreason, Conservative Revolutionary, 91.

  7. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1965), 1:243-44. On Hooker's historicism and the doctrine of things indifferent see Arthur B. Ferguson, Clio Unbound: Perception of the Social and Cultural Past in Renaissance England (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1979), 207-222.

  8. Andreason, Conservative Revolutionary, 93.

  9. Mann, “Radical Consistency,” 284.

  10. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter, 10 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1953-62), 7:288. In a severe moment he says, “weigh and measure your particular and indifferent actions, before you do them, and you shall see, at least, grains of iniquity in them” (1:196); but in an easier mood he rebukes the man who “condenses” his conscience such “that every thing falls and sticks upon it, in the nature, and takes the waight of sin, and he mis-interprets the indifferent actions of others, and of his owne, and destroyes all use of Christian liberty, all conversation, all recreation, and out of a false feare, of being undutifull to God, is unjust to all the world, and to his owne soule, and consequently to God himselfe” (9:305).

  11. It is interesting to note in this connection that Donne admired Calvin's own rhetoric because it was “Problematicall,” not “Dogmaticall”: “It hath been observed amongst Philosophers, that Plato speaks probably, and Aristotle positively. … The like hath been noted amongst Divines, between Calvin, and Melanchton; Calvin will say, Videtur, It seemes to be thus, Melanchton, It can be no otherwise but thus. But the best men are but Problematicall, Onely the Holy Ghost is Dogmaticall” (Sermons, 6:301).

  12. Donne, Poems, 1:332-33.

  13. William Bradshaw, A Treatise of the Nature and Use of Things Indifferent (Amsterdam, 1605), 14-15. On Bradshaw and things indifferent see Peter Lake, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), 263-65.

  14. See Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), 135-48.

  15. Robert Cleaver, A Godly Form of Housholde Government (London, 1598), 157; qtd. in Margo Todd, “Humanists, Puritans and the Spiritualized Household,” Church History 49 (1980): 29.

  16. Sir William Cornwallis, Essayes (1600-01), ed. Don Cameron Allen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1947), 67.

  17. Bernard J. Verkamp, The Indifferent Mean: Adiaphorism in the English Reformation to 1554 (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1977), 115.

  18. Calvin, Institutes, 1:840-41.

  19. Marotti, Coterie Poet, 74; Andreason, Conservative Revolutionary, 92.

  20. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 136. It should be said that Bouwsma presents a more balanced account of Calvin's attitudes toward women, sex, and marriage than the one suggested here; see 52-54, 76-77, 136-38.

  21. On the stoic heritage of things indifferent in relation to Donne's “The Indifferent,” see Arnold Stein, John Donne's Lyrics: The Eloquence of Action (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1962), 117-19.

  22. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Allen & Unwin, 1930), 115.

  23. Calvin, Institutes, 1:842. Cf. Donne's casuistical dramatizations of the issue in a sermon: “To doe any thing that in it selfe is indifferent, (and so no sin in mee, that do it) in the sight of another that thinks it not indifferent, but unlawfull, and yet because he hath a reall, or reverentiall dependence upon me, (my Son, my Servant, my Tenant) and thinks I would be displeased if he did it not, does it against his conscience by my example, though the sin be formally his, radically it is mine, because I gave the occasion; And there is a lower degree then this, and yet it is an active scandall. If I do an indifferent thing in the sight and knowledge of another, that thinks it unlawfull, though he doe not come to doe it, out of my example, by any dependence upon me, yet if he come to think uncharitably of me, or to condemn me for doing it, though this uncharitableness in him bee his sinne, yet the root grew in me, and I gave the scandall” (Sermons, 3:172).

  24. Verkamp, Indifferent Mean, 124.

  25. To say this is neither to ignore the important roles that women played in the Reformation nor to pluck Donne from the “female coterie” in which he has been recently placed. See Sherrin Marshall Wyntjes, “Women in the Reformation Era,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 165-91; Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Women and the Continental Reformation,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 292-318; and Dennis Flynn, “Donne and a Female Coterie,” LIT 1 (1989): 127-36.

  26. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen, rpt. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 509-10.

  27. Calvin, Institutes, 2:901.

  28. Wyntjes, “Women in the Reformation Era,” 171. On Calvin and 1 Corinthians 14:34 see John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, 2 vols., rpt. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 1:467-69; and Jane Demspey Douglass, “Christian Freedom: What Calvin Learned at the School of Women,” Church History 53 (1984): 155-73.

  29. See J. B. Leishman, The Monarch of Wit: An Analytical and Comparative Study of John Donne (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 55-66, 149, 189-91.

  30. “Vir tuus est epulas nobis aditurus easdum — / ultima coena tuo sit, precor, illa viro!” (Amores 1.4.1-2).

  31. For Calvin's attack on the marriage sacrament see Institutes, 2:1480-84.

Lawrence Beaston (essay date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Beaston, Lawrence. “Talking to a Silent God: Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Via Negativa.Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 60, no. 2 (winter 1999): 95-109.

[In the following essay, Beaston examines the tension between modern readers' expectations and Donne's intent in the Holy Sonnets, arguing that the Sonnets dramatize the medieval concept of via negativa, or the experience of God's presence and mystery even in His apparent absence.]

Donne's Holy Sonnets trouble many twentieth-century readers who, like Helen Gardner, find “some sickness in the soul” (xxxi) expressed in these poems—a certain note of despair out of keeping with the subject and the author's status. Most readers expect the poems of the Anglican priest, Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, to progress toward spiritual health, faith, and a comforting sense of God's abiding presence, even though they frequently begin with a speaker in some spiritual distress. But such an outcome is achieved in few, if any, of these poems. How, then, are we to resolve the resulting tension between readers' expectations and what the sonnets actually deliver?1

Some critics assert that, taken individually, these poems are not meant to portray the entire spiritual journey of the speaker. Gardner, for example, argues that each sonnet is but part of a larger whole, a meditative sequence which follows roughly the pattern of meditation suggested by St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, a work which would have been familiar to Donne in light of his Jesuit connections (li). Gardner's point is that the reader cannot expect to find a satisfying conclusion to any single sonnet; resolution is apparent only when one reads an entire sonnet sequence. Louis Martz, however, asserts that at least some of the Holy Sonnets do indeed contain a complete meditation “in miniature” although most of these poems are merely memorable meditative moments (Poetry of Meditation 49).2

Other critics explain the dissatisfying conclusions of the Holy Sonnets by looking at the mind of the poet rather than the nature of the poems themselves. John Stachniewski, for example, concludes that the unresolved tensions in the Holy Sonnets indicate an unsuccessfully repressed despair engendered by Donne's belief in a Calvinistic God before whom human beings are powerless to effect or even reject their own salvation (677; 700-02). John N. Wall, however, asserts that the Holy Sonnets explore the paradoxical nature of the Christian's earthly life (191). “If there is movement in these poems,” says Wall, “it is not toward resolution but toward acceptance of the problem” (203). Both Wall and Stachniewski, then, ask the reader simply to accept these poems' lack of a satisfying conclusion as a given.

Thus, various explanations for the apparently unsatisfactory endings of the Holy Sonnets have been proposed, but none of them seems to have satisfied many readers.3 Perhaps, then, “the problem” that Wall wants us to accept resides not in the poems or the poet but rather in our expectations. Instead of being dissatisfied because the poems do not resolve the tensions we expect to be resolved, we may need to see that the very lack of the expected resolution is indicative of two problems peculiar to religious poetry. First, as some critics have suggested, humans find themselves in a position of desiring reconciliation with God but are unable to achieve it on their own (Wall 191).

Second is the problem of how to avoid what Susan E. Linville calls “a too easy pietism or self-righteous affirmation of ready-made, orthodox belief” (142). She argues that “the deliberate avoidance of a neat resolution is not necessarily a rejection of doctrine any more than use of a neat resolution inevitably confirms doctrine; irresolution can co-exist with doctrine in powerful, varied ways” (153). The image that we find in many of these poems of the penitent individual earnestly beseeching God for some spiritual grace with no apparent response from God need not be an image of despair, a surrender to doubts about God's concern for humankind or even God's existence. That image may, in fact, be a way of representing the radical otherness of God. If so, then Donne is part of a long tradition of Christian mysticism, rooted in the Psalms, which acknowledges and, in fact, insists upon recognizing the vast difference that separates God from humans. But this tradition, known as the via negativa, is not a tradition of despair; rather it sees God working to effect the salvation of his believers even in their experience of his silence, his apparent absence. Read in the context of the via negativa tradition, Donne's Holy Sonnets do not seem so troubling as they first appear.

To focus this discussion, I shall concentrate on those sonnets which are, either wholly or in part, addressed to God. Though these particular sonnets are not atypical of the Holy Sonnets as a whole, they are the ones in which God's silence is most striking. In each of these ten cases—nine of the nineteen Holy Sonnets (Gardner's numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 10, and 12 of the 1633 sonnets; 1 and 2 of the 1635; and 1 from the Westmoreland MS) are directly addressed to God, and one (2 from Westmoreland) addresses Christ—the speaker is in a state of what “O might those sighes and teares returne againe” calls “holy discontent.”4 In each case, the speaker recognizes his own sinfulness. In “I am a little world made cunningly,” the speaker says that “black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night / My worlds both parts [physical and spiritual], and (oh) both parts must die.” Sometimes the speaker's sinfulness is expressed in terms of his relationship with adversaries of God. “Batter my heart, three person'd God” refers to the speaker as betrothed to God's “enemie,” while in “As due by many titles I resigne,” the speaker considers himself a temple of the Spirit which has been usurped by Satan, and he seems powerless to do anything about this unwanted usurpation.

In some of the Holy Sonnets, the speaker's plight is made more urgent by the realization of his mortality. In “This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint,” for example, the sense of impending death is striking. The speaker refers to the present moment as his “pilgrimages last mile” and to his “last pace,” his “last inch,” and his “minutes last point.” “And gluttonous death,” he says, “will instantly unjoynt / My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space.” In “Thou has made me, And shall thy worke decay?” the speaker becomes increasingly alarmed. “Repaire me now,” he pleads,

for now mine end doth haste,
I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dimme eyes any way,
Despaire behind, and death before doth cast
Such terrour. …

But the terror which so alarms the speaker is not fear of death itself as much as fear of a death that will leave him forever separated from God; death does not trouble the speaker so much as the ultimate consequences of his sinfulness. In this same poem, the speaker makes clear that his impending death has prompted him to consider his spiritual state. He recognizes that his sinfulness has wasted his flesh and he wants to be “repaired.” He concludes by beseeching God to draw him away from the powerful influence of the devil.

All of these sonnets, with the possible exception of “Since she whom I loved,” are petitions to God for an act of grace. In some cases the speaker asks for outright forgiveness for his sins. In “This is my playes last scene,” the speaker, after acknowledging that his sins “would presse me, to hell” asks God simply to “Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evil.” In “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree” the request is that God forget the speaker's sins. And the speaker of “O might those sighes and teares returne againe,” a poem not strictly within the purview of this study, asks that sorrow for his sinfulness might bear “some fruit”:

In my Idolatry what showres of raine
Mine eyes did waste? what griefs my heart did rent?
That sufferance was my sinne, now I repent. …

In at least two other Holy Sonnets—one, “Spit in my face ye Jewes, and pierce my side” another sonnet not addressed to God, and the other, “Batter my heart”—the speaker is so haunted by his sinfulness that he pleads for God to bring violence upon him in order to effect the reconciliation with God that he fervently desires but which he is unable to achieve of his own will. Other sonnets ask for instruction. “Teach mee how to repent” says the speaker of “At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow.”

Some of these sonnets end with a desperate plea. “I am a little world made cunningly,” for example, ends with the lines “And burne me ô Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heale.” “This is my playes last scene” ends with the words previously noted, “Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill, / For thus I leave the world, the flesh, and devill.” And “Batter my heart” concludes with the words “Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free, / Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.”

Almost certainly convinced of the sincerity of the speaker's desire for God's intervention, the reader may expect God to respond in a quiet voice—as he does in Herbert's poems.5 But like the mistresses in Donne's love poems, Donne's God is silent. Even those sonnets (numbers 3, 4, and 7 of the 1633 sonnets and 4 of the 1635 sonnets) which end on a hopeful note never attain the certainty of God's favor.

The imagery of estrangement from God is vivid. In “Batter my heart,” the speaker says he is a walled town from which God is shut out. In “Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?” the speaker sees himself as the abandoned and decaying artifact of God. Here, the sense of estrangement touches on despair. Despair is also clearly evident in “As due by many titles I resigne.” This poem ends with the speaker concluding that God “wilt'not chuse me.” He begs God to “rise and for [His] owne worke fight.”

How, then, does one reconcile the silence of God in these poems and the professed faith of the poet? If we accept that these poems are not meant to cast doubt upon the existence of God, are we not, then, as Stachniewski argues, to see them as expressions of despair? Or, does God's apparent silence somehow lead the speaker and the reader to a new and heightened sense of God's presence?

The experience of God's silence, of God's absence, is an experience frequently treated in Christian literature. The Bible contains numerous instances. When the Israelites escape from their Egyptian masters, for example, they spend forty years wandering in the desert often feeling abandoned by God (Exodus 15). The writer of Psalm 10 asks, “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?”6 In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for deliverance from death and hears only God's silence; and on the cross he asks, echoing the words of Psalm 22, why God has forsaken him (Matthew 27:46). In addition to the psalmists, other people devoted to the life of the spirit, as well, have written of this experience. The fourteenth-century English mystic Walter Hilton, for example, tells of the “lacking of comfort and devotion” that sometimes afflicts the Christian (84). And Hilton's contemporary Julian of Norwich mentions the experience of “the absens of oure lorde” (620).

Throughout Christian history, many writers have tried to comprehend the reasons for the sometimes sudden withdrawal of the sense of God's comforting presence in the lives of his believers. The via negativa, as this tradition came to be known, is based on the notion that God is ineffable. In the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Pseudo-Dionysius argued that human intellect is incapable of formulating any but inadequate propositions concerning God. The best way to God, according to Pseudo-Dionysius, was not by means of intellectual activity but through silence and ignorantia (Levao 10).

In the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa further developed the idea of the via negativa in his De Docta Ignorantia (8). He maintained that the desire to know God is characteristically human, yet certainty seems to dissolve under this desire. The finite mind, he argued, cannot know infinite truth. God is beyond all logical oppositions we can construct. Since, therefore, we cannot know him in any direct way, either we must apply ourselves to the understanding of God's creation, thereby apprehending the “artist” by means of his “artifacts” (the via positiva), or we comprehend the divine by a process of eliminating those propositions about God that are obviously false. As a way of knowing God, the via negativa approaches ever closer to the truth of what God is by considering what he is not, always admitting, however, that God can never be known in any positive way (60; see also Hopkins 24).

Neither Pseudo-Dionysius nor Nicholas denied the via positiva; they often affirm that the words of Scripture and the vastness and grandeur of the universe as well as the order and beauty of nature testify to the presence of God (Pseudo-Dionysius 73; Nicholas of Cusa 8). But when the sense of God's presence seems mysteriously and inexplicably withdrawn, the via negativa has proven helpful. Far from being a doctrine of despair, the via negativa asserts that the believer can experience God even through the painful awareness of his absence. The “dark night of the soul,” as John of the Cross called this experience, is a time of radical stripping away of everything which the seeker values more than God and a reordering of the seeker's being. God, according to the via negativa, is not absent in these times of spiritual darkness; he is, even in his apparent inactivity, bringing the seeker to an “understanding” of the very limits of human finitude and setting the stage for a new relationship between the seeker and himself (Cronk 45-9).

The work of reordering is understood to occur often without the conscious knowledge of the believer. As John of the Cross states,

God teaches the soul after a most hidden and secret manner, without her knowing how; this is that which is called “understanding yet understanding not.” For this is not done by active understanding, as the philosophers call it, which works in forms and fancies of things; but it is done in the understanding inasmuch as it is possible and passive when, without receiving such forms and fancies, it passively receives substantial knowledge, which is given to it without any active office or work of its own.


John of the Cross recognizes that sometimes God's work is not apparent to the mind of the believer.

Because both the via negativa tradition and Donne deal with God's apparent silence or absence, an acquaintance with the via negativa may be helpful to the readers of the Holy Sonnets. There is considerable evidence that he was aware of this tradition and that he was influenced by it. First, given his Roman Catholic background, Donne is likely to have known of contemporary Christian mystics in the via negativa tradition such as St. Teresa, Luis de Granada, and John of the Cross. Second, besides the fact of Nicholas' influence upon Renaissance thought (Levao xix), we know that Donne was acquainted with this via negativa writer because he refers to Nicholas' Cribratio Alchorani in a letter to Sir Robert Ker dated April 3, 1627, in which he talks about “cribrating,” “recrib[r]ating,” and “postcrib[r]ating” one of his own sermons in order to discover what had displeased the king about it (Letters 308).

But the strongest evidence that Donne is acquainted with the via negativa tradition is the fact that scholars have frequently noted parallels between this tradition and Donne's sermons. Dominic Baker-Smith argues that Donne echoes Nicholas' ignorantia when he refers to “a profitable, a wholesome, a learned ignorance, which is a modest, and a reverent abstinence from searching into those secrets which God hath not revealed in his word” (415; Baker-Smith quotes Sermons 9:234). Dennis McKevlin also notes the parallels between Nicholas and Donne (19-28), and Itrat Husain cites the following words from one of Donne's sermons as evidence of the connection between Donne's thought and the “dark night” of John of the Cross:

Love him [God] not onely in spiritual transfigurations when he visits thy soule with glorious consolations, but even in his inward eclipses, when he withholds his comforts, and withdraws his cheerfulness, even when he makes as though he knew not thee, Love him.

(140; see also 133)

Clements finds numerous points of similarity between Donne and John of the Cross (62). And Gale Carrithers observes that Donne's reference to the desert as a place “of solitude, and retirednesse” in his “Third Sermon on John 1.8” “sounds like the via negativa of St. John of the Cross” (155).

Parallels between the via negativa and Donne's sermons are not difficult to find. In one of his sermons, Donne talks about an experience of Abraham in “dark night” terms:

When God talked with Abraham, a horror of great darknesse fell upon him, sayes that Text [Genesis 15:12]. The Father of lights, and the God of all comfort present, and present in an action of Mercy, and yet, a horror of great darknesse upon Abraham.

(Sermons 8:123)

Later in the same sermon Donne differentiates between the experience of God's presence and that of his apparent absence in terms of biblical figures:

… whether I shall see God as a Dove with an Olive branch, (peace to my soule) or as an Eagle, a vulture to prey, and to prey everlastingly upon mee, whether in the deepe floods of Tribulation, spirituall or temporall, I shall see God as an Arke to take mee in, or as a Whale to swallow mee; and if his Whale doe swallow mee, (the Tribulation devour me) whether his purpose bee to restore mee, or to consume me, I, I of my selfe cannot tell.

(Sermons 8:123)

May we not, then, reasonably expect representations of both the ark and the whale in Donne's poetry?

Instead of straining to find some sense of resolution of tension in the Holy Sonnets or concluding that they are but the products of a spiritual despair, we might more profitably read the Holy Sonnets as representations of the via negativa—that is, as the depiction of the experience of God's otherness and mystery as well as his presence even in his apparent absence.

The Holy Sonnet speakers find themselves pleading with a God who does not respond to their requests but on whom they want to depend. They try various means to evoke a response from God. Some are intended as compelling arguments:

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn'd; Alas; why should I bee?

The speaker then challenges God in lines 7 and 8: “And mercy being easie, and glorious / To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?” In another sonnet, the speaker begins, “Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?” God, if he is not disposed to intervene for the sake of the speaker, is challenged to act in his own self-interest in order to preserve his own work. But the cleverness of these arguments is not recompensed by any conviction in the poem that God has taken possession of the speaker, by any sense of the gift of God's presence in the speaker's soul.

Though the speakers usually address God in familiar yet reverential language, sometimes the arguments are more impassioned, even angry in tone. Anger is certainly evident in the lines quoted above from “If poysonous mineralls,” but when the speaker directly addresses God in line 9, the tone is milder: “But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?” Neither the anger nor the subsequent softened attitude, however, convey any conviction that the speaker has moved God.

Sometimes anger is expressed in indirect ways. In “Batter my heart,” for example, the tone is violently emotional:

Batter my heart, three person'd God …
… o'erthrow mee, ‘and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

Then, as previously noted, the speaker asks God to conquer, imprison, enthrall, and ravish him. Although he calls God's anger down upon himself, the reader is left with impression that the anger is really directed at the speaker himself. In any case, there is no sense that this tactic provokes God to action. A similar approach is taken in “I am a little world made cunningly.” The speaker thinks of himself as a universe writ small. He admits that his miniature cosmos, both the physical and the spiritual, is tainted by “black sinne,” and he acknowledges God's power to drown his universe thereby cleansing it, just as the Great Flood cleansed the earth. And if water does not succeed, then there is the fire which is promised in Isaiah (66:15). The speaker ends by asking God to consume him with fire. But he is not reduced to ashes.

Even the speaker's penitence is inadequate to move God. “O might those sighes and teares returne againe” speaks of the grief which is caused by the speaker's sins. “I am a little world” and “If poysonous mineralls” mention tears of remorse. But this attitude receives no response from God, who seems beyond the reach of the speaker's words. The fact that the clever arguments, the anger, the bullying, or even the remorse of the speakers never earn a response nonetheless indicates a fully conventional conviction that God is not subject to human whims or even earnest desires. His actions cannot be predicted. He refuses to play the various roles which the speakers design for him.

Donne once observed that when God speaks, “heare we no voyce” (Sermons 6:217). His God may be silent in these poems but, if the reading I am suggesting is plausible, that silence, like the silence of the God in the “dark night of the soul,” need not be deemed the silence of a God who is uncaring, unconcerned, or just plain arbitrary in his dealings with humans. God's reticence is rather a clear and effective way of indicating his otherness and mystery and of representing the inaccessibility of an infinite being to a finite human. Donne's God refuses to become a dramatic persona as he is in the poetry of Herbert. Like the God of the via negativa, Donne's God refuses to be caught in the constructions of human reason and human language. Any Herbertian intrusion of God in Donne's Holy Sonnets would only undercut the sense of God's otherness and the mystery Donne insistently and repeatedly acknowledges.

Louis Martz's article “Donne and Herbert: Vehement Grief and Silent Tears” draws some interesting distinctions between Donne and Herbert. While Herbert's poems “dance and pirouette above the theological issues, dance above the old facts of history, liberate themselves … from the stern and warring doctrines of the time,” Donne, says Martz, explores a deep sense of sinfulness. While Herbert's poetry displays a sense of security, Donne's betrays a tremendous sense of uncertainty and alienation of man from God (32). These different stances may explain why God speaks in Herbert's poems but takes no active role in any of Donne's religious poetry, with the possible exception of “The Lamentations of Jeremy, for the Most part according to Tremelius” (Gardner 35-48).

The silence of Donne's God, besides indicating the radical separation between humankind and God, also suggests both the inadequacy of human beings and their radical dependence on God. The Holy Sonnet speakers are brought to the point of not only silence but also ignorantia. They are brought to the point of silence because they must realize that there is nothing that they can say which will cause God to act; their words are powerless. They are made fully conscious of ignorantia because they cannot know God. And the reader must realize that human wills are ineffective in obtaining what they most desire. In “Batter my heart,” the speaker acknowledges that his reason is “captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.” And so he ends at the point of recognition that he must wait for God to act; he states that he will never be chaste unless God “ravish” him. The paradoxical formulations highlight the inadequacy of reason. As Elizabeth Tebeux points out, for Donne reason is important to salvation, but he “intentionally makes readers feel insecure about their ability to use rational instruments to articulate spiritual truth or to understand it because he never wants his hearers to forget human limitations” (211). And by juxtaposing the speaker's cries for God's grace with God's silence, Donne intensifies the desire of the speaker in the face of his inability to do or say anything to fulfill that desire. The author of these poems, like the writers in the via negativa tradition, recognizes the infirmity of both human intellect and human language.

Exploring Donne's notion of the nature of language and writing, James Baumlin asks whether written linguistic forms such as letters or poems substantiate the presence of the writer. More specifically, he questions whether the written word is a transubstantiation, a consubstantiation, or merely a commemoration of an event (159). Donne's Songs and Sonnets, Baumlin asserts, take a position between Catholic transubstantiation and Protestant consubstantiation; but the “Valedictions” suggest a more Zwinglian commemorative role for language. When writing invokes only the memory of a past event, the reader confronts the absence of the writer (179). “Then,” Baumlin concludes, “writing provides but a weak compensation and surely no antidote for absence, becoming a pharmikon or drug—or, more precisely, a compulsive action that seeks to allay (though it can never cure) the anxiety of separation” (180).7

May we not, then, consider the Holy Sonnets as efforts which seek to allay, without being able to cure, the anxiety of separation between the speaker and God? This is precisely the point about human existence which the via negativa makes: Finite human beings cannot hope to know or encounter God in any direct way.

Acceptance of this inevitable alienation, however, need not be a cause for despair because, in the “dark night of the soul,” though God is experienced as being absent, he is also present as a force reordering the life of the seeker. Even if the Holy Sonnet speakers never achieve any sense of spiritual progress and even if the speakers' anxiety about their estrangement from God is never cured, the reader can see that God is present, in one sense, by virtue of the fact that He is addressed or invoked and because, in another sense, the speakers are preoccupied by the question of God. Their inability to achieve a sense of God's presence only heightens their yearning for God, as well as their sense of their own spiritual aliveness.

For Donne, God's silence is not only no cause for despair but is, in fact, something to welcome. In “Oh, to vex me, contraryes meete in one,” the speaker says, “Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.” In the last stanza of “A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors Last Going into Germany,” the speaker says:

Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beames of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.
Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I goe out of sight:
          And to scape stormy dayes, I chuse
                    An Everlasting night.

Here the reader can see that the speaker clearly senses God's presence in the darkness. He recognizes that the apparent sense of happiness of his daylight pursuit of “Fame, Wit, and Hopes” was detrimental to his ultimate salvation, which he recognizes is best served by the more troubling times of darkness, times which seem to be bleak and hopeless but which in fact bring him closer to God. Perhaps a similar situation is represented in the Holy Sonnets even if they are not explicit about the experience of divine presence in absence.

Besides being indices of spiritual vitality, the Holy Sonnets are also, in a way, artifacts of the grace that the speakers seek. If the speaker of “At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow” is never quite conscious of receiving God's pardon, the reader can see that his recognition of the need to repent is itself a sign of repentance, which can be read as a sign of God's presence. In fact, in all the sonnets addressed to God, God is present in the very words of the pray-er.

Donne's sermons support this view of prayer. He states:

To sigh, and turne backward, to repent, and relapse, is a wofull Condition: But to sigh, and turne forward, to turne upon God, and to pursue this sorrow for our sins, then, in such sighes, The Spirit of man returnes to God that gave it; As God breathed into man, so man breathes unto the nostrils of God a savour of rest.

(Sermons 8:197)

Donne says in another of his sermons,

There is not so poore a creature but may be thy glasse to see God in … and whatsoever hath any beeing, is by that very beeing, a glasse in which we see God, who is the roote, and the fountaine of all beeing.

(Sermons 8:224)

The very turning of the speaker to God, therefore, is a sign and symptom of God's working in the life of the speaker. As the speaker in “If faithfull soules be alike glorifi'd” says, “Then turne / O pensive soule, to God, for he knowes best / Thy true griefe, for he put it in my breast.” The same idea is expressed in stanza 23 of “A Litanie”:

          Heare us, O heare us Lord; to thee
A sinner is more musique, when he prayes,
          Then spheres, or Angels praises bee,
In Panegyrique Allelujaes,
          Heare us, for till thou heare us, Lord
          We know not what to say.
Thine eare to'our sighes, teares, thoughts gives voice and word.
          O Thou who Satan heard'st in Jobs sicke day,
Heare thy selfe now, for thou in us dost pray.

(Gardner 24)

The speaker's turning to God may itself be the assurance the speaker seeks. God, like Donne's lover looking into the eyes of his beloved (“The good-morrow,” Shawcross 89), looks into the life of the pray-er and sees himself reflected in the prayer. The previously mentioned softening of the speaker's tone in “If poysonous mineralls” is particularly illustrative. The whole tone of the poem changes when the speaker turns from his anger to address God. His anger subsides. God's response is mirrored in the prayer itself. The Spirit of God overcomes the speaker's spirit of anger.

The limitations of reason are demonstrated in the Holy Sonnets by the speaker's limited point of view. God works in ways beyond the speaker's, though in this case not the reader's, ability to comprehend. If we accept Donne's notion of prayer, then the reader is in a position to see God's presence in the dramatic situation of the poem. The reader must look beyond the speaker's limited point of view for evidence of the condition he dramatically records.

To see the Holy Sonnets as dramatizations of the via negativa is to acknowledge their implications about infirmity of human intellect and human language in human beings' encounter with their creator, but such a reading does not necessarily mean they are poems of despair. They affirm the value of communication with God. Though God seems absent, he is most real in the poet's sense of need, most powerfully felt in his experience of the “dark night.”

God was surely present in the biblical experiences of the dark night. When the Jews wander in the desert, seemingly forsaken by God, they still have the cloud and the fire to guide them and the manna to feed them. When on the cross Jesus expresses his sense of the absence of God by quoting Psalm 22, he is also speaking of the presence of God for this psalm ends with the psalmist affirming his conviction that he has not been forsaken after all.

Though God seems indifferent to the speaker of Donne's poems, the reader can see that God is really at work beyond the pale of the speaker's understanding; he is stripping away the speaker's false pretensions, the intellectualizations, the argumentation, the emotionalism. The evidence of God's working in the soul of the speaker is in the turning of the speaker, the pray-er, to God. Though the reader's desire for meaning, for resolution, seems confounded, that desire is fulfilled when the reader looks beyond the limited point of view of the speaker and recognizes both the special artistry and the religious commitment of the poet who endows his speaker with not only dramatic life, but spiritual purpose.

By seeing the Holy Sonnets in the context of the tradition of the via negativa, we can understand that the absence of God need not be read as evidence that God does not exist, that he is not omnipotent, or that he is unconcerned. Rather, as in the “dark night” experience, the silence of God in the Holy Sonnets may be seen as an indication of God's radical otherness and, paradoxically, as a sign that God is actually at work reordering the life of the speaker. Thus, God demonstrates the limitations of human reasoning and human language, making the speaker trust less in feelings and depend less upon his own efforts while being more dependent upon God. At the same time, the reader can see evidence in the speaker's words and attitudes of the presence of God not as an active participant in the dramatized moment but as a silent presence beyond human words and human reason.


  1. The suggestions of Professors Judd Arnold and Robert Hume on earlier drafts of this article are greatly appreciated.

  2. Douglas Peterson maintains that “the controlling principle in all nineteen of the Holy Sonnets is the Anglican doctrine of contrition” (506). The sonnets, he says, prepare the reader for repentance by inspiring first fear then love. Arthur Bell's strategy is similar to Peterson's, but he is concerned with atonement rather than contrition. Similarly, Eleanor J. McNees sees Donne's divine poems as preludes to the eucharist. According to McNees, these poems “rarely focus on the act of communion; rather, they are preoccupied with the repentance and confession of sins before participation in the act of Holy Communion” (34).

  3. Arthur Clements accounts for the failure of the Holy Sonnets to achieve a resolution of tensions by maintaining that these poems express only desire, never realization (74). He associates the Holy Sonnets with what Evelyn Underhill calls the purgative stage of spiritual development. Union with God (and the desired resolution of the tensions) is not realized until the third and final, or contemplative stage. See also Stanley Archer's “Meditation and the Structure of the Holy Sonnets” for a critique of Martz's approach and Patrick Grant's defense of Martz.

  4. “This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint” does not explicitly mention God, but the implication of the penultimate line, “Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill,” may be read as a prayer to the divine. All quotations from the Holy Sonnets are taken from Gardner.

  5. See Herbert's “Even-song,” “Jordan (II),” and “The Collar” (63, 102, 153) for examples of God's direct response to the speaker's petition.

  6. See also Psalms 5, 13, 22, 60, 62, 74, 83, 86, 102, 103, and 143.

  7. Baumlin's discussion has implications for the via negativa. If God's presence is revealed in his creation, in Scripture, and in interventions in history, then there is a sense in which these become signs, like language, which convey not only God's presence but also his absence from that which he has created.

Works Cited

Archer, Stanley. “Meditation and the Structure of Donne's ‘Holy Sonnets.’” ELH 28 (1961): 137-47.

Baker-Smith, Dominic. “John Donne's ‘Critique of True Religion.’” John Donne: Essays in Celebration. Ed. A. J. Smith. London: Methuen, 1972. 404-32.

Baumlin, James S. “Donne's Poetics of Absence.” John Donne Journal 7 (1988): 151-82.

Bell, Arthur Henry. “Donne's Atonement Conceit in the Holy Sonnets. Cresset 32 (1969): 15-7.

Carrithers, Gale H., Jr. Donne at Sermons: A Christian Existential World. Albany: SUNY P, 1972.

Clements, Arthur L. Poetry of Contemplation: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and the Modern Period. Albany: SUNY P, 1990.

Cronk, Sandra. Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1991.

Donne, John. Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651). Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977.

———. The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. Ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George Potter. Berkeley: U of California P, 1953-1959.

Gardner, Helen, ed. The Divine Poems. By John Donne. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

Grant, Patrick. “Augustinian Spirituality and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.” ELH 38 (1971): 542-61.

Herbert, George. The Works of George Herbert. Ed. F.E. Hutchinson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

Hilton, Walter. The Scale of Perfection. Trans. Evelyn Underhill. London: John M. Watkins, 1923.

Hopkins, Jasper. A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1980.

Husain, Itrat. The Dogmatic and Mystical Theology of John Donne. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: Macmillan, 1938.

John of the Cross. Spiritual Canticle. 3rd revised ed. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1961.

Julian of Norwich. A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, Part Two: The Long Text. Ed. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1975.

Levao, Ronald. Renaissance Minds and Their Fictions: Cusanus, Sidney, Shakespeare. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Linville, Susan E. “Contrary Faith: Poetic Closure and the Devotional Lyric.” Papers on Language and Literature 20 (1984): 141-53.

Martz, Louis. “Donne and Herbert: Vehement Grief and Silent Tears.” John Donne Journal 7 (1988): 21-34.

———. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.

McKevlin, Dennis J. A Lecture in Love's Philosophy: Donne's Vision of the World of Human Love in theSongs and Sonnets.” New York: UP of America, 1984.

McNees, Eleanor J. The Search for Presence in the Writings of Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1992.

Nicholas of Cusa. Of Learned Ignorance. Trans. Germain Heron. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954.

Peterson, Douglas L. “John Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Anglican Doctrine of Contrition.” SP 56 (1959): 504-18.

Pseudo-Dionysius. Oeuvres Complétes du Pseudo-Denys L'Aréopagite. Ed. and trans. Maurice de Gandillac. Paris: Aubier, 1943.

Shawcross, John T., ed. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.

Stachniewski, John. “John Donne: The Despair of the ‘Holy Sonnets.’” ELH 48 (1981): 677-705.

Tebeux, Elizabeth. “Memory, Reason, and the Quest for Certainty in the Sermons of John Donne.” Renascence 43 (1991): 195-213.

Wall, John N., Jr. “Donne's Wit of Redemption: The Drama of Prayer in the ‘Holy Sonnets.’” Studies in Philology 73 (1976): 189-203.

David Buck Beliles (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Beliles, David Buck. “Donne and Feminist Critics.” In Theoretically-Informed Criticism of Donne's Love Poetry: Toward Pluralist Hermeneutics of Faith, pp. 7-21. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following essay, Beliles provides an introduction to several feminist responses to Donne's Songs and Sonnets and Elegies, especially “Confined Love,” “Breake of Day” and “Sapho to Philaenis”— three poems that have a female narrator.]

John Donne's love poetry has attracted a great number of women critics in the twentieth century. Several of the major scholars and critics of an earlier generation who made Donne central to their careers were women: Dame Helen Gardner first and foremost, Rosemond Tuve, and later Barbara Kiefer Lewalski. As one might expect, this trend has continued and expanded as more women enter the profession. With the rise of feminist criticism in the late twentieth century, one might also expect that Donne's stock would have fallen among female critics, due to a number of factors in his love poems. The most obvious factor is that the female characters addressed in the poetry are spoken to and are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. Of the Songs and Sonets, only “Confined Love” and “Breake of Day” have women speakers. Among the Elegies, the lesbian speaker of “Sapho to Philaenis”—a poem which Gardner assigns to “Dubia”—is the sole woman's voice. The simple fact that for the most part Donne denies voice to the woman would seem to leave ample and fertile ground for feminist critics to raise charges of sexism, egocentrism, and at the very least, insensitivity towards women. Ilona Bell points out, however, that these criticisms have been penned primarily by male commentators, such as Kenneth Muir, J.E.V. Crofts, and Patrick Cruttwell (113). From Gardner through contemporary feminist critics, the majority of women who have written on Donne defend him against such imputations.

Feminist criticism is perhaps the most varied of all the approaches to Donne; the body of practical criticism refuses to fit neatly into a single interpretative paradigm. Rather it ranges from what is essentially a new critical close reading of texts with a focus upon the role of and attitudes towards women in those texts, to approaches which give a feminist cast to other theoretical paradigms.


In Gardner's introduction to her edition of The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, she asserts that

Donne has a claim to the title of our greatest love-poet on two grounds. First, the range of mood and experience in his love-poetry is greater than can be found in the poetry of any single other non-dramatic writer. We can find almost any and every mood of man in love with woman expressed memorably and vehemently in his poetry … his second claim to preeminence is that he has given supreme expression to a theme that is rarely expressed in lyric poetry, and finds expression in drama rather than in lyric, the theme of the rapture of fulfillment and of the bliss of union in love.


With a few exceptions, and minus the now-unfashionable qualitative judgments, women writing on Donne have focused their attention upon the second ground of Gardner's judgment—the theme of “union,” or mutuality in love—and several have argued that a sense of equality exists between the speaker and the addressed, even in the poems which are not overtly about mutual love. Four hundred years after the poems were written, Donne's “masculine persuasive force” continues to seduce some of those who would seem most immune to it—late twentieth century feminist critics. One such critic, Helen Carr, quotes a passage from Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop as the epigraph for her essay, “Donne's Masculine Persuasive Force”:

As in the pleasure gardens, she saw herself in the black pupil of his squint. ‘My face in thy eye, thine in mine appears. And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest.’ John Donne, 1572-1632, alias Jack Donne, alias the Dean of St Paul's. In the school poetry book, between extracts from Shakespeare and ‘The Rape of the Lock’ by Alexander Pope. How all the young girls loved John Donne.


Many of them grow up to love him too, it seems.

However, Elizabeth D. Harvey, in what seems to be primarily a close reading with a feminist-lesbian angle, finds fault with Donne even when he seems to grant voice to women. In “Valediction of the Booke,” the speaker tells his “deare Love” that she shall “anger destiny, as she doth us,” by studying the letters that have passed between them and then writing for posterity the “booke” of their love. By doing so, the woman's glory will

          Sybills glory, and obscure
          Her who from Pindar could allure,
          And her, through whose helpe Lucan is not lame,
And her, whose booke (they say) Homer did finde,
                    and name.

(ll. 5-9)

Harvey finds the speaker's praise for his mistress—valuing her over Corinna the Boetian, Polla Argentaria, and Phantasia of Memphis—to be specious at best.

Although the speaker ostensibly praises these three women, suggesting that their talents either surpassed or helped to shape the poetic genius of Pindar, Lucan, and Homer, his rhetoric ironically deflates the encomium. He describes the women periphrastically but declines to name them, substituting instead the names of the men whose reputations have supplanted theirs.


She points out that “this elision of the proper name within the poem mimetically reproduces the historical effacement of the women's identities” (Harvey 115). She further asserts that the speaker is demanding that the woman do what Donne himself has already done; that is, write about the love between the male speaker and the addressed woman. In effect, Harvey says, the woman addressed has already been effaced; her subject has already been written about, and the treatment of that subject has been shaped by a man. Given the situation—that is, John Donne, male poet, writing a poem in which a male speaker suggests to his mistress that she write the book of their love—there is no poetic strategy that Donne could have employed which would not have erased the woman in Harvey's view. Pushed to its logical extreme, this position implies that any poetry written by a man effaces the women in the poems: any woman in the poem who speaks (or writes) has necessarily been effaced by having been spoken for (or ventriloquized) by the male poet. At the same time, if the woman does not speak, the poet is more easily accused of silencing women. In the case at hand, the speaker tells the woman to study the letters “which have past twixt thee and mee.” This obviously implies that at least some of the material for the book will come from what he has already written, but it also implies that what the woman has already written will shape it as well. The speaker does not tell her what to write or how to shape that material so as much as he tells her what effect her book will have upon those who read it. Further, Harvey neglects the fictive dramatic situation of the poem. The speaker in the poem is exactly that; he has not written the annals of their love. Rather, he tells her to create the book in a “new made Idiome.” One must question whether the speaker has defined the way the woman will shape the material when he suggests that she create an original idiom for the book. The fact that he does not name the earlier women writers does not necessarily suggest “the speaker's complicity in the erasure of the women's identities,” which “is furthered by his treatment of his mistress, for he suggests that she could overshadow only female authors whose literary reputations have already been forgotten and buried …” (Harvey 116). Rather, the fact that the speaker does not need to name those authors indicates that his audience—the woman—is perfectly capable of following the Classical allusions. As far as the speaker and the listener are concerned, the reputations of those writers are not “forgotten and buried.” In fact, they have survived the ravages of “the ravenous / Vandals and Goths …”, as will the woman's book. And it is not just a reputation as a poet that the woman will earn with her book; the record she would create would be a transcendent artifact, “as long-liv'd as the elements,” which would preserve all learning, and teach sciences to the schools, music to the spheres, and verse to the angels. The speaker moves far beyond suggesting that the woman can only achieve a place in human history similar to the muted fame of the three ancient writers.

Janel Mueller also argues that Donne positions women in a subordinate role, including the poems ostensibly celebrating mutual love as well as in the cynical ones:

Donne's many cynical and libertine speakers enact their conviction of male superiority, whether or not they finally undercut themselves in what they say. But the lyrics of reciprocated love also inscribe at key points the prevailing asymmetry of outlook and sexual role that casts the male as the persuader and possessor, the female as the persuaded and possessed. …


She finds throughout Donne's love poetry a sense of a man de-centered or deconstructed through the experience of passion: “the onset of love unsettles and even shatters a man by destroying all illusion that he can live in self-containment and self-sufficiency; instead, he discovers he is contingent, vulnerable, without a center” (Mueller 146). Without this center, or perhaps because of this lack of self-sufficiency, the male speakers, regardless of whether they are libertines or loving husbands, are compelled to assert their superiority over what makes them contingent—the woman, the beloved, the object. Yet in the same article Mueller also recognizes that, at least in the physical realm, Donne's speakers portray a relationship with woman-as-other which is apparently egalitarian. The recognition that one is not self-contained when it comes to matters of love and desire is human, rather than male: “Insofar as Donne's speakers associate the full mutuality of this human recognition with heterosexual intercourse freely undertaken and enjoyed, they rather strikingly represent the man and the woman as equals in love …” (Mueller 146). Yet the representation is undercut, as far as Mueller is concerned, by the fact that “the speaker continues to register the reaches and boundaries of his own gendered consciousness, his identity as a man” (Mueller 145). One must question whether or not, in Mueller's view, any evidence of a “gendered consciousness,” the speaker's tacit awareness of his maleness, is proof of sexism. An awareness of difference does not necessarily deny equality and mutuality. Her assertion that Donne's poetry reflects belief in the superiority of men is based on the speaker's assumption of his own power to persuade. She does not, though, make much of a case to prove that the speaker's attitude is based upon a conviction concerning the general superiority of his sex, rather than an egocentric belief in his own powers of persuasion. That the attempt to persuade takes place upon a high plane of intellectual and humorous argument has implications about the individual addressed that seem to have little to do with sex or gender. Although Deborah Lockwood also finds fault with Donne's attitudes, she finds that “the poems speaking from such a [mutual] love clearly imply that the speaker's audience, his beloved, has like him a taste for the subtle, a capacity for the intellectual” (42).

Though Ilona Bell clearly thinks of herself as a revisionist feminist critic, she seems primarily to give a close reading of the texts. As opposed to Mueller and Lockwood, she grants Donne and his speakers a much more enlightened and less gendered and sexist viewpoint, even in the poems which at first glance seem the most cynical. By “reading” the silences of the women addressed in the Songs and Sonets, Bell concludes that Donne achieves “an empathetic, imaginative, and varied response to the lady's point of view” (113). She regards her approach as “a revisionist reading which gives more attention to the lady's dynamic, suasive effect upon the speaker's own intense personal moods” (Bell 115). She sees the changes and modifications of the speaker's arguments as arising from actions and reactions on the part of his listener. While one could well be skeptical about the very possibility of reading gaps and silences1, Bell comes to some reasonable conclusions. One of the problems which confront the critic who tries to deduce a coherent and unified attitude toward women based on a reading of the love poetry is the great range of the speakers' expressed attitudes. The personae range from ones who take pride in their own inconstancy, to urging a woman to cuckold her husband, to damning a lover's cuckolding of him, to ones proclaiming true and enduring and mutual love. In Bell's reading what unites this disparate body of attitudes expressed by the speakers is the poet's fundamental and continuous interest in the women involved in these dramatic poetic situations: “Try as he may to sound scornful and cavalier, regardless of what he may say at any given moment, whether he professes indifference or canonizes love, Donne is never able to disregard the woman's point of view” (Bell 116). Bell does not see the woman addressed as a passive listener. She finds an implicit dynamism even in the poems in which the speaker does not tell us that the woman has performed an act, such as squashing a flea: “the lady's acknowledged actions are only the most extravagant reminders of the continuing and even more important implied reactions which give her … a distinct and crucial role in poem after poem” (Bell 115-6). Responding to charges that the poems express an unattractive egocentricity and an over-emphasis on sensuality, Bell is willing to concede that

Donne may have been egocentric and sensual, but he did not ignore the feelings of the woman. Quite the contrary, I suggest: the unconventional brilliance of Donne's love poems arises (at least in part) from his unprecedented capacity to elicit and articulate and respond to the woman's point of view.


Although a number of feminist critics would disagree with this estimation, Bell's view of the woman as affecting the man, a vision of mutuality in which the woman acts upon the man as much as she is acted upon, finds support from other feminist critics as well.2


To gain some insight into the poet's attitudes towards women, one might turn to the few poems in which Donne adopts a female persona for the speaker, “Confined Love,” “Breake of Day,” and the disputed “Sapho to Philaenis.” Here Donne seems to have fallen short, according to most of his feminist critics, although there is surprisingly little feminist commentary on these poems. Of the three poems, “Confined Love” receives by far the least critical attention. It is not one of his most entertaining poems, lacking the dramatic situation of an implied listener. And its argument for inconstancy suffers in comparison with some of the cynical poems spoken by male personae, falling short of the high spirit and bravado of those. But the poem recognizes that women, positioned by the culture on the wrong side of the double standard, cannot afford to be cavalier about loving many rather than one:

Beasts doe no joyntures lose
Though they new lovers choose,
But we'are made worse then those.


While the argument the speaker makes is quite simple and lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of corresponding poems spoken by males, the logic is at least as sound as the male voiced cynical poems. The poem also acknowledges man's position in the culture as the law-giver, but it posits that the law that “One should but one man know” grows out of duplicity and shame and anger and weakness:

          Some man unworthy to'be possessor
Of old or new love, himselfe being false or weake,
          Thought his paine and shame would be lesser,
If on womankind he might his anger wreake,
                    And thence a law did grow …


Though the poem lacks the complexities and difficulties that so often delight us in reading Donne, the poet seems remarkably enlightened about the strictures his own male-dominated culture placed upon women and sensitive to the vulnerability of the women who had to live within these limitations. In my reading of the poem, Donne illustrates his awareness that women cannot, for economic and legal reasons, embrace inconstancy with the same sort of abandon with which his most cynical male personae urge them to it. However, Deborah Lockwood finds Donne “portraying woman as he thought she was, and this means with mental attainments of an order other than man's. At issue here is not ingenious, far-ranging wit, but a sensitivity to the abstract” (44). Lockwood argues that “the focus of ‘Confined Love’ [is] on the immediate and sensory” (45), but I nowhere see the sort of unbridled sensuality that characterizes many of the males. In fact, I see nothing that is “immediate and sensory”; while there is perhaps not much “sensitivity to the abstract,” it is because Donne recognizes that women must be sensitive to the all-too-real penalties with which society attempts to circumscribe unsanctioned sexual activity by women.

More critics have commented upon “Breake of Day,” the aubade which is spoken by a woman. Lockwood again finds that Donne portrays the woman as less intellectually adept than men. While the male speaker of “The Sunne Rising” disputes with the sun and orders it away and asserts that love transcends the time which the sun marks, Lockwood says that the woman speaker in “Breake of Day” simply accepts the sun as everyday reality. She finds that the woman's practicality contrasts unfavorably with the wide-ranging wit that characterizes Donne's male speakers who deny or battle against the cosmic order. The first line of “Breake of Day,” according to Lockwood, “demonstrates that we have an aggressive speaker, who, while she accepts reality in a usual way, will not supply a usual response to it” (39). In contrast, Patricia Garland Pinka reads the opening as the woman speaker's witty rejection of poetic commonplace:

Her witty variation of the aubade dismisses the convention by seriously questioning the validity of assigning a time to love. Rather than lament the coming of dawn with its implied parting of lovers (which, as she notes, also intimates that in loving at night one is following the dictates of the hour), one should simply love, oblivious to both time and outside activities.


While Pinka finds the speaker witty, she apparently finds her less than persuasive. She notes that “the man in ‘The Sunne Rising’ defies his masculine counterpart, engaging old Sol in a face-to-beam confrontation that illustrates not so much the man's equality as his superiority to the sun” (Pinka 163). In contrast, she asserts that “the woman in ‘Breake of Day’ … brings in the sun to provide authority—vital, masculine authority—for her point of view, as if she cannot persuade her lover on her own” (Pinka 163). However, this seems a fundamental misreading of the poem. Surely no woman with any sort of wit would expect her teasing, playful argument to be taken more seriously because she attributes it to the sun. Surely her listener does not credit her argument with more authority because the woman pretends to put words in the sun's mouth, as it were. In fact, the words the woman claims the sun would utter “If it could speake as well as spie,” are not really an argument at all. The first stanza is in fact a compact syllogism which runs basically, “If I love you, and if you love me, then we will stay together in spite of the time.” The second stanza, rather than adding anything new to the argument, is actually a roundabout declaration of love. There are any number of reasons why a woman in the situation may not want to directly say, “I have given you my heart and honor, and I don't want you to leave.” At the same time, she wants him to know that, so she creates the fiction of the sun being able to tell other parties what he has spied. Rather than using the sun as authority for or proof of her argument, the woman employs the sun to let the man overhear what she cannot or will not say directly. The effect of the stanza is simply to assert that she fulfills her premise of the syllogism. The third stanza, of course, lets us know that the man has said in effect, “But I can't stay. I have to be somewhere.” She chides him, asserting that a man who will not make time for love but indulges in sex anyhow, commits a wrong as serious as adultery.

The dramatic situation of “The Sunne Rising” is entirely different and leads, naturally, to a different sort of poem. Though both poems are aubades, and both speakers question the fact that the sun should govern the time lovers have together, “Breake of Day” is rather more conventional, though not for the reasons that Lockwood decries. One of the central conventions of the genre is that the lovers lament that the coming of day inevitably means that they must part, often because the love they share is illicit. The first lines of “Breake of Day” signal that the man is preparing to leave, and the last stanza shows that he is leaving or has left. While having a woman speak the aubade is unconventional, the dramatic fictive situation is the traditional one, down to and including the fact that it is the man who leaves. So while Pinka is correct in asserting that the fictive woman speaker dispenses with some of the poetic commonplaces of the genre, Donne upholds one of the central traditions through his creation of the dramatic situation. One would expect that in the patriarchal world of the Renaissance, the man would be the one who is called away by the demands of the world, except in cases of a woman engaged in cuckolding her husband, when the woman would have to be back in her accustomed place before her infidelity could be discovered. There is no evidence in either poem to indicate that such is the case here. The dramatic situation of “The Sunne Rising” is markedly different from “Breake of Day” and from traditional aubades. The male speaker is able to disparage the sun and question its power to govern “lovers seasons” because he has no intention of leaving, and neither does the woman. There is no lamentation here, no anguished recognition that the lovers must in fact part, and no attempt to persuade the lady to flout the demands and the rules of the world that would make them separate. Rather, the point is to persuade his listener of the importance of their love by asserting to the sun that their bedroom is central to the cosmos. Lockwood asserts that the speaker of “The Sunne Rising” is portrayed as wittier than the woman speaker of “Breake of Day,” and that his reasoning is more speculative and unconventional. She implies that the cause of that appearance is Donne's tacit or perhaps unconscious acceptance of an assumed intellectual superiority of males compared to females. The difference in the two aubades lies more in their respective dramatic situations and the divergent purposes of the two speakers. The man addressed in “Breake of Day” is leaving; the woman speaker wants him to stay. Her purpose is practical, and it is therefore no wonder that her argument is direct and to the point. In “The Sunne Rising,” there is no practical end the speaker wishes to accomplish; the speaker merely wishes to make extravagant claims about the importance of their love and he is therefore free (or, depending upon how one looks at it, he is compelled) to make the sort of wild metaphorical assertions of worth in which he indulges. The poems are different, but not, I believe, because of an innately sexist understanding of sexual difference on the part of the poet. Rather, the differences reflect the contrasting dramatic situations in which the speakers find themselves and their consequently disparate aims.

The third woman-voiced poem, “Sapho to Philaenis,” has had a rather curious history regarding whether or not it has a rightful place in the canon of Donne's work. Though it is attributed to Donne in many early manuscripts, and Grierson accepted it, Gardner published it among the “dubia” in her collection. She decided that, “in spite of its appearance in the first edition of Donne's poems and its inclusion in the manuscripts of Group II, it is too uncharacteristic of Donne in theme, treatment, and style to be accepted as unquestionably his” (Gardner xlvi). However, in an edition published only two years after Gardner's, John T. Shawcross publishes it among the Elegies without comment despite Gardner's forceful rejection of its authenticity:

it is on internal evidence that I question the attribution of this poem to Donne. Although two of his lyrics are spoken by a woman (‘Break of Day’ and ‘Confined Love’), I find it difficult to imagine him wishing to assume the love-sickness of Lesbian Sapho. Like his master Ovid, who in this stands apart from the tradition of classical love-poetry, Donne appears wholly uninterested in homosexual love. He is also notoriously uninterested in the physical beauty of women and unattracted by the theme of ‘pining for love’. In treatment, the poem, except for lines 35 to 50, makes little use of argument; it is repetitive and lacks Donne's habitual progressiveness. The couplets are mainly stopped, so that the poem lacks Donne's pace. Its metrical dullness is matched by the poverty of its vocabulary. The writer has a trick of using the same word or words twice or three times in a couplet, a rhetorical device effective when used occasionally but monotonous when used repeatedly. I am unable to recognize in the poem any characteristics of Donne's style.


Elizabeth Harvey, however, treats “Sapho to Philaenis” as a canonical work and her critique of the poem is useful in pinpointing some of the shortcomings of adopting an “approach” to literature. Harvey accepts the poem as legitimate partly by turning Gardner's argument around. She suggests that because Donne is attempting to imagine something different from his own experience he must create a new idiom. Essentially, the poem, because of its dramatic situation, is necessarily going to seem different from his other works:

Donne's ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ seems to depict an idyllic version of lesbian love in which the women do not attempt simply to replicate heterosexual relations and take on male characteristics, … but rather evolve a specifically feminine mode of erotic union within a utopian world that excludes men and which seeks to invent a language that will reflect its new ideology.

(Harvey 125-6)

According to Harvey, one of the consequences of Donne's attempt to imagine himself as (or to create a speaker who is) a lesbian is that the desired must in some ways be figured as same rather than other. The “feminine mode of erotic union” is a union of like to like, and Harvey implies that the idiom to express that is bound to seem self-reflexive. She therefore finds it no problem that the poem is not typical of Donne's style and she is willing to accept it as a canonical work. She even spies Donne punning upon his own name in the lines “Likenesse begets such strange selfe flatterie, / That touching my selfe, all seemes done to thee.” The repetitiveness which Gardner complains of is, for Harvey, a condition of the union of like to like, of the absorption of other into self:

The Petrarchan blazon that itemizes the mistress' body parts through a catalogue of extravagant comparison cannot function without borrowing its terms from the external world; the blush of the mistress' cheek must be described with reference to the canonical roses and lilies. Rather than being ‘soft,’ ‘clear,’ straight,' or ‘fair’ as ‘stars, cedars and lilies are,’ then, Sapho claims that Philaenis is already perfect, sufficient unto herself. The language that Sapho employs is thus correspondingly symmetrical, a tautological idiom whose referent has already been named: Philaenis is beautiful not because she possesses the attributes of stars and flowers but because she is perfectly balanced, one half mimicking the other.

(Harvey 128)

So far, it seems as though Harvey considers Donne's excursion into writing from a lesbian's viewpoint a success in that he is able to dispense with poetic conventions of “extravagant comparison” and create a suitable idiom of desire for the same sex. However, Harvey finds that the poem merely “masquerades as a recuperation of the original Sapho, since inverting Ovid's distorting of her sexual preference, it represents her as a lesbian” (Harvey 123). Earlier in the same article, Harvey attacks Donne for denying voice to the woman in “Valediction of the Booke.” Now she condemns him for speaking as a lesbian, for “ventriloquizing Sapho” as she calls it. In fact, she sees the entire poem as a hostile appropriation of earlier poets—both Ovid, whose poem on Sapho Harvey asserts is Donne's model for variation, and the speaker Sapho: “Yet the collapse of other into self, registered in Sapho's narcissistic absorption of Philænis also describes Donne's relationship to Ovid and Sapho, for they are both ultimately assimilated into a poem of his making” (Harvey 129). There is apparently no poetic strategy which Donne could have employed to write about women which Harvey would approve. She chides him for not allowing the woman to speak in one case, then castigates him for speaking as a woman in the other case. The first has the effect of silencing and effacing the woman. The second offense is more grievous in Harvey's eyes, because the poet takes what is “other” and in an act of poetic violence makes it “self”:

ventriloquistic appropriation of the feminine voice [is] a mastery of the other, a censorship of its difference. Donne borrows the feminine voice as a way of acting out his rivalry with Ovid, but he controls its dangerous plenitude by domesticating its alterity and ultimately turning it into a version of himself.

(Harvey 129)

This comment contradicts parts of her earlier discussion. For one, Harvey had indicated that the language was in fact different from Donne's typical usage, reflecting the search for a new idiom to represent desire for a member of the same sex. How, then, is that a “censorship of its difference”? How, too, is it merely making the feminine other into another “version of himself”? And since the feminine voice, in this instance, is characterized by a repetitive or “tautological” rhetoric, what exactly is the “dangerous plenitude” which supposedly so terrifies Donne? Harvey proposes no poetic strategies for Donne or for any male poet which would avoid either effacing women by not having them speak or “domesticating [the] alterity” of women by creating speaking female personae. Harvey asserts that whatever Donne does effectively silences women. If Donne, and by extension all male poets, cannot write about women without effacing them nor create speaking female personae without appropriating and mastering that “otherness” and making it “self,” what other course is there? The alternative, and apparently what Harvey would prefer, is silence.


Helen Carr is an example of how combining a number of approaches avoids the pitfalls of a single approach to literature, such as Elizabeth Harvey's search for ways in which women are silenced. Although Carr is primarily a neo-contextualist critic, she combines her interest in historical context with a knowledge of literary context and with a feminist awareness. Her illuminating article credits Donne with having a long-lasting influence upon Western ideas of maleness. She suggests that Donne's personae's “range of attitudes and feelings—impatience, desire, mastery, energy, tenderness—together suggest something very recognisable still as ideally ‘masculine’” (Carr 96). Further, Donne is one of the first to begin shaping our ideas of what “masculine” means:

Up till then the word only conveyed a biological maleness. Here [“On his Mistris”] it is already taking on the implications of gender as well as sex. … “Manhood” has had its own vigorous ideological power. But in a sense it was largely undistinguished from human nature, the norm from which femininity declined.

(Carr 97)

She places Donne's poetry in a context that is both historical and literary. She sees it as coexistent with the change from medieval ideas of the nature of man to more modern ones, as well as standing apart from literary tradition. Carr asserts that “male sexuality was represented by two very different discourses. … One was the medieval association of lust with the animal, the fallen brutish nature of man, only too easily awoken by the temptress woman. The other was the literary representation of the lovesick lover” (Carr 100-1). However, “by the time Donne wrote, there had entered two other models, Ovid's stylish eroticism and Puritan marriage, which were to evolve perhaps into the later binary of rake and respectable paterfamilias” (Carr 101-2). Donne's representation of masculinity represented a break from the Petrarchan tradition of the “lovesick lover.” Donne's lovers do not pine from afar; often they speak from the perspective of consummated love. Those speakers engaged in persuading a woman to love do so in imperatives rather than pleas for pity. But Carr sees that what the speaker is after is a mutual and voluntary love:

This tension between assertion of masculine strength and union of reciprocal giving is enacted again and again in Donne's poems of mutual love. His urgent imperatives dramatise the contradiction of the ‘masculine persuasive force’. He orders or cajoles the women to acknowledge both his power and their equality. Claiming his right to possess, he presses her to give herself freely.

(Carr 106)

She locates this tension in an historical context—the rise of Puritan concepts of marriage as a partnership. There is at once the ideal of equality between husband and wife, but there is also the assumption of the superiority of the male as the head of the family. Other writers of the period, Thomas Bacon and William Whateley, expressed views tending to promote equality based on mutual and voluntary love in marriage, but

this view of equality within marriage was of course at total variance with the legal and economic subordinate position of women, and with the increasing power of fathers and husbands as heads of household. The Puritans argued the superiority of the husband no less firmly than they extolled marriage partnership. … Many of Donne's love poems are of course not about, or not necessarily about, marriage. But I would argue that this contradiction at the heart of the ideology of bourgeois marriage is constantly at play in his writings. His male personae, varied, fragmentary though they be, insist that their words are charged with this masculine force, even when what they want to beget is a free response and mutual tenderness.

(Carr 109)

At the same time, Carr never loses sight of the fact that Donne is a self-conscious poet and that his poems reflect a literary context as well as the historical one. While in historical context Donne reflects cultural tensions, in literary context Donne is an innovator who rejects the conventions of his tradition. Rather than the idealized beloved of the Petrarchan heritage such as Stella, the women in Donne's poems seem much more human, even if in certain poems they seem to be primarily objects of desire: “Donne is always questioning as well as creating this reification of the woman. His lyrics, quite literally, constantly pose her questions, even though they are always rhetorical ones” (Carr 107). The women, even if silent, are present in Donne's poems in a way that they cannot be when worshiped from afar as is typical in the lovesick tradition: “Donne's songs and sonnets constantly enact closeness where the Petrarchan convention enacted distance. He dramatises scenes in which the lovers speak, look, touch …” (Carr 108). Finally, Carr suggests that the break with literary tradition is tied to the changing culture. Mutual and enduring love becomes for Donne a nexus of stability in the midst of a world in flux:

Donne again and again attempts in these poems to make sexual relationships a central organising frame. In a time which, as Christopher Hill suggests, experienced itself much more as a crumbling, collapsing world than a new beginning, Donne transmutes the religion of love of his Petrarchan heritage into the exploration of images which might briefly make his frag menting world cohere.

(Carr 114)

Carr's use of several approaches, historical and philological, enriches her feminist perspective upon Donne's love poetry. Her resulting insights into the literature are correspondingly more sophisticated than the conclusions drawn by Elizabeth Harvey, who is hampered by the narrowness of her single approach. Carr is in fact an example of the value of the sort of critical pluralism which this study endorses, a pluralism which would acknowledge and attempt to replicate, in the critical sphere, the complexities of the literature it is written about.


  1. For a skeptical but balanced discussion of the issue, see Radzinowicz, Mary Ann. “The Politics of Donne's Silences.” John Donne Journal 7 (1) 1-19.

  2. Again, refer to Radzinowicz, “The Politics of Donne's Silences.” See also Okerlund, Arlene N. “The Rhetoric of Love: Voice in the Amoretti and the Songs and Sonets.Quarterly Journal of Speech 68 (1) 37-46. Okerlund uses a linguistic approach in her comparative study and finds that the speaker in the Amoretti is never able to establish the mutuality which she values so highly in Donne's poetry. She argues that equal unions are successfully created in spite of or perhaps because of the way Donne's speakers order the women about, based on “the unusual number of lyrics that begin with imperative verbs, a grammatical form that syntactically compels the lady to participate in the poetic act” (42).

Theresa M. DiPasquale (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: DiPasquale, Theresa M. “The Things Not Seen in Donne's ‘Farewell to Love.’” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 243-53.

[In the following essay, DiPasquale explores the theme of atheism in Donne's poem, “Farewell to Love,” from Songs and Sonnets.]

Donne's “Farewell to Love” is based on an analogy between religion and love. The speaker traces his history as a lover, looks back on the time when he had yet to experience love and was a naive believer in its divinity, and professes his current rejection of such faith. His perspective is that of a disillusioned atheist who is all the more scornful toward religion because he once believed in a divinity only to conclude, on the basis of experience, that his creed was false and his god a non-entity. In describing his former, naive self, however, the speaker uses a simile—that of the dying atheists—which undercuts his current attitude of unbelief; and as he goes on to denigrate “the thing which lovers so / Blindly admire, and with such worship wooe” (14-15), his profane allusions to scripture do not so much support his case against the religion of love as cast an ironic light on his worldly-wise stance. Indeed, both the opening simile and the witty echoes of scriptural language throughout the poem imply that in the realm of love, as in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, only “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 14: 1).

At the beginning of “Farewell to Love,” the speaker draws the analogy upon which the rest of the work builds:

                              Whilst yet to prove,
I thought there was some Deitie in love
                              So did I reverence, and gave
Worship, as Atheists at their dying houre
Call, what they cannot name, an unknowne power,
                              As ignorantly did I crave:


The speaker's point in these lines is to compare the credulity of a man who has never yet “prove[d]”—that is, really experienced—erotic love, and who therefore worships it in ignorance, with the ignorant “call[s]” of atheists reaching out for “some Deitie” in extremis. Both the atheists and the credulous would-be lover “crave,” or pray to and long for, something essentially unknown to them, outside their ken, outside their experience; the speaker is stressing that he has moved from naivete to bitter enlightenment.

But from the point of view of Donne the poet (who was never an atheist), there is an ironic contrast hidden within this analogy. God exists. Thus, though the atheists' deathbed prayers may be fruitless, their ignorant cravings (and, by implication) the speaker's youthful belief that there is something divine in love, are closer to the truth than the atheists' former disbelief and the cynical attitude that the speaker has now adopted. Whereas the atheists move from a life of misguided unbelief to a well-directed though ignorant craving for a God who does exist, the speaker moves to his present disillusionment from a life of worship and reverence for a “Deitie” whose existence he now implicitly denies. But mightn't the “Deitie” in love be as real as the unknown power called on by the dying atheists? If so, then the terms of the speaker's own analogy undermine his pose of enlightened skepticism, revealing that he was wiser when he embraced love ignorantly than he is now when he rejects it in light of “prove[n]” experience. For Faith, according to the Christian definition, is hope in and aspiration toward something that is as yet unknown, but is nevertheless real. As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Donne's “Farewell to Love” involves a witty and somewhat blasphemous application of that verse to the Religion of Love.1

The language of Hebrews 11:1 is echoed in the poem. As the verse is translated in both the Geneva and King James Bibles, the apostle twice uses the word “things”—”things hoped for, … things not seen.” And the verses that follow give numerous examples of such things: through faith, Noah received warning of the flood before it occurred, Abraham set out for a promised land he had never seen, and Sarah conceived a child she had thought inconceivable. In Donne's poem, then, the love previously unknown to the speaker and the God of the dying atheists are both objects of faith, “Things not yet knowne” (8). However, from the perspective of the speaker, who has now lost his faith in love, what St. Paul calls the “substance of things hoped for” has turned out to have no substance at all. He declares that “the thing which lovers so / Blindly admire, and with such worship wooe” (14-15) is no deity, but mere sensual pleasure, mere mortal delight which “Being had, enjoying it decayes” (16). The “thing” here is sexual pleasure itself; and it is also, the phrasing implies, both the penis (which “decayes” [16] in detumescence and “leaves behinde / A kinde of sorrowing dulnesse to the minde” [19-20]) and the vagina, the “thing” (14) which is (according to Renaissance slang) “no-thing,” but which the male lover still “with such worship wooe[s]” (15) and longs to “see reveal'd” (“Elegie XIX” 43).2 It is pointless, the speaker of “Farewell to Love” insists, to seek such revelation; for the unveiling of the female no-thing reveals that the male lover's search has been futile. The “thing” (14) he has sought for and now possesses is a void; there is no “substance” to hope for, no legitimate object of faith in the Pauline sense.

Erotic love, the speaker has concluded, is no true faith but—as he puts it in stanza 3—a “sport,” and a dangerous one at that. He thus resolves, in the final stanza, that his “minde / Shall not desire what no man else can finde” (31-32), that he will no longer “pursue things”—objects of naive faith—that, when it came to really experiencing them, “had indammag'd” him (34). As a replacement for the “Deitie in love,” he looks to “wise / Nature” (23-24) as the authority governing relations between the sexes. He speculates that she has made sex less than perfectly satisfying in order to counter the mortal creature's tendency to desire procreative activity. This quasi-scientific view of human beings as creatures whose needs are driven and curbed only by Nature replaces his former belief in love as something transcendent, something divine. It is true, as Andreasen argues, that the speaker appeals to “the orderly Law of Nature” rather than to the laws “of amoral and libertine nature” and that “Nature” as the speaker defines it “is … hierarchical, decreeing one set of laws for rational man and another set for animals” (127). But the speaker theorizes about the magisterial Natura's decrees only in response to his own desire to be more like the beasts, and his speculations about how Nature has programmed the human sex drive have nothing to do with man's rational capacity. The “minde” as he conceives of it is not so much the seat of reason (the imago dei) as of appetite. His concern about its susceptibility to “sorrowing dulnesse” (20) reveals that, for him, the “minde” is just another “thing,” just another detumescent organ. It is his “minde” (31) that he must control if he is to keep his sexual passions in check, and thus he must swear specifically that “my minde” will no longer “desire what no man else can finde” (32). In citing Nature's precepts, he makes a show of deferring to her, but in fact the alleged natural laws he invokes are merely rationalizations designed to explain emotions and physical responses he finds baffling. His “minde” makes a bid to rule over Mat(t)er (Nature) by codifying her ordinances in terms he finds physiologically tenable.

Such a bid, Donne's poem suggests, proceeds from an attitude that is antithetical to faith of any sort. According to one of Donne's sermons, it is the atheist who insists on Nature as the explanation for all phenomena. He “ascribes all to nature, and sayes in his heart. There is no God (Ps. 14:1)” (Sermons 9:168-9). And indeed, though the speaker of the poem denies the “Deitie in love” rather than the Christian God, his character is clearly modeled on that of an atheist as the Renaissance mind conceived of it.3 One must take this definition into account if one is to appreciate the speaker's metaphorical atheism and the way in which the poem as a whole undercuts his cynical attitude toward love.

The word “atheism” was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to encompass a wide range of disbelief. Donne devotes a number of passages in his sermons to asserting that non-Christians ought to be considered atheists.4 And at times, he even goes so far as to charge that fundamental error in matters of religion—such as Protestants perceived in Roman Catholicism—amounts to atheism.5 But the most common way to define an atheist was as a person who rejected all religion. As the pious mind of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England characterized them, moreover, atheists were libertines who, in order to countenance their depraved lifestyles, did all they could to convince themselves that God did not exist. As Richard Hooker explains,

They of whom God is altogether unapprehended are but few in number, and for grossness of wit such, that they hardly and scarcely seem to hold the place of human being. … [But] … a wretcheder sort there are, on whom whereas nature hath bestowed riper capacity, their evil disposition seriously goeth about therewith to apprehend God as being not God. … The fountain and wellspring of which impiety is a resolved purpose of mind to reap in this world what sensual profit or pleasure soever the world yieldeth, and not to be barred from any whatsoever means available thereunto.

(Laws V.ii.1)

Despite his disillusionment with the pleasures of sex, it is something approximating this latter sort of atheism that the speaker of “Love's Deitie” embraces, for his denial of love's divinity and his resolution to abandon the practice of its religion (the sexual “worship” of those men who still “wooe” female beauty) is based upon his desire for a more enduring physical and emotional delight than is afforded love's devotees. When he sighs, “Ah cannot wee, / As well as Cocks and Lyons jocund be, / After such pleasures[?]” (21-23), one cannot help but recall Hooker's amazement “that base desires should so extinguish in men the sense of their own excellency, as to make them willing that their souls should be like to the souls of beasts” (Laws V.ii.1).

The speaker of “Farewell to Love” also resembles atheists as Hooker describes them in that he is given to a derisive, jesting style of argument. The flippancy of his attitude toward “some Deitie” in which he no longer believes, his bawdy puns on the words “thing” and “Taile,” and his over-arching stance of blasé disdain reflect “a new method [atheists] have of turning things that are serious into mockery, an art of contradiction by way of scorn. … This they study, this they practise, this they grace with a wanton superfluity of wit” (Hooker, Laws V.ii.2).

Such scornful quipping might, if tales were true, extend even to an atheist's deathbed moments. The ecclesiastical commission that investigated the alleged atheism of Sir Walter Ralegh and his friends at Cerne Abbas in March 1594 reported that a man named Allen, the Lieutenant of Portland Castle,

tore two leaves out of a Bible to dry tobacco on, and spoke as he denied the immortality of the soul, saying, on an occasion when he was like to die and one persuaded him to make himself ready to God for his soul, that he would carry his soul up to the top of a hill, and “Run God, run Devil, fetch it that will have it.”

(recounted in Harrison 295)

Reflecting on such attitudes in his Sermons, Donne remarks that the habit of scornful jest is so ingrained in the atheist that he may be incapable of abandoning it even when, at the moment of death, he faces divine truth:

[T]here will alwaies be Scorners, lesters, Scoffers and Mockers at Religion. … [And] hee that gives himselfe the liberty, of jesting at Religion, shall find it hard, to take up at last; as when Iulian the Apostata had received his Deathes-wound, and could not chuse but confesse, that that wound came from the hand, and power of Christ, yet he confest it, in a Phrase of Scorne, Vicisti Galilæe, The day is thine, O Galilean, and no more; It is not, Thou has accomplish't thy purpose, O my God, nor O my Maker, nor O my Redeemer, but, in a stile of contempt, Vicisti Galilæe, and no more.

(Sermons 8:65-66)

From the Dean of St. Paul's perspective, the joke is on the jester in such a case, for the habit of scorn prevents him from articulating devout expressions of belief even when he is most desperate to do so.

The opening analogy of “Farewell to Love,” like Donne's sermon on Julian, presupposes a non-atheist's condescending sense of superiority toward those who reject God during life but come running to Him at the end. It is thus ironically out of character for the disillusioned and cynical speaker we come to know through the rest of the poem. If a jesting un-believer wishes to mock his own past credulity, surely the image of a desperate and inarticulate deathbed conversion is not the ideal way to go about it! It is precisely this out-of-character image, however, upon which the rest of the work builds, for the poem depends upon an ironic distance between the self-defeating speaker and the poet who constructs him. As a preacher, Donne would argue that “The bestiall Atheist will pretend that hee knows there is no God; but he cannot say, that he knows, that he knows it; for, his knowledge will not stand the battery of an argument from another, nor of a ratiocination from himselfe” (Sermons 8:225). In the poem, the speaker reveals himself as just such a self-defeating beast, for the too-much-protesting tone of his argument leads only to an anticlimactic conclusion in which he acknowledges and shrugs away the likelihood that all his resolutions will fail.

In fact, in the final lines of “Farewell to Love,” the speaker circles back to a version of the analogy with which he began; he once again alludes to an atheist's “dying houre” (4), for he anticipates the moment in his future when, “If all faile” (39), he will once again engage in the “Act” (24) that “Diminisheth the length of life a day” (25) and is known as “dying.” That future deathbed/sexual scene as he envisions it will not, however, involve a last-minute conversion back to the religion of the love god; on the contrary, it will deepen his “atheism,” making a mockery even of the quasi-divine authority he currently claims to acknowledge, for it will scorn the precepts of “wise / Nature” (23-24). However one interprets the convolutions of lines 26-30, it is clear that Natura (as previously invoked by the speaker) takes into account the generative function of sexual intercourse, that she monitors it carefully as the means by which human beings “raise posterity” (30). But at the poem's conclusion, the speaker denigrates procreation, reducing sperm to “worme-seed” and paralleling the infusion of the male seed into the vagina with the application of a laxative suppository to the anus.6 Children thus begotten are, at best, worms (as Hamlet implies when he tells Polonius that “if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog,” then, “as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to 't” [Hamlet II.ii.181, 185-6]) and, at worst, mere excrement. But whereas Hamlet equates himself with the sun and Ophelia with what he calls “a good kissing carrion” (line 182), Donne's speaker draws an analogy between the women's beauty and the “summers Sunne” (36) which men ought “shun” (38) when it “Growes great” (37). He himself is the dead (or dying) flesh in which the “heat” (38) of “moving beauties” (35) generates the vermiculate motion of corruption.

Indeed, the speaker might well put to himself Hamlet's self-indicting question, “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” (III.i.126-8). But he does not; for unlike the Danish prince, he is a man devoid of spirituality. At 1 Corinthians 2:14, St. Paul says that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” For Donne as he explores the theme of love in many of his other poems, the mysteries of erotic love are higher mysteries, unknowable by those who—like the speaker of “Farewell to Love”—recognize only the dictates of “wise / Nature.”

Those who turn away from such natural wisdom in favor of an “unknowne power” may, even if they worship ignorantly, be on the right track. For as an “unknowne power,” the love referred to in the opening stanza of Donna's poem resembles the Athenian deity mentioned in Acts 17:22-23: “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, … as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” According to the apostle, true wisdom lies not in rejecting the unknown God, but in moving from ignorant worship to revealed truth. Read in light of the scriptural passages it evokes, “Farewell to Love” implies that the speaker has made the mistake of rejecting not only the naive superstition of his youth, but the One True Faith that should have grown out of it.


  1. As a preacher, too, Donne alludes wittily to Hebrews 11:1 when conjuring the image of an atheist at his dying hour: “Poore intricated soule! Riddling, perplexed, labyrinthicall soule! … I respit thee not till the day of thine own death, when thou shalt have evidence enough, that there is a God, though no other evidence, but to finde a Devill, and evidence enough, that there is a Heaven, though no other evidence, but to feele Hell” (Sermons 8:332-3). In this apostrophe, Donne plays upon the rationalist's demand for empirical proof of God's existence, but he also alludes to Paul's definition of faith as “the evidence of things not seen.” The dying atheist will not see God or heaven, but he will have ample negative proof of their existence in the first-hand experience of his own damnation.

  2. See Elaine Perez Zickler: “The masculine ‘thing’ which keeps popping up in these stanzas is, like the feminine ‘nothing’ in other poems, a play on having or not having as the essence of love. ‘Things’ are defined as the props of a dying desire, indeed, of a dying subject of desire; and this false worship of things, this idolatry of the phallus itself, “His highness sitting in a golden Chaire” (1.12), is repudiated by the end of the poem …” (“‘nor in nothing, nor in things’: The Case of Love and Desire in Donne's Songs and Sonets,John Donne Journal 12 [1993]:30-31).

  3. There has been a great deal of debate among twentieth-century scholars on the question of whether it was possible to be an atheist in Renaissance England. Some scholars have argued that atheism—in the twentieth-century sense of the word—did not exist during the period when men such as Marlowe and Ralegh were accused of being atheists. Most of the “evidence” available is unreliable because the atheistical statements attributed to individual Elizabethans and Jacobeans are to large extent recorded only in the documents accusing them, rather than in their own letters or other private testimonials. But whether or not there were any genuinely atheistical souls in the England of Elizabeth and James, Renaissance Christians had no doubt: some wicked persons were, indeed, what they (the Christians) called “atheists.” For a recent overview of the atheism debate as it applies to Marlowe in particular, see Davidson.

  4. See Sermons 7:266, where Donne presents a rather sensational rendering of Ephesians 2:12. In the King James Bible, the verse says “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world”; according to Donne, “S. Paul sayes, He is an Atheist, that is without Christ.” On non-Christians as atheists see also Sermons 3:312, 4:131, 9:56, 169.

  5. See Sermons 4:131: “There is a sine Deo, a left handed Atheism, in the meer natural man, that will not know Christ; and there is a sine Deo, a right handed Atheism in the stubborn Papist, who is not content with Christ. They preach Christ Jesus and themselves, and make themselves Lords over you in Jesus place, and farther then ever he went.” Even more provocative is Donne's contention that “There cannot be a deeper Atheisme, then to impute contradictions to God; neither doth any one thing so overchange God with contradictions, as the Transubstantiation of the Roman Church” (Sermons 7:294-5). See also Sermons 5:389.

  6. See Shawcross's note to line 40, Morillo, and Masselink. Shawcross interprets the line as saying “that if he does nonetheless succumb to woman's ‘heat,’ it is only applying his generative seed to her (to beget children)” (Donne, Complete Poetry 152). Morillo refutes the assumption (originating with a 1929 note by John Hayward) that “worme-seed” was used as an anaphrodisiac and stresses that “tail”—though used to refer to the penis—was more frequently used to refer to the female genitalia; he concludes by paraphrasing lines 39-40 as saying that “If, in spite of my resolution to avoid sex, I succumb, then I shall console myself with the rationalization that the act is committed with purely curative intent—a ‘spermifuge,’ as it were” (39-40). Masselink offers two alternative readings. According to the first, the speaker is saying that his various resolutions (to control his mind and actions and to avoid beautiful women) all miss the point, that they can no more cure the essential corruption of his lust, idolatry, and self-love than “worms or wind” can be cured “by applying laxatives to … sexual organs” (14). According to the second reading Masselink proposes, “Taile” refers to the posterior or anus, and the speaker is proposing a feeble stop-gap measure, since the herbals recommending the use of “worme-seed” as a purgative note that it is far more potent when taken orally than when applied in a clyster or suppository (12) and the speaker “is unwilling to take the drastic steps (ingestion of the herb) necessary for a complete purgation” (14).

Works Cited

Andreasen, N. J. C. John Donne, Conservative Revolutionary. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.

Davidson, Nicholas. “Christopher Marlowe and Atheism.” Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture. Ed. Darryll Grantley and Peter Roberts. Hants, England: Scolar, 1996. 129-47.

Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

———. The Sermons of John Donne. 10 vols. Ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1953-1962.

Harrison, G.B. The Elizabethan Journals, Being a Record of Those Things Most Talked of During the Years 1591—1603. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1955.

The Holy Bible … Set Forth in 1611 and Commonly Known as the King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, n.d.

Hooker, Richard. The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker. Ed. John Keble. 7th ed. Rev. R.W. Church and F. Paget. Oxford: Clarendon, 1888. Facs. rpt. Ellicott City, MD: Via Media, Inc., 1994.

Masselink, Noralyn. “Wormseed Revisited: Glossing Line Forty of Donne's ‘Farewell to Love.’” English Language Notes 30.2 (1992): 11-15.

Morillo, Marvin. “Donne's ‘Farewell to Love’: The Force of the Shutting Up.” Tulane Studies in English 13 (1963):33-40.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Zickler, Elaine Perez. “‘nor in nothing, nor in things’: The Case of Love and Desire in Donne's Songs and Sonets.John Donne Journal 12 (1993):17-39.

L. M. Gorton (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Gorton, L. M. “Philosophy and the City: Space in Donne.” John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of Donne 18 (1999): 61-71.

[In the following essay, Gorton discusses Donne’s sense of place, use of space, and spatial imagery in “The Sunne Rising,” “Breake of Day,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” and the Anniversaries.]

John Donne was a Londoner born and bred, and his poems take much of their life from the life of that city.1 His lovers think of taxes, coins, and compasses. They know boys go to school, lawyers make money, ships come in; the business of life goes on outside their rooms. His most tender poems have that satirical edge—the awareness of an outside world that has no time for love.2 It makes them seem real, and immediate. Such immediacy is all the more striking, however, because Donne's poems are rarely simply immediate. In the midst of the city, his lovers call upon images of the cosmos; space is the imaginative language they use to describe love's privacy, and its power. They imagine the cosmos opening in spheres around small rooms, and they contract its vast spaces into the small and private space of love; but this bold openness shows love in its vulnerability as well as its strength. In this way, Donne makes space a quality of tone. Space in his poems is domestic, but it is also emblematic, and often exhilarating.

Donne creates a sense of place with startling economy:

                              Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
                              Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?(3)

Sun, windows and curtains: “The Sunne Rising” opens with just enough of fact to imagine a world around. Our sense of the real in this poem derives largely from the lover's tone of good-humored impatience.4 He is wittily willful and defiantly individual, and yet he speaks from a place that is the bare poetic topos of morning. This room, with the sun looking in, means morning for lovers in Ovid and Marlowe. Shakespeare plays upon it in Romeo and Juliet; and Donne uses it in his other aubade, “Breake of Day.” It is an old stage, and this allows Donne to assume a great deal. Indeed, this poem of extravagant fancy is extraordinary for all it does not say. It does not describe the past or the place of these lovers. Its abrupt opening throws us into a scene, with a face turned outwards.

This poem has a vitality that comes from the bold appropriation of things that are old. Its philosophy of space is old. The lover speaks as if he had never heard of the “new Philosophy,” as he imagines love at the center of the cosmos.5 He sends the sun out to a world where all the riches of space are measures of time: “both the' India's of spice and Myne” are a day the sun has left behind; kings are yesterday, and tomorrow, and love alone keeps the pleasures of the night. Time in this poem is the natural arc of the sun and the turn of the year. But time in this poem is also human. Lateness is a schoolboy, and soon the king will ride. Lovers have their own seasons. The sun itself is a “Busie old foole,” a chiding Polonius, calling on lovers and hurrying “sour prentices.” Donne sees these natural and social forms of time as if from a distance. His perspective shrinks harvest workers into scurrying ants. Our sense of his newness comes from our shock, as he makes these traditional forms of time faintly ludicrous images of his own private love.

For us, space is an abstract emptiness. When we read “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” we realize how differently Donne stages his world. He often speaks of the new philosophy, but he thinks in terms of the old. “God hath wrapped all things in Circles,” he says in a sermon.6 For him, concentric circles are the basic forms of space, and they form the building blocks of his imagination. In “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” space opens outwards across concentric horizons of consciousness. The poem starts with the image of an intimate, human circle: a circle of friends around a dying man:

As virtuous men passe mildly away,
                              And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
                              The breath goes now, and some say, no:

Death is held between two breaths: the seeming end, when some say “now,” and the next apparent breath, when “some say, no.” There is no momentous end, no moment when “the King / Be witnessed—in the Room.”7 “As … Whilst”—we read the first stanza waiting to hear whatever happened elsewhere in this pause, only to find that this “As” leads into an image, and not a clause. The stanza hangs forever in that apparent pause, and its suspended end hangs over this poem—a poem that ends, after all, with a beginning: “Thy firmnes makes my circle just, / And makes me end, where I begunne.”

This poem uses all the appurtenances of time and logic; and yet, from the first suspenseful, suspended stanza, we find the forward sequence of this poem is neither logical, nor temporal, but spatial. The poem opens circular images around an imaginary event—a death which, in its quiet extremity, serves as a model for love. Love, on this model, is a sacred enclave: ‘“T'were prophanation of our joyes / To tell the layetie our love.” And yet, the next image exposes that enclave to the cosmos. Suddenly, his love is superlunary:

Dull sublunary lovers love
                              (Whose soule is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
                              Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love, so much refin'd,
                              That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
                              Care lesse, eyes, lips, and hands to misse.

His mind opens outwards, past the horizon of place, into a space beyond matter and experience, a dimension of awareness, formed by the old philosophy of the cosmos. He claims this dimension as the space of love.

This claim rests on the idea that his love is as pure as superlunary space—traditionally considered so pure that philosophers after Aristotle debated whether it constituted a fifth element.8 When the lover claims “a love, so much refin'd, / That our selves know not what it is,” he makes that old philosophical question a private mystery of love. In doing so, he gives that privacy an openness—to space, philosophy, and history—which makes these lovers seem as vulnerable to their own souls as they are to the heavens; and yet he uses the image to assert the invulnerability of this love.

It often happens in Donne's writing that his boldest assertions are finely balanced against a sense of his vulnerability. That balance gives his writing a nervous energy, which reads as self-awareness.9 Where his bravado is a quality of tone, his vulnerability is often an effect of his imagery, which brings large and distant forces into his poems. The lover in “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” uses an image of beaten gold to demonstrate the enduringness of love:

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
                              Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
                              Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

His argument twists through qualifications and negatives: “therefore … Though … not yet … but …,” until, in the last line, his close-turning argument suddenly opens into that strange new image of beaten gold: filmy, fragile, delicate. He leaves that image floating there, a brave conclusion that floats, inconclusively, in the air.

Whenever Donne uses that same image elsewhere, he uses it as an image of fragility: “(for, as gold is gold still, the heaviest metall of all, yet if it be beat into leaf gold, I can blow it away)”; “Gold may be beat so thin, as that it may be blowne away.”10 This poem, which starts with an image of death, hangs that end at its start on an uncertain breath—“Whilst some of their sad friends doe say, / The breath goes now, and some say, no”—and all the grand cosmic structures he builds around that first image of death end in an image of gold, “beat so thin” as that it, too, waits upon a breath. His bold statement of love uses a fragile image; that fragility and delicate attention is the counterpoise of his bravado in this poem, and together they create its teasing effect of mock-grandeur and tender reassurance.

At that apparent sixth stanza end, the poem starts up again, with a new image of compasses and the spiraling logic that leads to another ostensibly conclusive and yet suspended end.

If they be two, they are two so
                              As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
                              To move, but doth, if the'other doe.
And tho it in the centre sit,
                              Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
                              And growes erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
                              Like th'other foot, obliquely runne;
Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
                              And makes me end, where I begunne.

How do two compass legs come together, if the outside leg draws a circle around the other?11 This compass-image is strikingly immediate, for compasses are practical, physical things, and yet the image turns upon a spiritual mystery, set of old in spatial terms by Neoplatonic philosophy. In Heroic Exaltations, Giordano Bruni gives the mystery currency. There, Tansillo explains to Cicada why the movement of a circle is the movement of love:

[drawn out] while the heart is flying toward a place it cannot arrive at … trying to embrace what it cannot comprehend … the pursuit of course not partaking of the nature of physical motion in space, but of a certain metaphysical motion, which progresses not from the imperfect to the perfect, but goes circling through the degrees of perfection till it reaches that infinite centre.

Like many critics of Donne's poem, Cicada responds, “I would like to know how by going in a circle you can ever reach the center.” Tansillo answers, “I can't imagine.” Cicada asks, “Then why do you say so?” And Tansillo concludes, “Because that is something I can do, leaving you to think it out. …”12 Donne finds a contemporary image for that ancient Neoplatonic spatial metaphysics. His image turns the spiritual mystery into a practical riddle, which leaves the poem suspended between real and metaphysical space.

“A Valediction: forbidding mourning” is a strangely teasing poem. I suggest that it is so partly because it uses images of things we can barely assimilate—death, the cosmos, old metaphysics—and it makes that imaginative distance a quality of tone. Donne is emphatic, familiar, modern, immediate; and yet his images of the cosmos reach outwards, and backwards. They are distant; they stand outside the scope of personality. But Donne forces them into human terms.13 That appropriation demands a defiant assertion of individuality; and in this way, even Donne's non-dramatic poems have dramatic energy, as he takes over these old images of space and makes them images of private love, or human inwardness. At the same time, these images resonate in a wider space of tradition and philosophy. This allusiveness carries Donne's poetry beyond the Roman game and swagger of love in the city. Though his tone is often familiar, and even deliberately harsh, his images open the poems to a world that is not merely social, nor simply immediate.

“Let mans Soule be a Spheare,” he cries in “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.” In this poem, he imagines the world as a bare arrangement of space. It is a remarkably controlled and astringent poem, and yet its precision of imagination is only equal to its sense of pain, as he rides through a cosmic image of his own soul. The poem has no other people in it, and nothing that is natural. It is space, clarified by philosophy and cartography, and the rider imagines his soul in these unforgiving spatial terms.

The poem makes cosmic structures props of consciousness. And yet his first image of the cosmos is as old as his society. All its surprise lies in the first imaginative leap; the humanization of that cosmic image. The cosmos he goes on to describe is the cosmos of the old philosophy:

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motions, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey.

Donne writes here, again, as if he had never heard of the new philosophy. His image of space suggests not only the rider's isolation, but also his yearning for a world of certainties certainly lost by 1613. It has the tired, explanatory nostalgia of someone drawn at the same time forwards, into a social world of “Pleasure or business.”

Donne's image of the heavens in this poem derives from Plato's account of heavenly motion in Timaeus. There, Plato argues that the outermost sphere turns evenly because nothing impedes it, whereas the inner spheres must turn against each other, and therefore fall behind their purposes. It is a deeply traditional image. Donne himself uses it elsewhere, in a prose letter describing friendship to his best friend, Goodyer:

The first sphere only which is resisted by nothing, absolves his course every day; and so doth true friendship well placed often iterate in act or purpose the same offices. But … the lower spheres, subject to the violence of that, and yet naturally encouraged to a reluctation against it, have therefore many distractions and eccentricities, and some trepidations. …14

His image is startling because it is so detached. It brings a great distance of time and space into a close personal relationship. But in “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” that set-piece is startling, because he rides through it. Its distance become a distance of self-awareness.

The space of this poem bends and warps, as the perspectives that play against each other show the crookedness and indirections of human vision: “here I never saw my selfe,” says Donne, “but in disguises.”15 In “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” he plays the flat space of a map against the space of the cosmos. He rides between compass points, the great polar opposites of east and west, and yet the spheres arch over his head and bend the map-space through which he rides. That paradox fascinates Donne: “in the round frame of the World, the farthest West is East,” he says in a sermon; while in his “Hymn to God my God, in my sicknesse” he makes that spatial paradox a spiritual mystery:16

                                        As West and East
In all flatt Maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.(17)

In “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” he rides through this spatial paradox, and it shuts him in a sad imaginative riddle. It is doubt, and not space, that takes him from his God, for the directions of East and West are indirections to a God “whose hands span the poles.” And though he imagines Christ as a sun that rises and falls in the East, soon the sun that he leaves behind will arch over his head to face him when it falls. This is the mercy he speaks of, when he says,

I turne my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

He will turn from that sun again, if he turns to the east in the afternoon. These problems of space stretch out his inward struggle with himself.

It may clarify the distinctive nature of Donne's spatial imagination, to consider it as part of a large contemporary debate about space. He writes at a time when it seems the world is changing shape around him. The “new Philosophy calls all in doubt” because the old cosmology held two-thousand years of philosophy in place.18 The uncertainties of space offer Donne a new way to imagine human inwardness. In the Anniversaries, he treats that cosmic uncertainty as an image of human decay, as if the old philosophy were not so much mistaken as worn away. In these poems, the soul of the girl, Elizabeth, who held the world together, rises after her death through the concentric spheres of the old cosmology; and yet elsewhere in these poems he argues that the cosmos is “all in peeces, all cohaerence gone.”19 This juxtaposition warps the spaces we imagine as we read. In this way, Donne makes us see the limitations of human vision.

The Anniversaries are disconcerting and richly difficult poems. They are massively detailed catalogues of the world; they recall the great medieval encyclopedias. But they have no comprehensive cosmic structure to hold their catalogues together. They leave us to seek a pattern in the repetition of phrases: “Shee, shee is dead; shee's dead.” But that repetition offers a pattern that is not so much a pattern as the return to a beginning that allows no progress but this return: “Shee, shee is dead; shee's dead.”20 Instead, they mark themselves as part of a world that has lost its structure. They are in part accounts of that loss. That sense of lost certainty makes these poems peculiarly modern, and yet they are so because of their consciousness of the past, and their deep rootedness in their own time. They are, inescapably, poems of the English Renaissance, which come close to us because they are so deeply involved in their own time; they make the spatial controversy an image of something inward and human. In this way, Donne finds a new language for human consciousness in the spatial uncertainties of his time.21


  1. See Barbara Everett's essay, “Donne: A London Poet,” first published as the Chatterton Lecture on an English Poet, Proceedings of the British Academy, 1972, reprinted in Barbara Everett, Poets in Their Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 1-31.

  2. T. S. Eliot claims metaphysical wit involves “a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.” See his essay on Andrew Marvell in The Times Literary Supplement, 31 March 1921, 201-2; reprinted in T.S. Eliot, ed., Selected Essays (1917-1932) (London: Faber and Faber, 1932; 1948), p. 303.

  3. I quote throughout from Herbert J. C. Grierson's edition of Donne's Poetical Works, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912). I have modernised the f to an s.

  4. This bare place and full tone together provoke the strangely mixed response Gosse describes: “there is something so convincing in his accent, poignant and rude at once. …” Edmund Gosse, The Life and Letters of John Donne. 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1899), l. 62.

  5. “The First Anniversary,” l. 205.

  6. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter, eds., The Sermons of John Donne, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1956), 7: 396.

  7. To recall Emily Dickinson's dramatization of suspended death in “I heard a fly Buzz, when I died”: The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1998), 2: 591.

  8. See R. Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion: Theories in Antiquity and Their Sequel (London: Duckworth, 1988), chapter 2, for an overview of the debate.

  9. Barbara Hardy argues that “Donne's frequent achievement is to remind us of opposition. He is always aware of the rest of experience”: “Thinking and Feeling in the Songs and Sonnets,” in John Donne: Essays in Celebration, ed. A. J. Smith (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 73-88.

  10. Sermons 7: 403 and 8: 119-20. Also see, “no metall is so extensive as gold; no metall enlarges itself to such an expansion, such an attenuation as gold doth, nor spreads so much, with so little substance”: Sermons, 8: 240.

  11. I would like to re-open the old debate about this image by suggesting a new source. See, for instance, John Freccero, “Donne's ‘Valediction: forbidding Mourning’,” ELH, 30 (1963): 339; James Winny, A Preface to Donne (London: Longman, 1970), p. 140, and David Novarr, The Disinterred Muse: Donne's Texts and Contexts (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 56-57.

  12. Giordano Bruno, Heroic Exaltations, tr. Arthur Livingston, from a selection printed in Giorgio de Santillana, The Age of Adventure: The Renaissance Philosophers (New York: New American Library, 1956), pp. 274-75. Tansillo takes up the geometric symbolism of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus, who claims:

    Every soul that knows its own history is aware, also, that its movement, unthwarted, is not that of an outgoing line; its natural course may be likened to that in which a circle turns not upon some external but upon its own centre, the point to which it owes its rise. The soul's movement will be about its source; to this it will hold, poised intent towards that unity to which all souls should move …

    Plotinus: The Enneads, tr. S. MacKenna.; rev. B. Page. (London: Faber and Faber, 1956; 1969), VI. 9. 8.

    Thus, “In body, centre is a point of place; in Soul it is a source … that around which the object … revolves”: Enneads, II. 2. 2.

  13. As Ellrodt argues, “Les correspondances cosmiques et métaphysique qu'il évoque sont les correspondances communément admises. Les analogies nouvelles qu'il perçoit … semblent uniquement destinées à éclairer chaque fois une situation psychologique particulière.” L'Inspiration Personelle et l'Esprit du Temps chez les Poètes Métaphysiques Anglaises, 3 vols (Paris, Librairie José Corti, 1960), l. 99.

  14. Letters, 1: 225.

  15. Sermons, 9: 129.

  16. Sermons, 10: 52

  17. Divine Poems, 50.

  18. “An Anatomy of the World,” l. 205: W. Milgate, ed. John Donne: The Epithalamions, Anniveraries and Epicedes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

  19. See “The Second Anniversary,” ll. 188-210; “The First Anniversary,” l. 214.

  20. Louis L. Martz traces a pattern of meditation in these poems—a structure of looking—and yet the poems never offer a spiritual reason for that structure, itself undermined by the cosmic contradictions and uncertainties that he catalogues in the poems. See The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Renaissance Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954; rev. edn., 1962).

  21. A form of this paper was presented at a panel on “Donne and Humanism” at the 1999 MLA conference in Chicago.

R. V. Young (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Young, R. V. “Love, Poetry, and John Donne in the Love Poetry of John Donne.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 251-73.

[In the following essay, Young examines Donne's complex and ironic treatment of love in his poetry, focusing on “The Bracelet,” “Loves Growth,” “The Sunne Rising,” and the Elegies.]

Taken together, John Donne's Songs and Sonets, along with many of the erotic elegies, constitute a varied, even sporadic meditation on the experience and significance of love.1 Despite the apparent contradictions in the collection—the outbursts of bawdiness, arrogance, and cynicism among the reiterated, if often problematic, assertions of love's transcendence of what is base and banal—these poems finally evoke a unified vision of what Monsignor Martin C. D'Arcy calls “the mind and heart of love.” In fact, it is precisely the candid acknowledgment of the contradictions in human attitudes that enables the complex irony of Donne's witty eloquence to dramatize the approach to that “decisive moment” when a man genuinely recognizes the common human identity of the desired other, and “‘love’ now takes on its proper meaning” (244). As D'Arcy also says, “It is always, we must remember, a full human person who is loving, and in that love there are sure to be many different strands” (69). Love is an arresting exemplar of the paradoxical structure of reality as it is perceived by men and women; and poetry, understood broadly as a creative literary fiction (a “golden world,” if you will), is our most compelling means of manifesting that perception for the contemplation of “a full human person.” Few poets have achieved more in this line than John Donne.

Amid the current atmosphere of ideological intimidation, which looms like a menacing gray mist, spawned by some academic El Niño, over the once temperate vale of Donne scholarship, these must seem quixotic assertions. This is, after all, the same John Donne who has been accused of apostasy (Carey 15-36), phallocentrism (Mueller 148), servile submissiveness to an absurdly repellent embodiment of patriarchal royal absolutism (Goldberg 111-12), and even bulimia (Fish 223).2 The most ambitious twelve-step program may seem hardly sufficient to restore to a man of such vicious compulsions his former status as the most persuasive love poet in English literature. These gloomy assessments of Donne and his work arise, however, from a misconception both of love and of poetry. Both of these vital human activities have been “defined down” in this therapeutic age: judged as something less than the sum of their parts. The vital abundance and mysterious subtlety of love have been subjected to a diminished appraisal in a fashion analogous to the “demystification” of the inventive copia and wit of Donne's poetry. The recovery can be managed only by the constructive work of literary criticism and scholarship—a kind of joint operation seeking to rescue meaning from a wind-swept sea of floating signifiers.

The interpretation of Donne's love poetry offered here depends upon a vision of human love as an experience fraught with tension. D'Arcy refers to “the twofold character of love, in which respect it is compared to the struggle of opposites in nature” (222). At the heart of this “struggle” is the tension between Eros and Agapé—in the simplest terms, possessive and and self-sacrificing love, desire and charity. The great value of D'Arcy's work lies in his insistence that simply to favor agape over eros will not suffice: perfect agape is possible only for God whose fund of benevolence is infinite and inexhaustible. A man or a woman cannot give absolutely because we are finite creatures: a measure of self-assertive egotism, of possessive eros, is (literally) essential for us in order to retain an identity to be sacrificed or surrendered. Herein the paradox of the human situation: our most transcendent aspirations are as limitless and insatiable as our most sulphurous desires, while our capacity for each alternative is strictly limited. What is more, our divergent longings often seem not merely simultaneous, but even indistinguishable. The swoon of ecstatic self-immolation is whirled about in the slaver of predatory anticipation. The resolution of this dilemma by means of supernatural grace is matter for another essay. My topic here is just the enigma of earthly, profane love, which embodies so much of what is both admirable and delightful, reprehensible and mortifying, in human nature and conduct.

This tension at the center of human life finds its analogue in the tension that is central to poetry, a tension that attains its exemplary literary form in irony. “Irony” in this context means a poetic figure or a rhetorical device; but it refers as well to a particular vision of reality that is marked by an acute awareness of the fallibility of human knowledge, the uncertainty of human enterprise, the contingency of human existence itself. Such considerations are far more pertinent to this discussion than worries about whether irony is excessively “elitist” (Hutcheon 94) or inappropriate—not to say incorrect—in certain political contexts. The concern here is less with irony as a “political issue” (Hutcheon 2) than with Cleanth Brooks' concept of “irony as a principle of structure.”3 Brooks' 1949 essay describes irony as “a dynamic structure—a pattern of thrust and counterthrust”; and after listing apparently contradictory implications in a poem by Randall Jarrell, Brooks argues that what results is not incoherence, but a complex of ironic tension:

None of these meanings cancels out the others. All are relevant, and each meaning contributes to the total meaning. Indeed, there is not a facet of significance which does not receive illumination from the figure.


The concept of irony as a structure of semantic tension, however, offers an obvious parallel to Monsignor D'Arcy's conception of love as a tension of eros and agape. Together the two concepts provide a means of interpreting Donne's love poetry as the ironic embodiment of a vision of love as a version of concordia discors. The same violent yoking that Dr. Johnson finds in the metaphysical style Brooks attributes to irony:

Irony, then, in this further sense, is not only an acknowledgment of the pressures of context. Invulnerability to irony is the stability of a context in which the internal pressures balance and mutually support each other. The stability is like that of the arch: the very forces which are calculated to drag the stones to the ground actually provide the principle of support—a principle in which thrust and counterthrust become the means of stability.


Poetic irony is thus the perfect counterpart to D'Arcy's notion of love as “the struggle of opposites in nature.” Where Brooks' formulation perhaps falls short is in neglecting to show how the stability of the poem—of any work of art—is the ultimate ironic turn of the screw. In his closing chapter, D'Arcy observes that love only reaches its culminating resolution—its “stability”—in the eternal perfection of the love of God (363-73). Following T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, Brooks maintains that sentimentality is avoided by that poetry “which does not leave out what is apparently hostile to its dominant tone, and which, because it is able to fuse the irrelevant and the discordant, has come to terms with itself and is invulnerable to irony” (732). In the realm in which irony is the only antidote to irony—a world of what is “hostile,” “irrelevant,” “discordant”—we have no lasting city, and no lasting love. Thus the stability of the love poem forged out of the clash of ironic tensions is the ultimate ironic comment on the realm of human experience that the poem evokes.

Not only Donne's notorious “metaphysical” conceits, but indeed the entire fabric of particular poems corresponds to Brooks' “conceit” of irony: a typical Donne love poem is a surprising fusion and distillation of hostility, irrelevance, and discord. A privileged recipient of a manuscript of Donne's elegy “The Bracelet” in the 1590s would have been struck first of all by the poem's topicality. The Acts of the Privy Council contains this item for 20 August 1591:

Robert Henlack has petitioned the Council for redress against certain men who robbed him. He complains that while he was absent in the night a confederacy of certain evil disposed persons broke open his chamber door in the house of Isabel Piggott in Thames Street and took away goods and money to the value of £400. Further, one Nathaniel Baxter hath since then robbed him of £12 more, pretending that by casting a figure he would help him to his goods and money again.

(Harrison 50)

The probable reader of “The Bracelet,” a Londoner, perhaps an Inns of Court man like Donne himself, might well recall this incident, or one like it, when he read in Donne's poem of “many angled figures, in the booke / Of some great Conjurer” (lines 34-35); and the memory would be reinforced by the desperate persona's effort to satisfy his mistress by any device short of melting down his “twelve righteous Angels” (line 9) to replace her lost chain:

Or let mee creepe to some dread Conjurer,
Which with phantastique scheames fils full much paper;
Which hath divided heaven in tenements,
And with whores, theeves, and murderers stuff his rents
So full, that though hee passe them all in sinne,
He leaves himself no roome to enter in.


This same reader might also be reminded by “The Bracelet” of Sir Edward Coke's opening statement in the prosecution of the Portuguese Jew, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, for attempting to poison the Queen in 1594. Maintaining that Dr. Lopez was in the pay of Philip II, Coke remarked, “the King of Spain and his priests, despairing of prevailing by valour, turned to cowardly treachery, and what they could not do by cannon, they attempted by crowns” (Harrison 307). Surely this notorious affair would have been brought to mind by Donne's ability to exceed the wit of Coke's cannon / crowns alliteration with a pun on “pistolets”:

Or were they Spanish Stamps, still travelling,
That are become as Catholique as their King,
Those unlickt beare-whelps, unfil'd pistolets
That (more than Canon shot) availes or lets.


Allusions such as these, along with the colloquial texture of the language of Donne's strong lines, would anchor the elegy firmly in the world of popular gossip and scandal of the last decade of Elizabeth's reign.

The generic designation elegy, however, which apparently was attached to this poem and more than a dozen others in the early manuscripts, would have signalled to an educated Elizabethan reader that the poet was engaged in the learned humanist activity of imitating the classics as well as remarking the kind of sensational “news” that was the preoccupation of broadside ballads. Any reasonably well-read contemporary of Donne would recognize the reference to the love poetry, especially the elegiacs, of Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid.4 Beyond the mere use of the term, Donne succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of the Roman elegy more successfully than any other Renaissance poet known to me. Donne is less an imitator of particular phrases, stylistic devices, themes, or episodes of this or that poem by his ancient predecessors than a triumphant rival, who has recreated in toto the Roman genre and transposed it into his own late Elizabethan milieu. “The Bracelet,” for example, captures the mingling of passionate desire, bitter cynicism, and wry irony that mark the classical erotic elegy without drawing on any specific classical poem. Indeed, its chief incident, the lover forced to search the town for a lost bracelet given him by his mistress, may parody, as Grierson and Gardner point out, Soliman and Perseda, a “foolishly romantic play” probably by Thomas Kyd (Gardner 112, 116).

What emerges from this congeries—references to the “news” or gossip of the day, a form modelled on classical antiquity, allusions to contemporaneous popular literature—is a love poem in which “Love's not so pure, and abstract, as they use / To say, which have no Mistresse but their Muse” (“Love's Growth” 11-12). The “impurity” derives, in large part, from the improbable mélange: it is a lover who speaks the poem, but his love is shaped by the poet's response to a generic clash. The Roman erotic elegy is, as Paul Veyne says, “one of the most sophisticated art forms in the entire history of literature” (1), and in Donne it collides with the crude Petrarchanism of so much of the poetry and drama of the Elizabethan age. This is a lover who, as he addresses the beloved, is acutely aware of the world of business and boredom, of perfidy and peril, of avarice and ambition, of vileness and violence—all that from which love is so often sought as an escape. The scene of Donne's elegy is thus littered with elements that are “hostile,” “discordant,” and “irrelevant” to the conventional sense of love: it is irony that brings these antagonistic forces together in a single poetic structure. For despite the disparate elements jostling about among its lines, “The Bracelet” attains not only unity but even dramatic cogency. Whether it amuses or appalls, attracts or repels, the voice of this poem is alive and consistent with human experience, because its exasperated speaker is so credibly torn between two familiar human motivations: lust and greed. The first of these impulses is sufficiently strong that we infer that he will, however reluctantly, submit to the demand of his imperious mistress:

But, thou art resolute; Thy will be done;
Yet with such anguish, as her onely sonne
The Mother in the hungry grave doth lay,
Unto the fire these Martyrs I betray.


The harsh flirtation with blasphemy evoked by the echo of the Our Father (“Thy will be done”), by the hyperbolic term “Martyrs,” and by the hinted reference to the Blessed Virgin at the burial of Christ undercuts the familiar idealism of the Petrarchan deifying of the beloved by a mockingly excessive solemnity. This lover laments the loss of his money more than a mother the death of her child, more than Mary the death of Jesus; and yet the mistress is divine—her “will” must “be done.” The angry tone of this reluctant erotic worshipper reveals that his devotion can hardly be spiritual, especially since he has already observed that his very act of appeasement will serve only to diminish her favor:

But, shall my harmlesse angels perish? Shall
I lose my guard, my ease, my food, my all?
Much hope which they should nourish will be dead.
Much of my able youth, and lustyhead
Will vanish; if thou love let them alone,
For thou wilt love me lesse when they are gone …


The final irony of course is, that despite his compulsive yet reluctant yielding to a less than ideal mistress, the speaker of the poem still cannot relinquish his attachment to his “angels.” The woman disappears from the last twenty-four lines in the persona's obsessive brooding over the “wretched finder” (91) of the bracelet:

But, I forgive; repent thee honest man:
Gold is Restorative, restore it then:
Or if with it thou beest loath to'depart,
Because ‘tis cordiall, would twere at thy heart.


This feverish, fickle preoccupation with the hypothetical possessor of the bracelet is an ironic mirror image of his odi et amo relationship with his rather dubious mistress.

This is a bitterly cynical vision of love as possessive passion: the parallel between the irresistible desire for the erotic favor of a woman, whose chief attributes seem to be greed and arrogance, and the lover's own grasping avarice is a finely distilled solvent for the amorous idealism prevalent in a literary culture dominated by love-sonnet sequences. The final comic irony arises from the absurdity of the speaker's own situation: he is, after all, no better off than the deluded Petrarchist whom he implicitly scorns. Like the saturnine speaker of “Loves Alchymie,” he has seen through the sham of love, knows that women are hardly human much less divine; but for all his blasé sophistication he is still as frustrated, every bit as much a slave to passion as Astrophil. Here again, without imitating a particular classical poem, Donne has succeeded in capturing the flavor of the Roman erotic elegy. “I myself,” writes Paul Veyne,

believe that Propertius, or rather the Ego he brings on stage, does not so much suffer from the pangs of jealousy as regard the chains of passion as something dreadful. Indeed, the ancient Roman considered the effects of passion a form of tragic fate, a form of slavery, a special form of unhappiness.


This reflection gives the alternate titles of Donne's poem that refer to the bracelet as a “chaine” rather more resonance: the persona is surely bound to his mistress by the “lost chain.”5

Here among the love poems of John Donne we find a very acrid view of love, but we find very little about John Donne himself. In a qualified way I wish to endorse the perception of Judith Scherer Herz that “in his poems … Donne is rarely there, indeed in some poems never there,” and I agree that Donne is “the master of complex, unsettling, prickly poems, poems that simply will not resolve,” and that we must “not look for consistency beyond the boundaries of any single poem, indeed not even necessarily within those boundaries,” and that we may thus recover “the Donne of linguistic surprise, of ventriloquistic virtuosity, of theological and philosophical inconsistency, the Donne who will say anything if the poem seems to need it” (3, 5). Such attributes, however, do not define his character. He is writing poems, and a poet is precisely that man or woman “who will say anything if the poem seems to need it”—“for the Poet, he nothing affirmes, and therefore neuer lyeth” (Sidney 184). As John Shawcross points out, “The false specter of Romantic effusion has blighted poetic criticism for a long time—as if the poet cannot write without parallel experience, as if all that is said is fully and firmly believed as he or she writes” (57). I would go even further than Shawcross in defending the essay by Wimsatt and Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” because it accepts absolutely one of the poet's intentions, the intention to write a poem. This brings us back to the issue of inconsistency between and within poems. The persona of “The Bracelet” is surely inconsistent, a monument of tergiversation: he regards his mistress' will as divine, but her person as less “angelic” than his money; he speculates about someone recovering the gold chain who is now a “wretched finder,” now “an honest man,” and finally the object of what we may call a heartfelt curse.

The discourse represented by the poem is inconsistent because its speaker is inconsistent. Of course Donne himself was also inconsistent, but then so are you and I, and so are most men and women in every era. In the sixteenth century the leading proponent of Neo-Stoicism, the author of De Constantia (1584), was Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who wandered restlessly from one European university to another and changed his religion at least four times, earning no little scorn among contemporaneous English writers (Gottlieb). Yet Lipsius was himself at least “indifferent honest.” There is, then, inconsistency within and among Donne's poems because they deal with the reality of human existence, which is a tissue of inconsistencies; but the poems as such are not inconsistent. The philosopher, as Sidney reminds us, deals in abstractions only tangentially connected to human life; the historian is in danger of drowning in the chaotic flood of experience: “the Historian, wanting the precept, is so tyed, not to what shoulde bee but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that hys example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a lesse fruitfull doctrine.” It is only “the peerelesse Poet” who “coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example” (164). This “coupling,” or layering of inconsistencies into whatever the pattern of the poem requires, is irony—“irony as a principle of structure.” It is the fundamental irony of poetry that it produces consistent formal structures out of the turbid swirl of inconsistency that constitutes human experience, that it reveals meaning—the “precept”—in what may seem meaningless.

The distinction between poetic intention and the personal life of the poet becomes more complex in those works of Donne where we find what seems an indisputable indication of “parallel experience” providing the origin of the incidents or situation of a poem. If the tone is even more elusive than that of “The Bracelet” and falls into Gardner's category of “poems of mutual love” (liii), then critical preoccupation with the autobiographical features of the poem becomes almost irresistible. There is no better example than “The Sunne Rising.” The persona who brashly proclaims his satisfaction at having thrown away the opportunity for preferment in the royal court for the sake of love bears a suspicious resemblance to the historical John Donne, who, we may surmise, had plenty of time to wile away in bed with his teenage bride, since he had no place in the busy world of education, politics, and trade. The seventh line, “Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,” cries out to be associated with the court gossip of the years shortly after Donne's elopement, as retailed by that ubiquitous busybody, John Chamberlain, in a letter to Ralph Winwood:

The Kinge went to Roiston two dayes after Twelfetide, where and thereabout he hath continued ever since, and findes such felicitie in that hunting life, that he hath written to the counsaile, that yt is the onely meanes to maintain his health, (which being the health and welfare of us all) he desires them to undertake the charge and burden of affaires, and foresee that he be not interrupted nor troubled with too much business.

(I: 201)

This looks like fairly solid evidence that the poem was written sometime after the accession of James Stuart as James I of England, when his new subjects had become acquainted with his habits; however, there was some notice in England of James' addiction to hunting when he was still just King of Scotland. It was bruited about London at least as early as 1591 that, despite the threat of rebellious Earls to James' safety, he would not “be restrained from the fields or in his pastime, for any respect” (Harrison 13). The detail of a hunting king could have been picked up from political gossip during the last decade of Elizabeth's reign in England as well as during the first decade of James' reign. The poem powerfully evokes certain details of what we know of Donne's life during the latter time, but we cannot be sure when it was written, and, finally, it does not matter.6

We must also take into account, again, the element of literary imitation. It is a commonplace to notice that the opening lines of “The Sunne Rising” echo even as they transform the corresponding lines of Ovid, Amores I. xiii:

Iam super oceanum venit a seniore marito
                    flava pruinoso quae vehit axe diem.
“Quo properas, Aurora? mane!—sic Memnonis umbris
          annua sollemni caede parentet avis!


[Already the blonde who drives the day in her frosty carriage is coming over the ocean from her aged husband. What's your hurry, Aurora? Wait!—And so may a bird appease Memnon's shade each year with solemn slaughter!]

But if Donne is, in part, seeking to outdo the wit of Ovid with his own more extravagant conceits, it also seems that he may be parodying “A Hymn to Aurora” of a more recent Latin poet, Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550). The opening of his Hymnus in Aurora offers a picture of the dawn goddess that contrasts sharply with Ovid's:

Ecce ab extremo veniens Eoö
roscidas Aurora refert quadrigas
et sinu lucem roseo nitentem
                    candida portat.


[Behold Aurora coming from the farthest East brings round again her dewy four-horse team and brightly bears the shining light within her rosy bosom.]

Besides the fact that Flaminio portrays the Dawn's conveyance as “dewy” (roscidas) rather than “frosty” (pruinoso), this is an altogether more engaging portrait of the goddess as the embodiment of refulgence, and it seems to be a direct reply to Ovid. The moral edification of the closing sapphics may have especially caught Donne's attention:

Te sine aeterna iaceant sepulti
nocte mortales, sine te nec ullus
sit color rebus neque vita doctas
                    culta per artes.
Tu gravem pigris oculis soporem
excutis—leti sopor est imago—
evocans tectis sua quemque laetum ad
                    munia mittis.
Exsilit stratis rapidus viator,
ad iugum fortes redeunt iuvenci,
laetus in silvas properat citato
                    cum grege pastor.
Ast amans carae thalamum puellae
deserit flens et tibi verba dicit
aspera, amplexu tenerae cupito a-
                    vulsus amicae.
Ipse amet noctis latebras dolosae,
me iuvet semper bona lux: nitentem
da mihi lucem, dea magna, longos
                    cernere in annos!


[Without you mortals would lie buried in eternal night, and without you things would have no colors and life would not be enriched with learned arts. You expel heavy sleep from sluggish eyes—sleep is the image of death—calling from the roof-tops you send each one joyful to his duties. The swift traveler leaps from the covers, the strong bullocks return to the yoke, the happy shepherd hastens quickly to the woods with his hurried flock. But weeping the lover forsakes the bed of his darling girl and speaks harsh words to you, torn away from the desired embrace of his yielding mistress. Let him love the lairs of deceitful night, let me always rejoice in the good light: permit me, great goddess, to receive the shining light through the long years!]

The weeping lover who speaks harsh words to Aurora would seem to be Flaminio's version of the irreverent persona of Ovid's Amores. This lover of dark dens and loose women is reproved by contrast to the man who rejoices in the light and hastens eagerly to his duties.

Donne reverts to the tone of the Amores, painting a very different scene from Flaminio's sturdy bullocks, eager traveler, and happy shepherd who go off to work whistling like the seven dwarfs:

          Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
          Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride
Call countrey ants to harvest offices …


“The Sunne Rising” undoubtedly celebrates mutually fulfilling love, but the celebration takes place in a context that recalls the limits even of such a love. Donne would have expected his readers to be aware of other claims on human time and attention amidst this exaltation of erotic bliss and sleeping-in. Perhaps neither the poet nor his audience knew this particular poem by Flaminio, but they surely knew poems or prose exhortations like it. There is obvious humor in Donne's mockery of this kind of earnest solemnity; however, even Ovid must have occasionally had to be somewhere on time. Donne calls attention to the equivocal status of the claims made in the poem by their very extravagance. Ovid is never so brash with Aurora as Donne is with the “Sunne,” which he calls “Busie old foole” and “Sawcy pedantique wretch.” The very excessiveness of his emulation of Ovid and parody of Flaminio discloses the tension between the notion of love's sufficiency and the civic and economic demands of the world:

          If her eyes have not blinded thine,
          Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
Whether both the'India's of spice and Myne
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.


There are times when we have all believed this, or at least wished to do so; and it is a truth of human experience that love is finally more important than money or power. What makes this poem so much more than a conventional assertion of the transcendent power of human love is the structural irony: its subtle incorporation of the contrasting reality that love—certainly the sort that is enacted in the lovers' four-poster bed—is a fragile enterprise indeed without the economic and social where-with-all to sustain it. Cleanth Brooks did not perhaps sufficiently allow for the way the irony is deepened not only by such intertextual resonance as is afforded by Ovid and Flaminio, but also by our knowledge of the historical situation of John Donne: the irony of his radical defiance of accepted social norms is surely rendered more piquant by the disastrous results of his elopement with Anne More. Donne the man could stay in bed every morning because he had no office.

But Brooks is finally right: the irony is discernible in the structure of “The Sunne Rising” though it were as anonymous as Beowulf. As evidence I offer the last stanza, which highlights the conflicting norms of conventional society precisely by rejecting them so outrageously. Are the lovers lingering in their bed alienated from the “busie” world to which the “unruly Sunne” awakens them? It is no matter because they not only transcend that world; they epitomize it:

                    She'is all States, and all Princes, I,
                    Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar'd to this,
All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie …


The “real world” thus fades before the sublime bliss of the shared bed. The high-spirited absurdity of these assertions seems so self-evident that there hardly seems any point in refuting Jonathan Goldberg's assertion that here “the speaker makes the absolutist declaration toward which the entire poem tends … The absorption of the lovers in each other, their replication of the power of the world, constitutes an appropriation of and reversal of the language of state secrets” (111). Likewise, in a generally sympathetic essay, Camille Wells Slights seems to be straining at a gnat when she defends “The Sunne Rising” from the charge that it “reinscribes the culture's gender hierarchy” by arguing that “as third- and first-person singular pronouns give way to first-person plural, the topic becomes not the lovers but their relationship” (78).7 Carey gets closer to the mark in noticing the tension in the conceits, but he seems altogether oblivious to the tone: “Donne's vaunting language is, like all vaunting language, an expression of insecurity, and this makes the poem more human. The pretension to kingship that he voices amounts to an acknowledgement of personal insufficiency” (109). The speaker of the poem, however, knows this as well as Professor Carey: the “vaunting language” sounds like an effort to deflect by means of laughter an anxious question about, say, where the rent money is coming from this month. The woman whose lover or husband has just proclaimed his universal sovereignty over the empire of the bedroom probably has more concrete worries than being colonized by the hegemony of absolutist patriarchal ideology.

At the same time, there would have been some compensations even to genteel poverty in the company of such a roguish wit. Most of us are capable of stale, reassuring compliments like “I think the world of you.” Donne works out the details of the cliché and creates a superbly preposterous conceit in which the cosmos becomes thalamocentric:

                    Thou sunne art halfe as happy'as wee,
                    In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.


Ovid chides Aurora for her haste to leave her aged husband:

Tithono vellem de te narrare liceret;
                    fabula non caelo turpior ulla foret.
illum dum refugis, longo quia grandior aevo,
                    surgis ad invisas a sene mane rotas.

(Amores I.xiii.35-38)

[If only Tithonus were allowed to tell a tale of you; nothing more scandalous would be told in heaven. While you shrink from him, since he is a long age older, early in the day you leap to the chariot odious to the old man.]

Donne's sly sympathy for the aging sun is a comically inventive variation on the Ovidian theme, and it hints at the reality of human aging, which undermines the speaker's jaunty erotic optimism. This is a man ruefully amused at the human limitations he so brazenly denies. Donne evidently was able to laugh at himself, a capacity some of his modern critics might well consider emulating.

The vision of love in “The Sunne Rising” is decidedly more affirmative than what we find in “The Bracelet.” Anthony Low has argued persuasively that the former poem marks an important step in “the reinvention of love” at the threshold of modern times whereby lovers, wedded or otherwise, create their own private world over against the claims of the larger community: “Surprisingly, the two lovers in Donne's private room enact one of the central rituals of carnival. They assume the personae of the dominant authority figures of their diurnal society and mockingly invert the social order” (54). The reference to carnival catches the tone of “The Sunne Rising” very well, and it distinguishes Donne's more equivocal notion of the private world of love from the exacting idealism and solemnity of Milton's divorce tracts and his intense portrait of marital love in Paradise Lost. Donne's pervasive wit precludes even a shadow of sentimentality: he retains an inescapable awareness of the proclivity of erotic desire for self-absorption and special pleading. “The Dreame” provides a striking example.

This poem weaves conceits that challenge the most idealistic Petrarchan manner. The beloved mistress is no mere donna angelicata; in her intuition of the speaker's mind she is more than an angel with implicitly divine knowledge:

As lightning, or a Tapers light,
Thine eyes, and not thy noise wak'd mee;
                    Yet I thought thee
(For thou lovest truth) an Angell, at first sight,
But when I saw thou sawest my heart,
And knew'st my thoughts, beyond an Angels art,
When thou knew'st what I dreamt, when thou knew'st when
Excesse of joy would wake me, and cam'st then,
I doe confesse, it could not chuse but bee
Prophane, to thinke thee any thing but thee.


This stanza is both rather grandiose in its language and yet at the same time an example of strictly verbal irony: to say that it is “prophane” to think a woman less than herself, when less means angelic, is in fact profane because the assertion implies that a mortal creature is divine. Both the comedy and the complexity increase in the following stanza when the lady's divinity is put in doubt because of her reluctance to “act the rest” of the speaker's “dreame”:

Comming and staying show'd thee, thee,
But rising makes me doubt, that now,
                    Thou art not thou.
That love is weake, where feare's as strong as hee;
‘Tis not all spirit, pure and brave,
If mixture it of Feare, Shame, Honor, have;
Perchance as torches which must ready bee,
Men light and put out, so thou deal'st with mee,
Thou cam'st to kindle, goest to come; Then I
Will dreame that hope againe, but else would die.


There is a great deal here of sheer metaphysical mockery of the pretensions of erotic idealism: the slangy puns on “Comming” and “die”; the outrageously phallic torch, lit only to be put by in readiness, that suggests the woman to be tease; and, above all, the pseudo-Scholastic speculation about how a woman is not who she is and love “not all spirit, pure, and brave” except when it is realized in the flesh. It is a seducer's paradox that argues for the identification of purity and spirituality with physical consummation.

Yet there is a gentleness, even a tenderness, in “The Dreame” that elevates it above a mere cynical irony. The difference is apparent in the contrast with the bitterness of another famous poem about a woman coming into a man's bedroom: “They fle from me that sometyme did me seke / With naked fote stalking in my chambre” (Wyatt 1-3). Readers who know Donne's history will be drawn to set the scene of the poem in York House, and picture the charming intruder in the persona's chamber as a very young Anne More, both daring and diffident, drawn irresistibly to, and yet somewhat afraid of, the witty, sophisticated courtier with the dubious reputation, rather unaccountably employed by her step-uncle. The poem's delicate blend of wry humor and breathless ardor bespeaks both the love and lust of a man who thought his mistress a goddess, but liked his goddess to be flesh and blood—a carnal substitute, perhaps, for the deity incarnate in the sacrament of the Altar that the actual, historical John Donne must have been relinquishing about the time he met Anne More.

However, before casting the rôles for this BBC costume drama, we must remember that erotic dreams would have represented a familiar poetic topic for Donne and his contemporaries. “Dreams are not unusual in the Roman love elegy,” Clifford Endres observes as he comments on the striking original imitation of the motif by Joannes Secundus (1511-1536), who was in turn imitated by other sixteenth-century poets, both Neo-Latin and vernacular (126). As in “The Dreame,” the speaker of Secundus' Somnium is concerned about the tension between his desires to possess his beloved sexually and the restraints imposed by social and familial disapproval:

Non fora, non portus, non jam populosa theatra,
Templaque sunt nostris conscia blanditiis.
Mater abest, digitis legem quae ponat, et ori,
Et cogat tremulo murmure pauca loqui,
Osculaque aridulis non continuanda labellis
Carpere, quae juret barbara, quisquis amat,
Et celare faces, et amici obtexere nomen,
Multaque quae solers fingere discit Amor.

(Elegiae I.x.7-14)

[Now no markets, no warehouses, no packed theatres, no temples are privy to our pleasures. The mother is away who imposes law on fingers and mouths, and constrains us to speak few words in a low murmur, to reap no lingering kisses on parched lips (which any lover would regard as barbarous) to hide our burning torches, to weave the name of friend, and to feign many things which ingenious Love learns.]

Secundus not only anticipates Donne's torch, he also describes a beloved mistress as a source of light: “I hold thee, my Light, my Light, I hold thee” (24: “Te teneo, mea Lux, Lux mea, te teneo”). But in fact the two previous elegies (viii and ix) have described Julia's wedding to another man, and her appearance in the speaker's bed turns out to be only a dream:

Julia, te teneo: superi, teneatis Olympum.
Quid loquor? an vere, Julia, te teneo?
Dormione? an vigilo? vera haec? an somnia sunt haec?
Somnia seu, seu sunt vera, fruamur, age!
Somnia si sunt haec, durent haec somnia longum,
Nec vigilem faciat me, precor, ulla dies.


[Julia, I am holding you: let the Gods above hold on to their Olympus. What am I saying? Do I truly, Julia, hold you? Do I sleep? Or do I wake? Is this real or is this a dream? Whether dream or reality let's enjoy it, let's do it! If this is a dream, may it last a long time, and let no daylight, I pray, awaken me.]

Like the lover of Secundus' Somnium, the speaker of “A most rare, and excellent Dreame, learnedly set downe by a woorthy Gentleman,” which appeared in The Phoenix Nest in 1593, is consoled only by a dream, and unlike the resourceful persona of the Neo-Latin poem, he cannot even manage to stay asleep. The pace of the poem is leisurely: it runs to 60 stanzas of rime royal and includes a learned disquisition on the origin and nature of dreams worthy of Chaunticleer. After the distraught, unrequited lover finally lapses into sleep out of sheer exhaustion, “Slumber” brings him, “To mitigate the anguish of my thought,” the vision of “a Ladie faire (33)” who, at the end of a twelve-stanza blazon, turns out to be “the portraict of the Saint, / Which deepe ingraued in my hart I beare, / The Mistres of my hope, my feare, my plaint” (36). The lady's explanation for her appearance in the gentleman's bedchamber is disarmingly innocent:

With vnperceiued motion drawing ny,
Vnto the bed of my distresse and feare,
She with hir hand doth put the curtaine by,
And sits her downe vpon the one side there:
My wasted spirits quite amazed were,
          To see the sudden morning of those eies,
          Within the darke thus inexpected rise.
Being abrode (quoth she) I lately hard,
That you were falne into a sudden feuer,
And solitarie in your chamber bard,
From companie you did your selfe disseffeuer,
To charitie it appertaineth euer,
                    In duties to our neighbors for to sticke,
                    And visit the afflicted and the sicke.


The first of these two stanzas bears an obvious similarity to the situation at the beginning of Donne's “The Dreame,” including again an emphasis upon the woman as bearer of light into the darkness. The lady in The Phoenix Nest, however, is devoid of that equivocal blend of daring and diffidence that characterizes her counterpart in Donne's poem. It takes several stanzas for her to realize that her lover expects her to cure his “feuer” without recourse to her garden herbs or “closet of conserues.” When she finally understands what he is asking, they argue for several pages the standard love vs. honor theme, with the lady defending rational self-control against blind passion: “The argument is dull, and nothing quicke, / Bicause that I am faire, you should be sicke” (39). The lover's only effective counter-argument is a death-like faint, which leads the lady to relent and recall him to life “with a kisse.” Unfortunately his joy is so great that the dream is broken and he awakens to “The vanitie and falsehood of these ioyes” (42-43).

Perusing a volume like The Phoenix Nest is a forceful reminder of the power and originality of Donne's love poetry. “The Dreame” treats exactly the same dilemma as “A most rare, and excellent Dreame, learnedly set downe by a woorthy Gentelman”: namely, the internal clash in a man between love and lust, between the longing to cherish with honor and to possess with casual pleasure, between the image of a woman as angelic, saintly, or divine and the predatory perception of a woman as a quarry. The poem printed in The Phoenix Nest, in keeping with the length of its title, spends 420 lines rehearsing a series of predictable, though loosely strung-together commonplaces. In just thirty lines Donne's poem evokes a world. The young woman who slips into her lover's room, listens to his blandishments, with their mixture of wry wit and anxious pleading, and then, suddenly panicked, draws back—she comes vividly to life in the words of Donne's poetic persona. There is no need for her to speak; we should probably imagine her hushing his expostulations with her finger at her lips, fascinated and fearful at the same time. She is so real that she generates a tremendous urge to find her in history, to re-create her biography. But what, in fact, makes her real is precisely the comparison of the poem in which she takes shape with the dreary litter of Phoenix Nests in their thousands despoiling the literary landscape. It is Donne's capacity to interact creatively with literary tradition that makes his poetry so much more than conventional literature. There is an element of truth in Northrop Frye's assertion that poems are made out of other poems, but all poems are not therefore equal.

But a good poet does not have to react against bad poems. Perhaps the most resonant context for Donne's “The Dreame” comes at the end of the very first canto of The Faerie Queene. Could any reader of poetry in the 1590s pick up Donne's account of a man awaking to find the woman of his dreams there at his bedside and not think of the Redcrosse Knight awaking to a demonic apparition of his beloved? There is a striking inverted parallel insofar as Spenser's hero is beguiled into mistaking an evil spirit—that is, a fallen angel—for the real Una, who allegorically represents the Truth; while Donne's persona at first mistakes the real woman for a mere “Angell.” Donne's poem differs most notably from the first two bits of poetic context that we have considered insofar as “The Dreame” is not just a dream—the lady actually shows up in the bedroom. The difference with the scene created by Spenser is still more significant: Una bears a grave symbolic burden as the representation of the transcendental truth and the idea of the true Church. When the Redcrosse Knight finally chases the counterfeit out of his room—much unlike Donne's persona, who urges the lady to stay—it is as if the Truth itself has failed:

Long after lay he musing at her mood,
Much griev'd to thinke that gentle dame so light,
For whose defence he was to shed his blood.

(The Faerie Queene I.i.55)

It is no surprise when, several cantos later, in the company of that very different woman, the false “Fidessa,” his iron resolve fails “Poured out in looseness on the grassy grownd, / Both carelesse of his health and of his fame” (I.vii.7).

“The Dreame” thus flashes a derisive smile at Spenser's aggressively Protestant, rigorously Neo-Platonic idea of Truth. It also gives point to what is clearly the superior reading of line seven: “Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice, / To make dreames truths; and fables histories” (7-8). If the lady in Donne's poem who enters the bedroom is contrasted with Spenser's Una, then Gardner's reading “so true” instead of “so truth” must be rejected; and the relevance of Grierson's citation of St. Thomas, which she dismisses, becomes clear (Gardner 209). Donne is proposing that truth is a flesh and blood woman, not a Platonic abstraction. The being of God, St. Thomas writes,

is not only consistent with his understanding, but it even is his act of understanding; and his act of understanding is the measure and cause of every other being, and of every other understanding; and he is himself his own being and understanding. Hence it follows that not only is he truth in himself, but that he is the first and highest truth itself.8

In other words, God is truth itself because He is absolutely and completely Himself in a way impossible to any creature. The ironic exception is, of course, the lady who enters the bedroom in “The Dreame”: she is “so truth” that she too is divine—but only so long as she stays:

Comming and staying show'd thee, thee,
But rising makes me doubt, that now,
                    Thou art not thou.


The woman in his bed, in his arms, is truth itself: palpable, concrete, existential reality. Gardner finds “‘so truth’ a very forced expression and the repetition of ‘truth … truth’ unpleasing to the ear” (209), but if the woman in “The Dreame” is set against Una as a differing version of truth, then Donne has provided an Aristotelian/Thomist vision to counter Spenser's Neo-Platonism.

To be sure, “The Dreame,” as well as many other poems among The Songs and Sonets, offers a very irreverent version of Thomism or more generally of Catholic doctrine and practice. It behooves us to recall, again, that in the course of writing these poems Donne was moving away from the faith of his youth. Most especially, he was relinquishing the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar—the ultimate manifestation of God's truth in the Catholic liturgy. If the poet's reckless marriage to Anne More was the decisive event in his spiritual journey, then he can be said to have surrendered the Body of Christ for the body of a woman, the flesh and blood present on the altar for the “divine” presence of the woman in the bed. “What Donne proposes in his most idealized love lyrics,” writes Anthony Low, “is a union between lovers that is essentially communal, sacred, and religious in a certain sense, but neither Christian nor social” (63). While Spenser tries to reconcile human sexual love with a militantly Protestant, Platonically spiritual version of truth, Donne attempts to forge a dramatic account of the truth of Eros that is ironically modelled on Catholicism at its most incarnational and sacramental. This convergence of conflicting elements—religious and political strife, philosophical and literary competition, the clash of Petrarchan idealism and cynical libertinism—results in the equivocal tension and the pervasive irony that mark the love poetry of John Donne.

An historical individual named John Donne with all his individual quirks and personal experiences; literary conventions derived from ancient elegy, from Medieval Scholasticism, from courtly love lyric, from Renaissance Petrarchanism, and from many other sources; ideas about love of religious, philosophical, and social origin—all these elements converge in the love poetry of John Donne along with many more too numerous to list. What holds them together and forges them into a unity is wit. Baltasar Gracián calls this agudeza—literally “sharpness” or “keenness”—which finds its literary manifestation in the conceit: “What beauty is for the eyes, what harmony is for the ears, the conceit is that for the understanding” (239).9 The literary result is irony: the perception of the incongruous and contradictory suspended together in a verbal matrix. Gracián goes on to define the conceit (concepto) as “an act of the understanding that expresses the correspondence that is found among objects”—found or invented by “the artifice of ingenuity” (242; artificio del ingenio).10 Literature is thus fundamentally ironic insofar as it acknowledges the incongruousness of human existence. Donne's love poetry is “a well wrought urne” precisely in recognizing its own heroic insufficiency against the temporal and material forces always threatening to overwhelm it. The wit and irony of Donne's poetry are very much akin to what a modern poet, Wallace Stevens, calls “nobility”:

It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.



  1. This paper was first delivered as the Presidential address to the John Donne Society Conference of February, 1998. I am grateful to the suggestions made by members of the audience, and especially to my colleague, M. Thomas Hester, who read and commented on the manuscript.

  2. For a more sympathetic account of Donne's relation to Catholicism, see Flynn, “Donne the Survivor” and John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. For recent and persuasive defenses of Donne's attitude toward women see Sabine, Hester, and Slights. For a less extreme view of Donne as absolutist, see Shuger 159-217, while the whole notion of Donne as absolutist is rejected by Shami. For another sympathetic view of Donne's politics, see Patterson.

  3. See Young (3-4) for a discussion of the current misunderstanding of Brooks' understanding of irony.

  4. For a variety of differing comments on Donne's debt to Roman erotic elegy, see, among others, LaBranche, Armstrong, Revard, and Stapleton.

  5. See the textual notes in the editions of Shawcross and Gardner and Ben Jonson's remark that Donne's “verses of the Lost Chain, he hath by heart” (171).

  6. See Haskin on the vexed question of autobiography in Donne's love poems, especially “The Canonization.”

  7. See also the portentous remark by Docherty, “The woman may comprise the world, but the man is its ruler with its riches at his disposal” (32).

  8. Summa Theologiae: “Nam esse suum non solum est conforme suo intellectui; sed etiam est ipsum suum intelligere est mensura et causa omnis alterius esse, et omnis alterius intellectus; et ipse est suum esse et intelligere. Unde sequitur quod non solum in ipso sit veritas, sed quod ipse sit ipsa summa et prima veritas” (I.xvi.5).

  9. “Lo que es para los ojos la hermosura, y para los oídos la consonancia, eso es para el entendimiento el concepto.”

  10. “De suerte que se puede definir el concepto: Es un acto del entendimiento que ezprime la correspondencia que se halla entre los objectos.”

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Chamberlain, John. The Letters of John Chamberlain. Ed. Norman Egbert McClure. 2 Vols. 1939. Rpt. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1979.

D'Arcy, Msgr. Martin C. The Mind and Heart of Love: Lion and Unicorn: A Study in Eros and Agape. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1956.

Docherty, Thomas. John Donne Undone. London and New York: Methuen, 1986.

Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Endres, Clifford, ed. Joannes Secundus: The Latin Love Elegy in the Renaissance. Hamden, CT: Shoestring P, 1981.

Fish, Stanley. “Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power.” Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth O. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 223-52.

Flaminio, Marcantonio. Hymnus in Aurora. Renaissance Latin Verse: An Anthology. Ed. Alessandro Perosa and John Sparrow. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979. 279-81.

Flynn, Dennis. “Donne the Survivor.” The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 15-24.

———. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1965.

Goldberg, Jonathan. James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and their Contemporaries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.

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Gracián, Baltasar. Agudeza y arte de ingenio. In Obras completas. Ed. Artura del Hoyo. 3rd ed. Madrid: Aguilar, 1967.

Harrison, G.B., Ed. An Elizabethan Journal: Being a Record of the Things Most Talked About During the Years 1591-1594. New York: Cosmopolitan, 1929.

Harvey, Elizabeth O. and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds. Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1990.

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Herz, Judith Scherer. “‘An Excellent Exercise of Wit That Speaks So Well of Ill’: Donne and the Poetics of Concealment.” The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 3-14.

Hester, M. Thomas. “‘Fœminæ lectissimæ’: Reading Anne Donne.” John Donne's “desire of more”: The Subject of Anne More Donne in His Poetry. Ed. Thomas M. Hester. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1996. 17-34.

Hutcheon, Linda. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Jonson, Ben. Ben Jonson's Literary Criticism. Ed. James D. Redwine, Jr. Lincoln: U. of Nebraska P, 1970.

LaBranche, Anthony. “‘Blanda Elegeia’: The Background to Donne's ‘Elegies’.” Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne's Poetry. Ed. John R. Roberts. Hamden, CT: Shoestring P, 1975. 399-410.

Low, Anthony. The Reinvention of Love: Politics and Culture from Sidney to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

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Ovid. Heroides and Amores. Ed. Grant Showerman and Rev. G. P. Gould. 2nd Ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1977.

Patterson, Annabel. “All Donne.” Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth O. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 37-67.

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Shankar Raman (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Raman, Shankar. “Can't Buy Me Love: Money, Gender, and Colonialism in Donne's Erotic Verse.”1Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 43, no. 2 (spring 2001): 135-68.

[In the following essay, Raman analyzes s Donne's complex use of money, gender, and colonialist discourse in three erotic poems—“Loves Progress,” “Going to Bed,” and “The Bracelet.”]


Suppressed by the licenser from the 1633 printed text of John Donne's poetry, the elegy “Loves Progress” seems also to have escaped sustained critical discussion, despite the twentieth-century revival of Donne studies. The comparative neglect does not, I think, derive simply from its being an “outrageous poem,”2 but from a sense that the poem is perhaps too transparent. In the related—and much examined—elegy, “Going to Bed,” an intricate and provocative equation of physical consummation with religious ecstasy complicates the exuberant colonial metaphorics of “My America, my New-found-land,” sharpening the effect of transgression. By contrast, “Loves Progress” would appear to display the same guiding metaphorical thread—one that relates the masculine speaker to the woman's body in terms of colonial “discovery”—on its sleeve, not immediately prompting much critical analysis beyond the specification of its analogical procedure. Once one has articulated the specific alignment of colonial and misogynist discourses by demonstrating how Donne utilizes colonialism to talk about sex, there doesn't seem much else to be done other than to judge the comparison. Likewise, the valuation of the Elegies as a whole has often been to their (and the poet's) detriment—most controversially, perhaps, in John Carey's 1981 biography.

A lively attempt to ‘save’ “Loves Progress” does so by complicating our responses to the poem's tone. Drawing on both Arthur Marotti's treatment of Donne as a coterie poet and Annabel Patterson's discussion of self-censorship, R. V. Young proposes that the poem be read as a “countertext” to colonial works of “essential duplicity”: it critiques the colonial enterprise not by direct refutation, but by dismantling the rhetorical structure underlying contemporaneous textual celebrations of English explorers. “Loves Progress” rewrites these, according to Young, “as cynically erotic poems of unbridled desire”: not only does Donne invert the background metaphor likening the discovered land to the female body, but “coarse cynicism” parodies the pious exultation of colonialism in early modern discovery narratives.3 Thus, even as colonialism provides the frame for the poem's erotic wit, the topos of sexual mastery nonetheless strategically serves as colonial critique.

Jacques Derrida's term “invagination” seems particularly apt to designate the logic of Young's argument, which transforms what in the poem appears secondary (colonialism) into the primary frame, thereby relegating the original frame (sex/gender) to a secondary position. However, such a Derridean logic of reversal and displacement, strictu sensu, would instead emphasize a radical uncertainty or undecidability regarding what the poem is “about.” Moreover, the critical procedure need not halt at this initial reversal: one could just as well extend the process yet a step further to argue that the metaphor equating colonial territory to female body—against which the poem ostensibly writes—itself rests upon an older (and broader) gendered frame that links the female to land, nature, and passivity (opposing these to the active male subject). Indeed, Donne's participation in military expeditions to Cadiz early in his career and his involvement with the Virginia Company (whose Secretaryship he unsuccessfully sought) might lend support to a reading which treats the poem's “coarse cynicism” not as parody but at face value. Undecidability or ambiguity is arguably, then, a logical outcome to which any reading can be pushed that connects the poem's sexual politics to its colonial politics in terms of a binary relationship between tenor and vehicle.

Emphasizing this undecidability, Catherine Belsey offers a valuable corrective to a still prevalent critical tendency to read Donne's poetry in terms of an opposition between love and politics that gets definitively resolved in one or the other direction.4 Relating Donne's verse historically to an emerging distinction between an imagined private, “privileged, intimate world” and the public realm of “economy, politics and history,” Belsey instead uncovers an anxiety at the heart of love itself, “an uncertainty about the degree to which it is acceptable or possible to be in possession of the worlds desire makes visible.” Thus an elegy such as “To His Mistress Going to Bed” maps less the female body than the dynamic of early modern desire. The impossibility of assigning a “final, authoritative meaning” to Donne's intertwining of love and conquest symptomatically reveals a fundamental unsureness regarding the object of desire. Is it, Belsey asks, “a woman, a self-image, writing?” “No wonder,” she continues, “the worlds which were gradually opening up to the gaze of Renaissance explorers and cartographers seemed the appropriate emblem of desire. They were vast, these territories, perhaps limitless, and enticing, rich and beautiful. They were also dangerous, to the degree that they were uncharted both geographically and anthropologically. Desire in Donne's love poetry is a world that remains paradoxically unknown, and that elicits in consequence a corresponding anxiety, which is registered in the texts as undecidability.”5

Nevertheless, even Belsey's otherwise convincing reading begs the question of the historical and formal conditions underlying the ostensibly binary structures that Donne's elegies seem both to establish and to trouble. What makes colonial discovery of “uncharted” lands the “appropriate emblem” of desire? What are the conditions that make possible Donne's separating and metaphorically rejoining the “private” realm of sexuality and the “public” world of colonial adventuring? What, in other words, is the common space that enables the transference between gender and colonialism at the moment of Donne's elegies?


As a step towards addressing these questions I would like to draw attention to another set of similitudes operative in “Loves Progress”: the monetary tropes linking value to love or desire. As Marotti briefly notes, “one of the ends of love assumed in this poem is the economic one. From the first, the sexual is defined in relation to commercial realities”6—and specifically to commercial venturing:

Who ever loves, if he do not propose
The right true end of love, he's one that goes
To sea for nothing but to make him sick.(7)


Indeed, the poem's opening section does not immediately posit an analogy between the female body and the discovered land, but rather likens one “valued” object, the woman, to another, gold.

I, when I value gold, may think upon
The ductilness, the application,
The wholsomness, the ingenuitie,
From rust, from soil, from fire ever free:
But if I love it, 'tis because 'tis made
By our new nature (Use) the soul of trade.
All these in women we might think upon
(If women had them) and yet love but one.


The contrast between “value” and “love” signals the presence of two competing modes of ascribing worth. We shall return shortly to “our new nature (Use)” that Donne appears to favor. But let us first linger on the position these lines ostensibly reject: that the value of gold resides in such properties as “ductilness,” “application,” “wholsomness,” and so forth. Such a stance evokes an earlier—but, for Donne, still-vital—theologically governed understanding of money's function as measure of value (albeit one possessed of a certain significant ambiguity).8 According to this doctrine, money could signify wealth only because as gold (or silver) it was precious in itself; its functions as measure of value and instrument of exchange rested in its intrinsic worth. Thus, for the fourteenth-century thinker Nicole Oresme, money's utility for “the mutual exchange of naturall Riches” required that it be “convenient to handle,” and “easy to carry,” properties that depended upon the metal being itself a concentrated form of wealth or value, “such that a small portion of it might buy and exchange natural Riches in greater quantity.” “It is desirable, therefore,” Oresme says, “that Money be made of precious metal which is not plentiful, such as gold. … And when gold does not suffice, Money is made of silver also.”9

However, scholastic discussions of money were marked by a crucial faultline: the need to coordinate the worth of the money material—the metal out of which money was made—with the face value of the metallic coin. For precious metal only became money through the “face” stamped upon it, which constituted it as coin and concomitantly guaranteed its value. If money was precious and could measure value, this was because it stood—directly and immediately—for the prince's authority, which was in turn underwritten by a divine dispensation. In late medieval monetary thought, then, it was necessary that the royal impress or sign marking the metal coincide with the referent, that is, with the metal's intrinsic value, which had been deposited in it by God. Oresme's treatise makes evident the theological urgency behind this forced equation:

The stamp on money is a sign of the honesty of its material and of its alloy, if any, and therefore to change this is to falsify the money. For these reasons the name of God is inscribed on some coins, or the name of a Saint, or the Sign of the Cross, a practice devised and established long ago to testify to the honesty of the money in quality and weight. If a prince, therefore, changes the weight or fineness of money bearing such a sign, he seems to lie tacitly, to commit perjury, and to bear false witness, besides breaking God's commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain.10

As Timothy Reiss and Roger Hinderliter suggest, precisely because money possesses a value that is separate from its function as a measure of “natural riches,” Oresme insists “that the prince must allow no change of weight or alloy. The ‘theological’ structure happens to answer to economic necessity: because the sign is sacred, it is inflexible—the relationship between metallic content and face value must remain absolutely constant.”11 “Loves Progress,” too, hints at a similar theological basis for determining value: to “value” gold leads to “think[ing] upon” those physical characteristics of the metal that, taken together, establish intrinsic worth in terms of an immutable and quasi-divine purity (“from rust, from soil, from fire ever free”).

Donne explicitly engages both the theological “fixing” of value and the resulting tension between the intrinsic and face value of gold or money in another elegy, “The Bracelet,” where the speaker wittily attempts to avoid having to compensate his mistress for having lost her gold chain:

O shall twelve righteous Angels, which as yet
No leaven of vile soder did admit;
Nor yet by any fault have straid or gone
From the first state of their Creation;
Angels, which heaven commanded to provide
All things to me, and be my faithfull guide. …
Shall these twelve innocents, by thy severe
Sentence (dread judge) my sins great burden beare?
Shall they be damn'd, and in the furnace throwne,
And punisht for offences not their owne?
They save not me, they doe not ease my paines
When in that hell they' are burnt and tyed in chains.


Through the pun on “angel”—a gold coin so named because it showed the archangel Michael standing upon and piercing a dragon—the lover draws theological penalties from the monetary cost. The loss of the twelve angels, to be melted down to replace his mistress's ornament, becomes the unjust condemnation of the twelve divine apostles who were intended to be his “faithfull guide.” The sophistic argument begins from an assumed adequation between the coins' metallic content and their face value, locating worth in the purity of the material. Not only does “throwing” the “twelve righteous angels” into the furnace and “tying” them “in chains” undo the relationship between intrinsic worth and extrinsic sign, but it also debases the metal by “leaven[ing]” it with “vile soder.” A sixteenth-century citation in the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word indicates that the use of solder was strictly regulated in Elizabethan England: an act from 1576 insisted, for example, that “No Goldsmith … shall … use noe Sother … more then ys necessarie.”12 Using an alloy to unite the links into which the coins have been forged thus becomes tantamount to introducing an impurity into the metal, an adulteration that the speaker further likens to original sin or “the fault” whereby divinely created beings “straid.” This clever association of monetary debasement with a fall from grace (“the first State of their Creation”) resonates with Oresme's inveighing against the practice of alloying gold (or silver) with less precious metals. While Oresme grants that some adulteration of coin may be “convenient for small purchases,” such “black mixed” money, as he calls it, “naturally arouse[s] suspicion, and in [it] neither the quality nor quantity of gold can be easily recognised.” Hence, “as a general rule money should never be alloyed,” and even in cases where such “mixing” is unavoidable, “it should be in the money least subject to suspicion and deception, i.e. in the least precious metal, silver.”13 Similarly, for Donne's speaker, precisely because his angels are pure, they ought to correspond perfectly to the theologically underwritten signs they bear; and in turn, we might add, the signs give visible form to the purity of the substance of the coins.

But if the casuistic speaker of “The Bracelet” initially argues from the assumption that worth resides in the metal's purity, he needs later in the poem to reverse the relationship between value and form in order to counter his mistress's intransigence.

Thou say'st (alas) the gold doth still remaine,
Though it be chang'd, and put into a chaine,
So in the first falne angel, resteth still
Wisdom and knowledge; but, 'tis turn'd to ill:
As these should doe good works; and should provide
Necessities; but now must nurse thy pride,
And they are still bad angels; Mine are none;
For, forme gives being, and their forme is gone:


Economic necessity now answers theology. The intrinsic worth of the angels (the precious metal or “wisdom and knowledge,” as the case may be) is subordinated to the outward form through which putatively inner virtue first comes into “being”—though, potentially, not as virtue at all but as its opposite, “ill.” For expression in action determines essence, and not vice versa. Transformed into a bracelet, the “falne angel[s]” now “nurse” the mistress's pride, “turn[ing] to ill” the moral imperative that they “should doe good works.” Despite the possibility that wisdom and knowledge still “remaine” in them, these “are still bad angels.” Likewise, the “form” of the speaker's “righteous” angels, that is, the stamp their metal bears, gives them “being,” enabling them to function as money, the instrument (in Oresme's words) “for measuring and exchanging one with another those natural riches by means of which men most easily supply their necessities.” In being “chang'd and put into a chain”—either by being melted down into or by being invested in a replacement—the good angels would lose their original form or presence, and, concomitantly, the very virtue which that form had brought into existence.14

This complex play between metallic content and outward form evokes the slippage that Michel Foucault posits as constitutive of the ternary organization of both signs and monetary discourse in sixteenth-century Europe. Just as knowledge of any natural object was predicated upon some similitude between it and another object, fixing the value of money depended upon correlating the quantity of precious metal in the coin with its nominal value (the stamp). But for the resemblance between two objects to become apprehensible, a “signature” was required, which took the form of another resemblance. In a similar fashion, establishing the conformity between stamped money and the quantity of metal it contained called for a further correlation: the relationship between the coin and some commodity for which it could be exchanged. The sign or impress which the metal bears, in other words, ought to signify transparently its intrinsic value or “preciousness.” But to “recognize” this sign—to know what value it represents—one has to relate the metal, via exchange, to a determinate quantity of some other commodity, whose value in turn depends upon its relationship to other commodities: “the monetary sign cannot define its exchange value, and can be established as a mark only on a metallic mass which in turn defines its value in the scale of other commodities.”15 “The Bracelet” enacts this deferral of value through the dizzying shift between a symbolic, theological frame of reference (numerologically marked, for example, by identifying the coins with the twelve apostles) and a mercantile one in which the value of the angels depends upon the form they take, that is, what they must be exchanged for.

The indefinite oscillation between metal and merchandise implied by such a triangulation was arrested, as Foucault argues, by laying down an absolute correlation between the total amount of gold buried in the earth and the totality of existing things through which all human needs could be satisfied. Thus Davanzatti's Leçon sur la monnaie insisted:

Nature made all terrestrial things good; the sum of these, by virtue of the agreement concluded by men, is worth all the gold that is worked. … In order to ascertain each day the rule and mathematical proportions that exist between things and between things and gold, we should have to be able to contemplate, from the height of heaven or some very tall observatory, all the things that exist or are done on earth, or rather their images reproduced and reflected in the sky as in a faithful mirror. We would then abandon all our calculations and we would say: there is upon earth so much gold, so many things, so many needs; and to the degree that each thing satisfies needs, its value shall be so many things, or so much gold.16

It would appear to be just such a “celestial and exhaustive calculation” (to use Foucault's phrase) that Donne's elegy, “Loves Progress,” mockingly invokes as it expands upon the outrageous relationship between gold and the female body:

Search every sphear
And firmament, our Cupid is not there:
He'is an infernal god and under ground,
With Pluto dwells, where gold and fire abound;
Men to such Gods, their sacrificing Coles
Did not in Altars lay, but pits and holes:
Although we see Celestial bodies move
Above the earth, the earth we Till and love. …


What is sought—that is, what satisfies male desire—lies within the female body, just as gold remains buried within the earth. Projected here is a fixed correspondence between what one prays for and what “till[ing]” unearths. Linking the firmament to the earth's caves and mines (“pits and holes”), these lines identify the objects of desire with the treasures buried “under ground.” The axis connecting the celestial to the “infernal” “makes those things that are brought into being by the hands of men correspond with the treasures buried in the earth since the creation of the world.”17 The speaker thereby both signals and parodies the macrocosmic structure which for Davanzatti ultimately underwrites the “rule and mathematical proportion” between things and gold.

Rejecting as inadequate those notions of valuation based upon properties intrinsic to gold or women (wholesomeness, ductility, purity, and so on), “Loves Progress” embraces instead a language of “love” or desire. And in so doing it beings into view a different understanding of value, one that focuses on gold's place within a circuit of exchange: if he “love[s]” gold, it is, as the speaker tells us, “because 'tis made / By our new nature (Use) the soul of trade.” Commenting on the pervasive presence of metaphors of money and trade in Donne's oeuvre, Coburn Freer aptly remarks: “What Donne alone among the poets seemed to sense was that within his lifetime money itself had become a commodity.”18 Thus, rather than locating money's dual function (as measure of “natural riches” and as instrument of exchange) in the “double nature of its intrinsic character (the fact that it was precious),”19 Donne inverts the analysis just as the seventeenth-century mercantilists were to do. Money's exchanging function (what Donne calls “Use” or the “soul of trade”) becomes the foundation from which its ability to measure wealth and its capacity to receive price derive: as Foucault puts it, “money (and even the metal of which it is made) receives its value from its pure function as sign. … The value of things … no longer proceed[s] from the metal itself; it establishes itself by itself, without reference to the coinage, according to the criteria of utility, pleasure and rarity. Things take on value, then, in relation to one another; the metal merely enables value to be represented, as a name represents an image or an idea, yet does not constitute it.”20 It is not so much that gold is in itself precious, but that gold as a sign of value becomes precious in and through the practice of trade.

If revoking the criterion of intrinsic worth means, then, that any substance can, in theory, serve as money, in practice the chosen substance must nonetheless possess properties that will allow it to compare and balance the values of different commodities. In this sense, the physical properties Donne enumerates as belonging to gold—its malleability (“ductilness”), honesty of nature (“ingenuitie”), useful character (“application”), “wholsomness” and indestructibility—testify less to an inner “perfection” or value than to a capacity for representing value. Since gold is malleable, imperishable and of concentrated weight, it is ideally suited to perform the function of representing the value of other commodities in the exchange process. But these physical attributes do not in themselves make gold precious; rather they merely enable gold to discharge a representational task. Only by the right of being the universal sign or image for wealth in a process of exchange does gold itself become wealth.

An ambivalent insistence on how the character of money as sign disrupts an earlier emphasis on intrinsic worth recurs in Donne's writings. Consider for example the admittedly clogged syntax of the opening sentence of “Image of her whom I love”:

Image of her whom I love, more then she,
Whose faire impression in my faithfull heart,
Makes mee her Medall, and makes her love mee,
As Kings do coynes to which their stamps impart
The value: goe, and take my heart from hence,
Which is now growne too great and good for me. …


Underlying these lines is clearly the feudal doctrine that money belonged to the prince (or seignior) because the coin bore his image. But the poem in fact deviates significantly from this established position. As in “The Bracelet,” Donne's argument runs counter to the scholastic insistence that “face” and referent coincide, for it sees value as accruing to the coin through the image. Just as coins become valuable through the royal face imprinted upon them, the “faire impression” upon his heart makes it precious (“too great and good”), transforming it into both money substance and coin—note the aural pun on metal/medal. While the intrinsic property of being “faithfull” indicates the capacity of the heart to receive and hold the impression, this property does not directly constitute its worth, which instead comes to it from without. And as coin or medal, his heart becomes something separable from him, and enters circulation (“goe, and take my heart from hence”). Furthermore, rather than conferring ownership as the scholastic model would have it, the image breeds desire: it makes her love him as Kings do those coins “to which their stamps impart value.” There is a suggestion here, as one editor notes, that “the beloved only loves him because she has impressed him and made him love her.”21 That is, rather than simply owning his heart by virtue of her image upon it, she is transformed from beloved to lover by the image, and is thereby herself caught in the movement of desire and exchange traced by the heart/coin.

I am suggesting that a felt transformation in what constitutes the nature of (economic) value permeates Donne's erotic poetry, and provides the matrix within which “Loves Progress” in particular locates gender and colonialism in relationship to one another. To see what is at stake in this shift, we need to recall briefly the Aristotelian treatment of money that provided the framework for medieval monetary theory. Aristotle's remarks on money as a medium appear as part of a broader discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics on value commensuration, that is, on how to establish an equivalence between qualitatively distinct things. The term “medium” combined two aspects: first, money's function as a measure or “a numbered continuum capable of infinite expansion or contraction, against which all commodities could be commensurated and find relation;”22 and, second, money's role as an instrument of exchange, an intermediate or third term in the actual exchange of diverse commodities. As measure, money was something invented, introduced and fixed by agreement, while as instrument of exchange it itself brought things into relation and, potentially, equation. But what precisely did money measure? Aristotle's ambivalent answer to this question prepared the ground for medieval commentators. For while hinting in places that money measured certain qualities intrinsic to the commodities themselves (the quality of workmanship, or the value of the skills involved, or the different expenditures of labor), elsewhere he stated forcefully that money measured not “the essential value of commodities, but rather the demand or need for those objects experienced by participants in exchange.”23 Thus, from Aquinas onwards, money was treated as an artificial measure that quantified the “natural” measure of all goods: indigentia or need. But the tension within Aristotle's account remained, for the relational and external determinants indexed by indigentia did not entirely supplant the internal determinants of labor and expenses.24 Thus Albertus Magnus's thirteenth-century commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics argued both that there could be no exchange without an equivalence of labor and expenses in production, and that there could be no exchange without an equivalence of need.

The two aspects of the monetary medium, the metal and the impress, essentially correspond to these two determinants: as precious metal, possessed of properties that make it intrinsically valuable, gold can quantify the “natural” value of other commodities; as stamped metal, however, gold represents the value ascribed to it by the prince or common consent, and as such it measures the need “which all exchanged artifacts have common to them.”25 Just as Albertus “solved” the problem of value by simply conflating the two determinants, that is, equating opus or use with indigentia or need, Oresme would later “solve” the problem of the money commodity by conflating its intrinsic preciousness with the sign it bore. A poem such as “The Bracelet” suggests the currency of this issue in early modern England. As we have seen, Donne's complex attempt to avoid the “bitter cost” of replacing his mistress's ornament relies on just such an identification, even as the poem wittily proceeds to enact its crisis.

Underpinning Donne's poetry, however, is a broader cultural shift whereby desire/love takes the place of the earlier category of indigentia.26 For while both need and desire are predicated upon a lack to which the act of exchange responds, in at least one crucial sense they remain differently conceived. Following Aristotle, scholastic thought generally treated need as a structural condition that motivated and enabled exchange within a social process whose end was justice. This emphasis had its roots in the fact that equalization and commensuration assumed importance for Aristotle in an investigation of ethical questions—particularly, in his reflections upon the distinction between commutative and distributive justice. For his medieval commentators, too—despite often substantial differences—money's significance lay in its effects upon what Kaye calls “the delicate balance of iustitia” (for this reason, scholastic thought broaches money and exchange most regularly within discussions of usury). In early modern Europe, however, desire seems to take over the role of need, thereby posing the problem of value in terms of the desiring subject. In other words, rather than beginning with the structural requirement of equalization or commensuration (upon which the health of the civitas depends), desiring or loving becomes premised, as Donne's poetry makes evident, upon an active reaching out by the subject towards the desired object. The emphasis shifts from the needs of the social community to the demands of the would-be consumer.

Tackling the problem of value in “Loves Progress,” Donne reverses, as we have seen, the moral hierarchy which derives nominal value from a natural value bound to the allegedly essential virtues of the metallic substance. These properties become incidental because they are merely possessed by gold. “True value” results from a desire that only gold's use as an instrument of exchange can provoke. Such an inversion provides the basic structure informing, first, the analogy between gold and woman, and, subsequently, the descriptions of colonial voyaging over the female body.

Analogous to the poem's treatment of gold's “virtue,” in the case of “woman,” too, the characteristics that ostensibly comprise her worth—virtue, wisdom, beauty, goodness, and even wealth—are dismissed as incidental properties.

Makes virtue woman? must I cool my bloud
Till I both be, and find one wise and good?
May barren Angels love so. But if we
Make love to a woman; virtue is not she:
As beauty'is not nor wealth: He that strayes thus
From her to hers, is more adulterous,
Then if he took her maid. …
Although we see Celestial bodies move
Above the earth, the earth we Till and love:
So we her ayres contemplate, words and heart,
And virtues; but we love the Centrique part.


Unlike gold, the woman may or may not in fact possess these qualities, but even if she did, they would simply be contingent predicates that, while belonging to her, do not “make” her. Just as the value of money accrues to it from “our new nature (Use) the soul of trade,” the woman's value is conferred upon her by her sexual use: her desirability depends upon the sexual availability or usability that is embodied as the “centrique part.” Echoing “The Bracelet,” Donne represents the “straying” from “her” to “hers”—from what “makes” the woman to what merely pertains to her—as an ‘’adulterous” liaison, a pernicious admixture of two incommensurate substances.27 The illicit confusion that results from such deviation is expressed as paradox: the misogynistic pun on “maid” mixes categories by collapsing the woman's possession (her serving woman) into the possession of the woman herself (taking her maidenhead). Indeed, the metaphor of debasement enacts a “straying” on the social level as well since it involves moving down the social scale, from the lady to the maid. The paradox further points towards a typically Donnean contradiction—to which I will return later in this essay—between the sexual and cosmographical dimensions of these lines. Identified with “pits and holes,” the female body is the empty and hidden space in which men “lay” “their sacrificing Coles” (lines 31-32, cited earlier). And yet, the aim or “end” to which male endeavor is directed would appear to be extraction, figured both as the reaping of the fruits of (sexual) labor and access to the gold that lies buried within. The woman's “centrique part” thus takes on opposed attributes of vacancy or absence and substantiality or presence.

It is perhaps this confusion implicit in what the “centrique part” is, of what “the right true end” of love ought to be, that pushes “Loves Progress” outward to extend the spatial connotations of “straying” to the colonial frame. For the reversal enacted in the poem's treatment of gold and woman subsequently envelops the analogy between the woman's body and the to-be-colonized spaces sought after by European explorers. In describing how to “attain[] this desired place,” the “centrique part,” Donne contrasts two modes of traversing the female body: the physical act of voyaging and the charting of a route through a map. The difference between these approaches corresponds to changes in how space was conceptualized in the early modern period. In describing the (mistaken) attempt of “set[ting] out at the face” to work one's way from the known or seen to the unknown and unseen, the speaker draws upon the practical navigational methods available in late-medieval Europe, and in particular upon the spatial practice of the so-called portolan charts. These were essentially plots of routes drawn by sailors in order to journey over relatively short distances, generally confined to the Mediterranean basin and small stretches of the Atlantic coastlines. Used in conjunction with the compass rose and plumb-lines, and normally drawn on durable material such as sheepskin, these pictorial aids preserved the local knowledge of sailors and represented space as if one were travelling through it. They thus subordinated physical and geometrical relationships to an experiential movement through space: like the practice of voyaging itself, the portolans followed the actual routes taken, sketching coastlines and landmarks. The navigator oriented himself by recognizing a particular monument, a place, or a curve of land; he relied on visible signs confirming experiential knowledge, such as the direction of winds and waves, or the depth and nature of the seabed as revealed by the plumb-line.

For Donne's speaker, journeys of this kind are always in danger of an illusory fixation on a particular place. One who voyages, beginning at the woman's face to travel towards “her India,” will be distracted and ultimately blocked by the various anatomical places encountered en route. The risk inherent in such explorations is that of error, of straying or being forced to stray from the fixed orientation toward its goal. Thus, the hair “ambushes” the traveller, the brow alternately “shipwrecks” and “becalms” the sailor: the woman's body as voyaged space is a space of detours, deterrents, deflections.

Access to the goal, “India,” requires an additional representational aid: a picture that transparently renders the entirety of its content visible at a single glance, allowing the voyager to evade the resistance of the female body. Such an attitude towards space derives from the emergent cartography of the Renaissance, which began to relate places geographically, against the background of homogenous, geometrized space. (Indeed, these newer maps adumbrate new imaginative possibilities in other genres as well: on stage, for instance, they allow King Lear's trifold division of his kingdom prior to his daughters' entry or Tamburlaine's envisioning a new and quicker sea-route to India). In “Loves Progress,” too, the early modern map plays a critical role. For, given the “Symetry” it “hath with that part / Which thou dost seek,” the foot functions as “thy Map for that” “desired place.” To follow the shape of the foot, that is, to chart one's route upon a map as one initiates the journey, is to take advantage of the essential emptiness or transparency of space: “for as free Spheres move faster far then can / Birds, whom the air resists, so may that man / Which goes this empty and Aetherial way, / Then if at beauties elements he stay” (87-90).28 The rather unexpected symmetry between the foot and the sexualized place which the voyager seeks resides in a bilingual homonym which Shakespeare's Henry V will later make more explicit in the famous scene where Katherine learns the conqueror's language. Her shock at the “mauvais, corruptible, gros et impudique” English language derives from associating the English word “foot” with its lewder French homophone (which is the speaker's ostensible concern in “Loves Progress”).29


We can encapsulate in tabular form the contrast operative between the conditions for mere “valuing” and those for “loving” (to use Donne's terms) in each of the domains discussed above:

As the table indicates, gold or money provides the metaphoric frame or structure that the poem draws on and reiterates in its treatment of gender and colonial discovery.

Donne's analysis, however, goes beyond the structural homology captured in this table. That the female body and the colonial voyages become the fields upon which to renegotiate the problem of value seems to me consequent upon a more complex diagnosis: for the poem treats them not only as figures for a shared problematic, but also integrally associates them with a crisis in valuation. For all his characteristic playfulness, Donne does not simply wittily reject an earlier, theologically governed conception of monetary value for an emerging “modern” one. Rather, the poems we have examined stage a crisis of the earlier episteme upon the emergent form of that which will succeed it. In other words, beyond the arch figural analogies derived from the problem of monetary value, “Loves Progress” sees “woman” and “colonial discovery” as themselves participating in, and indeed even triggering, a wider uncertainty regarding value and authority. It thus seems no accident that a concern with monetary value and coinage repeatedly reappears in Donne's more orthodox, religiously-oriented writings that present spiritual conflicts in comprehensible, material terms. In the 1622 Sermon to the Virginia Company, for example, Donne warns the would-be adventurers not to expect a speedy return on their investments, despite God's promise that the “kingdom” beyond the seas will be theirs. His admonition draws upon metaphors we have already encountered in both “The Bracelet” and “Loves Progress”: “[B]e not discouraged. Great Creatures ly long in the wombe: Lyons are litterd perfit, but Bear-whelpes lick'd unto their shape; actions which Kings undertake are cast in a mould; they have their perfection quickly; actions of private men, and private purses, require more hammering, and more filing to their perfection.”30 In representing the temporal kingdom of the colony as the potential instantiation of the promised, divine kingdom, Donne uses coinage both as the perfect form or sign of value and to indicate the arduous material process by which value has to be created.

For the case of colonial voyaging, a relatively direct causation prevails between money and the perception of a crisis in valuation. The initial impetus behind the notion that money was a commodity like any other came from changing material circumstances: the growth of the market in late medieval Europe and, especially, the importance of debasement of coinage as an expedient means of generating royal revenue. Oresme's treatise, for example, originated in a period of financial crisis after a series of manipulations of French coinage in the fourteenth century. It was written to advise the nineteen-year-old Dauphin about monetary policy at a time when the four million crown ransom demanded for the French king Jean Le Bon (who had been captured at Poitiers in 1356 by the English) “threatened to push the much-abused French currency beyond its limit of endurance.”31 That the debasement of coin was halted during the regency and subsequent reign of Charles V has generally been attributed to Oresme's influence. In Donne's England as well, the effect or “sequele of things” resulting from Henry VIII's repeated debasement of coinage remained, as the merchant Gerrard Malynes was to put it in 1601, “yet fresh in memorie.”32

But for this nascent understanding of money's commodity character to take hold, another historical event would be necessary: the sudden influx of precious metals into Europe resulting from Iberian colonial expansion. This development forced contemporary observers into positing an economic link between the perceived dearness of commodities in parts of Europe and the massive dissemination of New World gold and silver. Jean Bodin was among the earliest of theorists explicitly to articulate the connection: “I find,” he writes in 1568, “that the high prices we see today are due to some four or five causes. The principal & almost only one (which no one has referred to until now) is the abundance of gold & silver, which is today much greater in this Kingdom than it was four hundred years ago. …”33 The reason for this abundance, Bodin argues, is colonial discovery:

[The] Portuguese, sailing the high seas by the compass, made himself master of the Gulf of Persia, & to some extent of the red sea, & by this means filled his vessels with the wealth of the Indies & of fruitful Arabia. … At the same time the Castilian, having gained control of the new lands full of gold & silver, filled Spain with them, & prompted our citizens to make the trip around Africa with a marvelous profit. It is incredible, and yet true, that there have come from Peru since the year 1533, when it was conquered by the Spaniards, more than a hundred millions of gold, & twice as much silver.34

And by the time the earliest English mercantilist tracts begin to appear around the turn of the century, Bodin's explanation has become widely accepted. Thus Gerrard Malynes's treatise—aimed at remedying the “diseased” state of England's balance of trade—eschews discussion of “fineness, weight and proportion” to consider instead the “property of the money, or the effects thereof; which is that plentie of money maketh generally things deare, and scarcitie of money maketh likewise things good cheape.” The emphasis on money's commodity character leads him without further ado to the colonial sphere: “whereunto the great store or abundance of monie and bullion, which of late years is come from the west Indies into Christendom, hath made every thing dearer according to the increase of monie, which … hath caused a great alteration and inhauncing of the price of every thing. …”35

Mercantilist tracts from the first decades of the seventeenth century further point towards the ways in which the early modern period reworked a traditional physiological metaphor in response to changing economic and social conditions: the metaphor that money was to a society what blood was to the body. Patricia Fumerton's rich reading of seventeenth-century English economic tracts has shown how mercantilist texts regularly conceived of trade and commodities in terms of corporeality.36 Inveighing against the over-import of luxury goods, the East India Company merchant Thomas Mun, for example, argues that “whilest wee consume them, they likewise devour our wealth.”37 Two decades later, during a downturn in colonial trade, another London merchant Lewes Roberts accuses the absentee farmer of failing to produce goods for the market, allowing his tenants to “suck and draw … the present profit and daily benefit” of his estate, “eating up the heart and marrow of the same, with greedy art.”38 Through such metaphors, trade or the process of circulation of commodities becomes linked to consumption and venous circulation: the buying and selling of goods drives money, the blood, all across the social body. And in proposing solutions to the nation's financial crises, too, the metaphor of the body remains central. Malynes's treatise, for instance, represents him as a doctor who diagnoses a “cankered” or “diseased” patient: the “Author, imitating the rule of good Phisitions, First, declareth the disease; Secondarily, sheweth the efficient cause thereof; Lastly, a remedy for the same.”39 The proposed cure is consequently a monetary one: the reformation of currency transactions to ensure that “the Canker of this exchange shall not consume [the merchants], as it hath done many of them and others, and that unawares: for the same is like unto the Serpent Aspis, which stingeth men in such sort that they fall into a pleasant sleep untill they dye.”40

Despite their theoretical inconsistencies—and indeed a pervasive sense of the strangeness of an ultimately unlocalizable body of trade—mercantilist tracts nonetheless construe the value of money as an effect of trade. “Neither is it said,” Mun argues, “that Mony is the Life of Trade, as if it could not subsist without the same; for we know that there was great trading by way of commutation and barter when there was little mony stirring in the world.” Rather, “it is the necessity and use of our wares in forraign Countries, and our want of their commodities that causeth vent and consumption on all sides, which makes a quick and ample Trade.”41 The “venting” and “consuming” body is that of Trade, through which money becomes important and valuable not in itself but as a commodity to be traded for others. And here again, the colonial impetus becomes central: “in the mean time the Mass of Treasure that gave foundation [to trade by barter and credit instruments] is employed in Forraign Trade as a Merchandize.” This characterization of money motivates Mun's advocating the lifting of restrictions on currency export, since only through the movement of money and the corresponding movement of wares that are “consumed” can the body of England be “Quickened and Enlarged.”42

Donne's poetry demonstrates an acute and prescient grasp of these material transformations; it insists that, by changing the nature of value, the commodification and circulation of precious metals ends up undermining existing political and social arrangements. In “The Bracelet,” for example, Donne expertly links money to religion and politics, attacking those “Spanish Stamps” which, “still travelling,”

are become as Catholique as their King,
Those unlickt beare-whelps, unfil'd pistolets
Which, as the soule quickens head, feet, and heart,
As streames, like veines, run through th' earth's every part,
Visit all Countries, and have slily made
Gorgeous France, ruin'd, ragged and decay'd;
Scotland, which knew no State, proud in one day:
And mangled seventeen-headed Belgia.


Implicit here is the sense that Spanish colonial gains do not remain confined to Spain's domains;43 rather, through trade this illegitimate bullion venously circulates “through th' earth's every part,” drastically altering the political and religious body of Europe. At the same time, money's circulation remains necessary and unavoidable, since the flow of money “quickens” these lands even as it “mangle[s]” their character.44 This double sense marks perhaps the continued presence of a late-medieval anxiety that saw money as necessary for society and yet a corrosive that ate into social bonds.45 The terms of Donne's response are, however, very different: the poem's indignation is spurred not just by a theory of social (or divine) justice, but by the material circumstances of a changing world.

“Go[ing] to sea” in pursuit of the “right true end of love,” the speaker of “Loves Progress” in turn draws upon the connection between the effects of colonial voyaging and “our new nature (Use) the soul of trade.” Journeying to “both the Indias of spice and Myne”—to borrow a famous phrase from Donne's “The Sunne Rising”—has led, the elegy implies, to a transformation of both the desiring subject and the object of his desire. If “sailing towards her India” retraces the trade routes opened up by European colonial powers, this is because the desired object has become valuable through its exchangeability or commodification (“Use”), just as the speaker's own desire has been reanimated by the “soul of trade.” Colonial voyaging transforms the “nature” of money, which in turn redefines the “nature” of value. To acquire what is valuable, then, demands imitating the process by which value accrues to things, that is, adopting the colonial voyage—albeit in a particular way—as the model for attaining the desired end. Retracing the body of trade, in other words, the speaker voyages over the commodified body that (for him) most perfectly embodies trade.


But, of course, it is not just any body that the colonial cartographer of “Loves Progress” wishes to map—and, by mapping, master and possess. For the body that stands for exchangeability and use is female. Seeing how the gendered body gets mired in the question of monetary valuation demands our taking a more complex and circuitous voyage, one that acknowledges the implications of “progress” in the poem's title. The word directs us to the ambivalent but nonetheless effective politics of courtly desire which England's Virgin Queen evoked and invoked throughout her reign. As is well known, the progress functioned as an important ideological device through which Elizabeth consolidated her often precarious rule: by traversing the kingdom, the Queen announced the identity between the land and herself, its desires and hers, staging the spectacle of royalty receiving homage to reinforce her position and power. As David Bergeron has suggested, the theme that binds the numerous pageants and progresses of the Elizabethan reign together is “the celebration of Elizabeth's power, her spiritual, mystical, transforming power. She is able to set men free, to still the loud voices of war, to provide a refuge for those who are distressed.”46 From the outset, this celebration was infused with an amatory language that reworked the relationship between queen and court in terms of the ready-made rhetoric of Petrarchan love poetry—and, in particular, through the mistress-servant tropes of that tradition. As Diana Henderson puts it, “because tropes and forms derived from the ‘low’ poetry of earthly love were adapted to compliment the queen, these two audiences … became elided. That is, Elizabeth's gender obscured distinctions between erotic and political, the profane and the sacred. It reified the fictive construct of the masterful lady in Petrarchan poetics, hence transforming the relationship between amatory lyric and the political world of state power.”47

The distinctive conjuncture of Elizabethan politics and desire is clearly revealed in the Gesta Grayorum of 1594-95—held at the time when Donne probably still “lived at the Innes of court,” leading a life, in Sir Richard Baker's words, “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses.”48 An extended entertainment devised by the members of Gray's Inn, the Gesta wittily (and perhaps chancily) drew on the medieval Lords of Misrule tradition to propose a form of countergovernment as its framing device: the “great number of gallant Gentlemen that Gray's Inn afforded at Ordinary revels” decide to elect a Prince of Purpoole “to govern our state for a time,” to whom is also assigned a Privy Council and Officers of State, of Law and the Household, along with “lodging according to state[,] as the Presence Chamber and the Council Chamber.”49

In fact, numerous “great and noble personages” of the Queen's actual “government” attended the festivities of January 3rd, including the Lord Keeper, the Earl of Essex, Lord Burleigh, Lord Thomas Mountjoy and Sir Robert Cecil. Among the night's offerings was a set of six speeches delivered by the Prince of Purpoole's counsellors, purporting to set before him “to what port, as it were, the ship of government should be bounden” (III:287). It is hard to avoid seeing in their diverse speeches not simply half-serious advice and carnivalesque wit but also an often cynical exposé of the stratagems whereby Kings ensure their greatness. While their themes appear traditional enough—exercising war, studying philosophy, governing virtuously, building edifices, amassing treasure and pursuing pleasure—the tone of the speeches indicates that the wished-for actions do not so much “naturally” express the monarch's puissance as construct that image in the first place and as an end in itself. Thus the first counsellor directs the Prince to “embrace the wars” as means of self-memorialization, so that his “trophies and triumphs … be as continual coronations” (III:288). By contrast, the “plain and approved” road to “Eternizement and Fame” “that is safe, and yet proportionable to the greatness of a Monarch,” the third Counsellor insists, “is the magnificence of goodly and Royal buildings and foundations … : that is, that your coin be stamped with your own image; so in every part of your State there may be somewhat new; which by continuance may make the founder and author remembred” (III:291). The sentiment that coins (like buildings and monuments) ensure the sovereign's visibility, spreading the public face of the monarch far beyond his or her physical location, would seem to find its echo in the royal Progresses through which Elizabeth staged herself for public eyes.

The link between monetary circulation and the public sphere later refractedly finds its way into Donne's “The Canonization” where the speaker defends his love by distinguishing it from a world of “Countries, Townes, Courts” in which one “contemplate[s]” the “Kings reall, or his stamped face” (7-8). A colonial analogue to this mode of extending sovereign presence is suggested by Hakluyt's account of Sir Francis Drake's “discovery” of “Nova Albion” (the Californian coast of today). Arriving on the shore, Drake interprets the gestures of native inhabitants (which apparently included setting a crown upon his head and placing chains around his neck) as sufficient indication that they would “resigne unto him their right and title of the whole land, and become his subjectes. … Wherefore in the name, and to the use of her Majestie, he tooke the scepter, crowne, and dignitie of the said Countrey into his hands, wishing that the riches and treasure thereof might so conveniently be transported to the inriching of her kingdom at home.” Without investigating any further the geographical extent of his new dominion, he simply sets up, as proof of Elizabeth's entitlement, “a plate, nailed upon a faire great poste, whereupon was ingraven her Majesties name, the day and yeere of our arrival there, with the free giving up of the province and people into her Majesties hands, together with her highnes picture and armes, in a peece of sixe pence of currant English money under the plate, where under was also written the name of our Generall.”50 The coin extends the Queen's body and authority to where she cannot travel. Disseminating her image beyond the seas, it translates the domestic progress which brought her face to face with her subjects into a colonial progress in which her coined “picture” exercises authority on her behalf.51

From a focus on the strategies of authority, the Gesta Grayorum shifted, however, to create an eroticized myth of royal power when the revels culminated during Shrovetide in a masque before the Queen. The performance at Court recounted a struggle in which the Prince of Purpoole bests the sea god Proteus. To ransom himself, Proteus offers the victor the “Adamantine Rock, the Sea's true Star” but only under the condition that the Prince first show him a power “which in attractive virtue would surpass / The wondrous force of his Iron-drawing rocks” (II:315). It comes as no surprise that this power turns out to be the Queen herself, the “true Adamant of Hearts,” whose virtue it is to “draw” the hearts of men, who “once truly touched by her Beams, … Turn Fortune's wheel” (III:316-7). These two phases of the Gesta—governmental satire and quasi-mythic celebration—emphasize the politics of desire so central to the progresses and pageants. On the one hand, we have a mystified or idealized literary discourse of courtly love focused on the Queen that both establishes her power over men (as “the attractive Rock of Hearts”)52 and identifies her with the realm: not only do her subjects live “In the Protection of this mighty Rock, / In Britain land,” but it is upon the “force” of this “inviolate Rock,” that the “giant-like attempts of Power unjust / Have suffered wreck” (III:317). On the other hand, such spatial identifications underscore a pragmatic political strategy of “self-fashioning” which broadcasts, like the coins bearing her impression, the public face of sovereignty throughout the land. The sixth counsellor had earlier advised the Prince of Purpoole thus: “Let other men's lives be as pilgrimages, because they are tied to divers necessities and duties; but Princes' lives are as Progresses, dedicated only to variety and solace. And if your Excellency should take your barge in a summer evening, or your horse or chariot, to take the air; and if you should do any the honour to visit him; yet your pleasure is the principal, and that is but as it falleth out” (III:295). The implication that the only “duties” of concern to a Prince are those advised by the “Council of [his] five senses” not only satirizes the royal entertainments, but seems to discount the mutual involvement of progresses and royal power. The unfolding of the Gesta masque suggests, however, that the counsellor's division between duty and “Pass-times” in fact conceals their interrelation. In Elizabeth's case, progresses were as necessary as they were varied.

Earlier in her reign, the entertainments directed at the Queen had represented her as the epitome of Beauty, to be wooed and assailed by her courtly lovers: in the famous devices at the tiltyard in 1581, for example, the Earl of Arundell, Lord Windsor, Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville—“the four Foster Children of Desire”—“layde tytle and claime” to “the Castle or Fortresse of Perfect Beautie” where the Queen was placed (II:313). Later, however, when Elizabeth's position had become more assured, the discourse of desire expanded to celebrate her in terms that stress the reach of her empire. Thus, during the famous progress of 1591, at the Earl of Hertford's residence in Elvetham, the Poet's welcoming speech to the Queen first celebrated the extent of her rule—

More learned than ourselves, shee ruleth us,
More rich than Seas, she doth commaund the Seas,
More fair than Nimphs, she governs all the Nimphs
More worthy than the Gods, shee wins the Gods


—before turning to the stock Petrarchan and pastoral conceits of lovelorn courtiers and shepherds. The extension of sovereign self to land and empire was itself part of a mutation—skilfully traced by John King—in the iconography of Elizabeth during her reign from “a marriageable virgin” to a “mythically youthful object of courtly desire.”53 Emerging in the 1580s and 1590s, after the failure of her last marriage effort, the moon cult of Elizabeth (as Diana or Cynthia) combined the image of the virgin forever married to her nation with a platonic and mythic version of the earlier courtly representation. At the same time, in these later Elizabethan forms, the Petrarchan rhetoric of courtly love repeatedly stressed another dimension crucial to the Gesta Grayorum masque: the language of empire. For what Proteus's rock holds out is the promise of unrestrained imperial expansion, the possibility of taming the “wild empire of the Ocean.” But this very deed turns out to have been achieved already by “Cynthia's rays, / Whose drawing virtues govern and direct / The flots and reflots of the Ocean.” “Your gift,” the Prince of Purpoole informs Proteus, “is void, it is already here; / As Russia, China, and Negellan's [sic] Strait / Can witness here” (III:317). As King notes, celebrating Elizabeth as “Cynthia, Queen of Seas and Lands”—as invoked in both the Gray's Inn masque and in the Elvetham entertainments—“further allude[d] to [the] … claim for England's status as an imperialistic military and naval power, which was voiced with increased stridency following the destruction of the Spanish Armada.”54

In his reading of Donne's elegy “Going to Bed,” Albert Labriola usefully shows how the iconographic extension of the queen's body to cover both England and its (still largely unreal) overseas domains underpinned a discursive reversal of the erotic relationship between English “discoverers” and their queen. “By enlarging the queen's empire and by depositing with her the spoils of their conquest and plunder,” Labriola suggests, “the privateers became virtual maritime courtiers and knights who petitioned Elizabeth to grant or renew licenses for their ventures on her behalf.”55 But the iconographic “enlargement” of the queen's body to include the colonies abroad—witness, for instance, Drake's claim to “Nova Albion” and, even more obviously, Ralegh's naming of “Virginia”—led also to hers becoming the body to be explored. In the Ditchley portrait, for example—and by extension in Donne's “Going to Bed”—“hers is the celestial body on which explorers direct their compasses or other navigational instruments as they travel to uncharted lands and seas, then return home. While gazing on her in the heaven or the celestial sphere, they correspondingly explore her body-politic, whose ever-radiating circles gradually engird the geocosm through the circumnavigation of her explorers and the demarcation thereof by the compasses of cartographers.”56 It is perhaps no accident that the quasi-imperial foray in which Donne himself participated—the military expedition against Cadiz in 1596—was led by Essex and Drake (and Howard), two of the foremost petitioners for the Queen's favor and regard.

For Labriola, Donne's own engagement with political dimensions of the body-empire equation parodies “the language of amour, the discourse of patronage, and the mystical apprehension of the macrocosmic or heavenly woman.”57 But, as Achsah Guibbory has argued, while this may be true, it sidesteps Donne's persistent double investment throughout the Elegies: rejecting the idealized body of courtly and Petrarchan love poetry “in favour of the ‘grotesque’ female body,” the poems nonetheless demonstrate how the body's unruliness subverts the masculine attempt at mastering it.58 In other words, Donne's appropriation of the erotico-political dimensions of Elizabethan progresses and pageantry seems less to reflect or reject the standpoints they express, than to focus on the paradoxes of such structures and on the difficulty of upholding their oppositions.

Such an ambivalence emerges quite clearly in Donne's use of the homology between the Petrarchan fragmenting of the female body (to which Nancy Vickers has drawn attention) and the rhetorical emblazoning of the Queen's body in the royal progresses. In the entertainments following Elizabeth's entry into Elvetham, for example, the Fairies' song praising “the fairest Quene, / That ever trod upon this greene” associates the individual parts of her body with cosmic and terrestrial powers:

Elisaes eyes are blessed starres,
Inducing peace, subduing warres.
Elisaes hand is christal bright,
Her wordes are balme, her lookes are light.
Elisaes breast is that fair hill,
Where Vertue dwels, and sacred skill,
O blessed bee each day and houre,
Where sweet Elisa builds her bowre.


This “spectacle and musicke so delighted her Majesty,” we are informed, that “shee commanded to heare it sung and to be danced three times over, and called for divers Lords and Ladies to behold it” (III:119). In “Loves Progress,” Donne himself takes up this persistent trope of Renaissance amatory verse in the speaker's “progress” over a fragmented female body, indeed figuring its parts precisely as part-objects of (male) desire. The various stations at which the poem's imagined voyager “stays” (46) en route to the “desired place” (39) are clearly desirable in their own right: the “swelling lips” are “not faint Canaries, but Ambrosiall”; the teeth are “chosen pearls”; her chin is a “glorious Promontory,” her smooth brow a “Paradice” (45-59).

Yet, these sundered parts, while inciting the lover, also substitute for the “right true end of love,” thus impeding the “attaining” of desire even as they fan its flames. Hence their danger: the paradisiacal smooth brow “becalms” the sailor, the wrinkled brow becomes his “grave,” the mouth may hold the pearly teeth, but in it also “dwells” the “Rhemora”-like “cleaving tongue.” If textually dividing the female body expresses the power of masculine desire, the resulting multiplication of part-objects means that desire may never actually progress; as Donne puts, it can “no further get” (70). From this perspective, one would have to say that the explorer's own vexed progress only reveals how well Elizabeth's strategy in the royal progresses works: to the Queen's “delight” in the rhetorical blazon corresponds the would-be lover's frustration at never being able fully to master the female body through his rhetorical parceling of it. Seduced by her synecdochic substitutes—the star-like eyes, the crystal hands, the fair hill of her breast—the “Lords and Ladies” beholding the spectacle unwittingly turn their gaze away from the monarch to her multiplied representation, accepting the image for the reality. Similarly, Donne's lover, “shipwreck[ed]” through his errant “chase” confirms in his failure the power of “beauties elements” to “stay” (90) his designs, deflecting him from possessing the “perfection” that “is in unity,” the one person (and thing) that he most desires (10-11). In other words, even as Donne's would-be lover appropriates the very form through which the Queen constructs herself as his own mode of exercising power over the female body, he underscores a failure constitutive of the voyager's project.

But that failure also points out the route to success. For, while the royal progresses allow Elizabeth to consolidate her position as sovereign, they equally reveal her dependence upon the form of the progress as a means of asserting authority. And if in the domestic progresses such dependence is in part denied by the real presence of the sovereign, by her ability to control her representation,59 beyond the boundaries of England (and, indeed, in northern parts of England itself) the Queen's image must stand in for her, and her authority remains in force only to the extent that the image bears it. As with Drake's use of “her highnes picture and armes, in a peece of sixe pence of currant English money,” the Queen's surrogate face substitutes for the real face, and her authority depends upon that face value passing as “currant.”

Hence, we might suggest, the shift in strategy once the voyager is forced to “consider what this chace / Mispent by beginning at the face” (71-72). Rather than take the given, the “real” face, as the starting point, the journey begins anew with the representation, the foot which as a “map” of the terrain has “some Symetry with that part / Which thou dost seek” (74-75). This shift away from the recalcitrant body—as place and corporeality—to a representation which stands in for it presages a binary arrangement of the sign. In its seventeenth-century form, this signifying element—here, the foot or map—has, to cite Foucault, “no content, no function, and no determination other than what it represents: it is entirely ordered upon and transparent to it.” Thus, the first example of a sign in the Logique de Port Royal is not the word or the symbol, or even the cry, but “the spatial and graphic representation—the drawing [dessin]: map or picture [carte ou tableau]. This is because the picture only has as content … that which it represents, and yet that content only appears [because it is] represented through a representation.”60 In “Loves Progress,” too, the idea of the foot as map implies the transparency of the sign in relation to what it represents: the map reveals an “empty and ethereal way” of “rising” to “that which thou dost seek.”61 Like the image of the sovereign, which is meant transparently to stand for her authority, the foot as the part “least subject to disguise and change” is intended to take the place of that which it represents. (The famous Ditchley portrait depicts the queen with her feet planted upon a picture of the realm, creating a metonymic association between the foot, the map, and sovereign authority.) But by the same token, what is sought only becomes visible (and thereby accessible) because it is represented by the map; and in this sense, to control the image is to control that which comes to presence only through the image.

This perspective, which stages authority in order to subvert it through the sign for that authority, recurs in much of John Donne's verse. A verse letter to the Countess of Bedford, for example, begins with a metallurgical flourish—“You have refin'd mee, and to worthyest things”—before asserting that the worth in question is not, however, intrinsic to the “refin'd” self—not only because he receives these “things” from without, but also because “Rarenesse, or use, not nature value brings; / And such, as they are circumstanc'd, they bee” (1-4). In displaying (and imparting) “Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune,” the Countess may indeed possess the necessary qualities of refinement, but what makes these valuable is their rareness at a Court “which is not vertues clime.” Conversely, as the letter's conclusion suggests, ensconced in her residence the Countess is herself pure gold: “The Mine, the Magazine, the Commonweale, / The story' of beauty,’ in Twicknam is” (69-70). But her value can only be brought into being, the poem also avers, through representation, through the textual sign that is the poem itself: “For, as darke texts need notes: there some must bee / To usher vertue, and say, This is shee” (11-12). If Donne's verse letter presents himself as being shaped or molded by the virtue of his addressee, paradoxically, her virtue equally depends upon being made visible by Donne's text. Only by circulating her image can her virtue be “usher[ed]” into light and being.

In “Loves Progress,” the well-documented ambivalence in the period with regard to female authority complicates the medieval understanding of the monetary sign which identified—as we have seen in the writings of Nicole Oresme—the intrinsic value of the metallic substance with the valor impositus, or the royal image that “fixed” or authorized the value of money. The realization that gold too is a commodity reveals that the value imposed by the sovereign's face—and by extension royal authority as such—may itself ultimately be an effect of circulation and exchange.

It is no surprise, then, that the poem's final section, which deals with the “right true end of love,” explicitly switches to the language of patronage and power. Turning one's attention to the foot, the map of the female body, implies an attendant shift in the enclosing structures of power:

Civilitie we see refin'd: the kiss
Which at the face began, transplanted is,
Since to the hand, since to the 'imperial knee,
Now at the Papal foot delights to be:
If Kings think that the nearer way, and do
Rise from the foot, Lovers may do so too.


Abasing himself by degrees, the subject acknowledging authority progressively shifts, from the lover manqué who began at the face, to the suitor kissing the woman's hand, to the genuflecting courtier before the king, to the king himself before the Pope. In turn, this movement is presented via a subliminally metal-lurgical metaphor as a “refining” of civility, that is, the gradual extraction of its pure substance: the sovereign's “delight” which then provides the model for the lover's strategy.

But if these lines ostentatiously announce the lover's subjection to sovereign and church, the female-ness of the figure in whom religious power and sovereignty ought to coincide undermines the very claim to authority. For the sovereign presence, which underwrites the assumed adequation of image and referent, gets curiously de-substantialized in the lines that follow:

Rich Nature hath in women wisely made
Two purses, and their mouths aversely laid:
They then, which to the lower tribute owe,
That way which that Exchequer looks, must go.


As was noted with regard to the poem's earlier identification of the female body with “pits and holes,” the speaker associates the woman contradictorily both with the source or origin of value (“Rich nature”) from whose “exchequer” he anticipates “delight,” and with an absence or lack (“purse”) which “must” be filled by the subject's “tribute,” the “sacrificing Coles” he supplies. What first appears as a multiplication of nature's bounty—that women have “two purses”—turns into a doubling of absence, as suggested by their devouring “mouths” and the “empty and Aetherial way” that leads to them. This contradiction echoes the paradox of gold's value as both a substantial, inner richness and as an external effect derived from its “use” in exchange. The female sovereign thus embodies the very gap between valor impositus and intrinsic value, image and referent. The religious conflict alluded to in the image of the monarch “delight[ing]” at the “Papal foot” further undermines royal authority. For in Elizabethan England at least, the speaker cannot in any straightforward way be subject to both sovereign and pope. Indeed, from the perspective of the Roman Church, what the ex-communicated Queen lacks is precisely the (divine) authority that would underwrite her position and guarantee that her image coincides with what it signifies.62 To receive her subject's tribute means, consequently, to become subject to that subject. As a figure of absence—both sexually and because the image takes her place where she is not—the female sovereign cannot endow the coin with the positivity of intrinsic value, cannot fully embody the presence of authority.63 Beginning at the foot instead of the face makes it possible, then, to reverse the original hierarchy between enunciating subject and desired object: in effect, accepting submission sets the stage for the speaker's “rise.” From his genuflected position, the goal may be said to have been “discovered,” and the route to it laid open.

The paradoxes of both “Loves Progress” and the verse letter to the Countess of Bedford ambivalently project, in other words, a “lack” which is constitutive of money, woman and map. Making the substance dependent upon its representation, such an absence unfixes value as such, freeing it to be determined elsewhere and, ultimately, by the masculine subject able to manipulate that representation. While Donne represents the verse letter as the “notes” that explicate the “dark text” which is the Countess, these “notes” themselves make up the “dark text” which is the poem—whose “value” is fixed in turn by its circulation and exchange.

Not, of course, by an economic circulation in this case, but by an analogous textual one: the material circulation of the poems, as manuscripts, among the members of the coteries to which Donne belonged. The difference in tone between “Loves Progress” and the letter to the Countess thus expresses the effect of differing audiences, and concomitantly, of distinct—though related—forms of textual circulation. Just as the two parts of the Gesta Grayorum entertainments enact a movement from the strategies of authority to an idealization of sovereign power, the emphasis in these poems shifts from a fraught fiction of sexual mastery over the female body to an uncomfortable dependence upon the female patron.64

Donne's elegies were written during his tenure at the Inns of Court, and an important dimension of their circulation involved their role in generating social capital, to use Bourdieu's phrase, within a male community. R. C. Bald's biography suggests that Donne's years as a law student represented a period of coming to terms “both with the world in which he lived and with the conflict of religious faiths into which, by virtue of his family inheritance, he was inevitably plunged.”65 Drawing upon Bald's narrative, Marotti argues that the elegies were a means by which Donne negotiated such conflicts, addressing his own place not only in relation to sovereignty, authority and church, but to his peers as well.66 Like John Carey, Marotti thus treats the elegies as “products of socioeconomic resentment and larger class-rivalries,” presenting (and ironically performing or commenting on) “a phenomenon symptomatic of young men's inability to master other social, economic, and political circumstances.”67 As compensations for actual insufficiencies, the elegies lay the grounds for Donne's early love lyrics, whose “rhetorically more economical bounds” make them “a form of literary currency acceptable in both courtly and satellite-courtly environments, especially suited [as these poems were] to the system of manuscript transcription through which non-professional property passed.”68 In this sense, the lack that Donne's erotic verse attributes to women turns out to be his own. For a writer not possessed of what counts as valuable (money, or a court position, or a stable religious affiliation), the elegies thus create something (a status at the Inns and a set of connections that will serve him later in life) out of nothing. Through a process of textual exchange and circulation, in which one lack substitutes for another, the elegies themselves become a form of currency, enabling (to recall Thomas Mun's phrase) “a quick and ample Trade.”

But beyond attempting to pass as current, an elegy such as “Loves Progress,” we might suggest, queries the very notion of what it means to be current. In its distinctive and “outrageous” interrelating of money, colonial voyaging, and sexuality, the poem investigates valuation as itself problematic. And if the elegies comprise a site upon which different forms of “currency” imprint themselves, this concern with valuation bespeaks a transformation in the material conditions of social life: the realization that, like gold, all things (including love) have their price.


  1. Portions of this article were presented at the conference “Ebony, Ivory and Tea” organized by the Centre for Postcolonial Studies at the University of Silesia (October 2000).

  2. The phrase is Helen Gardner's, from the commentary which accompanies her edition of The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965), 133. “Loves Progress” first appeared in print in 1669, the objection of the licenser having prevented its appearance earlier.

  3. R. V. Young, “‘My America, My New-found-land’: Pornography and Imperial Politics in Donne's Elegies,” South Central Review 4 (1987), 37.

  4. On the relationship between “love” and “politics,” see Arthur Marotti's indispensable John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) and the influential essay, “‘Love Is Not Love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” ELH 49 (1982): 396-428.

  5. Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 147-48.

  6. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet, 50.

  7. Here, and throughout the paper, citations from Donne's poems are indicated by line number, and refer to the versions in John T. Shawcross ed., The Complete Poetry of John Donne (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

  8. While this theory had its intellectual origins in Aristotle's compact discussions in Book 1 of the Politics and Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, it left its marks on early modern thought through thirteenth- and fourteenth-century scholastic analyses of money, exchange, and market value. Joel Kaye's Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) offers an exhaustive account of how scholastic thinkers engaged the Aristotelian model of economic exchange. Kaye's overarching claim—that the scholastic treatment of money anticipated and underpinned a “proto-scientific model of nature”—rests on an only partially persuasive homology between the medieval models of the monetized marketplace and nature. Nevertheless, his discussion of the categories connecting medieval and Aristotelian theories of exchange is rich in its implications for the early modern period. See pp. 37-78.

  9. Nicole Oresme, Traictie de la Premiére Invention des Monnoies, in Arthur Eli Monroe (ed.), Early Economic Thought: Selections from Economic Literature prior to Adam Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 82-3. On the basis of the Physics, the fourteenth-century Aristotelian Jean Buridan argued that the material cause of money was the substance of which it is made, which ought to be “rara et pretiosa”; its final cause, the satisfaction of human needs; its formal cause, its figura and sign specifying weight or pondus; and its efficient cause the sovereign, who guaranteed it. In his discussion of Aristotle's Ethics, Buridan further lists six necessary properties or qualities of money: “one [quality] is that it be of small quantity, for then subtraction cannot be made from it without easy detection. The second be that it be impressed with the stamp of some prince, for otherwise anybody might fabricate and falsify money, by which equality in exchange would be done away with. The third is that it be of fixed weight, for otherwise a fixed price cannot be put on commodities by means of it. The fourth is that it endure well without corruption, for otherwise future demand cannot be provided for by means of it. The fifth is that it be of a precious metal so that a high value can be laid up in a small space and be easily carried to distant places. The sixth is that it be divisible into smaller units, especially on account of the poor, who frequently need a variety of things at minimal prices.” Cited in Odd Langholm, Wealth and Money in the Aristotelian Tradition: A Study in Scholastic Economic Sources (Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1983), 79-80. As Langholm and others show, the emphasis on durabilitas, pretiositas, and auctoritas (often explained as the “picture [imago] of sovereign or community”) recurs in numerous late-medieval commentaries, such as those by Henry of Freimar and Giles of Orleans, or in the Oxford manuscript attributed to Nicholas Trevet.

  10. Munro, Early Economic Thought, 93-4.

  11. Timothy Reiss and Roger H. Hinderliter, “Money and Value in the Sixteenth Century: The Monete Cudende Ratio of Nicholas Copernicus,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (1979), 296. Reiss and Hinderliter misread Oresme, however, in ascribing to him the belief held by some feudal theorists that the Prince owned the money because the coin bore his image. Oresme explicitly insists that the community “owns” money, the prince's stamp functioning only to establish and maintain its standard: “Although … the coining and stamping of money is left to the prince, … it does not follow that the Lord and prince is and ought to be the proprietor and lord of the money in circulation in his country … for money is a legal instrument for exchanging natural Riches among men. Money, therefore, really belongs to those who own such natural Riches; for if a man gives his bread or the labour of his body for money, it certainly belongs to him alone, just as did his bread or his labour, which he had full power to dispose of as he wished, unless he was a serf.” Munro, Early Economic Thought, 86-7. Oresme's not entirely consistent recourse to “common consent” already marks a step away from the theological determination of value, since it potentially shifts the emphasis to the extrinsic social circumstances through which value accrues to the metal. The impulse to delimit the sovereign's right over money can also be found in Buridan's commentaries.

  12. Act 18 Eliz. c. 15, quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  13. Munro, Early Economic Thought, 84-5.

  14. This complex exchange is both redoubled and subverted via an aural pun. The movement from “chang'd” to “chain” preserves a resonant core while also making audible a diminishment (in the loss of the ending). At the same time, in the end rhyme (remaine/chaine), the chain remains as an aural presence reminding us that original loss was indeed that of the chain rather than the prospect of monetary loss now threatening the speaker.

  15. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 172. “If one admits that exchange, in the system of needs, corresponds to similitude in the system of acquired knowledge, then one sees that knowledge of nature, and reflection or practices concerning money, were controlled during the Renaissance by one and the same configuration of the episteme.” Indeed, the opening lines (1-8) of “The Bracelet” assert (and reject) a series of similitudes that loosely embrace the principal forms delineated by Foucault: aemulatio or emulation, convenientia or contiguity, analogy, and the play of sympathies. The speaker does not, he claims, mourn the loss of the mistress's “seavenfold chain” because it reflects the color of her hair (emulatio); or because it “oft embrac'd and kist” her hand (convenientia); or because “as these linkes are tied, [their] love should bee” (analogia); or because of a putative affinity between the chain and their relationship (“for the luck sake”). Rather, he regrets the “bitter cost”—a penalty suspended between the monetary and the theological which, as we have seen, the poem elaborates upon in terms of exchange.

  16. Cited in Foucault, Order of Things, 172.

  17. Ibid., 173.

  18. Coburn Freer, “Donne and Elizabethan Economic Theory,” Criticism, XXXVIII (1996), 501.

  19. Foucault, Order of Things, 174.

  20. Ibid., 176.

  21. Theodore Redpath (ed.), The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), 183. The sly hint of royal self-love adds, of course, to the clever reversals enacted in this poem.

  22. Kaye, Economy and Nature, 47.

  23. Ibid., 47-8.

  24. The original Greek word, chreia—generally translated as “need”—was rendered in medieval translations either as opus or “use” (as in Robert Grosseteste's version of the Ethics) or as indigentia or “need.” As Kaye puts it, “the confusion as to what determined value … can be traced, in part, back to confusions introduced in the early Latin translations of Aristotle's text.” See Economy and Nature, 68.

  25. Thomas Aquinas, Opere Omnia, Vol. XLVII (Rome: Commission Leonina, 1969), 294b-95a. Cited in Kaye, Economy and Nature, 70. On Aquinas and Albertus's interpretation of Aristotle, see Kaye, 64-70.

  26. In essence, Belsey's Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture sketches the contours of this transition from a particular perspective; that of an emerging historical distinction between “private” and “public.” Richard Halpern by contrast draws on Niklas Luhmann's work to interpret the public/private distinction as the effect of a decoupling of increasingly complex social subsystems. The language of love, itself a semi-autonomous sub-system, attempts to bridge what are now detached areas of human experience. See his “The Lyric in the Field of Information: Autopoesis and History in Donne's Songs and Sonnets,Yale Journal of Criticism 6 (1983), 185-215.

  27. The recurrence of the “barren angels” suggests, too, that attention to the problem of monetary value may help illuminate aspects of another notoriously difficult poem, “Air and Angels.” That analysis lies, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this paper.

  28. Donne's turn from what is “hers” to her, from “beauties elements” to “that desired place,” inverts a standard Petrarchan trope. As Nancy Vickers argues, Petrarch is distinctive in “systematically avoid[ing] those structures that would mask fragmentation.” Thus, when Joachim du Bellay attacks the “French propensity for Italianizing, his offensive gesture against the Petrarchans … substitute[s] the unified celebration of female beauty for the witty clichés of Petrarchan particularization.” See “Diana Dismembered: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” in Elizabeth Abel ed., Writing and Sexual Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 96. Donne's opposing beauty to “beauties elements” would seem to participate in a related “offensive.”

  29. While the connection with Katherine's language lesson was suggested to me by Diana Henderson, it has recently also been proffered by Ronald Corthell in Ideology and Desire in Renaissance Poetry: The Subject of Donne (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 69. The word “Symetry” also recalls the emerging conception of space as homogeneous and identical at every point. Donne later gives this notion of spatial symmetry a distinctive theological turn in his “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness” when he compares his ailing body to a “flat map” in which “west and east … are one.” This symmetry of the Renaissance map provides a spatial figure for transcendence of the body's limitations: like the joining of east and west, “death doth touch the resurrection.”

  30. John Donne, “A Sermon Preached to the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, 13 November 1622,” in George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson eds., The Sermons of John Donne, 10 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953-62), IV: 271.

  31. Langholm, Wealth and Money, 11-12.

  32. Gerrard Malynes, A Treatise of the Canker in England's Common Wealth, (London, 1601). Reprinted in R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power (eds.), Tudor Economic Documents, 3 vols. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), III: 388. The best analysis of Henrician currency manipulation and its effects remains J. D. Gould's The Great Debasement: Currency and Economy in Mid-Tudor England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970). See also C. E. Challis, The Tudor Coinage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978).

  33. Jean Bodin's Reply to the Paradoxes of Malestroit Concerning the Dearness of All Things and the Remedy Therefor, in Monroe, Early Economic Thought, 127.

  34. Monroe, Early Economic Thought, 129.

  35. Tawney and Power, Tudor Economic Documents, 3:387.

  36. Patricia Fumerton's Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) focuses on how mercantilism twinned a “discourse of economic strangeness” with one of corporeality. It argues that the colonial rhetoric of cannibalism and dismemberment arose as a displacement of a domestic concern with trade and monetary imbalances onto external culprits. See especially 174 and 187-95.

  37. Thomas Mun, A Discourse of Trade from England to the East-Indies (London, 1621). I cite from the reprinted text in J. R. McCulloch ed., Early English Tracts on Commerce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 9.

  38. Lewes Robert, The Treasure of Traffike, or a Discourse of Forraigne Trade (London, 1641). In McCulloch, Early English Tracts, 62.

  39. Tawney and Power, Tudor Economic Documents, 3:386.

  40. Ibid., 400.

  41. Thomas Mun, England's Treasure by Forraign Trade (London, 1664). In McCulloch, Early English Tracts, 137-38. Mun's tract was written around 1630.

  42. Monroe, Early Economic Thought, 182.

  43. This perception would seem to correspond to reality. As Challis asserts, “foreign gold coins, especially Spanish pistolets, dominated in mint supply in 1561-2, but then, in later years, apparently lost ground. Foreign silver coin, again Spanish, starts equally strongly in 1561-2, but then with one exception in the years 1567-9 goes on to form a dominant element of the Tudor mint supply for which we have accurate record.” Challis, The Tudor Coinage, 195. The disappearance of gold coins (Spanish and others) was a result of the difference in the bi-metallic ratios prevailing in England and on the continent. The difference made it profitable for merchants, both English and foreign, to organize trade in such a way that gold left the country and silver took its place.

  44. One may note, in passing, that the comparison of Spanish coins with “unlickt bear-whelps” lends a monetary connotation to the opening lines of “Loves Progress,” where Donne likens love to a “bear-whelp,” which if “oer-licked” is marred and made monstrous. A sermon from 1630 attacking Jesuit relativism also has instinctive recourse to monetary metaphors in language that links it to the diatribe in “The Bracelet”: “[H]ow shall the learnedest of all governe himself if he have occasion to travaile, but to change his Divinity, as often as he changes his Coine, and when he turnes his Dutch Dollers into Pistolets, to go out of Germany, into Spain, turn his Devotion, and his religious worship according to the Clime?” Cited in Annabel Patterson's “Donne in Shadows: Pictures and Politics,” John Donne Journal 16 (1997), 30.

  45. Kaye, Economy and Nature, 52-53.

  46. David M. Bergeron, English Civil Pageantry 1558-1642 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 11.

  47. Diana E. Henderson, Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender, and Performance (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 43.

  48. Cited in R. C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970), 72.

  49. From Gesta Grayorum, in John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London, 1823), III: 262-3. All further references to Elizabethan progresses and entertainments are indicated by volume and page number.

  50. Richard Hakluyt, The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (Cambridge, England: Hakluyt Society and the Peabody Museum of Salem, 1965), 643h.

  51. The circulation of coins and portraits was likewise especially important in areas of north and west England beyond easy reach of the large courtly retinues involved in the Queen's progresses.

  52. This gendering of the dependent subjects indexes, too, a gradual shift in the courtly rhetoric surrounding Elizabeth. Whereas in earlier entertainments, such as at Kenilworth or in Peele's Arraignment, her presence frees men and women alike, here the subjects paying their tribute are explicitly male.

  53. John N. King, “Queen Elizabeth I: Representations of the Virgin Queen,” Renaissance Quarterly, 34 (1990), 36.

  54. Ibid., 59. This second figure provides the basis for her “anachronistic revival [within the frame of Jacobean politics] … as a model ruler whose perpetual virginity symbolised political integrity, Protestant ideology, and a militarily interventionist policy against Spain” (67).

  55. Albert C. Labriola, “Painting and Poetry of the Cult of Elizabeth I: The Ditchley Portrait and Donne's ‘Elegie: Going to Bed’,” Studies in Philology 93 (1996), 42. While I remain uncomfortable with the often reductive uses of the anomalous figure of the “woman on top” to explain the dynamics of the Elizabethan court and amatory verse, I think that Labriola makes a strong case for linking the body in “On his Mistress Going to Bed” to the Queen. Moreover, his reading provides grounds for extending this association to “Loves Progress.”

  56. Ibid., 46.

  57. In this sense, Labriola's position echoes both Marotti's and Young's in that it sees the poem as mocking the conventions it mobilizes.

  58. Achsah Guibbory, “‘Oh, Let Mee Not Serve So’: The Politics of Love in Donne's Elegies,” ELH 57 (1990), 815.

  59. Recall, for instance, Elizabeth's refusal to take up the position intended for her in Philip Sidney's pageant The Lady of May. As Henderson puts it, “her opposition to Sidney's desire for an interventionist continental policy, personified in his pageant by the active forester Therion whom the author clearly favours to win the Lady of May, led the queen to make narrative nonsense of his conclusion by honouring the more passive rival, the shepherd.” In Passion Made Public, 70.

  60. Foucault, Order of Things, 64. Translation modified.

  61. Donne's association between sexual mastery and rising from the foot recalls a bawdy contemporaneous poem by Nashe entitled “The Choise of Valentines,” where, too, the protagonist has to change direction in order to achieve sexual consummation with a prostitute.

  62. This ambivalent depiction of sovereign authority may suggest a biographical link to Donne's own vexed relationship to Catholicism.

  63. This problem is addressed from various perspectives by the essays collected in Louise Fradenburg, ed., Women and Sovereignty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992).

  64. This shift also becomes clear if we compare how “The Bracelet” unfolds with the verse letter to the Countess. In the former, as we have seen, Donne begins with the assumption of intrinsic worth only to disrupt progressively the equation of “form” and “being.” By contrast, the latter begins by claiming the dependence of virtue upon its representation only to conclude by asserting the primacy of intrinsic worth (the Countess as gold itself).

  65. Bald, John Donne, 63.

  66. As Marotti puts it, Donne's poems need to be viewed as “coterie social transactions, rather than as literary icons … since virtually all the basic features of Donne's poetic art are related to its coterie character.” In John Donne, 19.

  67. Marotti, John Donne, 52. Carey's and Marotti's readings of Donne's early poems differ primarily in their sense of how the poems relate to the coterie context. In Carey's rather reductionist biography, Donne's poems are young men's fantasy-triumphs; they attempt to satisfy the need for “the repair of self-esteem … a convenient literary compensation for the actual economic, political and, later, military insufficiency.” By contrast, Marotti tends to read the poems as performing compensatory fantasies, parodying the very contexts in which they participate.

  68. Ibid., 66.


Donne, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))